"True and tender." School Library Journal
In which I count down the oogly-boogly days until school,
Mr. Beeler has a question, the Monroe ladies have an adventure,
and maybe I have a dream, maybe not.
If Mama’s spirit was keeping track of us or any other ghosts or angels were hanging around Cathcart Castle, they’d mostly hear a bunch of me hollering things like ‘Larry, bring me a diaper!’ and ‘Jimmy, quit reading your dumb book! Do I have to do everything around here?’
They’d shake their heads at Jimmy and me trying to cook. They’d hear giggly, grimy boys calling ‘Car-mie!’ all the time or the little ones bawling and sounding like what you’d get if you crossed a fire engine with a jackhammer. And Dad’s warnings, tossed over his shoulder as he plodded off to work in the afternoons, then me on the porch calling “You boys come in now!” at blue nightfall. Remembering to say “who’s there?” before we let Robin or one of the other Culpeppers come in and hold the baby, look around, ask us if we were okay. Or Mr. Herman, loaded down with peppermints and jigsaw puzzles. Or one of the Monroe ladies carrying a good-smelling bowl of something and saying, “We just made too much of this; won’t you help us eat it up? We’d be glad to show you how to make this recipe?”
I hope it made the angels happy when Dad took us to church on Sunday. The pastor there looked happy to see us, sad, then happy again, remembering us Cathcarts from the funeral home. I put a nickle in the offering and told God thanks for not letting things be too gross our first week on our own.
The first day of school was 33 days away when Aunt Bevy came over on her next day off with a load of school supplies.
“I checked the lists in the paper,” she said. “I think I got almost everything you kids are gonna need.”
“Wow, thanks!” Harry cried, as he and the other boys ripped through crackling sacks of tablets, binders, pencils, yellow boxes of Crayolas, Pink Pearl erasers, plastic-wrapped slabs of notebook paper, and flat, black
tins, each with a brush and eight squares of color. They reminded me of a picture I’d seen a long time ago, of a painter in a magazine. His watercolors came in tubes. “He’s a real artist,” I’d said to Mama.
Aunt Bevy’s voice came into my memory. “Gene,” she said, “you gimme that baby. Georgie and I will watch her while you take the kids to get signed up.”
When I told Dad that Robin’s folks offered to help us kids get enrolled, he snorted. “That was real neighborly and kind and I’ll tell’em thanks, but I’m not such a pitiful pantywaist that I can’t get my own kids situated.”
The boys waited in the car while Dad and I found the office at the junior high and I got my class schedule. It gave me my first good hope since Mama died: Sixth hour: Art. Teacher: Mrs. Montisano. Not just a clear your desks, children; get out your scissors, construction paper and paste grade school art class. This was junior high! A real art class -- my first. I was almost not as scared about school starting. Almost.
More than a week went by before Daddy had time to take me to the store to get my art supplies. He frowned at my list. “What’s a ‘crow quill’? You gonna draw with a bird feather?” he wondered.
“Oh, Dad,” I said, like I knew.
“Well, hurry up and pick ’em out, Buddy. I gotta get to work.”
A crow quill was a tiny steel pen point. We bought one and its plastic holder along with the rest of the things on Mrs. Montisano’s list: a bigger pen point, its wooden pen holder, and a bottle of India Ink to dip them in. Sticks of charcoal, and a sandpaper pad for sharpening them and the drawing pencils. A special eraser wrapped in cellophane, a ruler, a compass, and two paint brushes. I ran my hand across the smooth pad of thick white paper and a bigger one of newsprint. If I didn’t have to get supper on the table, I’d have opened each little jar of tempera paint right then. Having all those art supplies was like having perfumes and diamonds in my dresser drawer. I checked the calendar: 23 days before I could start using them. My insides fizzed.
Downstairs, the worried-looking kids were frozen in front of grandpa-voiced Walter Cronkite on the TV news, right in the middle of their coloring, reading, diaper-changing, and clay-play.
“You know what he said?” Jimmy asked.
“President Kennedy’s little boy died!”
“You know, their new baby,” said Clark. “Isn’t that rotten?” He went back to tugging pink plastic pants up over Velvet’s fresh diaper.
Jimmy scowled at the TV. “It’s like it doesn’t matter if he was a little baby or someone’s a good person and didn’t do anything wrong. It’s not fair, Carmen!” “Mom would probably say that life’s just real good and real bad,” I said.
“I guess,” said Clark, “we just have to get used to it, huh?”
“That’s what Daddy would say,” said Larry.
Three days later was Velvet’s one month birthday. Mr. Beeler showed up on our porch again and pulled a pink bunny rabbit out of his pocket. “For the baby.”
Either because of the bunny or Mr. Beeler’s green aloha shirt, Velvet made a happy whooping crane sound. For an undertaker, he sure was colorful. And flustered.
“I was wondering,” he said, “Mr. Cathcart...and you children, of course, if it would cause you all any offense... uhm...if it would be all right if I saw your aunt – Beverly, I mean -- socially?”
Dad’s mouth twitched and his tired eyes lit up. “Why sure,” he said, rubbing his angel-wing tatoo. “If it’s okay with Bevy, it’s dandy with me.” He and Mr. Beeler looked at us kids. “Fine with you guys?”
Velvet gurgled. Jimmy, Larry, and I nodded our heads. “Heck, yeah!” said Harry. “You got any popsicles this time?”
Georgie started bouncing. “I want one!”
Clark cocked his head to one side and frown up at Mr. Beeler. “You and Aunt Bevy are gonna go on a date?”
I couldn’t wait to tell Robin about this!
“You know what he did? He asked all of us to go get hamburgers and root beer with him and Aunt Bevy. Wasn’t that nice?”
Still, Robin and I couldn’t help giggling at Mr. Beeler’s idea of a romantic date.
The other kids went with Dad, but Clark and Velvet and I got to ride in the back of Mr. Beeler’s Chevy. Velvet’s eyes were big in her little baby head. It bobbled and turned against the palm of my hand as she took in the lights and sounds of riding through town at night. She had a teeny taste of soda pop and, thanks to Clark, she and Mr. Beeler got to hear about me getting peed in the eye by baby Harry.
When school was ten days away, Aunt Bevy brought us bulging bags of school clothes from her department store.
“You’re too good to us, Bev,” said Dad, shaking his head as he zipped up Georgie’s new jeans.
“Oh, pish posh,” Aunt Bevy replied, holding a blue sweater up to me. ”I was sure this would be your color. Wasn’t I right?”
I nodded at our reflections in the mirror. “Thanks. It’s real nice!”
Aunt Bevy handed me a blue plaid skirt. “Go try this on now,” then she started talking to Dad about every
charming thing Mr. Beeler had done, every funny thing he’d said. Before she drove away, she waggled her red-tipped finger out her car window at me. Maybe I was looking like I was thinking of about ten million other things besides telling her goodbye. She squeezed my hand and squinted up at me through her flashy sunglasses. “Carmen? Are you really all right, honey?”
“I’m okay.” I wished people wouldn’t ask me, especially all soft like that. It made me too emotional.
She pursed her red lips. “I don’t think I’ve seen you really have a good cry, not once, since this all happened.
“I have too,” I defended myself. “You just haven’t seen me and besides, it doesn’t do any good.”
“I’m not so sure about that.”
I pulled my hand away and gave her enough of a smile so she could leave and not feel bad. “Anyway, so long. And thanks for the neat clothes and everything.”
But I guess my worries still showed on my face because Aunt Bevy still looked like she was sad for me, but shoot, if your mom died, then you’re not supposed to be all okey-dokey, are you? She gave my hand a squeeze and drove away as I waved her goodbye. I hoped it made Mama feel a little better about being dead, looking down and seeing that her sister and other people were helping us live, even if we were kind of living like a person walks after he’s busted his leg: with a limp.
Nine days ‘til school.
Robin pulled Larry and Georgie in the wagon while I carried Velvet up to see the Monroe ladies. Miss Effie smiled and put her garden-gloved finger to her lips. She and her sister looked from us to each other, then to the radio-man reading news about a ‘march on Washington.’ Miss Lillian switched off the radio as soon as he was done. “Whew, you kids got good timing,” she said, plopping into a lawn chair. “We need to sit down. Give me that baby!”
“We brought back your bowl,” said Larry. “Carmen put cherry Jell-O in it.“
“Why, thanks!” said Miss Effie. “I better get this in the icebox then.” She whisked into the house and back out again as Robin was asking Miss Lillian, “Are you excited about all those people going to Washington?”
Miss Effie nodded. “Lillian and I’ve been talking about it all morning, thousands and thousands of all kinds of folks marching right to the government’s front door.”
“There’ll be speeches, singing, and I don’t know what all,” her sister added, “about making this the free country it’s supposed to be.” Miss Lillian tilted her head this way and that, frowning down at the baby in her lap, holding Velvet’s feet in her hands. “There might be trouble. But then, it might be the chance of a lifetime,” she said, like she was arguing with herself, then Miss Lillian looked up sharp, like she’d come to a decision. “Effie, why don’t we go?”
“Why don’t we go to Washington?” The sisters looked at each other for a minute, like plenty of consideration was fizzing behind their faces.
“Yes,” said Miss Effie, “let’s do. I believe we should.”
Not very much later, we were trailing after the boys clattering the wagon down the sidewalk. “That’s how I want to be when I grow up,” said Robin, “just like those ladies: decide just like that” – she snapped her fingers, making Velvet’s eyes open then shut again – “what big, exciting thing I’m going to do or what amazing place I’m going to go to!” She reached into her pocket and flicked her yo-yo out and up.
I walked along, cradling Velvet in my arms, and felt kind of bad. I wasn’t like Robin. From where we were, I could see Dad in our yard, waving at us, carrying his lunchbox for work. Today anyway, the future was just scary, that’s all.
“Carmen? You okay?”
“I wish people’d quit asking me that,” I snapped.
“Hey, I’m just being your friend, all right?”
I instantly felt rotten, crabby, and guilty for hurting Robin’s feelings. “I’m sorry,” I said, touching her arm. “Honest. I take it back. I was just thinking about stuff.”
We traded ‘okays’ and smiles, promises to see each other later, making sure everything was nice.
Robin, Darren, and all us Cathcarts stood outside with Mr. Herman to tell Miss Lillian and Miss Effie goodbye. They were all spiffy in flowered hats and matching dresses: one wide and pink, one narrow and yellow.
“You two sure look nice,” Clark said and got the top of his head smooched. A taxicab was going to take them to the station then they’d get on a bus which would carry them to the nation’s capital.
“Maybe you’ll be on television,” Jimmy said. “On the news!”
Mr. Herman looked worried. “You two look after each other. There’s an awful lot of trouble these days, you know, between whites and colored folks...” His voice trailed off.
“Maybe you’d better not go,” I blurted, letting everybody see what a worrywart I was about everything. “Not go?” Miss Effie exclaimed. “What a notion!” Even the cabdriver looked at me like I was cuckoo.
“Carmen, do I have to tell you, of all people, that some- times you just gotta act like you got courage?” Her white-gloved hand squeezed my fist. Do what you gotta do and you’ll be brave. You and old Oscar here, you need to be more optimistic!”
“So long then, you two,” said Mr. Herman. “Give my regards to Reverend King.”
“You better know we will,” Miss Lillian said as the taxi pulled away. “You watch for us on the TV!” she called out the window, waving back at all of us.
Mr. Herman came over to watch for them with us. It wasn’t an easy job! The Monroe sisters were part of an enormous crowd of people who’d come from all over the country to gather around Lincoln’s Memorial on the 28th of August, “on account of America not being fair to everybody,” said Jimmy. He held the baby close to the television. “Look Velvet. See that statue? Just for you to know, that’s Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States. That’s where you were born. That’s your country now.”
What if, I imagined, the statue of Mr. Lincoln came alive and slowly got up off of his big stone chair and stood
up and stretched up tall and taller? Then I looked up from my laundry-folding and saw how, sometimes, real life was as neat as what I could imagine. There was the Washington Monument. On our little black-and-white screen, it sort of looked like a gleaming white toothpick at the end of a long shine of water and thousands and thousands and thousands of people including Miss Effie and Miss Lillian.
“Hey!” Clark put his head between the TV and the rest of us as he stabbed his finger at the screen. “I think I saw them!”
I tossed a balled up sock at him. “Get out of the way, Clark!”
“And be quiet!” said Jimmy. “I’m trying to listen!”
Dr. Martin Luther King was preaching to all those people. He reached out his hand and said even though “we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow,” he still had a dream for his children and for all of our country.
His words about his dream, the way he said them, knowing our neighbors were there, listening, it all gave me that buzzing feeling I used to get when I had a really good
picture idea, when I drew and daydreamed of being a real
artist someday. That dream didn’t seem very possible at all, now that Mama wasn’t here to live out the dream she and Dad had had, of a big family. It was like I had to trade my dream for hers. It made me mad on top of feeling guilty because of course it was selfish to feel like that.
As these crummy thoughts whirled around in my head, my eyes sort of rested on the soda straw castle, turning gentle and slow, in the air over all of us kids. Mama’d called it a different name when Aunt Bevy gave it to us the first night we were here -- what was it? Somehow, it felt important to remember.
“Will you listen to that,” said Mr. Herman, motioning his shaky hand at the TV.
The preacher had stopped and reporters were talking now. Mr. Herman went on, “Imagine Miss Effie and Miss Lillian and all those people there in such a place, seein’ all that with their own eyes. And hearing such words.”
I remembered then, what Mama and Aunt Bevy had said. Their dad had a special name for his straw castle
in the diner. “Mr. Herman, what does it mean when some-
one says ‘dream castle in the air’?
He gave me a startled look. “Well, I don’t know...people used to say if you go around daydreaming of big things you’ll do or have – or be, even, you’re building castles in the air.”
Jimmy looked at Mr. Herman real sober. “So is that preacher-guy, Dr. King, doing that? When he says that about his dream? About America someday?”
Mr. Herman scrunched up his mouth like that’d help him think. “Maybe. Maybe he is. It does seem to me though, that there was a wise fella who said once if you had gone and dreamed yourself up a castle, then what you gotta do is build a foundation under it.”
“How exactly would you do that?”
Mr. Herman raised his eyebrows and a corner of his mouth turned up. “Well, I reckon you’d just have to work like the dickens to make your dream, whatever it is,
come true.” Then he looked over at the television and said, “Say there! I’m sure I saw the girls. That’s Miss Lillian’s hat, sure as shootin’!”
Clark and the littler boys got up close to the TV. “Oh, yeah! Where? I don’t see ‘em!”
Velvet twisted around in Jimmy’s arms and made impatient noises in her language.
“Oh, shucks,” said Mr. Herman. “No, no, the cameraman’s moved on now.”
Mr. Herman got me thinking about my artist-dream. In Art Class, only five days away, I could still be doing what I needed to do, the something that could make a dream come true, like Mr. Herman said, couldn’t I? And couldn’t it be a way to still be the person I was, keep the dream I had, before Mama died, and…
“Carmen! Pay attention!” said Jimmy. Velvet was fussing, waving her fists, and arching her back like she’d flop out of Jimmy’s arms and go someplace else if he’d only let her. “Take her, will ya?,” he whined. “Maybe she’s hungry.”
I took her.
“Sweet baby,” said Mr. Herman, helpfully.