The Life and Adventures of Gillian McKenna
“Not to laugh, not to lament, not to detest, but to understand.” -Spinoza
Part One: Childhood
Gillian McKenna, nine years old, emerged unenthusiastically from the shotgun style home of her Aunt Maria and Uncle Carl. The day was dull and gray. She moved listlessly through the oppressive New Orleans humidity across the spongy St. Augustine lawn to the sidewalk, having convinced her aunt to allow her to walk to the drug store on the corner to buy a comic book and a cold drink. (Her mother would never have allowed it, but Aunt Maria sometimes granted leeway.) In her small hand she clutched two quarters, with instructions to return with the change.
Ordinarily, Gillian would have her cousin Moira to play with, but today she was alone. The two girls spent their days during the summer at their aunt’s while their parents went to work. Moira had come down with chicken pox, however, and would remain at home for the rest of the week with her mother, Gillian’s Aunt Marietta. This was the reason for Gillian’s dampened mood. Without Moira, the hours at her aunt’s yawned interminably before her, and the prospect of being without her cousin for several days more seemed intolerable.
Gillian adored Moira, who was two years her junior. The younger girl assumed the dominant role, however, not because she was physically larger, which she was, but because she did not reciprocate her cousin’s affection. Moira, a superior and disdainful little girl, tolerated Gillian out of necessity and had no patience for any interaction that wasn’t in her favor; she therefore made the decisions about what and when they would play, and she never failed to be right during their arguments. For her part, Gillian’s love and deference for Moira made her absolutely insensible to all of this, content to be in her cousin’s company, and indifferent to any one-sidedness that she did perceive.
A state of disparity was not unique, for Gillian, to her relationship with her cousin Moira. In certain instances during her life, she would create unassailable friendship and true loyalty, but these were the rare exception. Something in her makeup, unconscious and unintentional, attracted and goaded aggression. Other children would surprise even themselves by the wrath with which they responded to her. It was nothing they could put their finger on. Gillian was friendly and cheerful, although maybe a bit too excitable. She was intensely engaging, and it was perhaps this quality that ignited anxiety, and subsequently anger, in her peers, for they found themselves being pulled into a fiction they did not understand and therefore wanted no part of. Her teachers found themselves quickly losing patience with her or indulging her, the latter often accompanied by infantilizing her. Physical repugnance can cause antagonism, especially in children, but this was not true in Gillian’s case. Small for her age and quite thin, she had a sweet, rosy face, a ready smile, unguarded topaz eyes, and arresting scarlet hair. On a crowded playground as much as in a subdued sitting room, people looked at her, as they would at a match struck in the dark.
Gillian stepped carefully along the sidewalk, which was cracked and upheaved by the roots of a large magnolia on the edge of the front yard. She turned momentarily to look at her aunt, who made a shooing motion at her from the screened in porch before she went back into the house. Gillian frowned; her aunt usually sat on the porch and watched her all the way to and from the drug store. Today, however, she had chicken frying on the stove.
As soon as Gillian moved past the magnolia, she heard someone call out. “Hey! Kid! C’mere!”
She recognized the voice immediately. The boy, who lived next door with his grandmother, stood behind a heavy wooden gate. He was older than her, at least eleven or twelve. Through the wide boards she discerned his big chubby frame, and she could see his heavy face, squinty eyes, and flat top haircut. He was never allowed out of the back yard, and when he wasn’t peering through the gate, he was working at chores of one sort or another, such as pulling weeds from a garden along the back fence or cutting the lawn with an old rotary-blade push mower. Moira had declared him a creep, and the two girls ignored him elaborately whenever he tried to speak to them, but Gillian had always been curious about the boy and secretly felt sorry for him. Because of his confinement in the yard, she figured he must live punished, and she wondered what sort of horrible things he did to deserve his ongoing incarceration. His name was Jason, but Moira insisted they refer to him as “Bubba.”
Gillian glanced around; she was alone, but she felt Moira’s presence admonishing her to turn up her nose and flounce off.
He accosted her again. “Come over here a minute.”
“No. What do you want?”
“Just come here. I want to tell you something.”
“Tell me from here.”
He looked toward his house and listened for a moment before he spoke again. “It’s just for a second. It’s a secret so I can’t talk loud.”
Gillian strongly suspected it wasn’t a secret at all, but a ploy to draw her closer, and she kept her distance. “I’m supposed to go to the drug store.” She waited a moment, then resumed her walk.
“Please,” he said, drawing out the word plaintively.
She stopped again and looked at him.
“No one ever talks to me,” he said. “It’s really lonely back here.”
Gillian moved closer to the gate. “How come your gramma doesn’t let you out?”
He shrugged. “Well… that’s the secret. Come here and I’ll tell you.”
She wavered, as the situation now had a bit of intrigue about it.
“I’ve seen you outside a lot,” he went on. “I always wanted to talk to you. You have pretty hair.”
“Thanks,” she said. It was beginning to seem to her a little ridiculous that she couldn’t at least hear what he had to say. He was nothing but a lonely kid with a mean gramma and no one to talk to, and he thought enough of her that he would share an important secret. Further, even Moira wouldn’t argue that he was a miserable soul, and Gillian was pleased that she had the power to ease his suffering. She walked up to the gate. “Okay,” she said. “Tell me.”
“Down here,” he said, kneeling.
“Closer,” he whispered, and lowered his head next to the ground.
Gillian also got down on all fours.
She never saw his arm as he reached under the fence, grabbed her hair, and yanked her towards him. Her initial shriek was stifled when the side of her head and jaw slammed against the rough wood and her cheek scraped the pavement. The blow stunned her, and it was some moments before she could try to pull away, but he was much stronger and held her fast. The pain made her dizzy, as it felt like he was pulling her hair out by the roots. Her knees scraped against the cement, and for an endless time he held her head by the hair clutched in his fist, wrenching her neck in the process. It was as if he were trying to pull her through the gap beneath the fence. She gasped repeatedly for him to let her go, but he wouldn’t. He interrupted the grunting sounds he’d been making since catching hold of her in order to whine, “I just wanna touch your hair!” Finally she was able to scream, and after another eternity she heard a screen door slam.
“Jason! Let her go!” It was his grandmother, coming down the back steps. He immediately released her, and Gillian fell all the way to the ground crying in pain and terror. Jason whimpered as his grandmother, having arrived prepared, whipped him with something long and thin, probably a switch cut from one of her backyard trees, and drove him indoors.
Hearing the commotion, Aunt Maria rushed outside. She took the still sobbing Gillian by the arm and brought her in the house, cleaned up the inconsequential cuts on her knees and the side of her face with peroxide, and gave her an ice pack for her sore head. “You can stop crying, Miss Priss,” she said. “You’re going to be fine.” Gillian lost her two quarters during the fracas and forgot all about the comic book and the cold drink. She sported a black eye for a few days and suffered a sore neck for a few days longer, but for better or worse, the event did not change her, inside or out, one iota.
The New Orleans neighborhood of Gentilly, where Gillian and her younger brother, Gary, had just moved with her parents, sprawls East to West from France Road to Bayou St. John, and from Lake Ponchartrain in the North down to the Seventh Ward. The McKennas occupied a duplex in one of the better sections, although they were one of the few families in that area who rented their place. Gillian marveled at the size of the other homes, which she considered “mansions.”
Gillian’s mother would not allow her to leave the yard, so she stood at the edge of the sidewalk and watched the front doors of the big houses in the neighborhood for other children, hoping to see some who were her own age. Her vigilance paid off, for she spotted a girl and boy who looked promising across the street, three doors down. Their house was the largest on the block. The girl was taller than her- but so were most of her peers- and the boy, no doubt the girl’s brother, appeared to be a little older. For several days she watched the two come and go, and whenever one of them happened to look in her direction, Gillian waved, although they never waived back.
Occasionally, Gillian would forget herself and, upon seeing some children outside playing, would begin to walk towards them. Usually she would catch herself and look back apprehensively at her kitchen window, which, more often than not, framed her mother’s face, suffused with equal parts anxiety and anger. Her mother would then rap on the glass and thrust a finger strenuously at the lawn before sliding the window open. “Hey, stupidly kid! I told you to stay where I can see you!” Gillian dutifully returned, remembering that the world was an unsafe place. Her mother told her many times how, when Gillian was an infant, people would remark that she was such a cute baby, and could they take her home with them? It was obviously a veiled threat of abduction. In particular, there was a man on a bus who, although he appeared nice enough, was particularly taken with the red haired toddler, and her mother had to stay up at night, watching over her so that he would not sneak in and steal her.
Emily McKenna was a vigilant mother. She rarely let Gillian out of her sight, never down the street to play and certainly not around the corner to the store. Whether or not she really believed someone might break into the house and abscond with her child, she had always gotten out of bed and looked in on the girl repeatedly throughout the night. Earlier in the summer, Emily signed Gillian up for swimming lessons; fortunately, she was near the pool’s edge at the first sputtering indication her daughter was taking in water and yanked her from the class. It was only recently, in their previous neighborhood, that she allowed Gillian to attend a sleepover at the home of a family they had known for years. Emily called several times during the evening to make sure her daughter was all right.
Emily understood this diligence to be a requisite of motherhood, equally aware of the threat from individuals and the callousness of institutions. When, at age 6, Gillian started kindergarten at a local Catholic school, the distraught girl sat in the corner and cried hysterically. Her teacher, a nun never without a ruler that she habitually struck in the palm of her hand, strove to entice her to sit in her assigned seat, but Gillian shrieked that she only did what her mother told her. It was a theme that arose often, straining the patience of her teachers. Once, given pictures to color, Gillian stated that she preferred teddy bears or unicorns, and politely handed the mimeographed sheets back. “It does’t work that way,” said the nun with a smack of the ruler against her palm. “You color what we give you to color.” Occasionally, observing that the girl collected tormentors among faculty and students alike, a sympathetic teacher would take an indulgent or a protective stance, even walking with her in the hallways to lunch or to recess to stave off attacks. Emily tried to get a job in the school cafeteria to be close to the situation, but as it happened, no positions were available.
As this school term neared, a rattling, backfiring moving van parked in front of the rental duplex next door opposite the rest of the neighborhood. Gillian hurried to that side of her yard as two men, one much older and both smoking cigarettes, emerged and began to unload cardboard boxes and tattered furniture. If this family had a child her age, he or she would be right next door, not too far away to make friends. In years past, Gillian’s mother made her friends for her. Emily would take her young daughter around to the other houses on the block, knocking on doors, asking if their children would like to come over and play the following day. After rounding up a contingent, Emily pulled out all the stops. She would wake up early and bake cookies, cupcakes, and fudge, prepare finger sandwiches, lemonade, and deviled eggs. When the company arrived, she welcomed them with hugs and called them “honey.” After cake or snacks she sat down on the floor with them and supervised board games or jacks. On some Saturdays she would take the party to eat lunch at McCrory’s Department Store or to a Walt Disney movie. The practice inevitably backfired, as it soon became clear the children were there for the treats, the festivities, and the attention her mother provided, not for Gillian.
An hour later the rest of the family pulled up in a light blue Plymouth badly in need of a wash. She marveled that the mother, a short, thin, stooped woman in a heavy brown dress, had been able to see over the steering wheel. Gillian’s eyes widened when the grandmother opened the passenger door and slowly emerged. Beefy and round shouldered, the old woman towered over the roof the vehicle and made Gillian think immediately of a favorite cartoon character, Popeye’s Alice the Goon. She didn’t see the boy in the car until he opened the back door and stepped out. He was her size, so probably younger than her, but not too much so. When he saw her he stared for a moment, then walked over. His manner was congenial and not in the least shy. “Hello I am Peter. Vaht is your name?”
“Vaht?” Gillian repeated, confused.
“Your name. Vaht is it?”
“Oh… you mean, ’what’ is my name. ‘What.’”
“Yes.” With great concentration he made his lips round and pronounced the word ‘what’ slowly. He explained, “In Hungary vee have no dubba-yous.”
Gillian cackled, delighted. “You can use the ones we have here,” she said, laughing again when he looked at her blankly.
She heard rapping on the kitchen window. She ignored it, but her mother quickly slid the window open and called for her to come inside this very instant.
The home of Aunt Maria and Uncle Carl, where Gillian and Moira spent their summer days, was located on South Jefferson Davis Parkway in the Broadmoor section of New Orleans, a twenty minute drive from the McKenna’s house in Gentilly. Moira’s mother, Gillian’s Aunt Marietta, arrived first this afternoon to retrieve her daughter. As she usually did, she spent a few minutes visiting with her sister in the kitchen. She settled herself at the table, lifted her nose, and sniffed elaborately. She frowned at her sister, leaned towards her, and sniffed again.
“That’s something new you have on, isn’t it?”
Maria nodded. “I just got it yesterday. Thought I’d try it out.”
Marietta waved her hand in front of her face. “You smell like a skunk.”
While Moira sat resignedly on the living room couch, arms folded across her midsection, Gillian paced the worn hardwood floor, from the kitchen to the old rag rug by the front door. Upon entering the home and immediately to the right was a glass cubicle containing what she called “The Jesus of the Season.” Her aunt had ordered the figurine of the infant baby Jesus from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue. It came complete with crowns and robes that coincided with the six seasons of the Catholic religion. Gillian more or less understood the liturgy, but she secretly wished baby Jesus wore flip flops and swim wear in the summer and in the spring shared his manger with chocolate eggs and baby chicks dyed purple. As she tread nervously back and forth, she was careful to stop short of the cubicle, for each time Aunt Maria caught her directly in front of it, she would have to stop and genuflect.
Gillian anxiously anticipated the arrival of her mother, who had promised to take her school shopping this afternoon. She looked forward to the rare excursion, such as this one, in which her little brother, Gary, did not come with them. Surprisingly, her father had agreed to look after the boy.
Shopping trips usually took place on a Saturday. Her mother would take the two children on the bus if they were going downtown, or hire a taxi to nearby Westside Shopping Center. In the early 1960’s, the short taxi ride cost considerably less than a dollar. They would spend the morning at discount stores, Emily very proficient at finding bargain tops and shirts or shoes for ninety nine cents. At midday they waited for a booth at Stumpf’s Drug Store to have lunch. The soda fountain offered miniature hamburgers at fifty cents each, which Gillian loved with a Cherry Coke, and the trio could fortify themselves for about three dollars. If Emily needed any groceries they would stop in at the Winn Dixie across the parking lot from the drug store.
For Gillian, the highlight of these excursions was a boy named Chip. He was a few years older than her and worked as a stock boy at the Winn Dixie. Weekends were part of his regular shift, and Gillian always looked for him stocking the shelves with items from his rolling cart. He got to know the McKenna trio well, and they greeted each other with a warm hug in the isles. Gillian had an enormous crush on him. He was tall, handsome, good natured with a ready smile, was always freshly shaven and clean, and he had startling gold eyes. They would also see him at the drug store having his lunch, and as soon as he left Gillian would hurry over to his table, grab the straw out of his cup, and use it to finish her drink. Her mother fussed that she would get his germs. Gillian was a budding germaphobe herself, but in this case, she didn’t care.
While she very much enjoyed these outings, it never failed that she was mortified at least once by the behavior of her brother. Her mother was unable to exercise even a minimum of parental control over him. He raced up and down the isles of stores screeching demands for every toy he laid eyes on, and as they walked from store to store, he regularly broke free of her hand on the sidewalk, terrifying them with near misses with automobiles in the street. Gillian grew especially weary of having to locate her brother and then drag him, kicking and wailing, from out of the racks in clothing stores.
As Gillian made another pass by the kitchen door, Aunt Marietta scowled at her. “Sit down, you little shit. I thought you agreed not to aggravate me today.”
Gillian bowed her head and crossed her arms over her stomach. As much as she feared her Aunt Marietta she idolized her, and strove, always unsuccessfully, to gain her approval. Marietta was beautiful, glamorous, and commanded attention wherever she went. She demanded the best of those around her, something that was particularly evident in restaurants, where she never failed to send back her order less than twice, along with increasingly loud insults to the chef. More than once, Gillian and Moira, heads hanging and stoop shouldered, filed behind her out of the eating establishment after Aunt Marietta had been asked to leave the premises. As imperious as she could be at times, in the presence of a good looking man, Aunt Marietta transformed into a sultry coquette, charming and southern, and to Gillian’s way of thinking, she had the chops to pull it off. Gillian was captivated by her Aunt’s hours-long performance of getting dolled up to go out for an evening on the town. The young girl counted herself fortunate indeed when this opportunity arose, as her own mother was intensely private while completing her toilette. Emily would become irate should Gillian interrupt her while she put on makeup, combed her hair, or happened to see her not fully dressed. Aunt Marietta sat before a silver magnifying mirror surrounded by a phalanx of beauty aids. She carefully lined her lips with a rose colored lip pencil, then, using a retractable brush, she deftly fluttered pale lipstick between the lines. On her flawless complexion she colored in beauty marks. She made her large sable brown eyes even more alluring with long, full eyelashes. She carefully donned sequins, glitter, pearls, rhinestones, and jungle prints, emerging exotic and sultry in clothing which snugly caressed her figure. Just looking at her conjured in Gillian’s brain magical images of flashing cameras and paparazzi following her aunt into dazzling nightclubs filled with laughter and dancing.
Gillian stopped pacing for a moment and glanced into the mirror in the hallway. She turned her head slightly to one side, then the other. Aunt Marietta’s voice cut sharply into her. “You love yourself, don’t you? Always gazing at yourself the mirror.”
“No,” Gillian stammered. “I… had something in my eye.”
“You’re not fooling anyone, Miss Priss. You love yourself.” She looked her scrawny niece up and down disdainfully. “You’ll never be as pretty as me.”
Marietta then glared at her daughter, still sitting on the couch. “Why are you looking at me like that?” she demanded.
“I’m not,” Moira whined.
“You’re looking at me with contempt and I don’t appreciate it.”
Moira said nothing and focused on her feet, still feeling her mother’s eyes upon her. Gillian froze for a moment, unsure which way to turn. She was already in the doghouse with Moira for recently getting her into trouble. Moira compulsively ‘rescued’ animals- stray dogs and cats, lizards, baby birds fallen from the nest, mice if she could catch them, any creature that did not manage to escape. She named them all Howard and kept them in custody for as long as possible. It was another reason for Gillian to admire Moira, who was going to be a veterinarian when she grew up. Several weeks before, Moira had saved a small wandering dog from sure dehydration, rinsing out a large ash tray that had been on the coffee table and filling it with water for the animal. Gillian later proudly bragged to her Aunt Marietta on Moira’s kindness and compassion, but this turned out to be a mistake. Marietta became furious at Moira for feeding a stray dog out of her good crystal ash tray. In front of Gillian and several cousins and young uncles who happened to be present, she laid Moira across her knees, pulled down her underwear, and beat her severely. Gillian, horrified at what she had done, hid behind the couch, herself sobbing with fear and guilt.
The door knob rattled, and Gillian hurried past baby Jesus to open it. It was her Uncle Carl, not her mother. “Hello, bony knees,” he said.
Gillian was disappointed, but her mother was not long behind. She had taken a bus from the hotel where she worked as a waitress on Canal Street. After collecting her daughter, they rode another from Jefferson Davis Parkway to the Westside Center, where they shopped for school supplies. From there it would be the short taxi ride home.
They were able to find most of what the fourth grader needed at the TG&Y. Gillian loved the new binders and pencils and big pink erasers. She picked out a green and yellow plastic pencil case with a sharpener on one end and a slide thing in the middle. Her mother let her buy a new lunch box this year, but this close to the first day of school, the choices were limited. She liked Popeye but hated Olive Oil, so she settled on a Peanuts lunch box with Snoopy on the front.
Passing by the clothes section, Gillian asked if she could try on an outfit. Her mother allowed it but warned they were not there to buy clothes. Gillian nodded. She had always been aware that her family had less than most people, and over the years she had known when her parents had asked the church for money to tide things over. It was never lost on her that she didn’t have the nice things other children had. When they attended Sunday services in those days, women and girls were required to have their heads covered. Unable to afford hats, she and her mother were obliged to fasten tissue paper in their hair with bobby-pins, an embarrassment Gillian felt acutely.
When she emerged from the dressing room in an especially cute striped top and pinafore, Gillian saw her mother’s face waver, but only momentarily. She lingered in front of the mirror before returning to the dressing room.
“Can we get a toy for Gary?” Gillian asked when she had changed back into her clothes.
Gillian perused the bins of small plastic cars and airplanes for several minutes before picking out a small red airplane. She walked toward the rear of the store, then peeked around the isle to see her mother at the layaway desk with the striped top and pinafore.
Gillian tried to focus on her new school supplies, which she had laid out neatly on the bed, but her parents’ hollering and bellowing at each other were distracting, to say the least. She could hear them perfectly through her closed door, along with her brother’s shrieks from behind his own bedroom door. She’d learned long before of the cyclic nature of these episodes, and recognized this as the start of a rising crest. In the back of her mind, she had known that the outing with her mother would come at a price.The signs had been apparent the instant they had walked into the house from shopping: her little brother banished to his room, her father smoking sullenly in his recliner.
While her mother went into the kitchen to start dinner, Gillian carried her things quietly past him to her room. She wanted to say something to him, but thought better of it. He had always been out of her reach. Her interactions with him were few, but she remembered him taking her for walks in which she could never keep up, falling farther and farther behind, running after him as he strode down the sidewalk. Sometimes she would climb out of bed in the dead of night for a glass of water and, passing by the living room, see the red ember of his cigarette in the dark. Tentatively, she would ask what was wrong. His response was cursory: “nothing sugar go back to bed.”
When she returned to help in the kitchen, Emily was already gearing up for the fight. Her mother’s seething irritability at this stage of the cycle was, relatively speaking, a safe haven; after tonight the real heat would come, and for several days any semblance of “answering back” on Gillian’s part would elicit responses designed to squelch that behavior. She occasionally issued warnings- “you’d better shut up or I’ll knock your teeth down your throat,” delivered with ferociously bared teeth, bulging eyes, and her fist in Gillian’s face. When she smacked Gillian on the mouth it was not so hard as to do damage but, on that acutely sensitive area, intended more as a threat and a show of force than painful retribution. More often, Emily’s physical violence was unrestrained. She pulled Gillian’s hair or went after her with a hair brush, usually whacking her with the handle on her head, but any body part- arm, back, leg- was fair game. Emily could improvise if needed, as she did the time Gillian fled around and around the dinner table to avoid being struck. Her mother finally used the table to pin her against the wall, then delivered the blow.
Her father’s violent rages were predicated on the disruption of order as he understood it. Her mother’s anger and physical assaults had direction and purpose and were hurtful, but at least Gillian could feel her own presence in the interchange. She was much more frightened by her father’s outbursts, which had the feel of explosions from which there was no direction to run. While going for a ride in the family car not long before, he had told Gillian, sitting in the back seat with her brother, to roll up the window, which she promptly did. He instructed her to do so again, and she replied she had already done so. Seconds later he was pounding on the steering wheel, screaming himself hoarse for her to shut the window. He hadn’t even looked to see whether she had rolled up the window or not. It took Emily a long while to calm her husband down. When Gary was a toddler he once fell off the couch where he’d been soundly asleep. It startled him, and he awoke crying. Her father leaped from his chair and ran up and down the hall, banging on the walls and shouting “is he all right?” When Gillian and Gary didn’t stop squabbling one afternoon while he ran the vacuum cleaner, he suddenly picked the appliance up and threw it at them. It hit Gillian on the leg and cut her badly. When she was much younger, Gillian was a favorite of one of the owners of a nearby restaurant, a woman named Victoria, who would make over the pretty little red haired girl and bring her presents from the kitchen such as cherries and drink umbrellas. Gillian’s animated response to this attention was too much for her father, who wanted her to remain still and silent. More than once he felt it necessary to take her out to the car, pull her pants down, and beat her bare bottom for not sitting quietly in her seat.
When they all came to the table, Gillian and her brother kept their heads down. Their father seethed while their mother complained, a rambling drone about nothing of any significance. Gillian silently prayed she would stop talking, knowing what the consequence would be but knowing also that her prayers would be fruitless. Her mother’s behavior was bewildering; how could she not know it would lead to disaster? Inevitable as it was, the eruption was still terrifying when it came. Her father flipped his plate upward, flinging spaghetti everywhere, and threw himself on the floor, thrashing about and screaming shut up! shut up! shut up! This only served to make his wife shout back at him at equal volume. Gary raced shrieking into his room. Gillian fled as well, quickly closing her door behind her.
She lay down on her bed, the sharp pain in her stomach constricting her body into a fist, and stared at the wall. She listened to her parents yell and wished she were somewhere else. Their fights were always the same, starting out as diffuse cursing and insults, soon coalescing into a recurring theme. At nine years old, she understood her father wanted something from her mother and hated her because she would not give it to him, and her mother hated him because he wanted it.
Ignoring as much as possible the pain in her gut, she retrieved her journal and a pen from her vanity drawer, returned to the bed, and began to write. “My mother and I had a wonderful time shopping for school supplies today. It was just us two. At the TG&Y I tried on a very cute outfit. My mother always tries to give me the things I want, even though they cost a lot of money. Today I sneaked to the back of the store and spied on her. I caught her putting the outfit on layaway for me. It made me feel very loved and cared for.”
On the first day of school, Gillian walked slowly to the bus stop on the corner. She clutched her notebooks, pencil case, and lunch box tightly to her chest. A group of children had already gathered. She recognized the girl and her older brother who lived in the enormous house. The girl wore an impeccable starched blue dress and shiny black shoes. Her porcelain skin fairly gleamed in contrast to her dark hair, tied in a pony tail with a ribbon that matched her outfit. She fixed her eyes on the smaller girl as she approached the group.
“Hi. My name’s Gillian.”
This caught the attention of the others, who turned and moved into position, flanking the dark haired girl and remaining a little behind her.
“Gillian,” the girl enunciated. “So fancy.”
“It’s just my name,” she shrugged.
“Bully for you. Mine is Courtney Richmond.”
“I’ve seen you in your front yard,” said Gillian. She pointed back to her house. “That’s where I live.”
“I know,” Courtney said, and then smiled at her. “You’re one of the less fortunate.”
A boy with greased down hair and a dark complexion spoke to Gillian with a stutter. “Yuh-yuh-yuh…. yuh yuh… you have… puh puh… pretty hair.”
Courtney snapped her head toward the boy, her pony tail swinging, and bore her eyes into him. When he had stared at the ground long enough, she turned slowly back to Gillian and examined her up and down. Then she said, “She looks like a match stick.”
“Yuh yuh yuh…. yeah…” the boy began. “A muh muh muh…”
Courtney didn’t let him finish. “What does your father do for a living, Gillian? My father’s a doctor.”
“He’s a watchmaker.”
“He makes watches?”
“Well, he fixes them.”
“Oh. Then he isn’t really a watchmaker, is he, Gillian? He’s only a watch fixer.”
“That’s what it’s called,” Gillian sighed.
She heard someone walk up behind her and turned just as Peter arrived. “Hi Peter!”
“Hello, Gillian,” he said brightly. “Ven does bus come?”
Another of Courtney’s contingent interrupted, ignoring Peter’s question. This boy wore a perpetual grimace and spoke with teeth bared. “Hey Peter, did you eat breakfast?”
“Yes,” said Peter. “Vee had pancakes and-”
“Oh, then you’re not hungary any more, are you?”
Courtney and her group laughed. Apparently they had already met Peter, who was not confined to the front yard, as Gillian had been.
She noticed that the the others had placed their notebooks or lunchboxes single file, starting at the curb and extending down the walk, designating their places in line. Gillian was about to set her belongings at the end of the queue, when Courtney suddenly spoke in soft, honeyed tones.
“Gillian,” she said. “The bus is late. Walk down to the boulevard for us and see if it’s coming.” She smiled sweetly and fluttered her lashes.
The fourth grader was grateful for the opportunity to do the others a favor. “Ok, sure,” she said. She turned and made her way down the street. She walked the two long blocks necessary for a view of the boulevard, glancing back just in time to see everyone boarding the bus, which had come from the other direction. Gillian began to run and immediately tripped. She pitched forward and hit the sidewalk hard, her notebooks fluttering. Her lunchbox clattered on the cement and sprang open, and from her vantage point an inch from the ground watched her baloney sandwich flop loose and her thermos roll down the walk. She had scraped her knee and knocked some of her wind out. The bus pulled away in the distance.
She had begun to sob, from the humiliation, from the burning pain in her knee, and from the real probability that when her mother learned she missed the bus at the hands of the neighborhood children she would never be let out of the house again.
She heard the rumble of a motor as it slowed beside her, and through vision blurred with tears saw a gleaming silver hub cap and a luminous white fender. The car’s door opened. She heard footsteps, saw they were made by a pair of shiny black wing tips.
“You really did a belly flop, Red.”
She stopped crying when the teenage boy took her hand and helped her to a sitting position. He gathered her notebooks and retrieved the thermos and the sandwich. “Don’t worry, it’s still in the wrapper. You go to Bayou View Elementary, right?”
He placed the items in the front seat of his car, scooped her up and set her gently next to them. “We’ll be there before the bus.”
The early sun shone brilliantly through the driver’s side window. Gillian couldn’t look at him directly, but squinting sideways she could make out his majestic silhouette as they sped through the morning. In a couple of minutes they flew past the school bus as if it were standing still. Before she knew it they had cruised into the car-riders’ semi circular drive in front of the school and slowed smoothly to a halt. His souped up engine idled thunderously under the concrete overhang as he leaned across her lap and opened the door for her.
“Here you are, Red. Doorstep delivery.”
The next moments were a blur as she murmured thank you and climbed out. She turned to look at him but perceived only the general impression of a tall, wiry high school kid who smiled at her as he pulled the door shut. In a twinkling he had roared off.
Standing on the school’s front steps, the pain in her knee had vanished, but she was still breathless, her heart fluttering. She watched his car glide down the road for as long as she could. It vanished just as her bus pulled up. One by one, expressions of surprise, then bewilderment, came across the faces of the bus stop backstabbers. When Courtney emerged and saw her, the older girl’s eyes flashed angrily.
Gillian spun on her heel and marched triumphantly through the double doors into the huge main hallway, thinking about the boy in the car. She had no idea who he was or even what he looked like, but she would never forget how he made her feel.
Gillian’s parents hadn’t spoken since their dinner time fight several days before, and until this evening her mother had had a hair trigger, as was typical following such altercations. But on Saturday she appeared calmer. Gillian had come into the kitchen for a glass of water while her mother was on the phone with one of her sisters.
“I don’t need a stupidly kid ease dropping,” she snapped as she hung up the phone.
“I think the word is eavesdropping, Mom.”
“You say it your way, I’ll say it mine, little miss smarty pants,” she said, and cracked Gillian on the head with her hairbrush just as the girl had begun to drink. The strike caused her to drop the glass, which shattered on the floor. Her mother loudly berated her while Gillian swept up the shards and mopped up the water, but the blow on the head didn’t hurt nearly as much as those of the past few days; her mother’s mood had lightened considerably.
All Saturday evening, Gillian kept a close watch on the time, encouraged by her mother’s improved disposition that the Saturday night routine would not be disrupted. As eight o’clock approached, she began to get ready. She went to the pantry, emptied a bag of salted peanuts into a bowl, and set it on the end table next to the couch. She returned to the kitchen and broke off a single straw from the broom.
Gillian’s father assiduously avoided interaction with people, including his children, but with Gillian an exception occurred on Saturday night beginning at eight. For two hours, he lay on the couch with his head in his daughter’s lap while they watched a locally produced television program. The show was “Magnus the Marvelous,” in which a wild haired, buck-toothed mad scientist hosted “B” horror movies and performed experiments that inevitably ended in an explosion. They watched the show and ate salted peanuts, and with his head in her lap, Gillian would gently stroke his face with the broom straw. This routine with the straw was something he’d been in the habit of performing himself whenever he sat in front of the television, but when he and his daughter first started watching Saturday night movies together, he had handed her the straw and taught her what to do.
The film this night was a black and white monster flick about giant insects. When the first break came, Gillian began to use the broom straw. Her father settled his head back while Magnus the Marvelous, with eyes popping, sucked on his teeth and rubbed his hands over his collection of furiously bubbling, smoking beakers. Her mother, pointedly ignoring the two, moved through the living room with a hamper of clothes toward the washroom. It was one of the rare occasions when, having her father’s attention, the girl didn’t mind her parents’ angry silence.
The show ended at ten, Gillian’s cue to slide off the couch, put on her pajamas, and perform her bedtime ablutions. When she finished, she pulled back the covers and climbed into bed. She lay quietly while the familiar pattern of tiny ballerinas, in their red and blue and silver tutus, danced on the curtains above her white and gold headboard. After a few minutes her mother came in, kissed her good night, and turned out the light. Gillian was asleep before ten thirty.
When she awoke, the deep, pressing silence of the house rendered her immobile. She moved her eyes left to see her father’s black outline framed in the doorway, then rolled them upward until they were buried in her skull. The sallow glow from a streetlight back lit the ballerinas on her curtains above her headboard that loomed dark as a tombstone. Gillian stared at them until she became one of them, another tiny silhouette, whirling but paralyzed in her dance.
At Bayou View Elementary, the fourth and fifth graders participated together in various academic competitions. Gillian was hopelessly inept at arithmetic, but she had an affinity for language, and more often than not it was her essay that was stapled on the big glass-cased bulletin board next to the office door in the main hall each week. As a fourth grader this won her, if not friends, a grudging admiration from many of the fifth graders. It was for this reason, Gillian assumed, that one morning at the bus stop, Courtney Richmond asked her to join their neighborhood club.
“We think you deserve a chance,” Courtney said. “We voted on it, and we’re going to let you go through initiation.” She glanced back at her attendants, who nodded in agreement.
“All right,” Gillian said, trying to contain her excitement. She was finally asked to be a part of the rich kids’ group, which meant they would be nice to her from now on. She reached over, grabbed Peter’s arm, and pulled him next to her. “Peter can join too, can’t he?” She felt another jolt of exhilaration at quite a novel feeling. She was proud when her essays were posted for everyone to see, but this was much different and far more satisfying: because she was good at something, she was able to help her friend.
Courtney put her finger on her chin, thinking carefully. “I think that will be ok,” she said, turning to look at her brother and the others. They smirked back at her.
“What’s the initiation?” Gillian asked.
“We’ll show you,” Courtney said. “Meet us at the hill in the vacant lot Saturday morning.”
When Gillian and Peter arrived early on Saturday, Courtney and company were waiting. The hill was a mound of dirt about fifteen feet in diameter and almost four feet high.
“For the first part of the initiation,” Courtney said, “all new club members must gather up as many rocks as they can and put them all around the hill.”
Gillian and Peter quickly got busy collecting rocks and carrying them to the mound. When they had an ample amount arranged around the circumference, Courtney nodded her approval.
“That’s good,” she said. “Now, all you have to do is climb up on the hill and sing us a song. Then you become a member.”
“A song?” Gillian asked.”What kind of song?”
“I like, ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” Courtney said. “Sing that one.”
“Vat is dat?” said Peter. “I do not hear dis song!”
“It’s okay,” said Gillian. “I know it.” She climbed up onto the dirt mound.
“Goot!” Peter said, clearly relieved. “I cannot join club without my friend!”
“You don’t have to sing,” said Courtney, “but you still have to get on the hill.”
Peter clambered up as the other kids encircled the mound. Gillian watched as they found their places, then stood looking up at her and Peter.
“Go ahead,” said Courtney.
Gillian nodded, cleared her throat, and began to sing. “He’s got the whole world in his hands…” She went straight to the second verse- “he’s got my brothers and my sisters-“ then proceeded to “the sun and the rain,” “the moon and the stars,” and “he’s got you and me in his hands” before she paused and looked around expectantly. Courtney, the other club members, and Peter on the mound next to her, were staring at her with their mouths open.
“Is that enough?” Gillian asked. She shifted uncomfortably, waiting for a response, but everyone stood rooted to the spot, apparently dumbfounded.
Finally, Courtney’s jaw snapped shut, her face on fire. She took a deep breath and shrieked a single word, “now!” She then bent over, picked up a rock, and hurled it with all her strength.
The stone struck, opening a deep gash squarely on Gillian’s chin. She cried out in pain as blood gushed from the wound. The others, rousing themselves as if from a trance, followed suit, picking up rocks and hurling them at the two on the mound.
“Vaaat!” Peter yelled in fright as another missile sharply struck Gillian on the shin, also drawing blood. Her knee buckled. She fell in the dirt and rolled down the hill, sobbing and gasping. Peter was quickly next to her, helping her up. She heard a thump, the sudden intake of breath, and realized a large rock had hit him in the side. Both of them crying, they struggled to their feet, stumbled, and ran. A stone or two whizzed past their ears as Gillian heard a strange clamoring behind them. It was laughter, but a kind she had never heard before.
They burst into the kitchen door, where Peter’s enormous grandmother, whom he called “Nana,” sat having coffee with Gillian’s mother.
Both women leapt to their feet in alarm. “What in God’s name happened?” Emily gasped.
“They threw rocks at us!” Gillian bawled, her chin bleeding profusely.
“Dey all did!” said Peter.
“What dey t’ink?” Nana demanded. “We in dark ages?”
Frightened and flustered, Emily shrieked for her husband- “Arnold come in here!”- as she pressed a wet towel to Gillian’s chin. Nana checked her grandson for injuries and, finding no serious damage, hurried him out the door.
Arnold entered the kitchen. For an instant, Gillian was afraid that he would fall to the floor in one of his tantrums, but instead, he only gaped, ashen faced, at his daughter.
“What’s wrong sugar?” he rasped.
Emily moved the towel momentarily from the injury.
He swallowed hard. “That’s going to need stitches.”
They dropped Gary off at Aunt Marietta’s before speeding to the hospital. The emergency room was uncrowded, and they were soon led to a curtained treatment area. Her father held her hand anxiously as they waited.
The doctor examined Gillian and told them that he would have to inject anesthetic into the wound to numb it before he could stitch it closed. Her mother clucked and wrung her hands as she shuffled agitatedly around the bed, and her father’s grip tightened on Gillian’s hand.
“You’ll have to be a good girl and stay really still,” he said thickly. “You need a couple of shots first… on your chin.”
“Shots in my face?” Gillian sputtered. Before anyone could react, she was racing down the hall. She blundered into an orderly, who caught her in his arms and returned her to the doctor. She sat momentarily still on the bed, heart pounding and chin bleeding, while both parents tried to soothe her, but she bolted again when the doctor approached her with the syringe. This time she made it to the exit before her father caught her by the seat of her pants.
“Sugar, you have to do this,” he moaned. “I”m so sorry.”
He carried her back and held her next to him. The doctor waited a few moments to make sure Gillian remained still, but when he approached again she began to scream and flail. This time she was held by the doctor and the orderly as the nurse firmly inserted her arms into a long vinyl sleeve, then another. In a minute she was immobilized.
Her mother began to sob dramatically. “Does she have to be in a straight jacket?” She leaned against the bed, pale and shaking violently enough that the doctor had her placed in a wheelchair. Her father again took Gillian’s hand and did his best to comfort her while the doctor administered the anesthetic and closed the wound with ten stitches.
Bound tightly and with her her chin numbed, Gillian had no choice but to think about all the hurt she had caused that day. Her father was pale and upset, her mother sat whimpering in a wheelchair, and Peter had been subjected to attack for no other reason than he was her friend. The stabbing pain in her stomach made her want to double over, but the doctor was sewing up the wound. She closed her eyes and tried to focus on the numbly-felt tugs on her chin to keep from crying.
At that moment, a tiny ray of joy pierced her consciousness, and she beamed inwardly, grateful for its warmth. It was Saturday. In a little while, she would be sitting on the couch with her father’s head in her lap, tickling his face with a broom straw, eating salted peanuts, and watching Magnus the Marvelous.