Authors: E. R. Frank
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This book is dedicated to my parents, Amy and Bill, whose love and pride mean the world to me, to my sister and brother, Claire and Jim, who are a part of me,
and to my beloved and loving Stephen, who wouldn't let me quit.
The author gratefully acknowledges and warmly thanks:
Shirley Cohen, Charlotte Davenport, Frances McClenney, and Linda Verdery for being tremendous first teachers who nurtured my love of reading and writing.
Ida Dupont, Kathy Farrow, Debbie Lefkovic-Abrams, Stacy Liss, Seema Mohanty, and Victoria Reese for their sustaining encouragement and friendship.
Stephen Lucas for confidently predicting all with perfect accuracy and for insisting on what was special in the very first draft.
Kerry Garfinkel and Jessica Kalb Roland for giving generously of their enthusiasm and editorial talent.
Mary Beth Caschetta and Karin Cook for so graciously sharing and showing the ropes.
Marcia Golub for her support and lessons in The Storyteller's Voice.
Bunny Gabel for her spirit, smart feedback, and Workshop in Writing for Children.
The 1997/1998 members of Bunny Gabel's Workshop in Writing for Children for their astute comments and kind delivery.
Jamie Callan and Frank Bergon for their years of long-distance guidance and mentoring.
The Blue Mountain Center and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts for the opportunity to write in a beautiful community with limitless cookies.
Charlotte Sheedy for taking me on, making it happen, and doing what she does so well.
Richard Jackson for these very pages and for his expertise, wit, and warmth.
And especially my grandparents: Gerold Frank for being the first inspiration and Lillian Frank for her wisdom, dignity, and humor.
AT FIRST EBONY and I don't want to, but then her mom, Ms. Giles, says she'll pay us, and we say okay because Ebony's twin sisters' day care isn't that far, plus it's across the street from McDonald's.
We wait in the playground tire swings, sipping Cokes and dipping nuggets in hot sauce, and I'm wishing I'd asked for sweet and sour, when we see him. I'm guessing he's younger than us, but he's way bigger, and he's real dark, and he doesn't look around or anything. His eyes are set straight ahead, and he walks right by and up to the front-door stoop and just stands there, waiting.
“We're fine, thank you. And what's up to you, too?” Ebony goes, loud, so he'll hear. Only he acts like he's deaf or something.
Ebony sucks her teeth for a minute, and then she tells me, “He'd be fine if he was dressed half decent.” It's hard to know if she truly cares about stuff like that or if she's just trying to get me aggravated, for fun.
So I tell her, “You'd be fine if you weren't a bitch.”
“You know it's true.” Ebony fakes a sulk, and I check him out again.
“He wouldn't be fine anyway,” I go. “He's scary.”
“What do you mean?”
She sticks her foot way out and leans way over to pretend-tie her shoe.
“You're right,” she says. “He's mad scary.”
A bell rings, and the doors open. A bunch of little kids shoot through, and me and Ebony hop up out of the swings. A couple of day care ladies laze out behind the kids, and that boy crosses his arms and leans his back to the brick.
Ebony's twin sisters, Mattie and Elaine, bounce outside, holding some kind of Popsicle stick craziness.
“What's that?” Ebony asks them.
“A dollhouse,” Mattie says.
“It's not done,” Elaine says. “We have to make the roof.”
“Hi, China,” Mattie says.
“Hi, baby,” I go.
“Hi, China,” Elaine says.
“Hey, baby,” I tell her.
They're six but like it when I call them baby. Ebony's not allowed. They get mad at her when she does it. They let me because I don't have any little sisters, and I talk to them when Ebony just thinks they're around to get on her last nerve. They would let our other best friend, Grace, because she's white and she's prettier than anything, only Grace would never say baby anyway.
“China, look,” Ebony goes, poking me.
One of the day care ladies is staring, pole up her butt, at that boy. “Can I help you?” she asks, nasty.
The boy stares back at her. He doesn't say a mad word.
“Do you need something?” the lady goes, like he better not.
He keeps his face shut tight, and the lady opens up her mouth again, but then this real small kidâway younger than the twinsâzooms out with this Popsicle stick thing and goes to the scary boy, “Mama sick?”
The scary boy gives the lady a big old cold eye and then scoops up the real small kid and flips him over his shoulder and takes off. The kid giggles like crazy.
“Eric!” he squawks. “Eric! Let me go!”
“Bye, Mickey,” Mattie yells at the small kid's upside-down giggly head.
“Bye, Mickey,” Elaine yells.
“Bye, y'all!” he calls back.
But that boy Eric, he doesn't smile or slow down or anything.
*Â Â *Â Â *
On the first Friday the twins get to color mad bunches of yellow balloons with Magic Markers, and they let me and Ebony carry the balloons home. When Ebony's mom gets back from showing apartments, she taps at the bunches, making them nod and shiver all over their living room, and she goes, “âIn Just-spring when the world is mud-luscious the little lame balloonman whistles far and wee and eddieandbill come running from marbles and piracies and it's spring when the world is puddle-wonderful.'”
“It's not spring,” Ebony cuts in. “It's summer.”
Ms. Giles leaves the balloons and the poem and digs into her pocketbook. I wanted to hear the end, but Ebony hates it when her mother says poetry. She's always making her mom stop in the middle like that.
“Thank you, girls,” Ms. Giles goes, and she hands us each a fresh green bill, stiff as a new bookmark. Ebony holds hers by the edges, pushes them forward, and then pulls them back to make a loud snap. I fold a box out of mine, then undo it flat again and snap it, like Ebony.
“What's the rest of that poem?” I ask Ms. Giles.
“Ugh,” Ebony moans.
right back,” I go.
“Be patient with her, China,” her mother tells me. “Ebony's poetry hasn't bubbled up to the top yet.”
That makes me picture the fish tank at school.
“Mom!” Ebony moans again.
Her mother touches my chin with her fingertips. “China,” she goes, “your poetry is closer to the surface, just under your skin.”
Ebony drags me to her room and then calls Grace so the two of them can tease me stupid.
Under her skin!
” Grace goes, all sarcastic. Ebony's got her on speaker phone.
“Y'all just wait,” I tell them both.
*Â Â *Â Â *
At Grace's I work on mini-collages from old magazines, to fit into flat plastic key chains, while Grace and Ebony rip the hems out of the bottoms of their jeans. You have to do both projects just right, or you mess things all up.
“Make sure you don't get glue on the floor,” Grace reminds me for the millionth time. I don't get an attitude, though, because of her mother. We're not even supposed to be at Grace's because her mom's sort of mean and doesn't like people who aren't white. I met Ms. Sanborn once on the sidewalk, and she was kind of nasty to me and Ebony both, but it was hard to tell if it was because we're black or what, because she was mean to Grace, too, and Grace is white, plus she's her mother's own daughter.
“Y'all want to sleep over this Friday?” Ebony asks, right when I get done cutting out the words
“Yeah,” I go, spotting
all on one page. “Can you come, Grace?”
“Depends what mood her mom's in,” Ebony says quick, so Grace won't have to.
Grace rolls her eyes, which she is real good at, especially for a white girl.
“Word,” she goes, just to make us laugh.
*Â Â *Â Â *
That boy, Eric, stares right past us again and waits with his back to the day care wall. This time Ebony keeps her mouth shut about him, and I try to catch his eye, but he won't see me. The day care lady doesn't say anything. She looks at him like he stinks or something, and he acts like she's a speck of bug doo under his shoe.
Another girl shows up waiting today, too. She's younger than us, like that Eric boy, only she looks it more than he does because she's real small and skinny.
“Hi,” she goes when she has to pass us at the tire swings.
“Hi,” we go.
She sort of stops near us when she notices that Eric taking up the stoop by the day care door. Nobody knows what to say for a minute, so we all stare at him until Ebony finally goes, “You know him?”
“He switched to special ed last year,” the girl says. “He fights.”
“Figures.” Ebony smirks. The girl kind of shrugs, while I kick at Ebony's tire. “Isn't he ugly?” Ebony goes to her, kicking my tire back.
Then the doors swing open, and the kids spill out. A real small girl, the same size as that little Mickey, skips over to us, all excited.
“Keisha!” this real small girl squeaks. “We made cookies!”
“You make some for your mama and Nick?” this Keisha asks her, all calm and still, like she's grown or something. The small girl's face goes guilty. Keisha rolls her eyes at us. “See you,” she says, and they take off.
Little Mickey shows up right after that, and he grabs Eric's hand and then hums a little while they walk down the stoop and away. Like he knows underneath that hard face, Eric's smiling down at him.
*Â Â *Â Â *
“You sure you don't want to take some day classes in arts and crafts or karate?” my mom asks, over the TV.
“Uh huh,” I tell her.
“Deadline's next week,” she reminds me.
“I just want to hang out this summer.”
“Twelve-year-old girls ought to keep busy,” my daddy says to me. Then, to the TV, he goes, “What is the Suez Canal?” He knows every
answer. The only one I ever saw him miss was “What is sulfur?”
“I keep busy,” I tell him. “Grace and Ebony and me do stuff on our own.”
“China's getting a little pay each week to help Ebony watch the twins on their way home from day care,” my mom tells him.
“You're putting it all in the bank, right?” he goes.
“Wrong,” I say, and he tries to swat my behind, but I get away, because he never for real tries to get me, plus I'm fast.
*Â Â *Â Â *
Grace and Ebony don't have daddies. Grace thinks her mother doesn't even know who he is. Ebony's lives somewhere in the South, and she hasn't seen him since she was five. Ebony's mother won't talk about him except to say that he loves Ebony but isn't enough of a man to know how to show it. They think my daddy's mad cool partly because he's got these slanty eyes like me, plus he's got a pierced ear, plus he's real nice.