CHARLOTTE M. PORTER
The cute purse is just there on the ground. Someone else’s hurry in-country Florida-style, but the shoulder strap looks perfect. Sierra flashes a crazy thought of Purse Bomb, then slips the Rip Curl bag under one arm the way older girls do, holds her head high, and, no problem, boards the school bus. She rides to the end of the line, Lake Park. No park. No lake except run-off between crummy trailers. But at least she has her own bed, doesn’t have to share a room like most foster. Only have-to is church with Daddy Sam and Patsy Mom. Their Sunday Game so Deacon Eliot can pat her on the head and say Great Job, Love God. She doesn’t mind the same-old sermons about Waste not, want not or Little acorns, big trees.
Sierra thinks about Ruth, the dumpster diver who lives in the Bible and gleans left-overs. Ruth must be pretty. That’s why the boss owner says Okay to hanging around, picking over the trash, taking stuff no one else wants.
At Lake Park, a stray cat with white fur and long whiskers gleans. Sierra saves food scraps and leaves them in a special place. She calls the tom Ruthie, but this cat comes to any name – Truthie, Toothy, Ruthless, Luther. Ruthie purrs and makes his own rules. Figure out the three tag along nursing kittens.
Everybody watching, doing nothing. Afraid kindness makes feelings. Cry-baby Sierra can brownie-nose, stuff hurt in her pockets, change the subject.
Like right now.
Totally cool, this black genuine leather purse with a shoulder strap. Walking home from the bus top, Sierra dumps out the sand in the bottom and tries on the look. Good as new, this Rip Curl folds over, doubles as a clutch, a secret shape every girl needs.
She’s already wearing a bra. Now she has a purse, something that shows.
Sierra looks up. Overhead, noisy cranes are migrating to somewhere else. They’re foster, too, looking for a real lake in a real park. No one throwing stones at their long legs.
She stops and watches a kid help his little sister ride a bike with training wheels. The boy pushes and the girl frowns and pumps her chubby legs like crazy. She’s almost got the balance but no steering. Pink handles and sloppy pigtails careen by. The little girl has scraped both knees. There’s blood on her dirty anklets. Ut-oh, thinks Sierra. The two of them are in for a whipping. They’ll bawl, lie, blame mean dog, big attack birds, staring girl – her.
Sierra counts out twenty-eight hop-steps to Trailer no. 78, Home Sweet Home. Without the number and the busted cinder blocks she wouldn’t know from nothing, might enter the wrong place. Lake Park is a slum of life-size crates, what the social worker calls a community of manufactured homes. Sierra has never been sure what to call the factory colors – dark white, grubby tan, dishwater blond. Careful on the lopsided stoop, she takes off her shoes and bolts for her room. The one window, covered with baggy Mylar, reminds her of a big eye with a snotty cold. Before anybody can say anything, she shoves the stolen purse under the sagging mattress and takes her box of rocks around back.
Sierra wipes her face on her sleeve and sorts the listen stones into two teams. She spaces the foster stones no one wants on the circle’s edge, the Out zone where no one can shove, bust teeth, bruise shins.
She knows she’s too old to play this game of Taking Sides, but who cares? Anyhow, the school year is almost over, and soon she won’t have to keep up with the sixth-grade Recess posse. See-saw, teeter-totter, wham! On those serrated days, blabby kids hit her, call her stupid. So what if she has only herself to blame? The rocks don’t care.
She should turn over the stones and make new friends. Like the social worker says, Fancy is as fancy does, but she’s used to two-faced. Few stones have both sides pretty. They all have crevices, veins, stains – moodies, hunches, mean truths.
But Sierra knows to hold her tongue. Licking the stones, she’d like a string tongue ten feet long tipped with a tiny sharp fork. Or deadly rattle. Sierra cups her hands and shakes gravel. The clickety rickety sound no, no in stone talk – is her answer to the supposed-to of foster-care commandments.
As for those baby hand-me-down toys from the so-called missionary family, her gravel mumbles No, thanks. But the churchy crowd is too busy to hear. They’re in a big hurry, ministering Amen to rainforest rocks in Brazil.
Well, swell. Stuck in Lake Park, she’s been too busy to behave. Sierra already broke off handles of the mismatched plastic tea set, stripped dolly of dress, pulled the legs off that one-eyed teddy. If play cups were hand-painted china, if doll had real hair instead of shred, if Pooh-Bear showed some bite, what-if could be different – a proper tea party, neat curls, whole heart.
Sierra keeps her secrets separate from the big what-if. On Monday, she wakes up her favorite rocks and drops them in a jar of water for Pool Game. Dull spots gleam. She loves seeing the world like a fish. The colors of wet stone are never twice the same. Related but not similar, always acting out, pitching sparkle fits.
Tuesday, Sierra rolls a stone for Marriage Game on the rocks, and Christopher Robin’s mom goes down to the end of town to do what? Buy, sell, wait half-naked on a blanket. Missus Robin is tired of whiny kid and silly songbird last name, but end-of-town don’t want her ingrate. They send her back to start-over village with clean nightgown, run-free hose, easy meatloaf. In case a husband shows. Mother Robin eats alone and something goes wrong with her biological. Baby robin eats earthworms, spits up dirt. Poor thing can’t fly.
By Wednesday, Sierra changes her mood name to Sienna and scribble-scrabbles the chestnut-brown sunset she has never seen. Eyes closed, she imagines a sun-tan sky with clumped terrycloth clouds. The evening spreads coppery across tree-tops, paints stick-up pines like vacation toenails. The listen stones touch base, whisper plans for a reunion at the beach – a barbecue with potato chips, fun uncles, fireworks.
Sienna rearranges her rock box for Family Day and pairs Mother Robin with Tom as pretend parents of Daryl, a mere pebble. Call him Rill, the youngster everybody fusses over. White-blond, pale as mushroom gills, Rill hatched from a robin’s egg inside his mamma’s stomach. The reunion aunts whisper about colic, thin blood, extra toes. Sienna knows Rill is a zombie leftover from a different rock game about life on another planet. She’s tried to stick pins in his stone to keep everybody safe, but his surface is too hard. Low IQ, his numbskull rock is just that ornery.
Sienna picks out two longish rocks for the leggy older twin sisters, Raimonda and Raimicah. Their endless phone-call friends tag them Rai and Ram or Ray and Rum depending on the crowd and amount of make-up. They always want the same shoes, same eyes, same guys. Why waste rocks? In a blended family, Double R needs only one stone. Sienna decides on a pinkish oblong with blotches begging for Clearasil by night, L’Oréal by day.
On Thursday, Sienna hides all her stones for Ghost Game. She buries Cold Granny, who truly loved her, and marks the spot with a skinny stone candle. She doesn’t worry about fire or loss. She can blow out the candle and dig up Cold Granny, rinse her off, and set her out to sun. Let her lose some of that jagged gray from face-down time with deadness.
For Friday Round-up Game, Sienna reassigns Cold Granny as her Jesus rock and lines up the stone Apostles. She gives seven of them workplace names – Strong, Hammer, Lava, Thrown, Cave, Crushed, and Slate. She saves her best names – Gem, Cut, Crystal, Ruby, and Opal – for a five-girl league to bring the total number of glue-ons to twelve.
So much rote about numbers, gospel curls, loaves and fishes, crowd sourcing. Why not fifteen disciples in matching halos and sandals? Or thirty-two like ideal classroom size? Why the rules? Jesus wore long hair and a longer dress, and he’s always voted Teacher of the Year. Sierra heaps the Apostle stones and girl league and, verily, stands Jesus on the mountain top overlooking the Sea of Galilee. His stone topples, but she can make him rise again.
By the weekend, Sierra becomes Sara without the final H standing there in silence. Saturday she rests from her stone duties and reads in bed. She’s been thinking of Shiloh, a pretty final H name she heard at school, no, found in the Rip Curl handbag, the purse she swiped to re-home her rocks. Easy grab — purse-girl wasn’t paying attention, too busy flirting with goon-heads making passes after class, showing off.
Sara feels good about the inside of the purse – no moldy candy, lipstick globs or broken zipper, no stale cigarette smell or vomit. Either purse-girl stuck to her eat-right lifestyle or she bummed her smokes. The purse is empty except for a sheet of 3-hole loose-leaf paper folded in the side slot. She reads the silver gel cursive:
and Confederate troops fought a two-day battle, April 6-7, 1862, at Shiloh.
Four more days.
Yay, the torture is almost over!
I know you probley can’t read this.
But you love me so strain your eyes ☺:lu.
I’m not eating this week to lose weight.
I decided to try the last week of school.
So far, I’m not hungry.
When you stay the night
we will go down to the beach & stuff.
Still don’t know how I’m going to do
my room. I wanna paint it something crazy!
I have so many ideas. I can do anything I want
with my room on the walls at least. * *
If you have any suggestions tell me.
Class is ending, Dale
YaY Im sooo excited summer almost here. Love you, ♥Feather
A.k.a. Heather Howard, in the next class up, Sara thinks, and the prettiest girl in the seventh grade.
Sara agrees with Dale about the school year almost over. These moony kids, daydreaming of hot sand and summer kisses, gross, are passing notes. Goofy with puppy-love, Dale is counting the days till school is over-and-out. Is Dale anorexic – miserable about her body and her bedroom? She’s, like, begging, dying to please Feather with those silver-gel stars and the beach. Maybe Dale will paint her bedroom silver. Sara looks up. The ceiling of her room sure could use some stardust.
The sheeny magic ink and narrow lines make the note hard to read. How long did Feather sit on it? Her answer to Dale, written in large letters, looks dashed-off at the end of class. Feather used the bell and classroom shuffle to lose Dale, to strut her power rocks. She’s a tease, walking right out the door with Strong, Slate, or Gravel and off to the end of town to mess around on a blanket.
Dale, Sara figures, passed the folded note in the clip of the gel pen to make sure Feather would reply, return her answer. But Feather kept the note and probley kept the pen. Or dropped it accidentally on purpose.
Dale will never be champ rock of the Spelling Bee. New idea: maybe Dale is a dude, a boy rock crazy for Feather’s heather, her hither as the missionary rocks say. Dale Boy is a loner stone, a loser gone off course at the top of the lined page. About that big promise beach scene, good luck, chump. You’re lost in the vapors. Roll over your love song. Honor thy rock.
Sara looks again in the Rip Curl and finds another folded sheet of paper with a Social Studies assignment. Feather must be an A student. When she goes home, maybe her parents do a reverse glean and coach her. No rewrite or make-up assignments for Feather. Cuz she does well, she does less.
Feather dots her I’s with big empty circles like temperature signs, degrees. The girl’s just that hot. The rest of the round cursive is neat, inside the lines. The sentences fill the page front and back with no room left for Teacher’s comments.
Sara reconsiders her own penmanship. Time to puff up those I dots. Make them float like small fluffy clouds on a summer’s day. She should improve her signature, quit pushing the point so hard, lighten up, grow more slant. Like the Sierra Mountain Range out West nobody she knows has heard of. As for that capital S, she can upsize from S = Satisfactory to bold S rock canyon curve.
Studying Feather’s handwriting, Sara realizes she is reading a report about the Civil War copied from a book. Why sure, topic for class discussion is the Battle of Shiloh, all the rage now on big postage stamps showing soldiers, shoved together, real little. Like you’re watching them die face to face from above, like you want to mail this glory gore to somebody else for fun time.
Sara feels sick, but cannot stop her eyes, close off her brain. Like when she realized shepherds kill their sweet little lambs for food. Her meal choices caused a big lunchroom ruckus. Like she’s to blame for blood in the food. Now she has war on her hands – dying boys bleating for mamma.
Feather’s report says the Battle of Shiloh lasted for 2 days with the total dead = 23,746. Sara cannot imagine that many rocks, that many losers. To remember, she changes the number to 23456 and struggles with the arithmetic: 48 hours x 60 minutes x 60 seconds = 172800 seconds. She pencils big numbers on the rocks, adds the commas, and lines them up.
172,800 seconds / 23, 456 dead people =
Why finish the math? How far to round off the remainder? Those dizzy decimal places are body parts. Try shaving .0070 seconds off your life rock every two days.
Something else she can’t figure – a PBS special. Went on for weeks. The whole time, Daddy Sam thumping and cussing about the Yankees and Good Ole Dixie.
Sssh, don’t you go using the N-word in front of the child, Patsy Mom said. She’ll be telling that colored social worker we’re predudish.
So how come that decal flag with a big X stuck on the front window? Sara waits for her game of Taking Sides to focus. Dawn to dusk, 2 soldiers die every 7.36 seconds – one father, son, brother, friend, fun uncle or apostle dead every 3.68 seconds – less time than it takes to sing the counting song, one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four. Survivors hate the next dawn stinking of gunpowder and rot, ghost stones sprawled everywhere.
No wonder Dale thought class was torture. The kid wanted to puke. He changed the subject and wrote Feather a love letter. Dale can’t listen to the battle and stay hungry for lunch – pizza smeared red, oozing tacos, gut-dogs with ketchup all over everything.
Sara lines up rocks along the edge of her bed to watch Shiloh as War Game. The buggies roll in with families, picnic baskets, uncles, fireworks. A huge balloon stone called dirigible hovers overhead casting a shadow big as a whale. Waste not, want not, the mom rocks tell little ones too excited to eat their lunches. From acorns grow great trees, say the uncle rocks, and point out tall warrior captains on the field below. That whale shadow lolling close above like the hand of God.
The Battle of Shiloh took place in early April, Sara knows, so no bloodshed spoiling flower bonnets, bunny baskets, and after-church egg-roll. She covers her face with her pillow. Who’s to blame – the good soldiers, the bad generals, Easter? Spectator rocks in buggies start barfing ham salad. The uncles slap the kids, tell them to eat up, watch history in the making, cheer.
Sara imagines all the dead horses, oxen, and mules and bursts into tears. Day Two boys, lucky to be alive, crawl inside the animal carcasses to hide. A pile of guts and ugly face-down save them. Sara cramps and tastes vomit as wild hogs come in from the woods to eat the dead, fight over blasted limbs.
Sara straightens her blood-soaked bedclothes and lines up the listen stones in cemetery rows. She’s changing War Game to National Park. Tourist stones arrive by the busload with chips, cameras, water bottles. They tell their kids Hallowed ground, show respect for the dead people all mixed in with dirt, horse bones, and candy wrappers.
Pressing her arms to her sides, Sara holds her breath and walks the grounds in silence. Birds flit and chirp among the monuments and markers. A young deer, his antlers still nubs, nibbles leaves before leaping into the bushes. Female turtles cross the sun-warm parking lot. They dig the wayside sod and lay their eggs like their grandmothers before them. Sara has nothing more to say. Words fail the game.
Sara refolds the Social Studies report and stashes it in the Rip Curl slot designed to hold a small mirror. Girls like Feather use these mirrors to touch up their lip gloss, watch their backs for prettier stones. Dale’s note with that silvery ink, Confederate gray, speaks to a past that won’t fold up, quit bleeding, scab over.
Sara isn’t sure she wants to put her rocks in same purse as Shiloh. Blood everywhere is not her fault. She drops two bleeder stones in the water for a clean start, a different game of Summer Plans. Maybe, find a happy ending at the beach for Dale and Feather pretending their parents let them hang out.
Dale Boy dreamed up the seaside to snow Feather. His sinker stone can’t float, can’t swim, can’t taste the salt. He’s foster, too, holed-up in a trailer park for monthly payments. Eating cold-can Spaghetti-Os till social worker comes by to play Visit Time – everybody smiley within tin walls.
Sara holds up one of the wet stones and watches the tide change. Sleek Feather leaves her purse by the beach blanket and goes off to give face with the lifeguard. Dale Boy hides his pale limestone thighs and puny chest in the water. He feels like crawling sideways into a hole.
Sara fishes Dale stone out of the jar and dries him off. Dale Boy turns Dale Girl, solo on the towel. Sara makes a fist. Dale Girl punches the sand and throws a handful into the Rip Curl for Giveback Game. She wants to shame Feather, make her feel ugly hurt between her legs.
Sara knows she’s not supposed to take sides, but she’s rooting for Dale. Maybe nerdy Dale Boy can score, surprise everybody, and go with Feather. Maybe square Dale Girl lands the speedo lifeguard, for fun, tries him on in different ways to find out how her purse swings.
Liar, liar, hair on fire, Sara’s glad she swiped the Rip Curl. Feather’s tired of Dale’s crush. Hot for hunky, she’s pitched the bag. Why wear Dale’s last-year’s shit, let everybody see? Probley thinks the strap is dorky. Like she’s the leashed midget with short arms weirding about blood all over her legs and socks.
Sunday morning, Sara hears Patsy Mom tells Daddy Sam to take hisself on to church. The girl can’t go, can’t stand up, needs to stay in bed. Just got her monthly – a frigging bloody mess. Numbers all over the place, but anymore schools don’t teach sanitary.
Sara stays home Monday with her friend. By Tuesday, she is almost Sierra again. She can-too act her age. She’s glad Ruthie’s kittens have the whole summer to grow up and run away before trailer boss sends in Animal Control.
She’s worked out a slick back-to-school lie for the Rip Curl purse – a birthday gift from her real aunt in Tampa. Dale Boy won’t care, won’t even notice, and Feather’s done with the purse. Dale Girl won’t pull hair, throw a big fit in front of the hip crowd.
Sara doesn’t know if she should tell the nosy social worker about her minstrel moodies. Once a month, she’ll be changing to her bleeding name, Sidra, meaning safe portion, or so say the missionary stones. But, then, they were the know-it-alls who said Ruthie cat was a tom and Shiloh was a Bible word for peace.
Sierra gathers the listen stones and places them outside in lines. Like soldiers at Shiloh, they’re kids trying on adult ideas. She salutes, hums taps, and, one by one, gives them back to the earth and the turtles of old. Sierra wants better stones than lives ending every 3.68 seconds.