Now that Bess Cunningham is in middle school, she's determined to get noticed. With her new glasses, her wild thrift-store clothes, and her job as stage manager for the school play, she's sure her days of being invisible are over.
Being forced to volunteer with her parents at the local soup kitchen doesn't exactly fit into Bess's popularity plans, especially since she finds the place so creepy. But when she meets Gracie Jarvis Battle, an elderly homeless woman, Bess can't help but feel compassion for her. Bess grows more involved with trying to feed and shelter the older woman, but as the weather turns colder and Gracie grows thinner, Bess begins to wonder will her help be enough?
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It was the last week of the summer, and I felt like I should be getting ready, but there I was on Ethan's back porch again, playing Monopoly, just like most other days this summer. In fact, we were playing the same exact game we'd started in June. How many times the last three months had I landed in Jail and been glad to sit out a couple of my losing turns? Too many. Ethan was busy exchanging five-hundred-dollar bills for more hotels.
"Let's just say you win," I suggested. "In five days school starts. I want to do something different."
Ethan stared at my treasonous face. "Bess! We said we'd play this game all summer!"
"We have. Almost."
"But you can't quit now. I've got hotels on Park Place and Boardwalk!"
"Yeah, and all the Railroads and all the greens and yellows and reds, too! I couldn't possibly win. I'm bankrupt!"
"Here, I'll lend you some more money," he said, giving me a fistful of hundred-dollar bills. That's what he always does. That's why we'll probably be playing this same game until we graduate from high school. Ethan doesn't really care about winning; he's just naturally good at games, and Monopoly is his favorite.
"Well, let's at least quit for today. We'll play some more tomorrow."
He wasn't happy, but I knew he'd give in. Ethan doesn't like to argue.
"Okay. But what else can we do? It's too hot to ride bikes."
"We could go to the pool," I said. Ethan never wants to go to the pool, but I thought maybe the heat would change his mind. He doesn't like wearing swimming trunks in public because he thinks he's fat.
"I told you, I don't want to go there again until I have my growth spurt." His mother told him he'd get thin again when he had his growth spurt, and he was waiting for it like an extra birthday. I hope he gets it before next summer so we can cool off once in a while.
"Is Janette home today? We could go over there."
"Are you kidding? It's Thursday afternoon, which is ballet and tennis."
Janette Silverman is my second best friend (after Ethan) and the shyest girl in our class. We might have all three been best friends except that Janette is too nervous to sit around playing games. And she never stays in one place very long. She's used to being busy; her mother has her booked up with lessons ballet, singing, violin, tennis, swimming. And in the summer she has to take sailing lessons every morning. I would die if I had to get up early even in the summer.
Sometimes Janette complains about having so much to do all the time. Once she told me, "My mother wants me to be a child prodigy. In anything she doesn't care what. But I think I'm already too old." She chews her nails down to stumps.
Ethan was putting all his bills and property into perfect order so he'd be ready to monopolize me again tomorrow.
"What are you wearing to school next week?" I asked him.
He looked at me as if my body had been inhabited by aliens. "What do you mean? The same stuff I always wear."
"Ethan, we're starting middle school. You don't want to look like you're still going to Albertine Gustavson Elementary School, do you?"
He shrugged. "Sixth graders don't look that different from fifth graders."
"Middle school kids look different. You never notice anything."
"I do too. Besides, you don't look any different."
"Maybe not this minute, but I will. My mother bought me some new clothes. And I'm getting a haircut tomorrow afternoon and picking up my new glasses on Monday. They have thin silver frames and they're really cool." It was hard to believe I'd ever liked my old pink frames they looked so childish now.
Ethan wasn't impressed. "Girls always do that stuff. Boys don't."
That made me mad. "Ethan Riley, I never did this before, and plenty of boys wear cool stuff to school. We've dressed like twin dorks for six years. It's time we started to look interesting."
"I am not a dork."
"You're the biggest dork!" I know that sounds mean, but Ethan and I always say that kind of stuff to each other. Besides, I could have told you what he'd say next.
"Who cares? Sweatpants are comfortable. Hey, your mom's home. Let's go to your house."
Ethan lives next door to me, so it's not exactly a hike to go back and forth. And he's crazy about my mother, probably because she thinks he's the neatest invention since toast.
I'd forgotten what our living room looked like until we walked in the front door.
"I think your closets exploded," Ethan said.
"It's rummage sale weekend at the church," I said.
"Oh, right, your mom was in charge of that last year, too."
"She's in charge of it every year. Like she doesn't have enough to do already between her job and helping out at the shelter. I've hardly seen her for weeks," I complained.
He was pulling old shoes out of a box and measuring them against his foot. "Couldn't somebody else do the rummage sale sometimes?"
I shook my head. "She wants to do it. So she can go through the stuff first and pick out things for the people at the shelter." Not that our house is ever what you'd call neat, but the weeks before the rummage sale things really get out of hand. The dining room fills up with garbage bags first, and by the last collection days the living room is starting to look like Goodwill, with old coffeemakers and ugly lamps, mismatched dishes, and busted-up game boxes stacked all over everything. And now the couch was piled high with clothes, too. Mom had obviously been rummaging herself.
"Hi, guys," Mom called from the kitchen. "Want some carrots?" Mothers never give up pushing vegetables.
"Could we make popcorn instead? Corn is a vegetable," I said. "How come you're home early?"
She came into the living room but had to finish chewing her carrot before she could speak. "I have to get the rest of these bags down to the church by five, but I want to check through them first for clothes for the shelter. How about you two giving me a hand, and then we'll make popcorn?"
"Sure!" Ethan volunteered. "I think it's so cool that you and Mr. Cunningham serve lunch at the shelter on Sundays. I wish my parents did something like that."
"Your parents are busy," Mom said, just to make Ethan feel better.
"Not as busy as you," I said, but they ignored me. Mom dumped a few garbage bags out on the floor and explained to Ethan what she was looking for, mostly coats and warm sweaters. Some shoes, too.
"We don't go to the shelter every Sunday," Mom told Ethan. "More like every other week."
I felt like adding, And then you go to meetings about it the rest of the time. But I didn't. I know I shouldn't complain. I mean, she helps people who need her help. Maybe some Sunday I'll go stand in line at the soup kitchen and Mom will take a good look at me, too.
"You wouldn't think it was so great to have your parents out feeding other people if you had to stay home and make lunch for Willy," I told Ethan.
Mom threw a sweater onto the shelter pile and turned to stare at me. "What? Why are you making lunch for Willy? He's perfectly capable of taking care of himself."
"He always makes me some kind of bet or says I owe him for something."
"I'll speak to him," she said, but I knew she'd forget all about it. Mom is always talking about how you have to prioritize your responsibilities if you have a lot to do, and I learned a long time ago that Willy and I are not high on her priority list.
Willy's five years older than me, a junior in high school this year. It kills me when I hear girls say they wish they had an older brother. "Take mine," I tell them. "He's all yours." He was all right when we were younger, but as soon as he started high school he stopped speaking. Now all he does is grunt and swear, unless he's talking to one of his friends on the telephone, of course. Then he's Mr. Hilarious.
"How come you never go?" Ethan asked me.
"Go where?" I wasn't paying attention.
"To the shelter with your parents."
"I don't like to," I said.
"I just don't, all right?" I poked through a big pile of junk and pulled out a worn blue cardigan with a hole in the elbow. "How about this? Is this good?"
"That looks fine, sweetie," Mom said, winking at me.
She knows it makes me uncomfortable to go to the Derby Street Shelter. It's in Atwood, but not near our house. It's in downtown Atwood, on the other side of the middle and high schools, in a kind of run-down area. Where our house is, it's pretty; all the houses have yards with trees and flowers and barbecue grills. But down there the buildings are close together, and some of the apartment windows are broken out. It makes me feel small to walk around there, like I don't belong.
When we were little, Willy and I used to go to the shelter with Mom and Dad because we were too young to stay home alone and it was hard to find a baby-sitter for Sunday afternoons. We'd sit back in the kitchen and eat soup and bread and salad. Dad would cook, which never seemed odd because he does most of the cooking at home, too. He loves cooking, which Mom says is one of his best qualities. Dad's a lawyer, but standing in the kitchen at the shelter, stirring a big kettle, he'd always say, "I should have been a chef."
After a while Willy and I decided we wanted to be out in front, where all the action seemed to be, at the serving line with Mom. Until we actually went out there.
It was kind of scary. I mean, a lot of the people looked okay, but some of them, when they got up close to you, smelled bad. I remember once there were two men in the back of the room having a loud argument about something, and some of the shelter people finally had to make them leave. One woman coughed all over her food, and her two little kids looked pretty snotty and sick, too. It was weird. I'd never been around people like that before. Some of them were downright crazy. You couldn't pretend they weren't. Even my parents couldn't.
Not that anybody ever hurt me or even touched me or anything. The last time we went, I guess I was about eight and Willy was thirteen. I was standing by the trash barrel, just daydreaming, and this old man looked me right in the eye and said, "Could you help me find my teeth? I dropped them in the barrel." Except without his teeth it sounded more like, "Would you hep me fine my teef? I dwopped dem in da barrow."
Now I realize I should have just told somebody about it; my mom or dad would've helped him look. But all I could think about was that big gummy mouth of his smiling at me, and me having to dig through the garbage to find his old yellow choppers.
So I started crying. I cried until Mom drove Willy and me home. And that was the last time we ever had to go to the shelter. Willy was thrilled to stay home and "baby-sit" for me, as long as I didn't bother him while he watched videos all afternoon.
I held up an enormous flowered skirt, about size 82. "Who buys this stuff, anyway?" I said. "I mean, I know poor people at the shelter need clothes, but why would anybody else want this junk?" I couldn't imagine wearing somebody's old, thrown-out clothes.
"Lots of people," Mom said. "You can start putting stuff back in the garbage bags now. I've got enough to take to Derby Street."
"But who?" I insisted.
"Well, there are people who just don't like to spend a lot of money on clothes. They think it's a shame to get rid of perfectly wearable clothes just because they aren't this year's styles. I feel that way."
"Yeah, but you wouldn't buy stuff at rummage sales."
"Of course I would! My favorite blouse is from last year's sale. I have a lot of clothes I've picked up at our sale."
I made a face. "Ethan, don't you tell a soul my mother wears used clothes." That's all I needed to ruin my new middle school image, the news that my mother wore somebody else's raggy, old outfits.
Ethan, of course, couldn't imagine why I objected to anything Alice Cunningham did. "What's the big deal? She looks fine." Saint Alice.
"Thank you, Ethan. Lots of people shop at rummage sales," Mom said. "Kids from the college come to pick up inexpensive, funky-looking outfits. People who like to stand out from the crowd, look a little different. And some people just can't afford to pay the prices they ask at the mall. They aren't homeless, but they don't want to waste their money on overpriced clothing."
As you can tell, my mother has a lot of opinions.
So do I. "Well, I don't get it. I mean, those clothes could be dirty, or something."
"That's why we own a washing machine," Mom said.
Ethan grinned. "I'm gonna go to the sale. It sounds like fun."
"Why?" I said. "All you ever wear is gray sweatpants and a navy blue sweatshirt."
He shrugged. "Maybe I'll change."
"Wait until Saturday," Mom suggested. "That's Bag Day. All you can stuff into a bag for one dollar. There's always lots left to choose from."
"Great," I said. "I'll come, too. I can help Ethan pick out a new housedress and a pair of fuzzy slippers." Ethan just laughed. I don't know why he doesn't have a million friends. He never gets mad at anybody, and he acts like everything you say is so darn funny.
Text copyright © 2000 by Ellen Wittlinger
Reading Group Guide
A GUIDE FOR READING GROUPS
By Ellen Wittlinger
ABOUT THE BOOK
Bess Cunningham has parents who give all their free time to the community soup kitchen and to establishing a permanent shelter for homeless women. Her parents and her best friend, Ethan, want her to volunteer at the kitchen, but all Bess wants to do is to be in the school play and to be the most popular girl at her new middle school. Yet Gracie, an elderly homeless woman who eats out of Dumpsters, captures Bess's attention. With the weather getting colder, Bess and Ethan must try to help Gracie survive.
Homeless persons; School and family life; Identity
- What does it mean to be popular? What makes a person popular?
- Have you ever seen or known a homeless person? What makes a person homeless?
- Willy (Bess's older brother) and Bess have a typical brother/sister relationship. How do they work at liking and/or disliking each other?
- As a class or as a school, you could start a food drive and donate food to the local homeless shelter or community soup kitchen.
- Put on a play for the lower grades in your school.
- Gracie died of heart failure. Do some research on the heart and diseases of the heart.
Please visit http://www.emporia.edu/libsv/wawbookaward/ for more information about the awards and to see curriculum guides for other master list titles.
Prepared by Steve Fuller, McCarter Elementary