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Initially, all 13-year-old Luna asks is that she be allowed to be a pall bearer for her best friend, Mason.
But it quickly becomes clear that more will be needed if she is to truly serve her friend's memory. Mason's mother, Ruby Day, is variously called "feebleminded" and a "retard," harsh words for a woman who was able to successfully raise her son and who works every day bagging groceries.Unfortunately, Ruby Day isn't quite able to manage her own home, so Luna moves in with her to provide both companionship and a little supervision. Then a villainous woman, Aunt Sapphire, shows up in her chauffeur-driven limousine with plans to take Ruby back to the Mason Home for the Feebleminded, a place she doesn't want to go. Luna is just one girl trying to fight for rights that Ruby doesn't seem to have—unless she can get the townspeople to rally behind their cause. Gently, deliberately paced, Luna's first-person tale provides a fresh look at mental disabilities and the additional burden of negative attitudes. While Ruby's disability is apparent, this effort also celebrates her capabilities. Although the primary focus is Luna, her quirky father, supportive mother and boy-crazy older sister are also sufficiently developed to provide additional depth.
A quiet coming-of-age tale with heart offers a fresh look at mentally disabled adults. (Fiction. 10-15)
My father had just pulled up to our house, the station wagon tires kicking up a spray of dirt the color of cornflakes. He hadn't even gotten all the way out of the car before I asked him. I knew I should have waited, but I couldn't help it. I had been thinking about it all day, working up my argument, practicing my tone, trying to sound older. Trying to sound stronger than my skinny, five-foot frame.
His voice took on a low, gravelly tone when he said his answer: "Girls can't be pallbearers."
I stood there looking at him through the car window, studying his face for even a hint that I might be able to change his mind. But I didn't see a clue. Usually when Daddy raised his right eyebrow it was a sign that there was still hope I would get the answer I wanted. But not that afternoon. Daddy had made his final decision even before he heard my full regiment of reasons—and I had plenty.
"Girls can't be pallbearers. Especially skinny, scrawny girls with knock-knees."
Then he climbed out of the car. Daddy towered over me like an oak over a teaberry plant, eclipsing the late afternoon sun.
I watched him grab a small rainbow trout lying on a newspaper from the back of the station wagon. He had just come from a day of fishing up at Clay Creek, and from the looks of the measly fish and his burnt face, I didn't think he'd had a good day.
"Take this trout to your Mama and tell her I'll eat him for supper."
"But Daddy, I want to talk to you."
"Not now, Luna. I'm hot, and all I want is to get out of these smelly clothes and eat."
I hooked the trout by the gills with two fingers and carried him through the basement and upstairs to my mother. "Daddy said he wants to eat this fish for supper." I plopped the trout on the kitchen counter.
"Just one?" my mother said.
I shrugged and she looked out the window, which had a view of our backyard and driveway. "Just one, Justus?" she called.
I leaned over the sink next to my mother and saw my father raise his index finger to the sky. "One," he called.
Mama sighed. "I was counting on having trout for all of us tonight. Guess we'll have leftover macaroni and cheese." She dried her hands on her daisy-decorated apron. It was her spring apron. Mama had aprons for every season and a special one for Christmas, edged in red, with a red tieback and snow-heavy evergreen trees on the front. The rest of the months she left it laundered, ironed, and folded in a tall highboy dresser in the dining room. Every December she pulled it out like it was new, or a gift.
"It's okay, Mama. I'm not so hungry. I don't have to eat." And it was true. I wasn't hungry, not really. I thought if I had tried to eat macaroni and cheese that day it would make me upchuck. Mama's macaroni and cheese was the last thing I ate before Mason ... well, before Mason died.
Mama ignored what I said, took the trout in her left hand, and grabbed a knife from a block on the counter. She ran the knife up the fish's belly. The sound made me wince as a trickle of blood spilled onto the counter. As often as I had watched her clean fish, I was always amazed at how easily she cut near its throat, reached in with her thumb, and then pulled like she was pulling a zipper, and out came the guts, bones and all, in one fell swoop. Then she lopped the head off with a cleaver as easily as I plucked blueberries from the bush.
"How come Daddy gets the trout?" I said.
"He caught it, Luna."
She put the entrails in a small metal bucket near the back door. Mama liked to save the guts for the "night critters," as she called them. Raccoons, possums, cats, or whatever else might be prowling around out there. I was never sure who ate them but the scraps were always gone the next morning.
I heard my father washing up in the basement. "Tell him, Mama. Tell him to let me be a pallbearer."
"Hand me that cornmeal, Luna," she said like she didn't even hear me. "Think I'll fry this fish."
I grabbed the sack of cornmeal from a long, wormy shelf that at one time was the sitting part of a church pew. Daddy had nailed it to the wall so Mama had a place to keep sacks of cornmeal and flour and sugar and jars of peanut butter and a jar filled almost to the top with buttons. Seemed Mama was always replacing buttons, either on our clothes or the neighbors'.
"I'm hungry, Louise," my father called as he climbed the cellar stairs. "Lookin' forward to that fish."
"Lucky you," Mama said. "The rest of us get leftovers."
I sucked air and let it out my nose. "Tell him, Mama."
"Now isn't the time, Luna. Run that bucket of guts out to the back hedge." She pulled a half-gone macaroni and cheese casserole from the fridge. "Hot dogs. I'll boil hot dogs too."
I stood there a second or two, forcing the world to slow down long enough for me to see clearly, trying to understand what just happened. It was like they didn't care, didn't care one lick that my best friend in the whole entire world had just died and that I wanted to help carry his casket to his grave.
"Luna, the bucket," Mama said.
I grabbed the bucket and headed out back. Mama had a special place under the privets where she left food for the critters. She also hung suet and seed bells from the trees and made peanut butter treats that she tucked into the nooks and crannies of the trunks and branches like Easter eggs for the squirrels to find.
The swingset that my father built from scrap wood was empty that afternoon. Only Polly, our dog, was outside in the heat. She was a coonhound mix and the only member of the family that understood me. I still remembered the day Mama found Polly in a cave down by Clay Creek. Polly was just a pup, a few days old at the time. It seemed the mama dog had crawled into the cave to birth nine puppies. Mama brought them all home, and for a short while our house was the happiest place on earth.
Mama gave all but one of the pups away. We kept Polly on account of Mama said she looked most like the mama. Polly grew to be a big dog, brown with flecks of black fur and large brown eyes that looked like pools of chocolate syrup. She was mostly gentle, but she was also a good watchdog and barked loud whenever a stranger set foot on our property.
Polly rallied from her sun spot when she saw me. She always knew when I was thinking about something special, something painful or unusual, and she bounded over to me. I rubbed her neck and patted her sides.
"Good dog, Polly. You understand, don't you, girl?"
She whimpered and nosed my thigh. "It's okay. At least it will be, I hope."
Polly barked once. She missed Mason too. Mason was best at playing fetch with her and best at jumping into the creek and calling her in after him. I liked to watch them doggy-paddle together all the way back to the bank.
My brother and sisters were more than likely down at the creek, jumping from the Tarzan swing into the brown, muddy water to keep cool. I took advantage and sat on one of the swings. I moved back and forth slowly with my bare feet dragging in the dirt. A hot tear rolled down my cheek. I swiped it away like it was an annoying fly.
Mason had died and no one—leastways, no human—seemed to care how it made me feel.
I swung harder and harder, faster and faster, until I got the bumps. But I kept pumping my legs and pumping my legs, and I leaned way back so that I was almost lying flat and swinging, swinging and thinking, swinging and missing Mason. Swinging and thinking how much I wanted to help carry him, the way he carried me home one day when I slipped on a rock at the creek and turned my ankle. The way Daddy carried Grandpop. The way Mama carried the babies in the church nursery with gentle but firm hands. I wanted, no, I needed to carry Mason home.
I stayed outside as long as I could stand it. Polly lay back down—this time in the shade. But she kept a watchful eye on me. I went around to the front to avoid the kitchen and my mother. My father, freshly showered, was in the living room. He wore blue pants and a white T-shirt. The tattoo he got in the Navy of a Hawaiian hula dancer wiggled on his forearm when he snatched his newspaper from the coffee table. He sat with a thud in his easy chair. "Girls can't be pallbearers."
He didn't even give me time to ask again, so I knew I had to pull out the big guns. I called for my mother to come out of her kitchen.
"Tell him, Mama, tell him to let me be one of Mason's pallbearers. He was my best friend. I'm ... I'm thirteen and plenty strong."
Now the thing about my mama is that she had a voice inside, a fancy voice as she called it, that told her when and when not to argue with my father. The last time Mama went against my father's final word was three months ago when my older brother, Justus T. Gleason Junior, announced he wanted to join the Navy. Mama won that skirmish, and JT, as we called him, went off to sea. So when she put her hands on her hips and stood in front of my father, I knew she was preparing to change his mind for him.
"Now listen here, Justus T. Gleason. If you know what's good for you, you'll let Luna carry her friend's body to his grave. For heaven's sake, there ain't no rule." Then she wiped her hands together like she was wiping off dirty business and strutted back to her kitchen. Enough said.
Daddy snapped his newspaper but didn't say a word. Not a single, solitary word.
Excerpted from Carrying Mason by Joyce Magnin Copyright © 2011 by Joyce Magnin Moccero. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted September 26, 2011
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