The carnival train, full of colors, clowns, animals, and one headless giraffe, barrelled towards the floor vent where Mrs. Macaroni stood, screaming a terrible ‘here comes the train’ out of its whistle. Mrs. Macaroni seemed glued to the spot, and when the train crashed into her thigh, she fell with a screech onto the linoleum floor, and breathed her last breath. Suddenly, Michael sprang to his feet from where he had been lying pantsless and shoeless mere feet away, saw Mrs. Macaroni lying on the ground, and screamed a heartbreaking and high-pitched ‘NOOO!’
“Jane, be quiet. Why are you screaming?” Michael fell from Jane’s small hand, and she stood up and trotted over to where her mother was sitting. I kept on watching Michael, waiting to see what he would do about the death of his love, but the Ken doll lay lifeless on the ground.
Jane was the most interesting person I’d ever known, and she was only four years old. She looked like her mother, with dark hair and eyes, but when she reached her arm in the air, her hand wasn’t even that far away from her head, and when she stood, she was as tall as her mother’s belly button. Right then, she wore white socks and sneakers, blue jean shorts, and a pink T-shirt with a heart on the tummy. Her hair was brushed into two pigtails that curled up at the ends, and sometimes she would take the end of one and twirl it around her finger when she was concentrating. Since Jane’s mother got hired almost one month ago, I watched Jane play every day after school from the magazine corner at the community center, which was where I went to avoid being home. She was very dramatic, and sometimes I wondered how she knew so much about death. It seemed that her Barbie doll and Ken doll were always dying and coming back to life.
Jane’s mother worked at the front desk from three to five, but I knew she also waited tables during breakfast at a diner nearby, and she took night classes too. I thought she was probably working on homework right then. Sometimes I wished my classes could be at night too, so I could sleep right through the morning, then come to the community center before class, and miss getting in trouble with my grandmother all day. But I was only fourteen years old, and doing seventh grade for the third time, and I didn’t know of any seventh-grade classrooms that met at night. The closest I’d come to that was a detention.
My attention was brought back over to Jane. She was leaning her elbows in her mother’s lap, and kicking the chair her mother sat in.
“Do you want to be Michael? He has to save Mrs. Macaroni. You say ‘oh no.’”
“Jane, I’m working. Can’t you play by yourself?”
The clock said that it was four-fifty. Jane’s mother didn’t have much time to finish her homework before her shift was over. The center stayed open until six, but no one was allowed to check in after five, so there was always someone different looking after the desk for the last hour.
Jane gave her mother’s chair a big kick with her white sneakers and made a whining noise. “Huuuunh.” I winced, hoping that her mother would spare some patience.
“Jane, stop it. You’re too old to make noises like that.”
“No!” Jane shouted. I peeked further over the magazine I’d been pretending to read for the last hour or so. “Jane, stop. We’re about to leave. I’ll play with you later.”
Jane pushed herself up from leaning on her mother’s resting thigh. “NO!” she screamed louder. Jane’s mother glanced up and looked around the room, from the entrance, to the hallway, to the little circle of arm chairs around a short table where I sat, curled up. I raised my magazine up again and looked inside, even making little interested noises so she wouldn’t think I was watching them.
“Jane, pick your toys up. We’ve gotta go home.”
Jane’s face turned red, and she scrunched up her eyes. “I don’t want to go home!” She began to wail. I had never seen Jane cry before, and I wondered what her mother would do. Would she hit Jane? I felt something knot in the pit of my stomach, and I clenched the magazine tight in my fists. Jane was little. She shouldn’t be hit.
Jane’s mother reached for Jane and picked her up. She seemed deaf to the screams in her ear as she smoothed the child’s pigtails, and, through a sigh, planted a kiss on her forehead. “It’s time to clean up, sweetie,” she said. “Mommy has to clean up too.” She held Jane tight to her side with one arm, as she stacked her books and papers in her tote bag with the other. I hugged my knees close to my chest and tried to make myself small enough to be held in one arm.
“Come on, I’ll help,” Jane’s mother told her. Jane had stopped being so noisy, but only for a minute. She started to scream again when she was set on the floor so her mother could put Michael, Mrs. Macaroni, and the train with the headless giraffe into the tiny pink backpack that lay next to them.
Jane pushed her mother’s arm away from the toys. “NO!” she screamed, but her mother paid her no mind. She finished cleaning their things, and carried her screaming child out of the doors.
“Good-bye, Miss.” She didn’t hear me. I could hear Jane’s screams, even after the door closed.
I always stuck around to see the next person sit behind the desk for the last hour shift. I didn’t want anyone coming in and stealing any magazines or anything. I sat around long enough for pimple-faced Noah to take over the front desk.
He said, “Hey, chickie,” and made his mouth do a little whistle.
I wasn’t sure why boys said such odd things, but I told him, “Hello,” to be polite, then deposited the magazine onto the short table, and headed home.
I felt happy that Jane’s mother was so nice. I couldn’t remember my mother at all, which Grandma said was a good thing. I thought about how Jane wasn’t in trouble, even after yelling at her mother. I thought Jane’s mother must be the nicest person in the world.
“Ellen, help me get dinner ready,” Grandma said, as I walked in the door. Her wide frame stood in the doorway with her typical blue button-down dress with a collar, and her hair was done up in a no-nonsense bun. She had two cans of Chef’s ravioli on the counter, and I tried to contain my disappointment. Grandma used to make the best dinners. We used to have homemade bread, meat pies, spaghetti from a box, and my favorite apple pie, but now everything came from a can. I stood by Grandma’s side as she opened the cans and poured them into a saucepan on the stove. “Do you have any homework?” she asked.
“No ma’am,” I said.
“Now, don’t lie to me. Don’t make your teachers think you’re slow. I know you just don’t try.”
“Ok,” I said. The truth was, I sometimes did try, but it felt good for Grandma to say I was smart, even if she did accuse me of not trying. I dropped my backpack on the table and rifled through loose papers and frayed textbooks to pull out a math worksheet. I grabbed a pencil, pulled the wood back from the lead and began to multiply and divide.
Not long after, Grandma set a steaming bowl of red goop by my papers. “Hurry and eat,” she said, and I did. It didn’t require much chewing, that ravioli, so I was done in a few minutes, and Grandma brought me another bowl.
“No thank you,” I said. I was not very hungry.
“Eat it,” she told me, and set the bowl down next to the first.
“Excuse me?” I don’t think I had ever said ‘no’ without adding ‘thank you’ on the end of it, especially to my grandmother. I would have taken it back, but she had heard me.
“NO!” I pushed the bowl of ravioli away. Some red sauce on the side of the bowl smeared over the math worksheet. I stared at the paper for a second, then dipped my finger in the ravioli and spread it all over the sheet. I tried to draw a happy face, but it smeared, and it didn’t even look like a face anymore.
Grandma ripped the paper from the table, threw it on the floor and slapped me across the face. My hand flew to my cheek, and I felt it grow warm. “You are fourteen years old. You need to act like a grown woman. You are disgusting me. Clean your mess. You don’t get any food tomorrow until you finish this.” She picked up the bowl of ravioli and slammed it down on the table. I winced, but the bowl didn’t break. She stormed into the bathroom between our bedrooms. When I cleaned out the saucepan from dinner that night, I saw that she hadn’t even eaten. I threw out all the leftovers, except I left my uneaten ravioli on the table.
Grandma used to be less mean, or at least, Grandpa was nicer, and he could make her smile. He would play the harmonica, and he could play “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain,” and some song about trains, and sometimes Grandma would hum along. I thought about how they loved each other. I didn’t think Grandma loved me. I never made her smile, but I always made her mad. I thought Grandpa may have loved me. When I asked if I could try the harmonica, all that would come out were silly sounds. He said he would teach me one day, if I did better in school, and proved myself smart enough to play the harmonica. I never did. When Grandma called me ‘simple,’ Grandpa called me ‘slow,’ and told me the story about the little rabbit who lost the race to a turtle. I didn’t remember Grandma ever giving me a hug when I was little, but she must have, because somehow I knew that she was nice to hug, firm and soft at the same time, and safe. But if Grandma hit me really hard when I was little, Grandpa would pick me up and hold me until I stopped crying. He would scold me when he was holding me, but he was always winking, like he had dust in his eye. If Jane’s mother was nice, like my grandfather, I wondered if her father was mean. I thought about that until the morning.
At three-ten in the afternoon, I stood in front of the desk, with a magazine in hand. “Hello, Miss,” I said to Jane’s mother.
“Hello. Ellen, is it?”
“What can I do for you?” I glanced over at Jane. Today, Mrs. Macaroni and Michael were climbing the big tree that was the bottom of the office chair. Jane didn’t seem bruised.
“Is Jane’s father nice, or mean?”
“Oh. She… doesn’t have one.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said, like in the movies. I wasn’t really. “Is he dead?” Jane’s mother’s eyes opened wider, her head perked straight up, and she shifted in her seat.
There was a pause, then she answered.“No, not dead, at least I don’t think so. His name is Michael. I guess he is Jane’s father. He’s not in the picture.” I thought about Jane and her mother in a photograph. I took the picture, click, and Jane’s father didn’t get in the frame in time. I wondered if he was angry about that.
“My father’s not in the photo either,” I said. “My grandmother says she doesn’t even know who he is.” “I’m sorry.”
“I’m not.” She looked at me. Her eyebrows moved together a bit. I wanted her to keep looking at me, but when I met her eyes, she looked away.
“Do you need anything?” she asked.
“No, I don’t think so ma’am. I’m just hungry because I didn’t eat breakfast or lunch because I don’t like Chef’s ravioli anymore, and it was cold anyway.” I turned and walked back to my armchair, picked up a different magazine and began to watch Mrs. Macaroni and Michael climb down the tree.
Last year, I was supposed to be getting Grandpa from their bedroom for dinner. He always slept with his mouth open so he could make funny noises and his thin lips would go in, because he didn’t have very many teeth. I had overheard someone say that I looked like him once, but I thought that was silly, because I had more teeth. That day his mouth was closed instead of open. My stomach filled with rocks and cotton. Lying all stiff and everything, I just knew Grandpa was dead, but I knew from the movies that you have to check his wrist to see if it moved any, and I did. It was cold, and it didn’t move or anything, so then I was sure he was dead, and I let go real quick.
I didn’t want to tell Grandma, because Grandpa was her husband, and he could make her smile, but it was just me and her and him in the house, and I couldn’t move him all by myself. Besides that, she would see me. I just stood in the bedroom and said ‘oh shit, oh shit, oh shit’ a lot of times real fast, and I knew I had to tell her, because no one else would, and she knew I was in the bedroom getting him up for dinner, so I couldn’t just pretend I hadn’t seen.
I stood in there for almost a hundred years, and then I went out to the kitchen. Grandma was standing over the counter stirring something in a large metal bowl. Her thick legs were planted far apart so that she could stir very fast, and her eyebrows were drawn together as she looked at what she was stirring. She then set down the bowl, and picked up a white glass plate from the counter. I said “Grandma,” all quiet and unimposing, so I wouldn’t bother her.
She said “what,” and looked bothered.
And I said, “Grandpa is dead in the bedroom.”
She dropped the plate she was holding, and it made a crash louder than anything I’d ever heard before and shattered into a million trillion different pieces, all over the floor, and she said, “shit,” because of the mess. She raised her hand as if to hit me, but then it reached up and smoothed her gray hair, then trailed past her ear and down her neck. Then she said, “Ellen Carter Williams, he is asleep,” and she walked through the glass, and shoved past me to get to the bedroom. Her house shoes made clinking crunching noises as she walked, because of all the glass shoved into them from walking in it, and I thought she was lucky not to get any in her feet. I just stood in the kitchen.
I heard her say, “no”, softly, and I said, “I’m sorry” back, like they do in the movies, but as soon as she started crying, I put my hands to my ears and ran outside. That was the only time I’d ever heard my grandmother cry. After Grandpa died, I didn’t cry, really, but some nights I would cry in my dreams, and when I woke up, my face would be wet.
I sat on the back stairs for a while with my hands pressed against my ears and my eyes squeezed shut and wondered if Grandma had checked Grandpa’s wrist for movement, and if she didn’t, how she was sure he was dead. I had got some glass in my feet from running outside, and I began to pick it out and throw it in the grass. After a few minutes, I snuck back inside, quiet, and rang the police on the phone in the kitchen, being more careful this time of my feet.
When the ambulance came, they made me stand out of the way, so I went outside in the back again, and sat with my hands over my ears for a long time. I didn’t want to be in there when it was time for the men to take Grandpa away. I sat there until it became dark. The bugs were biting and my bottom was cold from the cement porch. When I got in the kitchen, the glass was still on the floor, so I took out the broom and swept it up myself.
At four, Jane was leaning on her mother’s knee again; she wanted her mother to play as Michael. “Mommy, play with me,” she said.
“I’m sorry, I can’t. Maybe later.”
“You will play later?”
“I said maybe. I’m sorry, Jane. I’m really busy. Maybe later.”
Jane held Michael up high and said “oh no,” and dropped him downward. He landed on Jane’s mother’s foot. “Ouch! Jane!”
Jane turned her little face toward her mother’s. “Sorry mommy.”
“Don’t drop things like that!”
“Sorry, Mommy, I’m sorry, Mommy!”
“It’s okay. Just be careful.”
“Okay. Do you want to play? Make Michael say something.”
“Why don’t you ask Ellen?” her mother said. “I bet Ellen would play with you.”
Jane looked at her mother. “Who’s Lellen?” Her mother pointed at me. My grandmother says it’s rude to point, but I waved at Jane.
“Hi,” Jane said, in her high voice. She picked up Mrs. Macaroni and Michael and walked over to where I was sitting. “What are you called?”
I didn’t know why she asked that, but I answered. “My name is Ellen.”
I didn’t know why she called me that either, but I just said, “Hi, Jane.”
“How do you know my name?” She set Mrs. Macaroni and Michael on the floor and sat down.
I slid off my chair onto the floor. “I heard your mother say it before.”
She gave me the Ken doll. “You be Michael. They live together up here.” She put Mrs. Macaroni on my now vacant chair.
“Can I be Mrs. Macaroni?” I asked.
“Ok.” She gave me the doll and took Michael. It’s bedtime. Make her brush her teeth.”
I was still playing with Jane at five, when her mother came over. Michael had died twice, and Mrs. Macaroni once, but they were both alive now. “It’s time to go,” said Jane’s mother. She looked at me. “Thank you for playing with Jane.”
“Jane, let’s clean up. Show Ellen where you put your dolls.”
“I have a bag for them!” Jane exclaimed. She got her little pink backpack and put Mrs. Macaroni and Michael inside. I wanted to keep playing, but I knew that Jane’s mother had night classes to go to.
“Good-bye, Miss,” I said.
“Good-bye, Ellen. It was nice to meet you.” Jane wasn’t carried out the door today, but she walked with her mother, holding her hand. “Say bye-bye.”
“Bye-bye,” said Jane.
I almost stayed to wait for pimple-faced Noah, but my stomach started growling so loudly, I thought it might be embarrassing for anyone to hear it. I decided that the community center would be fine for a few minutes without me, so I got up and started home. On the way, I decided I might even be hungry enough to eat the cold ravioli. I didn’t want to starve to death. My arms felt funny. Maybe I was starving to death.
My grandmother and I hadn’t spoken in the morning, except Grandma had scooted the bowl of cold ravioli, and the tomato-covered, half-completed homework in front of me when I sat at the table in the morning. I didn’t eat the ravioli, and I balled up the homework and threw it at some birds on a telephone wire on my walk to school. I missed.
When I got home, something smelled good, and I smelled it before I even entered the house. It smelled like apple pie. My stomach felt like it was jumping out of me to get to the scent before I could even get my hands on it. When I opened the door, I looked to the table, but my cold ravioli was gone. I knew better than to bring it up. Maybe Grandma had just forgotten and cleaned it up by accident. I didn’t want to remind her. I wanted to distract her instead.
“What are you making? It smells good,” I told her.
“That’s my favorite food.”
We ate in silence, Grandma standing at the counter, and me seated at the table. I finished one piece in no time, and Grandma saw and cut me another. She hesitated when she brought it over, then set it gingerly down on my plate.
“Sorry, Grandma, I’m sorry, Grandma,” I said.
“I know,” she said. “It’s all right.” She shifted her weight from foot to foot and began to stack dishes in the sink for me to wash as she said, almost inaudibly, “me too.”