To celebrate the arrival of spring, Miss Callahan, my fifth-grade teacher, assigned a project about birds. “Your first task is to pick a bird and explain why you chose it. Who wants to start?”
Hands shot up. Paul St. George grunted, raising his hand the highest to get the teacher’s attention.
“Paul? What bird did you select?”
Paul thought he was the best athlete in the class. “A falcon.”
A sudden burst of whispering. Sounded like Stewart at the back of the class wanted the falcon.
“Interesting. What information about the falcon do you want to share?”
“Why did you pick a falcon?”
“It has sharp claws.”
“Oh, my! Nancy, what about you?”
“A crane because it’s white.”
“What a lovely thought, Nancy. Yes, Roger?
“Flamingos. They’re pink.”
The class laughed, and Roger blushed the color of a flamingo.
Peter, a short kid whose belly shook when he rounded the bases, chose a pelican.
Each student tried to outdo the other: a buzzard, an eagle, a vulture. Gerry, who had won the school spelling bee every year since the second grade, took a deep breath. He stuttered when excited. “A f-f-flightless c-c-cormorant.”
Wendy was half out of her chair, waving her hand. I thought Miss Callahan was ignoring her on purpose. Wendy sat in the front row and always had an answer. Miss Know-It-All.
“Yes, Wendy. What is it?”
Wendy looked around, confident that she’d chosen the most unusual bird. “The blue-footed booby.”
The class erupted into laughter. Miss Callahan clapped her hands to restore order. The bell rang [to dismiss students for lunch. I had an hour and a half to walk home, eat, and walk back to school.
At home, I told Mom about the bird project. “Wendy talked about blue boobs in class.”
“Oh, that sounds interesting.”
I don’t think Mom was listening to me.
After lunch, Wendy raised her hand as soon as the teacher entered the room.
Miss Callahan sighed and brushed her long hair back behind her ear. “Yes, Wendy?”
“It’s about our bird project.” She held up a book with a bright red cover.
“We don’t have time to discuss this—.” Miss Callahan began when Wendy interrupted.
“It’s a tracing book with every bird in it.”
“Perhaps there’ll be time to tell us about it later this afternoon.”
Miss Callahan’s usual answer. Wendy wouldn’t get the time she wanted if she got any time at all.
On the way home, I ran to catch up with Wendy. She was holding the red book with her arms crossed on her chest. She stopped mumbling to herself when she saw me.
“What do you want?” We weren’t friends and usually didn’t speak to one another.
“Can I see the bird book?”
“Miss Callahan’s so mean.” Having a willing and, hopefully sympathetic, ear, Wendy unloaded her grievance. “She deliberately spent all afternoon on stupid history.”
I needed help picking a bird and tracing it. I needed that book, so I crossed my fingers and lied. “You’re right. History is boring. Where did you get the book?”
“If you must know, mister nosey, my mother bought it at Woolworth’s.”
“Let me see it?”
I was too eager, and she pulled back. Gripping the book, she flipped the pages to show the pictures. Even with the pages passing in a blur, I saw that the book was exactly what I needed.
I reached for the book. “Can I use it when you’re through?”
She started walking away. “I might need to use it a long time.”
“I’ll copy my bird tonight and give you the book tomorrow.” I tried not to sound desperate.
She walked faster. “I don’t think so.”
“Why not? I only need it one day.”
“Why should I? You hurt me when you pulled my hair last week. My mother says you pulled some hair out by the roots.”
Last week, I pulled her hair when she didn’t let me use her pogo stick. I waited and waited for a turn because she promised to let me try it. But as soon as she finished, she took it indoors. Watching her walk away, I shouted after her, “My mother said you need to share if you want any friends.”
Wendy turned to walk backward hiding the book behind her. “Why do I want you as a friend? My mother said this was the last one they had.” She smiled. “Too bad for you.” Then she ran home.
Maybe I looked like I was ready to pull more hair.
Whenever a teacher assigned a project, I wanted to start on it immediately. I drove Mom crazy, insisting that she take me to the library for a book or to a store for supplies like colored paper. She didn’t share my sense of urgency. “Wait until the next time I go downtown.”
When I turned eleven that fall, Mom gave me permission to take the Hudson Bus alone to Arlington Center for my piano lessons in a musty office above the Co-op Savings Bank. From then on, if I needed something for a project, she’d say, “Take the bus.”
Opening my bureau drawer, I found the oyster shell holding my allowance. I needed ten cents each way for the bus and twenty-five cents for the coloring book. I’d seen the price on the cover before Wendy ran away. I suspected she lied about her book being the last one. I put the nickel and four dimes in my pocket.
I yelled down the cellar steps. “I’m going downtown to buy something for school.” Mom was feeding the wet laundry through the mangle and couldn’t hear me.
When I reached the bus stop, the bus was rounding the rotary with the water tower at the top of Park Avenue. I took out my money to count it once again. Forty-five cents. Four dimes and a nickel.
I was the only passenger. I took a seat at the back by an open window. The spring air was cold in the shade, but once the bus turned onto Mass Ave, the sun filled the bus with light.
The bus stopped across the street from Woolworth’s. I got off, crossed at the light, and entered the store. The grit on the wooden floor crunched under my shoes. The wood was scoured white. At the edge of the display cases, the floor was still a shiny yellow from the shellac.
The perfume counter at the front of the store had samples in spray bottles chained to the counter. The fragrance was an invisible cloud. The candy counter smelled of chocolate eggs and bunnies wrapped in gold foil. I regretted not bringing extra money to buy a bag of jelly beans. Easter was next week, and a counter had been moved back to make room for a pen holding two dozen fuzzy, yellow chicks. A sign said each chick was reduced to twenty cents or two chicks for thirty. Most of them hopped about, scratching for food in the wood shavings, but one was sleeping, its eyes closed. I reached over the barrier to run my finger over the soft feathers on its back. To my surprise, the chick rolled onto its side, still sound asleep. I looked to see if anyone had seen me but the woman at the cash register was busy with a customer.
“Good-bye chicks,” I whispered. “Happy Easter.”
Standing in front of the racks with comics and coloring books, I didn’t see the bird book. Had Wendy told the truth and I’d wasted bus fare for nothing? I examined each shelf with magazines, but everything was out of order. I decided to ask the cash register lady if there was a copy in the back when I saw a red cover, half hidden behind copies of Classics Illustrated. I glanced through it. Just like Wendy’s, the liar. I counted out my money. Exactly two dimes and a nickel.
I walked toward the cash register, then stopped. Where was the other dime for the bus ride home? I searched my pockets twice. Nothing. I looked under the comic book racks. No dime. I had it on the bus because I’d counted the money three times during the trip. Then I remembered the chicks. I rushed to the pen and sifted the wood shavings through my fingers, careful not to disturb the sleeping chick. But it couldn’t be there. I hadn’t taken the money out while looking at the chicks.
The loudspeaker growled. “Store closing in ten minutes.” I panicked. Had I dropped the dime on the bus? I walked in circles, trying to think. If I bought the book, how would I get home? Tears of rage stung my eyes. I’ll call Mom, but I didn’t have enough for the phone. Maybe the cashier lady would let me use the store’s phone. But Mom would be angry I hadn’t told her where I was going.
“Bring your items to the cash register. Store closing in five minutes.” Someone turned off the lights at the back of the store. I had to leave now, or I’d be locked in all night. What could I do? I had to have the book, but I didn’t have the money for the book and the bus.
My beating heart made me dizzy. I rolled the book up and held it against the leg farthest from the cash register. I walked to the front of the store with a quick glance to make sure the cashier was serving a customer. Staring straight ahead, I held my breath and walked outside. On the sidewalk, I forced myself not to run. At the corner, I heard someone shout, “Stop. Police.” I froze, expecting more people to sound the alarm. I didn’t dare look and forced myself to walk. My ears were hot and my throat tight. I hadn’t taken a breath since leaving the store. I gasped for air at the same time I heard the hiss of air escaping from brakes and the rattle of doors opening. I was at the end of a line for the bus. I risked a glance behind me. No one had followed me.
On the bus, my hands shook, and I dropped the dime which rolled under the driver’s seat. I didn’t care. I wanted the bus to leave as soon as possible. I dropped the other dime into the coin box and turned to find a seat.
“Hey, sonny.” The bus driver called after me. How did he know what I’d done? I stopped in the aisle and closed my eyes. A hand touched my shoulder. “You dropped this.” Some passengers laughed, enjoying the drama unfolding in front of them. I stared at the bus driver. I wanted to shout, “Go back to your seat and drive away.” Any second now the police would bang on the door.
The driver grabbed my hand and gave me the dime I’d dropped. I mumbled thanks and pushed my way past the passengers. I hid at the back of the bus trying to convince myself that no one saw me steal the book and no one called the police. The farther the bus traveled from the Center, the safer I felt. When the bus turned to climb Park Avenue, I wanted to shout, “I’m home free!” I pulled the cord and waited for the bus to stop.
After dinner, I finished my homework in my room. At eight o’clock, I brushed my teeth, washed and dried my feet, and applied zinc oxide to the toes with athlete’s foot. I wanted to forget what I’d done that afternoon. I dreaded being alone in my room in the dark.
After saying goodnight to Leslie, Mom stopped at the bathroom door. “Almost ready? You can read for fifteen minutes. Then lights out.”
I stalled for time wishing she’d stay longer. “Mom, how come I have athlete’s foot when I’m not an athlete?”
“The germs just like your feet.” She kissed me. “Be sure you clean the sink.”
Halfway down the stairs, she stopped. “Where did you go this afternoon?”
Her question took me by surprise. I didn’t think she knew I’d left. “I went to Woolworth’s to get a book for a school project.”
“If it’s something you need for school, I’ll pay for it. How much was it?”
“Remind me when I give you your allowance on Saturday. Good night.”
I rinsed the sink. The fear I experienced that afternoon returned. If only I’d told her where I was going, I’d have had more money than I needed and none of this would have happened. I didn’t want to read but was afraid to turn off the light.
The evening was mild, the sky still light. I listened to the shouts and laughter of the older kids playing in the Donnelly’s backyard. But soon they went indoors. Someone turned on the TV in the Lunds’ house across the street. Next door, Ronnie Stevenson, who was in junior high, practiced the piano. He pounded on the keys when he made a mistake, which was often. A breeze through the window made me shiver. The branches on the maple tree scratched against the porch roof. I was pulled from my room. I wanted to crawl across the porch roof, climb down the tree, and run away.
I heard my parents talking downstairs, a rumbling that sounded far away. I no longer belonged in the family. I’d committed a crime that separated me from them forever. I tried to fall asleep but couldn’t with the light on. I wanted to dream about climbing down the tree, but my mind remembered how frightened I’d been when I heard someone calling for the police. I pressed my face into the pillow and wished the afternoon had never happened. It was all Wendy’s fault: she wouldn’t lend me her book.
I heard a siren on Park Ave. I held my breath waiting for the police to turn the corner, drive down my street, and arrest me. I sat up in bed. My pajamas were soaked with sweat.
I walked to the head of the stairs. If I called Dad, he’d say go back to bed and tell him tomorrow, but I’d never call him. I didn’t want to tell my mother either, but I couldn’t stay in my room alone. Dad shook his newspaper trying to fold the pages to make it easier to read. I heard the faint clicking of Mom’s knitting needles. I almost called to her but stopped. I could tell her tomorrow. But how could I wait when the police might arrive at any minute?
She didn’t answer.
The clicking stopped. “What is it?”
“Can you come upstairs?”
Mom’s head looked over the banister. “Have you had a bad dream already?”
“No. Can you come up? Please.”
She started up the stairs. Back in my bedroom, I crawled into bed and sat against the headboard.
“What’s the matter?” She sat on the edge of the bed.
“I did something bad today.”
I said nothing, wondering how to begin.
“I stole a book from Woolworth’s I needed for school and I lost the money to pay for it and I hid it and walked out…” The story spilled out in a wave of relief.
She listened without interrupting. When I finished, she asked what I thought I should do.
“Give the money to the store?” I asked, hoping I wouldn’t have to do that.
“That’s one idea, but I have another thought. You’ve learned your lesson and you won’t do it again. I think you should take twenty-five cents from your allowance and put it in your church envelope for the missionaries. Okay?”
I said I would and gave her a kiss.
“Goodnight and don’t worry anymore.” She turned out the light and went downstairs. I was giddy with relief and started laughing. I pressed my face into my pillow, so she wouldn’t hear me.
For the next fifty years, I cannot carry a bag into a store without thinking the manager is watching me. When I leave the store without buying anything, I’m certain he thinks I’ve stolen something. I must act suspicious, my face flushed with guilt. Whenever possible, I check my belongings at the front of the store. Doing so, I temporarily unburden myself of a memory. A memory I will shoulder once again when I leave.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish