The winter of fourth grade, I got my period for the first time. I got it on Valentines Day. I got it during gym, during freeze tag. I got it while I was frozen. I was a very competitive child, and I couldn’t quit the game.
Mary Klepper asked if I’d sat on a prune, knowing full well I hadn’t. She had gotten her period the month before.
After gym, I ran to the nurse’s office. She’d just run out of pads. “Sorry,” she said, “They don’t give me enough.” But she didn’t look sorry.
She gave me a navy Hard Rock Cafe sweatshirt from the lost and found and told me to wrap it around my waist.
“What about the bleeding?” I said.
“Stuff your underwear with toilet paper.”
Mom said that girls were getting theirs much younger nowadays. She blamed the hormones in our food. Mary’s mother bought her flowers, cooked her favorite meal, but with mine there was no such display, no tears at the reality of my burgeoning womanhood.
“Oh God, it begins,” she said and shooed me away towards the bathroom. “Go put on a pad.”
I found the Always box under the sink, but there weren’t any pads in it. Instead there was a thick wad of cash held together by a well-worn rubber band. I counted the bills slowly, listening for my mother’s footsteps.
There was $722.
* * *
Most nights, I did my homework on the floor next to the wood stove in two pairs of socks, while our father sat on the La-Z-Boy and my sister Judy wrote love letters to the boys from school. She told me I was lucky I was too young for love; she couldn’t keep up with how her feelings darted around. She had to write them all down just to sleep at night. Some were particularly lurid, and because of this she hid the letters under her mattress.
We kept the TV on all night, starting with Jeopardy. Dad would slur wrong answers and pass out by the first Daily Double. Judy, who ranked at the top one percentile of her ninth grade class, would call out the right answers—What is the Parthenon? Who is Richard Nixon? What is Nitrogen? Mom preferred Unsolved Mysteries. It was no secret that she had a crush on Robert Stack. She taped all the episodes and would rewatch them in her room. She said this was her way of unwinding.
It was on one of these blustery nights, during a commercial break, that I first noticed Connie. The commercial was for a realty company. Houses that cost a fortune flashed across the screen, brick ones with mile-long driveways, white pillared ones with horse stables. Then a blonde in a blush pant suit materialized, leaning casually on a fireplace mantel. She wore her hair swept back with a tuft of bangs and bright pink lipstick. A mouth with teeth like peppermint Chiclets. She resembled an old Barbie I had decapitated.
“Why buy a house, when you could own a home?” the woman was saying. Her name, Connie Baker, and her phone number bounced below her breasts. There was something about her eyes—I couldn’t stop looking at them. They reminded me of the blue agate on my bookshelf. And it wasn’t just that. Her face was strangely familiar. Where had I seen it before?
Our mother kicked open the door then, pies in hand. Judy and I jumped up to help her.
“What kind?” I asked.
“Apple and blueberry.” She shook the snow off her coat and knocked her boots together and placed them in front of the wood stove. Dad grabbed at her as she walked to the kitchen and tried to pull her into his lap for a kiss. She dodged him.
“You stink,” she said.
The four of us sat in the kitchen and ate the pies. The blizzard howled around us. Tree branches rapped against the kitchen window above the sink. The wooden cellar door slammed open and shut with each new gust of wind. Mom was pulling doubles at the diner most days and sometimes she was too tired to even make Hamburger Helper. I didn’t understand why she was working so much. Our father had a good job. He was a lineman and spent many hours a week in other counties, fixing phone lines. Sometimes he’d get a call in the middle of the night and have to leave and I’d leap out of bed at the sound of front door, worried it was an intruder.
I poured myself a glass of milk. That’s when I saw the magnet on the fridge door. It was that same woman from the commercial. How long had it been there?
“Who’s this?” I asked.
“Connie? She’s new in town. Her realty office is across from the diner.”
Judy perked up. “Are you selling the house? Are we moving?” I could see all of her crushes flash before her, her face draining of color.
Mom smiled and shook her head.
“She’s come in for lunch a few times.”
I didn’t want to hear anymore about Connie.
“At school today, we started the Ancient Egypt unit.”
Dad and Judy looked up at me. Mom kept smiling, eyeing the last piece of apple pie.
“Miss Arondale said that at first they buried their dead in the sand, and the sand preserved the corpses, but then the rich Egyptians, the pharaohs, wanted tombs for their dead so they could visit the bodies. But then when they’d go to visit the bodies, they found them totally rotted. That’s why they started mummifying them.”
“Seems pretty grim, them teaching you about corpses in school,” Dad said, scooping up the last piece of pie. Mom glared.
“You want to split this?” asked Dad.
“Nope. Have at it.” She snatched the empty plates and began washing them.
“Wait until you get to make a mini sarcophagus. That’s the best part,” said Judy.
Mom blasted the faucet and vigorously scrubbed.
“What’s a sarcophagus?” I asked.
“A coffin,” said Mom.
* * *
Later that week Mom found Judy’s love letters when she was changing the sheets. I was told to go to my room, but I sat in the middle of the stairs and watched between the gaps in the railing. The letters were pressed flat on top of the kitchen table.
“You’re just lucky your father isn’t home,” Mom said.
He was in Philadelphia. But even if he were home, he wouldn’t have done anything about the letters. He let us run wild when Mom wasn’t around. Mom often said it was like living with three children, except Judy and I had better manners. We never smacked our lips or ate with our elbows on the table at dinner.
Judy reached out for the letters, the silver bangles clanking on her wrist, but Mom smacked her hand on the stack.
“Where did you learn about this stuff?”
“Cosmo,” Judy said.
“Just tell me, Judy. Be honest with me. Are you having sex?”
“You’re such a hypocrite. You had me at fifteen.”
“And look how well that turned out!” shrieked Mom.
Judy was unfazed. “I’m not stupid,” she said, “I know how to use a condom.”
Mom cracked her across the face. Hard. But Judy didn’t move. She looked through our mother and it was Mom that stomped towards the stairs. She swerved around me like I was a toy or a shoe, and slammed her bedroom door. The lock clicked. She muttered for a while, swearing. Cigarette smoke spilled under the door. I thought she was on the phone but when I picked it up off the hook in the kitchen, there was just a dial tone.
* * *
That Sunday, as usual, Mom took me to the library. Near the circulation desk were the best sellers. Mom scanned the shelf, looking for a book Connie had recommended.
“Here it is,” she said. The cover was red, with a blue stripe down the center and the word “Power” in gold letters across the stripe like a banner. The 48 Laws of Power.
“I’m going to have a look,” she said and wandered off to a wingback chair in the children’s section.
The next shelf was horror, mostly Stephen King. Carrie was on display, a girl of about Judy’s age on the cover, blood all over her. It was appealing to me. I couldn’t tell if it was someone elses’s blood or period blood, but both prospects were equally terrifying. I grabbed it and went to the children’s section. Mom wasn’t in the chair, but behind it, pressed up against the wall.
She didn’t notice my presence, her eyes glued to the page. I thought of my cousin who slept with his eyes open. She looked like that.
She winced and glanced up at me, closing the book.
“Find anything good?”
I handed her Carrie. She smiled.
“Have you read it?”
“No, but I love the movie. We’ll watch it sometime.”
We checked out the books and Mom slipped hers into her purse.
* * *
When we came home, Dad’s truck was in the driveway. Mom sat in the car for a minute before following me into the house. There were a dozen pink roses in a green milk-glass vase on the kitchen table.
“What’s this?” Mom asked.
“Do you like them?” Dad said.
“I’d trade flowers any day for dinner on the table just once.” She blew past him and went up stairs.
“I can make grilled cheese,” I said. Dad scruffed my head, grabbed a beer from the fridge and flopped on the couch.
I made three grilled cheeses because Judy was at the mall. She was always at the mall or cheerleading practice. I could see the magnet on the fridge in my periphery. Connie’s blue eyes shone. I pitched the magnet into the trash and delivered the first grilled cheese to Dad, who was zoned out in front of the TV watching a monster truck rally.
I carried the other plates up to my parents’ room. I could hear Mom laughing. It was a laugh I didn’t recognize.
“I swear they’re only good for one thing,” she was saying. She laughed again. “No, for opening jars.”
I knocked on the door with my foot.
“What?” she snapped.
There was a sigh. “Hold on a sec, Connie.”
She opened the door a crack.
“What’s up, kiddo?”
I held up the plate. “Dinner.”
She grinned and propped open the door. She waved me in, the phone wedged in the crook of her neck. She sat back in the bed and undid her braids. Her hair unfurled in dark crimped waves. I had only ever seen her hair in braids or undone from them.
Unsolved Mysteries was on T.V. The sound was low. Robert Stack was talking about a woman from Nebraska who had gone missing. She was last seen on her honeymoon in the Bahamas. Now there was no trace of her. Her husband swore his innocence from a floral couch in a wood paneled living room.
“I just want her back.” His eyes watery. Crumbs hung in his mustache.
“Seriously,” Mom was saying into the phone. “Right, right. I don’t know, where would we go?”
Mom paused to munch on her sandwich.
“Salamanca? I’ve never been there. It would be nice to get away.”
Then there was that laugh again, almost a giggle. It embarrassed me. I wanted to knock the phone out of her hand. My sandwich was getting cold, but I wasn’t hungry enough to eat it.
I pawed through her nail polishes in her vanity drawer. I found the deep sparkly blue I liked. I went to sit next to Mom on the bed, but she shook her head and pointed to the floor. I sat on the shag carpet like a dog. She flung a magazine at me to put my feet on. I painted two thick coats on my toenails and raised my foot to show her.
She gave me a thumbs up. “Why don’t you come over for dinner this weekend, meet the girls? Norman will be gone.” I had never heard her use my Dad’s full name before. She usually called him Norm.
I shook the nail polish vigorously, beating it into my palm. The top flew off and a pool of polish stained the carpet.
“Rachel!” Mom yelled, covering the mouth piece with her hand. “I gotta go, Connie. Talk to you later. Will do.” She jumped up and ran to the bathroom to grab the paper towels.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Blot.” She handed me a square and I pressed down on the blue spot, soaking up the polish. It looked like the ink stain on my backpack.
She spritzed Windex on the spot. “Old trick,” she said, rubbing. “Takes it right out.
* * *
The next morning, Dad was called into Millvillage on a job. Judy and I stayed home because it was a snow day. I was surprised she wasn’t out at the mall with her friends.
“Don’t you have somewhere to be?” I asked. She was flipping through the TV Guide.
“Chad might call,” she said.
Mom came home in the middle of the day with a pizza. The diner was dead, the weather was so bad they didn’t need her. “I thought we could have a girl’s night,” she beamed.
She pulled a VHS tape from her purse.
“Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” I read.
“Next time I’ll get Carrie,” she said, “Don’t tell your dad.”
Judy and I smiled at each other. We settled in on the couch under a knit quilt, while Mom sat on the floor next to the wood stove. She didn’t use a plate for her pizza, but instead caught the grease drippings in her hand. Judy hit play. The scariest movie I had seen up until this point was Gremlins. What was most terrifying about Texas Chainsaw was that I could barely see what was happening. I caught glimmers of things—a rusty metal hook, a sliver of skin, but the danger got all scrambled up, obscured by the shaky camera angles.
“It’s so dark,” I whined. I cringed when I heard my voice.
“That’s the point,” Mom said, picking off pepperonis and popping them into her mouth.
Half-way through the movie, the phone rang. Mom bounced up, wiped her greasy hands on her jeans, and picked the phone up in the kitchen.
I knew it was Connie. Connie had been calling every night.
“Should I pause the movie?” I yelled, louder than I needed to.
There was no answer. I hit pause on the remote. Leatherface was frozen, mid-strike, chainsaw in the air, his next victim cowering below.
* * *
When we came home from school the following night, Mom was making dinner. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen her before dark on a school night. She was bent over the stove, stirring a pot of red sauce. Her hair was in a French twist and she wore an ankle length denim skirt and forest green sweater I’d never seen before.
“Mom, your hair!” said Judy.
“Like it? Connie says it complements my bone structure.”
I could see her nipples through her sweater.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
She giggled. “What do you mean? This is my house!”
When I made no move to laugh, she said more seriously, that she had called in sick.
“What are you making?” Judy asked, walking over to the stove.
“This lasagne I had at Connie’s the other day. Fat Free!”
“Since when do you care about fat?” Judy asked.
“When were you at Connie’s?” I said.
“It’s healthy. What’s so bad about eating a healthy meal?” She lifted up the spoon to Judy. “Try it.”
“It’s great, Mom.”
“When were you at Connie’s?”
“Dinner’ll be ready in an hour. Go wash up,” she said.
I went into the living room. The 48 Laws of Power was splayed out on the arm rest of the couch.
We sat down to dinner, the three of us. I asked where Dad was.
“No idea,” Mom said. But she did know. We all knew. He was at the bar again. No longer relegated to weekends, the bar had become a regular pitstop on the way home from work.
Judy stuffed forkfulls of lasagne in her mouth and went on and on about the new cheerleading coach.
“Rachel, you haven’t touched your dinner,” Mom said.
“Come on, at least try it.”
I picked up my fork and cut off the smallest bite I could.
Just then the front door flew open and snow swirled into the foyer. All the lights were off in the living room, so we couldn’t see if it had just opened on its own or if it was Dad. Then came heavy, slow foot steps and our father appeared before us, wobbling. He leaned into the wall for balance.
“Hi honeys!” he said. I could smell the whiskey from there.
“For Christ’s sake,” said Mom. She jumped from her chair and filled the coffee pot with water. “Sit down, Norman.”
He pushed off from the wall as if he needed the momentum to make it to the empty kitchen chair and fell into it.
“How are my girls doing?”
Judy swallowed her food. “Coach Benton says I’m a natural! She thinks I’ll be good enough to make varsity.”
“No surprise there.” Dad winked.
Mom placed a cup of coffee in front of him. “Visit with your daughters. I’m going to lie down.”
He grabbed onto her hand, but she shook it off and stomped up the stairs.
“What about you? How was school?” He squinted his eyes, trying to focus, as if he was trying to make sense of me.
“I got a part in the school play,” I said.
* * *
The play was Charlotte’s Web. The following week, we had rehearsal every day after school. I was to play a mouse. Not the rat, Templeton—the role I tried out for—but a mouse narrator. There weren’t enough parts for all the kids so the theater teacher made some up. There were two other mice. I had four lines in total. After play practice, I stood outside the school lobby with one of the other mice and waited for Mom.
The station wagon rolled up at the curb, and I saw she wasn’t alone. The door popped open and Connie emerged from the passenger seat. She wore a red suit, gold earrings, red shoes with gold buckles, and panty hose four shades darker than her complexion. Her hair was feathered. She looked older than she did on television. Mom got out and came around to the side of the car.
“Rachel, this is Connie.”
Connie bent over and put her hand out. “Hello Dolly.”
“My name’s not Dolly,” I said. I gagged at the scent of her perfume. She smelled like a tube of pie filling.
Mom glared at me.
“Isn’t she adorable?” Connie squealed. “She’s a pistol, just like her mama.” On ‘mama’ her otherwise monotone voice gave way to a southern twang.
I slid into the backseat behind Mom so I could keep an eye on Connie. Connie complained about her boss for the first few minutes, dipping in and out of the southern accent, as if she couldn’t decide which person to be. I kicked Mom’s seat to try and get her attention. She didn’t seem to notice.
We passed the road to turn on for home.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
Connie and Mom looked at each other.
“We’re just gonna make a pitstop real quick.”
We drove for a few more miles, past the used car lot, the McDonald’s, the Christmas tree farm. Flakes started to fall from the sky and melted as soon as they hit the windshield. The clock in the car didn’t work, but I knew it was around five because the sun had disappeared. It wasn’t dark out yet, and the snowy landscape was completely blue—the world looked the way it did in our living room, when a VHS tape ran its course and ejected itself, and the reflection of the blue flickering screen bounced off of the white walls. It was quiet like that too, like the volume knob got turned down on the world. Eventually we pulled off into a parking lot. On one side was the Putt Putt Palace and on the other was a shabby apartment complex called Camelot.
“Stay here. We’ll just be a minute.”
They walked off in the direction of the apartment complex, leaving me alone. Most of the street lamps were burnt out. I could hear the wind whistling through the pine trees. A couple strolled into Camelot, bracing themselves against the falling snow. The building was made of white stucco with a red awning above the front door. There was a for rent sign out front. I wondered if Connie lived there, but I couldn’t imagine her in a place so glamourless. It was nothing like the places she sold. I imagined what it would be like to live in such a place. The walls were probably made of cracking plaster, the carpet, if there was any, was probably stained and scratchy. Nothing like the shag rug in Mom’s room. There wouldn’t be a wood stove to sit in front of on cold nights; vents in the ceilings would pipe in electric hot air. But the windows looked new. They wouldn’t have to be sealed in winter. Maybe there was even an inground pool out back.
Mom came out then, holding her tan winter coat tight around her. The zipper had broken last year, but she refused to get a new coat. She had grown attached to it, she said. Connie followed behind, talking. They slowed down as they neared the car.
“–you think?” Connie asked. The first part of what she said was cut by the wind outside. I felt like I was underwater, listening to a conversation above ground.
“It’s cute,” Mom said, starting the car.
“I just love that kitchen nook. It’s so versatile.”
“Yeah.” Mom shifted the car into gear and we lurched forward with a jolt. “This damn car.”
“And you can’t beat the location. Close to the park, only a few miles from the school–”
“What?” she said. Connie’s eyes met mine in the rearview mirror. I wasn’t going to be the first to look away.
“We’re not going to talk about this now,” Mom said, sternly.
“Fine.” Connie crossed her arms. They were silent for the rest of the drive back to Connie’s office. Before she shut the car door she said, “He’s not going to change.” There was such finality to the way she walked away. She didn’t look back or turn when she was inside the building. Her red figure walked straight down the flourescent lit hallway, turned a corner, and was out of sight.
Mom drove for a minute and pulled off the road into an alleyway. She parked next to a dumpster and began to cry.
She covered her face with her hands as if she could hide from me. I jumped into the front seat and rubbed my hand on her back. She bent forward, crying harder. I was so much like her. I hated to cry in front of people and being touched made it harder to stop, but I rubbed her back anyway, knowing it would eventually end.
“It’s okay,” I said. “It’ll be okay.”
“Yes,” she exhaled deeply. “You’re right.”
I dropped my hand to the seat and she gave it a squeeze, before shifting the car into drive.
* * *
Later that night, Robert Stack’s voice piped through the floorboards.
Right now, in a small town in Pennsylvania, a miracle is said to have occurred,
this time in front of a number of witnesses. Twenty miles north of Pittsburgh,
the area surrounding Ambridge, Pennsylvania has been slowly dying.
Abandoned steel mills line the banks of the Ohio River, a grim reminder of the
region’s lost prosperity. But the many residents of Ambridge refuse to move out
Ambridge was just thirty miles away. The phone rang and was picked up on the first ring. The sound on the television cut out before I could hear what the miracle was.