A Simple Introduction
“I found my mama dead on the floor.”
“That’s a good beginning,” Mrs. Burrell says, as she pulls down on her flowered green skirt and smoothes it with her pretty hands, even though there’s not a wrinkle on it. “Don’t be afraid to tell your story exactly as it happened,” she says.
Well, it’ll probably stink, I am thinking to myself, like old beady-eyed Nurse Williams, our housemother, said it would. For five years she told me I wouldn’t amount to much, and that I’ll especially never be a writer.
Mrs. Burrell, our English teacher, says people can tell you all kinds of bad things about yourself, but no matter what, no one can take away your story. I guess I’ll just have to let you be the judge. If it stinks up a storm, then I’m sorry, but it’s my story and I think it’s worth the telling, or I wouldn’t have put myself through the trouble.
With all respect to Mrs. Burrell, I’ll start with my name instead of that part about Mama dying, because people don’t like you jumping right in with the dark stuff before even a simple introduction. You’ve got to start with a name at least, then go with the rest.
I am Riley Violet Thompson, and I am a ward of the state. I am a foster kid. Now don’t get all scared and wound up because you think you know me, ‘cause you don’t. Foster kids can be a little messy in the head, I admit, but who can’t? And even if you were never a foster kid, you were a teenager once, like me, so see? We’ve already got something in common.
You are probably wondering how I ended up in a mess like this, and I can’t blame you for desiring the tell-all. My mama up and died like I said to Mrs. Burrell earlier. And if that won’t put a hurtin’ on your lifestyle, nothing will. Just one minute change in the way the wind blows and your whole world is turned upside down in a New York minute.
I was an eleven-year-old girl without a care in the world. I left our tiny white church, located at the end of our long gravel driveway, just a-skipping and singing that beautiful last song we had harmonized over and over in choir practice. It was a blue-sky Tennessee mountain day, where the daffodils and March bells are popping up all over. I flung open our red front door, the one me and Mama had painted together just a week earlier, and saw her laying there on her back, with a look of shock on her face, and her mouth and eyes both wide open in a perfect circle, like her last words might have been NO NO NO. Her arm was flopped over her chest, and her fingers with the pretty pink nails were splayed out over her heart like she might have been grabbing at it. I ran to the phone and called for help and sat there with her, praying it was all just a misunderstanding or a joke, and she would get on up and tell me she’d made some of her famous brownies with pecans and let’s go have some. But she did not.
The ambulance took her away and that was it. There was nothing left but the sweet tea I knew was hers. It was beside the tan vinyl couch, on one of the side tables, illuminated by a spiffy shade lamp that was part of our new rent-to-own living room set that we were so proud of. It felt like that living room set brought us up a notch in this world, even if it would never be ours. And that sweet tea was all there was, and danged if the ice hadn’t already melted and vanished, like her. Just a jelly jar of diluted sweet tea.
Boy, that song I was skipping along singing locked up in my throat. It must’ve been an omen or some kind of foretelling because I sure needed every word of it after that.
When the storm passes over
When the thunder sounds no more
When the clouds roll forever from the sky
Hold me fast, let me stand
In the hollow of Thy hand
Keep me safe till the storm passes by
I was an only child, and I never knew my daddy, though I heard he had the bluest china-blue eyes and the darkest, most beautiful skin and the blackest hair of anyone.
After that day, you might say I was a well-traveled girl, if you call lots of moving around within one or two counties well-traveled. I ended up in this Christian children’s home for kids like me. Poor orphans in need of the God Squad I guess is what they are thinking. If you are a Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist orphan then you are just SOL for getting into this place, but that’s a whole book in itself that I just don’t have the time or energy for. I will say a place like this is a perfect setup for brainwashing those who can’t do one thing about where they are in life or what beliefs they have shoved down their throats.
This children’s home has a lot going on. Some things good and some wicked evil. They keep us busy with chores and church and lots of pitiful rules that have nothing to do with any kind of formula for the real world, in my opinion. And I’m sorry to be saying that. I know it doesn’t seem appreciative. With a daddy nowhere to be found and no brothers and sisters, the decision was made. Especially since Mama wrote a special note to the preacher, that if anything ever happened, this is where she hoped I would go. But poor Mama didn’t know. She didn’t know I would be swinging around like Tarzan’s Jane to six foster homes before I finally landed here, and that you are not supposed to stay here for life, if you are lucky, that is.
The goal of Haven House is to a find a loving “forever” home in the community for every child, so they say. But Mama doesn’t know I am getting pretty old now and still waiting. I can tell you if she was attune to some of the goings on here she would roll right over in her grave, I bet. She wouldn’t appreciate it one bit—not one iota.
Now I hope you don’t think I need a discount, or am asking for a pity party because I’m not and I never would. I’m not that kind of person and I don’t believe in that. I just thought you might like to know how I ended up here is all. That’s the strangest part of this whole story. How your life can change like that in a minute.
The one nice thing about living here is that we are all in the same boat. You don’t have to look over and wish you had something someone else has. Of course, we’ve all had our own personal experiences and some of us have lived longer in the outside world, which can be just as bad. And some of us are just downright rebellious. A wiry, wild-haired girl named Eliza is held down by the staff weekly, so long you’d think they’re exorcising the demons out of her. I have nightmares about her sad face when they bring her out of the small, dingy room down the dark steps below the kitchen. It is the face of someone who looks about half ready to cry and half crazy at the same time; like something from that horror movie, Carrie. And I know that in the next day or so she will back at it, screaming and cussing and calling the staff a bunch of freaking holy roller nut-job sex addicts and all of that. The ongoing cycle of it is just awfully upsetting to witness.
That’s just one little person in a whole world of Elizas that live in this place we call home. It is truly a mess, and sometimes it seems we are hanging onto sanity by the skin of our teeth. A children’s home called Haven House, or a Big Fat House of Evil? The longer I live here the longer the lines between them are as blurry as a one-eyed rattlesnake in a Kansas City dust storm.
We are in English Composition. Mrs. Burrell, our teacher, is pregnant with her fourth child. I love Mrs. Burrell. She is young and sweet and kind, and she treats each one of us like we are smart and good. Since I have been here she has taught me everything I know about writing, books and movies.
She tells us we can be anything we want in life and that it all begins with communication, which means being able to speak and write properly. She is one of the best things about this place. She is a bright light shining in the middle of a dark cavern, trying her best to show us the way out.
She brings her babies to class sometimes, even though they don’t look too highly on that kind of thing here. Maybe they think the crazy, abused foster children will hurt the babies, or they don’t want us to see what happy babies look like; I’m not certain, but we sure love playing with those babies and pretending like they are our own. They are so beautiful and healthy and always smiling, and all of them are as white-headed and blue-eyed as they come. I look into the eyes of those little babies and think about how all of us in here were babies once.
I daydream during class about what might have been if we were born to Mrs. Burrell and her handsome husband, Leonard, who is a schoolteacher too. We would all be off to college and making something of ourselves, wearing the right clothes and saying the right words, I bet. I give Mrs. Burrell credit for trying to get us there anyway, even though she probably wonders secretly if it’s way too late for some of us. Like Eliza, who is so off in La La Land that she seems hopeless. But Mrs. Burrell is so caring and positive that I bet she thinks if she could just get Eliza to write down what’s going on in that muddled head of hers, that it would be a Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller.
Mrs. Burrell’s latest assignment comes with Mother’s Day around the corner. I like that she doesn’t try to pretend that Mother’s Day is not happening. Sometimes I wonder if this is English or Psychology, but she tries to help us face things like that head on. Like that saying, “The best way around it is through it,” she knows that we can’t live our lives pretending. It can get really uncomfortable as all get-out thinking about the mother you never had, or the one you wish you didn’t have, or the one you knew and loved but don’t have anymore. We don’t talk about these things in class because Mrs. Burrell is smart. She writes these delicate assignments on a piece of folded paper and hands them out at the very end of class, seconds before the bell rings, so we don’t have a minute to think about it or protest before we get to back to our bunks, where she knows the thinking will begin.
On my bed that night, with Tia singing in her pretty voice below, I pull out the assignment. It says: Write a poem or a letter to your mother for Mother’s Day.
Whew! I hope she’s ready to read some new and interesting vocab words she hadn’t heard before! I can just see her now. Sitting in her sweet little house, far away from here, in a pink, cotton nightgown with tiny yellow flowers on it, babies sound asleep, a glass of white wine on the coffee table, and papers piled on her lap. Leonard sits across the room, comfortable and handsome as all, reading essays written by the rich kids at the private school where he teaches. He doesn’t need the glass of wine because I bet he’s not reading words like whore, violent bitch, deserter, and absent drug queen.
I write a poem to my mother that I hope will soothe Mrs. Burrell’s mind, which I’m guessing will be pretty troubled after some of this reading. I hope it will keep her coming back to our class and from throwing that white wine out for some hard liquor.
My mother’s here
Her beauty reigns in a photograph
that sits atop its tabled throne
Her laughter sails through my empty heart
Her southern voice speaks when I’m alone
My mother’s here
Her blue eyes pierce my longing soul
An old soul now that she’s not mine
Her curved frame makes its rounds each day
Through unclosed doors of my mind
Her presence clear in my every move
My voice, my gestures, zest for life
Her faith moves mountains from my path
Her strength will dry my tears of strife
Angelic one above my bed
Sings reassuring in my sleep
One day I’ll rise and join right in
Her lullaby, her song of peace
But the next week, my dream of Mrs. Burrell oohing and ahhing and appreciating my poem was hacked to pieces like an egg salad gone bad. Her baby girl, Seely, was born early and in comes Nurse Williams, all puckered and prunish, announcing that she will be our substitute teacher for the next six weeks. Just kill me now because if Mrs. Burrell is the bright light in the cavern, Nurse Williams is the rabid bat flying around your head, making you sick and dizzy. I am just sure she knows nothing about English either, but that doesn’t matter because we are not the college-bound-private-school kids whose parents will come in here and demand that we be more challenged. Any mean-as-a snake, discharged-from-the military-on-bad-behavior nurse will do for the orphans, but we’ll be all right, I think, because I am guessing most of us already have a Ph.D. in Life.
Nurse Williams is just the type who would be happy to ignore Mother’s Day and probably thinks Mrs. Burrell and her assignment is sappy. She’ll find out about sappy when she reads some of those vocab words I was talking about. A lot of mouths fall open in shock when she takes up the assignment at the beginning of class, because if we’d known she would be reading it some of us would have left out a few choice words. I don’t want her to read my poem. She doesn’t deserve to know my thoughts about my mother like Mrs. Burrell does. I cry a little inside imagining her looking at it instead of Mrs. Burrell, who would understand it and like it. I hate that she is gone, oh, I sure hate it, and I pray she returns, although I wouldn’t blame her if she didn’t.
The next day Nurse Williams calls me up after class and makes a big speech about plagiarism. She insists that I stole my poem and that she has read it somewhere before. “Yeah,” I feel like saying, “you’re a regular Edna St. Vincent Millay! I bet you read and write poetry all the time.” She gives me a week’s detention in the dungeon and an F on the assignment, which makes me have to go back to the Rudyard Kipling poem in my mattress about keeping your head.
So on this Sunday, the real Mother’s Day, I am hoping and praying to God that Nurse Williams isn’t anyone’s mother. I’d rather be on fire in a scorpion pit than to be the spawn of her, that’s for sure. Dreading the week ahead, I say my prayers and quietly recite that poem to God and to my mother and I feel a little better, because I know they know I wrote it, and I know they can hear me.
Detention here at Haven House is not like something you might read about in one of those parent magazines on how to discipline children, with the time out in the corner for ten minutes. No, they do it up right here. They get their ideas from the Middle Ages and would just as soon do a public hanging in the square for punishment if they didn’t have social workers visit every once in awhile and have to account for the whereabouts of us. And I can promise you the social workers don’t know a thing about their forms of punishment and they are not falling all over themselves to find out either.
Nurse Williams seems as pleased as pie with herself today as she escorts me to the dungeon. I come empty-handed, not allowed to bring a book to read, or my journal to keep me company. I have never been down here before, but I have heard about it from the others and I have a feeling that their stories don’t do it justice. The fluttering in my stomach tells me it’s going to be way worse than I thought.
We come to a heavy door with a tacky curtain with little grandma flowers on it. The curtain hangs on the outside over a little bitty square window where someone can look in but you can’t see out. She opens the door with a tarnished skeleton key and I enter a moldy smelling room, as cold as a well digger’s hind end.
The room is about the size of a food pantry that in the old days I bet would store rows of yummy canned stuff like peaches, and pears, and green beans, and strawberry jam. Now it is all empty except for a holey cot with a raggedy ol’ blanket that looks like a mangy dog slept on it. There is one dim light bulb dangling by a wire in the center of the ceiling. On the floor beside the cot is a musty old Bible with some pages falling out.
The number of days you have to spend in detention is seven, a rule made by Pastor Cagle, something to do with the number of days it took God to create the heavens and the earth. I guess he thinks we can recreate ourselves in here in seven days and come out better people, but it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see that that won’t happen.
Nurse Williams tells me this will be good for me. That it will help me think about the kind of person I want to be when I get out in the real world. That honesty is one of the best virtues a person can have. And before I can fake a smile or kill her with my bare hands like I want to, we lock eyes and I swear I see a little twinkle in hers. I can tell the old bat is getting some kind of sick joy from this, and she knows I can tell.
The door shuts behind her and she is gone. I hear her big hips strain the creaky stairs up, and even though it is freezing, I am sweating like a floozy in church on Easter Sunday.
It’s about 8 a.m., and I have the whole day to get through. I lay down on the cot and feel warm, cruel tears tickle my face. If mad was a bomb my whole body would just explode into a million pieces and blow this place up. And what’s funny is, you would think all of this madness and hatred would be for Nurse Williams, but it’s not. The tears keep flowing, and the hate keeps boiling, and it’s all for Mrs. Burrell and her stinking little pink babies and her stupid handsome husband and her awful Mother’s Day assignment. She should have known this would happen. She could have protected us by taking our work home and looking it over after the baby came. But that’s the problem with a place like this and kids like us. People only really care when they are inside the walls and having to look ugly in its face. Once they step one toe out the door, all they think about is their clean little pink babies and their stupid handsome husbands and their high-minded pride about how they are helping their community. She asked us to open up and tell her how we feel, but she’s no different than most grownups in our lives who reward themselves royally for working with the little orphans in the nice Christian Home. And just like them, she abandons us the minute something better comes along.
I open up the Bible. A yellowed, stained page floats to the floor. I pick it up, hoping to find some words of comfort.
Psalms 79, verses 10 and 11: Wherefore should the heathen say, where is their God? Let him be known among the heathen in our sight by the revenging of the blood of thy servants which is shed. Let the sighing of the prisoner come before thee: according to the greatness of thy power preserve thou those that are appointed to die.
All cried out with my eyes as grainy as the scratchy blanket pulled tight to my chin, I fall asleep wondering just what I have done to make God so mad.
At noon I am joggled awake by the door key turning and in steps Pastor Cagle all geared up for a counseling session and carrying a much nicer-looking Bible than the one in here. He hands me an orange plastic tray with lunch–a hot dog with fries and milk. I would bother to tell him I don’t care for pig intestines all smashed together, shaped into what looks like a man’s privates, and stuck in between what looks like the cheeks of a rear end, but that would come off unappreciative, and I am hungry. I would also bother to tell him I didn’t steal the words to my poem as I’m sure he didn’t take time to check for himself, but then I would get pegged as a liar and a thief and that won’t fix anything. So when he smiles and hands me the tray, I just say thank you.
He sits down on the cot a little closer than is comfortable and asks me if I am ready to talk about the wrong I did. I want to tell him I am not ready and never will be, but as much as Pastor Cagle irritates me, I am happy for company and don’t want him to leave.
“Yes, ready,” I say, trying to think of just what to say.
He says he will start, and he turns to the Ten Commandments, pointing out the one that says, “Thou Shalt Not Steal.” I am truly in shock and cannot believe that’s all he can come up with. I swear sometimes I wonder if Pastor has even read The Bible. He just makes stuff up or goes with what anyone who has ever gone to one Bible school class in kindergarten would know.
Still, I pretend to be interested as he asks me why I felt that I needed to steal someone else’s words, and defile my mother’s memory in the process. With that nap earlier, my blood had gone to simmer but, boy now, it’s right back at 212 degrees. My mother is laying cold in the ground and helpless to do anything for me here, and any mention of her coming from his mouth is a sin in itself. I am this close to screaming, “I didn’t do it you fool!” But it’s no use. Everyone knows Pastor has no spine and is more afraid than anyone to deal with the wrath of Nurse Williams.
So I go along.
“I am not sure,” I stammer. “I guess I thought that poem was prettier than anything I could write.”
“I understand why you may have thought of this assignment as a tribute to your mother,” Pastor says all authoritative. “But no deed committed through the breaking of one of the commandments can be a tribute.”
“Blah Blah Blah,” I am thinking, as I nod my head, looking all sad and regretful, like the good little Christian he needs me to be.
Then he takes my hands, and we bow our heads, and he prays to the Lord to forgive me for my awful sin of stealing, and then he asks me to say the Lord’s Prayer aloud with him. When we are finished, he looks at me and says a funny thing that gives me a slight chill. He says, “Riley, that really was a nice poem.”
Then he takes my tray and his fancy Bible and walks out the door with his head down in shame–right where it ought to be.
By now I am about to use the bathroom something fierce, but I am so taken aback by what Pastor said that I forget to ask. I guess I will have to wait for dinner unless I want to go in the corner, and it will be a long seven days if I start in with that kind of mess. As the room begins to close in around me, and my bladder about to bust, I lay back down on the cot and pray hard, this time for real. With all that’s happened, I feel I have to ask God’s forgiveness for lying about stealing.
God must at least be in the process of forgiving me because dinner hour brings the best surprise ever. The shoddy ol’ curtain opens, and both Tia and Big John’s faces appear in the little window, grinning from ear to ear. I almost cry I’m so happy. They come with a tray of all vegetables and fruit, which Tia knows is my favorite. Big John pulls an apple and a pack of cheese crackers from under his shirt, and Tia hands me a pencil and my journal.
They tell me that Tia has been chosen to take my place in the kitchen for the next week, and they are working together and will bring me dinner every night! I am thinking what fools would allow Tia in the kitchen with her cutting and all, but I am grateful and will pray for her safety.
Tia goes with me to the bathroom just outside the door of the dungeon. We hold our breaths to keep out the reek of cigarettes and what-all-else kinds of smells I can’t name and wouldn’t care to. She tells me to hang on and take it one day at a time. She says everyone knows I didn’t steal that poem and that Nurse Williams will pay. She says John is nice and that he has a beautiful voice and they sing together in the kitchen, and as I wash my hands in the clay-colored water spitting from the nasty bathroom faucet I am thinking it sure is great to see Tia happy.
I wake from a dream. I am five years old and in bed with Mama when I open my eyes in the pitch black. A bright green praying mantis is perched on the pillow right at my face and staring me down with his shiny, marble-sized eyes. I scream bloody murder. Mama shakes me awake, offering comforting words. She throws her tired arm around me and tells me to say my prayers until I fall asleep. “Now I lay me down to sleep,” I begin. Over and over and over.
I count the cracks in the ceiling. A brown moth bangs his fuzzy head into the dangling light bulb that I’m too afraid to turn off. I sense something out of the corner of my eye near the curtain at the door. I dread to look but force myself as tiny hairs on the back of my neck warn me something is not right. I hope and pray it is Tia or John or even Pastor or hateful Nurse Williams. I sit up and strain to make out the face of the looming shadow peering through the ugly curtain, and I see that it is Lee, Pastor’s creepy brother.
The days in detention come and go. Nurse Williams drops off tasteless, stale toast each morning without so much as a smidgen of butter or jelly or a “hey-how-ya-doin.” Pastor Cagle brings a meaty lunch and a Bible-thumping counseling session every day at noon. John and Tia come at night and offer dinner and a few minutes of sanity. Then, just like clockwork, a 10 p.m. appointment I didn’t make or agree to. The disturbing, sick face in the window reminds me that as long as I am here I may never be free from violation. Lee just stares as long as he wants and then leaves.
Love in Storage
Five weeks later Mrs. Burrell returns to class, and I’ve moved on from detention. She is as sweet and pretty as ever, and does not say one word about our Mother’s Day poems, and as much as I know I shouldn’t be, I am surprised by this. She just waltzes in here in her little blue plaid skirt and starched white top and her hair pulled back from her face just so, and she acts like nothing happened. Does she not know that we all sacrificed ourselves like lambs, laying our feelings out on paper only to be shot down like criminals in a firing squad by the likes of Nurse NoGood? Well, I guess not. Either way, I know I have to get over it and move on, so I do.
“Life’s not fair, Riley Viley,” I can hear my mother say. Oh pretty Mama, it sure is not.
Mrs. Burrell must’ve had some time to think about things on maternity leave because she moves us all around the room into partners of two of the same sex and throws a new assignment on us on the very first day. And to make my life just a little more colorful, she tells us we’ll have to write the assignment with our partner. Well, hunky-dory, I am thinking, because my partner is Eliza. I’m guessing Mrs. Burrell must hate me now. Maybe she heard about my thievery and detention and decided that I deserved a little more punishment, because Eliza and me as partners will bring about as much success as the staff here has in finding those “loving and permanent homes” that they talk about. They get a big fat F on that just like the big fat F I got on my poem. I’ll never get out of this place if I can’t pass my English, and that F was sure not the grade I had in mind for myself. I am in a real pickle here and I am going to have to find a way out of the pickle jar.
I glance over at Eliza. She is dressed in jeans and over top of them she has pulled on what looks like some kind of ballerina tutu with pink mesh, and a baggy button-up god-awful shirt tied at her waist, which is bulging a little and doesn’t look right with the rest of her skinny body. Her hair is a hot mess and pieces of it are entwined and matted, like she’s all geared up for some Bohemian festival. She is mumbling to herself and biting her nails to the bloody quick. Just dreamy, I am thinking.
Mrs. Burrell passes out the assignment. She’s a regular Sigmund Freud piece of work because here’s what it says:
Boys: Work with your partner to write a 500-word paper on your idea of what a mother’s love should be.
Girls: Work with your partner to write a 500-word paper on your idea of what a father’s love should be.
What in the world?!!? This is either advanced therapy way beyond my lowly comprehension or some kind of cruel, sick humor, but either way I don’t get it. I look over to see if Eliza has read it yet. Her eyes are cast down and it seems it takes her forever to comprehend the words on the page. She pauses on the nail chewing and looks hazily in my direction but not at me. I am waiting for eye contact and hoping for a normal exchange. Maybe an idea or a plan for how to begin. But the school bell clangs, class is over, and we all begin to file out. I follow her, tapping her lightly on her shoulder, braced for one of her embarrassing schizo outbursts, and ask if we can meet to talk about the assignment before the next class. She turns around fast and stops dead in her tracks. She leans in close to my ear and I smell a strange mix of sour and sweet, that smell you smell on someone who takes a shower but doesn’t dry themselves completely. The rest of the class pretends not to notice her and slithers around us like sneaky little rats.
Eliza cups her picked, bloody hands to her mouth and whispers, “Love in storage.”
“What?” I say, completely confused.
“Love in storage,” she repeats, and turns as quick as a scared rabbit with those wild eyes darting all over the place, and she leaves.
I glance back and see Mrs. Burrell looking on, concerned. I give her my best “thanks a lot” glare, and I turn and walk out.
I try to make sense of Eliza’s words and what she could have meant. “Love in storage?” I wonder if she knows about Lee’s Peeping Tom moves when I was in detention in the storage room. Is she making fun of me? She has spent a lot of time in detention herself. Maybe she is trying to tell me something about what happened to her there? Or maybe she’s just a rambling loony who has no control of the mess that comes out of her mouth. Her mouth is like a dump truck with a million random pieces of stuff nobody wants falling out all over itself. The problem is I can’t tell if there’s some treasure in all that trash that I should pay attention to. Either way, working on an assignment with this girl is already feeling like the longest march to a bad grade and a life sentence to the place I dream about leaving every single day.
Off to P.E. now, where we get to play dodgeball today. I love dodgeball, and, in my irritated state, I can think of a few people I would like to knock off their rockers with that ball right now.
P.E. is one of my favorite classes, in spite of Miss Kateritz. It is something I am good at and I know that if I was in a regular public school where the normal kids go, I would be a starter on some kind of sports team. I would have those parents who move into certain school systems just so their kids can play on the best teams in the area. I would be that kid. The one the others envy, whose family makes sure the athletic scholarship happens. Instead of a useless, pitiful film of me trying to sell myself to an adoptive family, I would be filmed performing on the field or court, so college scouts could fight over me. I would have offers from several colleges, and my only stress would be deciding which one to attend. Duke? Tennessee? Wake Forest? Georgia? A tough decision, but I could handle it!
I just imagine myself all muscled up in a snazzy new uniform with my favorite Number 14 on it. Over the intercom, the announcer calls out my name from the list of a squad of other great players. My team is lined up on both sides, waiting for me to run through, the last and most important one called.
“AND NUMBER 14, SENIOR CAPTAIN, RILEY THOMPSON!” the announcer yells to the standing crowd.
I sprint like a sleek cheetah onto the court as they scream my name and cheer me on. I am the best at something and they all know it.
I am snapped awake from my daydream by scuffling sounds from the boy’s locker room. Big John stumbles out the door in that tight awful uniform, as if he has been pushed. I pretend I don’t see because I don’t want to embarrass him. I enter the girl’s locker room right quick, where Tia is getting undressed. She says she feels sorry for me having to partner with Eliza.
“What is Mrs. Burrell thinking with that assignment? She is trying to drive us all crazy!” Tia says, and I am imagining that I might be crazy, too, having to write a paper on the love between a daughter and her father if I was Tia. Talk about being violated twice. First, by the parents that beat her to a pulp and then by Mrs. Burrell for making her have to think about it all over again. I would love to see what Tia writes on her paper. I hope it causes Mrs. Burrell some nauseating and dark moments to ponder on. I hope she is embarrassed when she realizes what she has done, and that whatever Tia says causes her to reach for the hard stuff.
I look at Tia’s beautiful eyes and smooth speckled skin and thank God her stint in the kitchen is finished. I have noticed the scars on her arms are healing, and I don’t want that to change. Still though, with all that she has been through, she is smiling. She is beautiful and happier than I have ever seen her.
I tell Tia what Eliza whispered to me about love in storage, and I ask her what she thinks it means.
“It means you might have to do the assignment yourself!” she says, laughing and throwing her pretty head back. She tugs at the big silver zipper on her uniform until finally it gives and goes up. “That poor girl is as nutty as a fruitcake!”
Then, off we go, decked in tight stripes, ready for a game of dodgeball.
It doesn’t take me long to figure out why Big John is upset. Benny the Bully follows him onto the gym floor flicking him on the back of the neck. Big John just keeps walking, his round cheeks on fire with humiliation. A posse of hoodlums follows Benny, laughing as he keeps flick, flick, flicking, calling Big John “Fat Lady.”
“Why don’t you sing for us, Fat Lady?!” Benny teases.
I notice a red welt working its way to the surface on Big John’s neck. Miss Kateritz looks over and sees, but she does nothing. The boys pick teams and it is a perfect picture of every school gym in the world with teams. The weak on one side and the strong on the other. Big John is the very last one chosen, and is standing with his broad shoulders slumped, looking like a prisoner in that getup, and on the weak team, of course.
They divide into two lines, ready to attack each other with the ball. Gordon, a fleshy redhead with glasses, gets the ball first and lunges forward with an uncoordinated throw toward the hoodlum team. It barely reaches the other side when one of their boys grabs it and slams it into Big John’s face. The ball rebounds off Big John and they keep throwing it back, thrashing him over and over. He doesn’t have a chance to protect himself as Benny yells, “Get the ball, Fat Lady!” “Sing for us, Fat Lady!” Tia and I are horrified but know that trying to help will only make it worse. At least it is over quick because it takes about two minutes for the hoodlums to get all the weak players out. Poor Big John is a mess with a bloody lip and red swell marks all over his body that are already beginning to turn black and blue. He walks quietly off the gym floor and sits down without as much as a word. I am so mad I could cry. I know life is not fair, but for some it seems like it’s just one long nightmare after another.
The boys sit while the girls play a much more civilized game. The earlier shenanigans have taken a little spice out of our competitive spirits, and hurting anyone is not on our minds now. Besides, there seems to be enough hurt in Big John’s eyes to go around the room twice.
Tia and I are on the same team. We dominate but are not enjoying ourselves like usual. Miss Kateritz watches, like the chaos before hadn’t even happened. She urges us to be more aggressive, like fighting roosters.
As we walk off the court, toward the locker rooms, Benny files in behind Tia, cups his hand right on her backside, and says, “Why don’t you give me some of that mulatto stuff, bitch!”
I have never seen anyone move so silent and fast. In an instant Big John has Benny’s head pinned to the ground with his enormous knee. Like a sumo wrestler, he is a real sight, oozing all out of that uniform, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
Little wiry Benny doesn’t know what hit him and has to be fearing for his life. The veins in his neck are bulging something fierce and his freckled mean face is turning blue. Big John holds him there without saying a word until, finally, to our relief, Benny breaks the silence, crying all high-pitched like a little girl and begging to be released. I can see disappointment in the eyes of his posse who stands around and laughs uncomfortably at his predicament. Big John just stares down at him with a little added pressure on his head and quietly says, “Don’t you ever touch her again.” Benny tries to look tough and think of something clever to say but decides against it. John lets him up and he staggers off, holding his head between his hands and realizing he has finally picked the wrong person to play tiddlywinks with.
Big John and Tia look at one another and all the sound seems to be sucked out of the room.
Now I understand why Tia has been so cheery lately. It seems I had nothing to fear for her in working in that kitchen with all those sharp knives. While I was in detention, she was very well protected.