My best friend, Eddie Sullivan, had a newspaper rolled and pointed at me like a gun. He was only twelve, but over the summer he’d grown so much, he looked big enough to be in high school.
“No way!” I called out. I grabbed the newspaper and tried to wrench it from him. My dog, Boots, started to bark, excited. He was a small, scruffy black mutt, with paws as white as frost on the prairie.
“Surrender, you little commie,” Eddie said, “and I might let you live!”
“I’m not a communist!”
Eddie pretended to shoot me with the newspaper.
I fell down, laughing. “Stalin’s dead!”
“But the Soviet Union is not giving up. I’m not going to let you take over the world!”
We were standing on a mountain of newspapers. To our right, a glass-bottle hill glowed brown and green in the sunlight. A bit farther on loomed a pile of tin cans, ten feet tall, with the labels burned off so that the metal sparkled like the silver on a sheriff’s star.
Eddie grabbed one of my shoes and started to pull. I was laughing so hard, I could barely swat him away. “Help, Boots!”
My dog jumped into the fray, nipping at Eddie’s ankles.
It was the day of our community paper drive, when everyone placed their old papers and magazines by the side of the road. Eddie and I had spent all morning following the collection truck, watching his father swing the piles onto the truck bed. After lunch, we followed the truck on our bikes to the scrap yard. The truck would be driven onto a big scale and the homeowners’ association would receive a certain amount of money for every pound of paper that had been collected. While we were waiting for our turn on the scale, Eddie and I climbed onto our truck and started poking around.
“You dirty com—” Eddie’s voice cracked, so high he sounded like my little sister. He cleared his throat. “You dirty commie,” he said, his voice now deep like his father’s. Boots sank his teeth into Eddie’s shirt and pulled him away. But Eddie didn’t let go of my shoe, which came off, and I tumbled down the hill of papers.
We were both laughing so hard, it took me a moment to get my breath. Eddie was standing on top of the pile, holding the shoe over his head like a trophy. Boots was chasing him around in circles, barking. “Victory!” yelled Eddie.
I was about to scramble up the pile and join back in the fight when a headline caught my eye: THE WAR ENDS! Even though it was now September 13, 1953, finding an old newspaper wasn’t so unusual. No, it was the masthead that intrigued me: The Daily Worker.
“Eddie!” I called. “Come quick!”
Eddie slid down the hill, loose papers flying around him. “What is it, Tommy?”
I held the paper out to him. The Daily Worker was a communist newspaper. I knew that from the movies. And I’d found a copy, lying right beside my shoeless foot.
“A commie newspaper!” Eddie’s eyes were wide, his cheeks smudged with newsprint.
“Do you know what this means?” I asked.
“There’s a communist in Downers Grove!” That was the little town where we lived, just a commuter-train ride from Chicago.
Eddie gave me a look.
“Just think about it,” I said. “These papers all came from our neighborhood. That means one of our neighbors”—I paused and lowered my voice—“must be a communist.”
Eddie looked around, as if he expected to see a Soviet spy parachuting down from the sky. If a Russian caught you, he’d torture you until you agreed to spy on the United States. Sure, it was bad that there was a communist in town, but it was a little bit exciting too. Like when you hear about a fire. You hope no one is hurt and you feel bad if they lost all their belongings. But there’s something so thrilling about seeing that fire truck go by with all the bells ringing.
“Is this like the time you convinced everyone the old shack by the pond was haunted and it turned out there were just raccoons inside?” asked Eddie.
“No,” I protested. “This is proof!” I waved the newspaper.
Eddie’s dad yelled at us to get off the truck then. Mr. Sullivan had come back from the war in Korea with a bad limp, but his arms were as thick as the strong man’s at the circus. He always helped with the paper drive because no one could swing the stacks of paper onto the truck quite like him.
I rolled up the paper I’d found and stuffed it into my back pocket. Eddie handed me my shoe and I put it on.
“Hey, Tommy,” Mr. Sullivan said, “you want to come by and see the bomb shelter I built?”
“Love to,” I said. “But I got to get home to dinner.”
“It’s his birthday,” Eddie volunteered. “He’s finally twelve like me.”
“Well then, happy birthday. Tell your dad we should all go fishing again soon.”
“Will do,” I said as I jumped on my bike and pedaled off.
You’d think I’d be excited about my birthday. I mean, last week Dad had brought home a box that was just the right shape and size to hold a pair of genuine leather cowboy boots. Mom had promised to make pierogi and I loved the half-circle dumpling noodles filled with mashed potatoes and cheese. There’d probably be an angel food cake too, with a sweet fruit glaze on top.
But Busia, that’s Polish for “grandma,” wouldn’t be there. She’d died a few months before, right about the same time Susie was born. And that’s when Mom really started to change. I mean, she’d always been moody, but now she was like a sky full of dark clouds. Sometimes, things would clear right up without a drop of rain, and other times, there’d be lightning and hail. Never quite knowing what the weather would be like at home made my palms sweat.
And as I turned into our driveway and walked my bike to the garage, from inside the house I could already hear screaming.
THE BIRTHDAY DINNER
I stood outside the front door for a moment, wiping my hands on my pants, trying to decide what to do. I wanted to go back to Eddie’s house, see the shelter his dad had built in case the Soviets dropped an atomic bomb on us. But if I didn’t show up for dinner on my birthday, my mother would call his mother, and that would just cause more problems. So I took a deep breath and opened the front door.
My dad was sitting on the couch reading the paper, as if he couldn’t hear a thing. He was a foreman at Western Electric, and usually wore a suit and tie, with a shirt starched at the dry cleaner, even on the weekends. My dad was tall and thin and looked just a bit like Gary Cooper in High Noon. I’d seen that movie five times when it was at the Tivoli.
The screaming was coming from the kitchen. From what I could hear, it sounded like something Mom was cooking had not turned out the way she’d expected.
“Hello, Tommy,” Dad said without looking up. The dark frames of his reading glasses made his face look even thinner than normal.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“I’m not going in there to find out,” Dad said, turning a page of the paper.
This was usually the best approach when Mom was in a bad mood. We all tried to stay out of her way. I was just about to sneak off to my room when Mom called, “Is that you, Tommy?”
I groaned. Ignoring Mom when she asked you a direct question only made things worse. “Yeah, it’s me,” I said.
Mom came to the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. She usually wore her long black hair pinned up in a neat bun. But lots of strands had escaped the bun today and the flowered apron she wore seemed too bright for her tense mood. She put her hands on her hips. “Where have you been?”
Dad rolled his eyes.
“Don’t you roll your eyes at me!” Mom barked.
“It’s his birthday,” Dad said. “You don’t need to interrogate him. He came home because it’s dinnertime.”
Mom’s face turned red, a vein popping out on her forehead. “Dinner will be ready in a minute,” she shouted. “The first set of pierogi didn’t turn out right!”
Dad didn’t respond, just turned another page of the newspaper.
“I’m sure they’re fine,” I said, trying to smooth things over. But as soon as Mom turned to look at me, I knew it was the wrong thing to say.
“You don’t appreciate my effort?!” Mom snapped. Her normally hazel eyes blazed emerald green. “I was trying to make them perfect for you!”
“I . . .” There was nothing I could say.
Mom stomped into the kitchen and then came back carrying a pan of pierogi. “You think they’re fine? Take them!” She threw a pierogi at me.
It hit me on the stomach. I stared in surprise. Mom yelled all the time, but she’d never thrown anything before.
My dad finally put the paper down. “Catherine!” A noodle hit him on the shoulder.
Mom kept throwing. Soon there were noodles all over the floor, blending in with the beige carpet.
“Stop it!” cried Dad.
I giggled uncomfortably.
“Oh, you think it’s funny, do you?” Mom asked.
“No,” I said.
But she was already storming back to the kitchen. She returned with the cake in her hands. “Then you might as well have the cake too!” She threw it. The delicate angel food cake crumbled against the living room wall.
“That’s enough!” said Dad.
It wasn’t even a little funny anymore. She was scaring me.
Mom disappeared once more and returned carrying a large shoe box. “And here’s your present!”
She tossed the box onto the coffee table. It slid across the table and fell to the floor. The lid popped off and I could see the genuine leather cowboy boots I’d wanted inside.
But getting the boots didn’t feel as good as I’d expected. It didn’t feel good at all.
In the back room, I could hear my baby sister start to cry.
At the sound of the crying, Mom seemed to collapse, as if she were a puppet and the string holding her up had suddenly been snipped. “I have a headache,” she said. “I’m going to sleep.” She stomped off and slammed her bedroom door.
I looked over at Dad, but his expression was as blank as a cowboy playing poker.
“What’s wrong with Mom?” I asked. I tried to keep my voice calm.
Dad shook his head. “She’s just tired. She wanted to make your birthday special.”
It was a lame excuse and I think he knew it, because he wouldn’t meet my eye.
The baby kept crying, but Dad just knelt down and started picking up the pierogi. So I went into the kitchen and mixed up a bottle and walked into the nursery.
If you asked me, my littlest sister, Susie, who was three months old, still looked like a wrinkled raisin, but everyone else said she was cute. Her face was bright red, her tiny fists flailing as she fought off the covers.
“Hey, Susie,” I said as I picked her up. She quieted a little, and I held her to my chest. She smelled nice, like baby powder. But then she shoved a fist into her mouth, sucked it twice, and began wailing again. I gave her the bottle, and she gurgled happily. It made me feel a little better.
I carried Susie into the hall and stood still for a moment. My heart was pounding. So I hadn’t gotten my birthday dinner. So what? A cowboy wouldn’t be upset. Heck, I bet a cowboy didn’t even celebrate his birthday. But I was disappointed, and even worse, I was mad at myself for feeling that way.
What I really wanted was to talk to Mary Lou. She always made me feel better. I could hear water running and realized my older sister was probably hiding out in the bathroom, giving Pinky her bath. I knocked on the bathroom door. “It’s me.”
“Come in,” called Mary Lou.
I did, and closed the door behind me, giving a little sigh as I leaned against it.
Mary Lou was sitting on a low stool next to the tub. She was thirteen, a year ahead of me in school, with brown hair she usually wore in braids. I guess she was pretty, but I could only tell because Eddie could never put two sentences together when she was around. I knew boys were supposed to think their sisters were dull and stupid, but I liked mine.
Mary Lou smiled when she saw me, a big, happy, genuine grin, but I must have looked pale or something because she asked, “You okay?”
“Fine,” I lied. “But Mom started throwing things!”
“Shh!” Mary Lou whispered. “Tell me later. Not in front of Pinky.”
Pinky was our other little sister, and she was four. Her real name was Barbara, but the nurse who had delivered her had remarked, “She’s so pink!” and the name had stuck.
“Happy birthday!” Pinky exclaimed, splashing in the tub.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Mom made a cake!” Pinky added. “She said I could have a piece.”
I didn’t know how to tell her that my birthday cake now lay smashed to bits on the living room floor. So instead, I changed the subject.
“Look what I found,” I said brightly. I balanced Susie in the crook of one arm and pulled the newspaper out of my back pocket. “A commie newspaper!”
“Oooh!” said Pinky. She didn’t know what that meant, of course, but she’d caught my excitement. And she forgot about the cake, which, of course, was what I had intended.
“Let me see that,” Mary Lou said.
“Careful!” I said. “Your hands are wet.”
Mary Lou wiped them on a towel and I handed the paper over. She scanned it quickly.
“Where did you get this?” she asked.
“Found it on the paper drive.”
“Tommy, you have to get rid of this!”
“Get rid of it!” I exclaimed, surprised. “But I wanted to show the boys at school.”
“Why?” she asked. “Do you want them to think we’re communists?”
I laughed. “No one would think that.”
“You should burn it,” she said, handing it back to me.
“Well, thanks for your advice,” I said sarcastically. I was kind of disappointed. I’d thought she’d be excited too. Finding the paper was the best thing that had happened today.
“I mean it! You’re going to get in trouble.”
“Tommy! Remember last month when you found the BB gun in the woods and—”
“Fine,” I sighed. “I’ll burn the paper.” But I was going to show it to the other boys at school first.
After Pinky and Susie had been put to bed, Dad and Mary Lou and I shared a tense and silent dinner of pierogi sprinkled with carpet fibers. Mom had been right. They weren’t very good. The filling had turned out mealy, not at all like Busia used to make them.
“Did you like the cowboy boots?” Dad asked gruffly, when we were nearly done.
“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks a lot.”
He nodded. I waited for him to say something about Mom throwing all the food, but he didn’t. Dad took off his glasses and I could see the fine lines around his eyes. He looked tired.
After dinner, Mary Lou and I did the dishes and listened to The Lone Ranger on the radio. I loved how it always started the same way: “Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear!” and the music and the “Hi-Yo, Silver! Away!” I loved how the Lone Ranger’s best friend, Tonto, always called him ke-mo sah-bee, which means “trusted friend.” I loved how in thirty minutes the bad guys were caught and all the problems solved.
When the program was over, Mary Lou shut it off. She smiled and the freckles on her nose and cheeks popped out. Sometimes, in the right light, her hair had just a tinge of red. “Hey, Tommy,” she said. “I’ve got something for you.” She pulled a small, newspaper-wrapped package out of her pocket.
I smiled. Mom might be unpredictable, but I could always count on Mary Lou.
“Take it, stupid,” she said, pressing it into my hands.
I unwrapped it slowly.
It was a silver star-shaped pin, just like the ones the sheriffs wore in the movies.
“We might argue sometimes,” said Mary Lou. “But you’re still my favorite brother.”
“I’m your only brother.”
“Well, that too.”
I gave her a hug. “Thanks, ke-mo sah-bee.”
“Sorry you didn’t get a cake,” she said.
I shrugged. “It doesn’t matter.” But it did. Who doesn’t want a cake on his birthday?
“You know Mom,” she said, her voice just a little strained. “She’ll probably get up in the middle of the night to make you a new one.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe so.”
Mary Lou yawned. “I better go to sleep,” she said. “Got to get up early to deliver those papers.”
I nodded. “See you in the morning.”
Boots padded over to me then and rubbed his head against my leg. I stroked his fur absently, then went to get ready for bed myself. I was just about to climb under the covers when I heard someone moving around in the kitchen. Mary Lou was right. Mom had gotten up to bake me another cake. The smell of angel food batter and sweet orange icing lulled me to sleep.
BURNING THE TRASH, PART 1
The angel food cake was waiting on the counter when I woke up, looking light and fluffy, coated with an orange glaze. I wasn’t sure how I felt. Glad she’d baked me a replacement, I guess. But it didn’t erase the memory of her throwing the first one against the wall.
Still, cake was cake. And Dad left for work early and Mom slept late, so when Mary Lou came back from her paper route, she and Pinky and I each gobbled down a slice. With a glass of milk, it was delicious. We were almost done by the time Mom stumbled into the kitchen and Mary Lou handed her a cup of coffee.
I never knew quite how to react after one of Mom’s fits. Sometimes if you looked at her funny, it would set her off again, so I kept my eyes firmly on my plate. I crushed the last bite of white cake with my fork.
“The cake was so good, Mom,” Mary Lou said.
Mom sounded calm. I risked a glance up.
Her eyes were clear. Her fingers didn’t tremble as she sipped her coffee. She had her pink robe wrapped around her and had even taken the time to pull her hair back into a ponytail. Maybe the throwing was a fluke. A onetime thing. The tension slowly drained out of me like a clogged sink.
“Did you like the cowboy boots?” Mom asked.
I held up one foot. I was wearing the boots.
Mom laughed. “You can’t wear those to school.”
“I know,” I said. “I’ll change into my shoes after I burn the trash.”
You see, Mary Lou did the paper route because she was oldest, but my job was to burn our trash in a pit in the backyard. Newspapers were saved for the paper drive, of course, but there were always tin cans and bits of packaging and the brown paper from the dry cleaner. When the fire cooled, we’d pick out the cans and other metal. The homeowners’ association got money for holding scrap metal drives as well.
I picked up the trash piled by the back door and walked out to the fire pit. There was a slight September wind, so I put a couple of soup cans on top so the paper wouldn’t blow away. Then I threw in the match, just like Dad had shown me. “Always watch to make sure it lights before you turn away,” he’d said. He didn’t have to tell me to keep my eyes on the fire. I loved that moment when the tiny match ignited the paper and it all burst into a big yellow flame.
That morning when I got dressed, I’d rolled up the Daily Worker and stuck it in my back pocket again. For a moment, I thought about throwing it into the fire like Mary Lou had told me to so I could see the flames jump again. But I didn’t.
“Tommy! Hurry up,” called Mary Lou from the kitchen. “It’s almost time for the bus.”
I ran back to the kitchen. Mom held out the box from the cowboy boots and some more brown paper from the cleaners. “You forgot to burn these.”
I didn’t know what to do. I still had to change my shoes. No way the nuns would let me come to school in cowboy boots. But if I said no, it might set Mom off and she’d start yelling again. And if I said yes, I’d miss the bus. And missing the bus would . . .
“I’ll do it,” said Mary Lou, reading my mind and taking the paper and the box from Mom.
“Thanks,” I said.
She shrugged. “Just get your shoes on.”
I tucked the copy of the Daily Worker into my school satchel and sat down to pull off my boots. At the time the moment didn’t seem so special, watching Mary Lou walk out to the fire pit, a pile of papers in her arms. But afterward, I kept picturing it again and again—the sun shining on her brown hair, which she had brushed and combed into two neat braids. Her navy-blue wool pleated skirt, white blouse and matching sweater. Her polished penny loafers leaving footprints in the wet grass. But the main thing I remember was how lightly she walked, with a little skip in her gait. I realized Mary Lou actually liked burning the trash. She’d done it until last year, when she’d gotten the paper route. She liked scrunching the paper into balls so it wouldn’t blow away, lighting the match and throwing it, and the way the fire would lick across the paper, slowly at first, then bursting all at once, like a tiger lily opening in the morning sun.
She threw the match in just like Dad had shown us, and watched the flame catch to make sure no burning paper blew away.
“Mary Lou!” I called. “Thanks again!”
She turned then, suddenly, to say something mean and teasing to me. I still wonder what it was going to be. You owe me one, cowboy! Or Shut up, Tommy! Or even simply You’re welcome. But I never found out, because as she turned, her pleated skirt flew out over the pit.
At first I thought it was just a glare—that the sun was shining on her again, making her glow orange. But then I heard the screams.
There are a lot of things I can’t remember. How to spell Mississippi. Times tables. The capital of Nebraska. Then there are the things I don’t want to remember—like the ride to the hospital. But that memory is seared in my head, a brand on my brain. At least, part of it is. Other parts are gone, like holes in an old coat, eaten away by moths.
Mary Lou was screaming, and then the next thing I knew, Mom was placing her in the front seat of our car, still wrapped in the blanket she’d used to smother the flames, as gentle as a mother cat licking her kitten. At some point, I’d gotten the baby and I held her squirming in my arms in the backseat of our car and though Mary Lou was screaming bloody murder, it was Susie’s crying that upset me the most. “Shut up!” I snapped at her finally, and she stopped. Pinky sat still as a rock, her dress covered in oatmeal.
I remember waiting at the railroad crossing just a block from the doctor’s. A train was chugging by, carrying people going to work, and it was moving so slowly, I could see the expressions on the passengers’ faces. Mom alternated between curse words so bad I’d have my mouth washed out with soap if I said them, and prayers to the Virgin Mary.
Then we were double-parked in front of our doctor’s office, Mom leaning on the horn. Dr. Stanton ran out to the car with a huge needle and I knew he was going to stick it into Mary Lou and for some stupid reason that scared me more than the burns did. I would have started screaming myself, but Susie had fallen asleep, a little warm ball on my chest, and I didn’t want to wake her. She felt damp, like she’d soaked through her diaper. The sour smell filled the car, along with something worse, like rotten meat left on the campfire too long.
The hospital was forty-five minutes away. The shot made Mary Lou stop screaming, but every time we ran over a bump in the road, she moaned and that was even worse.
We finally got to the hospital and Mary Lou was put on a stretcher and someone picked up a corner of the blanket but her skin came off too, so they put it back down, and then she was wheeled away, my mom rushing after her.
Pinky, Susie and I were left in the reception room, alone. There was a large brown overstuffed couch and a small table in front of it. Pinky had fallen asleep, so I sat down on the couch and rocked Susie back and forth. My mind didn’t seem to be working right. I’d glance at the clock and whole chunks of time would disappear. I’d look out the window, only for a minute or two, and then realize forty minutes had passed. I said so many Hail Marys, it seemed like those were the only words left in the whole world.
“Tommy?” Pinky said finally, in her tiny voice.
She stared at me with her wide blue eyes. “There’s oatmeal on my dress.”
I looked at the clock. It was almost noon. “I don’t have a change of clothes for you.”
“It’s sticky,” Pinky whined.
But the nurse at the information desk had heard her. She got up and rummaged in a closet, then brought me a plain white gown.
“Thanks,” I said. “Do you have a spare diaper for the baby?”
She nodded and rummaged some more. As she handed me the cloth, she tilted her head and studied my face. “You’re the brother of the burned girl,” she said, as if the idea had just occurred to her.
Her lips made a little round O. I could see the lipstick on them. Mary Lou wanted to wear lipstick, but Mom wouldn’t let her. She said it was only for loose women. I wondered what that meant, and if this woman was loose too.
“Is Mary Lou going to be okay?” The words were out of my mouth before I realized I was going to say them. If I had, I wouldn’t have dared.
The nurse pushed her lips together as if she were going to answer, but then she frowned and only said, “There’s a courtyard outside. You can change your little sister there.”
Pinky was happy to put on a fresh dress. It was a beautiful day, the leaves flecked with orange and gold and drops of purple. Pinky ran back and forth under the maple trees, like nothing was wrong, as I changed Susie’s diaper. When Pinky tired of playing with the leaves, we went back inside and sat on the couch. Susie started crying and no matter how much I rocked or bounced or sang to her, she wouldn’t stop.
“I think she’s hungry,” the nurse said finally.
“Yeah,” I agreed.
“Want me to feed her for you?”
I handed Susie over to her, relieved.
While they were gone, I read to Pinky from the only book in the waiting room, a collection of Bible stories. She sat still and listened, even though usually she preferred to run around. We made it through the Garden of Eden, Daniel in the Lions’ Den, David and Goliath, and were halfway done with Moses Parting the Red Sea before she fell asleep in my lap. I held her, unmoving, unthinking, exactly like Lot’s wife.
I guess at some point I must have fallen asleep too, because when I finally opened my eyes, Mom was standing in the room, as still as a statue. I could tell by the light it was late in the afternoon.
“Is she . . . okay?” I asked.
“She’s alive,” Mom said.
Pinky woke up then, stretched and rubbed her eyes. “Mom!” she cried. She scrambled off my lap and hugged Mom’s legs.
“Will she have scars?” I asked. Cowboys have scars. Bad guys have scars. Sisters aren’t supposed to have scars.
Mom slapped my ear.
I gasped, not because it really hurt, but because Mom never hit us. She yelled all the time, but even if we were really bad, she’d wait for Dad to get home and have him spank us. Mary Lou had told me once that Busia had hit Mom all the time when she was little, and Mom had vowed never to be like her. “Ouch,” I said, rubbing my cheek.
“Do you want me to slap you again?” Mom demanded.
I shut up.
The nurse brought Susie back then. She took a step toward Mom, then changed her mind and handed Susie to me. I wondered if she’d seen the slap.
As soon as we got in the car, Mom started crying. She was sobbing so hard, I wasn’t sure how she could see the road.
“I didn’t mean—” I started to say.
“Shut up,” she screamed at me. “This is all your fault!” Most of her hair had fallen out of its bun, and it hung around her face like dark spiderwebs. “If you’d just taken the trash out like you were supposed to, this wouldn’t . . . it was your job!”
The rest of the way home, none of us said a word. I held Susie in my arms and Pinky leaned against me. She kept trembling, as if she were trying not to cry. My skin itched every time we went over a bump and I remembered Mary Lou. Mom swerved all over the road and I couldn’t help wondering, If we had a car accident, whose fault would it be—Mom’s or mine?
Somehow, we made it home in one piece. Dad was in the kitchen when we walked in, wearing Mom’s flowered apron over his suit and tie. “Mrs. Sullivan brought over a casserole,” he said. “But I think I burned it.”
The dish, black and scorched, smoldered on the stove top.
Mom said nothing.
Dad cleared his throat. “How is—”
“Same as I told you on the phone,” Mom said.
Dad nodded. The creases in his face seemed as deep as a desert canyon. “By the time I got the message at work, it was too late to go to the hospital.”
Mom went straight into her bedroom and shut the door.
Dad and Pinky and I sat at the square kitchen table, eating peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches for dinner. Dad gave Susie a bottle, but awkwardly, so she kept fussing. It was like he’d never fed her before. I tried to remember if he ever had. The table suddenly seemed way too large. I longed for someone to bump into me as they reached for their water glass. The peanut butter stuck to the roof of my mouth, and I was concentrating so hard on prying it off with my tongue, I jumped when the phone rang.
Dad stood up slowly to answer it. “Hello?”
He took his glasses out of his pocket and put them on, as if they would somehow help him hear better. Dad let the person on the other end of the line go on and on before he spoke. “We’ll let you know if there’s any news.”
More talking on the other end.
“No need. Tommy can do it.”
He listened again.
“Yes. And thank you for the casserole. It was delicious.” It must have been Eddie’s mom. She knew everyone and liked to talk. By morning all of Downers Grove would know about my sister.
Dad hung up and walked slowly back to the table.
“Do what?” I asked.
“Mary Lou’s paper route.” Dad picked up another piece of sandwich and chewed seriously, as if it demanded his full attention. A blob of jelly dripped out of his mouth onto Mom’s flowered apron, which he still hadn’t taken off.
Me? I wanted to complain, but what could I say? It had been my job to take out the trash.
“You do know how to do the paper route, don’t you?” Dad asked, suddenly worried.
“Of course,” I lied.
“Good,” Dad said. “And I will burn the trash from now on.” He continued eating.
“Bath time!” said Pinky.
We looked over at her. Cleaning her up was Mary Lou’s job.
“I’ll do it,” I said, getting Pinky down from her high chair.
As I gave my sister a bath, every bone in my body ached. It was like I’d been thrown by a bucking bronco, even though all I’d done was sit in a hospital chair all day. Pinky seemed just as exhausted, not even asking for a story as I tucked her into bed. I brushed my teeth, laid out my clothes for the next day and set my alarm. I knew Mary Lou got up at 4:30 a.m. each day to do the paper route. The rest I’d have to figure out as I went along.
Boots scrambled into bed with me. I put my arms around him and buried my nose deep in his dirty fur. If I imagined real hard, I could picture myself out on the prairie, ready to lay out my bedroll under the stars. Boots licked my face, and soon I was asleep.
But I awoke in the middle of the night to a whisper in my ear. Tommy, it said, it was all your fault.
No one was there.
Boots whined softly, turned over and resumed his snoring.
I closed my eyes and cried myself back to sleep.
THE PAPER ROUTE
At 4:30 in the morning, the alarm clock rang. It kept ringing and ringing, until I finally found the right lever to turn it off. Boots slept on.
There was a moment when I couldn’t remember why I had set the alarm. A moment when I didn’t feel worried or guilty, only confused and tired. And then I remembered. It was like the anvil falling on the coyote in that cartoon I’d seen at the movies.
I knew it would be dark at 4:30 in the morning, but I didn’t know how dark. It was as dark as the time Mom made me crawl into the belly of our cold furnace to patch a hole in the firebox and my flashlight went out. And Mary Lou did this every single day.
I wanted to climb back into bed. But I couldn’t let Dad down. I couldn’t let Mary Lou down. I had to do this. Like it or not.
So as I got dressed, I took stock of what I knew. There were two different papers to deliver—the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times. Some houses got only the Tribune, some got only the Sun-Times and some got both. Mary Lou had them all memorized now, but I knew she had a huge metal ring of two-by-four-inch cards, with the names and addresses and subscription details of everyone on the route, which she’d used when she first got started. All I had to do was find that ring. Which meant I had to go into her room.
I don’t know why that seemed so scary. ’Course I’d been in her room a hundred times—she was my sister—but somehow, knowing she wasn’t there made it seem like I was walking into an abandoned gold mine. “Come on, Boots,” I called.
My dog opened one eye and stared at me, but he obediently stretched and crept over to my side. Together, we walked across the hall and pushed Mary Lou’s door open.
No one had closed the blinds, so moonlight streamed in through the uncovered window. Everything glowed silver, as if it were radioactive. The room was tidy, the desk neat, no clothes or books left on the floor. I stood there looking for a long time before I finally managed to force myself to step inside. I was careful not to look at the empty bed and went straight to the desk. I opened the top drawer. There, on a pile of papers, was the ring of cards.
Well, that was one piece of luck. I grabbed the ring and ran out of there, like the town thief running from the sheriff.
In the kitchen, I glanced at the clock. Somehow it was already almost five. How much time had I spent, standing at the edge of Mary Lou’s doorway in the darkness? If I wasn’t back by seven thirty, I’d miss the bus. So I grabbed a cold piece of corn bread for breakfast and wolfed it down.
Boots and I trudged out to the garage and I opened up the door. There were three or four bikes there, all in a jumble, each of them with a giant, square wire basket on the front. I pulled out mine, which was red, but the front tire was flat. A piece of glass was stuck in it, probably from the scrap yard. I didn’t have the time to patch it, so I pulled out the blue bike Mary Lou used.
I felt her presence hover around me like a ghost as I walked the bike to the front of the house. There was a huge pile of papers on our front porch. I knew that Mr. Reynolds, in his old World War II jeep, dropped them off there each morning, but I’d never seen them before. The pile was as tall as I was. I tried to pull out a couple, but the papers were tied together with baling wire. So it was back to the garage to find a wire cutter. Once I had the stack open, I stuffed as many papers as I could into the basket on the front of the bike. I’d have to come back to get the rest.
I may have had another moment of despair then. I may have considered going back inside and waking Dad and telling him, I can’t do it. I may even have dreamed of crawling back into my nice, warm bed, but if so, I’m not admitting it.
I glared at the papers.
They stared back at me.
Then I got on the bike and, with Boots trotting beside me, rode off into the dawn.
Except that it was still dark. And if I’m being truthful, what actually happened was that I only made it halfway down the driveway before I fell off the bike. It wasn’t my fault. Balancing on a bike was way different with a stack of papers hanging over the front wheel. Half the newspapers fell out of the basket onto the gravel drive.
That was just the last straw. My sister was burned and it was my fault and now I couldn’t even do a stupid paper route to help my family out. Boots came over to lick the tears off my face. Did I say there were tears? Of course, cowboys don’t cry. But I felt completely alone. So I may have cried for just a minute or two, till I realized no one was coming to rescue me.
I stood up, put the papers back in the basket and walked the bike down to Fairview Avenue. That was the eastern border of the route and it was paved, so I’d have smooth pedaling and wouldn’t fall off. I hoped.
I’d finally gotten the hang of riding with a full basket by the time I reached the old Czech couple’s house. Their real names were Mr. and Mrs. Kopecky, but everyone called them Pa and Ma. He was skinny as a broomstick and always wore a bow tie. She was round as a barrel.
Ma opened the door at the exact same time I was opening the screen to put down her paper, and scared me half to death. “You the Wilson boy?” she asked. She wore a loose flowered dress that made her look like a big bouquet.
“What’s your name? Johnny? Walter?”
“Tommy,” I admitted.
“Tommy,” she repeated. “How old are you?”
“Same as my grandson, Rickie. He visits in the summer. You know him?”
I’d seen him on the ball field. I knew he was an only child, fussed over. You could tell, because his haircut was always neat, and he wore a white shirt and good leather shoes to play ball. Had a new mitt too. I’d tried to dislike him, but he let me use his glove, and if someone’s willing to loan you his glove, well, then you just can’t not like him. I nodded.
“Hold on a minute.” She disappeared into the kitchen for a moment and reappeared with a sausage that she tossed to Boots.
“I was going to eat that!” Pa called from inside the house.
“You have enough!” Ma called back. “Dog is too skinny.”
Boots gobbled up the sausage before she could change her mind.
“Thanks,” I said with a smile. I could have done with a sausage myself.
Ma smiled back. “We’re praying for your sister.”
I nodded again, scared that if I said a word I’d burst out crying.
When I was halfway through the metal ring of address cards, I went back to the house and refilled my basket. Then I began the western part of the route. First stop was McKenzie’s Grocery and Sundry Store.
Mr. McKenzie had taken over the store after old Mr. O’Malley had died two months before. Mr. McKenzie was a Gypsy, a big man, not fat, but every time I saw him, it seemed like his suit was just a little too small. He was always friendly enough, but with his dark hair and wild, bushy eyebrows, he always reminded me of a grizzly bear. I wondered if he had a crystal ball in the apartment he lived in above the store. Mr. McKenzie was outside sweeping as I rode up.
“You’re Tommy, right?” he asked.
“Yes.” I held out the paper.
He grasped it tightly. His hands were large and thick, his fingers twice the size of mine. “I was so sorry to hear about your sister.”
“Sam was burned when he was a baby,” he said.
It took me a minute to realize he was talking about Little Skinny, the new boy at St. Joseph’s, who had joined our class when school started two weeks earlier. Eddie and I had christened him Little Skinny because he was so fat. He also had a big scar across half his face. I hadn’t realized that Mr. McKenzie was his father.
“A burn is a horrible injury,” Mr. McKenzie continued. “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”
All his talk of burns and injuries was making me uncomfortable. Mary Lou was nothing like Little Skinny. She was my beautiful, sweet sister, and she was going to be absolutely fine.
“Okay,” I said finally.
I could feel him watching me as I rode off. He was just being nice, like Ma and Pa, but their sympathy made me feel like I wanted to throw up.
I was almost done with the route by the time I reached Mrs. Scully’s house. She was young and pretty, with blond hair styled like Marilyn Monroe’s. Her husband had died a year or so before. She lived in the big house all alone, earning her living by taking in sewing and mending. She waved from the front porch when she saw me. I was afraid she’d call out her thoughts about Mary Lou too, but she didn’t say a word.
I had one final stop—our next-door neighbor’s house. Actually, it was more like a shack, so run-down it looked like the Big Bad Wolf had already blown it over. An old Russian woman who played the accordion lived there, and as I threw her paper onto the front porch, I had the sudden thought that maybe the Daily Worker had come from her.
But the sun was fully up now, so I had no time to mull over that idea. I knew it had to be nearly seven thirty, but I was too scared to look at my watch. I was huffing and puffing as I turned into our driveway. Boots’s tongue hung out as I threw the bike into the garage.
“You’re late, Tommy!” Mom hollered from the kitchen.
I ran inside and yanked on my school uniform: navy pants, white shirt and a tie. Mom handed me my lunch and satchel. I took them without looking at her and dashed back outside.
The bus was waiting at the corner. The driver, an old woman with gray hair who always smelled of cigarettes, cleared her throat as I climbed on. “Heard what happened to your sister,” she said in a low voice. “I’m very sorry. But I’m afraid I can’t hold the bus again.”
I nodded and collapsed into a seat. I’d done it. I’d delivered the papers. I should have felt proud or relieved or something. But as I watched Boots bark at the bus as it pulled away, all I felt was sick that Mary Lou wasn’t there with me, and dread that I’d have to do the paper route again tomorrow.
By the time we got to school, four different people had told me they were so sorry, Eddie had asked about Mary Lou twice and I was ready to slug anyone who mentioned her again. I practically ran to the chapel. As I slid into a pew, I could feel the weight of home falling off my shoulders, like a horse shrugging off a saddlebag.
At St. Joseph’s Catholic School we had Mass every morning. That meant thirty-five minutes of peace and quiet—well, except for the standing up and kneeling, and chanting in Latin, but I could do all that in my sleep. And even if I forgot some of the words, I’d just get a real pious look on my face, lower my voice and say, “A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty ‘Hi-Yo, Silver!’”
I loved school. Oh, the nuns liked to pretend they were mean, but the worst they’d do was get out the ruler and rap you on the knuckles. Not that anyone misbehaved. No, sir. St. Joe’s was run like Ike’s army, which was okay by me. I liked knowing what was going to happen. At home, if I accidentally dropped a plate, sometimes Mom would laugh and call me slippery fingers and help me clean it up, and sometimes she’d yell for an hour and send me to bed without dinner.
After Mass we’d say a prayer for anyone who was sick or had died or anything like that. First on our prayer list was always Cardinal József Mindszenty. He was the leader of the Catholic Church in Hungary and had spoken out against the communists who had taken over Hungary after the war. He was arrested, tortured and, at a sham trial in 1949, sentenced to life in prison. So every day we bowed our heads and prayed for his release.
Awards and Accolades for The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had
— Kristin Levine