College Years, Autumn 1956 or 1957
There were already four of us by the time Ida arrived, on an unusually cold summer's night. Thanks to a nearly full moon, it was still so bright out at two a.m. that we could count the freckles on each other's noses. We had vowed not to go to sleep until we'd heard the new baby's first cry. We had taken chips and Cokes up to our attic bedroom and had put on our warmest flannel pajamas.
I had made myself a comfy nest on Kester's bed with a stack of pillows. To kill time, he and I were reading a Batman comic book together. He would give me a soft poke in the ribs when it was time to turn the page. Our sister Billie, at her usual post in front of the mirror by the clothes closet, was engrossed in snipping off the split ends of her long black hair with nail scissors. And Carlos was on his feet in his crib crooning with excitement, groggy with sleep, his tummy bulging over his drooping diaper. We called him Carlos because as a baby he'd been the spitting image of that gawky English Prince Charles.
It was getting toward the end of the summer holidays - I remember it vividly. Every night you'd discover fat leathery ticks between your toes which, if you believed Billie, had to be twisted out counterclockwise, or you'd get Rocky Mountain spotted fever. We had been out picking blueberries that day; our teeth were still blue. Kester was the only one who had brushed his. Of late, my brother had become embroiled in a grim struggle with the world's dirt. He scrubbed his armpits daily, his face too, but he still smelled, and he always managed to look like some smudged old scrap of newspaper. To show him it didn't bother me, I'd loll against him every now and then as we were reading.
He was sitting cross-legged on his red bedspread, his feet pulled up under him. His toes had recently begun sprouting stubby black hairs, which embarrassed him no end. Having lost interest in the outcome of the Batman story, he picked up Billie's nail file from the floor and began digging under his nails with it.
Our beds were pushed against the four walls: we each had our own domain. Sometimes, if we were having a fight, we'd draw lines on the floorboards with chalk to mark off our territory, or we would conceal rank, slimy finds that we'd fished out of the pond under each other's sheets.
"Is it going to take much longer, do you think?" wondered Billie, sitting down next to me.
Kester drew the file backward with his thumb, then shot it, humming, in her direction. "Shouldn't we be boiling water or something?"
"It's not the High Chaparral here," said my sister, scratching at her calf, bored.
We sat slumped together for a while, too tired to think of any good new distractions. Finally Kes offered in English, "You don't have to love me, Scarlett. Just kiss me."
Billie cried out, "Oh, Rhett! Darling! Don't get killed!" She toppled over backward, wringing her hands and moaning. Then she bounced upright again, saying, "Wait, now I have one for you."
"Casablanca," I explained to Carlos, who was rattling the bars of his crib.
Billie and Kes started laughing, God knows why. Billie's long hair rippled over her shoulder like a pennant, and I could smell Kester's socks. And for some reason my heart suddenly gave a little lurch, like an old clock pendulum that has to be nudged into ticking again. What a miserable summer it had been. It had all started with Carlos's accident - no, it had started before, on Easter Sunday, after the egg hunt, when my father abruptly announced there would be a new addition to the family. He kept taking his glasses off and then putting them on again, one of his little quirks when he couldn't come up with the right words, and peered at each one of us in turn with a shy, triumphant look. I had this feeling that we should shake his hand and congratulate him or something.
Reprinted from A Heart of Stone by Renate Dorrestein by Permission of Viking Books, A Member Of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 Renate Dorrestein. All Rights Reserved. This Excerpt, Or Any Parts Thereof, May Not Be Reproduced in Any Form Without Permission.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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