All the String in Cincinnati
Johnny couldn’t help climbing that oak tree after I dared him. The lowest branch was more than a tiptoe above his arm, so he ran inside his house to find something to stand on. When he came out with an Encyclopedia Britannica, I made him go back inside.
“Aren’t you gonna climb up too?” he yelled down from what must have been twenty feet up.
I was doing just fine on the ground, and I told him that much. Johnny called me a ‘fraidy cat and for a moment I thought about jumping up, but I decided to watch him instead. He took forever climbing up, and even longer on his way back down, stepping on each branch as if it were about to break.
“Hey, there’s a bird’s nest!” he called. “Two eggs.”
“Well don’t touch it,” I said.
Of course, he had to lean over and pick one of them up. “Catch!”
I threw my arms up in the air, ready for an egg to splat against my hands or head. Johnny just laughed, yelling, “Sike!” He set the egg back in the nest and made his way down, one limb at a time. He jumped from the lowest branch and did a somersault in the grass when he landed.
“You eating with us?” he asked.
“Nah.” I brushed some dirt off the shoulder of his tee shirt. “Maybe tomorrow.”
Mama was waiting on the porch when I got home. She grabbed me by the arm and said, “Where’ve you been?”
“Playing over at Johnny’s. You said I could, remember?”
She just shook her head and looked at her feet. “I think you better come straight home after school. You can’t get into any trouble that way.”
“I ain’t getting into trouble,” I said, pulling my arm out of her grip.
“Set the table, will you? Supper’ll be ready in a bit.”
“Yes Mama,” I said, then went inside.
The three of us joined hands around the dinner table while Mama said grace. She prayed for Missy to come home safely so that she could have both her girls around her. Daddy peeled the cellophane back from the macaroni meal then scooped some onto my plate.
After two weeks of me going straight home from the bus instead of out to play, Johnny said he’d have to find someone else to help with the tree house. “I don’t care,” I told him. We sat in different seats on the bus ‘til school let out for the summer.
In June, Daddy showed me how to make coffee the way Mama liked. Every morning I took it to her in her room a few hours after he left for work. “Set it on the dresser and climb in,” she’d say, lifting up the covers. Didn’t matter if I’d already changed into jeans. Daddy brought the TV in from the living room so we could watch it in bed.
“Run and turn up the volume, will you?” she’d say. “We ain’t like those families.” She stared at that TV like it hurt to turn away, like she was watching a space shuttle launch for the first time, or something. It was a talk show. Mama liked the talk shows almost as much as the Wheel. “Nah, you ain’t us,” she said to the people in the box.
In the afternoons, Mama was usually out of bed and busying herself around the house, reading magazines and dusting windowsills. That was when I went out back. Daddy made a sandbox with four boards, a plastic tarp, and four bags of sand on top. We didn’t have anything to cover it at night, so every day there’d be new stuff mixed in with the sand. I’d sit cross-legged in the box, filtering the sand over and over again through an old spaghetti strainer, getting rid of the sticks and leaves that had fallen, until it was almost as fine as right after he poured the sand from the bag. That was perfect sand.
“Just stay where I can see you,” Mama said when I went outside.
Daddy poured some dirt over the sandbox because he thought I’d have fun separating it from the sand. But the dirt just clogged the filter and stained my jeans. I was sitting in it the afternoon Johnny came by. He came straight to the backyard instead of ringing on the doorbell for Mama to shoo him away.
“Nothing,” I said. “Trying to make perfect sand.”
Johnny climbed into the sandbox, one leg folded under him and the other stuck out straight in front. He started picking out leaves and sticks.
“Now we gotta separate the dirt from the sand,” I told him. I picked up a handful of the mix and pinched the dirt speck by speck between my thumb and index finger, then let it fall over the grass. I dumped the clean sand to my right, and then scooped another handful from my left.
He did the same, and we giggled when he held up a grain and asked whether it was dirt or sand.
Johnny decided it was dirt and flicked it away from the box. “Aren’t you ever gonna come over again?”
I set my hand in the sand and let an ant crawl onto it. I leaned over and angled my hand against the ground until the ant walked off. “Not ‘til Missy comes home.”
The back door squeaked open. “Get out!” Mama screamed, almost tripping down the stairs. She grabbed Johnny’s arm and dragged him out of the backyard saying, “If you ever come near my girl again it won’t just be your leg that’s hurt.”
“Mama,” I whimpered.
She closed the gate with him running away on the other side, then got in the sandbox with me. “You don’t need boys,” she said, wrapping her arms around me. “We’re doing alright, ain’t we?” She pushed me away when I didn’t answer. “Ain’t we?”
“Yes Mama,” I said, “I don’t need nobody else.”
She squeezed me again. “Good girl,” she said. “Good girl.”
The boys, they all liked Missy. Tommy, Buck, Little Joe, they were always sneaking peaks across the yard, teasing her, and trying to kiss her and touch her. But she wouldn’t let them. Missy would just trot in front of those boys and their goggling eyes, with her belly button showing, and she wouldn’t even give them a second look. Or sometimes she’d tease them, steal their baseball mitt or something else to make them run after her until she was so out of breath she couldn’t hardly breathe, then just give back whatever she stole.
“Fine, take it! I don’t want your nasty old tee-shirt anyways!” she’d holler. Missy sounded mad, but she had this half-smile on her face that left the boys crazy.
“That girl is hell in a handbag,” Mama would always say about Missy. “Too damn pretty for her own good. Good thing you ain’t like that.”
Missy was wearing one of the boys’ tee shirts the first time she ran away. It was black, came down almost to her knees, and had a picture of the Rock on it. When she came home the next evening, she was still wearing that shirt. It smelled like old sausage. Turned out Missy spent the night behind S&S Deli, where all the stray cats went for tossed food.
She just sauntered into the living room where Mama was watching Wheel of Fortune, and pretended like nothing had happened, like she hadn’t even left the night before and scared Mama half to death. But Mama didn’t say anything either, not about that. “Hey Missy, can you solve the puzzle?”
Missy ignored her and disappeared for the rest of the night.
“You’d never ignore me like that, would you Chubs?” Mama smiled then turned back to her show. “Don’t buy a vowel, it’s The Grand Canyon!”
Mama kept watching her show and Missy kept running away. “I don’t need this place,” Missy would say. “I don’t need you or Mama or those stupid-ass boys.”
She probably didn’t leave only because she couldn’t afford to. She was always digging through Mama’s purse looking for some treasure, but all she found was loose change. “You ain’t got no money, do you Chubs? Nah, didn’t think so.”
But when Blake and his cheap beer and army jacket started hanging around Missy, the money didn’t matter anymore. “He’s going to put me on his motorcycle and take me to California and I ain’t never coming back,” she said.
And then she was gone.
“You’ll never leave me, will you Chubs? You ain’t nothing like your sister. You ain’t need to get away from me.”
“She’s seventeen today,” Mama said. She turned away from me. “Where are you, Miss? Maybe we ought to go on one of those shows, put your picture up.”
Daddy didn’t have anything to say about that. He handed me an unwrapped box of crayons, the kind with sixty-four colors and a built-in sharpener. “Happy birthday, girl.”
Me, Missy, and America were all born the same day. We had always driven to St. Bernard to see the fireworks display, and Mama and Daddy sang “Happy Birthday” to me and Missy just as the red, white, and blue sparklers went off.
This year we ate dinner at Frisch’s down the street. When I went to bed that night I could hear the boom boom boom of the fireworks, and Daddy’s footsteps downstairs. Mama was coughing in the other room.
“I’m twelve now,” I said the next day. “I think I ought to be able to walk a couple blocks over to Johnny’s house.”
Mama said I was old enough for lots of things, and that’s why I wasn’t going anywhere by myself. Later on she took me to the pool up at Winton Commons, but there were too many people and I was afraid to take off my swimsuit-cover.
“It’s okay,” she said when we left.
I helped her fix hamburgers and baked potatoes for supper that night. We even put cloth napkins and a candle out on the kitchen table. Daddy called to say he wasn’t going to make it home in time, but me and Mama went ahead anyway. She let me say grace.
“Please God,” I said, trying to sound real official, “watch over our house. Bless Mama and Daddy, and bring home Missy safe and sound.”
“And God bless the cook,” Mama added, smiling big.
We started staying in bed longer in the morning, Mama with her coffee, me with my orange juice, and the TV with its talk shows. In the afternoons it got to be so hot that Mama came out to the backyard with me and sat in a lawn chair while I played jacks or made perfect sand.
One afternoon she decided I needed to learn to crochet. “Every girl should know how,” she said. Mama came downstairs with a basket of yarn, scissors, and a couple crochet hooks. We sat on the couch, me on one end, Mama on the middle square. “Do what I do,” she said, then made a small loop with the yarn, a bright yellow, folded a strand back over, then pulled it through the loop. “See that?”
“Uh huh,” I said, and then repeated with my own green yarn. “Like this?”
She smiled and took out the crochet hook. She stuck it in the center of her loop then tightened the loop around it. She grabbed some yarn with the hook and pulled it through the tiny loop. She repeated that a few more times until she had a chain. Mama helped me do one loop with the hook, and then watched me crochet my own chain.
The next day I got started on a scarf. It was going to be black, white, and gray, with fringe hanging off the ends. I figured I could get it done in time for Daddy’s birthday in August.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have taught you,” Mama said, laughing, after I’d finished two more scarves. “You’re gonna use up all the string in Cincinnati.”
We crocheted in mornings, still in bed. Mama was working on a sweater, me on scarves. She didn’t have to tell me to stay home, because I didn’t ask to leave. I was doing just fine at home with Mama that summer, and one day I told her that.
I said, “I hope Missy never comes home.”
Mama hadn’t slapped me since the first grade when I took her good ring to school and lost it for three days. This one hurt more. My half-finished scarf fell off the bed, unraveling. “Don’t you ever say that again.”
The next day I left a cup of coffee on Mama’s bedside while she was still asleep. I went out back and filtered sand.
In August I gave Daddy his scarf. He said he loved it, but I suspected it would end up in the closet with the homemade wallet and the pen jar I’d given him in years past.
“Why can’t I come with you to work?” I asked.
He said it wasn’t a place for twelve-year-olds. Besides, someone needed to keep Mama company.
“She don’t want my company,” I said, but only to myself. School was starting up soon, so I’d be able to see my friends and Mama’d get rid of me for a few hours a day.
Missy called on a Thursday afternoon and Daddy picked her up from the bus station the next day. She didn’t have anything with her but a backpack.
“Where she been?” I asked.
Mama just cried that her baby was home.
Missy didn’t do anything but sleep for the next three days. Mama brought her food and left it by the bed. I wanted to see her, but Mama said to go play outside so Missy could rest easier.
Mama was asleep when Missy finally came downstairs.
“How can you stand it here, Chubs?” Missy was wearing one of my tee shirts. The sleeves hung over her shoulders and reached her elbows.
“I ain’t Chubs,” I said. “Call me by my name.”
“I don’t know, you still look like a ‘Chubs’ to me,” she said, punching my arm. “Wait, I’m sorry. Come with me.”
“Just come on… Charity.”
I’d never been on a Metro before. The city buses always drove right in front of our house, and I’d wondered what they were like inside. Missy told me to drop the change in the slot and then just sit down wherever I wanted. I picked out two seats all the way in the back. “Why’d you come home?” I asked. She said she wasn’t sure. I wanted to ask why she left in the first place, but I thought of a few reasons on my own.
“Ever been to a bar?” she asked as we stepped off the bus. Across the street was a pink neon “Mike’s Tavern” sign, flashing on and off.
It looked like nighttime inside. The lights were dim and there were grown men sitting at tables or on barstools holding mugs of beer. The jukebox was playing a country song that a man at a table by himself was humming along to.
Missy took my hand and we sat down at a round table. There was a clear, round ashtray, full of gray stuff. I stuck my finger in it and moved it around, picking out half a cigarette. Missy made a face like she swallowed a bug or something, so I put my hands on my lap.
She waved her hand. I turned around and saw a man, younger than Daddy, walking toward our table.
“I’m Tim,” he said.
Missy told him to sit down. “My name’s Melissa, and this is my niece, Charity.”
I gave Missy a mean look, but she didn’t notice. Neither did the man. And since when was she Melissa?
He probably thought she was twenty-five or something, all that make-up she wore. Or maybe he didn’t care. The way Missy was laughing at his jokes, they looked like they’d known each other for years.
Tim asked if we wanted anything to drink, then jumped up toward the bar. That’s when I asked Missy what she was thinking, talking to a stranger like that, and taking drinks. “Is this what you did when you were gone?”
Missy just sat there, with her legs crossed and her shirt too low. She was just trying to be friendly, she said.
Tim came back with three mugs of beer, holding two handles with one hand. Foam was spilling over the sides. He set one in front of me. I watched the bubbles rise from the bottom of the mug into the foam.
“I’m not twenty-one,” I said, still watching the tiny bubbles.
He said not to let the bartender hear me say that, as if the bartender couldn’t tell just by looking.
I tipped the glass, letting the foam tickle my nose. Then I licked it, just to get a taste. When I looked up, I saw Missy and Tim’s glasses half-empty, and Tim pulling Missy out of her chair.
He started moving in time with the music, a twangy guitar song with a man’s voice moaning about how life don’t treat him right. Missy had followed Tim’s lead and moved right along. He grabbed her left hand, lifted it up, and started to spin her around underneath. Missy looked like she’d been doing that her entire life.
After the song ended, and another too-fast one began, the two came back. Missy pointed to a dartboard on the wall and said, “You want to show us how to play?”
That made him smile. “You bet.”
Tim showed us how to hold the darts, how to aim them for the bull’s eye, and how to throw them. It looked easy enough, but my first dart landed somewhere near the bathroom door. Missy’s practice shot was even farther away than mine.
“I think I got it,” Missy said. “I’m ready for a real game.”
She was ready if the goal was to be as far away from the bull’s eye as possible. But I didn’t say anything.
“Me against you? That don’t seem right,” Tim said.
“How about me and Charity are a team? We both get a turn to throw, and whichever is better is the one that counts.”
“Fair enough,” he said.
That’s when they agreed to make it a little more interesting. If Tim won, Missy had to give him a kiss.
“And if we win?” Missy asked.
“Well what do you want?”
Tim shook Missy’s hand and then mine. His hand was warm and sweaty, and there was a maroon scar traveling across his palm. He handed us five blue darts, keeping five red ones for himself.
He hit the circle outside the bull’s eye then I hit the outer-most ring. He hit the bull’s eye then Missy hit a stuffed moose on the wall. After we’d thrown all the darts, there were five red ones around the middle, two blue ones elsewhere on the board and three more scattered around the floor.
When it came time for Missy to pay up she said, “It ain’t fair to Charity. She didn’t do half-bad.”
“Well she don’t have to kiss me,” he said. “You do.”
“Okay. Let’s say, double-or-nothing, me against you. If you win, you get a ten-second kiss. I win, I get a hundred bucks.”
They shook hands on it. Tim knew by Missy’s first throw that she was hustling him. I clapped my hands together as it hit dead center. All of her shots were in the bull’s eye, and it looked like she was going to knock Tim’s right off the board.
“Bitch,” he said, counting out the money. “I ought to call the cops on the both of you.”
“Thanks!” Missy grabbed the money with one hand and my arm with the other. “Come on!”
She was laughing when we ran back into the daylight.
“Look at this!” she said, counting the money. “Hey, the weasel only gave us sixty-five.” She started to turn back toward the tavern.
I told her to stop, that guy could get us in trouble. “You shouldn’t have done that.”
“Why not?” She said that like it was the craziest question a person could ask.
“You took that guy’s money.”
“He wanted to commit statutory rape anyways. I was saving him a prison term.” The bus arrived and Missy slid a dollar into the shot. “Besides, didn’t you have fun?”
“Nope,” I said, sitting down with my arms folded to prove it.
But she kept at me. “Just a little? Not even when you saw his face after I hit that bull’s eye? Tell me that wasn’t fun.”
“Just a little,” I said, starting to smile. And that made her smile. “The beer was gross.”
She laughed, said it was an acquired taste, and handed me thirty dollars.
“What’s this for?”
She said I was a part of her team, and that entitled me to half the money.
“Half of $65 is $32.50.”
“Don’t press your luck.”
We expected Mama to be sitting on the porch, waiting to give us hell. But she just said, “Hey girls. Supper’ll be done in a bit.” Me and Missy walked right on inside without saying anything to her about where we’d been or who we been with.
“Told you there was nothing to worry about,” Missy said to me.
I said I was glad she came home.
When school started up again at the end of August, I didn’t think Mama would care if I went over to Johnny’s house. But I came straight home anyways, because that’s where Missy was.
“Missy, where’d you go?” I was sitting on her bed, and Missy stood in front of her dresser. There was a square mirror standing on top of it, leaning against the wall. Missy was painting her eyelids. “When you left, I mean.”
She didn’t turn around, but I could see her face in the mirror and she could see mine. She had set down the little brush and was using her finger to blend the color over each of her eyes. “Come here.”
“Anyone ever say you ask too many questions? Get your butt over here,” she said, smiling. “Okay. Close your eyes, but don’t squint.”
The little brush tickled my eyes. I was standing in front of the dresser but facing away from the mirror and towards Missy.
“Now open your eyes real big and look up towards the ceiling.”
She was putting something on my eyelashes. “What happens when I have to rub my eyes?”
“Well just don’t,” she said. She set one black tube on the dresser and picked up another. “Pucker your lips.”
After she put some lipstick on me, she took my shoulders and spun me around to face the mirror.
For a second, I thought we looked alike. Me and Missy were almost the same height, and with the same hair and same purple above our eyes, we could have been twins. The mirror didn’t show anything below our necks. I turned away from the reflections and looked straight at Missy and her skinny little body.
“You’re a real pretty girl,” Missy said to me. “No one should ever tell you different.”
I still had the stuff on my face when we went down for supper. Mama said I looked like a little tramp, but Daddy was smiling and thought I looked real grown up: “Just like your big sister.”
Missy looked like she swallowed a chicken bone or something when he said that and just about started to choke. She took a sip of water and set down her fork. Her face turned toward Daddy, dead serious. “Don’t you go near her.”
That night she came into my room. I woke up when she got under my covers. I asked her what was wrong, and she said it was nothing; she just wanted to stay with me. I fell back asleep right away.
Something woke me up: I sat up in my bed and saw Missy, halfway out the window.
“Shh,” she said.
In a loud whisper, I told her to wait. I got out of bed and started throwing clothes in my school bag. Jeans, tee shirt, underwear, and whatever socks I could find. I needed to get my toothbrush.
Missy climbed back inside. She had a pillowcase full of stuff. “What are you doing?”
“Coming with you.” I would need a jacket. But that was in the downstairs closet. I took two sweatshirts instead. “Give me two minutes, I’ll be ready.”
“You don’t even know where I’m going.”
I decided that I could buy a toothbrush later. “I don’t care.”
She took my bag from me. “You can’t come with me.”
“You can’t leave again,” I said, trying not to cry. “You can’t leave. You can’t leave me alone with Mama and Daddy and this house. It’s so much better with you here.”
Missy set down the backpack and pulled me into a hug. Mama gave hugs that I couldn’t escape from; Missy gave them to say good-bye. “It’ll be alright,” she said.
Before she’d completely climbed out the window, I ran and gave her something.
“A hat?” she said.
“I made it for you. For when it gets cold out.”
She said she loved it then made her way out the window and away from the house. I closed the window, got back into bed, and waited for morning to come.
“Chubs,” Mama said from her square on the couch. Missy’d been gone for a couple months now and Mama figured it was okay to watch her shows again. “What’s the puzzle?”
I told her I didn’t know and walked out to the backyard. Daddy had torn down the sandbox because it was getting too dirty. A seventh-grader was too old to play in a sandbox anyways, he said.
To reach the lowest branch of the tree, I had to climb up the chain-link fence that surrounded our yard. I slowly made my way up it, for once not being scared of falling. I decided to stop when I reached about thirty feet off the ground. I straddled the branch and leaned my back against the trunk.
The days were starting to get shorter. In two days it was Halloween, though it was still warm enough to go outside without a jacket. At school during recess, sometimes me and Johnny ran around so much that we had to peel off our top layer and go with just short-sleeves.
I didn’t say anything when Mama came out looking for me at suppertime. I just watched her move around the yard like a little turtle. The spot where the sandbox had been was just a square of soil, darker than the rest of the yard. From up here, it looked like a landing pad. Mama screamed my name until the neighbors came out of their houses, asking her to be quiet. She said her little girl was missing.
“You mean that one, there?” one of them said.
I pretended I didn’t hear her when she yelled for me to come down. My name wasn’t Chubs. “I’m Charity.”
I got out of the tree and snuck into bed without saying anything to Mama. And Mama didn’t say anything about it the next morning when she handed me a dollar for lunch. Just to come straight home so she could show me the double-stitch.
“Sure Mama,” I said.
All the String in Cincinnati