How about you give me some of that whatchamacallit of yours, Ron says to Doris, pouring himself coffee from the scorched aluminum pot. He sets it back on the tile, and the baby mouths hot and hot again, but no one looks.
It's a babka, New York food, she says as she reaches across the baby, the ketchup, the empty cans of last night's Bud that 7-year-old Kenny will recycle into Reese's Peanut Butter Cups at Hiram's store, and sets the babka on a plate, a high-crowned crippled hat that's been punched in the side, gnawed underneath. The children have been at it, lawless as usual on Saturday mornings; the whole place falls to pieces, collapses, like the cake.
Ron sleeps late. Kenny slips out of bed before it's light, plays one of his race-car games without the sound. Saturdays he goes to his friend Bealie's house; they're making a secret fort under the porch that no one knows about.
Jenny is eating standing up, wearing Sarah's quilted robe. Her cuffs are soaked in milk. A bobcat for breakfast? she says, loud enough for her sister to hear. She's already stolen half for her. Sarah is still in bed, reading one of her historical books, the one with a wicked queen on the cover. Later, she has promised, they will act it out.
They brought this thing all the way up from New York? says Ron. No wonder it's dry.
He's the only one dressed, the only one wearing real shoes. If the trailer caught fire right now, he's the only one equipped to act. Doris tears a piece off for Phyllis, the baby, who stares at it, then flips it off her tray. Kenny hands it to her, but she makes a face, refusing it. She's holding out for the Cheetos in the crinkly bag on top of the fridge.
I'd shoot me a bobcat if I saw it, says Kenny. Jenny, his twin, opens her mouth and silently shows him the food in her teeth.
It's Jewish? Ron asks and Doris shrugs. You get it at the store?
Doris gives him a look. Where do you think? I didn't find it in the woods.
What's Jewish? Kenny asks.
Never you mind, says Ron.
Doris is wearing her mother-in-law's scuffs; they were left at the bottom of the bag they used to bring the old lady's things to the Home. She was a danger to them all. She left the burners on while she dozed off and Phyllis watched TV. Now Phyllis is afraid of monsters, sleeping alone. They leave the light on, but it doesn't help. She cries out in the night, demands that Jenny sing to her, but Jenny won't get up.
Some of the women Doris cleans for during the week don’t like it that she has to bring Phyllis with her now. She tells them she’s making arrangements but hopes they’ll get used to it. On Saturdays when she cleans the school, she leaves the baby home. She has the whole place to herself. She likes it spooky-empty, quiet. The janitor does the floors on Fridays after school is out, sweeps and dry-mops, waxes during vacations. She went to school there back when the floors were wood and there was no gym. Everything’s changed, even the smell. Sometimes she gets a whiff in the cafeteria where they still have the wooden benches, but it’s faint.
She starts at noon, bearing down on the teachers' desks with an arsenal of rags and Endust. She wipes around the papers they leave on top. She won't touch a thing, she's told them, won't be responsible. It's up to them. When she goes in the twins' classroom, she looks in their desks: a mess, same as at home. Sarah's classroom is down the hall. She leaves little toys on top of her desk, lined up just so. Her teacher is a man, Mr. Friberg. He jokes a lot, and Sarah likes him.
One time he had them draw pictures of their families and put them up on the wall. Sarah's was up there, nice and neat and colored in. Underneath she wrote MY FAMILY PORTRAIT, letters all the same size. There was Ron in red pants, thin as a needle, herself in a bright yellow dress, Jenny and Kenny (both in brown pants), Sarah in a blue dress with buttons down the front holding hands with Phyllis in pink, hair combed, and a brown dog standing sideways. You could tell he was wagging his tail because she'd drawn little lines like sunrays all around the end of it. They didn't have a dog.
Doris likes washing the whiteboards, likes to see the scum of color coming off. They erase all week but the color stays. Nobody's got chalkboards anymore. They use markers, use them up and toss them. She remembers the chalk, how it dried your hands, turned them white. On Fridays last period, Miss Ostrander let the girls draw on the board if their work was done.
Once, when Doris stayed in for recess to finish her spelling sentences, Miss Ostrander read a whole poem out loud to her. Miss Ostrander was working at her desk and she just started reading out loud as if the whole class was there. Doris didn't know if she was supposed to listen so she kept her head down. It was a poem about people tiptoeing through the woods in the soft snow. It was very quiet in the woods, like it was in the room, and not even the little animals heard them. When she finished, Miss Ostrander said, "It's called 'Velvet Shoes.' Did you like it?"
No one had ever asked Doris for her opinion about a poem, or about anything else. She nodded, still looking down at her paper, afraid Miss Ostrander might ask her to tell her why, but she didn't. The bell rang and the kids came back in and no one knew what had happened while they were gone.
Weekdays Ron delivers fuel for Green Mountain Oil. Saturdays he goes to the Home and listens to his mother complain. He drives slowly, hoping for an accident. She’ll be pacing the lobby, her navy blue purse attached to her wrist. They all gather in the lobby to wait for lunch. Once he was there right after breakfast and they were already in their chairs, waiting, the TV on but no one looking. Only his mother paces around, agitated. It’s a wonder they don’t lasso her and bring her down.
He'll tell her about the cake. Good thing you weren't there, he'll say. Times is so hard we had to eat a bobcat for breakfast, whiskers and all.
Sometimes he can get a smile out of her, but mostly not. She's turned mean. She flicks her finger at the newspaper of the man who does the crosswords. Wake up, she hisses, the world is burning! The man looks surprised every time. Ron has noticed that when the man shaves, he misses the dent in his upper lip. The sprouts are firmly entrenched now, the skin won't stretch. Ron would like to tell him someone could help out with that, maybe the barber who comes in to cut the women's hair. The barber doesn't waste any effort on the ladies. He shaves their necks all the same way, leaving an inch below the hairline.
Ron remembers his mother's hair when it was still long, a waterfall of dark brown hair. She'd swing it around, pretending not to know how pretty it was. You wouldn't suspect it of her now, seeing her so mannish. Only the blue purse gives her away. When she goes into the dining room, the purse goes right along. It swings and bobs above her creamed corn as she eats. Sometimes it's turnips. Ron tries to time his arrival so he can leave before he has to watch.
With everybody gone, Sarah and Jenny play Queen. Jenny’s her slave. The thrill of it makes Jenny’s teeth feel like they’re dissolving. She has to do everything Sarah says, even steal. When their mother leaves, Sarah dresses Phyllis in scarves, paints her tiny nails pink, sits on a pillow, sings, talks wild, runs outside in her slip. She’s supposed to clean up, but she makes Jenny do it. Sarah calls her a kitchen wench and slaps her, but not hard enough to leave a mark. No one’s supposed to know about their game. Jenny wipes the table and sweeps up the crumbs, pretends she has a long dress, long hair, pretends she hates the straw bed she must sleep on in the castle basement, the rats that run around squeaking in the dark.
Kenny sleeps down there, too, on a cot so short his feet stick out at the end. He has a historical disease and is wasting away. She brings him water in a cup, but he can barely swallow. When he dies, she'll be all alone. The stable boy has promised her that after Kenny dies he will help her escape from the wicked queen. He looks like Taylor, the new boy in her class. She'll steal a babka from the castle kitchen and sit behind him in the saddle picking all the raisins out, her long brown waterfall of hair swinging gently from side to side as they ride away.