Mary Beth was proud of this organized system. It allowed her to just glance at an entry and know quite a bit. For example, one of the entries on Dorothea Lanigan's chart was the last two lines of "Yesterday." Dorothea had changed only a word and a tense, but Mary Beth had nodded when she looked at the chart later that night and said, "Well, that's that."
Even I thought this one was obvious. After all, the song was about lost love, wasn't it? "It's too bad Dorothea and Wayne are splitting," I said. "She must be miserable."
Mary Beth looked up at me from the floor where she was sitting surrounded by charts and burst out in a laugh. "Leeann, they are going to be engaged by the end of the month. You mark my words." And of course, it turned out to be true. They had their wedding the next summer. Mary Beth was the maid of honor, since Dorothea said it was all thanks to her.
It was a gift, everybody said so. Sometimes I wished I had the gift, too, but I knew I didn't; I'd tried and failed too many times with my friends to believe otherwise. I asked them about their music and I gave them my theories, but I was always way off, and Mary Beth finally told me I was dangerous. "You can't mess around with something like this. What if somebody believes you?"
I knew, though, there was little chance of that. Mary Beth was the kind of person you take seriously; I had never been. Only my sister saw me as the thoughtful, intense person I felt I really was; my friends and acquaintances looked at me as a sweet, happy-go-lucky, go-along-with-anything kind of person. And I knew that was a side of me, too, but I was more comfortable at home, always had been, even though I didn't have parents.
Sure, we were a small family after Mom died, but it wasn't lonely. We had the endless stream of my sister's customers and of course the music. Every day, all day, our stereo would play and Mary Beth would talk about the lyrics, what they really meant. Even when we got Tommy, she kept it up, because she said babies could adjust to noise just fine, as long as you gave them the chance.
When Tommy first came to us, Mary Beth wasn't even all that surprised. She was only twenty-three, but she'd wanted a child as long as she could remember, and she was a big believer in things working out, no matter how improbable the odds. "It was meant to be," she concluded. "It's a sign that I've waited long enough."
At first, I didn't see it that way. I was eleven then; I knew you couldn't just hand over a living, breathing baby as payment for services rendered. Of course Mary Beth insisted Tommy wasn't payment, but I didn't see the distinction. After all, a customer had given him to my sister after the song reading was over, the same way they gave her cakes and stews and afghans and even cash occasionally.
Her name was Linda, but she called herself Chamomile, like the tea. She had a garden of red and purple flowers tattooed on her back, a string of boyfriends back in Los Angeles, and a fourteen-month-old son with big black eyes and curly black hair that she hadn't even bothered to name.
She called him the blob, because she was so sure he was retarded. He couldn't walk or crawl; he didn't talk or coo or even cry much. Nobody wanted that baby: not Linda, not her parents, and not any of the families on Missouri's waiting list for perfect, white infants. Mary Beth took this as another sign that she was supposed to have him. She didn't care if his daddy was black or brown or from Mars, because the first time she picked him up, he held on to her hair with his fist like he was afraid she'd disappear. When she curled up next to him at night, he breathed a fluttering little sigh of what she swore was pure happiness.
Linda was back in Los Angeles and the adoption was already final when the doctor confirmed what Mary Beth had been saying all along: the only thing wrong with Tommy was the way Linda had been treating him. He turned into a chubby-legged toddler who giggled as he followed us all over the apartment. He called me "E-ann" in the sweetest little voice. He called Mary Beth, Mama.
From The Song Reader by Lisa Tucker. Copyright © 2003 by Lisa Tucker. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the publisher, Pocket Books.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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