The old Rambler rattled alongside the curb, spitting putrid exhaust out its back end, announcing our arrival with a shake and a shudder. Daddy turned the key to off, eased the steering wheel tight to the right, and coasted the aging wagon to a stop.
"Is this the place?" Mama asked. She stared out the passenger side window, Little Joe on her lap, the seat belt pulled tight across both of them. Daddy nodded. "Jesus," she muttered.
I sat behind Mama and gazed out the window at the tidy little ranch. A wide stretch of healthy green grass, fresh-cut and smelling like heaven, separated the street from the house. Chocolate-brown with white trim around the windows, it had green and white awnings to shield its lucky inhabitants from the heat of the late summer sun. Fluffy blue hydrangeas burst forth from the garden, accented by clusters of Shasta daisies. A brand-new house in a cookie-cutter neighborhood, so unlike our rented duplex across town, with its peeling paint, unreliable roof, and tattered window screens. It pained me to think of it as we sat parked in front of this perfect home, gaping and gawking like a bunch of hillbillies.
Daddy opened his door and got out of the car.
"Where you going, Daddy?" asked Tommy. My younger brother was all scraped elbows and scuffed knees, the back of his neck dotted with mosquito bites. He smelled like sweat and grit, even though Mama had made him scrub himself with a wet washcloth before we left home.
"I'll be right back," Daddy said. "You wait here." He closed the door gently, but it squeaked anyway, and he pushed it closed with his hip.
We watched him saunter up the flagstone path leading to the front door: Mama, her face tense; Tommy, ticked off that he was left behind to wait in the car with the rest of us; and me, speechless. Daddy knew someone who lived in that house.
Nine-year-old Becca, tucked into the wagon's rear corner with Daddy's work tools, was riveted to a dog-eared copy of Little House on the Prairie, and paid no mind. Little Joe, dressed in no more than a diaper and a stained white t-shirt, fidgeted against Mama. Four-year-old Sadie slumped against her, slack-jawed, making little sucking noises as she slept.
Daddy rang the doorbell and rocked on his heels, waiting for someone to come to the door. I craned my head out the window to get a better look. Summer still reigned, and the late afternoon sun warmed my cheeks. The radio played that day's Top Ten hits, and Karen Carpenter crooned, "We've Only Just Begun." I counted to ten before the door opened and a woman stepped out, closing the door behind her. She smiled at Daddy. He smiled back. They exchanged a few words, and then Daddy nodded his head, thrust his hands in his pockets, turned around, and headed back toward the car. The lady peered out at us, at the dilapidated wagon gracing her curb, and then disappeared back inside.
"Oh, no," Mama said, pushing open her door and climbing out of the car, big belly first, Joe hitched to her hip. "Not again," she said. She left the door open and started up the flagstone path.
"Where you going, Mama?" Tommy called.
Mama turned back, squinting in the late afternoon sun. She combed her wavy dark hair with her fingers and tucked it behind her ears. She switched Joe to her other hip. "Tommy, you stay in the car," she ordered.
Tommy kicked the back of Daddy's seat and pouted.
"And Daisy," Mama told me, "you keep an eye on your brothers and sisters." I nodded obediently; as the oldest, it was my duty.
Sadie woke up, blinked, stretched, and watched Mama's departing backside for a moment before letting out an ungodly shriek. She scrambled across the seat and out the door, trotting after Mama, her eyes glossy with tears. Clutched in her hand was a beat-up Barbie doll, naked, its hair in a rat's nest, its feet chewed beyond recognition.
Tommy leaped out after her.
Becca, roused from her reading by Sadie's sudden squall, smirked at me, and then scrambled over Daddy's paint-spattered drop cloths, pails, and paintbrushes. She slipped through the rear window, chasing after the others.
I sighed, opened the door, and stepped out onto the blanket of immaculate green lawn. I followed my family and we met Daddy halfway back to the car.
"What did she say?" asked Mama. She brushed her hair back again, shifted Joe's weight across her hip, and took a familiar stance. Her children pulled up behind her, silent, waiting. We knew not to interfere in discussions like this.
"Her husband's not home," Daddy said. "He went out with the checkbook."
"Didn't she know you were coming by for your pay today? Didn't you call her like I told you to?" Mama asked. Her eyes were fiery mad, her lip twitching. Sadie whimpered and hid behind me.
"I called her. I told her. She forgot to ask her husband for the check. Said come back tomorrow. He'll be home."
"Tomorrow's no good," Mama spat. "The bank's closed. What good will a check do me tomorrow? We need money now, Tom, right now."
"There's nothing I can do, Meg," Daddy said. He rocked back and forth on his heels in paint-speckled work shoes. Chocolate-colored paint covered one toe, and I understood that he was the reason why the house looked so pretty.
"Well, I can do something," Mama said. She stalked up the flagstone path, ignoring Daddy as he chased after her.
"Come on, Meg, don't make a scene. It's all right. We'll come back tomorrow," he said.
Their children trailed after them, me at the rear, my cheeks burning, my heart pounding at the thought of Mama making another scene.
"No way, Tom," Mama said, spinning around. She stood with her legs splayed wide, the weight of her belly and the baby in her arms causing her to list to one side. "Who does this woman think she is? We have children, Tom, five of them, and they're hungry. You gave this woman two weeks work, and she's going to pay you for it." Mama climbed the few steps to the door and pushed the doorbell.
A moment later, the lady opened the door and spoke to Mama through the screen.
"Mrs. Holmes, I'm Meg Hunter, Tom's wife. We really need Tom's pay," Mama said. Again, she brushed her unruly hair back, trying to tuck it behind her ears. It fluttered around her face, giving her a wild look. "Is there any way you can call your husband and ask him to come by with a check?"
The lady eyeballed Mama, stared at her swollen belly, and then at the ragtag collection of children lined up behind her. I held onto Sadie, patting at the wrinkles in her tattered blouse. It was once mine, and had seen better days. The lady's gaze settled on me, and she shook her head. I moved behind Mama, my face flushed, and focused on the ground, on my soiled canvas sneakers. My big toe poked out of a hole in one of them, revealing chipped nail polish. I stepped on my foot, covering it up.
The lady pointed at Mama's belly. "You're about near your time," she said.
"That's right, Ma'am," Mama said. "Two weeks."
"Oh, my," the lady said. "And how old is your baby?"
"Seventeen months." Mama pulled Joe tight against her and kissed the top of his head. He studied the lady with big brown eyes and smiled, his two front teeth gleaming.
"Good heavens," the lady said, fanning herself.
"About the money...." Mama started, but the lady interrupted.
"Yes, I told Tom to stop by tomorrow. My husband's not home. I have no checks. I'll have a check for him tomorrow." She stepped outside, closing the screen door behind her. "Mosquitoes," she said, glancing at me and the other children.
"Yes, well, we appreciate that," Mama continued. "But we need the money today. As you can see, I have five children, and my refrigerator is empty. I have no milk, no bread. If I get the check now, I can go to the bank before it closes and stop at the grocery store on the way home. I'm sure you understand."
The lady studied Mama long and hard, her eyes cold and uncaring. She reached up and touched her hair, fresh from the hairdresser, bleached blonde and cut short around her carefully made-up face. A heavy layer of hair spray held it in place. She reminded me of the mother on The Brady Bunch. Her fingernails were smooth and shiny, flawlessly painted a pale pink, and her hands glittered with rings, diamonds probably, "money hands," Mama would say. She wore a white mini-skirt, a tight-fitting halter-top, and strappy sandals with platform soles. Mama wouldn't be caught dead in an outfit like that. The lady cleared her throat. "I'm sorry. I hope you understand, but until my husband gets back, I have no way to pay you."
Daddy grasped Mama by the elbow. "Come on," he whispered. "I told you."
Mama tugged her elbow away. "Mrs. Holmes," she said. "Didn't my husband come here every day for two weeks, as you asked, and paint your beautiful home inside and out?"
The lady nodded.
"And he did a wonderful job, didn't he? I can see that myself. Are you not satisfied with the quality of his work?"
"Of course," the lady said airily. "Tom does beautiful work. He's dependable and honest. As a matter of fact, I've given his name and number to two or three neighbors."
"Then why won't you pay him? He's been here three times to collect his pay, and each time you claim you don't have the money."
"I don't have the money right now," the lady said, tight-lipped. She reached for the handle of the screen door. "I thought I made myself clear."
"My husband told you he would be by today for the money."
"I forgot to ask my husband for a check. This is all a big misunderstanding."
"Come on, Meg," Daddy said. "I'll be back tomorrow, Mrs. Holmes. I'm sorry for the misunderstanding."
Sadie tugged at Mama's blouse. She bent down and listened as Sadie whispered in her ear.
"Now?" Mama asked, and Sadie nodded. Mama sighed. "Pardon me, Ma'am, but my little girl needs to use the bathroom. May we?"
The lady's eyebrows shot way up, her forehead pulled taut, her lips pursed. An awkward moment passed before she said, "Well, I suppose so," and pulled the door open, stepping aside to let Mama pass.
"Here, Daisy." Mama turned to me. "Take Joe."
I reached out for the baby and fitted him onto my hip. His arms wrapped around me and I buried my face in his neck, breathing in his sweet baby scent: milk, powder, Farina.
Mama and Sadie walked through the front door.
"Me, too," said Tommy.
"Me, three," said Becca.
They filed into the house behind Mama and Sadie.
The lady followed. "Down that hall, second door on the right," she directed.
Daddy and I stood on the stoop, peering in through the screen door.
"Do you have to use the bathroom, too?" She asked.
"No, Ma'am," I said.
"Would you like a drink of water?"
I nodded and she let us in.
Inside, the house was cool, clean, and smelled like Clorox. Everything shined: The tabletops, the floors, the windows. I felt like Iíd walked into a picture in a magazine. Our house was cluttered with books and toys, piles of laundry, shoes kicked off into corners and under chairs. Fingerprints of all sizes smudged each and every surface. This house seemed unlived-in. It was pretty, but it made me sad.
"Your house is nice," I said, trying to make pleasant conversation.
"Thank you," the lady said, leading us to the kitchen. This room, too, was spotless. She went to the sink and filled two paper cups with tap water, and handed them to Daddy and me.
I sipped carefully, wanting to make it last. Joe reached for the cup and I gave him a taste. My stomach grumbled, a reminder that my morning bowl of Froot Loops and milk went down hours ago. I glanced around the kitchen and noticed a bowl of fruit on the counter: Plump, ripe peaches and ruby red plums, full of promise. I could almost taste the juicy sweetness, could almost feel the warm juice dribbling down my chin. I longed for one, but didn't dare ask.
The lady noticed my staring at the bowl of fruit. She pushed it further back into a corner of the counter.
Minutes later, Mama and the children emerged from the bathroom and filed back into the kitchen. Tommy reached for my cup of water. I handed it to him silently.
Mama stood in the doorway to the kitchen and examined the ceiling, the walls, the molding. "Mighty fine work," she said. "Did you do the trim, too?" She asked Daddy. He nodded.
The lady cleared her throat. "You're beginning to embarrass me, Mrs. Hunter."
Mama frowned, words on her tongue, but before she could speak, the door opened and a girl entered.
"Hey, Mom," she said and stopped, surprised to find her kitchen full of unexpected company. She and I locked eyes.
"I know you," she said, pointing at me.
"This is my daughter, Heidi," the lady said. "Heidi, you remember Tom, the painter. And this is his family."
"I go to school with you," Heidi said to me, finger wagging.
I wished I was invisible. This was Heidi's house, Heidi's mother.
"What are you doing here?" She asked.
I avoided her eyes. "I came with my Dad."
"You two know each other?" asked the lady, not bothering to hide her surprise.
"She's in all my classes," Heidi explained.
Too true. We were sixth grade classmates. I was seated behind Heidi in all our classes: Holmes, Hunter. For hours each day, I was forced to admire her long, golden hair, her freshly ironed blouses, her new shoes. She was lovely, like a girl in a TV commercial. I was the object of her scorn, the butt of her jokes.
Just that morning, before math class, she'd said to me, "Hey, Daisy, where'd you get that outfit, the Salvation Army?" Her friends tittered, all of them dressed in the latest fashions from the mall. My cheeks burned and I grew hot, humiliated by my secondhand clothes, although I'd coveted them when my cousin wore them just a few months ago.
Later, at lunch, I passed her table, and she called out, "Hey, Daisy, does the food from the free lunch program taste any better than the food we have to buy?" The girls at her table roared with laughter. I stumbled to my table in the back and huddled with my friends, hoping they hadn't heard. I picked at my hamburger. It was my favorite meal, but I couldn't eat it.
Heidi Holmes was pretty and popular and everything I was not. I felt out of place in her presence, in her home. I wanted to disappear.
"Heidi's in all advanced classes," the lady said.
I bristled, the implication clear. How could I be in advanced classes with precious Heidi? Me, the plain, simple daughter of a house painter with a brazen wife, five kids, and another one on the way?
"Daisy's in all advanced classes," Mama said, smiling for the first time since meeting this lady.
"Really?" Said the lady, peering down at me. "Heidi made the honor roll last year." Mama threw an arm around my shoulder and pulled me close. "Daisy made high honor roll," she said. "Four times."
"Well," said the lady. She couldn't top that. Heidi had never made high honors. The only reason she made the honor roll was because she copied Allison Cheney's homework.
"Want to see my room?" Heidi asked.
No, I didn't. I counted on Mama to save me. Surely we were leaving soon.
"Go on," Mama said, unaware of my discomfort.
I followed Heidi down the hall, Joe still anchored to my hip. Tommy, Becca, and Sadie tagged along. Heidi's room was at the end, the door closed. She opened it and a blast of cold air greeted us.
"Air conditioning," she said. "My allergies." She led us into the room.
"Wow," Becca said.
I entered last. The room was freshly painted, an eggshell pink. Posters already hung on the walls: The Bee Gees, the Partridge Family, Donny Osmond.
Becca sat on the bed. "Wow," she said again.
The bed dominated the room, double mattress, white headboard and footboard, a gauzy white canopy hanging overhead. A soft cotton bedspread. A pile of pillows. I longed to curl up on it, to sleep in it, all alone, as Heidi did. Becca and I shared a bed, a twin, one of us at each end. We fought over the covers. Not a night passed when she didn't kick me in the head.
"Don't sit on the bed," Heidi ordered. "My mother hates that."
Becca jumped off.
I continued surveying the room. An armoire tucked into a corner. A desk and chair in front of the window. A tall bookcase stuffed with books on the other side of the room.
"Wow," Becca said, and went to study the titles.
"You can have one," said Heidi. "I've read them all."
Next to the bookcase was a cradle.
Heidi caught me staring at it and said, "My grandmother's cradle."
The cradle was stuffed with china dolls, their faces painted, their hair and clothing lovingly tended. I stepped closer. I'd never seen such dolls. They were exquisite. Each one different from the other.
"My grandmother's dolls," Heidi explained, rolling her eyes. "They're antiques. They're worth money. Lots of money."
I longed to hold one, but would never give her the satisfaction. I shrugged and turned away, burning the image of the beautiful dolls into my memory, to savor later on, after I got home, without Heidi to witness my envy.
Suddenly, Heidi shouted. "No, don't touch!"
I whirled around. Sadie held one of the dolls, a brunette dressed in a perfect wedding gown with a crisp veil, and tiny leather shoes. She pulled it from the cradle and held it aloft, then clasped it to her chest and raced out of the room. Heidi, Tommy, and I followed, shouting, "No, Sadie, no!"
She ran into the kitchen, startling the adults. Conversation ceased. Mama lurched toward Sadie to stop her. Daddy reached out his arms to contain her. The lady gasped in surprise, and then fright, as Sadie careened into the kitchen, the doll clutched in her dirty, sweaty hands. She saw the adults lying in wait for her and slid across the floor, losing her balance. She cried out, and just before hitting the floor let go off the doll, sending it flying across the room. It shattered against a wall and lay in a puddle of broken pieces.
The lady shrieked, covering her face with her hands. My parents glanced at each other. Mama's face was white, her lips pinched. Daddy held Sadie, who howled with fright. Joe joined in. Tommy watched in disbelief. Heidi hovered in the doorway. I cringed in shame.
The lady raised her head and pointed at Sadie. "Look what you've done!" She screamed. Her face contorted into an ugly mask of rage. She ran to the doll and picked it up. Its face was gone. "You've ruined my doll," she cried. "You horrible brat. This was my mother's doll. It's worth a fortune." She cradled the doll in her arms, tears rolling down her cheeks, and sobbed.
Becca sauntered into the kitchen, a book in her hand.
"What happened?" She asked.
The lady glared at us, then at the doll. "Get out," she hissed. "Get out of my house. Now."
Mama and Daddy gathered their children.
"Come on kids," Daddy said, ushering us toward the door.
"We'll pay you," Mama offered. "How much is it?"
The lady's eyes narrowed. "You fool. You can't replace a doll like this. And you can't possibly afford to pay me what it's worth."
"Take it out of my husband's pay," Mama said.
The lady snickered. "Your husband's pay? You want your husband's pay?" Her expression darkened. She dropped the doll and moved toward a closet, opened the door, and disappeared inside. She came out with a purse. She rummaged through it and pulled out a wallet. "You want your husband's pay? Here," she said, and handed my mother a wad of bills. "Here's his pay. It's all there. Take it."
Mama regarded her curiously and then grabbed the money, stuffing it into the pocket of her jeans. "Thank you," she said, and turned away from her. "Come on, kids. Let's go home."
We shuffled out in silence and climbed into the car. Sadie wedged herself between Mama and Daddy. Little Joe sat snug against Mama, strapped in tight. Tommy, Becca, and I huddled together in the back seat. Daddy turned the key and the engine roared to life. He shifted into drive and pulled away from the curb, from the fine house, from Heidi and her mother and their dolls.