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More Than Allies
By Sandra Scofield
The Permanent PressCopyright © 1993 Sandra Scofield
All rights reserved.
South of Lupine, the highway ascended rapidly, curving in broad swaths along the rim of the valley. It was early, and the mountains, in shadows, looked a cool blue. At the top, they were ribbed with pink morning light. We pulled off at the turnout. There were several other cars parked, people out for a better look. A couple held an elderly woman between them by her elbows, as if she might beat her arms and fly away. A woman in a long green sweater sat on a rock, smoking, while a man stood beside her, talking without looking at her.
We watched the boys, like puppies, taking the air. They pummeled one another, then climbed a flat boulder and waved to us. They made faces and posed, though nobody had a camera.
It's going to be a long drive, I told her. I wish we had some of those books on tape. Not that I have a player. I don't even have a radio.
She said: We can talk.
I did have things I wanted to talk about. I had things to figure out. There would be time. Sure, I said.
You can tell me about your friends.
But you already know them!
I don't think we know the same things, she said. They never talked to me.
I guess they wouldn't, I said, then I glanced over to see if I'd offended her. She didn't seem to notice. I wanted to tell her, my friends didn't listen.
We can talk about our children, she said. It did seem odd, that the boys knew each other so much better than we women did.
We should have done that sooner.
And our husbands, she said.
I was surprised; she seemed so private. I thought I would like to know what she thought about love, and if I, in turn, spoke my own feelings—we had no history, she and —I might hear what I really thought.
Really, it's ourselves, I said. We should talk about ourselves.
I might not be good at that.
I told her: We have lots of time.
Be patient, she said. This is new for me. I never belonged to a group, like you. I'm not used to talking.
By then we were over the pass into California. On that side, the hills looked like camel-brown suede. I told her: Go ahead. You start.
I wanted her to tell me how to be strong like her. She had been alone a long time. I wanted to say, tell me how to be still, how not to cry. I always thought other people knew things I did not. I always wondered how they had learned earlier, and more easily.
She said she dreamed, and she wrote her dreams in a notebook. She said: I dreamed about you. Last night. I saw you in a house, on the second floor. I saw you from across a large yard. You were standing at a window. I don't know what you were doing, but I thought you were smiling.
What a nice dream. I hardly ever dream.
Everybody dreams. You have to tell yourself to remember. You have to tell yourself it's better to know.
Mmm, I murmured. I had found that when people didn't speak, it was usually because they knew they could hurt you. Dreams might be like that, or the mind's openness to dreams. I knew I would never invite dreams, or write them down. And even if it is true that everybody has dreams, I might never know what mine were. I thought for me that was best.CHAPTER 2
She was worrying about her report on angels. She had been working on it over a month. She had a lot of notes. What would they be good for now? She might have made an A; her English grade was important to her. At first her teacher had tried to talk her out of the subject; she had a policy not to allow religious topics. I'm not religious, she argued. I don't even know if I believe in God. But angels—I think I saw one once.
The teacher said, let's separate that from the report. You can write about the angel you saw in your journal, for a free-writing assignment, if you want. For the report, though, think about angels across time, across cultures—an angel survey. See what people have thought about them. See what you can learn about early representations of angels. Did the ancient Greeks have angels? Did the Egyptians? What do Hindus believe? Moslems? Jews?
Of course you can write about angels! the teacher said. They've fascinated people throughout all ages. It was almost as if she were trying to talk her into the topic, when she'd started out trying to talk her out of it.
"I bet we'll come up out of this fog in a minute," the social worker, Mrs. Lyons, was saying. The sky had been gray and damp and cold for a couple of days now. You couldn't see the hills. "I could use a little sunshine," she added, as if she had problems made worse by the lack of light.
All the things Maggie had read about angels mentioned light, and sometimes fire. She'd thought of angels as sweet and beautiful, until she began reading about them. They could be majestic, even fierce. Some people believed in demons—fallen angels, as terrible as they had once been wonderful.
Mrs. Lyons took the first Lupine exit. They drove past some houses, and then, as she predicted, the sky cleared. They stopped at a light by a school. Little kids in fat jackets scurried across the street under the eye of the crosswalk guard. For the next few blocks, they passed big old houses on lots high above the sidewalks, and then they were in town, driving by shops. "You'll see the most wonderful gardens here in spring," Mrs. Lyons said. "Not just beds, but sometimes whole lots, filled with color. I drive over just to see them.
"The Jarretts live at the other end," she continued, "but I thought you'd like going through town and seeing what it looks like. You've never been over here, isn't that right?" Maggie's cheeks burned. She felt stupid. She'd grown up at the other end of the valley, twenty-five miles away, and for the past year she'd been living closer in than that, but she'd never been anywhere. If you were a debater or an athlete, you had a reason to go to Lupine—there was a college there—or if you went on one of the school Shakespeare Theatre visits—but she had never been in extracurricular activities, and she had never signed up to go to a play.
"You're very lucky with this placement," Mrs. Lyons went on. "The Jarretts haven't taken a child in years. They're wonderful people. He's the fire chief."
"Oh," she said, because she didn't want Mrs. Lyons to think she was pouting, but what difference did it make to her what Mr. Jarrett did for a living? How lucky was she supposed to feel? All she cared was that they did not, like the last family, have horses. There had been terrible quarrels because she did not want to clean out stalls or feed the animals. She was willing to wash dishes, do laundry, sweep and mop. She didn't complain about watching the younger children, though they were dull and bratty. But she didn't think it was up to her to take care of animals. They weren't hers. Finally, she had simply refused to come out of her room. The woman had argued and argued, and then had shaken her. When Mrs. Lyons came, the woman said Maggie provoked her. It wasn't like she struck her. She wasn't a baby, with an unformed brain.
"The daughter is a sophomore, too," Mrs. Lyons said. "I'm sure you'll be friends."
Maggie nodded. It took great effort, as if her head were held down by lead weights. She didn't understand why she was being moved to another town. She had talked to a girl in her geometry class who was going to ask her parents if she could stay with them. She'd just needed a little more time. It didn't seem fair that she should change schools now, when she was ready to write her report. She hadn't had any warning, hadn't had time to ask the teacher if she would be credited in her transfer grade with the effort she had made. Maybe the Lupine class would be doing reports, now or later, and she could write up what she'd learned about angels then. Assuming she had a new teacher who could be enthusiastic because she was, who would be willing to allow angels as a topic even if religion had no place in school.
The Jarretts lived on a quiet street with no sidewalks, almost out of town. Their house was the deep shiny red of nail polish, with white trim. It looked out across the tops of houses at hills dusted with snow. Mrs. Jarrett met them in the drive, reaching out for Maggie's things. All she had was a suitcase and a backpack. "Come in, come in!" Mrs. Jarrett said, the way you would think she would greet relatives.
She took her down a short hallway. "This will be your room," she said. "The bath is right across the hall, you share that with Gretchen. We're in the corner over there." She patted a cupboard door in the hall. "Towels, help yourself. There's a laundry basket in the bathroom." Maggie was clutching her backpack against her chest. "Oh goodness," Mrs. Jarrett said, "I'm telling you a lot more than you need to know. Why don't you set your things down, and then come into the kitchen? I'll get us something to drink."
Maggie heard their voices, low, concerned, friendly, while she looked around the room. Everything that would have made the room somebody's was gone. She could see where there had been posters on the wall. There were shelves, now empty. The spread on the bed, a pretty pink print, was obviously new. She sat down on the edge and pressed hard into the center of the bed. It seemed okay. It didn't have any big depressions from whoever had been sleeping in it. Butt-rutts, she called them. They made her feel intrusive; they were too intimate.
Suddenly she was so sleepy she wanted nothing so much as to lie face forward on the new pink spread and sleep until morning, when she would go to school, but she looked up and saw Mrs. Lyons in the doorway, smiling at her in a way that said, let's get off on the right foot here.
She followed her back to the kitchen, and sat at the table across from Mrs. Jarrett, who offered her cookies from a plate, and a cup of tea. Maggie declined a cookie; they weren't homemade, so she didn't think it would hurt Mrs. Jarrett's feelings. She stared into her cup. The tea had almost no color, and a funny odor. She took a sip, and gasped. Both women stared.
"It's hot," she said. The smell made her think of the hay they fed horses.
Mrs. Jarrett's hand went to her mouth. "Oh, I've given you herb tea and you don't like it."
"It's all right," she said meekly.
"Of course it's not," Mrs. Jarrett said, clearing the cup away quickly. "I'm sorry."
Tears sprang to Maggie's eyes. There was no way she was going to be able to answer questions. She couldn't be interesting and grateful and polite all at once, if ever, and certainly not right now, when she was too sleepy to speak at all.
Mrs. Jarrett handed her a bottle of Coke and a napkin. "You can take this down to your room, if you like, dear," she said. "I bet you're not the least bit interested in sitting here with us right this minute." She patted Maggie's hand. "We're going to have a long time to get to know one another. I bet you'd rather be by yourself a little while."
Both grateful and embarrassed, Maggie fled without telling Mrs. Lyons goodbye. She drank some of the Coke and set it on the table by the bed, then opened her suitcase. Her belongings had been hastily packed; her blouses were wrinkled. Some of the clothes were dirty. She picked up a skirt she liked, a simple flared corduroy she had made in Home Ec in the fall. She rubbed the nap, the way she had rubbed a stuffed pig she'd had as a child. She had no idea what had happened to that pig. She wished she still had it.
She thought Mrs. Jarrett was nice. She thought things would be okay in this red house. She would get used to another school.
There were two pillows on the bed. She smacked them. One was hard, one soft. She kicked off her shoes and crawled onto the spread, covering her arms with her jacket. She lay on the hard pillow, and covered her head with the soft one.
When she woke, it was dark. She could hear a television, the sound of voices, and kitchen noises. She smelled food, and she realized she was hungry.
She went across the hall to the bathroom and washed. As she stepped out, she saw a girl in the doorway of her room. The girl turned. She looked so much like Maggie, in size and coloring, her hair long and limp on her shoulders, there was an instant of recognition for both of them.
"I came to tell you supper's ready," the girl said. "I'm Gretchen. You're Margaret?"
"Maggie." She reached back to turn off the bathroom light.
"We're having chicken. Mother's a good cook."
They both stepped into the hall. Maggie looked over Gretchen's shoulder. "Was that a boy's room?" she asked. Gretchen said it was.
"He didn't die, did he?" Maggie said. She didn't think she could sleep in the room of someone who had died.
Gretchen laughed. "He just went to the army," she said. "He left the day after Christmas."
It was a terrible thing to have said. "Don't tell your mother I asked that," Maggie said.
Gretchen took hold of Maggie's elbow. "Don't worry about Mother," she said. "Don't worry about anything. Really, that room is your room now. You're home, Maggie. Mother says an angel sent you. She can't stand an empty bed. She needs you. You'll see. She's got to have people to look out for. She's got too much energy for just Dad and me. You've come to the right place. I don't know what you've been through, why you don't have your own family to be with, but I promise, you'll be happy here. Don't tell Mom I made a big deal out of it. But don't worry anymore. You'll be happy."CHAPTER 3
Maggie heard the baby crying, but tunneled deeply into sleep, she thought it was from far away. A neighbor baby. She woke when Jay stood by her bed, shaking her shoulder. "I think Stevie's sick," he said. With no more light than the night light by the crib, she could see that his Garfield shirt had a big stain on it. Grape juice, his current passion.
"I'm sorry, honey," she told him. She squeezed his elbow. "Go back to bed." He slept on a day bed in the living room of the little cottage. Stevie slept in an alcove made out of what had been the closet. Maggie sat up and rubbed her eyes. Stevie barked once, that awful croupy cough she'd had before, and then she made a soft, mewling sound. Jay stumbled off to bed.
As Maggie picked her up, Stevie tried to cry louder, but only a pitiful thin whimper came out. She was hot, her pajama top damp with perspiration. Maggie held her and walked over to switch on the lamp on the dresser. The way Stevie looked frightened her. She was pale and damp, and her lips were dark. She was gasping, sucking in air, her little chest heaving. Maggie felt her forehead and called Jay.
"Run in and tell Granny I need her, honey. Tell her to bring a thermometer."
Her son groaned. Maggie reached out to touch him on the shoulder. "Then go to bed in the house, we'll be up out here. Thank you. I don't know what I'd do without you, Jay-Jay." As he headed out, his T-shirt billowed in the back, and Maggie could see his underpants drooping in the seat.
Polly didn't think they should fool around. She held the baby while Maggie dressed, then ran back in to dress herself. On the way to the hospital, Maggie said, "I can't let you pay for this. What'll they say? With no insurance?" Polly said not to worry. The hospital had a sign up in the emergency room: We Serve Our Community. "I'll talk to them about it," she offered. "They'll charge you something less, and Mo will send money. All that matters right now is to see to Stevie."
The baby felt so warm against Maggie's chest, steam seemed to rise. "Shh, shh," she soothed, though the baby was barely whimpering. Every once in a while she'd suck in air, then bark, then subside again to her pitiful sounds. "I'm scared," Maggie said, but by then they were there.
They thought maybe the baby had swallowed something that was stuck in her windpipe, or even in a lung. Maggie couldn't think what that would be. They handled the baby all over, less gently than Maggie thought they should, but maybe it was the haste, the need, that made them seem rough. They said they had to take an X-ray, they didn't know what they were looking for. One of the nurses led her back into the sitting room, where she huddled against Polly.
Polly put her arm around her. She stroked her hair and shushed and whispered. Maggie felt like the child. She needed to feel that way; it was too overwhelming to see her own child struggling to breathe. Jay had never scared her like this. He had had all the things babies have: colds and diarrhea, earaches and rashes. He had been a screamer, too, yowling when a diaper rubbed him the wrong way or he was hungry, but Mo had loved that, loved to say, Listen to that kid, won't you! Stevie was different, not fragile or sickly, but quiet and watchful and almost sad. Maggie thought it was because Mo left when he did, just when Stevie started to walk. She liked to toddle back and forth across the room, but she had to go between Maggie and a chair. Her daddy was gone.
The ER doctor came out and sat in a chair across from Maggie and Polly. Maggie's heart threatened to thud out of her chest. He smiled, though. He said whatever it was appeared to be over. "Baby is breathing freely," he said. They thought that a cold virus had come on so suddenly and fiercely, Baby had coughed up a knot of phlegm and it had plugged her throat, like a chunk of carrot or a quarter, cutting off her airway. With all the handling, and her attempts to cry, the phlegm had finally been freed and spit up. "She's really quite all right," he said. "You can take her home." He had more to say—not to give her aspirin for the fever, to give her plenty of water—but Maggie couldn't concentrate. She didn't have to. She knew Polly would know what to do.
Excerpted from More Than Allies by Sandra Scofield. Copyright © 1993 Sandra Scofield. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
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