Authors: Susan Vaught
Mac's foot kept tapping its escape code. “IÂ .Â .Â . uh. Um. It'sÂ .Â .Â .”
He stopped. I waited. Mac wasn't a word wizard, despite his grandmother being such a well-known writer. If something made him nervous, his tongue tied itself in major knots.
I got a strange feeling in my stomach, like something was going really wrong. My neck started to sweat. Just perfect. Every girl needs neck sweat to feel extra-special pretty when talking to a boy who might like her.
“Camp,” Mac finally expelled. The way he said it, it sounded like a swear word. He glanced at me and shoved his hair out of his brown eyes. He had a lot of freckles, but all this year, they had been joining together to make him look tan andâI don't know. Older, somehow.
“Camp,” I prodded, hoping he'd keep producing words without a high-speed come-apart.
“I can't do camp this year,” he said. “I have to help my grandmother.”
Then he went right back to staring at his feet. “Yeah, andÂ .Â .Â .”
A second ticked by. Two. Then three.
“I'm not supposed to talk to you anymore,” Mac said so fast I wasn't sure I heard him correctly.
“What?” My face burned hot. I wrapped both hands around my carry-home bag and leaned toward Mac, who still wouldn't look at me. “Mac. That doesn't make any sense.”
“I know. But I'm not supposed to. It'sÂ .Â .Â . IÂ .Â .Â . my parents.” He kicked one ugly sneaker against the other. “They said. My parents, I mean.”
to be kidding,” I said to Mac. Okay, I probably yelled it. “This is not what's happening here. You were supposed to be talking about liking me!”
Did I actually just holler that loud enough for the entire school to hear? I wanted to stuff myself in a locker and slam the door and never come out until next year in a totally new school where I didn't know any of these people.
“Sorry.” Mac sounded miserable. “That story in the news last week about the Magnolia Feud, they got all worked up about reporters coming down here and stalking us again, andÂ .Â .Â . never mind. It's just the way things are right now, Dani.”
I banged my head against my locker and glared at the chipped paint instead of him. Then I banged my head one more time and turned on Mac. “So you're letting your parents pick your friends now?”
All the noise and people around us faded from my awareness, and I willed him to quit kicking himself and staring at nothing and look at me. Look at his friend. The one he was ditching because he was too much of a weenie to tell his parents no, or just do what he wanted anyway.
He didn't raise his head.
My chest actually hurt.
-ache. Who knew that was real and not just a metaphor?
“You're pathetic,” I said. Yelled. Screeched. Whatever.
Indri chose that moment to sweep up to us like a yellow sunray. Her smile spread light across the world, until she looked at us. “Wait,” she said. “What? Are you two fighting? It's the last day of school. Are you both crazy?”
Mac glanced at her. Then he looked at me. As in, really looked at me. His hair hung in his face again, but I could see his eyes. They looked wide and sad. I had called him pathetic. I wanted to say it again, with even more underlines and exclamation points that actually hung in the air where he could see them, but I couldn't, not when he looked like that.
My eyes didn't cry with sadness, I was sure. Mine sparked and glowed with
Mac's expression hardened. He looked back at the floor, grunted something at Indri that sounded like “Bye,” and “Talk to you later.”
Then he turned and left, shoving through the sixth-grade crowd to do it.
“What was that about?” Indri asked me. “What did you say to him? What did he say to you? Why was he acting like that?”
I let go of my carry-home bag with one hand and tried to wipe the sweat off the back of my neck. “We're not friends anymore, according to him.”
“What??” Indri sort of toppled into the lockers, looking about as stunned as I felt. “Why?!”
“He said his parents won't let him talk to me anymore. That article in
set them off.”
Indri recovered herself enough to stand up straight. “So, the feud.”
I shrugged like I wanted the feud, Mac, the wrecking of my day, the staring sixth-graders, all of it, to be no big deal at all. “Maybe he just needed an excuse to walk away, so he took the first one that came along.”
And maybe if I tried hard enough, I could believe all of this truly wasn't a big deal.
“Just an excuse,” I mumbled. “Indri, I thoughtâI was sort ofâand he blew me off.” A tear slipped down my cheek. I hoped no sixth-graders saw it.
But Indri did.
Her eyes narrowed. Then they got more narrow, and more narrow, until she looked like a crazed robot.
“Oh, no he did
blow you off,” psychotic-robot-Indri said as she turned toward the crowded hallway, even though Mac was probably long gone. “He did not blow
Indri had been friends with Mac tooâbut mostly because of me.
I suddenly felt guilty for her getting her feelings hurt too.
“Sorry,” I whispered, trying not to let a second tear follow the first one.
“Hey, Richardson!” Indri yelled down the crowded hall. “You're a worm! You hear me? You're less than a worm. YOU'RE WORM DUNG!”
She got hold of my arm, jostling my bag as she pulled me into the ocean of sixth-graders. “Come on, Dani,” she said. “Who needs Worm Dung anyway?”
Definitely not me.
Night on Fire
(1969), by Avadelle Richardson, page 9
“I'd have wasted a lot of time and trouble before I learned that the best way to take all people, black or white, is to take them for what they think they are, then leave them alone,” William Faulkner wrote in
The Sound and the Fury
That book got published in 1929, the same year I was born in Oxford, Mississippi. My name is CiCi Robinson, and time was, I wanted to write like good ole Count No-Count. I wanted to be brave as he was, talking about Black and White and telling the God's honest truth about the life I lived and the world I saw.
But I was Black, and I was female, and stuck in Mississippi. The most I could hope for was getting through the winter in our nailed-together clapboard
house with its dirt floor and newspapers and quilts lining the walls to keep out the wind.
Black girls who lived in patchwork houses didn't dare dream of writing stories.
Y MOM REALLY DID SEE
Okay, so she was a coroner.
When my dad saw dead people, he puked. I'd probably do the same thing if Mom let me see the actual dead people, which she didn't, except through the crack in the curtains on the view window at the back of her office, all covered up, just shapes under blue paper sheets.
Dad was an organic gardener, and all about tomatoes, not death. Mom said he was a hippie. As for me, I was a “late in life child,” according to Mom. Grandma Beans always called me an “oops baby,” or just Oops for short. It really got on Mom's nerves. Grandma Beans moved in with us five years ago, when I had just turned seven. She had a lot of time to irritate Mom before she forgot how to do it.
“Indri called him Worm Dung,” I told my mother with absolutely no tears at all, even though I wanted to cry. The alcohol stink in her morgue office burned my nose and eyeballs, but I was trying to avoid the whole dramatic tendencies thing, since she was working extra hours plus teaching a class through the summer, and drama made her cranky. I sat in a chair with my back to the view window and pretended there was no crack in the curtains, and there weren't any dead
people right behind me, none at all. No drama, no drama, no dramaÂ .Â .Â .
Mom didn't respond to me or look up from her papers.
“Worm Dung. That's my new name for Mac Richardson,” I said a little louder, and really trying to mean it. “What do you think?”
Mom scooted a bunch of reports into a stack, then laid her pen on top. I was too far away to see what she had been working on, but I knew it was diagrams of a human body with stuff marked with Xs and circles. It was kind of weird, knowing that she turned whole lives into shapes on a page. How could people get shrunk down to outlines and pen scratches when they died? But Mom had to check everything out, to see what went bad inside people and what killed them. Those Xs and circles didn't say a thing about who could play cornhole or understand humans and relationships or write world-changing novels. They didn't tell anybody which people were sad because their mom or dad had to go to war, or tired because they were taking care of a sick grandmother. For all I knew, one of those dead people might have been dumped at a locker too, somewhere in their lives.
“What I really think is,” Mom said, “you're too young for a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship, so it doesn't hurt my feelings that Mac's out of the picture.”
I managed something close to a respectful frown, I hoped, because Mom didn't do disrespectful any more than she did drama. “You never liked him, did you?”
Mom gave me a puzzled glance and leaned back in her rolling chair, the one with
stitched into the leather in fat red and blue letters. Her navy skirt and white blouse were perfectly tucked together, but wrinkled at the end of the day. Her makeup still looked flawless, and she had her long brown hair braided into a tight knot on the top of her head. Mom was tall to my short and skinny to my chunky. Her skin paled in the bright blue-white ceiling bulbs, next to my in-between color that was darker brown, like Grandma and Dad. Everything about my mom was beautiful and professional, always, except when she got tiredâand she had been tired a lot this past year.
“I barely know Mac Richardson,” she said in a voice that reminded me of my third-grade math teacher. “So how could I dislike him?”
My eyes roved around the pine paneling of her office walls, bouncing off her degrees and pictures of her with important people and framed newspaper articles about her work on high-profile cases. “Well, he
“Old Polish proverb, Dani.”
I sucked down a sigh.
Old Polish proverb
was Mom-shorthand for,
Not my circus, not my monkeys
. That was one of her favorite sayings, even though she was a lot more Irish than Polish.
What Mom meant was, the fight between Grandma and Avadelle Richardson wasn't her feud, or Dad's, or mine either. People could write news articles all day long about
Beans vs. Richardson, but we didn't have to fight just because they wanted us to.
“I know,” I said. “The Magnolia Feud is Grandma's battle.”
Mom nodded. “It
My breath hitched. Mom gazed at me without blinking.
That word seemed to hang in the air like a sad balloon tethered by Mom's silence. She was waiting for me to get something, butâ
That Grandma Beans wasn't able to feud with anybody anymore.
I had a sudden image of the day Grandma moved in with us, how she drove up in her huge black Lincoln, threw open her door, and stretched her arms wide for me to run into her hug. Then she spouted off a quote and waited for me to tell her the author, novel, and year it was written. That's how she was with me, my whole lifeâbefore.
Now, if Mom drew one of her outlines of my grandmother, there would be a big X where Grandma's brain should have been, because that's what was going bad inside her. It would kill her too, probably pretty soon.
I spent a few seconds studying my feet, and when I lifted my eyes again, Mom looked twice as tired, and somehow more wrinkled than she had a second ago, and I knew it might be my fault. I thought about Dad, and how while I was at school,
he had worked all day looking after Grandma and his garden and the house. When he went to the doctor last month, his blood pressure had been just awful.
This isn't going to be easy, Dani,
Mom had told me when Grandma Beans came to live with us.
We'll all have to make sacrifices. From this day forward, our family has a pact to do whatever it takes to make the rest of her life comfortable, and only focus on
When I thought about Mom and Dad and Grandma Beans, and sacrifices and doing whatever it took to help family when they needed it, my stomach got tight. Worm Dung didn't seem like something to discuss anymore, so I put him on a table in the back of my mind and covered him with a sheet, and scrawled a giant red X on the picture. There. Done with him.
“Can we get dinner on the way home?” I asked, thinking of ways to make stuff easier for my tired parents.
Mom got up and smoothed her wrinkled shirt as she shook her head. “Your father's cholesterol doesn't need a hamburger.”
“What about a salad from Living Foods? They're all locally grown and organic, right? So it's like cooking out of Dad's garden, only somebody else does the work.”
“You know what? That's a good idea.” Mom straightened and actually smiled at me. “We can splurge every now and then. Last day of school is as good of an excuse as any.”
“And when we get home,” I said, “I'll do the first check on Grandma.”
“Mac dumped me,” I told my grandmother, because she had never minded hearing about my life and what happened, even if it wasn't her circus or her monkeys.
Grandmas were special like that.