They let me stay and listen to their talk for a while, but then my mother says, “Go and play with children your own age,” like she always does. My mother’s lipstick is orange; Myra’s is bright pink, and they both leave kissing marks on my cheek that I have to wipe off once I’m outside.
Myra’s children Big Lora and Ricky are playing Kick-the-Can in the street with my sister and some other kids who live on our block. Big Lora is two years older than I am. My sister, Little Lora, is a year and a half younger than me, and Ricky is a year younger than her.
“You’re it,” shouts Big Lora when she sees me step off the porch. She looks a lot like me: blonde, thin, and tan.
The salt blanket of ocean fog creeps into our yard one summer afternoon. Voices, charcoal and lighter fluid waft over in the mist from Myra’s backyard and beckon me to the fence we share. I climb onto the ivy-covered berm that runs along our side of the wood and peer over the top of the planks.
Big Lora holds a burger plate and a bottle of A-1 steak sauce. Bob scrapes the grill. Bob is not Lora and Ricky’s real dad, but they call him Dad. I don’t know who their real dad is, and I don’t know if they know, either. Bob is round and balding, and works nights managing the Alpha Beta in Long Beach. I watch him slide raw burgers on the grill with a spatula. I lean my elbows on top of the fence.
“Whatcha doin’? Snoopin?” I ask because this is what Granny Clampett says on The Beverly Hillbillies when she sees Mr. Drysdale or Miss Jane looking over her fence.
Before they can answer, the wood cracks. I fall forward through the ivy, scraping across a splintered board and tumble onto the barbecue. I scream and Bob yanks me off almost before I register what’s happened. I try not to cry, as one arm begins to feel raw and pink like the burgers. He carries me home, pausing to knock on the front door before he opens it. My mother, who must’ve heard everything from the kitchen, answers with a bag of Lady Lee frozen mixed vegetables in her hand and presses it on my arm. My father, who was mowing the lawn in the backyard, appears behind my mother.
“Thanks for bringing her home, Bob,” he says. “I apologize for her behavior. There’s really no excuse.”
“It was bound to happen. That rotten fence was set to go. I don’t think she’s hurt, just a little shaken up.”
My father takes me from Bob’s arms, carries me down the hall, and hoists me up on my bunk bed. He looks at my arm, which is red. “Don’t move,” he says. In a moment, he is back with two baby aspirin, a glass of water, and a vial of iodine.
I swallow the aspirin and hold my arm out for the iodine. It turns my scrape orange and stings like crazy, but I refuse to cry.
“If you keep snooping like that, you won’t have any playmates,” my father says using his you’re-in-trouble voice. “Stay here and think about that.”
I curl up on my checked bedspread, the vegetable bag growing soggy against my orange elbow and think. I thought snooping was a greeting you use over fences, but the way my father says it, it seems like a bad thing. I thought I was just being neighborly, like Ellie Mae Clampett, who usually invites Miss Jane to come in after Granny spots her peeking into her yard. I also don’t understand why my father is talking about playmates. Playmates are the ladies who pose naked in the Playboy magazines that my father keeps stashed under his bed. I don’t know why my father wants me to have playmates, or what they have to do with saying hi over the fence.
Later from my bed, I hear a knock at the door. Bob and Big Lora. My father apologizes again and says he’ll fix the fence.
“Don’t worry about it,” Bob says, and asks how I am.
“Fine,” my father answers.
“Can she come out and play?” Big Lora asks.
“No,” my father says. “She’s being punished.”
“It’s not her fault the wood was rotten under all that ivy, Duane,” Bob says. “At any rate, the accident didn’t ruin our barbeque at all. We’ve got plenty of burgers if you’d like to join us.”
“Thanks,” my father answers. “But we’ll have to take a rain check.”
They leave and no one comes to my room. I rearrange the row of stuffed animals that line the wall side of my bed. I order them according to size, from the big stuffed dog to the small baby doll. The bag of vegetables is warm and soggy, leaving a wet circle on my bedspread.
Sounds drift through the bedroom door: the clatter of pans and muffled voices of my mother and sister. Soon I smell tomato sauce. We’re having spaghetti tonight, which I hate. My sister always tells me the noodles are earthworms, and that there are ground-up tomato worms in the sauce. The handle on the bedroom door squeaks, and I throw myself face-down on the bed, wondering if I’ll look sorry enough to my father since I haven’t been crying. I squeeze my eyes tight; maybe they’ll water. I hear footsteps, and feel my father’s hand on my back.
“You can get up now and eat with us,” he says. “And then, first thing after dinner, you go next door and apologize. Understand?”
I nod into my pillow.
After dinner, I walk next door and knock.
Bob answers. “Well, hello there. How are you?”
“I’m fine. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to break the fence.”
“Don’t you worry about it. We’re just glad you weren’t hurt. Come on in.”
“I have to go straight home.”
“Well, hang on a second. I’m sure Lora wants to see you.”
I wait on the porch, my nose pressed against the screen, until I see Big Lora walk into the living room.
“Do you want to watch TV with me?” she asks.
“Ok. Well, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yeah, tomorrow.” I don’t say anything about snooping and playmates. If what I said was mean, it wasn’t on purpose, and Bob and Big Lora aren’t even mad at me.
I skip across the grass from her yard to mine. I would never tell anyone, but I think my father is wrong. You can make mistakes and still have friends.
The next night my father is at work, patrolling in his squad car. Big Lora walks over to our house just before dark wearing her harem girl pajamas. Little Lora and I wear the laundered thin nightgowns our mother sewed for us. We put The Mamas and The Papas on our scratchy stereo, turn the speakers toward the kitchen door and go-go dance barefoot on our brick patio, because we’re not allowed to play in the street after dark. In the song, people are dancing in the streets all over the country. We thrill when they sing, “way down in LA California,” like they know we’re just twenty miles away waiting to be discovered for our debut on American Bandstand.
When school starts, I don’t see much of Big Lora, since she is in fifth grade and I’m in third. She is on swim team and has different school friends. When summer comes, she rides her bike across town to visit her other friends who live up on Bullet Hill. I don’t miss her very much because I have a best friend, Carol, who lives across the street. Carol is an only child, and only a year older than I am. I spend the night at her house every weekend. Her father doesn’t have a job and he likes to sit on the couch reading the Herald Examiner cover to cover, but he doesn’t care if we listen to Glen Campbell on her hi-fi, watch Love American Style, or read Archie comic books out loud.
When Big Lora is in sixth grade, she buys her first mini-dress from the juniors department at The Broadway. It’s white polyester knit printed with red cherries, and ruffles cross over her developing chest. The dress is amazing. When Big Lora twirls in a circle, you can see the cherries on her matching panties.
One afternoon we are outside in the backyard when my father sits my sister and me in his lap and says he doesn’t love our mother anymore. He still loves us, but he is leaving. He moves five miles away to Long Beach, and every other weekend he honks in the street for my sister and me, takes us miniature golfing and to Sir George’s Smorgasbord. We sleep on his couch, yanking at the blankets and kicking each other, but quietly, so we won’t get in trouble.
When Big Lora is in eighth grade, she is nearly a stranger. The cherry dress is too short for her by now and much too tight in the chest, so she hands it down to me. It is my second store-bought outfit; the first was a Christmas present from Sherry, my new stepmother. Although my mother and Myra are still friends, maybe even best friends, my mother had to get a job when my father left, and she doesn’t sit in Myra’s kitchen any more and drink iced tea and talk.
It is a surprise, then, when Big Lora and Myra both knock on our door one morning before school. Their eyes are red and puffy. They look pale, and Myra’s freckles are dark and blotchy. She almost looks ugly. They are holding hands and I see bits of wadded Kleenex between their intertwined fingers. I call my mother to the door. She has her bathrobe on. I hold open the screen door, but they don’t come in, so I keep it open with a shoulder.
“Bob was killed on his way home from work last night,” Myra says.
“Oh, no,” my mother says, clasping her hands at her chest. “Oh, that’s so terrible. I am so sorry.”
“A semi jumped two lanes. The driver fell asleep. That bastard is fine.” Myra says.
My mother hugs her and they both cry.
“Will you come over and have tea with me?” Myra asks.
“Of course,” my mother says, and they walk arm-in-arm across the grass toward Myra’s porch, as if she is old and my mother is holding her up.
“I have to get ready for school,” Big Lora says, and turns to follow our mothers.
“Me too,” I say and close the door.
I wear the cherry mini-dress and matching panties to the funeral; it’s the nicest outfit I own. I sit in the back pew with Carol, who is wearing a green mini-dress. This is the first funeral I have ever been to. Bob has been cremated, Carol’s mother tells us. On a table at the front of the church is something that looks like a vase, and he is supposed to be inside of it. People are dressed in black and everyone is crying. Afterward, they mill around on the sidewalk talking in clusters. No one, except for me, is dressed in white. I feel awkward in my platform sandals and mini-dress as if my legs are too long. I don’t fit in, but even if someone had told me to wear black, it wouldn’t have made a difference. I don’t have any black clothes. Black is very adult, my mother says, and I’m too young to wear it. Big Lora is wearing black. Her dress reaches halfway to her knees and the neckline is close to her throat. Her long hair, usually loose, is in a bun. She looks like an adult. Does she feel like one?
I should hug Myra, Ricky, and Big Lora. I should talk softly in their ears like the grownups are doing. But I stand stiff and still next to Carol, each of us with our feet centered in a single square of cement. I look down and my hair hangs like a curtain in front of my face. If someone looks toward me, maybe they will think I am crying. I’m supposed to be sad and I’m pretty sure I am. Everyone should have a father. Big Lora has another father, somewhere. Maybe he will hear about what happened to Bob and find her and take her and Ricky miniature golfing and then they won’t have to miss Bob so much.
Through my veil of hair I can see that Carol, who is Catholic and has gone to church all her life, has bowed her head. Her hands are folded together, as if she is praying. I fold my hands, too, and stare at the leather straps crisscrossing my feet. I don’t go to church and I don’t believe in God, but after sitting through the funeral and watching people pray, I think that I should say something to him. I press my fingers together so tightly that my knuckles turn white and my fingertips red, but I don’t know what to say to God any more than I know what to say to Big Lora. I should tell them how sorry I am that Bob died, but secretly I’m relieved. The worst thing that can happen happened to the next-door neighbor. That semi-truck could just as easily have hit my father while he was driving the San Gabriel Freeway in his patrol car. But it didn’t. My father left us, but he is still alive. Thank God.
Cathy Warner is the author of Burnt Offerings (eLectio 2014). She has an MFA from Seattle Pacific University and serves as literary editor for Image Journal’s online “Good Letters.” Cathy blogs, edits, leads spiritual writing workshops, and volunteers with Field’s End writer’s community in Puget Sound. Her website is cathywarner.com.