Bellwether Vance

Hounds to the Left of me/Jokers to the Right

Bellwether Vance

Bellwether Vance
December 31
You'd like me. People like me.


Editor’s Pick
APRIL 29, 2010 9:11AM

Sick Day

Rate: 53 Flag

"Mom, I don’t feel good," I said. I let my jaw and shoulders go slack so that I looked dehydrated and weary. I was slightly asthmatic and could always work up an alarming tubercular cough. I did a few of those. My mother respected illness. If life is a perversely treasured affliction, then illness must be its double agent, working from the inside and out. Ignoring a symptom, even for a day, would be foolish.

"You can’t be sick!"she wailed. "I’ve got parent conferences, and Dottie is out of town!" Dottie was my usual sitter, a stern, quiet woman who would let me lie on her couch all day reading, while she watched her stories and crocheted the same afghan over and over.

Here is where a loving daughter would have made a miraculous recovery, wiped imaginary snot from her nose, declared herself "feeling better" and ready for school. Not me. Third grade was hard. I needed the day off. As I selected books, my mother made phone calls.

"I found a sitter," she said, looking more worried than relieved. Her worry increased as we drove through a neighborhood of beaten-down houses and chain link fences protecting squares of baked dirt. My mother kept a county map in her head, neatly labeled – areas where the mothers had social workers and areas where the mothers had divorce attorneys, with neither being desirable. This area was too close to the former for her liking.

She knocked on the door of a sad-gray house while we fought to keep our balance on steps made of loosely stacked concrete blocks. The door was opened by a dusky-skinned woman with wild hair gathered into a high spout on her head. Her body was an apple on legs, lumpy but very round, all of it draped in a housedress printed with garish green and turquoise flowers. "There you are! I’m Mrs. Gerard," she said. Her accent hinted at spaghetti and meatballs that weren’t from a can. "I was afraid you wouldn’t find me. I said a ‘blue house.’ I forget it’s gray now." With her fist, she rang the aluminum siding like a bell, and smiled without a bit of shame. "Come...come," she said, reaching out haul me in. "My daughter Gina is home sick too. She’s twelve so they can keep each other company. The three little ones I watch, they wouldn’t be much fun for an eight-year-old."

"I hope she – Gina – isn’t too sick. Is it contagious?" my mother asked, keeping her hand firmly on my shoulder.

"Oh no! Honestly, I think she just wanted a sick day." Mrs. Gerard chuckled indulgently.

My mother gave a teacher frown. The one that appears concerned rather than disapproving, and is actually both. I could see her mind backing up, turning around, a turnaround that would land me in class. I coughed wetly, convincingly.

"Poor child!" Mrs. Gerard said. "She’ll catch her death out here." It was eighty-five degrees or thereabouts, but the malice of outdoor temperature was something my mother believed in, and she let Mrs. Gerard draw me inside. After the door closed, I could feel her standing on the wobbly steps, drawing deep breaths to calm her nerves.

Mrs. Gerard led me into a large, open room that housed a kitchen, dining table, two mismatched sofas strewn with three dozing toddlers, and a TV tuned to Sesame Street. A younger dusky-skinned woman sat at the table in front of a coffee cup and an ashtray. She held a baby in her lap and a cigarette between her lips. Very casually, she reached down to unbutton her blouse, pulled out a boob with the biggest nipple I’d ever seen (admittedly I hadn’t seen many), and popped it into the baby’s mouth. I could have watched that baby suck on that boob all day, but the quiet in the room told me I’d stared long enough already.

"I’ve got books..." I said.

"Why don’t you go see Gina in the backyard?" She pushed me toward a sliding glass door that opened onto a hot pad of concrete. I saw Gina through the glass -- a bronzed, wavy-haired goddess, wearing pale blue track shorts with navy blue piping, and a tank top. Her feet were bare. I was wearing a homemade dress of royal blue calico dotted with tiny apples and daisies, and Buster Brown sandals. We had a lot in common. We both liked blue.

I stepped outside. "Your mom said to come out here," I told Gina. "I’m Bell."

She looked me over, noting, I’m sure, my baby dress and baby shoes. She reached down into a patch of weeds and picked up a set of clackers – two hard marbles connected with a string. You held the string by a loop at the center and bounced your hand up and down so that they clacked together. Everyone had a pair. Except me. My mother said they were dangerous. Tales of marble shards in eyes, broken teeth, choking deaths from either the marbles or the string, until I didn’t even want them anymore.

"They banned these, you know, after a kid set himself on fire. He got them clacking so hard they started sparking. I’ve made them spark a couple of times," she bragged. My mother hadn’t mentioned the toy’s fire-starting ability. Gina clacked, faster and faster. I stood back, not wanting to be set ablaze.

The violent clacking stopped. "Do you want to see my cat?" she asked. She led me back into the house, past the boneless toddlers staring at the TV, past Mrs. Gerard and the mother with the boob (now tucked away), down a hallway and into her bedroom. It was bright yellow, crowded with brown furniture, worldly treasures everywhere, including a Spanish dancer lamp that I instantly, deeply, desired.

On the bed, almost hidden by the floral print of the bedspread, was a huge gold cat with golder eyes, tons of fluffy hair and a face as flat as the palm of my hand. "You have a cat in the house?" I asked, breathless with wonder.

"He’s a Persian. His name is King." She dusted him with a powder that smelled like perfume and poison, and brought out a brush made of tiny needles. She brushed him for a while, and then let me brush him. "When my dad gets back from Korea," she said, "he’s going to get me a dog, a German Shepherd that will attack people that are mean to me." I thought, Who would dare be mean to Gina?

We played a Miss America board game with complicated rules that always landed me Runner Up. I didn’t mind. For lunch we had tuna salad sandwiches that were sloppy with mayonnaise, without the celery, pickles or boiled eggs like my mother’s tuna salad. I didn’t mind that either. After lunch, Mrs. Gerard gave the toddlers a spoonful of red medicine from a big bottle. When she came to me with the spoon, I almost said, "I’m not sick." I couldn’t say that, so I opened up.

"You can take your nap in Gina’s room," she said.

"I don’t take naps," I said. I looked for Gina, hoping for more board games or flaming toys. She was outside on the patio, talking on the phone. The cord from the avocado-green wall phone stretched tight and flat, and snaked out the door. I was, suddenly, feeling cozy and deliciously drowsy. Mrs. Gerard tucked me into Gina’s bed, next to King, without taking off my sandals. Before I could unbuckle them myself, I was asleep.

When my mother came to get me, I tripped happily to the car and waved to Mrs. Gerard as she stood in the doorway.

Of course, the next morning I was sick again. I wanted more Mrs. Gerard, more boob-sucking baby, more clackers, more Gina, more cat, more red medicine. This time I would look at the bottle so I could talk my mother into buying some.

I dressed carefully for the day. I didn’t have any track shorts, but I had a pair of overall shorts and I could make them shorter if I rolled them up a little. I had to wear the sandals, but I would take them off right away and go barefoot, like Gina.

I was planning the day, thinking of stories I could tell Gina, questions to ask her – Did she prefer lemon meringue pie or chocolate cream? Had she ever ridden a horse? Who was her favorite March sister? – when my mother stopped in front of a familiar white house with neat black shutters. Dottie’s house.

"I thought Dottie was gone," I said.

"She got back last night."

So it was the two of us, like old times. Dottie watched her soaps and crocheted granny squares out of scratchy rainbow yarn. I dully read the last Laura Ingalls Wilder book. Really tired, by now, of Laura. All grown up she was boring. I coughed a few times, and rubbed my throat. "Do you have any medicine, Dottie? It’s sweet and red and it really makes my throat feel better."

She didn’t look away from her TV. "You’re not sick," she said.

A few years later, I was in the car with my mother when we drove past Gina’s house. It looked the same – sun-bleached gray, hazardous steps – except now there was a beautiful German Shepherd in the yard. "That’s Mrs. Gerard’s house!" I told my mother, excitedly. "Remember? I was sick that time and she watched me."

My mother glanced out the window and laughed, "That’s ridiculous, Bell. I would never have left you there!"

I started to correct her, and didn’t. Because she’s right, she would never have left me there.

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
Ms. Vance--Illness as double-agent is just brilliant.
There are so many things I loved about this that I could write a comment as long as the post. We had the same mother, also a teacher. I was also not allowed to have a clacker because they were dangerous. I also got bored with grown-up Laura. I would also have been fascinated by Gina (I am now), and that rich, interesting household with cats and exposed breasts and a thrilling kind of chaos. Oh, and this was also written exquisitely, and sprinkled with humor like raisins in a good scone. I am a totally satisfied reader.
Like Anne Nichols said: there is just so much to love about this piece. The last line was too perfect for words. No meatballs and spaghetti out of a can for Mrs. Gerard. The detail and the recall is so vivid and fun and just ..... such a great trip. I wonder what Gina is up to?

You are a magician, you know. Yes you are.

You easily conjured up images of the house, of Mrs. Gerard and Gina, and every exquisitely painted detail.

I used to call those days "mental health days". I think we all need them at times.

I think your writing is Mrs. Gerard's house; I always leave wanting more.
Your descriptive writing talent touches on all the senses. This was amazing. I wish I could take the rest of the day off just to roll around in this post.
i want all the stories you have!
every engaging vignette.
they ring so true, so interestingly compelling.
Bell, this was great. I could almost picture you there, taking a swig of cough medicine. Excellent writing!
Long one. I'm using the library's computer and have to get off it now, but I'll be baaaaack. rated meanwhile
Jonathan -- Well, it is true, if you think about it. I try not to!

Ann -- My mother is actually quite a bit of fun. She has changed over the years. We both have! Clackers are dangerous and grown-up Laura is booooorrring!

Lulu -- I credit my life-long affinity for NyQuil to Mrs. Gerard. Let's raise a plastic dosing cap to the lady!

Fernsy -- I don't know what happened to Gina. She was beyond me in every way. I never did get a pair of cool track shorts. Which is probably a good thing. They wouldn't have looked like that on me.

Bill -- Thanks! Mental health days are best when you aren't actually mental.

Nextplease -- Well, I hope you don't feel drugged....unless that's what you wanted to feel! :)

Cartouche -- A "sick" day, all around. I'm glad you liked it.

dianaani -- There were a lot of details I left out, simply because the piece was long enough (too long) already. Like there were cloth baby diapers soaking in the toilet. Which makes sense, but was totally weird to me.

Scanner -- That was wicked medicine. Thanks for reading!

Matt -- Yes, it's long, and I actually cut it down some. I don't normally like to put up pieces that are longer than two pages. I hope you didn't get dirty looks for hogging the library computer!
Amazing day for you....I had a few like that ....ones I still carry in my soul......I loved every single word you wrote.It was one of the best pieces i've read on OS and you are a brilliant luminous writer .
i could go on and on about the incredible descriptions, the ease with which you describe this girl's feelings that make me wonder if you and i are the same person (and on and on), but i'll stop and just say this is a home run, bases loaded. damn.
look!!! while i was pondering which words to use in my comment, judy saw it et voila -- EP! congrats.
Your ability to tell a story is just jaw dropping, and this one was especially charming and hit close to home. I had such an experience just this morning. A five year old little boy who feigned illness only to come to life after the first school bell must have sounded. He's not as lucky as you. I've insisted that he remain in bed all day long. Afterall, if he stays home, then I can't have any fun. Great story as always.
I give this two thumbs up as well..
This was a lovely little look inside your young life, and fun. I got scared when you took the medicine. Rated.
You weave a vulnerable childhood tale that many of us can identify with --and the fact that memories tend to erase them makes it all the more important to tell them -- the way they really were. Great work, Bell.
Bell, Excellent story. You have great descriptive flair.
"Her accent hinted at spaghetti and meatballs that weren’t from a can." Yes, the best kind ...
Hey I wasn't allowed to have clackers either.
Re-read it . Damn, Bell, you are such a talented and charming writer. I hope you realize how much joy you bring to others.
Mama Mia! This is one speecy spicy meatballa of a story! I shan't try to reinvent the wheels already posted here by the other commenters who beat me to it, other than to...nah, as Ann says, I get started and my deliriously enthusiastic comment would be longer than your post. I'm feeling verklempt. I must now go talk amongst myself. rated with heel-clicking joy
Earlier today I decided I needed to cut back on the number of rates I dispense. I estimated that I was reading 20 posts per day and clicking my approval on at least five of them.

And right now I'm thinking, if I were to use this piece as a measuring stick, I may not rate again for months.

God, I so loved this.
You had a chance to walk on the wild side for a day and loved it! Everyone needs to get out of their routine.
Story was so descriptive I was able to imagine every image. Beautifully written.
....and if you ever get a gallon of "that red stuff," please send me a quart!
I love are such a good writer! And the wisdom...illness as a double agent...indeed...growing up, we weren't sick either...then as adults we went through a phase of thinking our illnesses were ignored and dismissed! The affrontery! Only to discover we had a little cough, a little sore throat, and we had parents who lost parents to
whoops...that went on its own!

My parents had parents and siblings who died from TB, so in their view, we weren't sick. I'm glad not to be sick. One less thing. xox
Diary -- I hope you'll write about your "amazing days" and share them with us.

Femme -- I'd bet a lot of us gals who grew up a little sheltered caught glimpses of a different life, found it exotic, and remembered it always.

Fay -- That's the way it should be done!

Noah -- It's nice to meet you. I'm glad your thumbs like it.

Sheila -- I didn't want that to be ominous, so I moved along quickly after that!

Deborah -- Thank you for reading!

Lea -- It's odd that when we are the most vulnerable (as children) we don't feel vulnerable, or at least I never did. Maybe that means I had a good childhood. It's hard to imagine one where a child did feel exactly as vulnerable as she was.

Jane -- Oh yes, Jo, all the way!

Scarlett -- If we had been allowed to have clackers, we might have given ourselves brain damage, and then we wouldn't be here today. Thanks Moms!

Fernsy -- It's you who are the joy and charm and spirit. I hope I achieve half of yours, one day.

Matt -- I wish she had served spaghetti that day, because then it would make sense why I think of her when I make spaghetti.

Aunt Mable -- My son inherited it. But I was wise to it. Poor guy.

Angus -- What a lovely thing to say! It is nice to see a new face, and I'm glad you liked it.

Steve -- That's it! A walk on the wild side. The closest thing I've had to that red medicine is one of those coedine-based cough syrups. We had a bottle a few years back and we were very stingy with it -- making it last. Alas, it is gone.
I could spend the day lazily letting your descriptions carry me from one location to another. Your story is like a sip of a fine, aged pinot noir: so many separate flavors dancing on the palatte, yet blending together for a wholly satisfying taste.
You bring back your memories of childhood so vividly I was there with you all the way through. What a wonderful one this was--the details are, as Ann commented, exquisite. (sometimes I still have an asthma attack when I'm in a boring corporate meeting...)
I can feel the corners of my mouth barely perceptibly lifted and there's a bright little glow in my heart. Sometimes my truest response is a soft, happy sigh.

Bellwether, this was absolutely fantastic! I liked everything about it, especially your fasincation with Gina, and the deadpan "We had a lot in common. We both liked blue." Thanks for sharing your storytelling gift.
Oh, this was good. Really good. Well-deserved EP too.
What a great story. Brings back memories. My mother wasn't a teacher. She was a nurse. A harder game but once in a while we played.
What a vivid inspired story.
I could read you all day long. I do believe this one was my favorite._r
Unforgettable when a small world bursts open. You make a cat in the house, clacker toys, casual breastfeeding and red soporific liquid feel epic.
Stim -- I felt dosed with wine that day, lovely red syrupy wine!

Sophieh -- Well, that would be a way to get out of the boring corporate meeting. An 8-year-old would do that. Not to put any ideas into your head.

Consonantsandvowels -- I'm happy for even a little corner lift. I loved your Coral Sea piece today.

Linda -- I like the word "storyteller" because I think of myself as more of a storyteller than a writer. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Cranky -- Thank you for stopping by and reading. The EP doesn't mean nearly as much to me as reading comments from people who liked reading it.

Anna1liese -- Ohh wee, a nurse would be hard!

Maeganc -- Thank you Maegan. The memory of this day is very vivid, for some reason. Don't you wish you could pick which memories are vivid and which ones fade off?

Joan -- Hey there Joan! Thanks for stopping by! I'm never entirely happy until I see a comment from you.

Laura -- Well, it WAS a cat in the house! I'd never seen such a thing, plus the boob. How could I forget a day like that? Thanks for your sweet comment.
I wish this was a chapter in your memoir. I would love to read the whole thing.
Oh such a wonderful story.
"If life is a perversely treasured affliction, then illness must be its double agent"
Such a beautifully woven story. Thank you! r
Your imagery is simply beautiful; fine choice of words. Enjoyed this read so much. Rated.
I so enjoyed reading this. So much about is just too delightful. Marked for reading again and *rated*
I remember the first time I had seen a baby breastfeeding. We had to wait for our school bus on the main road and next to our bus stop was a laborer (this is in India) and she took her breast out from her sari blouse, popped the nipple in the baby's mouth and covered the baby's head with her sari. She looked up to see 6 kids in school pinafores with their mouths wide open in shock.
I just sink into your stories Bell - like a cozy favorite sweater.
This gave me a chill. I felt the danger was going to come from Gina. How could I anticipated the red bottle? Good writing. Good!
Jenn -- Such a compliment! Thank you for coming on over from The Women's Colony and offering support.

Trilogy -- She's a bit of a germaphobe. It's a wonder we get along as well as we do!

Trixie -- Thank you so much for reading. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Thoth -- I'm happy you stopped by my little blog and like what you read.

Fusun -- It's good to have you back. Thank you!

Delhi -- It was shocking. I always remembered it, and my fascination with that memory is probably why I breastfed my own children.

Sparking -- Aww, thanks, Spark. (It's good to have you back too.)

Mumbletypeg -- Thanks! It's always swell to see you. I hope you've dug out from all that snow. I was thinking of you this morning as we are getting news about the oil spill and how it might reach our Florida beaches. Apocalypse!! You were right!

Scupper -- You know, I suppose it was dangerous, and of course completely irresponsible, and if a sitter had done that to my children, I'd be filing charges. But -- oddly, this experience was such a remarkable happy one for me. Maybe that comes from never having been victimized or abused as a child. Someone with different experiences might have remembered it very differently.
I loved this. I went to school with a fever, a cough, an ear ache. If I admitted to being sick, I had to spend the day in my bed in the dark -- no books allowed because my mother thought light and fevers didn't mix. I'm sure I exposed the whole class to every rotten disease out there -- but then, I figured that's how I caught them. I didn't know other families treated disease differently. Now, I'm jealous!
I really liked this too. :) I remember the clackers and that very same rumor. Love how you wove that in.
Lois -- My mother took me to the doctor for every sniffle. I'm so full of penicillin I'd bet I couldn't catch syphillis if I tried.

Sweetfeet -- When I was writing this I did look up the clackers and never found reference to the "sparking - set afire" rumor. But I distinctly remember hearing it at the time!
Clackers. So fun, so useless. This is just fun and lovely. Good job.
Coming to the table late again...this was SO engaging & enchanting. I loved her "ringing the aluminum siding like a bell." You, Bell, are pure gold! (r)
I've been anxiously waiting for a new Bellwether story, like a sullen teenage girl awaiting the next Twilight book. You have a gift for storytelling and putting the reader right in your Buster Brown shoes and homemade dresses. (my dresses were homemade, too, how did our moms do this?)
Nolalibrarian -- They came back in a modified form (far safer/less fun) when my children were small. My children never saw the lure -- well, of course they didn't! You couldn't harm yourself or anyone else with them!

Dirndl -- Thank you! I've loved reading about your Mildred Pierce experience. I just don't think they know what kind of talent they are moving about like a piece of furniture.

Lucy -- My mom made my dresses and a lot of my clothes until I hit middle school. Yep. I was really popular! ;) When my daughter was small I did go through a sewing/smocking phase where I had my own pleater and made dresses for her out of batiste and French heirloom lace. I think I was on crack/lactating hormones. I'm glad you liked the piece!

Well, who wouldn't?:

"Of course, the next morning I was sick again. I wanted more Mrs. Gerard, more boob-sucking baby, more clackers, more Gina, more cat, more red medicine. This time I would look at the bottle so I could talk my mother into buying some."
You pulled me into you life once again. What an amazing story telling. r.
2mchwrk -- It still feels a little long, and I cut brutally (I promise!). But thanks for the compliment. I like to think I'm getting better at editing.

Caroline -- Well, you can you EVER have too much boob-sucking baby? I think not!

Hugs, me -- Thanks for visiting and reading. I'm so glad you liked the story!
No pressure, of course, but I am anxiously awaiting your next piece.
No pressure, of course, but I am anxiously awaiting your next piece.
Life is conspiring this week, Fernsy. I anxiously await YOUR next piece!
Excellent writing, great and familiar (to me) story. I missed a LOT of school. I forget my trick but it always worked. r
Fantastic. It filled me with nostalgia.
Wendy -- I guessed you were a handful as a child! I tried the whole "sick" thing on my husband, but it doesn't work as well when you're an adult.

Gigabiting -- I'm nostalgic, too, for the days when all you needed for a sick day was a pitiful expression and a minor cough. I've been at work with a raging fever, explosive diarrhea, a home-set broken finger, and a gushing period (with kidney-punching backache)...all at the same time. I guess I'm paying for those childhood sick days.
Bell, your comments are as illuminating as your writing. I'll raise you, one pleater and a breast pump. (mine fits a Husqvarna, the pleater for goodness sake). Cracky lactating hormones for sure! Lovely, lovely, lovely as always.
Gabby! It's great to see you out and about again. I was about to say -- You have a breast pump that attaches to your Husqvarna??? Wouldn't that be something? (I'll race you for the patent...)