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The brown ranch house squatted on a low hill. Dry grass stretched to every side and looked, from the car, like giant slices of toast. How different it all was from the Spinozas' boxy row house in central Fresno; the Clapps' well-groomed lawn and portico with a blinding-white Cadillac; the Fredricksons' Palo Verde tract home. The driveway here wasn't concrete but dirt, with deep potholes and stones. To the left stood a large pasture where several horses lumbered behind an electric fence. Horses! To the right, fields and fields, mushrooming fig trees.
The Lindberghs' house was ringed by an oval of split-rail fencing and a lawn that looked determinedly untamed: crisp brown around the edges with crabgrass and clover erupting every few feet like acne. It was late afternoon, and the family had come out onto the lawn to greet us. Bub and Hilde both wore new dark-blue jeans, cowboy boots and dress-plaid Western shirts with pearly snap buttons. Their seven-year-old daughter, Tina, did an anxious series of little hops forward and back, looking, with her cap of straw-colored hair, her yellow shorts set and bare feet, like a round yellow bird. She was getting sisters. We had been promised to her, and here we were.
If there's anything odder than being introduced to your new family of complete strangers, I don't know what that might be. The social worker sticks around for a while, trying to break the ice, but when she leaves, it's just you and your questions, popping like flashbulbs, and these people who will sit you down and feed you dinner and show you to your room. In that way it's like a hotel because nothing belongs to you. It's all being lent, like library books: the bed, the toothbrush, the bathwater, the night-light under the medicine cabinet that will help you recognize your own face at 2 A.M. when you get up to pee.
As I stood on the Lindberghs' lawn next to my sisters, it occurred to me - for the first time - that the families who took us in were being introduced to absolute strangers too. The big dogs danced and squirmed, gleeful with new smells, but Bub and Hilde held as tight and still as a pair of garden gnomes. They didn't know what would happen; they didn't know the first thing about my sisters or me - what we'd say or do, if we'd stay for a month or a year or three. And us, we'd seen the backseat of Mrs. O'Rourke's car too many times, our clothes in garbage bags on the floorboard. If we felt any hope that this new situation would be different, then it was the stowaway version, small and pinching as pea gravel in a shoe. Bub and Hilde seemed nice enough, but didn't everybody at first?
Mrs. O'Rourke's car wambled down the drive, tires falling into every third pothole. We watched until she was out of sight and then watched the empty road. Finally, there was nothing to do but turn toward the Lindberghs. We stood, the three of them and the three of us, on the grass dry as cereal, and the noises all around - the snuffling dogs and the buzz of the air conditioner and the sprinkler pelting a row of yellow roses - seemed to be saying, Now what? Now what? Now.
THE LINDBERGHS LIVED WAY out of town in Ashland, California, which is right next-door to Fresno in the San Joaquin Valley. You've probably heard of Fresno, it being one of the likeliest places to get shot in the head in a dark alley and also the raisin capital of the world. Penny and Teresa were born in Spokane, Washington, where our mother is from and where she went for help when our father ran off and left her midpregnancy, as was his habit. With my birth, she didn't have to go to Spokane because her mother came to her, and so I was the one delivered in a Fresno vineyard - or rather in a hospital wedged between vineyards. The place was tiny, and since no rooms were available when my mother's time came, she labored in a hallway next to the washer and dryer, panting and contracting while a load of sheets twisted and filled with sudsy, grayish water, shutting her eyes against nausea when her mother offered her quaking cubes of strawberry Jell-O. This was in October, past the drying season, but I'll bet the air around the vineyards still hung with the sickly sweet smell of grape funerals. It's all the juice that does it, sugar collapsing on itself as the grapes shrivel into shrunken little heads. It stays and stays, that smell. You keep thinking you can blink it away or swallow it down, but you can't.
I was eight years old the day our social worker brought us to the Lindberghs'; Penny was eight too, being only eleven months my junior, and Teresa was ten. It was late September 1974, and still quite hot. Mrs. O'Rourke's yellow station wagon didn't have air-conditioning, so the windows were down, funneling a furnace-blast of air through the front and out the back. We drove and drove. I looked out my window, Teresa looked out hers, and Penny sat in the middle, her feet on the hump, hugging the Barbie camper she'd just gotten as a birthday present from the Fredricksons, our last set of parents. Penny stroked the pink-decal striping as if it were puppy fur, her head bowed so that her red-brown hair fell forward. The cut was so severe it looked to be all bangs, the first tier falling to right above her gray eyes, the second touching her shoulders. With the way she was sitting, balled up like a hedgehog, I couldn't see her small, square face with its dusting of rust-colored freckles.
"All right," Teresa said, turning to me, "I've thought about this, and what I think is you should be the one to share a room with the new girl. You're the friendliest. You'll make the best impression." Penny looked up from her camper long enough to give her approval, and it was done. Frankly, I felt like a sacrifice, but what was I to say? No, I'm not friendly? I'm a real pill? Besides, as the oldest, Teresa always decided official business. Penny's and my job was to nod.
"Okay," I said, and went back to my window, to the Jekyll-and-Hyde landscape whooshing by: dry ditches and lush, leafy almond orchards; ravaged, abandoned lots and crops of soybeans greener than green.
OUR FIRST DINNER WITH the Lindbergh family was spaghetti. A big cauldron sat in the middle of the table, and we fished from it, eating with noisy slurps, tomato sauce everywhere. They were good eaters, the Lindberghs, with pie-plate faces, fingers like Vienna sausages, shoulders biscuity and broad and stooped. I watched Tina wield her fork as if it were a spear, stabbing a single fat bean like a javelina. She was hungry. They were all so very hungry.
"You're nothing but twigs," Bub said, pushing the plate of Wonder bread at us, the green beans, the gallon jug of milk. "Didn't anyone ever feed you girls?"
We were on the twiggy side, it's true, all elbows and shoulder blades with collarbones like miniature reservoirs. Penny and I both weighed fifty-six pounds, but since she was half-a-head shorter, she looked stockier and more square. She had always been the physical blip, the one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other sister. Her auburn hair was stick straight and fine; mine and Teresa's was unruly with thick dark curls. Her eyes were a watery gray; ours were brown. Her ears were small and close to her head; ours stuck out like jug handles, like car doors, like the Baby New Year's when he took off his big black hat. Although Teresa had chipped her right front tooth when she was seven, when she had her mouth closed we looked enough alike that we could make Penny feel positively alien and did, telling her she came from a goose egg, a spaceship, the moon. She'd stutter (which she did whenever she was nervous), sputter and deny it, her top lip pooching out like a nursing blister, the opposite of a pout, and we'd feel bad enough to stop for a while. Truth be told, she was probably the cutest of the lot, but why would we tell her that?
After dinner, we piled into the Lindberghs' beat-up blue truck. Following Tina's lead, we jumped in back and scooted to the front of the bed to sit in a row, backs pressed against the cab. It was still fully light and warm, evening coming on slow and soft. The whir of the road under the truck made it too loud to talk, but it was nice just being there, watching our new neighborhood rush by, streaky and smeared. Tina sat next to me, her coarse blond hair blowing crazily, her plump legs straight out, scuffy tennis shoes pointed in at each other. She was sockless and had a scab the size of a pencil eraser on her left anklebone, ridged and scaly, ripe. Maybe she was the kind of kid who didn't pick scabs. Who knew? She was uncharted territory, this new sister, her own frontier.
Our destination was a huge furniture warehouse out by Highway 99. We were after bunk beds and got to help pick them out, climbing up and down the ladders of showroom models, bouncing a little on the mattresses like people in commercials. When we got back to the Lindberghs', everyone changed into pajamas and brushed teeth; then Bub called us all into the living room. I thought there was going to be a family prayer but then noticed he had set up a reel-to-reel recorder on the floor. He had us sit Indian-style in a circle while he fussed with the machine. "Testing, testing." The microphone looked as small and silver as a sardine in Bub's sun-toughened hand. He tapped the talking end several times, blew into it and then, when satisfied, began to play radio commentator, going around the circle, asking each of us our names and how old we were, and one thing we were happy about. In that way, it was a little like Thanksgiving. He started with Penny, and although she stared into her slippers, she said her name and age without stuttering a bit, then briefly described the wonders of her Barbie camper - the miniature Styrofoam ice chest, the lantern no bigger than a jelly bean.
I rubbed a section of my hair back and forth across my lips, my oldest habit. I was trying to think of the perfect thing to say, but when the mike came around to me, there was nothing but air in my mouth.
"Hey, have you forgotten who you are?" Bub teased.
I dropped my hands and flushed. "No. I'm Paula." My name came out with a dry croak, and I had to repeat it: "I'm Paula and I'm eight and I'm happy for ... for. I'm just happy, I guess." I reached for my hair again and looked through my crossed legs at the carpet, a medium shag with blue-and-brown twists.
"Well, that's all right," Bub said. "That's a start."
When he got to Tina, she flung one plump arm around Teresa's neck, nearly knocking her over in the process. "I'm Tina Marie Lindbergh, and this is my new bestest buddy!"
Teresa grinned and nodded yes, yes, yes, her curls shaking excitedly. Pinned against Tina, she looked much younger than usual and completely uncomposed. Joyful.
Now wait just a minute, I thought, I am Tina's roommate. I am the friendliest, so why is Teresa suddenly the bestest buddy? And what is a bestest buddy anyhow?
Once the opening ceremonies had ended, we headed down the hall to bed. Tina's room was pretty and more feminine than I would have guessed, with pink walls, purple-flowered curtains and an industrial-size night-light with an eyelet shade and purple bulb. It wasn't at all dark in there, but I imagined that was the point. I watched Tina climb the wooden ladder to the top bunk and settled myself on the bottom. We lay there in silence for several minutes. Shouldn't we say something? I thought. Even if it's just good night? Then, quite spontaneously, I hopped out of bed and stood on the ladder to face her. "Here," I said, holding out my floppy beanbag toad. "This is Froggy. He's good to sleep with."
She thanked me and smiled sleepily, and I was glad I had done it for all of about five minutes, until I heard her fall into a deep, diesel-like breathing and realized I wasn't going to be able to sleep myself. Not only was the mattress new and crinkly, but the outside noises were all wrong. Instead of cars and sirens, there were crickets; a dog padding across the patio, shaking his collar; horses feeding with sharp tugs of grass that sounded like something perforated coming apart. Why had I given Froggy to Tina? She probably didn't even want him. The beans wouldn't stay in his left leg, and his bubble eyes had been rubbed clean of the black eyeball paint. He was a stupid toy. Stupid. I covered my face with my pillow and breathed in and out, in and out, then surfaced again. Deep, purple shadows fell over the horse posters thumbtacked to the wall and over the shelves with plastic horse figurines in different sizes, some with saddles and reins that looked to be real leather. Tina was lucky to have such nice things. It occurred to me that since I was there borrowing her room, her closet, half of the dresser pasted with Super Friends stickers, the nightstand and water glass, even her parents, sleeping right across the hall and snoring like a cave of bears, maybe I could borrow a little luck too. A thimbleful, a knuckle's worth, a smidge.
Excerpted from Like Family by Paula McLain Copyright © 2003 by Paula McLain. Excerpted by permission.
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