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Dicey’s Song: Chapter 6


DESPITE DICEY’S firm intentions to concentrate on her family — and on Gram too, and she didn’t know how Gram would feel if she knew Dicey was thinking that — during the third week in November, the outside world seemed determined to get her attention.

First it was the weather, which turned chilly, then cold. The sky hung gray and flat, day after day. This muted all the colors, except for the bare branches of the trees, which turned deep black against that sky. When the wind was from the west, off the Bay, it carried a dampness in it that penetrated through Dicey’s clothing and wound around her bones. She couldn’t work on the boat in that weather, not without the danger of chillblains.

“What are chillblains?” Dicey had asked Gram. Gram had smiled. “You know, I don’t know. All my life I’ve heard about them and tried not to get them — because they sound so awful. Chill-blains,” she repeated, listening to the sound of it. “As if the little veins in your nose freeze individually. We’ll ask James,” Gram concluded, looking back to her knitting. She was halfway up the back of Maybeth’s yellow sweater. She had already finished the front.

And then, Dicey got her report card. This school made a real ceremony of report cards. At the end of the school day everybody went to his homeroom. When your name was called out, you went up to the front of the room. The homeroom teacher studied your grades and then he would talk to you about your schoolwork. These conversations were kept to a low tone. Everybody in the front row pretended they couldn’t hear and weren’t listening.

There were forty kids in the homeroom, so it took a while for Dicey’s name to come up. “Dicey Tillerman,” he called. Dicey went to stand next to the big desk. She tried to see the card, but he held it so she couldn’t. He had his attendance book spread out in front of him, and he was making checks by each student’s name after the report card was given out.

He asked his questions without looking at her. She stared at his ear to answer.

“This is your first year here?”

“Yes.”

“Where did you go to school before?”

“In Massachusetts.”

“Hunh. How do you like home ec?”

Dicey shrugged. He waited, so she put the shrugs into words. “I dunno.”

“You’ve got a good attendance record,” he said, concluding their conversation. He uncapped his pen and marked down two zeros on the upper corner, where there were places for absences and tardinesses. Then he checked off her name in his attendance book. Finally, he gave Dicey her report card.

Dicey didn’t even look at it until she had sat down. She scanned down the grades. Home Ec: F.

That letter, F, jumped out at her eyes. What? Dicey wasn’t any brain like James, but she did all right in school. Anger warmed her blood. What right did Miss Eversleigh have flunking her. She had gone to all the classes, she had done everything she was told. She had done everything badly, she knew that; she had done everything with a minimum of effort and attention. But she had done it, and she hadn’t ever made any trouble in class, unless you counted the time they all laughed, and that wasn’t her fault.

Dicey bit at her lower lip. She went back up the list of grades and saw a C+ by English.

Now wait a minute, she thought. She’d been getting B’s and A’s in English. This one had to be a mistake. Mr. Chappelle must have copied somebody else’s grade down, instead of hers. She wondered how she should get it corrected. She decided, the best thing was to wait until the essays were handed back at the beginning of next week, then she would ask Mr. Chappelle. She could ask him right away, she supposed, but the class had been pestering him so much about how long it took to get the essays back that Dicey was starting to feel sorry for him. She was as impatient as everyone else, but it didn’t do any good nagging and complaining at him. He’d promised to get them back on Monday, and he’d apologized for taking so long and he’d made excuses. Dicey felt — well, she’d believe it when she actually had her paper in her hand again. She wasn’t at all sure he’d keep his promise, but she hoped he would. And then she’d ask him about the grade. She bet he would be surprised that he’d given her a C+. She was about the smartest kid in the class, certainly one of the smartest.

But was that F in home ec going to get her in trouble? When the bell rang, Dicey hurried out to see if Jeff was there. “Hey, Jeff,” she greeted him.

“Hey, Dicey. Think we’ll ever see the sun again? How long’s it been, eight days? Did you ever hear a song called ‘Dark as the Dungeon’?”

Dicey shook her head impatiently. “What happens if you flunk your minor?” she demanded.

“Did you do that?” he asked. His face was only curious, with maybe a little surprise, she decided. His eyes weren’t smiling at all.

“Yeah,” she said.

“Don’t worry. Nobody cares about minors much anyway. And until you’re in high school, it doesn’t matter about credits for graduation. Pass English, and they pretty much have to pass you. You passing English?”

Dicey didn’t even answer that. She just gave him a look that said, Of course I’m passing it, what a stupid question. Then he did smile at her. He asked her if she wanted to hear the song, “Dark as the Dungeon,” and she said, no, thank you, she couldn’t, she had to get going.

She waited until after supper to show Gram her report card. Gram had to sign it. There was a place on the back, a row of dotted lines, and underneath the words “parent or guardian.”

Gram put her knitting aside and looked at the front of the card. Then she turned it over and signed it with the pen Dicey had ready for her. Then she turned it over and looked at the front again. Momma never even looked at the front, Dicey remembered. Momma, those last couple of years. She would take the report cards, one at a time, and sign her name carefully, four times. She had to be careful, because the boards on their old table were coming unglued and might make ridges in your writing, and it might look like you didn’t even know how to write your name. Momma’s long hair fell forward when she bent her head down. Momma said her hair started out the color of Sammy’s and Maybeth’s, but got darker as she got older. Momma’s hair rippled down her back, like sunlight, like music. Like the music Maybeth was playing then, on the piano.

“Well?” Gram said.

“It doesn’t matter about home ec,” Dicey assured her. “That’s just a minor. It’s OK to flunk it.”

“Is it,” Gram wondered. “Why are you failing?”

Dicey thought about that. “I don’t like the class.”

“I know, you wanted mechanical drawing, I remember.”

“And — I’m not trying, but I go to every class and do everything she says. Sort of.” Then she told Gram about her apron, about how she got around the rules. She even told Gram about how the rest of the class had laughed, because once she was started that was part of the story. Dicey found she didn’t mind telling Gram; and when Gram laughed too, she joined in.

“You aren’t making trouble in class?”

“Nope, I keep quiet.”

“You’re sure it’s not going to — I don’t know, they talk about school records.”

“I asked someone,” Dicey said.

Gram looked at her for a long minute, then accepted it. “The rest — except for English — are very good. All A’s.”

Dicey looked down. She hadn’t even noticed those, not really. “The English is a mistake,” she said to Gram.

“Are you sure?” Dicey was sure. “You’re not just fooling yourself?” Dicey shook her head.

“I’m going to ask him about it on Monday. You’ll see.”

“I believe you,” Gram said. And she did, Dicey could tell. Dicey liked that. That Gram really believed her, because she knew her, made Dicey’s heart swell up warm. Dicey felt like putting her arms around Gram and hugging her, hard. But she didn’t, of course. Gram wasn’t the kind of person who wanted to be hugged.

So Dicey just smiled, and said, “Thanks.” She drifted over to the piano. She sat down beside Maybeth on the bench. For a while, she watched Maybeth’s fingers pushing down the keys, the white keys and the black ones. She noticed for the first time what pretty, delicate hands Maybeth had and the way her fingernails shone rosily. Then Dicey looked at the page of music. It was something called a minuet, by someone called Bach.

(How would you pronounce that? Dicey wondered idly, listening, remembering the phonemes James talked about with Maybeth. Bahk? Batch? Bash? She’d ask James, if he knew.)

There weren’t that many notes on the page of music, it didn’t look too hard; but the music that Maybeth made from it sounded too perfect for the score to be as simple as it seemed. The notes flowed out from under her fingers. The rhythm was steady, but the melody danced round it as if doing whatever it wanted, whenever it felt like it. It sounded like a dance, and when Maybeth finished, before she could turn to something else, Dicey asked her, “What does it mean?”

“Mean? I don’t know.”

“Then how do you decide what to play loud, or fast, or smoothed together?”

Maybeth looked at her with round eyes. “It’s just the way it sounds, when it sounds right.”

“Play it again?”

Maybeth did. Dicey listened, and she still couldn’t understand how Maybeth knew what it was supposed to sound like, all together. “I really like hearing you play,” she told Maybeth. Maybeth smiled, and her eyes shone at Dicey. She didn’t say anything.

Then, while Dicey was washing down the floor at work on Wednesday, and Millie was leaning over the counter telling her about chickens, what the best breeds were, what were each breed’s advantages and disadvantages, Jeff came in.

Dicey saw him before he saw her. He had gone over to the sugars and was looking at the boxes and bags. He carried his guitar slung over his back, like a minstrel out of Robin Hood. He wore a down vest and his cheeks shone pink. Millie went to help him, and he looked up. Then he saw Dicey. “Hey, Dicey,” he said, surprised.

“Hey, Jeff.” She was careful not to sound surprised. She pushed the mop down into the bucket of warm water and sloshed some onto the floor. She swirled the water around with the mop before getting down to real scrubbing.

He came to stand in front of her. She ignored him.

“You work here?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Every day?”

“Pretty near.” She still hadn’t looked at him.

“I didn’t know that,” he said. That was nothing Dicey needed to answer. “I’ve only been in here a couple of times in the last year,” he said. “To pick up odds and ends.”

He waited. Dicey mopped. He moved his booted feet away from where she wanted to clean. Dicey mopped.

“Dicey?” She didn’t look up. “See you.” She nodded.

She heard him pay for the box of sugar, heard the door close, heard Millie go back to her position behind the meat counter. She could feel Millie staring at her. Finally, her employer spoke: “He your fellow?”

Dicey snorted. “Just someone I met at school.”

“He’s kinda cute,” Millie said. “Does he play that guitar?”

No, Dicey thought of saying, he just carries it around. But instead, because it was Millie, she answered politely, “Yes.”

“He looks so young,” Millie said, absently. “And so do you, but I’m used to you, I guess. I remember” — her voice drifted on behind Dicey’s head — “when we were young. Ab and Herbie. John Tillerman. I can’t remember me that young though — isn’t that a funny thing?”

“You remember Gram? What was she like?” Dicey had stopped working and was looking at Millie’s face. Millie was staring somewhere into the front of the store.

“I guess we called her pert,” she said, with a smile moving her thick features. “She had quite a tongue, did Ab, and she’d as soon bite your head off as smile at you. She kept things hopping, wherever she was. Some people didn’t, but I liked her. I guess she used to make us laugh sometimes, the things she’d say, the things she’d do. Then after she married John, it wasn’t the same. Well” — she shook her face to bring her attention back — “I guess it never is. I guess she was kept busy on the farm, and her children, and things the way John wanted them. But I can remember. . . .”

Dicey stayed still, not to interrupt, not to distract Millie.

“Once — oh years ago — I saw Ab downtown with her three children, the little girl about as pretty as your sister. They were having a race, down the sidewalk, all four of them running as fast as they could. Oh — they were having a good time.”

Millie stopped talking, and didn’t recommence, although Dicey waited a good while. Dicey tried to figure out a question to ask to get her reminiscing again. Then Millie started talking again, as if she had been thinking her own thoughts in the silence.

“I never saw her much all those years. John mostly did the shopping. I guess she kept pretty busy. And then, she got queer. They always have shopped in here, the Tillermans,” Millie said proudly.

Dicey got back to her work, trying to see the picture Millie had been looking at: Gram a young woman, like Momma, and her three children. Momma and Bullet and John, all of them in a race. Bullet would have been last because he was smallest. Unless Momma hung back to let him beat her. That was the kind of thing Dicey thought Momma would have done. She wished she could ask Gram if that was the way it happened.

The trouble with holding on was Dicey only had two hands. She felt like she was always off balance, trying to hold on to everyone. What happened next to put Dicey off her stride was that Millie remembered a message from Gram. The message told Dicey to wait at work until Sammy showed up.

“I thought you-all didn’t have a phone,” Millie remarked.

“Gram decided we needed one,” Dicey told her. Dicey had finished the floor and put away the mop and bucket. They sat side by side at the checkout counter. Millie told Dicey what to order from the distributor and how much. Dicey wrote the number in, then quickly did the multiplication to figure out price. Working beside Millie, sitting beside her, made Dicey feel small and quick. She had to be careful not to let that feeling lead her to making mistakes in calculation.

“Ab always did make her mind up quick and stick to it,” Millie commented.

“Did she?” Dicey asked. “What do you mean?”

“I dunno,” Millie answered. “Like with Cilla, her sister. You ever know Cilla?”

Dicey shook her head.

“It’s funny I remember this, because I was so young, maybe just six. Ab was even younger, but I remember her saying she’d never like her sister, because Cilla was plain-out silly.”

Dicey tried to picture her grandmother at five years old, or even seven. She couldn’t. All she could picture was a midget Gram, shortened and shrunken, and with those dark, impatient eyes.

“It surely is a blessing for Ab that you turned up,” Millie said. “I guess no matter what your Momma did, Ab is happy to have you.”

“You think so?” Dicey asked.

“I guess she’s more like her old self these days,” Millie said. Dicey believed what Millie was saying because however stupid Millie might be at reading and numbers she had known Gram all of her life. And she had liked Gram all those years.

So Dicey was feeling pretty good, until Sammy came slouching into the store. The minute Dicey saw his face, his jaw stubbornly stuck out and his eyes daring her, she started to worry. She talked to him as she rode him home on her bike. “Where were you?”

“Detention.”

“What for?” she asked, trying to sound as if she didn’t care much.

“We had a bet, me and Ernie and some guys, and anyone who lost had to kiss Margaret. In class.”

Dicey pumped her legs down and up. Sammy sat on the seat, holding onto her waist with his arms. He stuck his legs out to help with the balance.

“What was the bet?”

“You had to do ten chin-ups. I only did six.”

“What about the rest?”

“They’ve got a club, you know? Ernie’s president and he has a gym in his basement — and barbells too, he says. They did ten easy.

Dicey nodded her head. She pumped. She didn’t much like the sound of this bet. Or of this Ernie kid. Sammy had said he was bigger, older than the rest of the class.

“Dicey?” Sammy asked.

“Yeah?” She turned her head a little to hear him better.

“Do you think we could put an exercise bar in the barn? They said I did good for the first time trying.”

“I dunno, Sammy,” Dicey said. “We could try.” The way it sounded to Dicey, the boys had set up a bet they knew only Sammy couldn’t do. Dicey didn’t mind bets and double dares, but this one didn’t sound fair.

“When I kissed her, she screamed bloody murder. You should have heard her, Dicey, she scared Miss Tieds half out of her pants. I only pecked her once, on the cheek, and it wasn’t any fun. But — it was fun when Margaret screamed.” Dicey could hear giggles mounting in his voice. He couldn’t see her face so she went ahead and grinned.

“Then what happened?”

“Miss Tieds yelled at me for a while.”

“What about Ernie and the rest?”

“They didn’t do nothing; why should they get in trouble?”

Dicey saw his point. “Is there anybody else besides Ernie and his friends, anyone else you like?”

Sammy thought about that. “There’s a kid — Custer. He’s named after a general. Do you know? He fought at the battle of Little Big Horn. But he’s already got lots of best friends. Ernie calls him Custard. But he sure can play soccer.”

Dicey thought she’d ask James about these kids, what they were like.

Gram rode with Sammy on his paper route that afternoon, because it was getting dark so early. She took Dicey’s bike. Dicey and James and Maybeth worked together in the kitchen. A chicken was roasting in the oven, and Maybeth had to get up to baste it every now and then, which gave James a chance to report to Dicey. “I asked Mrs. Jackson, and she gave me some second grade readers,” he told her.

“Good for you,” Dicey said. “How’s it going, do you think?

“OK,” James told her. Dicey wasn’t sure she could believe him. James asked Maybeth to sit down and read out loud from a book he’d gotten from the school library. It was a silly little book, filled with rhymes and bright pictures. The story didn’t make much sense, not real sense, just silly sense. It was about someone called Sam-I-Am, who kept trying to get his friend to eat green eggs and ham. Maybeth read it and giggled and kept reading. The way she read it, the poetry sounded like poetry, and she didn’t make any mistakes. Dicey praised her.

“It’s a baby book,” she said.

Dicey looked at James. “Sure,” he said, “But —” Dicey didn’t know if he was talking to her or Maybeth. “Did you hear how well she read it? You had to understand everything to get the jokes. More than just the words. They said in my book that learning to read with phrasing and fluently, that was a sure sign.”

“A sure sign of what?” Dicey wanted to know.

“Someone who can read,” James answered. “It’s not an easy book to someone who can’t read. Is it?” he asked Maybeth.

She smiled and shook her head.

“And the books Mrs. Jackson gave me —” His whole face lit up. “She’s sure gonna be surprised. She doesn’t know me — she doesn’t know what we’re doing — I wish I could see her face when she figures out what’s happening.” He sounded so sure of himself.

“Is it happening?” Dicey asked.

James let Maybeth answer. “I think so. I didn’t remember what the letters say — then when James wrote them down on the cards, I remembered from before. I remember most of them. I knew them. But I didn’t know how to remember them.”

“So now our real job is to build up your sight vocabulary,” James said. Dicey almost asked him what that was, but she figured she could guess, and he was eagerly pulling out a pack of flash cards to drill Maybeth. Maybeth was just as eagerly giving him her attention.

If it wasn’t one thing, it was sure going to be another, Dicey said to herself when Sammy came in from the paper route the next day. He had cuts and bruises on his face and on his knuckles too. When she saw him, she just stared. She looked at Gram. Sammy didn’t say anything. Gram said, “He looks better now than when he first got home. We cleaned him up some.”

“It wasn’t in school,” Sammy assured Dicey.

“On the bus,” Gram said, drily.

“Who’d you fight?” Dicey asked.

“Some kid,” Sammy said. He thought for a minute and then told her, “He was bigger’n me and a good fighter.”

“But why?” Dicey burst out.

Sammy shook his head, no. He wasn’t going to tell her.

Dicey looked at Gram’s worried face and knew the same expression was on her own. She could have laughed. Here they were, getting what they wanted for Sammy, and they began worrying right away.

“Was it worth fighting about?” Gram asked Sammy.

“Yes,” he said, his voice fierce.

Dicey tried to figure out what could be so important to him. She wondered about it all that evening, not even listening to the arguments Sammy used to try to convince Gram that they should have some chickens. Until Sammy said something that caught her attention. “They’re like watchdogs, Gram.”

Dicey sputtered, trying to swallow back her laughter. She was picturing chickens attacking a thief. Everybody was smiling, all around the table, and Sammy smiled the happiest of all. What did it matter then if he was getting into fights, or Maybeth never learned to read, or James pretended to be less smart than he was? Nothing mattered nearly as much as sitting together around this table, in the warm yellow light, all of them together.

That was true, she knew, but still she worried at the question of why Sammy was fighting. It couldn’t be because of Momma, could it? In Provincetown, that was why, because of what people said about Momma and them. About not having a father living in the house with them, about not having their father’s name. Nobody in Crisfield knew that, or even suspected, except maybe Millie. Then what would make Sammy fighting-angry?

She thought about it during school the next day. Maybe the kids were teasing Sammy about being a sissy, because he was so well-behaved in school. That would make him fight. Maybe something to do with Maybeth, so maybe Dicey should tell him about how James was teaching Maybeth and they thought James’s way might be working.

When Miss Eversleigh gave them an in-class assignment, to take fifty dollars and plan meals for a family of four, Dicey didn’t have to think twice about it. She remembered how they had eaten that summer, and how little money they had spent. Soup, peanut butter, bread, milk, bananas. She looked at her list and calculated expenses. Apples, she added. She still had almost thirty dollars left. She bet nobody else knew how to spend so little money and keep from starving. Around the edge of her paper she drew boxes of doughnuts, the kind of stale, half-price doughnuts they had bought over the summer. She drew a few clams and mussels. She didn’t even notice Miss Eversleigh come to stand behind her and read what she had written, because she was trying to figure out how to draw chicken wings. They had had chicken wings once.

Dicey saw the arm come down over her shoulder and the red pen go to the top of her paper. The pen wrote: F. Nobody could live for long on meals like this, the pen wrote. The letters were straight and short, bright and thick and angry.

Dicey almost said, We did. But she stopped herself. She turned to look at the woman’s face. Miss Eversleigh was certainly angry, and angry at Dicey. Neither of them said a word. Nobody else in the class even noticed.

Dicey didn’t much care if Miss Eversleigh was angry. What more could she do than flunk Dicey, and she’d already done that. It wasn’t as if she was teaching anything Dicey needed to know, or wanted to know. Who wanted to memorize food groups or talk about seasonal buying or how to store food while conserving energy. Who needed to know? Not Dicey. Or about how to put buttons on or cut out a pattern. That was for people who — didn’t have anything more interesting to do. Dicey had much more interesting, and more important, things to do.

Miss Eversleigh stared into Dicey’s eyes for a long time, as if trying to figure out what was going on inside her head. Dicey just stared back. It took more than a home ec teacher to scare her.

Finally, Miss Eversleigh went away to look at somebody else’s paper, and Dicey got back to her thinking. If Sammy kept on fighting, then she would have to find out why. If he didn’t, then it wasn’t important. How many more fights would be keeping on? One, two, seven?

Miss Eversleigh stood at the front of the class again and called everybody to attention. She was going to make a speech, you could tell by the way her face was set, and she waited until every girl raised her face to look at the front of the room. Dicey shifted in her seat.

“I wonder if you girls understand,” Miss Eversleigh said, “the importance of this course. If it were not important, I would not waste my time teaching it.”

Dicey could hear the unspoken question behind each politely listening face: What’s set her off?

“The materials we cover in this course are skills. I have spent years protesting the exclusion of boys from my courses.” She waited, then spoke again. “I have always believed that there is as great a disadvantage to not being able to perform domestic skills as to not being able to perform intellectual skills, or athletic, or social.”

Again she stopped and waited. Dicey was watching her, but Miss Eversleigh did not look at Dicey. “You owe it to yourselves to know how to prepare a meal, or sew a seam, or spend money wisely. You also owe it to yourselves to know how to hammer a nail straight or change a tire, to eat at table with appropriate manners, to plant tomatoes, to acquire information you have need of. If you do not understand that, your understanding is faulty.”

That was the end. Miss Eversleigh just stood there until the bell rang, a long, uncomfortable five minutes. Nobody stirred. Nobody said anything.

Dicey used the time to review her thinking about Sammy, to wonder how much a small electric heater would cost and whether that would make it warm enough to get back to work on the boat. She sneaked glances at the clock. Next Monday they were getting their English essays back. Mr. Chappelle had promised. She concentrated on that, anticipating what he would say about hers, feeling proud and glad.


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