Marie noticed that their mother hadn’t re-braided Lulu’s hair in three days. It frizzed out in light brown puffs from each turn of the weave, though the sun-gold ends still curled in a perfect Shirley Temple coil below the elastic hairbands. Lulu sat at the kitchen table, picking at the edge of the chipped copper Formica, swinging at the hollow metal legs with her own tanned, chubby ones, making the metal sing dully, arhythmically when the rubber of her not-Keds hit. She was humming and industriously spreading margarine with her finger so it covered out to the edges of the piece of wheat bread that lay flat on the tabletop. Marie watched her stop picking at the table edge and dig into her nose now with one short, plump finger, inspect her findings, then slip the fingertip absently into her mouth. Lulu was humming, “Not By Bread Alone,” which Marie recognized from Mass, but neither sister was old enough yet to take any pleasure in that irony.
They both had brown eyes, which is what their mother had hoped for ever since she had heard the song, “Beautiful, Beautiful Brown Eyes,” as a teenager. After the brown eyes, the resemblance ended. Where Lulu was rounded—in cheek, buttock, and the parts of her arm above and below where her elbow bent—Marie was spindly and already tall, with a nose that had lost its button status and was on its way to becoming what the Minnesota aunts would later argue was a Schratz nose or a Vorschadt one. The only difference being exactly where on the high, thin bridge the broken-nose bump sat. Marie’s dark hair, which had once curled on her toddler head, was now limp and fine. Lulu had hair a mousy brown—odd from two raven-haired parents—but the sun did magical things to it by summer’s end, streaking it with shades of gold to a near-pure white. Sun stayed in the strands through the winter, moving down her messy braids as the months went on. Her deep brown tan stayed too, while Marie’s white, moled skin showed the poor circulation that turned her hands and feet blue as the days got shorter.
People didn’t know them as sisters except by the Vorschadt, Lulu following Marie at Thunder Hill Elementary by two years. And though teachers recognized the quick, curious minds as alike, the personalities were already far different: Lulu, open and oblivious to anything wrong in the surrounding world; Marie, quiet and cautiously alert to what else might happen next.
Marie stood in the kitchen, held by the dull ringing of Lulu’s foot hitting metal. It was noon by the clock on the avocado-green stove. Two years ago, their mother would have been in here, serving lunch. Now, she was down the ranch house’s short hallway, the door to her master bedroom shut, an old black and white movie playing on the TV she’d taken in there with her. Lulu had made her own lunch (this was her second piece of butter bread), but Marie did not really want food, only wanted lunch, lunchtime, her mother in the kitchen because it was lunchtime.
“Take me to the pool,” Lulu said, not looking up from her butter bread. “It’s open now.”
Marie saw that Lulu was already in her suit. Still in her suit, in all probability. Still in it from yesterday. It was a hot pink tank suit, with three lines of green stitching up one side to Lulu’s waist, ending in stitched yellow disks. White fabric petals had once circled off the yellow centers, but the daisies had lost their petals some time ago. The suit was too small for Lulu; the tank’s fabric below the neck opening barely covered her flat little nipples, and the elastic was too tight around one leg, snapped and loose around the other.
Marie, all of nine years old, had labeled pool membership files with alphabet stickers at the community association every Wednesday evening for the past school year to pay for their summer passes. Marie didn’t know what her mother did in the two after-school hours once she dropped Marie at the membership office. Her mother had set up the informal arrangement, but she didn’t do any of the hours herself. Maybe it was one of her drawing class nights; Marie didn’t know. In any case, they said Lulu would be old enough this year to help with the files, if Marie would train her with the color-coded alphabet stickers. Marie wasn’t sure yet if this would be a good thing or not.
“Pool, Marie, pool,” Lulu began to chant.
Marie thought of her own tank suit, navy blue with white piping at the openings, three red buttons from the center neck down, one of them—of course the middle one—missing now. She was so tall this year the leg openings stretched up over her pelvic bones. She didn’t think she could bear it, thought about wearing a t-shirt over it, and tried to ignore Lulu’s singsong, “Pool, pool.” She wondered if Daddy would call this weekend, if he would come get them for at least a day, if maybe he would notice her suit if they swam at his apartment complex, if he’d buy her a two-piece since she was almost in fifth grade, one with tropical flowers or maybe macramé and beads like the girlfriends who got in the water with boyfriends at adult swim.
Columbia, the planned community in central Maryland, was only seven years old, as old as Marie was when Ed Vorschadt left Clarissa and the children. It was 1974 then, two years before Marie started fifth grade, and young couples had bought all the newly-built homes laid out in cul-de-sacs, streets with names from American art and literature, Wyeth and Jeffers. White sidewalks and black asphalt bike paths connected the villages, the paths dotted here and there with tot-lot playgrounds and a pond or two. It was the mid-70s and people were just beginning to believe that staying in an unhappy marriage was not good for the children. There were studies that showed it to be true. Yet so new was this idea of splitting up—for everyone’s happiness, as happiness was now paramount—that even though the Thunder Hill neighbors in Columbia were on the cutting edge, living this grand social-engineering, urban-development dream, they had not yet caught up with Ed Vorschadt. Ed Vorschadt, free-thinking, Jesuit-trained, one of the first to recognize the magnificent ideal of this planned community, one of the first to choose a lot, a house model, and even the trees that went in the yard. One of the first to divorce and leave his family planted there.
Marie felt—no, knew—that her parents were the only ones who were divorced. No one else had only a mother at home. No one. And certainly no one else had only her mother at home. It wouldn’t be until Marie was eleven that Clarissa would begin to date men from her SWORD group at church. The Single, Widowed, OR Divorced men were all alike, awkward around the kids, adept at making Marie’s pretty mother giggle. Now, though, it was the closed bedroom door, the old movies, the family rosary said daily, with desperate prayers for Daddy to come back said once every decat. Later it would be prayers for a new husband, and for the child support and alimony checks to actually come in the mail and clear at the bank.
On Saturday afternoons, Clarissa would drive them to the Meeting House for Mass; in summer, Marie and Lulu were pulled away from the neighborhood pool, still damp and in shorts hastily pulled over bathing suits. There at the interfaith center, where the Catholics met on folding chairs, the wide room was one of several. On Sundays, Marie, walking in her dime-store flip-flops, would hear the other Christians through different sets of double doors. The black Baptists sang with full-throated voices, the words rounded and deep compared to the thin, reedy ones of the Catholics. There were also Methodists and Lutherans a few rooms down from the communal baptismal font; they were even more boring than the Catholics, who at least talked about bodies and blood and offered up wine. But mostly it was Saturday afternoon Mass; sometimes there was even a Bar Mitzvah down the hall, the Christians invited to join in the reception afterwards. Clarissa would always let them stay for those, even let Lulu eat cookies, since it kept her from asking for McDonald’s on the way home.
On the first day of fifth grade, Marie came home to find the electricity had been turned off. Her mother was at school herself, taking classes in weaving or ceramics, which is what the counselor and the book with the parachute on its cover told her she should do. It wasn’t the first time they’d been without electricity after a check from Daddy had bounced. Last time, Marie knew, the Knights of Columbus had paid the bill and the reactivation fee, and their mother made the girls say extra rosaries to thank Mary for other people’s kind husbands.
Marie opened the fridge, felt it was still cool inside, and grabbed the pitcher of milk out, closing the door quickly to keep in the cold. The milk was pale and gray, reconstituted dry milk, which was cheapest, she knew. And Marie—who loved thick, white, whole milk and would drink glass after glass of it straight—poured this gray milk over her bowl of Raisin Bran and swallowed, one hand pinching her nose shut as she chewed, so she couldn’t taste much.
Lulu came in the front door, dragging behind her a stick about four feet long, over the sculpted gold carpet. She was singing the Halleluiah from Mass all the way down the hallway to the room the sisters shared. Lulu emerged and came into the kitchen, still singing, without the stick, pulling at her underwear through her cut-off jeans shorts. Marie stood from the table and added her bowl and spoon to the unwashed pile of dishes in the sink, while Lulu surveyed the cereal boxes that lined the kitchen table: Grape Nuts, Bite-sized Shredded Wheat, or Raisin Bran. Lulu frowned and Marie thought how she should be used to it by now; it had been a year since the counselor suggested the blood-sugar testing, since their mother’s diagnosis of hypoglycemia, since all the sugar had disappeared from the house. Her mother had confided in Marie that her crying jags had stopped completely, that she felt so much better than she used to, that her level blood sugar would save them all.
Lulu made herself a slice of butter bread. She folded it in half and mashed it flat with the palm of her hand, then licked the oozing margarine from the seams before she took a bite. Marie escaped to their room and closed the door, hoping Lulu would turn on the TV that their mother had returned to the living room, would get lost in after-school cartoons, and leave her to some quiet. She had forgotten that the electricity being off made this impossible.
Inside the bedroom, Marie stepped over the discarded stick, moved past the end of Lulu’s bed and through the opening in the divider their mother had cobbled together last year to keep the girls from squabbling. The white-painted fiberboard was covered in crayon graffiti. Marie had been labeled cool for almost a week by girls who thought being allowed to draw on even one wall in your bedroom was the best thing they’d ever heard of. Marie knew her mother was big on creativity, more so since her art classes, and she was happy to scribble Kilroy-was-here, sad-eyed puppies, and polka-dotted mushrooms for a time. Now, she was back to wishing she had her own room.
She’d been prepared to flop spread-eagle onto her unmade bed, since the house was warm and sticky—no electricity meant no air conditioning, and Maryland summers lasted way past Labor Day—but she couldn’t. Sitting on her bed was a black plastic trash bag, one of the new kinds on the TV commercials, with the built-in tie closures. Marie saw the way it bulged and knew it was full of hand-me-downs. There hadn’t been any back-to-school shopping for the Vorschadt girls, so Marie felt a thrill of excitement run through her, albeit tinged with shame. She hated wearing hand-me-downs from the church families, but she hoped there might be something, anything, better than the plain navy-blue polyester pants and Fourth-of-July striped knit top she’d been forced to wear as her best outfit for the first day of school.
Marie dumped the clothes out onto her rumpled sheets. At first, there was too much for any particular item to stand out as special. But then she saw the bell-bottom hip-huggers that might just be long enough for her, and then the silk-screened top. It was a thick, soft fabric, off-white, printed all over the front with images of lovely little girls getting their hair curled and styled. This one had red hair peeking out of a grown-up ladies’ hairdryer, red like Monica Beasley, who wore cool headbands in Mrs. Mitchell’s class. This one had white-blond hair, like Jennifer Loomas, who sat in front of Marie in art and had eyes like Marie’s favorite periwinkle crayon. And this one, with dark, dark hair just like her own, had the prettiest hair-do of all. Curled in fat sausage rolls, piled up on top of her head, long lengths of it were left down to drape over the neck and end in perfect coils, like Lulu’s braids.
It would be hot tomorrow, but Marie didn’t care. She loved this new shirt, and she would wear it tomorrow, long sleeves and all. Marie greedily scanned the front of the shirt once more, then she hugged it to her. The arms of it whipped and wrapped around her shoulders, seeming to hug her right back.
To get from Thunder Hill Elementary School to Marie’s house, you could go along the sidewalks, away from the front of the school along Mellenbrook Road, by the safety crossing guards, down past the larger two story and even two-and-a-half story houses that lined Log Chain Road, continue past the neighborhood center (with the nursery school that Lulu had attended, their mother volunteering to cut the costs down even then), past the swimming pool for which Marie had filed her little fingers off, then across Thunder Hill Road with the help of another safety guard, and stroll up Wintercorn Lane, finally past the tot-lot at Orchard Green, where Marie’s house sat low, at the rounded bottom of the cul-de-sac.
Or, much faster, you could run across the playing fields behind the school, up the bike paths, and dash across Thunder Hill Road without benefit of the safety guard, then through Mr. Sever’s yard (the one old man without children in the whole neighborhood), him yelling at you through his kitchen window, and into Marie’s backyard.
This was the route Marie had in mind when she took off out through the fifth grade door, blind to the playground, and down the hill into the playing fields, feet crushing clover while her face burned pink with shame.
Just a couple minutes and then home, and then tear off this dumb, dumb shirt…
“That’s a pajama top, you know. Why are you wearing Jennifer’s pajamas to school, Marie?” Monica Beasley had said in a cruel whisper to her in the lunch line, her red hair falling in a sheet over her cheek as she leaned toward Marie. Jennifer held back, not meeting Marie’s eyes when Marie turned, mortified, compelled somehow to verify this horrible statement, to see Jennifer looking like she was sorry she’d ever said a word about her pajamas to pinched-faced, sneering Monica Beasley.
Ignore, ignore, Marie coached herself through the slow crawl of the lunch line, her free-lunch ticket crumpled in her fist. Monica didn’t say anything more with teachers around, but Marie felt each giggle and squeal for the rest of the day like knives slicing down her long, thin body.
Now, she knew nothing but the jarring pounding of her feet hitting the ground, her breath coming hard, already searing her throat. All she wanted was to get across this stupid field, get home, tear off this stupid, stupid, pajama shirt, without hearing another sound from awful, awful Monica Beasley, not another word –
“Marie! Marie, wait!”
No, no, no, Lulu. Not today. No wait, Marie, wait. Not today, Lulu.
But Marie glanced back. Maybe Lulu was close, could catch up. She saw her little sister stumbling down the hill to the fields, in her arms the heavy bootbox containing her whole seashell collection from their two days at the Chincoteague cabin of their mom’s old boss. Marie wanted to pretend she hadn’t heard, wanted to keep running, but Lulu had seen her look back, had seen her see.
Marie slowed, then stopped. She turned, and with her best imitation of their mother, put a hand on each hip, and sighed heavily. “Hurry up, Lulu, just hurry up.”
“Can’t,” the response came, and it looked to Marie as if Lulu slowed down even further. Marie turned away and began to move again across the field, hoping the sight of her retreating back would make Lulu pick up her pace. But no, all it did was make Lulu scream.
“Marie! Stop! Wait!”
“Marie, Marie, stop, stop! Don’t leave me! Don’t run home to go beddie-bye in your pajama top. Have you been waiting all day for nap-time, Marie?” From the rise of the hill, Monica Beasley’s shrill voice carried over the field like a hunting harpy’s cry. Other children paused to take in the spectacle, but most continued home to their waiting mothers and afternoon snacks.
Marie felt every inch of flesh turn a blazing red at Monica’s words. Ignore, ignore, she told herself. That’s what the teachers said to do. Ignore, and they’ll stop, ignore and they’ll—
“You shut up,” Lulu screamed at Monica, oblivious to what was being said and why, but recognizing the taunting tone.
“You shut up, you dumb little brat. Go home with your stupid sister. Maybe you can wear her pajama top to school tomorrow.”
Ignore, ignore, Marie chanted in her own head. Yet this would be a another thing Lulu didn’t know, another thing Marie alone knew.
“You shut up, ugly carrot girl,” Lulu cried. “It is not a pajama top. What do you know?”
Marie stopped and turned, willing herself not to look up at Monica on the hill, tramping back toward Lulu, whose braids were still fuzzy and frizzed. Marie snatched at the back of Lulu’s collar, the way she’d seen her mother do countless times.
“Come on, Lulu. Just ignore her.”
“That’s right, Marie. Take your little sister home so you can both have your naps in your pajamas.”
As Marie tugged her, Lulu dragged her feet and leaned toward Monica like a dog pulling on its leash. Ready to attack.
“It’s not a pajama shirt, you ugly freckle-face!”
“Shut up, Lulu,” Marie said in a harsh whisper. “It is a pajama shirt. Would you just shut up?”
“It is?” Lulu half-turned.
“Yes. Jennifer Loomas’s.”
“Nitey-nite,” called Monica, still above them.
“You’re lucky I’m a Christian!” Lulu shouted. “You’re lucky I’m a Christian, you ugly carrot, or I’d come up there and knock you in the mouth!”
Marie felt tears well up, but Lulu began once again to walk backward, allowing the tension in Marie’s arm to release. Halfway across the field, Lulu turned. Marie let her arm drop from Lulu’s collar, knew Monica must have gone.
It didn’t matter. Monica could be there on the hill above them. Or not. Marie felt her just the same, always would.
When they reached the bike path and the little wooden bridge that crossed the creek, Lulu began to sing the Our Father the way the two young hippie guitar players sang it, to the tune of “As Tears Go By.” That was the Rolling Stones song their father used to play on the record player he’d taken with him. Marie pushed up the sleeves of her pajama top, the cooler air a small relief as she walked toward home, where maybe, just maybe, the electricity might be back on.