Sylvia was sixteen and liked reading books about faraway places, people whose names were exotic like Helmer and Katrina, and of times that were not her own.
“People were just better back then.” Sylvia said this to her friend John who was three years younger than her but wished he were three years older.
“I don’t know about that,” he said. “Arranged marriages, duels to the death, serfdom… You’d have three children by the time you’re twenty-four.”
“No, that’s not what I mean.” Sylvia paused. “People felt things. Real emotions, you know? Like Romeo and Juliet. Catherine and Heathcliff. They didn’t just sit around and obsess over the smallest little details. They had real pain. Real heartache. Not this high school bullshit.”
“Not to point out the obvious,” John said, “but everyone dies in those stories. They’re tragic.”
“That’s only because the feelings were too strong. The world couldn’t handle them.”
“That makes no sense.”
She didn’t know how to explain it to him. People didn’t always care so much about who was wearing what or who was sitting with whom at the lunch table. There was more at stake than that: there were wars and plagues and dynasties. All she knew was that she had to get out of this place: The school, the neighborhood, and the backward city. “Don’t you have a bus to catch?”
John looked at his watch. “Ten minutes,” he said.
“Just two more days then it’s the weekend.”
John frowned. “I’d rather be at school than home.”
“It’s just busywork. All those pointless worksheets and geometry problems, the dances, and elections… It’s just stuff to keep us busy during the day until they have to send us home, and we can bother our family instead.”
John said that he’d still rather be at school. Sylvia replied, “Well, you’re weird,” and told him to go catch his bus.
“Later,” he said, and walked off.
Sylvia looked out across the street at the modest homes. She wished she saw anything but houses over there. A field, a lake, or the foggy moors of Wuthering Heights. Across the street, an old lady slowly marched backward, dragging a plastic blue trashcan out to the curb. Trash was collected on Fridays; today was Thursday. Sylvia went inside her house, grabbed her backpack, and then walked the two blocks to Winton Place High.
When Sylvia arrived in her homeroom, she took her seat in the last row and slouched back with her copy of Jane Eyre. By the time the room had filled with students and attendance had been taken, Sylvia was in the middle of the second chapter. As punishment for fighting with her cousins, Jane has been put in the room where her uncle died. The walls are blood red.
“Don’t forget to bring any canned goods you can spare for the food drive!” The teacher was about ten years too old to be so enthusiastic. “Remember, we’re competing against the other tenth grade homeroom.”
“Mrs. Paulson, that’s not why we’re collecting cans,” a girl said from the front row, not raising her hand first.
“Of course, Annette. But competition can be a nice incentive for students. After all, it all goes to a great cause!” The bell rang. “See you tomorrow! And bring those cans!”
Sylvia imagined herself as one of the homeless people that would get a can. How would she heat it up? Would she even have a can-opener?
In most of her classes, Sylvia sat in the back of the room, taking notes and reading her book. She did as much as necessary to get through the forty-five minutes. But in gym fifth period, Sylvia couldn’t hide behind the tall guy in front of her.
“Why don’t they just line us up according to popularity?” Sylvia’s one friend at school, Meghan, said. “I’m serious, that’s all it is, this ‘choosing sides’ thing.”
A girl who must have been 5’11” and another wearing pink athletic-wear were chosen as captains of the two volleyball teams which would play to fifteen points or 11:45, whichever came first. The captains took turns choosing members from the group of sixteen sophomore girls. By the time everyone was picked, Meghan and Sylvia were split between the two teams. Sylvia was with the tall girl.
“And what’s the practical purpose of this?” Meghan shouted from the other side of the giant net.
“Sports build self-esteem!” Sylvia called back, as the gym teacher, a fifty-something-year-old man, said to rotate.
Sylvia hit her two serves straight into the net.
“You have to get under the ball. Under it!” Mr. Keith yelled.
When the serve went back to the other side, the girl in pink hit the ball like one of those beach players. She tossed it in the air, jumped, and then swung her hand. The ball flew over the net, and hit Sylvia’s forehead. She brought her hand to her head and noticed everyone staring at her. Though it didn’t hurt very much, a tear rolled down her cheek. Two minutes later, they were excused to get ready for their next class.
By the time supper was ready that evening, Jane is secretly falling in love with Rochester, her dark and impassionate boss. Sylvia wished there was someone, a man, she both loved and hated with such intensity. But she found herself merely in dislike with the majority of males.
“Put your book down and join us at the table, will you?” Her mom called from the kitchen.
Sylvia’s stepfather had come home from work a few minutes earlier, at which point her mom took a casserole out of the oven. The table was already set.
Her mom asked Mr. Dooley what he wanted to drink and if he needed more salt and pepper. He said a beer, and yes, pepper would be good. She served him and then asked if Sylvia needed anything else.
“No Mom, you should sit down and eat before it gets cold.” Sylvia turned to her stepfather with a blank expression, and then back to her food on the table.
He began talking about his day at work and the sonofabitch boss. “He expects us to work through lunch and then give him all the credit? That’s bull.”
“It’ll be alright,” her mom said, taking a seat at the table. “Just grin and bear through it.”
“Easier said than done.”
Mr. Dooley had a black mustache that was two shades darker than the graying hair on his head. Sylvia pictured him applying Just For Men hair dye to the mustache with his toothbrush. Sylvia finished chewing and swallowed a piece of the casserole. “Can I take a few cans from the pantry?”
“What for?” her mom said.
“Food drive at school.”
Her mom’s face brightened. “Take any you can find!”
“Two’s fine,” Sylvia said. She didn’t want to take more until she figured out how a homeless person would eat it. She finished eating and then excused herself from the table, as Mr. Dooley had started a new story about work.
Sylvia grabbed her jacket and walked to Winton Place Commons, a park near her house. She sat down on a swing and waited for her friend to arrive. It took fifteen minutes.
“You’re late,” she said when he got there.
“I’m sorry,” John replied. “I can only stay for a couple minutes.”
“Oh.” Sylvia clutched the chains of the swings and pulled back and forth until she and the swing were moving together. “Trash comes on Fridays, right?”
John was motionless on his. “Yeah,” he said.
“You know the old woman who lives in that brown house?”
“The one with the dog?”
“Yeah. She took her trash out this morning. I’m just curious why. Maybe she went somewhere and she’s not coming back ’til after they collect the garbage tomorrow. Or maybe she forgot what day it is.”
“I think I’ll see what she does tomorrow.”
Sylvia was sitting on her front porch at 7:00 on Friday, the next morning. All down the street, trashcans were set out by the curb. But there was none in front of the old lady’s house. Sylvia ran inside to grab her backpack, and when she came out, the lady was dragging the same blue trashcan to the edge of her driveway.
The can had been outside as late as 10:00 o’clock last night and it was gone by 7:00. If the old lady had made a mistake by taking the trash out a day early, why would she bother bringing it back to the house late at night? Sylvia concluded that it could not have been a mistake.
Over the next few days, Sylvia learned how to bisect a triangle with a compass and a straight edge, about checks and balances in the three branches of government, and about supernatural portents in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Her homeroom was behind in the food drive, despite Annette’s six cans per day. When Sylvia asked Meghan how they’d get the food from the cans, Meghan guessed that they broke them open, with their hands and whatever else they could find. “You get pretty strong, living on the street,” she said.
The next Thursday morning, the old lady again pulled her trash can out to the curb. The blue can was still there when Sylvia came home from school that day. Since there wasn’t the usual light blue Pontiac in the driveway, Sylvia walked up to the can, lifted the lid, and peeked in: it was empty.
“I don’t understand,” she said to John at the park, later that evening. “Why an empty can?”
John said he didn’t know, and climbed to the top of the play-set, with a yellow spiraling slide. When he reached the bottom, he just sat there.
“You ok?” Sylvia asked.
He said he didn’t know. “My dad kicked Becky out. I think he really means it this time.”
“What did she do?”
“They found her with drugs at her new school. Then she and my dad got into it pretty bad tonight.”
“I’m sorry,” Sylvia said, thinking about that time in fourth grade when she and Becky overfed Pinky, the class fish. Becky had scooped it out of the tank with her bare hands and taken it to the girls’ restroom. When Mrs. Johnson asked where it was, both of them swore it jumped out of the tank and landed somewhere behind the bookshelves. Becky and Sylvia had stayed best friends for three and a half years after that. “I’m really sorry,” she said again.
John jumped up from the slide. “Maybe it wasn’t always empty.”
“The can. I was thinking, maybe it did have something in it when she brought it out. Next Thursday you have to look as soon as it’s out there.”
Sylvia nodded. “You’ll be ok?”
“Of course,” he said.
Then, Sylvia did something she’d never done before: she walked up to her friend and gave him a hug. “See you tomorrow.”
A bag of apples, a sack of potatoes, three boxes of snack cakes, a can of chicken-noodle soup, and one packaged toothbrush filled the bottom of the trash can in front of the old lady’s house at 7:30am, the following Thursday. How strange, Sylvia thought. Why would she be throwing away all that perfectly good food? Sylvia decided she wasn’t going to school that day and walked back across the street to her own front porch. She opened her book to chapter 11, where Mrs. Fairfax is telling Jane about Mr. Rochester, and his strange and violent behavior. But it seemed every other sentence, Sylvia was looking up, to see what happened to the trash can.
During the next two hours, twenty-five cars passed: eight went from left to right, and seventeen went right to left, toward Winton Road. Six children walked to bus stops and two joggers came by, wearing hideous pink and orange sweat suits. Sylvia folded the corner of her book at page 117, and went inside to grab a pop. When she came back out, a middle-aged man wearing green-brown pants, a blue coat, and a green knit skullcap had lifted the lid of the trashcan. He bent over, his top half disappearing into the can. When he stood up, his arms were full. The man hurried away, turning down Burr Oak.
Sylvia ran across the street and opened the trashcan: it was empty. She looked up toward the house, and the front door opening. It crossed Sylvia’s mind to run, but then thought better of it: if she left, she’d never find out what happened.
The woman must have been seventy-five years old. A tan trench coat covered her body and went down to just below the knees, exposing her wrinkled white shins.
“Miss?” the woman said, in a soft, cracking voice, as she made her way across the yard. “What are you doing?”
“Someone just took the food out of your trash can,” Sylvia said. “But you knew that would happen, didn’t you?” She suddenly took a step back, afraid she had assumed too much.
But the woman smiled and pulled on the belt of her trench coat. “Yes, I did,” she said, then invited Sylvia to come inside.
Sylvia looked back at her own house, and then up at the brown one in front of her. She decided that if she didn’t follow the old woman, she would later regret it.
As she stepped into the front hallway, Sylvia imagined herself as Jane Eyre, entering the Rochester mansion for the very first time. Her real life should soon begin, Sylvia thought as she tried to inhale the pictures on the wall and the drapes over the furniture. This was how an old house should feel.
The old woman turned a light on in the kitchen, and the two of them sat across from each other at the table.
“I’ve been leaving food for that man you saw,” the woman said. “I watched him dig through my trash a couple Fridays ago, taking out orange rinds and stale bread; so the next Thursday I filled it with new food.”
“Who is he?”
The woman said she wasn’t sure. “I don’t know if he’s poor or if he even has a place to live. But anyone who’s willing to eat something others have thrown out must be rather destitute.”
Sylvia nodded. “What about the cans?”
“What do you mean?”
“How would he open it if he’s homeless? We’re having a food drive at my school, and all they ask for is cans, but I can’t figure out how a homeless person would open it.”
“What a thoughtful question. I left him a can-opener last week. As for the soup kitchens and free-stores, they open up all of the cans and combine everything that’s alike. Then they repackage them in a more accessible manner.”
Sylvia smiled. “That makes sense,” she said. She was pleased with their conversation and asked if she might come back and visit sometimes.
The woman said, “That would be just fine.”
At dinner that night, Sylvia wanted to tell her mom about their neighbor across the street, and also to find out if her mom knew anything about her. Had she been married? Did she have kids? How long had she lived in the house? But it never seemed the right time to interrupt her mom. And Sylvia always felt awkward talking about herself in front of Mr. Dooley.
“Pass the rolls,” her mom said. “Butter, too? Thanks sweetie. Elaine Fischer might be moving to Texas in the spring.”
“Really.” Mr. Dooley put on his surprised face. “What about the kids? Will they stay up here with Gary?”
“For the rest of the school year, and then they’ll join Elaine in Texas. Debbie says the new job is supposed to pay twice as much as the one she has here. I can’t blame her for taking it.” She paused to eat her roll then turned to Sylvia. “You go to school with Brendan, don’t you? How’s he handling all this?”
Sylvia said that he was only in one of her classes, and that they weren’t allowed to talk.
“Well, it’s a shame about Becky,” her mom said. “Who’d have guessed how different the two of you would have turned out? You guys were inseparable.”
“She’s just like everyone else,” Sylvia said. “No better, no worse.”
John was already at the park when Sylvia arrived. “Hey,” he said, then held out a bag. “Chip?”
“No thanks,” Sylvia said. “Just ate. Guess who I talked to today?”
“I give up.”
“The old lady! She caught me looking in her trash and invited me inside. She’s been leaving the food there for this scruffy-looking man to get. I’m going to go back to visit her tomorrow.”
“Straight out of a book,” John said.
Sylvia grinned. “Sophomore class is doing a canned food drive, and here this old lady is helping all on her own. I think I’ll learn a lot from her.”
“Think I could come over some time, too?”
Sylvia waited a few seconds to answer, so it would look like she was mulling it over. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Not yet, at least.”
“Oh. I understand,” he said. “Well, maybe my dad can drive us to a movie tomorrow. Amelie got four stars in the Enquirer.”
“What?” Sylvia had been thinking about her next meeting with the old lady. Sylvia would ask if she had ever been married, or if she had any children. Did her husband fight in World War II? Did her sons fight in Vietnam?
“I asked if you wanted to go to the movies,” John said.
“Why would… No, I think I’m just going to stay home tomorrow.”
He nodded his head.
“I’ll let you know what I find out. Later.” Sylvia hopped off her swing and walked home.
Sylvia asked the old lady to explain what Winton Place was like way back when.
“Did you know it had its own mayor? Now, that was even before my time. Only lasted a year or two before it became part of the city. Imagine: a mayor for six-hundred people.”
Sylvia smiled. “So when did you move here?”
“Walter and I bought this house in 1954, the same year the railroad was built. My, there was such fanfare for that railroad. You’d think the World Fair had come to town. I used to tease Walter when he came home late for work that the next time, I’d hop on the Chase railroad. He thought I was kidding, of course, but sometimes I did wonder what it was like at all those trains’ destinations. You ever ride a train before?”
Sylvia told her about the one at the Cincinnati Zoo that went around the elephant park and the monkey house, then dropped passengers off by the aquarium. Sylvia said that it didn’t really count, though.
“No,” the old lady said. “I suppose it doesn’t.”
Sylvia asked for some water. When the woman stood up and moved about the kitchen, Sylvia noticed that she walked much more gingerly on one foot than the other. Also, the woman opened the cupboard, removed a glass, and lifted the faucet all with her left hand. All her life, Sylvia had wished she were left-handed. Or ambidextrous: that would be even better. The woman sat back down, placing the glass in front of Sylvia. Sylvia asked her if Walter had been her first love.
“He was the only one that counted,” the old lady said. She was staring past Sylvia toward the wall.
Sylvia turned around, expecting to see a photograph or some sort of memento, but the wall was blank except for the faded green wallpaper that enclosed the room. The old lady’s eyes seemed wide and vacant, yet Sylvia knew they had witnessed a lifetime of joy and heartache. Sylvia decided that the old lady had fallen in love and gotten engaged in 1941.
But her fiancé, like all other able men at the time, is called to war. He sends her letters, as often as he can, from his base in Italy. He tells of the other men there, of the beautiful ocean, of all the death and brutality, but above all, he writes of how much he misses her. He misses her like the night misses the sun.
Two weeks before he is to return to America, this man is killed by a grenade that accidentally goes off. The old lady becomes so heartbroken that she decides to never love again. But then a young man knocks on the door at her parents’ house, where the woman is still living.
“I’m Michael’s brother,” he says, holding a cardboard box. “I think he would have wanted you to have these.”
The woman looks into the box: lying on top is a framed photograph of the two of them, dancing. A tear runs down her cheek. “I don’t know how to thank you,” she says.
“My name’s Walter,” he says.
The two of them spend time together, each helping the other grieve for his lost brother and her lost fiancé. Three months later they become engaged and, six weeks after that, they marry.
At least, that was what Sylvia had decided.
“That is what I’m talking about,” Sylvia called up to John, that night at the park. “Real love! Real feelings! Love and war! It’s better than any book.”
John had climbed to the top of the tall slide. He sat, facing away from the slope and down toward the ground, at Sylvia. He tossed her a tennis ball he had found.
Instead of catching it, Sylvia knocked it away with her right hand. “I have no coordination.” She walked up to the slide then threw it back to him, as softly as she could.
He caught it, then tossed it back down.
She batted it away again. “I’m telling you, I can’t catch.” She gave it back.
John caught it and just sat there on top of the slide, holding the ball with both his hands.
“You’re awfully quiet, tonight,” Sylvia said.
John threw the ball past Sylvia; it bounced for a bit, then landed somewhere near the chain-link fence of the swimming pool.
“I saw Becky today,” he said.
“Did your dad let her come home?”
“I saw her unplug the TV and hand it to a man in the front yard. She went back for the VCR and they both got into a car.”
“Didn’t you try to stop her?”
He shook his head, turned around, and went down the slide. When he reached the bottom, he walked to Sylvia.
“Did you at least tell your dad?”
He shook his head again. “I didn’t know what to do, so I let her go. I just stayed in the kitchen drinking a pop.”
Sixth grade was the last time Sylvia and Becky spoke as friends. They talked about what a doofus Mr. Hand was for assigning twenty pages of reading that night. Sylvia had said it wouldn’t be so bad, but Becky declared that teachers were out to make sure students had no life.
When Sylvia came to school the next day, Becky hadn’t been sitting at her usual desk, right across from Sylvia. Instead, Becky was in the back of the classroom, talking to a girl with purple hair. At lunch, Becky didn’t sit with Sylvia in the corner table next to the window. After school, Becky didn’t wait for Sylvia by her locker. Sylvia had gone home, marched straight into her room, and slammed the door. She’d pulled out her favorite book, Bridge to Terabithia, and re-read the scene where Leslie died, over and over again, until her mom had called her down for supper.
John had been a measly fourth-grader at the time. When Sylvia came by the house, and Becky pretended not to be there, he came outside. He said Becky was acting stupid, and that she didn’t know what she was doing. Sylvia had said she didn’t care, that Becky could talk to whomever she wanted.
John took off his glasses and cleaned them with his shirt.
He stepped forward, holding his arms out expectantly.
Sylvia wasn’t expecting this; she hesitated then walked up to John, letting him embrace her. “It’ll be alright,” she said, waiting for him to let go. But instead of letting go, John squeezed tighter. Sylvia stood there, feeling trapped. “John,” she said.
That’s when he kissed her.
Sylvia jumped back, out of his arms and away from his face. “What are you doing?”
“I love you,” he said.
“As a friend.”
“No, I love you like Heathcliff loves Catherine.”
“It’s just a crush,” she said. “It’s because of everything that’s going on with your sister.”
“No! You said you want real emotions, real heartache? Well here they are!” He was crying now. When she stayed silent, he added, “Heathcliff was younger than Catherine, wasn’t he?”
Sylvia walked back two more steps, shaking her head. “I can’t deal with this,” she said. She turned around and jogged home.
“Good news, class!” Mrs. Paulson waited for the class to become adequately excited. “Homeroom 204 has overtaken 207 in the food drive. Now, tomorrow’s the last day, so be sure to grab those cans!”
Sylvia slouched back in her seat and put her hand over her stomach. She hadn’t eaten breakfast that morning, and she put the brown bag her mom had packed for lunch into the old lady’s garbage can—today was Thursday.
“Oh, and next week is spirit week, so remember to wear your red and white! A Graeter’s gift certificate goes to the student voted to have the most school pride!”
Her stomach groaned. Sylvia hoped no one else heard it and that Meghan would share her Cheetos during fifth period.
Mrs. Paulson looked around the room. When she made eye contact with Sylvia she smiled. She pointed to a bag of cans and mouthed, “Thank-you!”
In the middle of the novel, Jane Eyre flees Thornfield and Mr. Rochester, after discovering he deceived her. She sleeps outside, penniless and without nourishment. When Jane returns to Thornfield, Rochester is blind and disfigured from a horrible fire; he assumes no one could love him. But she doesn’t care about what he looks like. They marry and live happily ever after. Sylvia thought Rochester was acting rather spoiled and selfish and that Jane would be better off without him. The heart wants what it wants, Sylvia supposed.