Chapter 4

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Since I am soon to be giving up both cooking and sewing, my blog will probably just start bouncing back and forth between the continuing saga of my real world and the imaginary one in my mind.  But change is good, right?  At any rate, here’s chapter 4- a bit shorter and perhaps a little less dramatic than the last…

I haven’t written in a while because the days have been flying past and homework has begun in earnest. Each afternoon, I plug away at history essays and algebra assignments as quickly as possible, telling myself that as soon as I am done, I can pull out my own notebook and scribble what I want to write. But so far, I haven’t been able to get an inch ahead. So I am currently ignoring a sonnet I am supposed to be concocting for English class and going ahead with my story. I’m not sure why we have to write sonnets anyway, although sometimes I secretly think Mr. Templin dreams of discovering the next Shakespeare in our tiny little school.
School work busy-ness is of course compounded by the fact that we now have an after school job as well as homework.  Mom ended up getting more hours at the office, so she hasn’t been able to help us much at all. And poor dad- his car finally did die, just three days after he lost his job, so he hasn’t been able to go anywhere at all, except by bus. And getting to church and school by bus is such a lengthy ordeal that we told him not to worry about helping us, and just to focus on the wanted ads. But alas, no luck in that department yet.
Being down to one car means that we have to wait around at school until mom gets off of work anyway, so we have plenty of time to clean and do our homework.  Most afternoons, we choose a corner of the school and get our books out first while all the other students head home. The broken car has been an admirable excuse to give to anyone who asks why we are at school so late.
It’s been about a month now, and no one has yet guessed our secret. No one except Em, who is frequently after school late as well, waiting for her dad to finish work. But I’m not worried about her telling anyone. When she caught me hauling a big bag of trash out to the dumpster a few days ago, she just looked a little sad for a minute, as if wishing the world was not the way it was, and then gave me a hug, garbage bag and all. I almost cried.
At any rate, we study until we are sure that everyone has disappeared and then head to the cleaning closet for supplies. It’s not so bad really- mostly our job entails vacuuming and wiping down desks. The trash isn’t too awful either- mostly just paper. And the bathrooms- well, we have decided to tag team the bathrooms and alternate weekson bathroom detail. Britt and Sam did the first week, and Becca and I the second. I definitely got the short end of the stick in that deal, since Becca usually just stands in there, rag and spray bottle in hand, and talks. She does keep me entertained though.
Thankfully the school isn’t too big, so it only takes us a couple of hours to give everything a scrub. It’s really just a small building connected to the back of a much larger church- and thank heavens we are not in charge of cleaning the whole church. However, we do have to share a cleaning closet with the man who is. He is one of your typical, stooped, older gentleman janitors, soured a little (or a lot) by a severely under-appreciated job.We learned pretty quickly, that first week, not to mess up his closet. The second day of work, Becca left the window cleaner on the wrong shelf and had to endure a ten minute scolding on the subject.  So now she flees the scene whenever she hears the squeak of his mop bucket drawing nigh. Overall he leaves us pretty well alone, but I get the sense that he doesn’t think we are up for the job. To be fair, I get that sense too. But we are learning, and I’m sure we’ll get better at it someday.

My biggest frustration comes when I dwell on the fact that cleaning is the last thing I want to be getting better at! Between school work and piano and this old notebook, I feel like I would rather be doing anything but improving my relationship with a vacuum cleaner. By the way, in the long tradition of our bequeathing names upon unpleasant things, we have decided to call the vacuum Slurpy. It hasn’t endeared him to me yet. But I have learned several of his little quirks already, like the fact that he does not enjoy eating paper clips.  I am sure we are going to be good friends in the end.
Anyway…. who wants to read about cleaning, let alone write about it? Not I. I would rather write about Adam. But I told myself I am not going to write about Adam, because I don’t want this book to turn into some wishy-washy melodrama about how I am finally suffering through my first highschool crush- which I am not, of course.   (Pssst- Nat, you are lying to yourself)
At any rate, I am not going to admit that fact to anyone else- not to my sisters, not to my best friend, not to him, and definitely never to myself, because that always makes things worse. Especially since, after the big ol’ waterfall drama of last week, he has not made the slightest sign that we ever shared that strange afternoon at the school picnic- just an occasional smile in the hallway or at lunch time. I try not to take it personally and I shouldn’t since it seems as if he
never talks to anyone. (He did, however, kind of save my life, which you would think might single set me apart from the herd a bit)  But no, e always sits in the same, back-corner desk and he always eats his lunch alone. I get the sense that he isn’t shy- just a keen observer who would have plenty to talk about if he could just find the right person to talk to. I just keep hoping that that person will be me. I got a little taste of what goes on in his mind that day on the river and…..       but enough about that day. I’m beginning to think that I just dreamed the whole thing anyway.

And speaking of dreams, I dreamt the other night that I was a world famous concert pianist. All my many labors at the instrument had finally paid off, and I had finally achieved my goal of being the wonder of the musical world. My slow and clumsy fingers were a thing of the past, and that piece by Brahms I have been striving in vain to conquer for months? It was crushed beneath my pedaling feet. It was such a blissful dream that my awakening was doubly depressing. Not only did I have groggily to realize that it had all been a dream, but I also discovered that it was Becca I had been hearing in my sleep- playing my piece, as if it were nothing!
Sometimes she gets up early to practice, and it’s always a delight to wake up and hear just how much more gifted my baby sister is than me. (I wish sarcasm showed up better in print) Still, I am usually proud of her, and even managed a smile at her flying fingers, five minutes later, as I shuffled past her in my pajamas on my way to the kitchen.
But my vanity was dealt another blow when we got to school and I heard yet more enviable talent going forth on the choir room piano. Of course it had to be my best friend playing. Have I mentioned that she also excels at the instrument? Well, she does.  Behold, I am surrounded by superior abilities of every kind. I keep telling
myself that I should give up- that we can’t all expect to be prodigies. But I can’t quit somehow. I just keep hoping that my musical ship will come in someday.
But enough- this is turning into the whiniest chapter I have ever written or read. I’m getting sick of my own bellyaching, so thankfully Sam just came into the room with a mysterious object under her arm to distract me. I think a volume of Shakespeare will make an admirable cover up for my writing today.

Oh how thankful I am for sisters some days. Well most days. The fates very kindly dealt me a most excellent hand of sisterly companions to comfort me in the hard times, or simply to make me laugh. Just when I was feeling at my poutiest, (is that a word?) Sam plopped whatever she was carrying on the floor next to the bed and said,
“Hey, it’s my week for the sleepy hollow.”
I acknowledged this fact by explaining that I was just there temporarily, as it makes an excellent perch for writing- errr- doing homework.
But she wasn’t really listening. She was on her knees, busy making adjustments to the whatever-the-heck-it-was. After a moment’s indecision, I finally deduced that it must be some kind of a table. I then remembered how she had told my mother the night before that she wished she had a place to put her alarm clock and the little lamp that she uses for reading at night. But before mom could even say that new bedside tables were not really in the budget at the moment, I saw that look in her eye. She had then grabbed a flashlight and disappeared into the old shed out back.
I should have known then what was coming, but nothing ever quite prepares me for the outlandish contraptions she comes up with. For there before me was a bedside table of truly magnificent disproportions. It was hard to imagine anything crookeder since one of the four legs was missing the eight inches it needed to make it equal to the
other three.
I looked at the leg and I looked at her and she replied shortly, (though I had asked no questions)
“Shut up. I ran out of wood.”
Clearly she had some idea of how to fix the problem, so I sank a little lower in the hollow and watched the fun. She was soon humming a little tune, busily collecting random books from around the room, and I realized then what she was doing.  It was like the worlds largest stabilizing paper wedge, for after adding a book here and removing a book there, she eventually came up with a stack about eight inches high,ranging in size from smallest to largest, to compensate for the lacking wood. She tipped her head to one side, (because it was still fairly crooked) and observed the effect critically. Then, with an inexplicable sigh of satisfaction she said,
“There- I like it. It looks very…. artsy.”

“Is that what we’re calling it?” I replied with a snort, and got a book lobbed at my head in return. She then proceeded to place her noisy little alarm clock on top. To my surprise, the table held.

“Better try your lamp too,” I suggested warily. But she was already pulling it off the bookshelf.

“Where is the lampshade?” I asked, staring at the dusty, naked light bulb.

“Oh,” she replied with some hesitancy. “It’s drying out.”

“Why? What happened to it?”

“Oh, nothing- it’s just I was so tired of that dingy white colored shade that I decided to try and dye it.”                        (Insert moment of raised-eyebrow silence)

“What color?”

“Well, I thought that red would be nice.”

I did not think red would be nice, so I crossed my fingers against an affirmative answer and asked,

“Did it work?”

“Well, kind of.”

“Kind of?”

“Well, here’s what happened,” she started in a rush. “We didn’t have any actual dye, so you know how kool-aid always changes the color of your tongue? I knew we had some old cherry koolaid in the pantry, so I dumped the packet in a bucket of water and stirred it around and then just stuck the lamp shade in.”
I knew there was no point in interrupting until she had finished relating her tale, so I let her continue, without snide comment.

“Well, it kind of worked, but it only came out pinkish, and I wanted it really red. But we were out of koolaid, so I figured jello might work just as well.”

“And did it?” I even managed not to roll my eyes.

“No- it just got pinker, and kind of gelled a bit. So I had to dump that out and tried to think of something that always stains things really red, and I thought of tomato sauce!  Except all we had was tomato paste, so I had to go with that. But it worked! It turned really red after that. Well, maybe more of an orange-red, but I really like it. So now I’m just waiting for it to dry.”

I know that the above makes it sound like Sam is kind of a ditz, but she’s really one of the smartest people I know. And it’s not that she starts out deciding to make a table with only three and a half legs- it’s just that once she begins a project, she will do just about anything to see it through to the end. And whatever the end product is, she is insanely stubborn about using it.
To be fair, she comes by this trait naturally. I’m prone to a bit of it myself and my mother is definitely guilty, although long experience has taught her how to prepare in advance for and when to let go of a project she is contemplating. In fact, mom once got so frustrated with the smallness of our kitchen that she decided to build a back deck- all by herself, (dad isn’t exactly handy) so that we would have a place to spill out onto when we had guests. And she did it.

I distinctly remember her sawing away at a pile of 2x4s with our rusty old saw (dad’s un-handiness means we are a bit short on power tools) and then swinging a hammer like Rosie the Riveter. The finished product might not have been quite up to code, and the stairs were a little slip shod, but at least all the supports are the same length.  At any rate, it has stood the test of several years.

Mom is also the one who decided to tear down the moss-eaten old sheds that grandpa had put up many years ago so that we could have a larger yard to play in. Dad fought her hard on it, since anything that has to do with his father is sentimental to him, but she finally talked him into it, luring him with the promise of more space for the garden he always wanted to put in. She also agreed to leave one small shed out of the three for sentimental value, and as a place to keep our few tools and scraps of lumber.

But the other two sheds- my mighty mother attacked them herself with nothing but crow bar and sledge hammer. Britt also helped. We other girls sat by and watched the fun, wishing we had any upper body strength but Dad couldn’t watch. Within a few days those sheds were reduced to a heap of splinters.

Once it was all cleared away, dad revived and began marking out a space for his new garden while the rest of us rejoiced in the open feeling the yard now possessed. But I remember mom still standing there, sledge hammer in hand, wondering which walls she might be able to blow out of the house.  Poor mom, she will never be done with her mission to find more room.

————————————–

Well, seeing as this chapter is just turning into a random account us and our little quirks, let me just add a little interlude from last night. We had returned home after a particularly long day and Britt ran upstairs to throw on her apron, since she was already late for her other job. Mom exhausted, and we were all hungry, but when we walked in, the living room was dark.

“Where’s dad?” Becca asked.   For answer, we all heard a sigh from the general direction of the couch.  Surprised, mom went to turn on the lamps, and there slumped on the couch and looking unusually woebegone, was dad.

He has been good about making dinner for us all since he lost his job, but the kitchen was dark too and we could all tell he had been sitting there for a long time, mostly evidenced by the fact that he had all of his old record boxes scattered around the room and had been probably been walking down memory lane, thinking of the good times, reveling in melancholy.

The needle on the turntable was bumping and scratching against the side of the machine, so I went to lift it up. Sure enough he had been playing Harry Chapin’s “The cat’s in the cradle,” – always a bad sign.

Mom silently went and sat down next to him, while the rest of us felt uneasy.  Then dad broke the silence with a huge sigh saying, “Well Ellen, I didn’t get the job.”

“Oh Dan,” she replied. “I’m so sorry. But it’s all right. We’ll keep looking.”

Sam, Becca and I stared at each other. We hadn’t been informed that dad had applied for a job at all. We immediately assumed we had been kept in the dark on purpose so that we wouldn’t get our hopes up, but I’m not sure walking in on dad looking like that spared us much in the long run. Britt then appeared dressed for work and in a hurry. Dad made a pretense of getting off the couch.
“I should probably just go with her,” he said morosely, “since they seem to be the only place in the city that’s hiring.” His threat was rather idle since he was wearing his shabby old robe and slippers. Britt looked confused, and in the momentary silence, I saw Becca longingly eyeing the piano. But mom headed off any musical outbursts with one of her “Honeys!”  Mom certainly has a way with that word, for Becca changed direction immediately and veered toward the kitchen instead.
“You go on to work,” Mom continued, nodding to Britt. Britt accordingly scooted out the front door and Sam and I, sensing that the folks needed a private word, decided our place was in the kitchen as well. There we found Becca with her head in the fridge, apparently cooling off.
“There’s nothing in here to eat,” she said a little waspishly. “And I’m hungry.”
I told her to move over and I would find something. But she was right. The fridge was astoundingly empty. It appeared that dad, who had been puttering around the house a lot lately, looking for odd jobs to do, had decided the fridge needed cleaning out. And he had done it with a vengeance. No more leftovers, no more onion halves or wilting celery stalks. Even the door shelves were void and bare. All the mustards, the salsas, and the salad dressings- even the resident, elderly condiments that had expired some thirteen years ago or more had been mercilessly evicted from their long home. We were left with half a bottle of ketchup, two gallons of milk and you guessed it- no butter.
I opened the freezer, praying that it had avoided the purge. Thankfully it had, but almost a month of a shrinking grocery budget meant that it hadn’t been stocked in a while. I picked up a spatula and started chipping away at the accumulated frost coating everything inside, trying to identify mysterious, saran-clad lumps.  Meanwhile, Sam and Becca had gone to the cupboards. They were digging pretty far back into the recesses, fishing out a can here and a box there.

After five minutes of hunting, we turned around to survey the kill. The cupboards had yielded one can of pinto beans and one of beets, a half empty box of macaroni that we immediately threw away because some kind of beetle had gotten into it, and lots of saltine crackers.
The freezer yield was little better- a bag of freezer burned green beans, some of last summer’s homegrown garden corn and three hamburger patties- no buns.
We stood and looked at the forlorn pile. I thought Becca might cry, but instead she got the giggles- little hysterical giggles that had half a sob in them.
“Well ladies,” I declared resolutely. “Let’s make some dinner.” I began opening cans and dumping them into sundry small pots and pans while Becca tried arranging the saltines artistically on a plate. She giggle-sobbed harder than ever.But Sam didn’t feel like settling for beets just yet, so she protested that there must be something else in the freezer. I hesitated dramatically for a moment and then told her there might be one last thing. I opened the door, reached down into the bottom shelf and pulled out a ridiculously long and heavy item, wrapped in several thicknesses of black garbage bag. I brandished it at her and told her to open wide.

She shrieked and laughingly dodged the mystery object. Well, there really isn’t any mystery about it. Even with all it’s wrappings, it would be evident to even the dullest observer that the thing was a very large fish. This fish had been a part of our freezer so long that the details of its origin were growing foggy. But I still remember the day that our old neighbor had brought it over, freshly caught from a river up north.
“I’m not sure what kind of a fish it is,” he had drawled to mom as he handed the enormous thing over, “And it’s slimy as snot. But there must be good eating on it.” He had then walked away, leaving mom looking helplessly after him. She had kept the thing, however, all these years, perhaps for just such an occasion as tonight.
Becca was laughing in earnest now as I continued to swing the fish in Sam’s direction. But it was so heavy that before long I dropped it. The resounding thud brought mom and dad to the door.

Dad’s face was looking slightly more cheerful- he was even smiling- but at sight of the pathetic dinner we were concocting, his smile began sliding back droop. He looked down at the floor with a sigh and suddenly saw the fish, whose frozen eye, now visible, was peeping mournfully back at him.

There was a moment’s silent contemplation and then- Oh Joy!- he laughed.

He laughed as we hadn’t seen him laugh in ages- laughed till the tears had to be wiped from his stubbly cheeks. Mom was laughing too- we were all laughing, holding onto the counter and our sides as the fish looked on.

Mom and dad came in to help cook.  But instead of sitting down to “dinner”, we sat around the rest of the evening, nibbling saltines with burger fragments on top and throwing pinto beans at each other until mom made us stop. Dad went back to his record boxes and pulled out some Stevie Wonder. He turned the volume up as high as it would go.
When Britt came back from her shift, she found us all having an impromptu dance party in the living room. Being the good sport that she is, she asked no questions, threw off her apron and joined right in. It had been so long that we had all let go like that, that mom let us stay up ‘til almost midnight. She had even found some popcorn in a tin on the shelf that we had missed in our search and popped it up for us to add to the festivities. When she finally told us to head
to bed, Dad looked sadly after us, some Steely Dan held hopefully in his hands. He always hates to see a good party die.
We trooped upstairs obediently enough, tired and trying to ignore the fact that we had all failed to finish the day’s homework assignments. But as we snuggled down for bed in our little room which was now lit by the rosy glow of Sam’s ‘new’ lamp shade, I told myself I didn’t care. Tonight had been a night for living- for seizing the moment, for making sure dad (and ourselves) knew that things were going to be all right. I said goodnight to my dear sisters. They answered in kind. But before I drifted off, I heard a sleepy voice from the top bunk saying,
“Does it smell like spaghetti in here to anyone else?”
Sam did not reply.

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