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Dicey’s Song: Chapter 9


SAMMY RAN UP the street to meet Dicey as she rode to work the next Monday. It had rained the night before and he splashed in the puddles. The arms on his sweater flapped and his gait was awkward, as if his knees might at any time give out. It wasn’t until he was close to her that Dicey saw why: he was laughing.

“You know what she did? She came to school. She beat — ”

“Who?” Dicey interrupted. She gave him about half of her attention, glad that he was glad. The rest of her mind was trying to remember something about Miss Eversleigh, something that had begun to tickle at the edge of her memory while she was separating eggs today in home ec. But it had nothing to do with eggs, and how to beat the whites stiff, and how the yolks were rich in iron.

“Gram. Dicey, are you listening?”

Then Dicey did listen. “Gram? What about her?”

“I told you, she came to school. She had a bag of marbles, and they weren’t new ones either. They were old. She said she found them in her attic and they must have belonged to one of her sons. She gave them to me!” he cried. “I left them safe with Millie, but she gave them to me. You can see them.”

“So she brought you some marbles at school?” This was strange behavior.

“No, that’s not what I said.” Laughter poured out of Sammy’s face, like lights from a firecracker. “It was at recess, lunch recess. And she played marbles with us. She won all of them, everybody’s, even mine.”

Dicey stopped walking and waited to hear the rest of this story. A couple of firecrackers were going off inside her head, too.

“She made us let some girls play too. And that got Ernie mad, but Gram said if he was going to play he was going to play fair or she wasn’t going to be in any game with him. She was kneeling down, and her skirt got in a puddle.”

“How did — did everyone play?”

“Everyone wanted to. They asked her to come back tomorrow, but she said she was the Lone Marble Ranger and only came once. So we better learn all we can.” Dicey could picture her grandmother crouching down among the second graders, concentrating on the marbles.

“The Lone Marble Ranger.” Sammy giggled. “So we did. And then she gave everybody back the marbles she won. Because she said she had so much more practice. Except me,” he said, “she gave me her old ones.”

“Good-o,” Dicey said, that being about the only thing she could think of to say.

“Yeah,” Sammy agreed. “And Custer said he wished he had a grandmother like that, and Ernie said he was glad he didn’t have a crazy grandmother.”

“And what did you say?” Dicey asked.

“Nothing. Why should I say something?” Sammy asked. “It was fun; I wish she would come back. They asked me, would she, and I said, ‘No, Gram does just what she says she will.’ But wasn’t that a crazy thing for her to do?” he asked happily.

Crazy like a fox, Dicey thought, but did not say.

Gram had also been in to see Millie, and Millie had something to say about “Ab when she’s up to something.”

“What was she up to?”

“Dunno,” Millie said. “But she made me laugh, I guess. She had that devilment look in her eye, and I guess I’ve seen it often enough to know what it means.”

“What does it mean?” Dicey asked. But Millie couldn’t tell her.

Dicey was washing the outside of the front windows, taking it slowly because the sun on her shoulders felt so good, when she felt somebody come stand beside her. Miss Eversleigh, in her same suit and pin, with her same teacher face. Dicey smiled at her. She couldn’t help it: her mind was still on Gram beating all the second-graders at marbles.

“I didn’t know you could smile,” Miss Eversleigh remarked. Something about her tone of voice and her glance made Dicey remember.

“Miss Eversleigh.” She dropped the squeegee into the bucket and dried her hands on her jeans. “I wanted to ask you. You were talking to us, but I wasn’t listening. Last week? But I think I’d like to know what you said.”

“I was talking to you,” Miss Eversleigh said. “Mostly to you. I was talking about you.”

“But what did you say?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Because I have a feeling I should have paid attention.” That was as far as Dicey was willing to go. Miss Eversleigh pursed her lips.

“I said that it was important to learn the things we are doing in the class.”

Then Dicey found she could remember. “Because they take skill. That’s what you said, isn’t it? You said it takes as much skill as building something.”

Miss Eversleigh nodded. She was looking at Dicey as if she couldn’t understand what Dicey was up to.

“OK,” Dicey said. “Thank you. I remember now. I never meant to be — disrespectful to you.”

“And?” Miss Eversleigh insisted.

“And?” Dicey asked. She knew, though, what Miss Eversleigh wanted her to say. Instead she said, “I guess I think it’s interesting to say that, and I’ll think about it.”

“But you won’t try harder and care more?” Miss Eversleigh inquired.

“How can I say that? I haven’t even thought about it yet.”

“You’re a strange child,” Miss Eversleigh said. She was holding a purse in her two hands, right in front of her stomach.

“I guess so,” Dicey agreed.

“Well. It was nice running into you,” Miss Eversleigh said. She didn’t sound like she thought it was nice.

Miss Eversleigh walked on down the street. Dicey forgot about her and turned back to her work. Maybe it was important to know how to do those things. If Gram didn’t know them, where would the Tillermans be? Maybe Dicey ought to try to learn them. If you learned something, that didn’t mean you had to do it. Just because you knew how to do it. All it meant was, if you had to, or if you wanted to, then you could.

When Gram put a tall apple pie down on the table for dessert, Dicey knew she was up to something. When Gram brought out a quart of ice cream to serve with the pie, Dicey was sure of it. Dicey sat quiet while the pie was cut and scoops of ice cream put on top of the flaky brown crust. The pie was still warm. You could tell because the ice cream slipped off the top and nestled down against the side of the slice. The apples inside smelled tart and sweet and had been cooked to a deep honey-brown color. Dicey put her nose over it and inhaled the aroma: apple, cinnamon, nutmeg.

“What did you do today?” she asked Gram. As if she didn’t know.

Gram fixed her with a mischievous eye. “Not much. I changed the sheets and did a wash. I made a pie. I played a game or two of marbles — and won.” She waited. Dicey didn’t say a word, didn’t let her face show any emotion. “As you undoubtedly heard,” Gram said at last. Dicey grinned. “Then I picked up a few things at Millie’s.”

Dicey just waited. She was sure there was something more.

“And I had an appointment at the lawyers,” Gram announced. “At which I was told that you are now, legally and officially and permanently — and any other lee they could think of — my responsibility.”

“We’re adopted?” James asked.

“That’s what I said.”

“No, it’s not,” he pointed out.

“Well it’s what I meant and since you understood me it must be what I said.”

The children looked at one another around the table. Gram looked at the pie she was eating.

“Good-o,” Sammy said. “Good-o,” he repeated.

“And we’ll always live here?” Maybeth asked.

“You are my heirs and assigns,” Gram said. “I thought it was good news,” she declared.

“It is,” Dicey said. That explained Gram’s mood. Dicey herself had felt pretty good after hearing about the marble game. She felt pretty terrific now, knowing they were adopted. If this was really their home now — and it was — she could understand why she felt safe now, but why was she also feeling excited?

“I’m glad to hear that,” Gram said to her, “because I also made a call today, since I was downtown and the weather was fair. I called to meet the family of your friend Mina.”

“What?” Dicey said. Her fork clattered down onto the floor. She bent to pick it up.

“For the same reason that I took on the second grade at marbles,” Gram pointed out.

Dicey didn’t know what to think. She wondered what Mina’s parents had made of Gram’s visit. She couldn’t think what Mina would have to report about the call.

As it turned out, Mina didn’t have much to report. She told Dicey about it during lunch. “I don’t know, Dicey, I don’t know what got into her. What gets into her?”

“I don’t know,” Dicey said. Although she had some idea.

“They were confused,” Mina told her. “They didn’t know what to think. Do you know what she said to my father, first thing?”

“She didn’t tell me anything,” Dicey said. She wasn’t sure whether she wanted to know or not.

“She said: ‘I’ve come to put a face on the bogeyman.’ What was Dad supposed to answer to that?”

“I dunno,” Dicey mumbled. Gram certainly didn’t beat around any bushes. Then laughter escaped her, even though she tried to hold it in. “I wish I’d been there.”

“It went all right, I think,” Mina admitted. “My mother said she’s a lady, no question. Mom only says that about any white woman who doesn’t ask if she does daily cleaning.”

“Gram wouldn’t do that,” Dicey protested.

“She’s a minority.”

Dicey looked at her friend with an idea of the difficulties this girl might face; and she knew she had only the vaguest idea of them. Mina must know much, much more. “What are you going to do? What do you want to do?”

“When I grow up?” Mina asked, laughing. “Who knows? My mom’s an RN, and there’s always work. But I don’t know — I’d rather be a doctor than a nurse, if I was going into medicine. I think I’m smart enough. What I want is — not to do something just because it’s available to me because I’m black and female. You know? I want to really choose. What about you?”

Dicey was surprised. “I’ve always been so busy trying to keep things together until tomorrow, I never thought about much else. I just do what needs to be done.”

“I’m pretty sure I want to go to college,” Mina continued. “What about you?”

“I told you, I never thought more than a day ahead.”

They looked at each other with curiosity, with interest.

The world was full of surprises; and, Dicey began to believe, interesting surprises. It was mostly the people who made it surprising. Jeff — who waited for her after school and made it clear he intended to walk with her to work — reinforced that opinion.

Jeff carried his guitar slung over his back again. He put his books on top of Dicey’s in the basket of her bicycle. He took her bicycle from her and wheeled it for her. It felt strange to Dicey to walk without anything to carry, without anything to push; with just the walking to do.

Jeff talked about how he had a good time at Dicey’s house. He talked about the weather. He told her his father was a college professor and was gone three days a week, up to Baltimore to teach.

“Why do you live way down here?” Dicey asked.

Jeff shrugged. Something he didn’t want to talk about.

Dicey changed the subject back to the singing they had done. “Maybeth liked it,” she told him. “She liked you,” she added, because it was the truth.

“Well,” Jeff said. He looked at her with glances out of the side of his eyes, as if he was nervous.

“What’s the matter with you?” Dicey finally demanded. They were standing beside the porch of Millie’s store, and he wouldn’t give her the bicycle so he could take his books out and let her get to work. She saw Sammy watching through the window.

“There’s something I want to ask you —” he began.

Dicey knew what it was. “I said she likes you, and that means that any time you want to come back and sing with her it’ll be fine. I didn’t mean to be so — unfriendly. When you first got there. But she has to work hard at school, and she’s taking piano lessons, so only on weekends. OK?”

“But —” Jeff said. He swallowed and tried again. “There’s a dance at school.” Dicey nodded; she had seen the posters. “Will you go with me?”

Dicey’s mouth opened. It opened and it stayed open. She grabbed for the handles of her bike. Jeff didn’t look at her, just reached in for his books. What was she supposed to say?

“You haven’t said,” he prodded her.

“But I can’t do that,” Dicey told him.

“I didn’t think so.”

“Then why did you ask?” Dicey demanded.

“Because I want you to,” he snapped back at her. “There’s no crime in that,” he pointed out.

Dicey liked the way he got angry when she was unfriendly. She didn’t know why she liked it, but it made her willing to explain. “I’m — too young for dances. I’m only in eighth grade. I don’t want to go to dances. And all. Besides,” she added desperately, “high school boys don’t take out eighth-graders.”

“Who cares?” he asked.

Dicey couldn’t answer that. Certainly she didn’t. “I really am too young,” she assured him. “Really.”

At that, he smiled again. Good, Dicey thought, we can continue to be friends.

“But next year you’ll be in ninth grade,” he said.

“I think so.”

And I’ll be in eleventh.”

“You’d know more about that than I would.”

“Ninth-graders are much older than eighth-graders.”

“Are they?” Dicey asked. This was a pretty stupid conversation, but she was enjoying it.

“I’m going to ask you again next year,” he said.

“OK,” Dicey answered. She leaned her bike against the window and went inside without looking back.

She didn’t care if he asked her again next year, just as long as he didn’t ask her again tomorrow. The last thing Dicey wanted to do was to go to a dance and jump and jiggle around, getting hot and sweaty. She was bored just thinking about it. On the other hand, she admitted to herself, it was nice he wanted to ask her, it was flattering. She was singing when she pulled the big broom out of the closet. “When first unto this country, a stranger I came.”

“You’re certainly cheerful today,” Millie observed.

Mina, walking part of the way home with Dicey, said the same thing. Dicey was watching Sammy ride on ahead on her bike and circle back, then ride off ahead again. Mina said, “You haven’t said anything sharp or cross for half a mile. Did Jeff ask you to the dance?”

“What do you know about that?” Dicey demanded.

Mina laughed. “That’s more like it. I know I’ll be going to it. I know Jeff asked me if I thought you’d go with him. I said probably not. He said he didn’t think so either, but he thought he’d ask. Were we right?”

“Yeah,” Dicey said. “Why should he ask you first?”

Mina shrugged. “He’s smart enough — you’re not an easy person, Dicey.”

Well, that was no surprise, although it surprised Dicey that Mina thought so.

“I think he only asked you this time because he was afraid you’d get popular and he wanted you to know — ”

“Never mind,” Dicey said.

“But I don’t think he needs to worry about that. I told him you’re pretty strong meat.”

“What does that mean?”

“You know perfectly well what it means, Dicey Tillerman.”

Dicey guessed she did. And she guessed she liked that. “So are you,” she pointed out.

“Yeah, but I’ve got charisma,” Mina argued. “And I’m a clown. I’m much easier to take.”

“If you think about it, everybody has something — wrong about them,” Dicey said, following her own thoughts. “I mean, some flaw, or something you just don’t like. But some people, it doesn’t seem to matter so much. You know there’re things wrong, but it’s just part of them and you like them. And other people — no matter what, you won’t like them. Take Millie. I started out disrespecting her, because she’s not smart, not at all. But she’s been a good friend to my grandmother — all her life, without changing — and she never asks anything much from anybody and — I don’t know, now I think she’s pretty unusual. Or Mr. Chappelle — especially these days — I mean, he acts like I can’t do anything wrong. And that’s not right, Mina. And the way he pussyfoots around me, it makes me sick. But I never liked him before and I never will.”

“Or like blood relations, you always like them no matter how much you don’t,” Mina observed.

Dicey nodded enthusiastically. “But with other people, not family, you choose,” she said. “What do you think? Do you think we choose people by what’s important to us? Like whether someone’s brave or not.”

“So bravery is one of the things you choose by?” Mina asked.

“Sure,” Dicey said. “And music.”

“Music’s not a quality,” Mina protested.

Dicey noticed that Mina had them talking about Dicey again. She made a mental note to ask Mina what she chose by, but was too interested in her own ideas to do that right then. “It is too,” Dicey insisted.

“You can’t be music,” Mina argued.

“But you have it, don’t you?” Dicey asked. “Don’t you?”

Mina started laughing instead of saying anything. “That’s what I like about you, Dicey. With everybody else, they want to talk about boys, or clothes, having babies. You know?” Dicey didn’t know. “But with you — ”

“I don’t know anything about boys, or clothes, or having babies,” Dicey pointed out.

“But if you did you wouldn’t talk about them the same way. I bet,” Mina said.

  • • •

AFTERWARDS, Dicey couldn’t remember if it was that same afternoon, or another one, that she got home to find Gram slamming around the kitchen. When she tried to remember, she only knew that it came between Thanksgiving and Christmas, that day. If she could have, she would have thanked Momma for waiting so long, to give them time to get used to each other.

When she found Gram crashing piles of dinner plates down onto the counter and then angrily scrubbing out the cupboard with a sponge, Dicey figured the welfare check had arrived again. Whenever it came, Gram was in a bad mood for at least a day.

“I’ve been thinking,” Dicey said to the stiff back. “It’s only four and a half years before I can get a full-time job. Then we won’t need any extra help from anyone.”

Gram slammed the plates back in place and began pulling out glasses. When a glass shattered, she seemed satisfied rather than angry. “No, you won’t. You’re going to college, girl. Whether you like it or not.”

“But —” Dicey said.

“I didn’t, and your grandfather didn’t. So you are. And James and probably Sammy, too. There’s to be no more talk about quitting school.”

She jammed the broom into the closet and got back to the shelves.

“Did any of your children?” Dicey asked. She was playing for time, fishing around in her mind for some understanding of why her grandmother seemed so particularly het up.

“John did. Last I saw of him. He was gone and gone.”

“Ah,” Dicey said. Her grandmother’s hair was slicked down, as if she had combed it with a wet comb.

“Now go get together some clothes,” Gram said. She still didn’t look at Dicey. “There’s a suitcase in your room, I already put my stuff in it.”

“But why?”

“We’re going to Boston.”

“To see Momma? But why? I’ll miss school and work, and who’ll take care of the little kids? Is something wrong?”

But Gram wouldn’t answer her. She wouldn’t answer any of them when they asked. Dicey thought it must be bad news and probably that Momma was worse (but how could she be worse?) or dead (but why would Gram take Dicey and go up to Boston if that was the case?). Sammy thought maybe Momma was better. Maybe coming home with them. James didn’t say a word, but he agreed with Dicey, she could tell. Maybeth just sat quiet at the table. She had her hands clasped together in front of her, clasped tight.

Mr. Lingerle was going to drive Gram and Dicey to the airport in Salisbury, where they would take a plane to the airport in Baltimore, where they would try to get a plane to Boston. “We can’t afford that,” Dicey said.

“We’re selling that wretched cranberry spoon,” Gram told her. “It’s not a vacation.” She glared at Dicey.

Dicey packed underwear and her brown dress and a couple of blouses. She wore her jumper for traveling in. She put the few dollars she’d saved from her wages in the pocket of her jumper, just in case. She wished she knew what to expect, so she could begin getting ready; but Gram wouldn’t say anything.

It was deep, hazy twilight when Mr. Lingerle drove them up in front of the little airport building. Gram had sat silent and hunched forward all the way up there. Neither Dicey nor Mr. Lingerle could think of anything to say, except when Mr. Lingerle looked at Dicey in the rear-view mirror and told her, “I’ll call your school to tell them where you are.”

At the airport, Gram burst out of the car and into the one-room building. Dicey and Mr. Lingerle hurried after her, not even bothering to park the car properly. Dicey carried the suitcase. The plane they were going to take was already outside, its two engines grinding, its two propellers turning. Mr. Lingerele came with them as far as a tall cyclone fence. “Mrs. Tillerman — Ab —” he said, awkward. “I just want to say, I’ll take care of the kids. Don’t worry on that score.”

Gram turned a stony face to him. “I know that or I wouldn’t have asked you.”

She didn’t say it very nicely, Dicey thought, but the effect on Mr. Lingerle was as if she had paid him a big compliment. He stood up a little straighter. He pulled an envelope out of his pocket.

“Here,” he said. “Just in case.”

“What is it?” Gram demanded.

“Some money,” he told her. “You might need it if you’re there long.”

Dicey stood, biting her lip. The little windows in the plane shone yellow, and the air was filled with the noise of the engines. Purple twilight crowded down around them.

“I thank you,” Gram said. She took the envelope and, without looking at it, put it into her purse. Then she wheeled around. “Come along, girl,” she said. Dicey picked up their suitcase and followed her onto the plane.

There were only a couple of other people riding on that flight, two men in business suits who had papers spread in front of them. They drank something from short glasses and talked. Gram took a seat by the window. “You sit ahead of me, if you want to look out,” she instructed.

A man in only the trousers and hat of a uniform, his plaid shirt unbuttoned at the neck and the sleeves rolled up, leaned over to tell them to strap themselves in. Dicey shifted the suitcase to the floor in front of the empty seat beside her and obeyed him. She’d never ridden in a plane before. She didn’t know anything about what to do.

Nothing was what to do, apparently. The plane rocked along the ground for a while, then struggled up into the air. Below, looking out the window, Dicey could see scattered lights. Some of them were still, and those would be houses. Some of them moved, and those would be cars. After a few minutes, they were over the Bay. Night darkened around the humming plane.

The same man offered her coffee or tea, but she shook her head. She wasn’t hungry or thirsty. She wasn’t anything clear. She felt her grandmother’s silent stony presence behind her, and Dicey wished she knew whatever it was Gram knew. She felt like she shouldn’t be excited about flying, but her heart lifted with the plane, and her nose was pressed against the thick glass. She felt worried and depressed about this hasty journey, because it had to mean something bad. Something bad for Momma.

Unless Sammy was right, but then why was Gram so — angry? If Momma was going to come home, it would mean more expenses, and a lot more work for Gram. Until Momma could help. If it was good news, and Gram was trying not to be optimistic so she wouldn’t be disappointed, she might act this way. You never could tell with Gram. You could trust her, but you couldn’t tell.

Dicey turned her head to look at Gram through the narrow slot where her seat didn’t meet the curved wall of the plane. Gram was staring out the window. She hadn’t unbuckled her seat belt, she hadn’t taken off her coat, she hadn’t moved her purse off her lap. Her face was turned out the window, but Dicey bet she wasn’t looking outside at anything. Every now and then, Gram blinked.

Dicey looked back out her own window. Below her, more lights, clustered together (towns or cities, she thought) and the long, snaky stream of red and white lights that marked highways. She smiled down at the moving picture, like some kind of Christmas display. She shouldn’t be smiling, she thought, but it was so new a way of seeing things, and beautiful; she couldn’t really help herself.

The airport at Baltimore was a huge, sprawling building. Gram and Dicey threaded their way through throngs of people. Dicey followed Gram, saying nothing. She stopped when Gram stopped, standing just behind her. Gram stopped first at an information booth to ask about flights to Boston, then hurried down a long hallway to the counter of an airlines. She bought two tickets for the 8:45 flight to Boston. One-way tickets. She checked in their suitcase. Then she led Dicey to a coffee shop and instructed her to order something to eat. “You’ve got to eat,” she said.

Dicey asked for a hamburger and french fries. Gram asked for a pot of tea.

“And something to eat,” Dicey told her. Gram snorted, looked at Dicey, and ordered an English muffin.

The plane to Boston was a large, a turbo-prop, Dicey read in the information folder. She settled herself into the seat by the window, with Gram beside her now. This plane had two propellers and two jet engines. Dicey watched the activity on the ground around them as they waited for take-off. Gram sat stiff beside her.

Dicey didn’t know what she, Dicey, was doing here. She turned in the soft seat to ask her grandmother. They were rushing ahead, into the night, and Dicey really wanted to be back home, back in her own room with nothing more to think about than whether she had done her homework well enough. She felt like asking Gram to help her.

But help her with what?

“Gram?” Dicey said. Her voice croaked a little.

“They just called me this morning,” Gram announced. Her mouth moved but none of the rest of her face did, and neither did her hands clasping the purse, nor her feet in stockings and loafers. Gram had placed her feet neatly side by side, like empty shoes in a closet.

Dicey wanted to say to Gram, Can I help you? But she couldn’t do that; Gram wouldn’t tell her. She sighed and put her nose back against the window.

The plane finally moved, taxied out of its parking slot and down to the end of a long runway marked by lights. When the big machine started down the runway, Dicey was pushed back in her seat by the speed. As it lifted off the ground, she could feel how it turned from heavy to light. She had a sensation of free flight. The plane soared up, and Dicey soared up with it.

“Can you feel that?” she said, without turning her head. Gram didn’t answer.

A stewardess, with her face painted on and her hair painted down neat and her uniform as perfect as if it had been shellacked into position, brought them each a little plastic tray of juice and one pastry sealed into plastic. Gram also got a cup of tea.

Dicey ate the pastry, even though she wasn’t hungry. She ate Gram’s pastry too and drank both their glasses of over-sweet juice. When the stewardess at last came back to take the trays, Dicey turned her attention back to the window.

If she had a map, she would know what those cities below were. If she had a map, she could trace their journey northward. If she had a map, then she would ask Gram about where they were, and the two of them could talk instead of each sitting there, locked into her own silence.

In Boston, Gram waited by the baggage claim, pointed out their suitcase to Dicey without a word, then strode out the exit to find a cab. She gave the driver an address. By that time, Dicey was getting sleepy, but she still wondered how Gram knew where she was going.

City streets passed by the cab windows, most of them empty of people but marked by the lit signs of stores and the illuminated plate glass display windows. Dicey felt the cold on the outside of the tightly closed car windows. Their driver was a dark shape at the front of the car. Gram was a dark shape beside her.

Gram took them to a motel, two stories high and with some cars parked in front of it. The motel faced onto a busy street. Gram went into the office, where she filled out a form and took a key. She led Dicey, whose hands felt too cold to retain their grip on the suitcase, up some stairs, and down an open walkway to a door. She opened the door.

The room was square and green. It had a huge TV set attached by a chain to the wall, two beds, each covered by a green bedspread, and a table between them upon which a black telephone sat under a lamp.

Dicey put the suitcase down on the top of a low bureau. She caught sight of their reflection in the mirror over the bureau, both of them pale and stony-faced. Gram sat down on the bed, her purse still in her lap, her feet close together. She seemed to be thinking.

Dicey found the bathroom and used it. She thought about taking a shower, but decided she didn’t want to. She returned to see Gram standing in a long flannel nightgown, about to get into bed. Gram had folded back the spread on Dicey’s bed. Gram went into the bathroom.

Dicey stripped down to her underpants. For a top, she wore one of her shirts. Gram didn’t say anything. When Dicey was settled in the strange bed, Gram reached over to turn out the lamp.

The room wasn’t quite dark, because the light from the motel’s fluorescent sign slipped in through a crack in the curtains. The noise from the highway outside pushed in too. Dicey lay on her back and looked up at the ceiling. “What about Momma?” she demanded harshly, across the darkness.

No sound marked her grandmother in her bed, as if Gram was lying like Dicey and staring at the ceiling.

“Gram?”

“Tomorrow,” her grandmother said.

Gram woke Dicey the next morning. Dicey changed into clean underwear and a fresh blouse. She pulled on her high socks and tied her sneakers. She washed her face and brushed her teeth before putting on her jumper. Gram was entirely dressed by the time she had finished, dressed and standing by the door. Dicey grabbed her jacket. Gram wore an old blue wool coat, with big round buttons up the front, which hung tired from her shoulders.

They had a quick breakfast in a coffee shop just down the street. Then Gram headed up past the motel, walking so fast Dicey had no time to notice what they were walking past. “How do you know where you’re going?” she panted. Her breath came out of her mouth like smoke. She jammed her hands into her pockets and noticed how white and cold Gram’s fingers looked on the hand holding the purse.

“He gave me directions.”

“Who?”

“The doctor.”

Two blocks up from the motel and one block off the busy street, Gram mounted cement steps to a square brick building. She entered through the heavy wooden doors that swung out into the cold. Each door had a green wreath on it.

Dicey scurried after her. Why had Gram told her to come along, she wondered angrily. She might as well not be there, for all the attention her grandmother paid to her.

The building looked like it had once been a school. It had a broad central corridor. A woman sat at a long desk in the middle of this, with chairs lined up in rows on either side of her. All of the chairs were empty. Gram marched up to the woman. “I’m Abigail Tillerman,” she said.

The woman’s face registered no expression. She was a soft-looking woman, with her hair in white waves and a light sweater over her creamy blouse. Her nails gleamed pink. “Yes?” she asked politely.

“My daughter —” Gram began.

Understanding flashed across the woman’s face. She put one hand on the phone beside her. “Yes, of course, Mrs. Tillerman. Dr. Epstein is expecting you. You’ll want to go down the hall, take the second door on your left, and the fourth door on your right after that.”

“I want to see my daughter,” Gram said.

“But Dr. Epstein — and it’s not visiting hours —” the woman mumbled. She still had her hand on the phone. Then she said, “All right. The little girl can wait down here. It’s the fourth floor, the ward on your left. I’ll call up to tell them to expect you. The elevators are back by the entrance, you can’t miss them.”

“The little girl,” Gram said, “will come with me.”

Dicey almost smiled in her relief at Gram acting normal again.

“If you insist,” the woman said. Her worried eyes went from Gram to Dicey and back to Gram.

Gram didn’t say anything.

“They’re self-service elevators,” the woman said weakly.

It was a large elevator, about as big as Dicey’s bedroom at home. Two young men in white pants and doctors’ shirts were on it, but they didn’t say a word and got off at the third floor. Dicey and Gram got off at the top and walked down a central hallway that matched the one downstairs. The linoleum had been laid on in blocks and worn down colorless. The place smelled of cleansing liquid and the empty hall reverberated with muffled sounds.

As they came to a set of glass-topped swinging doors, a nurse came through them. She stepped out into the hallway. Her uniform was crisp, and she wore a white cap on top of her brown hair. She had a heavy, strong face. “Mrs. Tillerman? I’m Preston, the floor nurse.” Her voice was soft and sweet, like a summer breeze. As soon as she heard the nurse’s voice, Dicey felt better, as if things couldn’t be so bad after all. Preston’s voice didn’t match at all with her face or her mottled red hands. It would be soothing to hear her voice, Dicey thought. If you were sick.

“And you must be the oldest girl, Dicey, wasn’t it?” Preston asked. Dicey looked up, and then looked down again. Her tongue was twisted in her mouth, but she couldn’t answer.

“Just come with me then,” Preston said.

It was a big room, where the light was tinged with yellow from the yellow shades halfway down over the windows. After the nurses’ desk, with a counter and a phone, with cabinets filled with bottles, the room was filled with beds in rows. Each bed was surrounded on three sides by curtains.

Some of the beds had people lying flat in them. Some had people drawn up, knees drawn up, hands drawn up around knees, bodies drawn up back against the headboards. One of the figures, which Dicey saw out of the corner of her eye as they walked past, was so small she couldn’t help staring at it. It was a kid, a little kid about as big as Sammy. The little figure curled back against the pillows, staring blankly ahead. Dicey had never seen anybody so still, not even Sammy deep asleep.

“Here we are,” Preston said. She stood aside.

Gram went to one side of the bed. Dicey stood at the foot. Inside her, her heart was squeezed tight against her chest. She stood and stared. Her heart was squeezed so tight it broke into pieces, sharp pieces that cut against her lungs and throat and stomach.

Momma.


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