“Heaven lies about us in our infancy” – Wordsworth, “Intimations of Immortality”
The school bus pulled up at the bottom of a driveway where there was a yellow mailbox, but no house in sight. A little girl in a blue dress stepped off the bus, but no one waited for her today. She remembered her mother telling her she couldn’t always meet her. It was too hard for Mommy with the new baby. Besides, Brucie always ran into the street. Pal came racing down the driveway though, and – once he finished barking at the bus – was very glad to see her. She took a minute to say hello to the dog and make sure she had her lunch box and the notice about savings bond stamps. She also carried the white sweater she needed that morning, but which made her neck sweat later on. Mommy did not like it when she forgot things at school. Everything was there. She wondered whether she was supposed to put the sweater back on before her mother saw her, but decided not to. The big spotted dog danced around and around her as she climbed the long gravel driveway to the house. Her feet hurt, but she did not dare take off the red leather shoes yet.
Red leather shoes. You needed real shoes to go to real school and she had even been allowed to pick the color. You could choose red or brown or black. She was amazed that anyone might choose the brown or the black. Although her mother told her that red did not go with everything, she still let her have the red ones. The girl had seen other shoes in the store that she liked better, but Mommy said they were too “dear.” “Dear” was usually a good thing, but not the way Mommy said it in the shoe store. The skinny man with the sweaty back had pulled her brown pigtails and measured her feet with a metal instrument that was almost as scary as the man himself. He told her they needed to get the fit right which took a long time. But she wondered if he really knew how to work that thing, because the stiff shoes hurt. This was the second week and she still had raw red spots on her heels. She liked the way the shoes looked though.
She stopped and stood on tiptoe to ease her heels up out of the red shoes and looked up at the house as Pal waggled and circled. Daddy had built the house and still worked on it when he had time. There was always been a cement mixer in the yard and a pile of lumber in between the garage and the kitchen door. The front of the house was painted pale gray, the sides and the back pure white. The garage remained unpainted. A ladder leaned on the front of the house with a tin bucket standing at the bottom, but no one was there to welcome the girl in the blue dress.
The girl thought it was a fine house, and she liked seeing all the different things Daddy did to it, even though it meant he didn’t have much time for games. She couldn’t remember ever living anywhere else, although Grandma said that she used to live with her. Grandma didn’t like the house. Every time she came to visit she told Mommy that it would never be finished and none of the windows matched. The girl had asked Daddy about the windows, and he had said that none of the windows were the same because they all came from different houses that weren’t being lived in anymore. The little girl liked wondering about who used to look out the window in her room and why they stopped living in their house. She hoped her family would never stop living in this house. She didn’t mind visiting Grandma, but she wouldn’t want to live there again. It smelled funny. There were no trees or grass, and Grandma had even more rules than Mommy. She walked the rest of the way to the side door, swinging her sweater in one hand and her lunchbox in the other.
Mommy was in the kitchen giving the baby a bath in the sink. The baby had come during the summer and was little and white. Its hair was so pale that it looked like it didn’t have any. It had a red mark in the middle of its forehead like the mark Brucie got when he had run into the metal pole of the swing set. Brucie’s mark went away and Mommy’s said the baby’s would too. She and Brucie wished the baby would go away, but they didn’t tell Mommy that. They almost never went on long walks in the woods anymore, and Mommy hardly ever let them help when she made cookies and pies. She was always in a hurry and she often asked the little girl to watch the baby. Today, though, Mommy smiled and lifted the baby out of the sink and wrapped her in a towel. Mommy was happy today.
That baby was one of the reasons it had been nice to go to school. The little girl was careful at school and tried to be very good and no one had gotten angry with her yet. There was very little yelling at all, although Mrs. Scallion had gotten upset with Jake today because he hit Tommy during circle time. The little girl thought that Tommy was not nice and she would have liked to hit him too, but she would never do it. She thought being good was easy at school. Life in kindergarten was predictable. First they said the pledge to the flag. They were still learning it, so they put their hands over their hearts and repeated what Mrs. Scallion said. Then they had their first lesson of the morning. They were learning their letters, which the little girl already knew, but she enjoyed the colorful posters that Mrs. Scallion used. Today it had been F with the pictures of foxes and ferris wheels. There had been a fox in the yard one morning, but he didn’t look like the picture. She knew what a ferris wheel was, but had never been on one and she would not like to. Too high and scary. They had time to draw pictures, and then clean-up, then snack (milk and a cookie), then clean up again, and then circle time. Finally, if they had time, Mrs. Scallion did numbers with them. And then the bus came. Kindergarten was only half of a day, so she was home for lunch.
Home was not as predictable as school. That was bad. But at home, if you got outside and Mommy was busy, you could have fun with your brother or by yourself. You could just lie in the grass, which was the little girl’s favorite thing to do. But she had to pick a spot far enough from the house so her mother couldn’t see her or she would soon ask her to do something.
Mommy said to go change and lunch would be in a few minutes when she was finished with the baby. Brucie was not in the kitchen, but banging sounds could be heard from the backyard where Daddy left piles of scrap wood for them to play with. There would be plenty of time for Brucie later; the little girl was happy to have a few minutes to herself. Pal stayed in the kitchen, close to the food.
She ran up to her room, which was under the eave at the end of the house. There were pink ballerinas on the wallpaper. She had picked out that wallpaper herself. Brucie had cowboys and she had ballerinas. Mommy said that someday she was going to have to share her room with the baby, and she was glad she had picked out the wallpaper before the baby was old enough to make a choice. Right now the baby lived in Mommy and Daddy’s room downstairs.
The little girl reached behind her, unbuttoned her dress and shrugged it off so it made a pool of blue gingham on the floor. She stepped out of the center of it, noting she had better hang it up before Mommy came upstairs. But not yet. This was a special moment. She sat on her bed in her pink panties and white undershirt and looked out of her one window into the big oak tree and lifted off the red shoes. She sighed. She took off the thin white socks, stained from the angry spots on her heels. She paddled her feet up and down off the end of the bed and wiggled all the toes. Bliss. Heaven. The little girl looked out the window and thought about what she might do with the rest of this warm sunny day if she could get outside after lunch. The blueberries were gone, but there was one old apple tree. Mommy told her the little apples were not ripe, but she thought they tasted fine. And if Pal stayed in the house, she might see the bunny again.
She looked down at the clothes on the plank floor of her room. When she was grown up she would never wear leather shoes or dresses that pulled under her arms. Never. That was something to look forward to, something to think about in bed at night. Like heaven. She had a picture of Jesus on her wall and sometimes she thought about heaven at night and wondered what it was like. No shoes in heaven, she was sure. No dresses and no baby sisters. The little girl fell back on the bed and flailed her legs in the air. She squinched her eyes tight, which is what she did when she wanted to remember something. She did not ever want to forget this heavenly feeling.
In a little while, Mommy called up the stairs that lunch was ready. As the little girl struggled to get into her play clothes and laced up her old canvas sneakers (barefoot was not allowed indoors or out), she heard Mommy yelling at Brucie in the backyard. Brucie had been making mud again and he was in trouble. Mommy would be even madder if she knew what Brucie made mud with. Nana – that was the good grandmother – said that Brucie was full of beans and she said it like it was a good thing. When Brucie did something really bad, Daddy called him a “hot ticket.” When the little girl did something bad they always just said that they were “disappointed.” Nobody ever said the little girl was full of beans or a hot ticket, but Nana sometimes said that her granddaughter was “good enough to eat.” The little girl liked when Nana said this.
The voice came up the stairs again. “Francie, get down here right this minute. If I have to come up there….” The little girl decided that Mommy was not happy anymore.
“Francine, you need to get those support stockings on. You know that. I thought you were in the middle of putting them on when I was here a few minutes ago. What’s going on?”
Big fat Monica was filling up the doorway to Francine’s little room. Her cell. Like a convent. Or a prison. The room had flecked grey linoleum on the floor and one standard-sized window fitted with Venetian blinds and a grey and white valance. Right now the sun was low in the December sky and was coming through the slats almost horizontally, patterning the old woman’s face and seersucker nightgown with prison stripes. The table by the bed held two half-empty glasses of water, several dog-eared paperbacks, and last night’s paper. There was an array of old photos on the dresser, all in tarnished silver frames. The old lady was leaning back on her arms and her misshapen feet dangled in mid-air. On the floor below her waggling feet was a pair of beige orthopedic shoes, draped with festoons of white support hose. Monica had her hands on her hips and was looking at the shoes and stockings.
Francine knew Monica well. She knew the room well. She had been here for two months, ever since winter started to come and the furnace wouldn’t work and her daughter had arrived to find her in a filthy cold house with no food in the kitchen.
“No,” Francine said. “I’m not going to.” She waggled her feet defiantly as a stern-looking Monica stomped into the room. “It’s like heaven.”