Well loyal readers, here for what it’s worth, is my continuing saga. I’m still plugging away at it, although I think it’s changed direction approximately 28 times. But I’m having fun. So that’s that. Thanks for reading.
I am so excited to actually be starting a chapter two, that I am going to keep right on going, even though it’s ridiculously late and I am yawning from the strain of the day.
I’m in bed with a flashlight, and this week is my turn for the top bunk. We rotate between the three of us, Sam, Becca and I. Sam is on the bottom bunk and Becca has the twin bed in the corner which we call ‘the sleepy hollow’ because of the large divot in the middle of the saggy mattress. Britt sleeps in the ‘postage stamp’. That’s what we call her room because it is roughly the size of one.
After reading all this, I realize that we name a lot of things around our house. I think it must be to try to endear them to us. Like dad’s crappy car, or the uncomfortable bed, they don’t seem so bad if we have pet names for them. And the ‘postage stamp’ really is insanely small. But Britt prefers a tiny room to sharing with us. Come to think of it, we have never named our room.
There isn’t much that is nameworthy about it except that when we leave the window open, the most delicious smell of pine and salty sea air comes wafting in. And you can hear the waves best from this corner of the house. If I were Anne of Green Gables, no doubt I would have thought of a romantic name long ago.
As it is, our three-man room is not very large either- just a converted attic space where the ceiling slopes down and hardly leaves room for a bunk bed at all, let alone a pillow and my head. I’ve been looking at the plaster ceiling for a while, trying to think what I should write but really focusing on the imprint of a squashed mosquito that has been there for many years now. No one has ever bothered to wipe off the tiny corpse- there seems to be an unspoken agreement about this, and we all secretly wonder just how long it will last. If mom knew about it’s existence, she would go for a damp rag immediately. But as far as we know she has never entered the quiet refuge of the top bunk. And I’m glad of it. There’s a strange kind of comfort in knowing that no matter what changes life brings, that darn mosquito will still be there. But enough about dead insects. I was going to write about our evening.
Dinner did not end well after the ‘janitor announcement.’ We could all tell that dad felt really bad about mentioning such a plan, but I don’t see why. It’s a legitimate idea, even if unpleasant. But I could see Britt in the corner, again with that desperate look on her face. Sam tried to keep things light by asking a question or two about the job requirements. Becca just looked blank and slid out of the nook. Predictably, we heard the piano start up again. This time it was Beethoven- one of his stormiest.
Mom was already up and had the table cleared and the dishes half washed before any of us thought to help her. And though dishes are probably my least favorite thing to do, I got up too. We sighed off and on as we scrubbed. The table fell silent and dad went into the living room to turned on the t.v. The sounds of a basketball game soon mingled with the banging piano. Britt quietly vanished, and I watched Sam fish a book off of the windowsill and disappear behind it.
Once the dishes were done, I wandered out to the couch to sit with dad. I’m not much of a basketball fan, but I figured I could suffer through it for once, just so he wasn’t alone. Britt was usually the one to watch sports with him, but she was nowhere to be seen. Becca, having apparently worked through her feelings and shelved them with a resounding c minor chord, came and joined us. I’m not sure how long we sat there- a few quarters or halves or innings- however basketball works, when we were all surprised by the sound of the front door opening.
We all turned to see who it was and there was Britt wearing a frustrated expression and holding something behind her back. Evidently she had hoped to sneak into the house as unnoticed as she had left it. Mom poked her head out of the kitchen, drying her hands on a dishtowel and Sam looked up from her book.
Britt looked so guilty, cornered by the front door like that with all of us staring at her, that I was afraid she had committed some crime. “Honey?” mom said, in that gentle voice that asks all questions at once. Britt swallowed a few times and then, realizing it was hopeless, let it out.
“I got a job,” she stated bluntly, and she held out what she had been hiding behind her back- a black apron with the name of the fast food restaurant that had just opened down the street stitched across the top in red and white thread. We just sat there, stunned, leaving the obvious question for Sam to ask.
“Why do you think?” Britt burst out in reply, and her vehemence surprised us all. “I’m seventeen now- maybe it’s time I started to look out for myself. And maybe this way, I won’t feel so guilty wanting new things and maybe we can afford to go back to school without…. Her voice faltered and she looked close to tears. I’m pretty sure she realized, like we all did, that she would have to flip an awful lot of burgers to cover our tuition.
Dad looked hurt, confused and defeated. He got off the couch and quietly headed to his room. Mom’s eyes followed him through the door, and then they turned back to Britt, who looked horrified. She then said, “Honey,” again in that voice that expresses all the understanding and sympathy in the world. Mom packs a lot of punch into the word ‘honey’, because Britt finally burst into tears and fled the scene.
We could see which direction she was going because the upstairs landing is just visible from the living room. When she got to the top, she turned right instead of left, which meant she wasn’t seeking solitude in the ‘postage stamp’. She had chosen our room, which was usually a cue for some sort of sister meeting. Becca, always the more sympathetic one, jumped up immediately and followed her.
I know it is callous of me, but I prefer to let the crying episodes pass before getting down to the business of sorting out problems. So I sat with mom for a bit. After all, she needed some support too. I wish I could say that even though I am rotten at offering comforting hugs, I am good at dishing out consoling words, but the truth is, I stink at both. I think mom understands though. At any rate, she didn’t have much to say either, so after five minutes of silence, and after realizing that Sam had put down her book and was giving me the eye, we headed upstairs together.
When we got to the door, I pulled on the doorknob and the short end came out in my hand. I heard the end with the stick fall through onto the floor inside the bedroom. No doubt, in the drama of the moment, Britt had been a little too forceful with it and loosened the rusty old screws again. This was a weekly occurrence. I knocked quietly and waited for an answer.
None came except the sound of footsteps and someone rummaging around for something. In a moment, we saw the tiny shape of a Barbie doll’s foot emerge through the knob hole and turn to the right. The door opened with a pop. It was Becca. We came quietly in and Sam headed straight for the bottom bunk, but still holding one side of the knob, I bent down to grab the other piece. But it was really broken this time- the stick had fallen out of both sides. I threw the pieces into the box by the door, which contained various items that could replace the handle in case of emergency- an old toothbrush, a bent butter knife and other odds and ends. I left the broken Barbie leg in the door hole. With it’s rubbery grip, it was by far the best substitute.
I then swung myself up into the top bunk and surveyed the scene. I could see Britt over in the corner, leaning against the crooked closet doors. It looked like the tears were over. Becca was making a nest for herself in the ‘sleepy hollow’, surrounding herself with her numerous ratty stuffed animals, like a barricade against the realities of growing up.
We sat for a long time in silence, and as the second oldest, I was feeling it my duty to say something, but before I could, I found my head suddenly bashed against the low ceiling above me.
“Sam!” Becca said reprovingly, having a go at the motherly tone that usually belonged to Sam herself. I rubbed my head and swung it over the edge of the bed to glare at her. She was grinning apologetically while lowering her legs and said,
“Sorry- old habit.”
When we were younger, we had often played this trick on each other. We would wait until just before we thought the top story occupant was asleep, and then with feet well planted, push up on the piece of plywood which was all that held the upper mattress in place. Mom had forbidden us to do so years ago, after one particularly exuberant push had succeeded in flipping board, mattress and sleeper onto the bed below, damaging all parties concerned. But in times of anxiety, the old impulse had a tendency to resurface, like a nervous twitch. So I forgave her, but grudgingly. And at least it had broken the silence, because Becca piped up.
“So how long are we going to avoid talking about this? I’d like to get rid of the extra elephant in the room. Lumpy doesn’t like competition.” And she patted a particularly decrepit stuffed pachyderm whose threadbare trunk was drooping over her shoulder as if hoping for peanuts.
“I’ll start with an apology,” Britt replied much subdued. “I’m sorry I made dad feel bad, but I had to do something! I mean, are any of you actually willing to be a janitor at your own high school?”
“Well,” I replied, hesitating, “It’s not the greatest solution, but I would be willing to do just about anything to stay in school this year. And it’s not like anyone would have to know. We would be working after school hours, right?”
“You really think we could keep this hidden?” she scoffed back at me, and then continued. “I was elected to be student body president this year. How can I lead the school, and then be expected to empty trash and scrub floors? And wearing all my old stuff from last year? Look at my shoes!” and she brandished a worn out sneaker at us, causing the frayed laces to flap violently. I don’t think I could stand it.”
“Oh come on, who cares how you are dressed?” Sam spat back, legs extending upward to the plywood platform again. I gave her a warning look and she lowered them. “What does it really matter? Everyone knows we don’t have a lot of money, and if they are going to be petty about it, then that’s their problem.”
“That sounds great Sam, but you’ve only been there for one year,” Britt replied. “You don’t know what it’s been like, struggling for three years to fit in when you are the only poor person in a class full of rich kids. And just when you are finally getting somewhere, you get landed with the janitor job? Do you guys remember how much fun everyone used to make of the last lady who cleaned the school?”
“Oh brother”, Sam snorted. “No one made fun of her because she was the janitor. It was just because she was so grumpy and mean and always yelling at us.”
“Well either way, the idea stinks. After a year of cleaning up after a bunch of snotty high schoolers, we’ll probably end up grumpy and mean too. Try to put yourself in my place, Sam! I know you have never cared what other people think of you, but I’m not happy ignoring the rest of the world and sticking my nose in a book.”
Now if there’s one thing I try to avoid at all costs, it’s a conflict. So before Sam could splutter an angry response I jumped in.
“What if we just gave it a try for a while? It’s only until dad can find a new job, right? I mean, what other options do we have? It’s either that or starting over in a new school”
“Or homeschool,” Sam interjected. We ignored her.
“And that way,” I continued, looking at Britt, “You could just use the money from your new job to get yourself some clothes and stuff. We could do the janitor work on afternoons and Saturdays, and no one would need to know. Sam wouldn’t tell anybody, right?” We all knew that she wouldn’t be above proclaiming the fact to the world, just to prove that she didn’t care. She shrugged noncommittally in response, but I knew she wouldn’t tell if it was something that involved all of us.
“And even if someone did find out, it’s honest work and nothing to be ashamed of,” I concluded, trying hard to convince myself of something I didn’t really believe myself.
It was Britt’s . But there wasn’t much to be argued against this. It was pretty sound advice, if I do say so myself, and I could see that she was caving. But before the subject closed, Becca voiced the last objection that was probably hovering in the back of all our minds.
“I guess we there’s not much else we can do, and I’m game if you are,” she sighed, looking worriedly at her delicate little hands as if imagining them already wearing a pair of smelly rubber gloves. I was proud of her, since I knew how hard it must be for her to contemplate starting her high school career as a custodian.
“But you guys,” she continued with a little smirk, “How on earth are we going to pull this off? You know we all suck at cleaning.”
There’s nothing quite so nice as a hearty laugh after a long day of trouble. I’m pretty sure King Solomon says something about it somewhere. Mom, hearing the laughter, must have felt that the all clear had been given because she suddenly appeared at the door to assure us that dad was all right, give us all another hug and tell us everything was going to be fine. And as mature as I would like to think that I now am, I still love that she kissed me and tucked me into bed (even though she must have known I had no intention of falling asleep yet). I wonder if she will ever get over the habit.