Creative Nonfiction by Cathy Warner
“Can Kelly spend the night on Monday?” I ask my mother.
“On a school night? Do you think that’s a good idea?” she answers while
we eat peanut M&Ms from the vending machine in the J.C. Penney employee
break room. “I have to work.”
“Kelly’s mom won’t care. She has to work too,” I say, which is what Kelly
told me to say, even though her mother has a date.
“I don’t know.”
My mother thinks Kelly Isenberg is mouthy. She told me this last year,
when she was our Junior Girl Scout troop leader and Kelly wouldn’t help pitch
her pup tent.
“We’ll do all our homework,” I say and bite into a yellow M&M and peel
the candy shell from the chocolate ball.
“You’re so scraggly. I can’t see your eyes,” my mother says and pushes
my bangs high onto my forehead.
I am growing my hair. It’s just long enough for two short braids, but my
bangs haven’t caught up. My mother used to run scotch tape across my bangs
and trim them, but she stopped when she went to work after my father left us.
I try not to roll my eyes. “Please, Mom.”
“Okay, but be in bed by ten.”
We finish our M&Ms and Cokes and take the elevator from the basement
to the third floor Custom Decorating Department and sit at my mother’s desk.
On Monday, Kelly walks home from school with my sister and me. She
hasn’t been to my house before and when we get there, Lisa, who is too young
for our Girl Scout troop and doesn’t really know Kelly, runs around showing off
our dogs and their tricks, and does handstands and cartwheels in the living room.
I want to tell Lisa to stop bugging us, but Kelly asks, “Do you guys want to
Kelly and I are in fifth grade, but she is hopscotch queen of the whole
school. She never loses, and when Scott Ledbetter called her Smelly Kelly
while she was playing hopscotch at recess, she threw a rock at his shin and
shouted, “Beat it, Lead Butt.” She pulls a pack of colored chalk out of her
paisley overnight case and we follow her outside. With blue, purple, and pink
all in one hand, Kelly draws the hopscotch court on the sidewalk. We grab
three pieces of redwood bark and play for a long time. We play using both
feet, then one foot and then the other, and then since we are in gymnastics, Lisa
and I play walking on our hands. Kelly tries it. Her long brown hair skims the
ground and her short skirt flips around her waist. Her thighs are freckled and
pink and I can see her pale green nylon underwear embroidered Monday before
she falls down in the fourth square.
We laugh hard and our faces turn red, and the October sky becomes too
dark to see. We finally quit, and my sister, who walked through the last round
in a backbend and picked up the redwood bark with her toes, wins. If we
were playing at recess Kelly might be mad, but since we’re in my front yard
and nobody knows my little sister beat her, she just picks up her chalk. The
hopscotch court is smeared, the numbers unreadable, our hands and feet are
coated with chalk and dirt, and the skin on our arms is goose pimpled.
We stand in the bathtub together and take turns under the faucet, watching
the water turn from brown to clear. Then Lisa and I get out our recipe box and
flip through the stack of pink index cards. My mother has written out recipes
for our family favorites: creamed chipped beef on toast, creamed tuna on toast,
tuna noodle casserole, pounded steak, hamburger stroganoff, meatloaf, and
English muffin pizzas.
I read the choices to Kelly.
“Do you have SpaghettiOs?” she asks.
“I don’t think so,” I answer, but check in the pantry anyway. We have
canned Lady Lee tuna, diced tomatoes, and cream of mushroom soup. “No
SpaghettiOs. But we know how to make spaghetti,” I say.
It’s really my sister, who is only in third grade but loves to cook, who
knows how to make the sauce. I boil the water for noodles. Lisa chops onion
and celery and mushrooms and puts them in a skillet with salad oil, and I open
the can of tomatoes and set the table. Our kitchen is narrow, so Kelly, who is
singing the commercial, “The neat round spaghetti you eat with a spoon. Uh, oh,
SpaghettiOs,” keeps moving from one spot to the next to get out of our way.
“I can make toast,” she says and she does, spreading margarine and
sprinkling garlic salt on the slices. Then she starts singing the songs we are
practicing in fifth grade chorus, and I join her on “Lemon Tree,” “If I Had a
Hammer,” “Five Hundred Miles,” and “California Dreamin’.” We pull wooden
spoons out of the crock on the stove and use them for microphones.
It’s nine o’clock by the time Lisa finishes cooking dinner, so we eat on
T.V. trays while we watch Medical Center with Chad Everett as Dr. Joe
Gannon. My mother, Lisa, and I are all crazy for Chad Everett. When we
watch the show together, we fight over who “gets” him. I think my sister is too
young for him. My mother thinks we’re both too young for him. Kelly likes
David Cassidy better. “I think I love you,” she sings during the commercials
and hugs and kisses a throw pillow. I laugh so hard I have to run to the
bathroom before I wet my pants.
When Medical Center is over I get out the sleeping bags my mother
made for Lisa and me, thinking that Kelly and I will sleep on the living room
floor, just like when my other friends stay over. My sister drags the quilt off
her bed and into the living room. I’m just about to tell her to go away when
Kelly leans close to me.
“I don’t like to sleep on the floor,” she says. “I’m getting boobs.”
“Oh,” I say because I have no idea what else to say.
Just then my mother comes home, lugging her leather purse and a tote
“You’re still up,” she says.
“We’re going to bed,” I answer.
“Not in here, you’re not. I have to finish an order.” She tosses her
bags on the couch and walks into the kitchen to turn on the kettle. A few
seconds later, she’s back.
“Hello Kelly,” she says, then, “Goodnight girls.”
“Goodnight, Mommy,” Lisa and I say.
Kelly says, “Goodnight, Carol.”
Some mothers might not like being called by their first names, but my
mother doesn’t like being called Mrs. Jackson since she isn’t married
anymore. Kelly’s mother is divorced, too. Mrs. Isenberg is a receptionist at
Long Beach Memorial Hospital. She wears white polyester dresses with big
patch pockets that always have a box of Sucrets inside. She tells me to call
her Eileen. I don’t, but Kelly does.
When I stay over at Kelly’s apartment, we sleep in her mother’s double
bed, each with our own pillow, lamp, and nightstand with a glass of water.
Her mother sleeps in Kelly’s bed. Kelly is the only person I know who lives
in an apartment, besides my father. We never trade beds at our house, and I
laugh to myself when I think of my mother trying to climb up to my top bunk.
We don’t have a ladder. When Kelly starts to climb up the frame, I have to
push her butt so she can make it all the way up.
I climb up after her and throw stuffed animals onto the floor to make
room for both of us. I hit Lisa in the bottom bunk with them accidentally-on-
“Stop it, or I’ll tell Mommy,” she says.
“Go ahead, you big baby,” I answer. I have been too nice to her tonight.
I give Kelly my pillow and stick the hippo pillow my mother sewed
under my head. Kelly and I face each other, tucking our legs up into our
nightgowns until our knees touch.
“Bernie stays over when I’m not home,” she whispers.
“Who’s Bernie?” I ask.
“Duh, my mom’s fiancé. She’s going to marry him.”
I think about Skip, my mother’s boyfriend. He’s her boss. Once I came
home from gymnastics and found them sitting on our front porch together. He
smiled at me and said, “Hey there, sport.” “Hi,” I answered and walked inside
without smiling. I know he’s married. I’ve seen his wedding ring and a J.C.
Penney family portrait on his desk at work. My mother told me not to worry
about it, that it’s not serious. “We’re just having fun,” she said.
“Do you like Bernie?” I ask Kelly.
She’s quiet for a while. Then she answers in a slow small voice like
she’s already asleep, “He’s nice, but he’s bald.”
I feel Kelly’s sleepy breath on my face, so I roll away and gaze across
the room at the milky light coming in through the louver windows. Since Kelly
is here, Bernie must be with Mrs. Isenberg. I imagine a tall bald man with a
gold earring, just like Mr. Clean on the toilet cleaner bottle, stretched out next
to her in the place I sleep when I’m there. Once her mom gets married, I guess
we’ll have to crowd like this into Kelly’s bed when I spend the night.
I see the light flip on in the bathroom. The door clicks shut, the toilet
flushes, and water runs in the sink. I hear my mother pad to her room. She is
alone. I wonder if Skip spends the night when I am gone, and if he does,
where do his wife and kids think he is? My mother says I shouldn’t worry, but
I do. She shouldn’t date Skip. What if he wants to marry my mother? What
if he calls his kids out to their patio and sits them on his legs and tells them that
he is leaving? What then?
Cathy Warner’s writing has appeared in Not What I Expected
(anthology), Amoskeag, PoemMemoirStory (Pushcart Prize nominee), So
to Speak, and other literary journals. She is a recipient of the SuRaa and
Steinbeck fiction awards. Warner is a wife, mother, pastor, and Amherst
Writers and Artists certified writing workshop leader in Boulder Creek,
California. She blogs at http://holyink.blogspot.com.
“Hopscotch” is part of a book-length memoir-in-progress, with the
working title It Happened Something Like This. I find it fascinating the
things I remember clearly—food, T.V. shows, the specifics of a
hopscotch game, sleeping in Kelly’s mother’s bed. Other things remain
fuzzy—was there a fiancé, was his name Bernie, and did Kelly live in an
apartment? Or do those details belong to a different childhood friend,
or even my imagination? The “somethings like this” shape my stories
and understanding of the person I’ve become.
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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of Contemporary
Volume 2, Number 2
Copyright © 2007
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to material
published in the Apple
Valley Review are retained
by the individual authors