There are some days, whole days, when we do not wear our glasses. These are days without blackboards, Saturdays and Sundays when we do not have to leave the house at all. We are nearsighted, all of us, which means we cannot see past the pages in our books. Some of us prefer the world that way. We are of Irish descent, with fair skin and many freckles, and without our glasses our skin looks clear and unblemished, like the inside of an apple when it is first cut open, before the air turns it mushy and brown. The day we got glasses was a sad day for those of us who had forgotten about our freckles.
At school we sit in the back row of the classroom and hope that the teacher calls only on other people. We have had a lot of time to think about it and have decided that it is not a very good school. For one thing, it is free, and generally things that are free are worthless. One of us pointed out that this is not the case on Halloween, when candy is free, and so maybe holidays are an exception to this rule. Then another one of us pointed out that even on holidays nothing is really free, since on Halloween people are just trying to avoid being tricked. Trick-or-treating is a very dirty business. It’s the same for Christmas when, in exchange for presents, Santa gets his milk and cookies, and on Valentine’s Day, when, for chocolate and roses, people get each other. Everyone plays along so as not to wake up with lumps of coal, or alone.
In class sometimes we play Hangman or Tic-Tac-Toe. We stare at bright lights on the ceiling and then look away, so that a blue spot in the shape of the light follows wherever we look, the floating absence of light, which we use to obstruct the view of Mr. Carton, who tries to teach us math. We think we are the only ones who know about these spots, because we have never heard anyone else talk about them.
It is agreed, unanimously, that gym period is the worst of all the periods. Like we said, it is not a very good school, but there is enough in the budget to buy bats and balls, and with these bats and balls we play intramural softball. We are always the last ones picked even though we are not the fat kids. Florence Barlaz gets picked before we do, and she wears undershirts when probably she should be wearing a training bra.
Often, when everyone else has been picked and we are the only ones left without a team, we picture ourselves stopping the draft. We imagine dropping to our knees and pleading with the coach, who is also Mr. Carton. We could have a team of our own, we’d say, like the old people’s lane at the swimming pool. That way we wouldn’t interfere with the real athletes in the class, the ones who monopolize the school’s three baseball gloves. We could play in that corner of the field, the patchy part that nobody waters, we don’t need much space because none of us can really throw that far.
Of course, we never say this, it just isn’t done. So we take off for the outfield, like it was what we wanted all along. We don’t even wait to hear the team captain assign positions, and so we do not know who is on first and who is shortstop, because it is hard to see in the sun and because we always go so long.
In intramural softball, there are too many kids in the outfield, not just us, but four or five aside from us, because the teams are too big. In the outfield, we pray. We pray the ball does not come any closer. We ask God to provide us with an invisible shield, something to deflect the ball from coming our way. Our family is not religious. This is the only time we pray.
If we had a ball we would practice with it at home. Some days after school we’ll throw apples in the air and try to catch them before they hit the kitchen floor. Then Bradley tells Mom to quit buying apples from the corner market because they are always so bruised. Mom is Bradley’s wife.
The walk back from school is not long, only about eleven or twelve minutes, and much less if we are having a speed-walking competition. The record is under seven minutes, though it is hard to know exactly without a stopwatch.
In the afternoons, we let ourselves in. We were always misplacing the one key Mom had made for us at the locksmith until we began hiding it in the pot of bushy blue hydrangeas by the front door. Mom would be very angry if she knew we did that, but she is pleased that we have stopped misplacing it, and besides one of us always keeps lookout for strangers who might be spying to see where we bury it.
When we get home from school we make this neat thing called fairy bread, which Bridget Lowy brought in to school once on her birthday. Bridget is the kind of person who brings in treats for other people on her own birthday, because she wants so much to be popular and for her birthday to be remembered. The way you make it is you take sliced bread and on top of it you spread butter and then you cover the whole thing with lots of rainbow sprinkles. Mom doesn’t buy sprinkles so instead we use sugar. We pile fairy bread onto a plate and eat it in front of the television.
Another thing we used to do after school is walk Peashake. Peashake is a basset hound that lives down the hill from us. The way it started was that we used to follow Peashake and his owner, Mrs. Hudnut, on their afternoon walks around the neighborhood. One day Mrs. Hudnut stopped, turned, and walked the ten yards back to us, where we were trying to keep a respectable distance.
“Would you like to walk Peashake in the afternoons?”
Yes, yes we would. Peashake was no beauty, about a foot tall on all fours with a whole lot of extra skin that hung in folds below his head, where his neck might have been. Peashake’s legs were so short and his ears were so long we thought maybe he’d been built to fly. He was not the breed of dog we would have chosen for ourselves. But Peashake was better than no dog at all, and good practice for Trotter, our future Icelandic sheepdog.
Walking Peashake was different than we’d imagined it. It was better. We liked the feel of him on the other end of the leash, the slight pull whenever we were walking too fast or too slow, whenever he wanted to smell a tuft of grass, or inspect a crack in the pavement. We liked how he sensed when we wanted to run with him, how our paces quickened together, all of us knowing without having to talk about it. Picking up Peashake’s poop was even grosser than we had imagined, mostly because none of us had expected it to be warm. But even that wasn’t so bad after a while, and Peashake seemed to like us even better than he liked Mrs. Hudnut, because we walked him for longer and sometimes brought him the crusts from our fairy bread.
Then autumn got older and the leaves started to come down in orange and yellow clumps, making a carpet on the school breezeway. When it got cold outside we played volleyball in the gymnasium. It was a painful sport, maybe because no one knew how to play it right, and the doughy parts between Florence Barlaz’s wrists and elbows would smack red for the whole next period. For most of the time we’d sit low between the rows of the wooden bleachers, close our eyes to the bright yellow of the gym, and listen to the squawk of rubber soles on the court.
Other things that happened. Bridget Lowy brought in a magazine with her face on the cover, and we were impressed until it came out during lunchtime that Bridget had made the cover herself, at home on her color printer, and then had pasted it onto an old issue of People. In math class, Mr. Carton continued to lecture us from behind the blue spots. We were getting C’s on all our tests, which was bad but not so bad that we needed to get anything signed by Mom or Bradley.
The days became more and more about walks with Peashake. He was soft and calm, and also he was like us in that he didn’t want to play ball. We had been seeing Peashake for about a month when something happened and then we couldn’t see Peashake anymore.
It was a Friday and we had just come from returning Peashake to Mrs. Hudnut’s backyard. We opened the front door and then went to rebury the key in the hydrangeas.
“What in hell are you doing?”
Bradley was in the doorway. He was home early. It couldn’t have even been five o’clock. He was still wearing his shirt from work, but it was untucked and he’d taken off his tie. He must have pulled the tie up, lengthwise, because he was still wearing his tie clip.
All at once we tried to explain about the key, how careful we were and how really it was safer here in this one place. He muted our chorus with a wave of his hand and spoke again.
“Where were you?”
We told him about Peashake and Mrs. Hudnut. Bradley couldn’t figure out who Mrs. Hudnut was. Older than Mom. Dark hair with some wiry gray ones that stood up on her head. Long, flowery skirts and lived alone with a basset hound because her husband was dead. Finally one of us gave in and mentioned the goiter, which was the sort of thing we knew Bradley noticed in other people.
Bradley’s eyes flew down the block and his lips curled at the edges. He was seeing the goiter. And then, without warning, he had set off after it, into the street and down the hill.
We tried to form a barricade against him, but Bradley is over six feet tall and really what could we do. We could shout after him, throw up our little white hands, flutter them like doves in a magic act, but still we couldn’t make Bradley disappear.
We didn’t follow him, we didn’t want to be there, but later we heard Bradley telling Mom what happened. Bradley marched down to that old broad’s house and told her it wasn’t right she should have her dog walked for free. He demanded that she pay for our services. Mrs. Hudnut told him that that didn’t interest her, and when Bradley got home his face and his neck were almost purple and his sleeves were pushed up to the elbows and he said we weren’t to walk Peashake anymore. The only good part was that Bradley got so worked up about the trouble with Peashake that he forgot to tell Mom about the key.
Another thing was it wasn’t so much that Bradley had come home early from work that Friday as that he had been fired, which was another reason he lost his temper so quick with Mrs. Hudnut and probably another reason why he wanted her money.
Then we didn’t need to get the key out of the hydrangeas for a while because Bradley was home for almost a whole week after that, on the couch in his underwear. He set up camp out there and sat with his two bare feet on either page of the newspaper, dripping cereal milk onto the classifieds.
The following Thursday, the door was locked again. When we’d gone all through the house and felt sure that Bradley was not just asleep or on the toilet, we skipped down to Mrs. Hudnut’s to see about Peashake.
When Mrs. Hudnut answered the door, she looked older, which we know is not really possible, and her goiter looked larger, which is maybe possible but probably not likely. We asked if we might take Peashake for a quick spin and a whiz. Mrs. Hudnut said Peashake had already had his walk, and so we asked if we could come in and say hello.
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Sarah dear.”
We could hear Peashake skittering around behind her. We could hear his dog tags clanking together. He had two, one that was maroon and shaped like a bone and engraved with his name, and the other a silver rectangle that said he’d gotten all his shots. Did he know we’d come to see him?
We must have been looking too long into the entryway behind her because just then Mrs. Hudnut shut the door a few inches and told us to go on home.
Back at the house we started crying in front of the television. Crying, we guessed, for loss of Peashake. We wanted to know what we looked like crying so we ran to the mirror, but faced with ourselves we couldn’t cry anymore. We took off our glasses. No, the crying was over. We went back to watching TV.
When it got to be seven o’clock and still no one was home we went into the kitchen to fix dinner. There wasn’t enough sugar to make the fairy bread – what was left sat in hardened hunks at the bottom of the box – so we dug out a package of butternut squash from the freezer and thought that would be okay, even though it could probably use some sugar, too. Unwrapped, it was orange and shiny and shaped like a building block. We dropped it into a bowl where it perched at an angle, not fitting, and we tried to mash it up with a fork but it was too frozen, so we popped the whole thing into the microwave just like that. We ate it burning hot on the edges and icy cold in the middle.
Mom and Bradley came home at the same time, though you couldn’t really say they came home together, because they weren’t talking to each other, and then they weren’t talking to us either.
The next afternoon we came home to a pot with no hydrangeas, only a little soil at its base, which we scraped through, got under our nails. No key. We wished we hadn’t been turned away once from Mrs. Hudnut’s, because this would have been a good time to be not alone. Instead we sat in the darkening and told each other stories and squished ants. We thought about breaking in through a window, but none of the neighborhood boys played ball near our house and besides we’d need to tell about the key eventually. We wondered about when Mom and Bradley would get home, about what time Peashake would be having his walk, about who would steal a blue hydrangea.
Mom surprised us by coming home without Bradley. When she asked us why we weren’t inside we told her about the local hydrangea thief, and she rolled her eyes and said the plant had died, she’d uprooted it herself. When we told her she must have also uprooted our key she was angry and flared her left nostril at us and said she didn’t know when she’d have time to make another key and why did we have to be so goddamn irresponsible.
“We’re so sorry,” we told her.
She stopped, her own key half in the door, and looked down at us. “Who’s we?”
“I,” we said. “I meant I’m sorry.”
She opened the door. “Please, Sarah. One is enough.”
She went inside, and then, so did we.
Julia Pierpont is an MFA candidate at NYU, where she is a Rona Jaffe Foundation Graduate Fellow. This is her first published piece.