We were all sitting around the kitchen table, about to dive into our Easter breakfast. My mother said, "You children may come up with a name."
"Ramona!" I blurted out. It was a song by the Blue Diamonds, Ramona! Ramona! Oo-hooh!
"What if it's a boy?" asked Kester.
Startled, I pushed a twist of hair into my mouth and began to chew on it: didn't he like the idea of another sister?
Billie said indignantly, "There's no room in the attic. If there's another one, I want my own room."
"Oh, darling," said my mother absently.
"I'm fifteen!" yelled Billie, as if that explained it.
We all looked at her in surprise.
"I need a little privacy!"
"A little what?" asked Kester.
Later I asked my mother what Billie had meant. "I don't know exactly, Ellen," she said. "That you're all growing up, I suppose."
In my diary I noted, fuming, that I did not care for "such vague answers." I was fond of foreign expressions like "privacy," which was why I couldn't stand it that Billie, who was only at the local high school, had employed a new word before I'd had a chance to acquaint the family with it. When the holidays were over I would be entering a fancy prep school. I'd be translating Livy and Homer. "Was the ancient world familiar with the concept of 'privacy,'" I wrote in my diary, "or is that a modern-day notion?"
I usually got an A for my essays; I suspected the reason was that my teacher probably had to consult a dictionary in order to follow my train of thought. Actually, my cleverness was often a little much to take, even for myself. "Are we what we think?" I wrote in my diary, and, in all honesty, I hoped the answer was no.
We were all proud of our house, with its yellowed-newsprint smell and its filing cabinets stacked up to the ceiling. It was a lovely old-fashioned house back then, before that horror of a renovation, with steps out front and a tiled hallway and a basement kitchen. Seeing it sitting there always made you feel happy and safe as you pedaled home along the quiet oak-lined lane that curved languidly up to the old riding stable. In winter we'd race our sleds down the middle of the street, that's how little traffic there was. To think that was only twenty-five years ago!
Practically the entire house was taken up by the archives, so there was no question of clearing out one of the rooms for Billie: what on earth would we have done with all those files? The only space that had never been swallowed up by my parents' clippings service was the cellar beneath the kitchen, because of the damp.
After a heavy downpour, water would seep through the cellar walls, collecting in dismal puddles that flickered with oily patches of yellow and blue. This did not deter Billie, however. She began moving in the very next day, on the Monday after Easter. She laid a grid of platforms and gangplanks over the cracked cement floor, using wood she found in nearby dumpsters - old doors and wormy shelves. You could see the water glistening underneath. She hung up burlap to hide the mildewed walls. She burned incense to mask the musty air, and there were candles smoldering in every corner.
We were allowed to come and visit her new abode just once, and then we could get lost.
Kester said she'd catch gout in that stalagmite grotto and then she'd grow twisted as a corkscrew. Out of spite he built himself a treehouse in the walnut tree behind the house. On its rickety door there hung a large sign: "no entry to unauthorized persons." Every time I read those lopsided letters, I could hear his new, breaking voice squeaking in my head, the voice that had been giving him as much trouble as the hair on his toes.
Billie and Kes adamantly shut themselves up in their bastions for the duration of the Easter holidays, and so there was no one to show my report card to, with its six A-minuses and two A's, and the rubber stamp of a little raccoon wearing a hat. I couldn't figure those two out at all. I pictured Billie sitting at the bottom of the slippery cellar stairs: her face both sullen and indifferent, her skin pale from lack of daylight, her hair all matted from the humidity. What on earth was she doing down there?
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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