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Dicey’s Song: Chapter 4

THE DAY that Gram had to go in for conferences was also Halloween, and a Wednesday, and the day Dicey’s English paper was due. She hadn’t told any of her family what she was doing; she wanted to astound them, when it was handed back. She was the only one going to school that day. Because of the conferences, the little kids had a day off and were staying home, under James’s care. Dicey offered to stay home and look out for them, but Gram refused, saying it would only be for three hours or so. She looked like there was something else she wanted to say, so Dicey waited. But Gram didn’t say anything. Dicey, too, didn’t say what she was thinking, that she was worried about giving James all the responsibility.

When she got home after a day at school and an hour working with Millie on the distributor’s order sheets, Gram was alone at the kitchen table. Dicey didn’t hear any noise from anywhere.

“Where are they?” she asked.

“In their rooms,” Gram said. “James is riding his route.”

“What did their teachers say?” Dicey asked.

“We’ll talk about it later.”

Dicey looked at her grandmother. Gram did not look back at her. Dicey shrugged, took a banana, and went out to the barn.

James’s bike was gone but the others were there. She hoped Sammy would stay up in his room, that he wouldn’t come hang around her. Now that they were back on Eastern Standard Time, she couldn’t even get an hour’s work in. And she was just getting to the end of the first half of the boat.

The Tillermans weren’t celebrating Halloween. They never had, in fact. Their house in Provincetown was set way away, so no kids came to the door. Nobody ever came, anyway. That was lucky, Momma always said, because they couldn’t afford to buy a bowl of candy. A couple of those years they had all, even Momma, gotten into costumes (sheets for ghosts, or paper-bag armor) and had their own party, making popcorn on the gas stove, bobbing for apples in the dishpan. They ended up, as they usually did, singing.

Dicey sighed — for what, she didn’t know. Maybeth had been asked to a Halloween party, but she said she didn’t want to go. Dicey hadn’t asked her why not, because they couldn’t have gone to get her when the party was over. The girl lived inland, not on the water, and too far away for a late bike ride.

James walked his bicycle into the barn and set it against the side of an empty stall. He stood behind Dicey, watching.

“Did she tell you?”

“Tell me what? Who?”

“We’re in trouble.”

Dicey turned to look at him. “What do you mean? James, what happened?”

“We went up in the attic,” he told her, daring her to be angry with him.

“And?” What was the matter with going up in the attic?

“And she came home. Gram. She said we had no business. She sent us to our rooms. She only let me come out for my paper route.”

Dicey thought about that. “She’s right, we hadn’t asked.”

“I thought we lived here,” James complained.

“We do,” Dicey said, “but — ”

James waited for her to finish her sentence.

“That wasn’t a very smart thing to do, James.”

“I know. I was just curious. We apologized and told her we wouldn’t do it again. Maybeth cried. Sammy didn’t.”

It all seemed fair enough to Dicey.

“We weren’t even up there long enough to really look around,” James said. “There are boxes of stuff and trunks and a couple of old toys. And a cradle. Do you ever wonder, Dicey, why she doesn’t have any pictures of her children?”

Dicey shook her head.

“And she doesn’t talk about anything before,” James went on. “And we know where Momma is, and that Bullet is dead, but there was a third name, remember? Don’t you wonder?”

“Nope,” Dicey said.

“I do,” James finished, unnecessarily. “I wonder about Momma, what she was like then. I promised we wouldn’t go up there again, but I wish I hadn’t. I bet there’s an album up there.”

“Momma never had one,” Dicey argued.

“Gram could have afforded it,” James argued back. It was a stupid argument and Dicey didn’t continue with it.

“Did you get your report on the pilgrims back?”

“He kept them to show the parents. But he said I got an A. The kids thought it was super, they said so.” James smiled at the memory.

Dicey envied him. But it was getting too dark to work any more, and her bare legs were chilly, and she was going to have to go inside and see if she could straighten out things between Gram and the little kids.

It turned out that Gram didn’t think anything needed straightening out. She looked around the dinner table at the three subdued faces and the one wary one. “I believe in closing the book on things,” she announced.

“Does that mean you aren’t angry any more?” Sammy asked.

Gram nodded.

Sammy smiled and looked relieved. “Good-o,” he said. “I didn’t like being in trouble.”

“Neither did I,” Gram agreed.

“And if we do it again,” Sammy went on.

Gram interrupted. “If you do it again — I’ll take your hands and sew them over your ears.”

Sammy giggled. “How could I eat?”

“We’ll get you a dog dish,” Dicey offered. “We’ll put it on the floor and your food will be all mushed together, so that you can get it out with your tongue.”

“Ugh,” Sammy said happily.

“What about the conferences?” James asked. Maybeth looked down at her plate.

Gram put down her fork and waited until they were all, even Maybeth, looking at her. “About the conferences,” she said. “I want to wait to talk about them until I’ve talked to Dicey.”

Dicey looked up, surprised. What was wrong now?

“When, tomorrow?” James insisted.

Gram shook her head. “I have a plan. This Saturday, Dicey and I are going to take a day away.”

“What about me?” asked Sammy.

“You and Maybeth and James are going to stay home. I called Mr. Lingerle, to give him our number.” The black telephone had been sitting on the living room desk for two days by then. Nobody had used it to call them, although the little kids had all dialed the weather and time. “And I asked him if he would come out to take care of you.”

The three faces went down to the three plates again. “We’re sorry, Gram,” Maybeth said softly.

“I know you are and I know you won’t do it again, but —” She hesitated, then went on. “There was a lesson for me in this. I’d forgotten that when you leave children alone they have a natural tendency to get into trouble.”

“Did your children do that?” James asked.

“I also spoke to Millie, who said you could take the morning off,” Gram said to Dicey.

“But —” Dicey said.

“No buts, girl,” Gram said. “Besides, it won’t be much fun. We’re going shopping. I don’t know if you have noticed the cold coming on, but I have. While we’ve got the money from this welfare check, there are things you have to have, things I can’t make myself. So Dicey and I will have a day off, after which we will talk about the conferences.”

“Were they bad?” Maybeth asked.

There were good things and bad things,” Gram acknowledged. “But there was nothing that made me regret you living here with me.” The children exchanged pleased glances, and Sammy’s face (Dicey noticed) was flushed with pleasure. “I was proud to go in and say, I’m Sammy Tillerman’s grandmother or Maybeth’s or James’s.”

Dicey bit on her lower lip. What Gram would say about Dicey’s home ec grade — she was almost sorry she hadn’t tried harder in the class, if it mattered to Gram.

“Is that all right with you, Dicey?” Gram said.

“Sure, if you want to,” Dicey said.

“We’ll take the bus up to Salisbury, where there’s a mall,” Gram said.

“I like bus rides,” Sammy volunteered.

“Well, I don’t,” Gram said.

  • • •

APPARENTLY, Dicey thought from her seat by the window that Saturday morning, Gram meant exactly what she said. Gram sat straight and stiff beside Dicey. She was wearing her blue suit and a white blouse, tucked in. She carried a purse and had put on her loafers, with stockings. Gram wasn’t planning to enjoy herself. Dicey wore her shorts, as always. She thought about talking to her grandmother, but shrugged and looked out the window instead.

Because Dicey did like buses. She liked any means of transportation. She liked going places. They rode up a highway, past marshlands and farmlands. A brisk wind blew at the grasses and trees. For the first time, Dicey felt like it really was fall. The sky hung low and gray over fields. She could see smoke curling up out of chimneys in some of the houses they passed. It was one of those first fall days, that look colder than they really are.

But it really was cold. When they had stood waiting at the bus station, her legs got goose bumps from the wind. Mr. Lingerle drove them into town, and he said he’d come pick them up, too. Gram didn’t want to take the ride, but he pointed out how large the waves would be under this wind, and that if they bought anything it would be soaked before they got home again. He said he liked to help.

Gram’s chin went up when he said that, because she did not like to be helped. But he had insisted and insisted, saying that Saturday was usually a pretty long, lonely day for him, saying that he was going to try riding on Sammy’s bike (Sammy bit his lip to keep from saying something about that), saying finally that he liked being welcome at their house, and he was only offering what family friends offered. So Gram gave in.

The bus entered the limits of the scraggly city. Dicey studied the shopping centers and the low office buildings, each surrounded by its own parking lot. Cars and trucks crowded the road. For a few minutes, Dicey found this exciting, all the people, all their different lives and faces. Then the grayness, the papers blowing on sidewalks, the sandy-colored sameness of the buildings diminished that excitement. Beside her, Gram stirred.

“Do you know where we’re going?” Dicey asked.

“Yes,” Gram answered.

The mall had an arched gateway leading to acres of parking lots. The bus stopped before an entrance to the long building. Dicey and Gram climbed down the steps and went in.

Gram went straight to a list of stores in the mall and began reading down it. Dicey planned to enjoy herself, if she could. She listened to the voices of the crowds of Saturday shoppers, she stared at families and couples, at gangs of girls and boys. Some of the people were hurrying on, as if they had a lot to do and not much time. Others were meandering about, stopping at store windows, as if they had a whole day to kill.

Gram joined Dicey. “When I was a girl,” she said, looking about her, “Crisfield was the big town. The people from Salisbury came down to Crisfield.” She took a breath and her chin went up. “Let’s get going, girl, we’ve got a lot to do.”

“But I thought we were going to talk,” Dicey said.

“That too,” Gram said, stepping briskly out.

Gram took Dicey first to a five-and-ten. They stood in front of a small table covered with wool, while Gram touched the skeins of yarn and made “hnm” sounds. At last she turned to Dicey. “You like any of these?”

Dicey studied the unnaturally bright colors, greens and reds and yellows. She tried to find one that wasn’t as bad as the rest. “No,” she said.

“Neither do I.”

Gram marched out and on down the center walkway. When she found a little store with its windows crammed with pillows on which kittens had been embroidered, she entered. At the back of this store, there was a whole wall of wools. Gram started pulling down colors. Dicey looked around. There were a few women in the store, looking at instruction books or studying kits. The saleslady sat on a tall stool behind the counter, her hands busy with thread and canvas. She looked more like one of the summer residents of Provincetown than a saleslady in a mall, Dicey thought. She wore makeup on her eyes, lips, and skin. Her hair had every strand in a particular place. The woman looked up and caught Dicey’s eye. “Can I help you?” she asked. Dicey shook her head and turned her attention back to Gram.

Gram had pulled down a dozen colors. She had spread them out on the table before her. Every now and then she would touch one and move it around to sit by itself.

“What are you doing?” Dicey asked.

“Sweaters,” Gram answered. “Is there a color you like?”

“You’re going to make us sweaters?”

“It’s either that or buy them,” Gram answered grimly.

“I didn’t know you could knit.”

Gram shrugged. She put her hand on a yellow the color of daffodils. “This looks like Maybeth to me. And a good blue for Sammy, but brown for James, don’t you think.”

“Isn’t that an awful lot of work?”

“Come winter, I’ve got the time. What about you, what do you like?”

Dicey liked the brown, but Gram pulled out a kind of greeny-bluey skein, flecked with white. “Heather,” she said.

Dicey liked that all right too, and she liked it more the more she looked at it.

“Feel it,” Gram instructed. Dicey obeyed, and the wool was thick and soft under her fingers. “Heather’s the one I like for you,” Gram said.

“What about you?” Dicey asked.

“I’ve got plenty, I don’t have to go out in public,” Gram said. Dicey, her mind on sweaters, thought that Gram should have one in a dusty rose, or maybe in black to set off the snap in her eyes. But Dicey couldn’t knit. Gram paid; Dicey hefted the awkward bag of wool.

“Did your momma teach you to knit?” Gram asked Dicey.

“I can’t do any of that stuff,” Dicey mumbled.

“Oh well,” Gram said.

They walked on, into a two-story Sears and Roebuck that occupied one end of the mall. There, Gram wound her way to the children’s department. She picked out eight pairs of blue jeans, and they went to get in the line by the cash register.

“That’s — thank you, Gram,” Dicey said. Because their grandmother was buying them clothes.

“Children can’t wear shorts all year round,” Gram answered. “Maybeth’s teacher is worried about her. She’s not progressing, not to speak of. Mrs. Jackson says the school system has home tutors who are trained teachers and know the kind of work the class is doing. She says, we should get one. She says she doesn’t think it will help, but she wants to try, everything because Maybeth is such a sweet child. She says Maybeth is failing. She says, Maybeth gets along beautifully with her classmates and is very mature.” Gram stopped as suddenly as she had begun.

Dicey felt as if Gram had been hitting at her, punch, punch, punch. “Millie can’t read,” she announced, following her own thoughts. “Not much, not like she should.”

“She told you that? She’d never admit it to me. We were girls in school together.”

“I know,” Dicey said.

“Maybeth’s not like Millie,” Gram said.

How had Gram known that was a question in Dicey’s mind. “Are you sure?”

“Sure,” Gram told Dicey. “But — ”

At that moment their turn to pay came, and Gram just said, “We’ll talk about it over lunch. Think about it, meanwhile.”

They had to go to another department for long-sleeved shirts for the little kids. Dicey already had all the made-over shirts she needed. Gram made quick selections, plain colors for Maybeth, and striped for the boys. They got into another line. “Sammy’s work is all right,” Gram reported. “She told me I was lucky to have such a quiet, well-behaved grandson, because boys could be such hellions. She said if only every boy in the class had Sammy’s attitude.”

“Well.” Dicey was surprised. She was glad that was all right. “He hasn’t always been that way,” she told Gram, relieved.

“He still isn’t,” Gram said, then snapped her mouth shut.

Dicey felt her shoulders sag. It wasn’t because they were tired, or she was tired. The bags they got were big, but not heavy. She thought she had a good idea what Gram was thinking. Sometimes she almost wished she didn’t have any brothers and sisters. “How about James? Was James’s teacher pleased with him?”

Gram had her purse open to pay, and she put bills into the salesclerk’s hand before she answered. Dicey almost told Gram not to bother saying, unless it was something good.

“Oh yes. He says what we all — including James — know, that he’s unusually intelligent. He says James’s work was better at the beginning of the year, but the other kids caught up with him pretty quickly. He especially mentioned James report. He showed it to me.”

“James got an A,” Dicey said.

“It wasn’t the same report he showed us,” Gram said.

Dicey took the bag, jammed it into the bigger one that held the jeans and did not answer.

Back in the center of the mall, Gram looked about her. “Lunch,” she said. She led Dicey back, along the length of the building, to the other end, where there stood a two-story department store. There was a restaurant, too, right by the entrance, a real restaurant where there was a special waitress who asked how many you were and led you to a table.

“But Gram,” Dicey protested. They had seen a couple of hamburger stands.

Gram ignored her. The waitress gave them a table by a window that looked out to the center of the mall. “Put those bags down,” Gram instructed Dicey.

Dicey obeyed, jamming the bags up against the wall.

“This is my treat, for me,” Gram said, looking around with satisfaction. She opened the menu and looked at it.

Dicey followed suit. She studied the prices. She found the three cheapest things and then looked to see what they were. When Gram asked her what she wanted, she said, “Spaghetti.”

Gram stared at her over the top of the menu.

“I like spaghetti,” Dicey said.

“My rule is, when you go to a restaurant, you have something you don’t get at home,” Gram announced. “I’m going to have a club sandwich and I advise you to do the same.”

Dicey skimmed around for a club sandwich, to see how much it cost. “Why?” she asked, playing for time.

“Because it tastes good,” Gram said, folding her menu firmly onto the table. “I know what you’re thinking, girl, and with the amount of money we’re spending today this little isn’t going to make any difference.” Then she smiled, quickly. “Besides, I’ve handed you some problems you’ll need food energy to work on.”

“OK,” Dicey said. “I hope I like it.”

“If you don’t, I’ll eat it,” Gram said. She ordered them two club sandwiches on white toast with extra mayonnaise. For herself, she ordered a pot of tea. Dicey wanted a soda.

“Small, medium, or large?” the waitress asked.

“Small,” Dicey said.

“Large,” Gram corrected her.

Dicey just shook her head.

When their drinks were before them, Gram looked at Dicey and said, “What do you think?”

Dicey didn’t know what she was talking about.

“About your family, girl. Snap out of it. You’ve had weeks and weeks without worrying, but the vacation is over now. You’ve got to help out.”

But, Dicey thought, I am helping out, I have a job. And I haven’t exactly not worried.

“I don’t know,” she said. Gram snorted impatiently. So Dicey tried. “If the teacher says Maybeth can get a real tutor, for nothing, that’s not bad is it?” she asked.

Gram waited.

“And Sammy’s all right. And James is doing well. So what’s the problem?”

Gram waited. Dicey put the straw into her mouth and sipped at her soda. She looked out the window. Walking away from them, down the mall, were a boy and a girl. They had their arms around one another. The boy’s arm was over the girl’s shoulder and his hand was tucked into the rear pocket of her jeans. Her arm went across his back and into the pocket of his jeans. They leaned their heads towards one another, talking, as if there was nothing important in the world except what they had to say right then.

“When I was a girl,” Gram said, “only engaged couples could spend an afternoon alone together. And even then, the most they would do in public was hold hands. People say things were easier then, and maybe they were.”

Dicey followed the couple with her eyes. She didn’t know why Gram was talking like this, but she was interested in what Gram would say about what it was like when she was young.

“Things were surely simpler. But I guess we made them hard, because I don’t remember anything simple, or easy, about it. I’d be inclined to think things are easier now, wouldn’t you?”

Dicey looked back but didn’t answer.

“I didn’t say better, just easier,” Gram told her.

Dicey nodded, to show she was listening. But she was wondering: how long was she going to have to spend worrying about her brothers and sisters?

“It’s for as long as you live,” Gram said, as if Dicey had spoken aloud. “That’s something I learned, even though I didn’t want to. For as long as you live, the attachments hold.”

At that moment their sandwiches were put down in front of them. Dicey looked at hers, four triangles of toast layered with turkey and bacon, lettuce and tomato, like rock strata on cliffs. A pile of potato chips was in the center of the plate. Gram passed her a little glass of mayonnaise.

“So you’ve got to think,” Gram said, “and I’d be grateful if you’d tell me what you think.”

Reluctantly, Dicey agreed. Well, Gram was right, she’d had a nice long rest from it, longer than any she could remember ever before in her life. And she couldn’t fool herself that her family didn’t matter to her. She took a bite. “OK,” she said. “I think I know about James. But Gram — this sandwich is good.”

“I told you, didn’t I?” Gram answered, pleased with herself.

“James never had friends, none of us did really, on account of Momma and where we lived, and a whole lot of things. But James always wanted them. I think — if he wrote another report — he did it because he didn’t want to be too different. Because if you’re too different people don’t like you.”

“But is he making friends?”

“I dunno,” Dicey said. “I never asked. He told me the kids liked his report. The trouble is,” she went on, “that if James doesn’t have something to think about he gets bored and — because he doesn’t like working the way I do, not physical work. Working with his mind, that’s what James likes. So he needs to do a lot of thinking in school.”

“Which he won’t, because then he’d be too different,” Gram pointed out. “So he will have to find something to think about at home.”

“He reads those books,” Dicey said.

“Your grandfather read books at home, alone.”

“Was he like James? Is James like him?”

Gram didn’t answer. “I don’t know what to do,” she said finally.

Neither did Dicey.

“And what about Sammy?” Gram demanded.

“He’s just trying to be good.”

“I appreciate that,” Gram declared. “But he isn’t good, you know. Not the way she thinks he is; he isn’t her idea of good. But he’s trying to be that. She said he sits quiet as a mouse, all day. It’s no wonder he’s got so much energy to burn off when he gets home. Did you ever think of that?”

Dicey hadn’t.

“Well, think about it,” Gram said. “See if you find it a pleasant thought.”

“No,” Dicey said, her voice low, “I don’t. But Gram? If he wants to be the kind of boy she likes, it’s for you, and for me. For all of us.”

Gram nodded grimly. She had finished her sandwich, and she poured out a cup of tea.

Dicey had a picture in her head of Sammy putting on a mask every morning, to wear all day long. It was a heavy iron mask, and he pulled it around his own face and bolted it closed.

“If I was just in the same school,” Dicey wished.

“But you’re not,” Gram answered. “Do you remember when you were little in school?”

“Not much. I got in trouble, for fighting.”

“What stopped you?”

“The other kids learned to steer clear.”

Gram stared at Dicey for a minute and her eyes snapped as if she was either angry, or trying not to laugh. “But what were you fighting about?”

Dicey made herself meet Gram’s dark, hazel eyes. “They’d say things — about Momma. About — our father being gone — about our not having his name — ”

“I can guess,” Gram cut her off.

“Sometimes, they’d laugh at me, I don’t know why. I didn’t like that. But Sammy doesn’t mind being laughed at. He likes being a clown.”

“Not the Sammy that woman’s got sitting in her class. That Sammy — I don’t know, he’s not at all like our Sammy.”

“Not the good ways or the bad ways,” Dicey realized. “But what can we do?”

“That’s what I thought we could talk about. That and Maybeth.”

“Does she have to go to school?”

“You know better than that, girl. Be sensible.”

The waitress came and took their plates away. She asked did they want some dessert. Gram said no, thank you, and the waitress went away.

Dicey leaned her elbows on the table. She didn’t know what Gram was going to think of, what she was going to say next. “I don’t think Maybeth is learning anything,” she said.

“I agree,” Gram said.

“When I was explaining fractions, she didn’t learn anything,” Dicey said. “But I had the feeling — if I could do it a different way, then she would.” She stopped.

“Go on, keep telling me,” Gram urged.

“Well I wonder — those lists of words she’s supposed to memorize. I don’t think she can learn them.”

Gram was watching her so hard, Dicey felt like she was sitting too close to the fire. “So if she has a school tutor, wouldn’t she teach Maybeth the same way?” she concluded.

Gram leaned back and smiled. “Exactly. I just wanted to see if I was the only one thinking that. Sometimes, I get crazy ideas, and I know how stubborn I am.”

“But we can’t afford another tutor, can we?” Dicey asked. “Because she shouldn’t give up her piano lessons, because I won’t let you do that.”

“Who said I wanted to do that?” Gram demanded. “Give me some credit, girl. What did your momma do about Maybeth?”

“She’d pretend it wasn’t happening.”

Gram thought about that. “Now we know two ways that don’t work,” she said, finally.

Dicey giggled. Gram gave Dicey one of her sudden smiles.

“We should have had James along,” Dicey said. “He’s the one with ideas.”

“I needed just you for this today,” Gram said. “We’ll confer with James when we get home, but I wanted — besides, we never get to talk much, do we.”

“You’re kept pretty busy,” Dicey said excusing her grandmother. “And I haven’t been much help to you,” she admitted.

“Well, I’ll tell you, Dicey, I’d be happy not to bother you with this. You’ve already done a lot for your brothers and sister. I don’t say that to you, but I think it.” Dicey felt her face grow hot, and she looked down at her glass. She stirred the ice cubes around with her straw. What was she supposed to say?

Nothing, apparently, because Gram went right on. “But I’ll tell you something else, too. Something I’ve learned, the hard way. I guess” — Gram laughed a little — “I’m the kind of person who has to learn the hard way. You’ve got to hold on. Hold on to people. They can get away from you. It’s not always going to be fun, but if you don’t — hold on — then you lose them. Now, let’s get going.”

Dicey wanted to stay, then, and ask Gram what she meant. Not about holding on, because Dicey could figure that out, but what she meant to be saying about herself. Did Gram wish she had held on to her own children? To Bullet and Momma — did Gram think that would have made any difference to Momma up in that hospital, or Bullet dead in Vietnam? And what about her son John, whoever he was, wherever he was?

But Gram wasn’t waiting for any questions, she was walking on out to pay the bill. Dicey gathered up the bags and followed.

She thought Gram would go back to the bus stop then, but instead her grandmother went along the fancy department store, past purses and hats, past sweaters, past racks of dresses and mannikins leaning over in impossible poses. She went right into an area where nightgowns and robes hung out, and slips and bras and underpants and girdles. She went right up to a counter and turned, waiting for Dicey to join her. A saleslady came over, her hair brushed high and wavy and held in place by spray so thick it glistened. “May I help you?”

“My granddaughter needs a bra,” Gram said.

Dicey looked away. She looked back at Gram, angry. She looked at the saleslady, who was staring at her. She glared at Gram. This was a trick, a rotten trick.

The saleslady took out a tape measure and measured Dicey. She made clicking noises. Dicey raised her chin, ignoring the woman. Gram pretended to be looking into a counter, but since the counter was filled with thick girdles laid out, like the steaks in Millie’s store, Dicey knew Gram was just pretending. She tried to think of how to get out of the situation. She could run away, she supposed. But she didn’t have any money with her and how would she get home? She could start a fight with Gram right here — but Gram wasn’t enjoying this any more than Dicey was. Dicey could tell that by the way she was pretending to be especially interested in a girdle that was black and lacy, that hooked up the front from your hips to your bosom.

The saleslady brought out a handful of bras and asked them to step back to the dressing room, to try them on. Gram wanted to refuse, Dicey saw that as clear as day. “I’ll wait here,” Gram said.

Dicey felt mean. “You better come with me,” she said. Gram’s chin went up, and she came along. If Dicey hadn’t been so uncomfortable herself, she would have laughed.

They bought three bras, three little scraps of nylon at four dollars each. Dicey, who agreed to keep one on since it was either that or have a fight with both Gram and the saleslady at the same time, figured it served Gram right. If she was going to insist that Dicey wear a bra, then Dicey wasn’t going to feel sorry at how much money it cost. If Dicey was going to have to go around feeling like a dog with a collar on, Gram could just pay for it, and Dicey wasn’t going to apologize.

They left the lingerie department silently. Then Gram led Dicey up the escalator to the second floor. Dicey followed without any questions. Let Gram be angry at her. She didn’t care, after that trick.

Gram went into a girls’ section, where the mannikins were of teenagers wearing slacks or party dresses. They were in the same poses as the mannikins for ladies, which Dicey thought was pretty stupid. The dresses were pretty stupid-looking too. The slacks — well, anybody who would pay the price for those when they could wear jeans was stupid.

Gram went over to a rack and pulled out a denim jumper. “Come over here, girl, and put down those packages.” She held the jumper up in front of Dicey. It was too short.

Yet another saleslady came over and asked if she could help. This one wore loops and loops of necklaces and loops and loops of bracelets. She jingled as she walked.

“Try one of these on,” Gram instructed Dicey. “We don’t know her size,” she said to the lady.

The lady jingled around to measure Dicey with her eyes. She picked out a jumper and told Dicey to follow her. This time, Dicey didn’t insist that Gram come too. It was going to be hard to keep on being angry.

The dressing room had mirrors and mirrors and mirrors. Dicey looked at herself, in her boy’s shirt and shorts. She didn’t look too terrific. Her sharp face was reflected back to her, from all angles, front and sides. She could see herself from the back. Her raggedy hair, her old shorts — at least the bra didn’t show. The saleslady slipped the jumper over her head and marched Dicey out to show Gram.

“Looks all right,” Gram said. She had sat down in a chair with something brown laid over the big bags beside her. “Do you like it?” she asked Dicey.

“But Gram —” Dicey started to protest.

“You going to answer my question?”

“Yes, of course, I do, you know that.” Gram grunted. “But Gram —” How could she tell Gram not to spend the money when the saleslady was listening?

“I went to your school one day,” Gram said.

“I saw you,” Dicey answered.

“I didn’t see anybody in shorts,” Gram said. “I saw some in jeans, lots in skirts and dresses. I kind of liked the way these jumpers looked. They look sturdy.”

Dicey tried to stop the smile that was about to take over her face. She kept her mouth still, but she had the feeling her eyes were giving her away.

“She’ll need a couple of pairs of those high socks,” Gram told the saleslady. “In blue. Will you try this on too?” she asked, holding out the brown thing.

It was a dark brown dress, made out of some soft material that looked like velvet but was thicker. The dress had a white knitted collar and matching cuffs; it had a brown belt that went with it.

“I don’t need a dress,” Dicey said.

“I just asked you to try it on,” Gram insisted.

Dicey cooperated, mostly because she wanted to show Gram that she appreciated the jumper. The saleslady hung around while Dicey unbuttoned her shirt, then struggled into the long sleeves. The lady zipped Dicey up the back and watched her put the belt around her waist.

“Now that’s more like it,” the lady said.

Dicey looked in the mirrors. The dark brown of the dress was like the soil in Gram’s garden, where Sammy had turned it over. The heavy-soft fabric hung close to her body. Her bosom showed a little, and the belt at her waist made her look curved. She looked unfamiliar to herself, the kind of plain that was really fancy. She stood, biting her lip, looking at the girl in the mirror.

“Go show your grandmother that,” the saleslady said, obviously pleased.

Dicey walked out again, feeling foolish, feeling different.

Gram just nodded, as if she had expected to see exactly what she saw.

The saleslady waited for one of them to say something, then said it herself: “She’s a pretty child.”

Dicey looked up, alarmed.

“I don’t know why they dress the way they do,” the saleslady said to Gram, leaning confidentially over in an adult-to-adult position.

Gram looked up at her. “You don’t? I do.”

The lady’s mouth tightened, and she jingled herself up straight again.

“Those shoes,” Gram said to Dicey, her mouth twitching. “We’ll have to see what we have at home. I like it, girl.”

“Me too,” Dicey said. She spread her hands down the soft fabric over her hips. “But — ”

“We’ll take the two, then,” Gram said, “and the socks.”

Dicey went back to change into her shorts and shirt. She felt utterly confused, but not displeased. She remembered to thank Gram, but her grandmother ignored that, except for a nod of the head. “I don’t know when I’ll wear it,” Dicey said.

“That’s all right,” Gram answered. “You’re not going to grow that fast any more. It’ll wait.”

They went down the escalator and back out into the mall. “Can we go home now?” Gram asked Dicey, as if Dicey were the one who had thought up these errands.

Dicey just grinned. Then, walking along beside her grandmother, she had an idea: “We can’t tell James we know what he did, can we? Or why.”

“I agree,” Gram said. “And we should tell Sammy we know, but we have to do it. . . . ”

“Indirectly,” Dicey finished.

“It’s not as if we want him to go out and get into fights,” Gram agreed.

They waited by the bus stop. The wind had gotten colder, like knives with edges. Dicey tried to ignore the cold in her legs. “What do we want to tell him?” she asked.

“That the way he is is all right, good and bad. That Sammy is who we want him to be, not some idea that teacher has of who he should be. I didn’t much care for her. But I’m not known for liking many people. That he doesn’t need to change himself for us to think he’s all right.”

That was it exactly, Dicey thought. “You know about us,” she said to Gram.

The bus rolled up then, and they climbed into it. Dicey sat by the window again. She didn’t interrupt her grandmother’s thoughts until they were almost outside of the city limits. “Gram?”

Gram turned her face to Dicey.

“I understand what you mean about holding on. It is what I want to do,” Dicey said.

“I think so,” Gram remarked.

“And Gram?”

Her grandmother turned back again.

“We’ll ask James what he thinks about Maybeth tonight. After the little kids are in bed. He’ll have an idea.”

“He’ll have seven ideas, if I know him,” Gram remarked. She turned away, leaving Dicey to her own thoughts. One of Dicey’s thoughts was to wonder what it was that Gram was thinking so hard about. They were about halfway to Crisfield before she got the answer.

“There’s one other thing we have to talk about, girl,” Gram’s voice spoke in her ear. Dicey jerked herself back from her mental picture of the little boat, newly painted, next summer.

“What’s that?”


“I’m all right,” Dicey said.

“You’re on my list,” Gram said, with a small smile. “It’s not just the bra, Dicey.”

Gram’s cheeks were pink.

“The bra is just the beginning,” Gram said.

Dicey understood. She grinned at her grandmother, who opened her mouth to protest. (“I’m not joking, girl,” that was what her grandmother was going to say, Dicey knew it.) “It’s OK, Gram,” she said, glad that she could make this at least easier for Gram. “I know about menstruating.”

Gram nodded and shut her mouth. Then she took a deep breath and opened it again.

Dicey cut her off. “And I know about sex,” she assured her grandmother.

Gram looked doubtful, hesitated, started to speak, stopped, started again.

“I’ll tell you what I think,” Dicey said, to help Gram. “You can decide if there’s stuff I should know more about.” She wasn’t enjoying the conversation any more than Gram was. “I think that, even though I know how it works, sex — I don’t know how it feels.”

Then Dicey heard what she had just said, and she felt her face burn hot. Now Gram was smiling.

“I mean, how it feels to want to. I mean — I don’t know — I’m much too young,” Dicey wailed.

“That’s all right then,” Gram said. “You would ask if you had any questions.”

Dicey nodded.

“Because I get the feeling you’re not too pleased about growing up,” Gram said.

Dicey looked out over the tall marsh grasses, blowing in the wind. If the wind blew, the grasses had to bend with it. She wondered how they felt about that. “It’s just,” she said to her grandmother, “I have the feeling that I know who I am, only I’m not any more.”


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