- Published: 16 July 2019
- ISBN: 9781784708597
- Imprint: Vintage
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 368
- RRP: $19.99
Willa Drake and Sonya Bailey were selling candy bars door-to-door. This was for the Herbert Malone Elementary School Orchestra. If they sold enough, the orchestra would get to travel to the regional competitions in Harrisburg. Willa had never been to Harrisburg, but she liked the harsh, gritty sound of the name. Sonya had been but had no memory of it because she was a baby at the time. Both of them swore they would absolutely die if they didn’t get to go now.
Willa played the clarinet. Sonya played the flute. They were eleven years old. They lived two blocks from each other in Lark City, Pennsylvania, which wasn’t a city at all or even much of a town and in fact didn’t even have sidewalks except on the one street where the stores were. In Willa’s mind, sidewalks were huge. She planned never to live in a place without them after she was grown.
Because of the lack of sidewalks, they weren’t allowed to walk on the roads after dark. So they set out in the afternoon, Willa lugging a carton of candy bars and Sonya holding a manila envelope for the money they hoped to make. They started from Sonya’s house, where they’d first had to finish their homework. Sonya’s mother made them promise to head back as soon as the sun—pale as milk anyhow in mid-February—fell behind the scratchy trees on top of Bert Kane Ridge. Sonya’s mother was kind of a worrier, much more so than Willa’s mother.
The plan was that they would begin far off, on Harper Road, and end up back in their own neighborhood. Nobody in the orchestra lived on Harper Road, and they were thinking they could make a killing if they got there before the others. This was Monday, the very first day of the candy drive; most of the others would probably wait till the weekend.
The top three sellers would win a three-course dinner with Mr. Budd, their music teacher, in a downtown Harrisburg restaurant, all expenses paid.
The houses on Harper Road were newish. Ranch-style, they were called. They were all on one level and made of brick, and the people who lived there were newish, too—most of them employed by the furniture factory that had opened over in Garrettville a couple of years ago. Willa and Sonya didn’t know a one of them, and this was a good thing because then they wouldn’t feel so self-conscious pretending to be salesmen.
Before they tried the first house, they stopped behind a big evergreen bush in order to get themselves ready. They had washed their hands and faces back at Sonya’s house, and Sonya had combed her hair, which was the straight, dark, ribbony kind that a comb could slide right through. Willa’s billow of yellow curls needed a brush instead of a comb, but Sonya didn’t own a brush and so Willa had just flattened her frizzes with her palms as best she could. She and Sonya wore almost-matching wool jackets with fake-fur-trimmed hoods, and blue jeans with the cuffs turned up to show their plaid flannel linings. Sonya had sneakers on but Willa was still in her school shoes, brown tie oxfords, because she hadn’t wanted to stop by home and get waylaid by her little sister, who would beg to tag along.
“Hold the whole carton up when they open the door,” Sonya told Willa. “Not just one candy bar. Ask, ‘Would you like to buy some candy bars?’ Plural.”
“I’m going to ask?” Willa said. “I thought you were.”
“I’d feel silly asking.”
“What, you don’t think I’d feel silly?”
“But you’re much better with grownups.”
“What will you be doing?”
“I’ll be in charge of the money,” Sonya said, and she waved her envelope.
Willa said, “Okay, but then you have to ask at the next house.”
“Fine,” Sonya said.
Of course it was fine, because the next house was bound to be easier. But Willa tightened her arms around the carton, and Sonya turned to lead the way up the flagstone walk.
This house had a metal sculpture out front that was nothing but a tall, swooping curve, very modern. The doorbell was lit with a light that glowed even in the daytime. Sonya poked it. A rich-sounding two-note chime rang somewhere inside, followed by a silence so deep that they could begin to hope no one was home. But then footsteps approached, and the door opened, and a woman stood smiling at them. She was younger than their mothers and more stylish, with short brown hair and bright lipstick, and she wore a miniskirt. “Why, hello, girls,” she said, while behind her a little boy came toddling up, dragging a pull toy and asking, “Who’s that, Mama? Who’s that, Mama?”
Willa looked at Sonya. Sonya looked at Willa. Something about Sonya’s expression—so trusting, so expectant, her lips moistened and slightly parted as if she planned to start speaking along with Willa—struck Willa as comical, and she felt a little burp of laughter rising in her chest and then bubbling in her throat. The sudden, surprising squeak that popped out seemed comical too—hilarious, in fact—and the bubble of laughter turned to gales of laughter, whole waterfalls of laughter, and next to her Sonya broke into sputters and doubled in on herself while the woman stood looking at them, still smiling a questioning smile. Willa asked, “Would you like—? Would you like—?” but she couldn’t finish; she was overcome; she couldn’t catch her breath.
“Are you two offering to sell me something?” the woman suggested kindly. Willa could tell that she’d probably gotten the giggles herself when she was their age, although surely—oh, lord—surely not such hysterical giggles, such helpless, overpowering, uncontrollable giggles. These giggles were like a liquid that flooded Willa’s whole body, causing tears to stream from her eyes and forcing her to crumple over her carton and clamp her legs together so as not to pee. She was mortified, and she could see from Sonya’s desperate, wild-eyed face that she was mortified too, but at the same time it was the most wonderful, loose, relaxing feeling. Her cheeks ached and her stomach muscles seemed to have softened into silk. She could have melted into a puddle right there on the stoop.
Sonya was the first to give up. She flapped an arm wearily in the woman’s direction and turned to start back down the flagstone walk, and Willa turned too and followed without another word. After a moment, they heard the front door gently closing behind them.
They weren’t laughing anymore. Willa felt tired to the bone, and emptied and a little sad. And Sonya might have felt the same way, because the sun still hung like a thin white dime above Bert Kane Ridge, but she said, “We ought to wait till the weekend. It’s too hard when we’ve got all this homework.” Willa didn’t argue.
When her father opened the door to her, he had a sorrowful look on his face. His eyes behind his little rimless glasses seemed a paler blue, lacking their usual twinkle, and he was passing one palm across his smooth bald scalp in that slow, uncertain way that meant something had disappointed him. Willa’s first thought was that he had found out about her giggling fit. She knew that was unlikely—and anyway, he wasn’t the type to object to a case of giggles—but how else to explain his expression? “Hi, honey,” he said in a discouraged-sounding voice.
He turned and wandered into the living room, leaving her to close the front door. He was still in the white shirt and gray pants he wore to work, but he’d exchanged his shoes for his corduroy slippers so he must have been home for a while. (He taught shop at the high school in Garrettville; he came home well before other fathers.)
Her sister was sitting on the rug with the newspaper opened to the comics. She was six years old and had gone overnight from cute to really ugly—all chewed-down nails and missing front teeth and disturbingly skinny brown braids. “How many’d you sell?” she asked Willa. “Did you sell all of them?,” because Willa had left the carton of candy bars at Sonya’s and she only had her book bag with her. Willa tossed her book bag onto the couch and shucked off her jacket. Her eyes were on her father, who had not stopped in the living room but was continuing toward the kitchen. She followed him. In the kitchen he reached for a skillet from the pegboard beside the stove. “Grilled cheese sandwiches tonight!” he said in a fake-cheerful voice.
“Your mother won’t be joining us.”
She waited for him to say something else, but he got very busy adjusting the burner under the skillet, dropping in a pat of butter, adjusting the burner again when the butter began to sizzle. He started whistling under his breath, some tune that didn’t go anywhere.
Willa returned to the living room. Elaine had finished reading the comics now and was folding up the paper—another bad sign: taking such care, for once; trying to be good. “Is Mom upstairs?” Willa asked in a whisper.
Elaine gave the smallest shake of her head.
“Did she go out?”
“Was she mad?”
Well, what was it ever about, really? Their mother was the prettiest mother in their school, and the liveliest and the smartest, but then all of a sudden something would happen and she would have this big flare-up. It started with their father, often. It could start with Willa or Elaine, but most often it was him. You’d think he would learn, Willa thought. Learn what, though? To Willa, he seemed perfect just the way he was, and she loved him more than any other person in the world. He was funny and kind and soft-spoken, and he never got grumpy like Sonya’s father or belched at the table like Madeline’s. But “Oh,” their mother would say to him, “I know you! I see right through you! All ‘Yes, dear; no, dear,’ but butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth.”
Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. Willa wasn’t sure exactly what that meant. Still, he must have done something wrong. She sank onto the couch and watched Elaine place the folded newspaper neatly-neatly on top of a stack of magazines. “She said she’d had it,” Elaine told her after a minute. She spoke in a tiny thin voice and barely moved her lips, as if to hide the fact that she was talking. “She said he could just try running this house himself, if he thought he could do any better. She said he was ‘holier than thou.’ She called him ‘Saint Melvin.’”
“Saint Melvin?” Willa asked. She screwed up her forehead. That sounded to her like a good thing. “What did he say back?” she asked.
“He didn’t say anything, at first. Then he said he was sorry she felt that way.”
Elaine settled on the couch beside Willa, just on the very front edge.
The living room had had a do-over recently; it was more up-to-date than it used to be. Their mother had borrowed decorating books from the library in Garrettville, and one of her Little Theatre friends had brought over swatches of fabric that they laid here and there on the couch and the backs of the two matching armchairs. Matching furniture was passé, their mother said. Now one chair was covered in a bluish tweed and the other was blue-and-green-striped. The wall-to-wall carpet had been ripped up and replaced with a fringed off-white rug, so that the dark wood floor could be seen all around the edges. Willa missed the wall-to-wall carpet. Their house was an old white clapboard house that rattled when the wind blew, and the carpet had made it feel solider and warmer. Also she missed the painting above the fireplace that showed a ship in full sail on a faded sea. (Now there was a, kind of like, picture of a fuzzy circle.) But she was proud of the rest of it. Sonya said she wished Willa’s mother would come and redecorate their poky old living room.
Their father appeared in the doorway with a spatula in his hand. “Peas or green beans?” he asked them.
Elaine said, “Can’t we go to Bing’s Drive-In, Pop? Please?”
“What!” he said, pretending to be insulted. “You would turn down my famous Grilled Cheese Sandwiches à la Maison for drive-in food?”
Grilled cheese sandwiches were all he knew how to make. He fried them over high heat and they gave off a sharp, salty smell that Willa had learned to associate with their mother’s absences—her sick headaches and her play rehearsals and the times she slammed out of the house.
Elaine said, “Tammy Denton goes to Bing’s with her family every single Friday night.”
Their father rolled his eyes. “Has Tammy Denton backed a winning horse at the races lately?” he asked.
“Did a rich aunt die and leave her a fortune? Did she find a treasure chest buried in her backyard?”
He started advancing on Elaine with the fingers of his free hand wriggling comically, threatening to tickle her, and Elaine shrieked and shrank away, laughing, and hid behind Willa. Willa held herself apart. She sat rigid and drew in her elbows. “When is Mom coming back?” she asked.
Her father straightened and said, “Oh, pretty soon.”
“Did she say where she was going?”
“No, she didn’t, but you know what? I’m thinking we three should have Cokes with our supper.”
“Goody!” Elaine said, popping up from behind Willa.
Willa said, “Did she take the car?”
He passed a palm across his scalp. “Well, yes,” he said.
This was bad. It meant she didn’t just walk down the road to her friend Mimi Prentice’s house; she had gone off who-knows-where.
“So, no Bing’s Drive-In, then,” Elaine said sadly.
“Shut up about Bing’s Drive-In!” Willa shouted, turning on her.
Elaine’s mouth flew open. Their father said, “Gracious.”
But then smoke started coming from the kitchen, and he said, “Uh-oh,” and rushed back to set up a clatter among the pots and pans.
Their car was old and it had one different-colored fender from the time when their mother had run it into a guardrail out on the East-West Parkway, and it was always full of their father’s junk— paper cups and ruffle-edged magazines and candy wrappers and various coffee-ringed pieces of mail. For years their mother had been wanting a car of her own, but they were too poor. She said they were too poor. Their father said they were fine. “We’ve got enough to eat, haven’t we?” he asked his daughters. Yes, and they had a fancy new living room too, Willa thought, and she felt scornful and bitter and unexpectedly grown up when these words flew into her mind.