Authors: Jane McCafferty
In memory of Casey Hyde
and for my mother and father
Thank you to the following people, who in various ways helped this to become a book:
Nicole Aragi, Marjorie Braman, Jeffery McGraw, Shelley Perron, John Edgar Wideman, Sharon Dilworth, Diane Goodman, Sherry Wellman, Kristin Kovacic, Jane Bernstein, Kathy George, Evelyn Pierce, Jill Weaver, Bruce Burris, Jim Daniels, and Jackie Litt.
Thank you also to my family: my parents, my brothers, Aunt Shirley and Uncle Butch and all Ackermans, Bjorks, and Lowes, Joshua, Jordan, Rosemary, and Annajane.
Most especially, and always, thanks to Dan.
BEEN COOK AT
IMBER OUTSIDE OF
here in New York State for almost twenty years, and the rest of the year I cook for the Timber winter school. I live on the premises in a small blue house on top of a hill that's covered with a carpet of dark maple leaves every autumn.
The winter school's a red brick building set down in the valley with spruce and ash circling all around it, and the camp's up on the other hill, all spread out on the flat land. They got cabins and what you call lean-tos for sleeping, and in the middle an outhouse someone painted purple. The children are sent up here just as soon as they spell
. They're wealthy children, but brokenhearted. You can see that initially.
My sister, Gladys, cooked with me the last ten years or so. She's forty-eight now. Let's face it; she's a rather heavy woman, like me, so the children get their laughs. For children “fat” is the joke they hear over and over and still it's funny. Gladys thinks the children are mean-spirited (a few are) and can't understand it's like we're the fat ladies in the circus, no harm intended. But then again I been fat since birth. Gladys only blew up after she had troubles.
And neither me or Gladys are huge and unsightly. We're just big, full-figured, nice-looking quality women. We have always attracted the men. We couldn't really work in the circus. No possible way would the circus hire us.
In the summertime the children are more scared to death of Gladys than the winter boarder kids are. Winter kids get used to her ways. In the summer when they file into the eating hall behind their counselors, Gladys stands near the wall in her white uniform, watching them with her big green eyes and her wire-rim reading glasses low on her nose and her hair sweaty and dark from the kitchen. Stands stone still like a fat lady statue. If a bold one ever waves to her, maybe she nods her head, maybe she don't.
But this past spring everything changed up here. It happened there was a counselor come up here, a young girl of seventeen called Raelene. Raelene was a pretty little thing even with her crooked teeth, but she was all alone in that camp, since the counselors are mostly kids who used to be campers here, rich cliquey kids from the Ivy Leagues. There's a lot of ideas some of these people learn to carry, the main one being they're better than others. You can see the nicer ones trying not to think this way; it's not even their fault really. It's been ground in, and they're limited by what they've seen.
Now Raelene, take a quick look at that girl and you'd know she was from elsewhere, other circumstances, like you could imagine her in a wintry town where the industry died and the windows of the stores are boarded up. You could see Raelene with her long hair and pale face walking through the closed-up town on a bitter evening in her Salvation Army black coat with a fur collar smelling like a dead woman's perfume. And no gloves. Her hands bare and chapped with bit-down polished nails. She would be the sort to just stand in the circle of streetlight and tap her foot. Or maybe that's just in my head she does that.
Not that I'd even let her in my head much if Gladys hadn't known her. I make my little friends up here at camp and school, but I'm drawn to the cheerful. Life is short and I'm not here for the gloom. I been a good sister to Gladys, and that's enough gloom for any one soul, and I don't say that to blame her, and it's not like we haven't had some laughs even in the darkest of dark years. But Gladys had a hard life. I say
not because she's dead. I say
because I think it's changed now.
The reason Raelene even ended up at camp in the first place has to do with about seven or so years ago, back when the war was going on in Vietnam, and Gladys's boy, Wendell, bless his soul, was over there captured. Raelene, who back then lived in Philadelphia, ended up wearing one of them bracelets they gave out to the young people. A prisoner of war bracelet, which Gladys didn't like the idea of. A few winter school kids wore those bracelets, and Gladys could see the names didn't mean much. The kids couldn't know what any of it meant, no matter how many times they sung “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” She didn't like thinking her son's name, Wendell J. Pittman, would be on some ignorant child's wrist, some child who wore the name like a piece of jewelry from a gum machine.
And sure enough there was a child out there in the world wearing Wendell J. Pittman on her wrist, and this child was Raelene Francis. One day in November, I believe 1969, Gladys got a letter in the mail.
It was a child writing to her saying she was praying for Wendell to come home every day and every night, and lighting candles in two churches every morning. The bracelet company had sent his picture, the one where he's almost smiling in his army uniform that Gladys kept by her bed, and the child said she thought Wendell looked cute. Then the child goes on to tell Gladys that she had no parents, that she was a real live orphan down there in Philadelphia, and if Gladys wanted she would come and be her little girl.
Gladys read that letter out loud to me at the supper table late that night. I can see it clearly. We're having wedding soup. Gladys has her Jack Daniel's in a short glass. She's wearing her old cat-eyed drugstore glasses with the thick lenses so her eyes are magnified. Outside it was snowing. It was snowing for days, and our little blue house on the white frozen hill looked lonelier to me when I walked back toward it after cooking down at the winter school all day. In this weather Gladys tended to be worse off than when the sun was out, with Wendell being over there. I believe the snow on the mountains made her feel farther from him and farther from the good times she had known before certain parts of her life just broke down. She would get busier than usual cleaning the house or the kitchen at work, humming to herself all the while when normally she weren't a hummer.
I remember before Wendell and his friend Tim McGreen went over there we had to buy a map and spread it on the kitchen table to show the boys where they were headed. And show ourselves too, truthfully. We'd forgotten all kinds of geography.
So in the snow Vietnam was even farther and Gladys was always reading the papers to try to bring it closer and it made her meaner. If some child didn't take their tray over to the rack after eating, she would find that child and yell and call the kid spoiled or worse. She would redden their faces, she could make them cry if she wanted. She knew how. And once they started crying she would walk away, regretting it all. I could see that regret. Her face would scrunch up in painful regret when she thought no one was looking. Even when she was mean there was part of Gladys that didn't want to be mean. Maybe she just couldn't stand how those rich kids seemed to believe invisible servants followed them everywhere they went with silver platters, but I don't think so. I think her meanness surely had other tangled-up roots.
“So,” I said that snowy night. “A little orphan wants you for her mother. Maybe this is God's plan, maybe you should write back and say for her to come on out here.”
Gladys just stared across the table at me, no expression whatsoever on her face, maybe it was boredom; I believe I bored Gladys much of her life. I don't really know.
“It sure sounds like a nice little orphan,” I said. “Maybe she'd like it out here. She could go to the boarding school free of charge and then camp in summertime.”
Gladys was still looking at me. She had a way of studying my face. Finally she said, “Ivy, are you forty?”
“Yes,” I said. “You know that.” And I felt my face grow warm for no reason.
And then Gladys shook her head a few times. She didn't say another word that night. She cleared her plate and sat in the red chair, drinking and watching the snow in the darkness. I sat there like a damn fool eating one kernel of corn at a time trying to figure why she said
Ivy, are you forty
That's how Gladys was then, she'd just say a few words, and leave you in the dark, like she wanted to put you there because that's where she was.
But I see now any talk of God's plan was ridiculous and offensive to the mind of Gladys. She was forty-one then. If she believed in God, which she didn't, that God wouldn't exactly have
. That God would be sort've
So a week later, another letter from little Raelene Francis came. It came along with a painting of a brown horse wearing a blue saddle. It was a good painting. I believe the girl traced it from a book, and I could see Gladys, who loved horses when she was a child, liked it. And the girl said in the letter she was praying novenas for Wendell's safety and she was also offering up her bed. She was still lighting candles and sleeping on the bare Philadelphia floor by the window as a way of asking God to help.
I understand your Catholics because I dated an Italian one, a pope-loving doozy in my late thirties who had me on the road to conversion, a man who had a conniption fit when I put his rosary beads on like a necklace one night, but Gladys had no contact before Raelene, and after she read the letter she said, “Now why would sleeping on the floor convince God to help Wendell?”
I said, “The Catholics believe sacrifice tugs on the heartstrings of Jesus.”
Gladys said, “Do they now. That's cute.”
But she didn't throw that letter away like she did letter number one. And the horse she taped up on the back door of our house under the curtained window. I was surprised at that. I think it was the first thing Gladys hung up in ten years or so. She never was your interior decorator type. Maybe it was just the idea of some Philadelphia orphan girl sleeping on the floor for Wendell that got to her.
Only the next letter Raelene had a confession to make. The confession was that she was no orphan after all, she was only a “half orphan” and “a daughter of bad circumstance.” She wrote like a girl who loves the dictionary, with fancy words like
. Her mother, a perplexing woman who must've thought she was a cowboy, had “gone west” when Raelene was nine. This was surprising, since she'd been “sedentary,” Raelene said, I'll never forget that. And her father, she said, and I'll never forget this, had glued the nipple of a baby bottle to the bottom of his cane so he wouldn't make the tapping noise that drove her mother crazy. That was all she said about him. I'd call that disturbed. Another painted horse with a blue saddle came with this letter. This time Gladys finally wrote back to the girl. She gave the letter to me for mailing uptown, since I used to drive the truck in every other day for produce, and I'm ashamed to say I tore open the envelope and read the whole thing, which weren't special or long, so I doubly regretted doing it. It was just the kind of thing my sister would've hated. Behind her back I believe I was always doing unforgivable things, maybe hoping she'd catch me so I could test her out. How far could I go with that sister of mine before she'd cut me out of her hard life like she cut out the rest of the world during the past fifteen years?