In which I fall apart in front of Andrew Jackson and Robin has a good idea. I look for matches.
I didn’t stop walking until I found myself looking up at the statue of Andrew Jackson and his dainty-footed horse in the shadow of the courthouse clock tower. They looked off to the far West, right through the Jones store across the street and all the modern jumble of city and everything between them and the Pacific Ocean. They weren’t startled at all by the sudden appearance of a Kansas City-bound bus, pulling up to the curb behind me.
The door whooshed open.
A sleepy-looking old lady was looking at me out of one of the dirty windows. I imagined going West and west-er all the way to California, like on “Wagon Train” on television, only on one stinky bus after another, away, really AWAY, from home, from tests and trouble and our stupid house full of sad, complicated relatives, further and further away with every passing street sign. I could be like Daddy when he was young, hopping a hobo train.
The beak-nosed driver drawled, “You gettin’ on?’
I didn’t, of course. I was too much of a sissypants. Besides, when Daddy took to the road, he was alone in the world. No one was counting on him like they were on me.
I pitied the family that was counting on me. Drawing and daydreaming were what I was cut out to do. Suddenly, my knees gave way and I plopped down on the curb in front of Andrew Jackson. All of the tears I’d been holding onto burst through the door in my head. I couldn’t stop them.
I missed my mom. Almost as bad as Mama being dead was having my own life so messed up. This was like that place in the Bible, that “valley of the shadow of death.” That’s where I was now.
I don’t know how long I’d sat there crying when a man’s voice said, ”Here now! Say there, young lady, what’s the matter here? Are you in trouble? Do you need some help?”
“No one can,” I sobbed as he patted me on the shoulder.
“There now,” he said. “There now, what’s happened? Can you tell me?”
My sorry life story spilled out of me along with a fresh wave of ugly sobs. “My mom died and we still got all these little kids I don’t know how to take care of. I can’t get my homework done and everything’s so -- so mean and sad...the whole world’s so hopeless.”
The old man offered me a handkerchief, so very starched and folded that it was a shame to blow a nose into it, but I did and calmed myself down a little before I looked up at the old guy. No, he was more like an old gentleman, in his gleaming, polished shoes, his light gray suit and hat. He straightened up and pressed his hands together on the top of his cane.
“That is about the worst thing that can happen. I surely remember when my own mother died. And plenty of other terrible times. I can think of when it did indeed feel like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen right square on my shoulders.”
He paused and I squinted up at his face, which was a shadow against the early morning sunshine. “Is that how it feels to you?” he asked.
That was just how it felt. “I guess so.”
“Well, young lady, you’re dead wrong about one thing.”
He offered his arm as I struggled to my feet. “The world’s anything but hopeless.”
I dusted off the seat of my skirt, wiped my eyes, and picked up my books. Now I was ashamed and too aware that I’d been bawling in front of a nice old stranger.
“Do you want your hankie back?” It was pretty soggy and wadded up.
“No, I reckon not. Hadn’t you best be getting to school?” he asked in a kind voice. He looked around and, seeing a police car over on Maple Street, beckoned it to come over.
The policeman inside greeted the old man, “Good morning, sir.”
“Officer, would you mind giving this young lady a ride to school?”
“No problem, sir.”
Robin and Jimmy would never believe this. I stared at the gun in the policeman’s holster, his radio, handcuffs, and everything else that bristled all over the inside of his car. The gentleman in gray touched his hat brim with his index finger and told me not to give up and always do my best. “That’s all anyone can do, young lady. You’ll see that time has a way of fixing things.” The morning sun glinting off of his glasses was the last I saw of him.
It was just as well that the policeman was too busy listening to and yacking on his radio because I was still upset, too bashful, and had too much to think about to talk to him. All the way to school, I gripped my books tight in my fists. If ever there was a time to get control of yourself it’d be when you were sitting in a cop car and facing a science test after all. I sighed a shaky sigh, honked my nose as delicately as possible into the soggy handkerchief, and tried to feel better. Even if it killed me, I had to figure out how to survive without Mama and prove to her, that I wasn’t a crybaby. I had to figure out how to get through school and not be dumb, and how to be a good help to Dad. It would be just like him to load us up and move us down the road. That’d be the last straw. Anyway, wherever we went, we’d still be us. Didn’t he know that?
I only needed one glance to tell that kids were watching out the windows of their classes when I got out of the police car. The policeman tipped his cap, winked at me, and said, “Good luck, kid.” After I stopped by the office, I washed my face and wiped the tear-spots off my glasses and smoothed my hair. I leaned forward to press my head against my reflection in the cool, hard glass. Aunt Bevy would have said I’d had a good cry. I just felt...still. It was like after a big storm when everything’s calm and nice. But there are busted branches all around.
My heel-clicks echoed off the lockers on my way to Social Studies. Later, I did the best I could on Miss Spurgeon’s test and later, in the cafeteria, my morning was almost worth how rotten it was, getting to tell Robin and a bunch of other kids the details about my ride to school. I saved the sad, embarrassing parts for when Robin and I were walking home.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were having so much trouble?” Robin asked me.
I shrugged one of my shoulders. Saying would take too many words.
Probably because she’s so smart plus being a teachers’ kid, Robin had a good idea for part of my problem. “Why don’t you see if you can drop one of your classes, and take study hall instead? That would give you time to do your reading and your homework at school, wouldn’t it?”
We stood on the sidewalk with our heads bent over a much-folded-and-unfolded piece of paper from the pocket in my wallet with a snapshot of Mama and the ticket stub from Cleopatra. Robin smiled at my penciled-in teacher reviews.
1st Hour room 204 English Mr.Fisher neat
2nd Hour room 237 Social Studies Mrs.Kirk funny
3rd Hour room 312 Math Mr.Morris serious
4th Hour room129 Science
Miss Spurgeon hard!
5th Hour gym Phys. Ed. Miss Riley noisy
6th Hour room 216 Art
Mrs. Montisano nice
7th Hour room 117 Health Mr.Henderson goony
“What about Mr. Henderson’s class?” I asked, hopefully.
Robin frowned. “That’s one you gotta take.”
“I know.” Sure, I’d been having a rotten time in school lately, but I was smart enough to know what class I’d have to give up. I chewed the inside of my cheek, imagining myself not drawing Mrs. Montisano’s collections of bottles and things, or making mobiles or swirling fresh paints together to see what color they’d make.
We went on walking while I folded up the paper and put it away and while Robin fished her yo-yo out of her pocket and slipped its string loop on her finger. She went on talking as a snap of red flashed down and up and into the palm of her hand. “I could help you, maybe, with your math and science.”
I bumped my shoulder against hers as we walked along to show her how nice I thought she was for saying that. But partly, I felt embarrassed: it was gross, having to have help. Another part of my mind remembered about castles in the air, where people keep all the big things they hope they’ll be or do someday, like being a real artist. Giving up art class might help fix my school problem, but it was as if my dream castle was disappearing behind thick, cold clouds.
“Carmie!” Daddy, in his coveralls, holding the baby in one arm, stood by our door. “Step on it, will ya? I’m gonna be late!”
“Hey, there, Robin.”
“Hey, Mr. Cathcart,” she called.
Georgie came step-together, step-together, down the porch steps, then running toward me, his arms in the air. He was hollering, “Carmie, Carmie, Carmie!” instead of watching where he was going or else he wouldn’t have fallen down and gotten all hurt and scuffed-up. “Shhhh....it’s okay. Don’t cry,” I told him, scooping him up and hurrying into the house. “We’ll fix it...you want Daddy to kiss it and make it better?”
“At least he doesn’t need any stitches, thank goodness, “ Dad said. “Can you get him cleaned up? Get him a Band-Aid?”
“Sure. Just go,” I told him, wringing out a washcloth..
“Carmie, no!” Georgie sobbed. “It stings!”
“I’ll put the baby in her basket,” said Dad, on his way out the door. Velvet screamed and I didn’t even notice that Robin had picked up my school books where I’d dropped them. She set them on the porch and probably went home to practice her piano and study volcanoes while I was calming down Georgie and Velvet.
The twins stomped up the front steps and came banging through the door. “We raced Clark and Darren home from school,” Larry panted.
“Yeah,” said Harry, “and we beat ’em!”
The twins scrambled back outside to cram themselves onto the porch swing with Darren and Clark, then Georgie too, as soon I got his owie patched up and kissed.
All the time, while I gave Velvet her bottle, part of me was thinking about not being in Art Class anymore. It felt a whole lot more serious than just signing up for stupid study hall. It felt like my castle in the air, my artist dream, was lost in the clouds and about two thousand miles higher up in the sky. A nice, brave, unselfish person wouldn’t mind having to give up her dream of being a famous artist someday, because she loved her brothers and baby sister so
much. I had to prove to myself that I was good and had some backbone, but how? That’s what I asked myself, back inside my head while I dished up chicken and noodles and wiped up spilled Kool-Ade.
“You know, that Wally Williams kid is nicer than I thought he was. He makes model airplanes,” Jimmy said. “Hey, I’m talking to you, Carmen. You’re not paying any attention.”
“I am too,” I lied.
Aunt Bevy came to see us after supper. “I brought you kids a pie. It’s apple!”
“Did you make it?” Clark asked her.
“No, kiddo, I won’t go so far as to say that.” She handed me a paper sack from her department store. “Here Carmen. It’s just some little somethin’.”
She sat down in Mama’s chair and, after making sure he wasn’t wet or sticky, lifted Georgie onto her lap.
“Thanks,” I said. All soft in its tissue paper wrapping was a dark green cardigan. I held the sweater up. “It’s beautiful.”
Aunt Bevy tilted her head to one side. “You feelin’ all right, honey? You look kind of puny. Did you have a bad day? You want me to watch these kids a little bit while you go take a bubble bath or something?”
Should I tell her about running away from school and all my other troubles? She’d listen, but so would all of the boys and anyway, what could Aunt Bevy do? I just said, “Wouldja?” and smiled at her, kind of. “I got some math problems to do.”
“Well, if you’d rather do arithmetic than take a bath.” One corner of her ruby red lips curved up. “Try that on anyway and let me see how it looks.”
Up in my room, just as I’d pulled the new sweater over my head, my eyes lit on all of my lady drawings all around me. Just like that, the idea came to me, what I needed to do. Sure it was what a brave, serious, smart person would do, but could I? I gave up trying to concentrate on my homework. “Heck,” I muttered to myself, “I guess I can do it in study hall from now on.”
On a fresh piece of notebook paper, I began writing down all I had to do and be from now on. I’d just
finished the sixth thing on the list when Clark came up to tell me that Aunt Bevy was leaving. “She was gonna holler at you up the stairs, but that’d wake up Georgie and the baby.”
I came down to tell her so long and good night and thanks again.
Aunt Bevy bragged on how nice I looked in the new sweater. “But, Carmie, you look awful pale. You wanna talk? You seem like you’re a million miles away.“
I shrugged my shoulders. “No, I’m right here.”
Way after Aunt Bevy was gone and everyone was in bed, even Dad, it was like the mice and I had crummy old Cathcart Castle to ourselves at last. I read over my list.
1. Tell Mrs. Montisano that you’re going to take study hall instead of study Art. (Oh man, what was I going to say?)
2. Be dependable. Don’t let Mama down.
3. Be brave or at least act like you are, like Miss Effie said.
3. Pay attention to real life, like when Ann Landers in the newspaper tells people they have to wake up and smell the coffee. (I liked the sound of those words and spoke them, real soft:
“wake up and smell the coffee.”) That’s what you have to do now.
4. Don’t daydream all the time.
5. Do your best, like that old man said.
6. Don’t think anymore about being a real artist and maybe being famous someday. It’s dumb.
I took a deep breath and blew it out hard. At the bottom of the paper I wrote, Carmen L. Cathcart, October 10, 1963, then changed the date to the 11th because it was after midnight, and tore the page out of my notebook. I folded it and tucked it into my pocket, and took one last look at all of my pictures as Mama spoke in my head.
I’m counting on you, Carmie.
I snatched a pen-and-inked, long-gowned lady off the wall. Real quick, in case I chickened out or changed my mind, I yanked down every single dumb princess-in-a-castle, flowing-robed-goddess, and long-haired, bird-winged angel. I swallowed hard and my shaky fingers froze when they got to the angel with the headlight-eyes from Sarah Somebody’s tombstone, from the day we were at the cemetery when Mama was still alive. In the corner of the rubbing was the pencil drawing of my imagined Sarah. I couldn’t tear them up, the way her and her angel stared at me, but I wadded up all of the other drawings and shoved them into the paper sack the new sweater came in.
Tap, tap, tap, then Jimmy’s voice: “What are you doing over there?”
“Nothing,” I said, leaning in close to the bedroom wall. “Go to sleep.”
I gathered an armload of drawn-in, filled-up sketchbooks plus the sack of crunched-up pictures, then I tiptoed down the stairs, stepping soft, breathing quiet, down and through the house. Except for the ticking clock and the mice skittering through the walls, everything was quiet.
I found a box of matches by the back door.
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and crushed my artwork into the backyard incinerator. A chilly wind blew out more than one match as I held the flames to the crumpled papers, then they flared up bright. I swallowed hard as one of the mythological ladies looked at me, as the brown-burning edge got closer to her face. My own face felt the heat as she glowed, turned black, and vanished into red sparks.
I pursed my lips, gritted my teeth, and felt like a murderer, killing the beautiful ladies I’d imagined, and, maybe, burning up a giant part of myself. The smoke drifted up past the black treetops up to where Mama and the angels were watching.
I picked up a stick and poked it into the fire. I watched the flames crackle and spark, feeling grim and sort of hypnotized, not hearing or seeing anything – or anyone – beyond the brightness so a little scream got startled out of me when, all of a sudden, someone was talking to me!
“I looked out my bedroom window and saw the fire,” Robin whispered loudly. “I thought stupid Darren snuck out to play with matches or something.”
“Jeepers, you scared me to death!”
But Robin didn’t care. She was looking all shocked and mad at smoke curling out from under a spiral-bound sketchbook. “What the heck –!” She plucked the drawing pad out of the fire, threw it on the ground and stomped it with her bedroom slipper. “Carmen Cathcart, you are so weird!” She frowned, like I was as exasperating as her goony little brother. “What do you think you’re doing?”
I hunched up my shoulders and cupped my elbows in my hands. “They’re just my pictures and junk,” I said.
“Your drawings? You burned up all your artwork?” Robin put her hands on her hips. “So what gave you the big idea to come out here in the middle of the night and set fire to your pictures?”
I didn’t -- couldn’t say anything for a minute. She stepped closer to me. “Tell me, you nut, and make it snappy, will ya? It’s kind of cold out here and I’m ---”
“They don’t go with my life anymore,” I said.
“Not the way it is now anyway.”
“This doesn’t have anything to do with you deciding to quit art class, does it?
Golly, Carmen, just because you’re not drawing milkweed pods in eighth grade art class doesn’t mean you’re not going to be a great artist someday. So snap out of it, why doncha, and try not to be so sad all the time.”
I felt sort of shocked. This was a whole different way to size up my situation. It was like Robin was pointing me to look at a teeny, hopeful bit of sunlight at the end of a long, smelly, black tunnel. Like she was telling me to wake up and smell the coffee.