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"Me, I Call Myself Girl" by Francine Witte



Chapter 1 


Mommy of a hundred names. That's what I call her. Me, I call myself Girl. 


Mommy has been Carmen and Mary and Rita. My real name is Miranda but Mommy doesn’t call me that anymore. Where we live now, my name is Patty. Last place we lived it was Jeannie. Mrs. Ferraro, our neighbor from across the hall said “oh Jeannie, like wishes!” Jeannie is a pretty name. All the other names I’ve had are pretty but there’s been so many now that it’s easier to be Girl.


The place we live now is a too-small space on the rickety side of town. We have lived here and here and there. But never a place we could stay in. I’m only nine and it’s not a good thing when you have lived more places than your age.

 

Mrs. Ferraro used to tell me that we live in a beautiful city. She said that people come from all over the world, that they leave their own homes and jobs and even their kids just to come to see what’s here. I don’t know why. To me, it is nothing but black-smoke trucks and spray-paint boys all the time in the street.


At night we can hear the noise of people talking downstairs. In this apartment, there is no room to see how far my bones could go. It’s nothing but one room and peely paint and the wobbly table with one broken leg. Just a tiny taste of bed and wall and door, and me-- I'm hungry. 


I’m hungry for the place that Mommy and I are going to have one day. Where we can stay and stay as long as we like and no one will make mean faces at us when we see them in the hall. When we finally find this place, I can go to school for one whole time together and not just in little bits like I do now. 


Mommy promised the place we live now would be different. She said that about the last place and the last place and the place before that. 


Every night, Mommy dresses up in her flowery skirt and the high heels with the roses on the toes. She tells me she has to go make money for us to live. When she kisses me goodbye she smells like roses. She always says, you just go to sleep and when you wake up, I’ll be right here.


But I don’t always go to sleep. Sometimes when she goes out, I put on her clothes so I can see what it feels like to be her. When we lived in the old place, I would go over to see Mrs. Ferraro across the hall and twirl around in Mommy’s dress and Mrs. Ferraro would clap and say that I was a pretty girl like a melody.


Mommy says we are lucky for this apartment. It’s okay we only have one bed, some people don’t have any bed, she tells me. She says the same thing about food, like when I scrunch up my face about peanut butter for supper and she tells me that peanut butter is delicious and would I rather be starving like those men in the street?


So, okay we are lucky, I guess. But I keep dreaming about a place where we can live forever and I will be Miranda again and we will be so happy. 


But this is not that place.



Chapter 2


We came here last month in the middle of the night. It was the hottest night I ever felt.  Mommy had the windows as open as they would go. It was late and Mommy said I could stay up because it was so hot and who could sleep anyway? She kept going to the refrigerator and taking ice cubes out of the tray and running them against her throat. Then she came over and rubbed one on my neck and throat and arms and Mommy said it felt like a vacation.

 

  I never was on a vacation but it had to be the best feeling in the world if it felt like this.  Then she got up and said she had to go out. She would say that every night and every night I hoped she didn’t really mean it, that at the last minute she would see how much fun she could have, the two of us with nothing but ice cubes to make us feel good.

  

Mommy got up and went to the closet and the hangers scraped as she looked for the dress she wanted. She pulled out a black one with no sleeves. It had lots of roses on it. Mommy stood in her slip and high heels. She leaned forward and her hair fell over her head and she brushed and brushed. When she stood up and shook it out, she looked like a lion.  


Then she picked up one of the perfume bottles and sprayed herself.  The room filled with roses and I breathed in as hard as I could. I forgot how hot it was and all the noise from downstairs and that soon Mommy would go out and I wouldn’t see her till later.


Because for now, she was just a rose.



Chapter 3


Me, I look nothing like Mommy. She is very tall and thin with soft hands and red fingernails. Mrs. Ferraro said that Mommy looks like Rita Hayworth in her prime. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t know who Rita Hayworth is or what a prime is, either. 


I have small, fat hands and my hair is too straight and never looks like a lion. Maybe I look like my father, even though I never saw his picture. Even though Mommy never told me his name.


When Mommy finished getting dressed, the landlady came to the door. She had big yellow teeth and hair on her chin. She told Mommy the rent is late and no, you can’t talk to my husband, you stay away from my husband and if you don’t have the rent, he ain’t gonna help you no matter what the two of you do like you think I’m blind. Mommy told her okay, okay, give me till tomorrow.


As soon as she closed the door, we had to pack. Not much for me, mostly Mommy’s things, her dresses, her shoes. I put my underwear, socks, and two t-shirts in a little plastic bag we got at the drug store when we bought shampoo. 


Mommy said she’d be back, she had to go to the corner to make a phone call.  I kept thinking that maybe we were going to my dream place, but I knew it was too soon, that a thing like that, a place you would live in as long as you wanted, would take lots and lots of planning - you would have to buy chairs and spoons and things like that and you wouldn’t have to go there in the middle of the night.


I thought about Mrs. Ferraro and how I should tell her we were leaving, but I knew I couldn’t. I knew I couldn’t say anything to anybody. I promised myself that as soon as we were all settled in our new place, I would call her. I knew Mommy had Mrs. Ferraros’s phone number for “emergencies.”   


When Mommy came back, she said we had to hurry, that it was late already. She said she talked to a man, the super and that he had the apartment just waiting for us.  She told me to quick, get ready.


“But Mommy, I’m already packed.” I showed her my drug store bag.


“Just hurry,” she said. I reached into the bag and pulled out my t-shirt from the time we went to the circus and put it on over my pajama top.


I thought about taking one last look around, but I stopped doing that two places ago. 


When we got to the staircase, we kept looking for the landlady to pop out sudden and scary.  Mommy and I were like two lizards so careful before we took another step. I thought again about Mrs. Ferraro and stopped to blow a kiss up the stairs and to her door.  I promise in my heart, I will call you, I said out loud and Mommy told me shush, don’t talk. Then down and down the rest of the steps and out into the street. 



Chapter 4


We didn’t say a word till we were a whole block away. It felt like we had stopped breathing. Finally, there was a bus with its headlights coming towards us in the dark like a huge animal. We waved and waved and the bus stopped for us. 


We got on the bus and Mommy sighed as we plopped into our seats. There were just four other people -- a boy and a girl with headphones who were holding hands, an old woman and a man sprawled out across the whole back seat. That man was one of those people that Mommy was always saying had it worse than us.


Mommy told me that we were going to River Street. “The place we are going to will be fine. It will be even better with no landlady always bothering us,” Mommy said.  “The super is my friend. His name is Von.” 


“Can’t we stay somewhere else?” I said. I remembered where we lived a couple of places ago. Where we had the other room with a curtain for a door and Mommy would have all these men who she said were her friends come over, only we never saw them again.


“You haven’t even seen it yet, and you’re complaining,” she said. “You have to learn to give things a chance.”


I looked at the old sleeping man in the back.  


“Don’t stare,” Mommy said “It’s not polite”


I pulled my knees up to the seat and put my head down. This is something I made up a week before. What I do is I make myself into an O like a zero. I scrunch up really hard. My chin presses against my chest. Digs in. My arms pull at my legs, pushing them into my stomach.  Smaller and smaller until I’m gone.  


“Sit up.” Mommy tugged at my shoulder. “We’re almost there.” Not even Mommy can pull me back. She didn’t know how long I could do this. I bet I could do this all night.


But then I sat back up because I didn’t want Mommy to know yet about the zero. It was the kind of thing that got her mad.

 

“Listen to me,” Mommy said. “This man thinks my name is Mallee. Say it.  Mallee.”


“And I’ll be Girl, okay?” 


Mommy looked at me, her eyes blue and angry. I knew that look. That don’t-make-me -crazy-because-I’m-not-in-the-mood look she always got when I thought up something new.


“We’re going to call you Patty.”  I asked her when I could go back to Miranda. She put her beautiful hand on mine. “Soon,” she said, “I love that name, Miranda. Miranda means wonderful.”


But I’m not wonderful, I told myself in my head. I’m a nothing of a zero with no school and no friends so why should I even have a name? 


Maybe one day someone will feel bad I’m sleeping on a bus. But I didn’t want to start any trouble now, not with Mommy all upset like she was so I said I would let her call me Patty if she wanted.


And I said that, but I promised myself in my heart that until I could be Miranda again, my name would just be Girl.



Chapter 5


I looked out the window, so many streets going by and I thought about the park across the street from the place we were leaving. I liked going there and sitting under my favorite tree. It was a place only I knew about. 


I was trying to count how many streets we were passing so that when I could, I could go back to see Mrs. Ferraro and my tree. But the bus was going too fast and it was dark.


When we got off, I saw River Street for the first time.  In a way, it looked like a river.  Long and narrow with cars squashed all along the sides. Stores were open late, and there was music like the kind you dance to coming from windows and cars. As we passed, I saw a woman sitting outside in a lawn chair holding a baby in her arms, and groups of men were standing around just talking and smoking. 

 

One, a big man with no sleeves and a baseball hat was drinking from a bottle. When we passed, he smiled at Mommy. Mommy pulled at my arm and we started walking faster. It was hard with Mommy carrying her suitcase in one hand and her other hand squeezing mine as tight as she could.


I didn’t like this street. So many people and no park nearby. We kept walking and the big man ran up from behind us and wouldn’t let us pass. He smiled at Mommy and held out a bottle to her. She told him to get out of our way.


“Why you gotta be such a bitch?”


“I told you get out of my way” Mommy said.


The man looked at Mommy. He didn’t move. Mommy put down her suitcase, put her hand on her hip and tilted her head to the side.


We all stood there like that, like the night froze up. 


Then the man’s friend came over. “C’mon,” he said, “She got a kid.” They both looked at me. Then the man in front of us breathed hard and moved and went back to his drinking. Mommy threw her lion hair back and we started walking again.


He kept yelling from behind us. “You bitches with your stuff all hangin’ out.  Who you think you are?  Miss America?”


His friend tried to pull him back “C’mon, let her alone.”


“Hey, this ain’t over,” the man still calling behind us. “Next time, you won’t have her with you.”


 

Chapter 6


We finally got to the building and went inside. The hallway smelled like a bad banana. The only light came from a tiny bulb on the ceiling.

 

Mommy knocked on the first door. After a minute a man came out.  He was wearing gym shorts and an undershirt. He had blond hair and a white face that looked too long for his head. He was so tall he almost didn’t fit in his own doorway. And his arms were so big, I figured he couldn’t ever find a shirt to cover them and how did he go anywhere?

 

I thought of the giant I saw in a book one time, picking up little children by their hair and plunking them so delicious into his mouth. I wanted to run the minute I saw him. I tugged at Mommy’s hand.


“Be still, Patty.” She smiled at the man. “She’s a little nervous, y’know?”


“You didn’t mention her.” His eyes got narrow like little worms.

 

“She’ll be good,” she looked at me, “right Patty?"


I said yes, but I promised myself that I won’t let him catch me and plop me whole into his mouth.  


“She doesn’t like to talk much,” Mommy said, letting go of my hand and holding it out to him. “Why don’t we go inside and you can give me the keys?”


The Giant Man kept looking at me.  


Mommy put her finger up to his mouth. “Come on.” She said leading him inside. “She won’t bother us.”


As soon as the door closed, I sat down on the bottom step of the long, thin staircase. The paint was all chipped and I could feel it poking up through my pajamas. I thought about Mommy inside with the Giant Man and how I wished she would come back out soon.

 

  I started thinking how hot it was in this hallway and how much I wanted a soda with ice. Mommy had said I could have one as soon as we got here, but that wouldn’t be till later.

 

So, what I did was what I always do when I want something. I put it in a special place in my mind. That’s a place nobody has to know about and only you can go there and you never have to tell anyone. 

 

It’s where I will keep Mrs. Ferraro and my secret tree in the park across the street. I can still go there even if we don’t live there anymore. I can go to this special place any time I want and dream about things. 


I closed my eyes and thought of a nice tall glass all cloudy with cold and ice cubes. And how even before I would take a sip I would roll the glass over my neck just like Mommy does.  


And I was thinking about that soda so hard, I could practically drink it. I closed my eyes and just kept thinking and I heard the door crash open. I opened my eyes and saw it was the man from the street, and he was waving his bottle around.  

 

“Where’s your ma?” he said.



Chapter 7


He stood there, looking mean as a storm. His hat was pulled down and his face was in one big shadow under the tiny light bulb on the ceiling. He had a loop earring on one side, and I could see a snake painted on his neck where his t-shirt began.

  

I didn’t know what to do. I was scared but I knew Mommy would be angry if she didn’t get the key.

 

So instead of calling for her, I dropped my head into my lap and held my arms around my knees. Tighter, tighter. There now, I’m nothing and you can’t see me anymore. I’m round and zero and I can stay like this forever if I have to, you just don’t know.

 

  I thought it and I thought it and after a minute, he must have heard inside my head because he said I was stupid and a waste of his time and went back out to the street. I never looked up, not even to make sure he was really gone.

  

When Mommy came out after a long, long time, she never even knew what happened, and she maybe thought I was playing the game from the bus and we went up four long flights of stairs, the silver keys dangling from her perfect, long fingers.

 

The Giant Man standing in his doorway, looking after me with his wormy eyes.



Chapter 8


Once we moved in, the Giant Man started coming over a lot. At first, he said it was to bring us things. Said we needed a good start. We needed towels and soap and a clock and curtains so no one could see us even if we were four flights up.


Then he brought up a bed from the basement that smelled like old wet clothes and a table with a broken leg. He carried them up all by himself. He also brought us things for the kitchen like dishes and pots and a big, long knife he said we could use to slice up bread. Mommy told him the bread she bought was already sliced up, and he said “well maybe I’ll bring you some you have to slice and how about you make me a nice dinner?”  


Then he spent a whole hour putting two locks on the front door. One was the kind you turn and it makes a big click, and the other was the kind with a chain. Mommy asked him if he does this much for all the tenants and he just smiled. 


He looked around and said the place was starting to shape up and that he would even get us a rug. Every time he said something like that, he looked at Mommy like he was waiting for her to smile at him. I knew how that felt and I almost began to like him then.


I even started to think a little that maybe he would change everything.  Maybe he would marry Mommy, and we could move to the part of the city that people go to see when they come from all over. Maybe I could go to school again even though it wouldn’t start until September. I could get a backpack and have my own seat and I wouldn’t always be the new girl never staying long enough for anyone to know.  


But we never had the dinner he wanted. Mommy told him she was no cook for any man and wasn’t he going to take her out? 


So, they started going out. A little at first and then longer. She told me it was all right to keep the door locked, but not with the chain because she had to get in later and I would be asleep.


When she did come home, when she woke me up, she would kiss me on my forehead, snuggle in next to me, her beautiful arms around me until I fell back to sleep.



Chapter 9

This one night though, the Giant Man came in with her a little earlier than before. I was pretending to be asleep, and she was telling him that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea that they went out together so much. Maybe they should tone it down, she said, because the lady down the hall is giving her funny looks and she already went through that at the old place. I kept my eyes closed and didn’t move.  


“It’s that guy from the bar, ain’t it?” he said.


She told him hush up, my daughter is trying to sleep. “Yeah,” he said, “because you’re mother of the year.”


“Look,” she said, “if it’s the rent, I’ll pay you. Things are getting better.” 


“I can imagine,” he said. “I know how you make things get better.” Then Mommy told him not to come over at all anymore because he was more trouble than he was worth and that she would get him the money for his stupid rent and just go ahead and try to evict us and I squeezed my face into my pillow because I already knew we would be leaving again.

But that was a whole week ago and we are here. We haven’t packed up everything and left in the middle of the night, so who knows?  



Chapter 10

Tonight would have been the last day of school if I had been going, but Mommy never got around to signing me up. Said we got here so close to the end of school and it was just easier to wait until September.  


 I keep thinking about Mrs. Ferraro and how I didn’t call her. We don’t have a phone, but I have her number on a piece of paper that I always keep with me. 


 I think about Mrs. Ferraro’s apartment and how much fun I had there. She had old newspapers and magazines stacked up so high, they could have been furniture. She liked to watch a lot of TV, old movies mostly. She didn’t have any family except for a grown-up daughter who lived in another state and never called her enough. 


Mrs. Ferraro didn't ask a lot of questions like why Mommy was all the time going out and leaving me by myself. I think she knew not to ask. 


Mommy once told me never to ask too many questions. People don’t always want to talk about everything. So, I figured that maybe there are things between Mrs. Ferraro and her own faraway daughter she was hoping no one would ask about. 


Mommy knew that I went there and it was all right with her even though she called Mrs. Ferraro a “character.” She said Mrs. Ferraro was a lonely old lady and I should be nice to her, okay? But Mrs. Ferraro was always smiling at me and I would have been nice to her even without Mommy telling me to. 


We’d shared cookies and sometimes ice cream and she didn't think I was silly for coming in all dressed up in Mommy's dress and lipstick. Sometimes when I think about those times, I take the paper with Mrs. Ferraro’s number on it and hold it close to my heart. Those times I wish so hard I could call her. 


But then I think it might be sad for Mrs. Ferraro to have a faraway daughter and now me, a faraway friend.



Chapter 11


Mrs. Ferraro’s favorite movie star was Fred Astaire. He became my favorite, too. “Oh, he could dance!” Mrs. Ferraro would say. And he could, all dressed up in his long suit and high hat. Wherever he went, whether it was a park or just to someone’s house to eat supper, he would dance. One night, she said that  no one dances like that anymore because people like to stay home too much and watch TV.  


“Like us,” I said, and she leaned forward and brushed me on the tip of my nose.  “Yes,” she smiled, “we’re a bunch of homebodies, all right.”


“Mommy’s not a homebody” I said. “She goes out a lot.”


“You listen to me” Mrs. Ferraro made lines in her forehead and made sure I was looking at her. “Your mama is your mama and she always means the best for you.”

I didn’t say anything.  


“I’m telling you this because I know.” She leaned backed in her chair and looked at a picture on top of her tiny refrigerator. “My daughter, she never thought I knew anything.”


The girl in the picture was her daughter, Deena. In the picture, she was maybe in high school or college. Very pretty with long brown hair and smiling, not a big red smile like Mommy, but friendly. Her eyes looked up and away like maybe a beautiful bird just flew by.


“She’s about your mama’s age now,” she said. 


I thought about how in the three months we lived here I never saw anyone come over that was the same age as Mommy. I never saw anyone come over but me. Then I remember that Mrs. Ferraro told me she lived in another state. 



“C’mon,” she said, “how ‘bout some toot-ee froo-tee?” That’s what she called ice cream even though it was always vanilla. We got out bowls and took the ice cream out of the freezer to get softer so it wouldn’t bend the spoon.


“You remember what I told you about your mama.”


That night, when Mommy came home and woke me up I hugged her extra hard.



Chapter 12


Sometimes now in the new place, on a night like this when Mommy goes out and there’s no one across the hall, I start to hear inside my own head too much. Thoughts are knocking around like cans from the street.  


I start to think that maybe Mommy is never coming back, like if she got hit by a car or a man with a snake tattoo wouldn’t let her come home. I wish we had a TV to make noise louder than what’s inside my brain. Then I think I shouldn’t even think a thing like that, about Mommy not coming home because I’ll make it come true.


 I’m standing in the middle of the room in Mommy’s purple dress with the fake diamonds on the front. I am thinking how many hours till I can go to sleep and that will make Mommy come back faster and before I can think anymore, I hear the knock, knock, knock at the door. 


 I wish it was Mrs. Ferraro with her fluffy pink slippers or Mommy with her pretty rose shoes.  But I know it isn’t.  It’s the Giant Man and he’s knocking, yelling for Mommy to come to the door.


“I know you’re in there, bitch,” he says.


I slip out of Mommy’s shoes so they won’t make noise and quiet as I can, I slide the chain lock into place. The floor creaks underneath my feet. Then I get into the closet and crunch down on the floor. 


Knock, knock, knock, the banging keeps coming and I pull my knees to my chest and head towards nothing, straight towards zero.  

The closet is small and I have to brush Mommy’s shoes aside. Above me, her dresses swish quietly on the rack.  And still the knocking.


Tighter, tighter, tighter. I am scrunched up so hard when I hear the lock clicking open. My thoughts are coming faster than I can hear them.  Mommy. Giant. Zero.


The slam of the door as the Giant Man gets past even the chain lock and I can hear his feet stomping across the floor. Mallee, he is calling.  Mallee!  And before I can even breathe again, he has yanked my head up by the hair till I have to look right at his wormy eyes and his face all made of sweat and skin


“It’s all your fault,” he says. His hands are like giant loaves of bread waving around in the air.  


“You, you’re just nothin’ but nothin’.” I wonder how he could hear inside my head, and that makes me even more afraid like no matter what I think he’s going to hear it. He reaches to grab around my throat and just as he does, his face goes loose, like all the bones in it just gave up and he crumples to the floor like an old dress.


Only to show my mother standing behind him, the bread knife he gave us is in her hand and a scream is in her blue, blue eyes. 



Chapter 13


One hour later we are sitting at the bus station.


We left the apartment with the man crumpled in blood on the floor. Five minutes of suitcase and hurry up and out the open window fire escape. Running, running, running past the stores, down the long open doors on River Street, which is right now the most place I never want to see again. 

 

Mommy pulling me with one hand, finally leaving the suitcase behind so we can move quicker. No time to stop, to talk, until there it is, we see it in the distance – bus terminal – lights and buses you could smell from a whole block away.  


We push through the doors and look around. Mommy buys us some tickets and we sit in the orange, plastic seats.


Finally, it’s quiet again. Only the sound of the announcement man telling nobody that buses are coming in. Mommy says our bus leaves in twenty minutes.

 

“I'm sorry, Mommy,” I finally say. I am sorry for what happened.  How if I had been sleeping, how if maybe I tried to talk to the Giant Man. But Mommy keeps looking straight ahead like she doesn’t hear me.


“If anyone comes to ask” she says, “we are traveling to see your grandma in Tulsa” 


“What’s Tulsa?”


“My name is Gloria” she stops then and looks around. “And your name is Lynette.”

I want to tell her to call me Girl, but now is not the time, so I just say okay.

Mommy looks inside her purse. “I wanted to give you some candy,” she says.  “You’re hungry.”


I’m okay, Mommy, I tell her, but she just keeps looking. She pulls out lipstick and tissues and a tiny makeup mirror, but there isn’t any candy.  


“Don’t argue with me,” she says. I know she is thinking about the man and the knife and where will we go now? This is so much worse than rent and landladies and men with snake tattoos.

“Is my grandma really in Tulsa? I ask her.

Mommy gets very quiet and just says “Maybe.” She stops looking through her purse then and says it to herself again “maybe.”



Chapter 14


        An old woman with store bags like mine filled with clothes asks Mommy how old I am. She looks like maybe she could have been somebody's grandma once. 


The old woman is about to sit down next to us. She asks again how old I am. Mommy tells her shush, go away, we're not bothering you. 

The woman gets upset. “I was just trying to be nice,” she says. “I had a girl like that once.”


She says this really loud and she shakes her fists at Mommy and why can't anyone be nice? she wants to know. Why can’t anyone? Then out of nowhere comes a policeman. He walks up behind the old woman and I feel Mommy's fingers tighten around my shoulders. I feel her long red nails dig in and I want to say Mommy, you're going to make me bleed. 

“Everything all right here?” the policeman looks right at Mommy. 


“Everything's fine,” Mommy answers, her fingers in so deep now that I flinch.

“She all right?” he asks, looking at me. “Holding her kind of tight, aren’t you?”


Mommy lets go. “She’s fine.” Mommy is already looking at him like she looked at the Giant Man that first night when he gave her the keys.


“I asked her how old the girl was,” the old woman says “but she's too good to talk to me.” 


“All right, Hazel,” the policeman tells the old woman. “Go sit down over there.” 


The old woman shakes her head real angry and takes her three shopping bags to the bench across the room. 


“How old is she?” the policeman asks Mommy.


  “She's twelve,” Mommy says. 


“Kind of small for twelve,” he says. 


“Yes, I know,” Mommy says, “but she'll grow.” Mommy tries to smile her smile at him, but he just keeps talking. 


He looks around at the floor. “Where are you taking her so late at night?” 

“Oh, I'm taking her to stay at her grandmother's house in Tulsa. Oklahoma.” 


“Long way,” he says. “Long way to go with no luggage.” 

“We're having it shipped” Mommy says. “When you don’t have a man…”


But I can tell the policeman doesn't believe her and doesn’t care how beautiful Mommy is and if it hadn't been for the old woman just then standing up and crying, I don't know what would have happened. “Nobody ever listens to me,” the old woman is saying, “Nobody.”     

The policeman gives Mommy one last warning look and goes over to the old woman.

“C'mon, Hazel, I'll take you back to the shelter.”      


When they leave, Mommy turns me around and looks straight into my eyes. “All right, listen to me. You have to be a big girl now.” And I know what that means.  Big girls stay home so Mommy can go out and get us money to live. Big girls keep secrets.  


“But Mommy,” I say. “Why can’t we tell the policeman what happened?”


“We don’t have time,” Mommy says. “That cop knows something is up, and he’ll be coming back.”


“The policeman could help us.” I tell her. “You did it to save me.”


“Yes,” Mommy says. “Now look, you forget what happened tonight. You never, ever tell anyone about it.” Mommy keeps looking around to see if the policeman is coming back.


“But Mommy…”


“Promise me.” She is holding me hard by my shoulders. “Promise me.”


“Yes, yes, I promise.”


“The police don’t help people like us, like me.” 


And I know there's no point to talk any more about it. No point in telling Mommy that this man wouldn’t have come in if she had been there, had a regular job in the day while I go to school and people wouldn’t be getting mad at us all the time. And maybe sometime I will tell her all of that.  But for now, I say nothing. 



Chapter 15


Mommy continues “So, like I said, you have to be a big girl now.”      

“I know, Mommy”     


“No,” Mommy says “I mean a real big girl. I’m going to put you on a bus.”


“We’re going to Tulsa” I say.  


“No,” she says.  “There’s a bus over there.  It’ll take you back to Mrs. Ferraro.  I’ll call her to meet you, and I’ll tell the driver where to let you off.”


She tells me it’s better and not to make a face but I do anyway.  And then I ask her where she’s going to go without me.


“I don’t know,” she says. “But I need to move fast, you understand?” I feel like the suitcase she left behind in the street.


“I’m fast, Mommy” I say. “I can be very fast”


“I’ll go ahead and find us a place to stay” She says “I’ll find us a nice place with a pretty school you can go to.” She brushes back my hair, “wouldn’t you like that?”


 I don’t say anything, just smile and she calls me her big girl and hugs me and I breathe in and smell as much of her roses perfume as my head will hold.


“You stay there with Mrs. Ferraro,” she says. “That way I’ll know where you are, okay?” 

She says “and don’t even think about coming to look for me, okay?  You are a little girl and I am your mother and I will always, always come back for you. “ 


And I think how I’m always being a big girl and a little girl all at the same time.  

      

“You promise?” I say “I mean, really promise?”

     

“I promise,” Mommy says. And even though I know she broke promises all the time to the landlady and the lady at the corner store, Mommy always came home every night, even those times I thought she wasn’t going to, so I know she will keep this promise, too.         

Mommy walks me out onto the streets where all the city buses are lined up.  We get to the one at the end and the driver opens the door.


“You stop near the park?” Mommy asks him.


He nods and Mommy pulls me up the step.


“This is my little girl, Lynette.”


The bus driver doesn’t say anything, but Mommy just keeps talking.  “She has to go stay with her grandma.”


When the bus driver doesn’t answer, she says “I was wondering if you can help us.  See I was going to take her myself.” Mommy is telling him how her sister is dying and only she can help her and it’s just a matter of time.


The policeman from before is coming back from around the corner. The bus starts rumbling underneath us. I try to tug at Mommy’s hand, but she just tells me calm down, Lynette.


And then it’s okay because the cop walks right by us, right in front of the bus and walks back into the bus station.


“I can’t take her myself,” Mommy says, but the bus driver says it’s against policy to take a un-company minor or something like that. I’m not sure what that means, but Mommy just keeps talking to him and smiling and asks if he has kids, a big handsome man like him, and then she says, here is my phone number. You can call me to let me know she got there safe. 



Then he is smiling. He is looking all over Mommy’s dress and he finally says that since it’s an emergency, it would probably be all right. 


We walk up onto the bus and Mommy sits me in the first seat. “You be good” she tells me. You stay at Grandma’s house till I come to get you.” She kisses me hard on the cheek. Hair brushing my face. Roses filling the air.


With a swing of her skirt, she turns to leave the bus. She blows me a kiss and disappears back down the street and she is smaller and smaller until she is a dot.

And I can’t stop myself from thinking when will be the next time and place I ever see my mother again.



Chapter 16


When I get off the bus Mrs. Ferraro is standing there waiting for me. I had never seen her outside before. She is wearing a bathrobe even though she’s in the street. That’s okay, I’m still mostly in my pajamas.


The park looks different from how I remember. The trees all stuck together and dark. If I had to right now, I probably couldn’t even find my special tree.


“Your mama said it was an emergency,” Mrs. Ferraro says. “She said she’d tell me all about it when she comes to get you.”


I feel better then, like I didn’t have to say anything, just like I promised. 


“You’ll see,” Mrs. Ferraro says, “we will have fun, right Jeannie?”


I tell Mrs. Ferraro about Girl. How that’s my new name now. But Jeannie is like in a bottle, remember? You know like with wishes.” 


“There aren’t any wishes,” I say. “Not ones that come true.”


“I wished you would come back to see me again,” Mrs. Ferraro says and then she smiles and takes my hand. 


We walk up the stairs to Mrs. Ferraro’s apartment. It takes us a long time because she says her legs are not what they used to be and that’s what happens when you get old. One step, one step and Mrs. Ferraro stopping to catch her breath. It takes us awhile and I can’t help it, but I keep hoping the landlady won’t come out and see me.  


When we get to the apartment. I forget all that and start to think about the nice times we had when I lived across the hall. Then I ask Mrs. Ferraro about the landlady and if she’s still there and I ask who moved into our old apartment and Mrs. Ferraro smiles and says I have a lot to say for one tired little girl and that it is time for bed. 


She pulls out a pair of little girl's pajamas. “Here,” she says, “you can use these for tonight” 


Okay, I am thinking, but just for tonight. If I am Jeannie with wishes, I’m gonna wish Mommy back to me by tomorrow. I’m gonna wish the Giant Man off the floor and everything back like it was, only not the bad parts. Just the sometimes hugs and Mommy telling me everything is going to be all right. And I start to think about Mommy and where she went when she left me.  


The window is open. The last night of June. I think how Mommy told me not to come looking for her. And even though I wouldn’t even know where to look, I wouldn’t do it anyway, because it was a promise.



Chapter 17


      When I wake up it’s 7 o’clock. Mrs. Ferraro is sitting at the kitchen table holding a picture frame next to her heart. Her eyes are tiny from crying and when she sees me, she acts like she is the happiest person in the world.      


“You know, Jeannie,” she says showing me the picture, “this is my little girl.”      

“That’s Deena, right?” I say and Mrs. Ferraro gives me a hug.      

“That's her nightgown you have on.”


She says she will tell me more about Deena and let’s have breakfast. We have big bowls of corn flakes with bananas sliced up. I wish I could tell Mrs. Ferraro what happened last night. We could have a nice talk and she could tell me all about her daughter and I could tell her all about Mommy, but I know that I can’t and I put that thought into the special place in my mind and put on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt that belonged to Deena, too, and I get ready for Mommy to come knocking at the door. 



Chapter 18


When the whole morning goes by and Mommy hasn’t come back. I keep looking out the window and when I tell Mrs. Ferraro I’m looking for Mommy, she says it might be a little longer than I think and tells me then I should go watch TV. 

Better, I should go out and play.


“It's the first day of summer vacation, isn't it?” she says.


I go outside and think how happy I will be to see my tree. 


Kids are everywhere. Playing on swings or jumping rope. There are mothers with baby carriages and dogs and no one knows what happened last night. 

     

I walk over to my tree, my special tree that has heard all my wishes and secrets for the time we lived across the street.


I tell my tree about last night. That isn’t breaking my promise and the words spill out of me all in one big breath. And the leaves of the tree start to shake a little even though there’s no breeze, so I think that’s maybe its way of letting me know it heard me. 


And I want to ask my tree if Mommy is really going to keep her promise about coming back, because it’s starting to look like maybe she won’t. But the leaves keep shaking, like maybe the tree can hear my thoughts, like maybe it’s saying that Mommy promised and she always kept her promise about coming back. 


So I just have to give it some time. 



Chapter 19


But days and nights go by and it is a whole week later and I am still at Mrs. Ferraro’s. Still no word from Mommy. 


Today is Thursday and Mrs. Ferraro tells me that it is her daughter’s birthday and how would I like some cake. I ask if her daughter could come over to eat it with us. That’s when

Mrs. Ferraro tells me to sit down.  


“You know how your Mommy is away, but still you love her?” she says.


“Yes,” I say.  

 

“Well, that’s how it is with Deena.” She looks at the picture. “Deena lives in Boston. That’s really far from here.”


“Like Tulsa?” I ask.


“Tulsa?” Mrs. Ferraro tilts her head. “What do you know about Tulsa?”  


I tell her I heard about it once in a story and always wondered where it was. 


 “Tulsa is in Oklahoma” and she reminds me of the movie we saw with that name.

Then she takes a book off of her bookshelf. It’s old and full of maps. Mrs. Ferraro  blows some dust off of it and turns the pages.  “Here,” she points her finger, “here, is Boston and then way down her, that’s Tulsa.”  


When I see how far it is, I feel a little bit better and I can see why Mommy is taking so long to come back. Then, I ask Mrs. Ferraro if she is going to call her daughter in Boston for her birthday.


“She’s very busy.” Mrs. Ferraro says.  “She works in an office.”


“We can call her later then,” I say.


“We’ll see.” Mrs. Ferraro says, settling back into her chair. “How about you go down and see if anyone loves us.” That’s what she calls getting the mail. I walk down the four flights and open the box. There are a few envelopes and a skinny newspaper with pictures of things on sale at a drugstore. And then there it is--a postcard.   


On the address side it says, Jeannie, c/o Ferraro. That’s me. My heart is pounding so hard, I think it might jump out of my chest. I turn the card over, but it’s blank.  It doesn’t matter because I know who it’s from. 


I bring the mail upstairs and give the letters to Mrs. Ferraro.  


“Hmm” she says “electric bill.  The sun shines all day and it don’t charge us nothing.”  


“Did you call Deena?”  I ask her.


“I don’t have enough around here?” she winks at me “Got all these bills to pay.”


“Maybe she is waiting for you to call her,” I say.


“All right, all right,” she says.  


She dials the phone and waits. Then I can hear that somebody is answering, Hello? Hello? I am thinking that Mrs. Ferraro would start singing happy birthday or just start making jokes like she always does, but instead she hangs up.


“You know what?” she says. “No answer. She’s probably busy at her office.”


But I know that someone answered. I heard it. I want to tell Mrs.  Ferraro that it’s okay she didn’t say anything, because Mommy didn’t have to write anything and I knew it was her. 



Chapter 20


I think Mrs. Ferraro wants to be by herself right now, and anyway there’s something really important that I have to do. 


I go across the street to the park, back to my tree and when I get to it, I count off twenty paces. Eighteen, nineteen, twenty and then I kneel down in the cool grass and start digging up with my fingers. I dig a hole and I kiss Mommy’s postcard and put in way at the bottom of the hole. Then, I pat all the dirt and grass back into place. 


I stand there thinking that if I wish hard enough this will grow into something else. If I really am Jeannie with wishes, maybe Mommy could grow up out of the ground. 


I stand there for a long, long time. I think about Mrs. Ferraro upstairs and her daughter and how maybe I should have brought her daughter’s picture down and planted it, too. Maybe, we could all be together, Me and Mommy, Mrs. Ferraro and Deena. We could be like those people who eat in restaurants and they have cups and glasses and napkins made out of cloth and everything is very quiet.  


Mommy told me once that they let you sit there for as long as you like because you’re paying them to let you do that and there isn’t even peanut butter anywhere on the menu. The four of us would become very good friends and we would all like each other and just laugh about all the time we took to get here. 


Maybe I should tell Mrs. Ferraro about the picture and how putting Deena’s picture into the ground might grow her right there in the park. You’ll see, I will tell Mrs. Ferraro. And that’s just what I am going to do as soon as I cross the street and climb back up the four flights.


Except that as soon as I get in the front door of the building and about to climb the stairs, the landlady is standing there, like a witch with a broom in her hands.



Chapter 21


“What are you doing here?”  she stops sweeping the floor and leans on the broom. Her hair is damp and sticking to her neck. Her arms are flappy like birds. 

“I – I’m staying with Mrs. Ferraro.”


“Where’s your mother?”  she says the word “mother” like it’s a bad word.


“She’s not here,” I say.


“Leavin’ in the middle of the night like that. Was up to me, the two of ya’s woulda been on the street long ago.” She puts down her broom and grabs onto my arm. “C’mon. We’ll see what Mrs. Ferraro knows about this. Maybe she don’t need to live here neither.”


I get scared then because this is the only place Mommy knows to find me. If Mrs. Ferraro can’t live here anymore, if she has to move, I don’t know what I will do.


We get to the top of the stairs, the landlady pushing me along. She is huffing and breathing really loud. Maybe I will turn around and she’ll decide she has something more important to do, like go check on a broken pipe or something like that. Maybe she’ll explode and leave us all alone. But I feel her bony fingers on my arm as we get to the door of Mrs. Ferraro’s apartment.


The landlady knocks on the door. She knocks and calls out “Hey Mrs. Ferraro, it’s Julia.” We wait for a minute. My thoughts are banging the inside of my head.  


When Mrs. Ferraro doesn’t answer, the landlady knocks again, even louder. The heat in the hallway is in my hair, my ears, my nose. I start to wonder if Mrs. Ferraro went out. But where would she go? It’s not her market or laundry day. 



The landlady keeps knocking and knocking and still no answer. I tell her the door is open, but she says it’s a law she has to knock. After a minute, she turns the doorknob and slowly opens the door. “Stay here.” she tells me.


There is something in the air besides heat and dust.  Something I can’t explain.  Like that sick feeling I had every time Mommy went out. Like that feeling I had on the bus when I waved good-bye to her.


“What a pigsty this is” the landlady says, looking at the newspapers piled up and the boxes of pictures opened and sheets and lunch plates still on the table. “Hey, Mrs. Ferraro, you here?”


I walk inside, and the landlady lets out a scream and her bird fist flies to her mouth.  I look to see what is wrong and there in the corner is Mrs. Ferraro slumped over in her chair, her arm like a loose sausage, her daughter’s picture next to her heart.



Chapter 22


The funeral home is an ugly place they try to make pretty with flowers and nice music but it doesn't matter. Some places are ugly because of what happens there.      


They found out everything when Mrs. Ferraro died. The landlady told the police about Mommy. The police came and took me with them and asked me lots of questions. They knew all about the Giant Man and that they know Mommy did it.  Do I remember what happened? They were asking. Were the Giant Man and Mommy arguing?

I wanted to tell them. I wanted to tell them so badly. I wanted to say that my mother loves me and that the Giant Man was hurting me. But if I broke my promise to Mommy, then maybe she would break her promise to me, and maybe she would never, ever come back. And so I told them I didn’t remember. 

Then a lady came to get me. Her name was Lillian. She was dressed like a teacher, with a pearl necklace and pink lipstick. Her voice was nice and soft. When I told her I liked to be called Girl, all she said was “If that's what you like, dear”       She took me to a place called a group home. She said I could stay until I could be placed in something called foster care. 


I started to cry when she told me that. “My mother,” I finally said. “She won’t know where to find me.”      


“But Girl” she said “your mother is far away and the police are looking for her. She did something really, really bad” Lillian took a deep breath and said, “your mother is going to have to go to jail.” Again, I don’t say anything. Besides, Mommy isn’t going to jail because when she comes back, we will run so far the police won’t ever ever find us, and even if they do, Mommy will explain everything and the police will have to understand.       



We walked upstairs and there was a roomful of bony little beds pushed up next to each other and sitting of one of them was a group of girls who pointed at me and giggled. 

Lillian told them my name was Girl. I liked her so much for that. The girls each said their names, Sandra, Barbara, and Eileen. Lillian said, okay, this is nice, and said she wanted us to get to know each other. 


After Lillian left, Sandra, who was the biggest of the three, looked right at me and said that Girl is a dopey name. Then she leaned over, got right next to my face and said that Mommy is a killer and that when they find her, they're gonna put her right in the electric chair. 


Then she and the other two started to giggle again. I walked away and sat down on a bed that was way on the other side of the room, and I waited for them to start talking about something other than me.



Chapter 23          


There are just a few grownups at the funeral home. Lillian gave me a dress left behind by one of the girls who was there before. She also gave me some of her other clothes to wear. 


“We try to move girls who come with us into foster homes quickly,” Lillian told me. Something about it being a better place for their well-being. “And when girls leave so quickly,” Lillian said “they sometimes leave their things behind.” I thought about all the things Mommy and I have left behind, but how it never was to go to a place we felt better. 

Mrs. Ferraro is in a long closed up box at the front. I ask Lillian why more people aren't there and she whispers “People are busy, dear.” I hope when I die, people can stop being busy, just for that one day. 

Some of the people I remember from the building. A man who lived on the first floor and sometimes said hello to me and Mommy when we went out. Then a lady I would see when I went to get the mail. But the landlady isn’t there, and I think Mrs. Ferraro would be glad about that..     

 

I see someone way in the back. Someone I know from all the photographs Mrs. Ferraro showed me. Someone whose old pajamas I can still feel on my skin. It’s Deena, standing there in real life.


When the minister is finished, I ask Lillian if I can go talk to Deena. I tell Lillian that it’s Mrs. Ferraro’s daughter and I really want to meet her. Lillian sighs and says, “okay, dear, but be quick.”


Deena is almost out the door, when I get to her. Wait, I tell her.

  

I tell her how I knew her mother, and how we used to watch Fred Astaire and how I even wore her pajamas, and I am saying everything so fast and all at once and Deena looks at me like she doesn’t know what I am talking about. And anyway, how would she?



That’s when Lillian comes over and apologizes and says I’m sorry, she’s just upset and we didn’t mean to bother you. 


Deena leaves and we follow her outside. There is a line of big black cars. Lillian tells me the first car is called a hearse and they will put Mrs. Ferraro in there and they will take her to the cemetery. 


I ask Lillian why we aren’t going and she says well, that’s for people who knew Mrs. Ferraro better, and I don’t know who could know Mrs. Ferraro better than me. Before I can even say anything, Lillian is telling me how it’s lucky we even came to this and it’s time to get back to the other girls, which is just about the last place I want to go. 


I watch as Deena gets into the hearse. She is wearing her hair tied up in a kerchief and she has sunglasses on and it’s okay that I didn’t talk to her because maybe Deena isn’t going right back to Boston. Maybe she is going to Mrs. Ferraro’s. Someone has to take care of all the pictures and books Mrs. Ferraro left behind. 


And I will have to find a way to see her there. 



Chapter 24 


Later, when we are back at the group home and eating supper, I remember there is a phone in Lillian’s office. I say I have a stomach ache and can I go to the bathroom but instead I sneak into Lillian’s office and call Mrs. Ferraro’s number.


I was right. Deena is there. She says hello, hello? But I don’t say anything. I just hang up. I go back to eat supper and Lillian is saying she has a special surprise for us tomorrow and we should all get a good night’s sleep.


Later in bed, I try and try to fall asleep and the blanket is scratchy and Sandra, comes over and has her arms stretched out in front of her and she says she’s the ghost of the man my mother killed and that ghost will haunt me for the rest of my life. And it doesn’t matter that I call myself Girl which is just a hiding name, because ghosts know where to find you no matter what. 


The other girls get up and they all act like ghosts, booing and saying things like killer, killer, your mother’s a killer, and it gets so loud that Lillian comes in, her hair all frazzled, and she flips on the light and yells everyone go back to bed. 


I try again to sleep but I can’t and, anyway, I’m thinking of what I will say to Deena when I see her again.



Chapter 25

When I get up the next morning, no one is talking to me. Everyone keeps staring at me when we eat breakfast, scrambled eggs and toast. Sandra and her two friends keep mouthing the word “boo” at me when Lillian isn’t looking. 


When breakfast is over, I just want to go think of how I’m going to get to see Deena. I think about asking Lillian again, or even just running away. But I don’t know how far it is from here to Mrs. Ferraro’s. 


While I’m thinking about all this and trying not to look at Sandra, Lillian says “okay, girls, remember I promised a surprise?”


The surprise turns out to be a trip to the downtown museum so we can see the whales. I remember one of my teachers telling us about that, how seeing the whales was a wonderful experience that every child should have, but I left that school before we ever got to go. 


We pack lunches of bologna with mustard and oranges. We get into a bus that Lillian got special for this trip and it makes me think of Mommy. How the last time I saw her I was getting on a bus. 


I try to find a seat far away from Sandra but the only one left is a window seat right behind her. I won’t look, I tell myself. I’ll just become a zero. The bus starts and I hear Lillian trying to get us to sing a song. A song about lots of bottles of beer on a wall, and nobody wants to sing. 


I hear two girls, who I don’t know, fighting in the back and I’m folded over now in my seat. No one can see me. No one can see me. 


The bus is rumbling and I feel a little sick all bent over like that, but I’m a zero and it will be okay. 


Then Lillian is tapping me on the shoulder, quick sit up. The girls in the back keep fighting and Lillian tells us we better stop acting like this because people will think we are a bunch of “lost causes.”


“I mean,” Lillian says, “we will just go back and we can spend the afternoon thinking about how we should behave in public.”


The girls in the back stop fighting and I sit up. I am lost and I am a zero but I don’t want to make Lillian mad. 


And then, I look out the window and there it is. We are passing the park with my special tree. Across the street from Mrs. Ferraro’s apartment. 



Chapter 26


  I count the streets and it’s one, two, three, six blocks from the museum.  


The bus has pulled into a parking lot and before we can get off the bus, Lillian tells us again that we have to be good. We get into two lines like we did when I was in first grade, and we walk around to the front. Up a hundred steps, and through the big glass doors.


Lillian says we all have to have a buddy to stay with in case we get separated. 

My buddy is Gail. She is quiet and doesn’t even say hello to me. Not even when Lillian tells her to. 


The inside of the museum is cool and it feels good to be out of the summer air. When we get to the whales, they aren’t swimming around, like I thought they would be, but big, fake whales that are posed with their mouths open. Lillian tells us to stand back to see it because if you stand too close, you don’t see the “whole effect.”


      Then Lillian says that next we are going to see the cavemen that doesn’t sound any more interesting than the whales and so I ask if I could go to the bathroom. She tells Gail to go with me, but Gail just shakes her head and says she doesn’t want to get murdered. 

Lillian tells her that’s a terrible thing to say and that Gail should apologize, but the two girls who were fighting on the bus start pushing each other and Lillian goes over to them. “Just go by yourself,” she says to me. “Go quick.”


I walk away and no one is watching. I walk past the bathroom, past the people looking at fishbones, and arrows, and rocks. I walk through the glass doors and down the hundred steps. 


Outside, I start to run. Only six blocks, five blocks, four blocks, and then there it is--the old building, The landlady is sitting on the steps and I hide in the park until she goes inside. I go to the spot where I buried Mommy's postcard to see if it has grown into anything, but it hasn't. 


I look again to see if the landlady has gone inside, and she has, so I cross the street, go through the door and up the steps. The hallway is still peeling paint but there is the nice smell of cookies.


When I finally get to Mrs. Ferraro's apartment, I knock and knock till finally Deena opens the door. 



Chapter 27

 

“You’re that girl from my mother’s funeral” she says. “What are you doing here?” 

 

I want to tell her a million things, about Mommy, about how I have to stay here so she can find me, but instead I can’t say anything, like the words froze up in my mouth like ice cubes. 

“Where’s your mother?” she asks and again I start talking too fast. I tell her all in one big jumble that it wasn’t my mother, that’s Lillian and I’m staying at a group home where everyone hates me and I’m not going back there even if I have to sleep in the park. 

“You better come in,” she finally says. 


I tell her my name is Girl and Deena says that isn’t a name and what’s my real name and I tell her okay, it’s Jeannie, just like Mrs. Ferraro called me.


She gives me a glass of milk and a couple of the cookies I could smell all the way from the hall. They are chocolate chip, big gooey drops inside the soft dough. All snuggly and warm. 


“After you finish, you are going to tell me where Lillian is, and then I’m taking you back.” 


No please, I tell her. I tell her about Sandra and those other girls and all the things they were saying. Then Deena says I know. I know how mean kids can be. But that’s where you belong right now. And besides, Lillian must be worried sick. 


“She doesn’t care,” I tell her. “I’m just another lost cause to her.” 


“A lost cause?” Deena says. “Do you even know what that means?”


I swallow my cookie, and say, “a lost cause is someone who can’t behave in public. Someone who has to live at a group home.”

 

“What happened to your parents?” 


“I don’t know.” I tell her. And really, I’m not lying. I don’t know my father, and I don’t know where Mommy is. 


I ask if I can stay here. “I’ll sleep on the floor. I won’t make any noise.”


“Out of the question,” Deena says. “First of all, if I don’t let Lillian know where you are, it’s like kidnapping. You know what that is, right?”


I tell her I know, that the teachers in school told us about that, and that’s why we have to watch out for people we don’t know, but really no one is going to steal me. 


Then Deena says she has to go back to Boston because that’s where she lives, and that’s when I tell her I know because I was here when Mrs. Ferraro tried to call her that time. 


“What do you know about my mother?” she sits down at the table. 


I tell her how I used to come over and watch Fred Astaire and that I knew how Mrs. Ferraro would fall asleep holding her picture and Deena starts to get tears in her eyes. 


“I could stay here and help you,” I say. I know where everything goes. “I have to get rid of all of it,” Deena says. “She had so much stuff.”


“Oh, no,” I tell her. “She loved her pictures of you and her books that she read to you when you were little. And your pajamas.”


“She kept all that?” Deena asks. She straightens herself up and says, “C’mon, I’m taking you back to Lillian right now,” she says. “And if you won’t tell me where Lillian is, I’ll take you down to the police station.”



“No, please,” I say, I want so bad to tell Deena about everything--about Mommy. About the Giant Man. About all of it. Most of all how Mommy won’t know where to find me if I don’t stay here. 


I start to cry, I am crying so hard, I start to shake and shake and then I bend down to zero. Deena says what are you doing? What are you doing? And she sounds so upset, and I think I better tell her. I set back up and tell her about how I’m turning myself into a zero.

“Is that what you think you are?” she says. “Sweetie, those girls were being mean. But look, I never want you to do that again.” She stands me straight up, she says no, you are straight up and down. You are a number one. 


And then she says she will call the group home and see if it’s okay for me to stay with her for just a little while. Is that okay? When I say yes, she pulls me close for a hug, the smell of cookies in her hair. 



Chapter 28

Later that night, I dream that I'm not here staying here at Mrs. Ferraro’s and Deena might have to take me back to Lillian. Maybe I go outside and Mommy is waiting for me in the park.


Mommy will hug me and tell me it's all right. It was all a mistake. The Giant Man didn't die or maybe he was just a man the cops were looking and looking for and weren't they happy when Mommy found them. So happy that they gave her a house and a job where she sits all day and tells people things on the telephone.


Then Mommy will come home and stay with me at night. We will have a beautiful house with my own bedroom. And I will have a best friend, two best friends They will fight over who's the best of all the friends I have. 


And they will fight so loud Mommy comes in and says “Girls stop fighting, and I have chocolate cake who wants some?” And who doesn't want chocolate cake? But that's just a dream and Deena shakes me awake. It all floats back at once. “I called Lillian ' she says, “You were right about the girls there being mean to you, and that you would probably just runaway again.” Then Deena says how Lillian told her how the police are looking for Mommy and how I don’t have any family that could take me in, so being that this is an emergency, I could stay here. 


“You’ve been through hell” Deena says. “So, if you would like me to call you Girl, I will.”


Later that morning, Deena and I go to a big supermarket two blocks over and I have never seen so much food all in one place. There is nice music in the air and people talking on loudspeakers, I wonder if Mommy knew this place was here all that time. 


When we go to pay for the food, there is a long line of people. When it's our turn, Deena doesn't have to talk to the lady behind the cash register. She doesn't have to promise to pay her on Friday or Tuesday or smile at her or write down an address on a piece of paper or anything like that. She just gives the lady the money and they never say more than thank you and you’re welcome, ma’am and please come again and I wonder if Mommy knows you can do that, too. 



Chapter 29


Three weeks have gone by now. Deena and I have fixed up Mrs. Ferraro's apartment and I even have a space for a mattress. It's not a real mattress, just some old clothes of Mrs. Ferraro's, but it's okay because Deena said they're too old for the Goodwill and she is not ready to throw them away. I like sleeping on the clothes. I like to have my own place to sleep.      


It's the beginning of August and it's been a month since Mommy went away. At night, I try to remember her scent of roses and her long, dark hair. Some nights, I hear Deena crying though I know she is trying very hard not to let me hear.

 

Deena bought a fan from the hardware store down the street. It's a big square box and Deena has it halfway between my bed and hers. There is not air to blow anyway. The weatherman said it was in the high 90's and that's almost as hot as when I was sick that time.

 

I lie in the dark thinking about Mommy and where she is. I hear Deena crying and I want to tell her I know how she feels. We are two girls whose mothers have gone away.



Chapter 30     


In the morning, Deena wakes me up and we eat cold cereal, with bananas sliced up and small glasses of orange juice. We sit at the table. Deena tells me that she called into work back in Boston and they are getting along fine without her. I ask her if she is going back there.      


“I told them I need to stay a little longer” she says.  “I still got a million things here. My mother saved everything.”      


I ask Deena if it's all right for me to go across the street to the park like I do every day. I take a plum or a peach and walk to the tree where I buried Mommy's postcard. Deena tells me that she was thinking today would be a good day to register me for school.


I remember all the times Mommy registering me for school. They would ask her all kinds of questions, like where I went to school before and how come they don’t see me in their system. 


Mommy would tell them we move so much that it’s been a strain on our family. And how Mommy’s mother has problems with her health and no one else to take care of her. Mommy would get tears in her eyes. She’d look down at the floor and say how hard it is to take care of her mother and a little girl and they’d stop asking so many questions. 


Then Mommy would show them a made-up birth certificate with whatever my name is, whatever name Mommy was calling me, and they would just be too busy like everyone else and the next thing I knew I was in the class.

 

I wonder what Deena would tell them at school. I know Deena doesn’t have a made-up birth certificate. I know Deena wouldn’t even know what to say about me. So I tell her that’s okay, I’ll be back at the group home before school starts. You’ll have to go back to Boston and Lillian can register me for school. 


Deena nods and says okay, you’re right, you’re right. I think how much Mommy will like Deena when she comes back and meets her. Thank you for taking care of my little girl, Mommy will say.  


She'll come back and we'll go live in our new place and I will write letters to Deena that she can show to the people in Boston that she works with and maybe Mommy will let me go visit her sometimes.



Chapter 31


Later that day, Deena finds all the clothes she wore herself as a little girl. They are kind of old-looking but they are so pretty I don’t even care. Deena tells me here, try on this dress. I loved it so much when I was your age. It's a pink dress with white flowers and no sleeves. The skirt swirls around me when I twirl in it.

 

Deena says come look at yourself in the mirror and I do and I am not like me, but someone I never saw before, a pretty girl, a girl you would want to invite to your party, a girl you would sit next to in school and she could lend you a pencil from her pencil box with silvery stars on it. Deena stands behind me, pulling my hair back into a ponytail and puts a rubber band with a flower on it.      


“You look beautiful” she says and kisses me on the cheek.      


I feel beautiful for the first time in my whole life. 


Deena says, c’mon let’s go get some ice cream. A pretty girl should have ice cream. 

 

When we pass by the park, I look at the tree that I have been visiting every day for a month. The tree whose shade is going to make Mommy's post card grow into Mommy. And I think that Mommy will understand and I'll go twice tomorrow.  



Chapter 32


I can’t explain it, but I start to think about Mommy less and less. Her face is fading each day a little in my mind. She hasn’t sent me any more postcards. I am getting to like my life with Deena and I’m not sure I will be able to tell Mommy that this is how we ought to live. Dinner every night and Deena not going anywhere.

 

It’s like those times with Mrs. Ferraro, which is not a surprise when you think about it, Deena being her daughter.

 

Sometimes when we talk, Deena tells me about Mrs. Ferraro and that they didn’t always get along, which is hard to imagine. Deena says that Mrs. Ferraro didn’t like a boy Deena was dating and that this is why she moved to Boston and they never really made up after that.

 

She says that time has a funny way of pulling people apart even when you don’t mean it to. And I wonder if that’s what’s happening with me and Mommy, and that’s why I’m thinking about her a little less each day. And if I’m thinking less about Mommy, maybe she is thinking less about me.



Chapter 33


  One night I am watching TV and I just know Mommy is there. She is waiting for me across the street and in the park. 


  Deena is washing dishes and the water is running. I slip out quietly, down the stairs and across the street and right to the spot near the tree where I planted her.

 

There she is, wilder than I remember. Her hair going every which way like branches. She is a grown up out of the ground from a postcard. Her dress is torn. I look at her like she never left, her scent of roses pulling me towards her. All my thoughts of how much I wanted her to come back are rushing back. She holds me and I never want to let her go.      

“Let's get out of here” is all she says.      

“I have to tell Deena.” She doesn’t know who Deena is, but she doesn’t ask.     

“You mean Mrs. Ferraro?”

  

That’s when I realize how little Mommy knows about anything and how long it’s been since she left.

 

“We’ll call her,” she says, “come on.”



Chapter 34     


We go to a motel that night. I don't have my own bed or clothes but I don't mind. The little refrigerator hums and hums. The toilet drips. 


At 2 o'clock, I wake up and Mommy is gone. I sit up straight in bed. There is no phone in the room and I’m still thinking about Deena and how she doesn't know that I meant to come right back. I think of Deena and her eyes, and how they get teary when she is sad, and how now I will be doing that to her.     

Mommy comes back ten minutes later. She has a bag with bread and slices of ham wrapped in white paper. We eat like dogs, tearing at the food that tastes so good and Mommy drinks beer and gives me a can of soda.      

“Baby,” she says, “I have to go out again.”      

“Don't go.” I say.      

Mommy looks at me with surprise. “You never said this to me before.”      

I start to cry. Mommy gets angry. “Don't pull this on me,” she says. “I came back for you, didn't I?      

“You took so long,” I tell her. “Deena even told me you might not come back.”      

“Who is this Deena?”

 

I want to say Deena took care of me, and stroked my hair like you used to.

 

But instead, I take a sip of the soda, the soda that Deena said was no good for little girls and that I should drink milk.

 

I tell Mommy about Deena, but all Mommy cares about is the part with the landlady and what did I tell the police.       

Mommy grabs my wrist. “Tell me the truth,” she says. “Did you tell the police anything?”

 

“No,” I tell her. “I didn’t tell them anything.” I tell her how I promised and she tightens her hands around my wrist even harder. “You sure?” 


And I start to slump down, to go into zero, which I thought I would never do again, but I can’t help it. Mommy pulls me up and says, “stop it! stop it!” and I try to pull away from her and I feel like I did in that closet with the Giant Man and I start to cry.

 

Mommy puts her hand over my mouth, shush people will hear you. I am scared, so scared right now of my own mother. This woman who isn’t Mommy anymore, and she must hear inside my head because she lets go and pulls me close and starts to cry herself.

 

“I’m sorry, baby.” She says “I’m sorry.” She pulls me into her arms. The smell of roses in her hair so strong I can hardly breathe.



Chapter 35


      To say what happened the next morning is to tell a dream. Knocking, knocking, knocking and the door flying open and everywhere arms and blue uniforms. The refrigerator still humming, the toilet still dripping.

 

Mommy screaming and the police knocking over the tiny motel table with its lonely plastic roses. And then, the horrible.

 

Mommy pulling out the gun from the policeman's holster before they have the handcuffs on her. How the gun goes off right into Mommy's heart.      

I hold my breath. I want it all to be a dream but it isn’t and I will never, ever wake up.       I am quiet and still the whole way to the police station even though the lady in the backseat with me keeps stroking my hair. I tell her I want to go back there. That was my mother, that was my mother, but the policewoman tells me over and over that everything is going to be all right.

 

But I know it won't. Not now. Not ever. 


When we get to the police station, Deena is waiting for me. I never planted her, but still she is there, as tall and strong as an oak.



Chapter 36


September now.

 

We buried Mommy under a beautiful shade tree. Only Deena and I were there. Deena said to me, “We have to be strong together.” She asked me if I would like her to adopt me. “I know I will never be your real mother,” she said. And together we cried. We cried like two lost girls. We cried for all the time we never had to tell things to our mothers and that maybe together we could find it.

 

We moved to another apartment, a bigger place with lots of space, a bedroom for each of us and an extra room just to think or listen to music.      

Deena got a job, and we have dinner at night. And she never goes out by herself.      When I have bad dreams or when I miss Mommy, I just tell Deena. We talk about Mrs. Ferraro, and I tell her all about the things Mrs. Ferraro loved and how Deena was the most important one.      

Then I went to school with a notebook and learned how to read so much better. I learned about books and numbers and all the things you don't learn when you are always leaving a place.       

I learned how to not feel lost all the time.      

And then, one  day I was walking up the stairs to school, I saw a girl who sat behind me, the one who gave an apple that time because I forgot my lunch. How she said maybe we could hang out sometime. How I told her that would be nice. I thought that this is what it's like to have a friend and just be a person who goes to school and does homework and eats dinner with her mother and watches TV and goes to movies and buys dresses and how all of that is the most excitement in the whole world that anyone could ever want.      

When she asked me what my name is, I said my name is Miranda    

And then I told her “Miranda means wonderful.”     


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