That’s not good enough.”
I scratch the mosquito bite on the back of my arm and adjust my thick-lens glasses to look up at my mom. Her eyes feel like two sharp prongs probing right into my forehead–as if she can read my thoughts. And maybe she can.
“Why not?” I say quietly, then glance away, wishing I’d kept quiet.
“Look at that carpet.” Her index finger points down like an arrow at the new orange shag carpeting that goes wall to wall in our small, wood-paneled family room.
I look but see nothing other than carpet. Still, I know better than to state this as fact.
“Pull the vacuum back and forth in straight lines. Back and forth, back and forth, like this.” She uses her hands to show me, as if I don’t fully understand the concept of back and forth.
I stand with my shoulders hunched forward, staring dumbly down at the sea of orange at my feet.
“If you did it right, Ruth, I would see neat, even rows about six inches wide. Now, start in the corner by the fireplace, and do it again.”
I frown and, although I know it’s not only futile but stupid, say, “But it’s clean, Mom. I vacuumed everything in here. The carpet is already clean.”
The family room becomes very quiet now. With the Hoover off, I can hear the sounds of kids playing outside, enjoying their Saturday freedom like normal ten-year-olds, not that I mistake myself for normal. And then I hear the familiar hissing sound of my mother as she blows air like a jet stream through her nostrils.
“Ruth Anne!” She bends down and peers at me, those flaming blue eyes just inches from my own. “Are you talking back to me?”
I glance down at my faded blue Keds and mutely shake my head. I do not want to be slapped. Without looking at her, I turn the vacuum cleaner on again and drag its bulky, cavernous body over to the wall by the fireplace next to the big picture window, although I don’t look out. I don’t want to see my friends playing. Even worse, I don’t want them to see me.
As I vacuum the rug all over again, I try not to think about my older sister, Lynette, the pretty one. I try not to imagine her at her ballet lesson just now, looking sleek and lovely in her black leotard and tights, doing a graceful arabesque with one hand on the barre, glimpsing her long straight back in the gleaming mirror behind her.
“You are not made for ballet,” my mother had told me two years ago when I pleaded with her for lessons. “You’re much too stout, and your arms and legs are too short and stubby. You take after your father’s side of the family.”
And I can’t disagree with her when I examine myself in the bathroom mirror. With my dark hair of untamable curls and these muddy brown eyes, I definitely do not look like I belong in this particular family of blue-eyed, long-limbed blonds. Well, my mother isn’t a true blonde. She helps it out with her monthly bottle of Lady Clairol, although no one is allowed to mention this fact, ever, and she takes care to purchase her “contraband” in a drugstore in the neighboring town where no one knows her. But she lets it be known that Lynette and my little brother, Jonathan, both get their silky blond locks from her side of the family–a respectable mix of English and Scandinavian.
Jonathan is four years younger than I am, but unlike me, he is not an accident. Plus he is a much-wanted boy, named after my father, Jonathan Francis Reynolds. Once while playing hide-and-seek at church, I was hiding behind the drapes in the fellowship room when I overheard my mother talking to a lady friend. The other woman commented on how Lynette and I look nothing alike. “Oh, Ruth wasn’t planned, you know,” my mother said in a hushed tone, causing my ears to perk up and actually listen for a change. “Good grief. My little Lynette was still in diapers, and suddenly I was pregnant again! Can you imagine? Well, I was completely devastated by the–”
Just then Jonathan raced over and threw himself around my mother’s knees, complaining that he’d been left out of the childish game.
“Now, this one”–my mother spoke with pride as she ruffled his pale hair–“he was no mistake.”