"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.