Marigold’s Nest

Marigold lived in a cottage with her mother and two older sisters. As the youngest, she stayed behind to tend the cottage when they went into the village. Marigold was the one to sew the dresses, wash the floors, make the bread, feed the chickens, and get water from the well. She also had to water the toadstools along the mossy path leading away from the cottage. Her mother said the toadstools would die without water and then their family would no longer be able to follow the path into the village.

Marigold’s mother prized Marigold’s long, flaxen hair and would not allow anyone to cut it because, she said, when it reached Marigold’s waist, she would develop magical powers to see the future and to grant wishes. This would bring the family fame, recognition, and wealth.

Marigold came to see her hair as a burden when it fell like a curtain down her back and draped at her sides as she did her chores. As it continued to grow, Marigold would go outside each morning to brush it herself so that when strands of the golden hair fell out, they would collect on the mossy ground. The birds carried the hair into a tree near the well where they used the long strands to weave a soft nest.

One day, Marigold’s mother and sisters came home from the market with a green-eyed goat which had two curved horns and a long scruff of hair beneath his chin.

“Marigold, hold this goat while we ready his pen,” her mother said, handing her the rope tied round his neck.

No sooner than Marigold took the rope did the goat begin to buck and jump, tearing away from her grip. He followed the toadstool path out of the yard and toward the village.

“Stop him!” Marigold’s mother demanded. “We need that goat. He carries a spell. As long as he drinks water from the well, it will never run dry.”

Marigold’s mother insisted that her two sisters find the goat and bring him back.

“You fool!” Marigold’s sisters taunted her. “Look what you have done!”

But they obediently left the cottage in search of the goat.

The sisters searched until dark, knocking on every door in the village, but they could not find the goat.

“What will we do if our well runs dry?” Marigold’s mother asked her.

The next day, an old man knocked on the door. With him was the green-eyed goat.

“I have come to see the girl with the flaxen hair,” he told the mother. “This goat has told me that she can see the future and grant wishes. My son is sick and I wish for a cure. His body rages with fever and his skin burns with rash. Grant my wish that he be well and I will give you back your goat.”

Marigold searched through her cupboards for a tincture of lemon, echinacea root, and peppermint. She gave the tincture to the old man and told him to put two drops into his son’s cup twice a day for three days.

The old man handed over the goat.

“Very well. If I do not return on the fourth day, you may keep the goat, but if my son does not recover from his illness, the goat is mine.”

Four days went by, and then a fifth, and the man did not return.

Marigold continued to tend the cottage. When she brought the goat his water from the well, he began to insult her.

“You foolish girl” the goat said. “You do nothing right! The birds that have built a nest from your hair keep me up at night. I am tired and famished. How do you expect me to survive on this bitter water and coarse grass? Let me out of this pen at once, for I am not a goat who can be confined to such a small pen.”

The goat glared at Marigold with his green eyes. She shuddered at the tangled scruff of fur beneath his chin.

As she turned to leave, the goat pushed past Marigold, knocking her down. He ran to the toadstool path and began eating the toadstools until most were gone. She pulled and tugged at the rope round his neck, but she could not stop the goat from destroying the toadstool pathway. Finally, Marigold grabbed him by the scruff of his chin and led him back to his pen. As she left him, the scruff of his hair came off of his chin and remained in her hand.

“Foolish girl,” the goat warned. “Without my scruff, I will not be able to drink the water from the well and it will go dry. You must cut your hair and bury it beneath the tree where the birds nest or the water will go dry and your family will perish.”

Marigold did as the goat told her, burying her hair beneath the tree at sunset.

The next morning, the goat was gone, and so were the birds who nested in the tree above the well. When Marigold dropped the bucket into the well, it was dry.

“How could you do this?” her mother and sisters asked. “With no water and no toadstool path, we will surely perish here.”

Days later, there was a knock at the cottage door. A tall, handsome man with green eyes stood with a goat and a long golden rope made from Marigold’s hair.

“Give me the girl who grew this hair and I will give you back your magic goat,” the man said.

Because they had no water and no toadstool path, Marigold’s mother and sisters told her she must go with the man. He brought her to a stone tower and demanded that she grant his wishes. First, he wanted a feast. Then he wanted a large bed with a mattress of soft feathers covered in the finest silks. Finally, he told Marigold she must tend the tower each day while he was away from morning until sunset for 24 seasons.

“If you have the magic that the goat spoke of, you can do all of this with ease,” the man said.

But Marigold had no magic, so she prepared the feast herself and she built the bed with feathers and she sewed the covers with fine silk. The man would leave each morning at sunrise and return at night for his feast and soft bed.

Each day, Marigold would walk outside the tower and brush her hair so that the birds could use the strands to build a nest. In a tree near the bedroom window, the birds chattered and kept her company during her long, lonely days as she tended the tower, doing the most mundane chores. There were no books for her to read or brushes with which to paint.

As the days passed, Marigold’s hair grew very long, finally reaching her waist. She continued to brush it outside so that the birds could use it.

One morning, the man came to her.

“Those birds awaken me far too early. I am a man of great importance and can not go without sleep. When I return this evening, I will cut your hair and bury it so that those birds may never nest in it again.”

Knowing that the birds would leave her, Marigold remained in bed that day instead of tending to the chores. She wished that the man would not return at sunset, and when the time came, she found that he did not. Hours passed and the sky grew dark. Marigold walked outside the tower and heard the birds call down:

“Run, Marigold! Run away now and he’ll never find you.”

Marigold ran into the forest and walked on all through the moonlit night. When the sun rose over the horizon, she stopped at a stream for a drink. As she bent to get a drink of water, she thought she saw in the water’s reflection the face of the goat with the green eyes, but when she turned to face him, the goat was gone.

Hungry, tired, and frightened, Marigold hurried on until she reached the village, where she found a seamstress.

“I beg a favor,” Marigold said. “If you lend me your scissors to cut my hair, I will stay and make beautiful dresses for you to sell for 24 seasons.”

“Twenty-four seasons is a very long time,” the seamstress said. “Are you certain you will stay?”

“Yes,” promised Marigold. “I will stay forever.”

Marigold cut off her long, flaxen hair and left it beneath a tree for the birds. She lived happily ever after, making beautiful dresses for all the ladies of the village, until she died of old age with the birds singing at her window.

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Prayers to Santa

You would think living in a shelter would teach a little girl a thing or two about who she is and what she can and can’t have, but it hasn’t. Every time I walk through Walmart with Cassie to get a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk she finds some toy she wants and asks me to buy it.

“Not today,” is what I always tell her. The other day I said maybe Santa would bring it.

“We could say a prayer to him,” was what she said back.

I swallowed hard when she said that and regretted ever telling her about Santa.

There are presents for Cassie under the tree at the shelter. A couple of people dropped them off after the newspaper ran a story about us, telling people what it’s like to be homeless at Christmas. That girl from the paper was about the same age as me, but she said she didn’t have any kids. I don’t know whether she really believed what I told her or if she was just pretending.

Most girls like that don’t understand how you end up in a shelter like Faith’s House if you’re not a druggie, which I’m not, and neither was Jeremy. Their parents paid for them to go to college and that’s where they met the guys they married. For some reason guys with college degrees don’t beat their wives as much. Maybe it’s because they have such great jobs and work so much they’re never around to get mad about stuff like a lost remote control. Jeremy and I had a big blowout about that once.

There’s nobody with a degree at Faith’s House and most of us weren’t married to our exes. Jeremy and I didn’t have the money for a wedding and we were already living together when I got pregnant. We rented a townhouse.  He worked as a bus driver and he also plowed snow in the winter.

I worked nights as a nurse’s aide, but after Cassie was born I started having to miss work all the time because the neighbors were calling me saying they could hear Cassie crying and Jeremy wasn’t getting her.

Jeremy had never been around a baby before Cassie was born. I told him when I got pregnant that things were going to change and he would have to help out at night. He said he would, but I guess he was too tired from working all day to get up and get her when she cried. I don’t even know if he heard her at all. He did drink a lot of beer when he got home from work. He never drank and drove, but all evening long he was nursing a Natural Light like Cassie was nursing her bottle.

The first time he ever hit me was my own fault. Cassie was six weeks old. I was so tired from being up all night with her and I had put her in her swing. I wanted to take a shower because I was so greasy and at that point I was still trying to breastfeed so I had crusty milk all over my shirt. I went to start the water and I heard her fussing. She must have woken Jeremy up. He came into the bathroom with his eyes all red and asked me if I was going to get the baby. I told him he should get her and then I kept running my mouth until he hit me.

From then on, things were different between Jeremy and me. We were enemies, but I couldn’t pay the bills without him. I couldn’t go live with my mom because she had some guy that she met on the internet living in her apartment and she didn’t want me moving home anyway. She said Jeremy was the best thing that ever happened to me because he could change our flat tires and even knew how to keep our cars running, which I had to admit was worth something considering how old the cars were.

I had to leave work early a couple of times when the neighbors kept calling about Cassie crying at night. My supervisor said I’d have to resign if I couldn’t work the full shift. I asked to work days instead, but they didn’t have any openings on day shift, so I had to quit.

After that, it was real hard paying for food, but at least I wasn’t so tired. I mouthed off less to Jeremy and we didn’t fight as much. One time I called my Aunt Linda because I was thinking about asking if Cassie and me could stay with her. She started talking about the unemployment rate and how I was so lucky Jeremy had a job. I don’t know why I couldn’t tell her he hit me. Maybe it was because I thought he wouldn’t do it if I could just stop talking back to him.

But sometimes I couldn’t stop. He’d come home and start drinking and he’d complain about the house being a mess. Cassie had started walking and she was always pulling things out of drawers.

Sometimes Jeremy would say dinner wasn’t good. He was sick of canned soup and sandwiches. I’d say we couldn’t afford steak and he’d take that as some kind of insult to his manhood and we’d be screaming at each other in front of Cassie until he hit me. Then I’d go cry in the bedroom and Cassie would come in and stare at me while I cried.

It went on for years like that. We’d be okay for a couple of weeks and then we’d fight. Sometimes he didn’t hit me, but I still hated him. I knew I would leave him when Cassie started school.

One day after we had a big fight, I got on the computer and Googled “shelter for abused women.”

I called a phone number for Faith’s House and a lady said I could stay there for two months, but they had a time limit for all “clients.” She told me after two months I’d have to find another place to go. Sometimes Social Services can help, but not always, was what she told me.

I took Cassie to the store with me and bought one of those prepaid cellphones. Then I put our stuff in my big duffle bag and left Jeremy a note saying I was moving out and not to try to find me. I guess he wasn’t too concerned because my mom said he never even called to ask about me and Cassie after we left.

I got a job working 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. as a home health aide, which worked out great with Cassie’s school schedule. I was approved for food stamps and got my card after a month. My job paid enough to keep insurance on my old Honda and I had gas money to get to work, but not much left over at the end of the week. I kept searching through the classified ads, but the cheapest apartment I could find was six hundred dollars a month. I knew I couldn’t pay that plus water and electric.

We were supposed to be out of Faith’s House by Dec. 20. I asked the house director, Christine, if we could stay just a little bit longer because it was hard to move so close to the holidays. She said no. The rules were the rules and we’d been there more than sixty days already. She said she had some grant money she could use to buy me two weeks in a motel or help me with a deposit on an apartment if I found one I could afford.

The next day was Sunday, Dec. 15, and I decided Cassie and me would go to church. Instead of saying prayers to Santa, we’d say them to God, I decided, because I figured it couldn’t hurt.

I didn’t really have any church clothes for Cassie so I told her she could wear her favorite shirt with the sequined cat on it. For some reason she didn’t want to wear the cat shirt so we argued about that for a while. I told her to pick out whatever she wanted and she grabbed a sleeveless top out of my duffel bag, which I had tossed in a corner. I started to say she couldn’t wear a sleeveless shirt in December, but then I found a sweater that she agreed to wear ONLY if she did not have to button it.

Then we fought about her shoes. She only had two pairs – her sandals from summer and her Dora sneakers. Guess which pair she chose. When we walked into church and sat down in one of the pews, me in my red sweater from Goodwill and her in her sandals and dirty tights, I felt like I might collapse.

The choir was singing “Joyful, all ye nations, rise. Join the triumph of the skies,” and I started crying. I felt so stupid and tried to hold it in. I didn’t want anybody to see me, but it made me so sad, because wouldn’t it be so wonderful if it were true? If there was always someone to love you and look out for you even if you made the wrong choices? If all the suffering was worth it in the end because you’d go to a safe place where nothing bad ever happened again?

After church we had to go to the store to get the bread and milk. We all shared a kitchen at Faith’s House. The other women and their kids were always drinking our milk and eating our bread. I couldn’t blame them. We were all hungry and tired of generic peanut butter. I kept Cassie’s animal crackers hidden in my duffel bag.

In the checkout line, Cassie grabbed a miniature Cinderella doll with a removable plastic dress. It was $3.99 and I had the cash to cover it, so I didn’t say anything when she put it on the counter. I hated the look the girl at the checkout gave me when I used my EBT card to pay for the milk and bread. She couldn’t have been more than eighteen.

After I paid, Cassie started asking for the doll. I pushed her out of the way, over to the benches where I could put my change back in my purse and get the doll out.

I could hear the checkout girl talking about me.

“Funny how that works,” she said. “Our money pays for their food and her money goes to cheap toys made in China.”

I looked up to see who she was talking to and it was the girl from the newspaper who interviewed me about being homeless. I gave her a dirty look, took Cassie’s hand and started walking toward the door.

“Erin,” I heard her call after me. I was surprised she even remembered my name.

I stopped and turned around.

“I’m sorry about that,” she said.

“She ought to keep her thoughts to herself,” I yelled back. I didn’t want to cry twice on the same day.

The reporter asked me if I ever found an apartment and I told her that I hadn’t because everything was too expensive. Then she asked if I had been checking the classified ads and I told her that I had been, every day, because I’m not stupid.

There was one ad that ran yesterday for a live-in caretaker, free room and board, she told me. I hadn’t seen that one. We walked out to her car so she could give me her copy of yesterday’s paper. I told her she ought to do a story about how Faith’s House kicks you out four days before Christmas even if you have no place to go. She said she wasn’t that kind of reporter, that it was a small town and she had to try really hard not to make people mad, and half the time they got mad anyway.

I guess that’s why girls like that find husbands who don’t beat them. They know how to keep the peace.

She got the paper out of her car and showed me the caretaker ad. I took it and said thanks. I felt like saying thanks for nothing, but I didn’t.

That afternoon I called the number in the ad. No one answered, but later a man called me back and asked if I could come for an interview at 10 a.m. on Monday. He gave me directions to the house where I’d be working. It was off Route 624.

The house was back a muddy dirt road, all covered in potholes and patches of snow. I wondered why anybody would want to live in such a Godforsaken place in the wintertime, but I guess if you lived there in the summer, you’d have to stay there in the winter, too, if you were disabled.

I turned at the sign that said “Millgate” and parked in front of a big stone house. The man who answered the door led me into a room with lots of bookshelves and nice old furniture. The wallpaper had turned a yellowish shade and was started to peel in a few spots.

Then a guy in a blue sweater came in and introduced himself as Dan. He said he lived in Washington and wanted to find someone to live in the stone house with his mother, who didn’t get around well, but could walk to the bathroom with help. The person would have to her help her bathe, do the laundry, make her meals, fill her prescriptions and do some housework when necessary, even though there was a housekeeper who came once a week to do the chores that required a mop and bucket.

“Tell me a little bit about yourself,” Dan said. I knew better than to tell him I was living in a shelter. If he thought there was a man after me, he’d never let me move in.

He liked the fact that I was a nurse’s aide and I grew up nearby. I told him I was living with my mom and wanted to move out of her apartment to be more independent.

I was pretty sure our conversation would be over when I told him about Cassie, and I didn’t know how to bring it up, so when he asked me, “Why do you want this job?” I told him the truth.

“I have a daughter.”

“Oh,” he said. “How old?”

“She’s six. She’d be coming with me.”

“Well, I was thinking it would just be one person, but if you don’t mind sharing a bedroom, there’s plenty of space in the tenant house for two people,” he said. “When can you start?”

We met Mrs. Briggs the next day. She was in her recliner, in front of the TV. Dan said she spent most of the day either watching TV or reading, and she slept a lot.

She looked at me and then at Cassie.

“You have red hair,” she said to Cassie. “Redheads are special. I used to have red hair, too.”

Then she asked Cassie and me if we would have a cup of tea with her. I made my way into the kitchen and opened up all the cabinets, until I found the tea bags.

P is for prom

My greatest fear is that one day my mom will have to choose between me and wine. She would choose me, I know she would. But then she’d hate me for the rest of our lives and she’d always act like she does in the morning before she has coffee.

Which means that she would sigh all the time and cry all the time and scream at me to hurry up every time I need to change my earrings and the bus is about to come. Most people don’t know this, but my mom screams and cries a lot. I don’t. I hold it in.

This morning she was crying and I didn’t know what to do. I thought about writing her a note and putting in the five dollars she gave me yesterday for lunch money, but that seemed like a dumb idea, so I just patted her on the shoulder before I left for school and I put Patrick on the couch beside her.

Patrick is the teddy bear I’ve had since preschool. I keep him on a shelf in my room. My mom is obsessed with cleaning and getting rid of all my old stuff, but she never complains about Patrick. She just picks him up and dusts around him.

When I put Patrick down beside my mom, she just looked at him and started crying harder. I had to go to school. I guess I shouldn’t have changed my earrings at the last minute and I definitely shouldn’t have given my mom my teddy bear. I hope she puts him back in my room.

My mom is a massage therapist, and she doesn’t make enough money, just so you know.

My second greatest fear is looking like Ms. Litel, with a big butt and frizzy hair. That’s what I would look like if I used that crimping iron my mom got me. I was thinking about crimping my hair for prom and putting in a pink streak like Elizabeth White, but who am I kidding? I am not Elizabeth White.

My name is Ezmerelda Hogbin.

You think that’s funny?

Yeah, so does everybody else.

They call me Ezme.

I am not Hispanic, Latina, Spanish, or even Portuguese. The story is, my grandmother had a friend who was a beautiful Mexican seamstress named Esmerelda. She made a lot of my mother’s dresses when she was little, and she taught my mother to sew.

Why my mother decided to change the spelling of the name, I’ll never know.

I hate my name, but I’m not going to write about that today. I wrote about it already.

Last week Ms. Litel told us to write about our greatest fear. I just told you mine. Right now we’re supposed to be writing about prom. That’s the writing prompt – “P is for prom.”

Um, OK, Ms. Litel, but half of us didn’t go to prom. Some of us did, but we sure as hell don’t want to write about it.

“Well, then write about something else that starts with P, like pizza. You guys all like pizza, right?”

Jared Baker raised his hand.

“Can we have a pizza party?”

Ms. Litel stared at us for a minute.

“I guess,” was what she said.

“Can we have it Friday?” Jared asked.

“How can I justify us having a pizza party on Friday, Jared? It’s not even a holiday,” Ms. Litel asked.

Who the hell asks Jared Baker for advice? The guy is deranged. You should see the stuff he posts on Snapchat.

“You told us to write about pizza. If we all write poems about pizza, we should be able to have a pizza party,” Jared said.

“OK,” Ms. Litel said. “I’ll get pizza for the last day of school if every one of you writes a pizza poem. And they have to be epic pizza poems.”

That’s easy enough. I could write a book about how much I want some pizza right now. Lunch is an hour away. Luckily I still have that five dollars my mom gave me, but I think they’re serving chicken nuggets in the cafeteria again today. I wish my mom was the type who would bring Chipotle and leave it at the office for me, but she won’t. She won’t even text me back during school because Ms. Litel called her and told her I’m addicted to my phone after she got some poet laureate named Maude Ballentine to speak to our class and I got in trouble for playing on my phone while Maude was talking.

I hate Ms. Litel sometimes.

She is a funny-looking thing, especially with curly hair. She came in on Monday with curly hair and Marion asked if her hair was naturally curly.

“No, it is not,” Ms. Litel said. “I got a perm. Don’t ever do it.”

“I think it looks good,” was what Jared said. The thing about Jared is that everything he says has this jeer in it like he’s making fun of you. You never know if he means what he says or not.

He also said he liked my name.

I kind of thought Ms. Litel’s hair looked good curly, too, but she said it didn’t. She said it was fried and it looked like she stuck her finger in an electrical outlet and that we shouldn’t get perms or color our hair because it’s pointless.

Ms. Litel is such a hypocrite. She pretends to be a feminist, but she wouldn’t let us read the C-word aloud when it was in a feminist poem. And what kind of feminist tells you what you should and should not do with your hair anyway?

I’ve got an idea. How about I shave my head? That would piss off my mom and Ms. Litel.

How about I write a short story about a girl who has a weird name because her mom is sadistic and her dad is a Hogbin and so the girl gets married as soon as she turns 18 just so she can change her name? How about that, Ms. Litel?

I know what she’d say. She’d say I don’t have to get married just to change my name. She’d say Ezme is a good name. She’d say “put your phone away and write your pizza poem.”

Whatever, Ms. Litel. What I am damn sure not going to do is write about the prom, which was last weekend.

I went with Brad Canderly. My dad made this joke that I couldn’t go with him because his name was Brad and every Brad he ever met was a complete ass. But then he let me go anyway.

See, my parents just separated.

Every other weekend, my dad is my only friend. That’s why I told my dad he had to let me go to the prom with a senior when I’m only a freshman. Everything that happened that night is my fault.

Brad is a wrestler and he started liking me about two weeks before prom. Before Brad, I was going out with Clayton Scott. He’s also on the wrestling team, but he’s in a different weight class from Brad. Brad is like four times my size and probably twice as big as Clayton.

Clayton’s way of breaking up with me was to stop texting me on a Tuesday. By Wednesday, I knew it was over. I texted him and asked if we were still together and he said no. I asked him if he was coming over on Friday to watch Netflix. He said no.

Whatever. I didn’t want to watch Netflix with him anyway. We don’t even like the same movies.

I did cry a little bit about Clayton though. Clayton was my first boyfriend who did sports. Before him, I always liked guys like Finn Glass, who is sitting across from me right now with his nose in his notebook, probably writing about his hatred of school and the oppressive power structure which represents our cultural hegemony or something.

You wouldn’t believe how much going out with Clayton made other girls want to be my friend. That was the weird thing.

I kind of liked him, though. I kissed him on the lips – a real kiss, not just a peck.

So when he broke up with me, I was upset, but my dad said Clayton had “a strong back and a weak mind.” That was kind of mean. I think he just said that to make me feel better.

Then my dad offered me a cigarette to cheer me up. My dad smokes. I took two puffs and started gagging. The next day I started coughing and eventually it turned into bronchitis, no joke. I am never smoking again. My dad wouldn’t even let me stay home from school when I was sick. That’s because Mr. Richie had called him a couple of weeks before that and ratted me out for skipping.

So after Clayton dumped me, Brad asked me to go to prom. I didn’t really know if I liked him, but I started thinking about this dress I saw online.

My mom wouldn’t have liked the idea of me going to prom with Brad because she doesn’t know him, for one thing, so I told her I was going to the prom with my friend Sydney Kershaw, who’s a junior. Her parents go to the Universalist Church like my mom does.

Twice a year. My mom goes to church twice a year.

My mom’s always saying I should go places with friends instead of boyfriends because I’m too young for a boyfriend, so it was easy to convince her to get me the dress.

I was staying with my dad the weekend of prom and I knew he wouldn’t tell mom about me going with Brad.

Brad picked me up in his truck. No boy ever picked me up in a car before. Or a truck.

He came in and talked to my dad and said we’d be back by midnight. My dad gave him a pretty good speech while he smoked his cigarettes. He offered Brad a cigarette, but Brad doesn’t smoke.

As soon as we got in the truck, Brad looked me up and down and said:

“Ezme Hogbin, the girl I am taking to the prom.”

It was weird. I felt like he was saying he was too good for me or something. He didn’t say anything about my dress or give me a flower.

Before the prom, we stopped at this Mexican restaurant where Brad was meeting a bunch of his friends and their girlfriends. None of them talked to me the whole time, except when I didn’t know what to order, Brad asked Davonte Johnson what I should get.

Davonte said he didn’t know and he looked at me for a second. I don’t know if he thought I was too skinny or too fat, but he just kept laughing.

Then he said, “I mean, I could make some suggestions …” Then they all started laughing again.

I said I wasn’t hungry and just wanted to eat the tortilla chips they bring you before you order.

Then Davonte goes, “Well, then we better get another basket.”

Then they all burst into laughter again. I guess everything is hilarious when you’re a jock.

I got out my phone and started playing Candy Crush.

Brad ignored me at prom and kept standing around talking to his friends. One of them was pretending to be on drugs, and he came up said, “Where’s the bathroom?” Real funny. Like everyone who goes to our school doesn’t know where the bathrooms are.

Since Brad was ignoring me, I decided to dance with Keysha and Alexis. I got right between them and we just did this dance where we grabbed each others’ hips and shook our asses. It was fun until Brad finally decided to pay attention. He came over and started dancing with Keysha, then with Alexis. I don’t know what he was trying to do. I just walked away and went over to the food table.

There was Ms. Litel trying to get me to eat meatballs and miniature quiches. I told her I was having a vegetarian day, but I really didn’t feel hungry at all. I took two brownies and a lemonade and sat down by myself. Then Keysha came over.

“What are you doing?” she asked me.

“Having some brownies.”

“You’re acting like a jealous little baby. Do you know that?”

“And what do you think you’re acting like?” I asked her.

“Brad isn’t going to like you if you keep acting like this. You wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for him. You’re a freshman.”

I started playing Candy Crush.

Here comes Ms. Litel.

She actually sat down beside me.

“Are you seriously playing Candy Crush? I thought you only did that in my class,” she kept on, “I like your dress. Where’s your date? Where did Keysha go?”

I kept playing my game.

“You ask too many questions,” I told her.

“You’re not the first person to say that,” was all she said back while she scanned the room looking for trouble.

Don’t go looking for trouble because you’ll find it, Ms. Litel. Isn’t that what you say, you goddamn hypocrite?

She finally left. Why am I always mean to the people who are nice to me?

That’s who I am, I guess. I deserve what I got.

Brad came over with a big plate of pizza. He must have eaten three big slices. His last name should be Hogbin.

He asked if I wanted some. I don’t even think he knew I was mad at him or why. Maybe my dad is right and all jocks are dumb.

“I’m ready to go when you are,” Brad said.

So we left. It was almost 11.

“We could go to party,” Brad said as we were leaving, “but you’ve got to be home at midnight.”

I didn’t say anything.

“We could just go up on the hill and listen to music,” he said, and he started driving up a hill behind the school.

We could see the whole town from where we were parked. It looks bigger from above.

We were sitting in Brad’s truck listening to this song called “Fortunate Son” by some band called CCR that he liked.

Brad started kissing me and rubbing his big cold hands all over my arms. I kept thinking about his pizza and Mexican food. I knew he wasn’t my type, but then, Keysha was right. I wouldn’t have even gotten to go to prom if it wasn’t for him.

Maybe he wasn’t so bad. Maybe he would text me back if I texted him on Monday.

I stopped kissing him and pushed away.

“Do you really like me?” I asked him.

“What do you mean? Of course I like you,” he said. Then he moved in on me again.

“I mean, like, are we together now?” I asked him.

“We are,” he said. “We’re together now.

“Are we going to be together on Monday?” I asked.

He stared at me for a minute.

“You ask too many questions.”

We just sat there in silence until I decided to get out of the car and walk home.

I thought maybe he’d come after me, but he didn’t.

After walking two blocks I called my mom. She didn’t answer. My mom is the only person I know who never turns the ringer on her phone on. She leaves it on silent so it doesn’t disturb her clients. I wondered if she drank too much blackberry wine and fell asleep in front of the TV.

After the third block, I had a blister on my foot, so I took off my shoes and walked barefoot.

Then two boys drove up in a red Volkswagen. One of them had a baseball cap on. That’s really all I remember about him. He was cute and he was wearing a baseball cap. I don’t even remember what team.

“Hey, is your name Anna?”

I wanted my name to be Anna, so I said yes.

“Are you going to Logan’s party?”

“No,” I said. “I’m walking home.”

“We’ll give you a ride if you want. Where do you live?”

I was going to have him drop me off at my dad’s townhouse on Clearview.

I got in the back and saw that there were three boys in the car. They didn’t go to my school. They said they went to the college.

“Your name’s not really Anna, is it?”

“No,” I said, “but you can call me Anna.”

“You’re very pretty, Anna,” said the boy who was driving. “You shouldn’t go out walking by yourself this late at night.”

He smiled in the rearview mirror. His teeth were glittering sharp, like fangs.

When they were done, I told them to drop me off at Quick Mart because I didn’t want them to know where I live. I walked to Dad’s house barefoot. I lost my shoes in their car.

My dad was watching TV when I got home.

“You’re late,” he said. “Where’s Brad?”

“We got in a fight and I walked home.”

“Told you that guy was an asshole.”

I said “yeah” and went upstairs.

I got into bed and started thinking of my mom at home asleep in front of the TV with a glass of blackberry wine beside her. I started thinking of Patrick on the shelf in my room. I wanted Patrick. My pillow was soaking wet and I didn’t want my dad to hear me, so I turned the light back on and played Candy Crush until morning.

That’s why I can’t write P is for Prom, Ms. Litel. That’s why I have tears in my eyes when I ask to go to the bathroom.

I can’t write P is for Prom because you’ll say we have talk to a counselor like you told Marion when she wrote the poem about dying.

But I don’t want to die. I’m 15 and I want to live.

I want to eat pizza, and play Candy Crush, and hold Patrick.

I want to write a novel about a girl with a weird name, and paint a mural on my bedroom wall, and get a tattoo when I turn 18.

I’m going to shave my head this weekend because it feels right and because it’s only hair and it will grow back.

And I’ll write a pizza poem.

You say you know I can do it.

Of course I can write a stupid poem about pizza.

I can do this.

P is for pizza.

 

 

 

 

 

Ruben and Beatrice

Ruben wanted a new pet – a lizard from New Zealand. He had seen it in a magazine. His sister Beatrice said she wanted one, too.

“The only reason you want a new lizard is because I do,” Ruben told Beatrice.

It wasn’t true. Beatrice wanted her own pet. It wasn’t fair for Ruben to get a new pet if she could not get one. She was deeply offended by his remark.

“You are not my brother,” she declared before stomping away.

She found her mother in the sewing room.

“Mother,” Beatrice said, “I want to order a lizard from New Zealand. I saw it in a magazine.”

Beatrice hoped she would get the lizard, and Ruben would not.

“Beatrice,” her mother said, “where is the salamander that you brought home from the creek yesterday?”

“I do not know,” Beatrice replied.

“If you do not know where your salamander is, then why do you want a lizard? Go and find your salamander.”

Beatrice left the sewing room disappointed. She still wanted a new lizard.

She found Ruben in his bedroom feeding his goldfish.

“Ruben,” Beatrice asked, “why do you want the lizard from New Zealand?”

“So I can name it Tom,” Ruben replied. “I’ve always wanted a lizard named Tom.”

“What should I name my lizard?” Beatrice asked him.

“You are not getting a new lizard,” he replied. “I am.”

“Can I get another salamander?” she asked.

“Yep,” he said.

“Will you catch it for me?”

“Sure.”

“What should I name it?” Beatrice asked.

Ruben told her to make a list of her favorite names, but she could not do it because she could not spell the names, so she told Ruben her favorite names and he wrote the list.

He added a few of his own favorites as well.

Then Ruben and Beatrice got their nets and their buckets and went to the creek to catch Beatrice another salamander.

Must Love Murder

Kristina was in the middle of reading an email from an angry viewer when Patrick leaned over her desk and smiled.

“Good morning, Sunshine. Can I talk to you in my office for a quick second?”

She grabbed a pen and paper and followed him, a sinking feeling in her stomach. The weekend had been a nightmare, with a fire at the Hampton Paper Plant on Friday night and a rainy parade for the Pear Tree Festival on Saturday.

There was also a fatal car accident involving a tractor-trailer on the interstate Sunday, which somehow Kristina had not heard about until she read a newspaper story Monday morning. It was true that the accident had taken place just over the state line in Virginia, but the truck driver was from Morgan County and, the Daily Register reported this morning, he was being charged with reckless driving. Taking a seat in Patrick’s office, Kristina was prepared to be reprimanded for missing the accident story.

“How was the weekend?” he asked, shuffling a pile of letters that had been sitting on his keyboard. One of
Patrick’s main duties as news director was handling correspondence from viewers and sources. Most of it came as email, but there were a few elderly viewers who wrote him regularly via snail mail to tell him how badly the station had mishandled a certain story. People often complained that Kristina was too easy on sources and had failed to ask “the tough questions.”

In addition to answering emails from viewers, attending Rotary meetings and hiring young, attractive reporters with sunny dispositions and little-to-no experience, Patrick made the final decisions about which events the station would cover and what footage would air, if he was in the studio during production, which he usually was. He often worked 16-hour days Monday through Friday, but his weekends were reserved for family time with his wife Scarlet and their adopted son Pete.

“Honestly, Patrick, the weekend sucked,” Kristina said. “I was at the paper plant all night Friday, which turned into Saturday. So then I got no sleep and got up to go to the Pear Tree thing. No one showed up because of the rain and I was up to my knees in mud begging girl scouts to say something interesting, or something at least cute, while their mothers stood there asking me when it was going to be on TV and what channel was it. As of yesterday, they’re still saying they don’t know how the fire started, but Ron Paxton told me it was set intentionally by an employee.”

“Yeah,” Patrick said, “I just got off the phone with the chief.”

“And?”

“He said you were giving him a hard time this weekend,” Patrick said.

“A hard time? I was asking him questions. Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?”

“Kristina,” Patrick said, “our relationships with our sources are vitally important here.”

Kristina knew why the chief was angry. After calling and emailing him all weekend, she finally decided to go down to the station in person on Sunday afternoon. She left the camera in the van and walked through the doors of the Community Safety Building, right up to the glass window outside his office, where she pressed the button to ring a dispatcher.

“I’m here to see Chief Ricketts,” she said.

“And who are you?”

“Kristina Collins, with WCTV,” she replied.

She looked around the empty room, expecting to be told that he was in a meeting and asked if she wanted to leave a message. Seconds later, the door opened and the chief appeared, looking haggard.

“Kristina, I told you, I’ll send you the press release as soon as we’ve got it ready. The fire is under investigation,” he said.

“Ron Paxton told me it was set by an employee. Did you hear anything about that?”

He fixed her with a stare that was meant to be intimidating, but she could see that his resolve was fading as he had likely had less sleep than her this weekend. His graying hair was disheveled in a way that looked unintentional and he smelled of coffee and cigarettes.

“I told you everything I can right now, Kristina. I’ll call you later.”

“Fine,” she said, and turned to leave.

And he had called her later, when she was driving home, but her cellphone must have lost its signal and the line went dead. It was 11:30 p.m. on Sunday when Kristina got home. She was due back at the station at 9 a.m. Monday for the weekly staff meeting. Whatever the chief had wanted to tell her was probably in a press release he had sent to 20 other reporters right before he called. She would read it in the morning.

Sure enough, the Register had a story on Monday quoting an anonymous source who said the fire was intentionally set. But for Chief Ricketts’ part, the fire was officially under investigation.

“I’m taking you out of the rotation,” Patrick told Kristina. “You never wanted to be on-camera in the first place.”

“You’re demoting me because Chief Ricketts is mad that I called him a bunch of times this weekend?” she asked.

“I’m not demoting you. And I wouldn’t say he was mad,” Patrick said before starting to laugh.

“He said you were acting like Hillary Clinton.”

Now Kristina laughed, too. This was a new one. Last week, her hairstylist had gotten carried away and taken six inches off her dark hair after giving her highlights. The effect of the chin-length blond bob combined with a fitted jacket did make her feel a little Clintonesque.

“Maybe that’s a good thing,” she said. “Maybe the chief’s a Democrat.”

“I doubt that very seriously,” he said. “Haven’t you seen his sticker? He doesn’t believe the liberal media.”

“Well, it’s true,” Kristina said, gesturing toward the newsroom. “The only Republican out there is Bill Withers.”

“Speak of the Devil,” Patrick said. “Bill’s retiring in June. I want you to take his job.”

“You want me to be assistant news director?”

“Yeah. I need someone to rewrite all the sloppy copy they turn in before it gets posted to the website. You hate the camera and you know it.”

“No, Patrick,” said Kristina, “the camera hates me. I’m not pretty enough. Dr. Rosenfeld told me that in Mass Comm 250.”

“He didn’t say that,” Patrick said.

“That’s not what he said, but that’s what he meant,” Kristina said. “Now you’re demoting me because I’m not pretty enough.”

“I’m promoting you because you’re not perky enough.”

“How am I supposed to be perky when I’m talking to about a homicide?” Kristina asked.

“You’re not. You’re done, Kristina. You hate it. I get that,” Patrick said. “Your first assignment is to hire your replacement. And train her.”

“So you want a girl?”

“Yeah,” Patrick said. “Someone viewers will like. Someone entertaining.”

Kristina rolled her eyes.

“This promotion, does it come with a raise?”

Patrick turned away from her, opened an email on his computer, and started reading.

“I’ll get you a raise,” he said. “You’ll be on salary, like me.”

Oh boy, she thought. I have arrived.

The next day, Kristina prepared a job posting for Journalismjobs.com. She typed out an entry:
Must Love Murder: Hard-hitting, hard-working, no-vacation taking, low-pay seeking multitalented female wanted for small-market station with low ratings. Must be willing to ask the tough questions, with a smile. Must be intelligent, but not opinionated. Must love working evenings, weekends and holidays. Must be skilled in videography, Digitex, Softserv Plus, Photo Scan, Photoshop, and Excel. Send resume and clips to kcollins@wctv.com.

She thought about adding, “must be able to write clean, concise copy on deadline,” as a nod to the reporters’ contribution to the station’s website, but that part was asking too much. Patrick always said he didn’t hire TV reporters for their writing skills, an expression that implicitly meant he hired the cutest kid who was also the lowest bidder for the job.

She reread the ad, deleted the “Must Love Murder” line, and changed “female” to “entry-level reporter.” Although this was the first ad she had placed on Journalismjobs, she imagined that insinuating a low pay rate would discourage many male applicants from the start. Men, it seemed, had a greater sense of self-worth than their female counterparts.

To her surprise, she received 80 resumes within two days from men and women all over the country. After reading through the applications, she called four people, all of whom lived on the East Coast within a five-hour drive of the TV station. Even though Patrick had told her to hire a woman, Kristina decided to interview two men for good measure, including one with more than 10 years of experience. While she knew there was little chance she would end up selecting a man, she thought it best to interview more than one kind of reporter. It was possible, she thought, perhaps even probable, that the best candidate to replace her would be someone who was actually nothing like her.

Philip Partlow, a guy in his early 30s living in Virginia Beach, was looking to escape a bad boss and probably romanticizing the idea of life in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. He told her he liked hiking and was hoping to find a rental property in Harpers Ferry. Although he had a good on-air presence, in person he projected a jaded quality that Kristina imagined was the result of too much experience. She was pretty sure his enthusiasm for covering events like the county fair would last three months at best and then she’d be trying to prop up Mr. Cynical Hung-over Bachelor with a Bad Attitude.

Ryan Musateri was about to graduate from college with a degree in music theater. Cute and witty, Ryan had worked as an intern at his college TV station and had strong opinions on all things political. But his lack of objectivity wasn’t the real problem. Instead, Kristina thought Ryan, with his Burberry scarf, was just a touch too glamorous for WCTV. He seemed more like the host of a reality television show than a small-town news reporter. Kristina didn’t think there was much chance he would be able to identify with a family of five displaced by a fire in a trailer park. Ryan would alienate viewers and he would be bored and miserable in Charles Town.

Sun Li was a stunning GMU grad with great bone structure and an impressive grade point average. Although she came across well on-air and in-person, Sun was a bit too serious for Patrick’s taste. Kristina could still hear him requesting “someone entertaining.”

More than that, Sun reminded Kristina of a college roommate, and Kristina suspected that she wanted to move to Charles Town to get away from her parents in Falls Church, but not too far away. They would never approve of her working in Charles Town, much less dating anyone she was likely to meet. Kristina liked a little drama now and then, but they always had more than enough of that at the TV station. There was always someone crying in the bathroom. And so Kristina selected Felicity Hupp, a bubbly strawberry blond in her mid-20s with a freckled button nose and creamy cleavage. Patrick would love her.

It was Felicity’s first experience in television. For the past two years, she had been working at a local radio station, so she was at least used to putting a microphone in someone’s face. She had a flair for style, which Kristina greatly envied. Felicity would remind no one of Hillary Clinton.

Felicity’s first few weeks at the station went surprisingly smoothly. There were a few technical problems as she learned to work the equipment, but the camera loved her and so did the viewers. So did the sources, it seemed. Even at 6 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, after she’d put in a full day, Felicity never dragged her feet out of the newsroom when there was an accident on the interstate. She grabbed her camera and keys, hopped in the van and was off.

“I love breaking news,” she told Kristina one afternoon. “I can’t stand being bored.”

But when Kristina heard the sounds of a female sobbing in the bathroom stall next to her on a Tuesday morning, the day after the arraignment of Kelly Swope on murder charges related to the death of her infant son, she thought immediately of Felicity, who was covering the trial. Sure enough, Kristina could see Felicity’s trademark red patent-leather heels below the bathroom door.

“Felicity,” she said, “are you okay?”

Felicity opened the door and walked out, wiping mascara off her face with a wadded piece of toilet paper. In her other hand, she held a crumpled envelope, which she handed to Kristina.

“Felicity Hupp,” was scrawled in angry letters on the front of the envelope.

Kristina took out the letter inside.

“Dear Miss Hupp, I see you enjoy ruining people’s lives. You must be glad about what happened to little Davonte Briggs because it gives you something to talk about on television. If you had two brain cells working together, you would know that people are innocent until proven guilty. Kelly Swope lost her baby and now you’re calling her a murderer. I suppose helping to convict an innocent woman makes you feel better about yourself, but maybe you could have the decency to wear a top that covers up your breasts so people don’t have to listen to your garbage and look at it at the same time. I just want you to know that people who used to watch WCTV news think you’re trash and we wish you’d go back on the radio where you belong.”

The letter wasn’t signed.

Kristina was used to hate mail, but this was excessively ad hominem.

“Did you show this to Patrick?” Kristina asked.

“Yeah,” said Felicity, letting go of another sob.

“What did he say?”

“He said maybe I should try not to smile so much.”

Woman makes Venn Diagram in attempt to visually compartmentalize stress

Husband deems strategy ineffective, “passive-aggressive”

WATERFORD, Va. – When Shirley Kemp began having trouble sleeping, her husband suggested she start making lists of things she needs to accomplish in order to clear her mind before going to bed.

Kemp had been making traditional to-do lists for years, so recently, when she awoke at 3 a.m. and found herself unable to get back to sleep, she decided to list her chores in a Venn Diagram instead.

Venn Diagrams are a type of graphic organizer unheard of outside of academia, but widely used by educators like Kemp and her husband, both schoolteachers, as an instructional strategy to engage visual learners.

Kemp’s husband, Arnold, said he found his wife’s drawings disturbing, even passive-aggressive.

“I get up at 6 a.m. and the coffee is way stale,” Arnold Kemp said. “I ask Shirley, ‘How long have you been up?’ She says she’s been up ‘awhile’ and shows me this thing with all her household chores on it as well as her to-do list for work. Who needs that at 6 a.m.?”

Arnold Kemp said that upon examining the list, he abandoned his efforts to make coffee and began unloading the dishwasher, breaking a glass as he worked.

“It was an accident,” Arnold Kemp said, “and it never would have happened if she hadn’t started in on me at 6 a.m.”

For her part, Shirley Kemp denied ever making any attempt to engage her husband in the household chores.

“I never asked him to do anything,” she said. “It’s true that the Venn Diagram is considered an engagement strategy to aid visual learners, and I do think men are more visual than women. I mean, he’ll watch a chick flick if it has a good-looking woman in it, but there is no way I’m going to sit through a movie about car chases and explosions. I don’t care who’s in it.”

Arnold Kemp dismissed his wife’s claims that she never intended to upset his peace of mind by listing her stresses in a Venn Diagram.

“She has no concept of all I have to do,” he said. “She’s never mowed a lawn in her life.”

He said he finds ways to enjoy his chores, including restoring antique lawnmowers.

“Women just enjoy talking about their misery. Men know it only makes things worse. We take action,” Arnold Kemp said, as he headed to his garage, where he said he planned to tinker for a couple of hours.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,” Arnold Kemp said, “I am so glad I am not a woman.”

Gatito

Gatito was not a bad cat. He was not a good cat. He was the best cat in the world.

Jefferson thought his neighbor Hector was so very lucky to have Gatito, who was grey with black stripes and greenish-grey eyes. Every evening at dusk Hector’s father would walk out onto the porch of their home and call, “Gatito, Gatito, Gatito,” until the cat came running.

Hector told Jefferson stories about Gatito during their rides to school on the bus every morning. When Hector’s family brought him home as a kitten, Gatito had no manners. He would jump up on the counters and sniff around for food. But they had trained him to stop doing that, only he still did it sometimes.

Jefferson asked his mother if he could get a cat. She said no. He already had two turtles.

One day when Jefferson got off the school bus, Hector’s mother was there, but his mother was not. Hector’s mother told them that Jefferson’s mother had called her. She was running late. Jefferson was to go to Hector’s house for a little while.

Hector and Jefferson watched television and played with Gatito. When Hector’s mother served them empanadas, they gave Gatito little bites.

Winter came. It was time for Hector and his father to go to stay with Hector’s grandmother in Florida. Hector wasn’t sad about leaving. He went to Florida every winter. But Gatito was lonely without Hector.

Every day at the bus stop, Jefferson stared at Gatito sitting out on Hector’s mother’s front porch.

When Hector’s mother asked if Jefferson’s family would take the cat, Jefferson’s mother said yes.

First they took Gatito to the vet. When they brought him home, he was sleepy and quiet, but after two days, he started jumping up on counters and sniffing for food.

Spring came. Gatito spent his days in and out of the house. Jefferson loved Gatito. He slept in Jefferson’s room at night and would wake his family up in the morning meowing for his breakfast.

Once, Gatito tore up the curtains in the living room.

When the cat knocked over the tank that held Jefferson’s turtles, water and glass went everywhere. Jefferson’s mother was furious.

“That cat has to go,” she said.

She put up a notice at the grocery store that said Gatito was “free to good home.”

One week later, someone called and said he wanted the cat.

Jefferson and his mother put Gatito into a carrier and loaded him into the car. They followed the directions out into the country to the home where they planned to leave Gatito.

The sun was sinking. Branches turned black against a pink and orange sky.

Jefferson’s mother pulled up to a leaning wooden farmhouse and got out of the car. The grass was tall enough that it almost reached Jefferson’s knees. He saw two kittens peering out of a wooden shed near the house.

Wait, there were more. In the dimming light, Jefferson could make out the silhouettes of several cats sauntering in and out of the shed, their tails waiving in the air.

A man or boy walked out of the farmhouse, followed by a little girl a few years younger than Jefferson. The man-boy was younger than Jefferson’s father, but probably older than the biggest kids who rode Jefferson’s bus. The little girl was wearing a tattered sundress. Her pinkish brown hair was mussed and tangled. She had a bow-shaped doll’s mouth and porcelain skin. Her legs were covered in scrapes and scratches as if she had been attacked by a cat, and in her arms was a quiet, motionless black and white kitten.

“You the folks that has the cat to get rid of,” the man-boy asked.

“Yes, I think so,” Jefferson’s mother said. “It looks like you already have a lot of cats.”

“The new one’s for her,” the man-boy said. “Her kitten’s dying. We don’t know what’s wrong with him.”

Jefferson’s mother addressed the girl.

“Did your kitty scratch your legs?”

“She scratches them herself,” the man-boy said. “She’s always itching. We don’t know what’s wrong with her.”

Jefferson’s mother looked back at the car, where Gatito was waiting in the carrier.

“I’m so sorry your kitten is sick,” she said. “I’m sorry, I don’t think we can leave Gatito. I thought we could, but we can’t.”

Then Jefferson and his mother got back in the car and drove back into town with the cat.

Jefferson decided it was the best day of his life.

The next day, he heard a crash in the kitchen. Then he heard his mother saying bad words.

He rushed down the stairs.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Jefferson, take that cat and go outside,” she said. “That darned Gatito ate my pie!”