I was sitting at my desk, second seat back in the row by the window, staring outside watching jump ropes twirl and kids chase one another across the playground. The sounds of thumping red rubber balls and excited voices floating in through the rectangle screens were nothing but a big fat tease, though, because I couldn’t go out for recess. Again. I had to sit at my stupid desk and twiddle my thumbs while Mrs. Carlton, my fifth-grade teacher, corrected papers and ignored me, even though I was baking like a potato in the sun.
I was supposed to be working on my English assignment, but I hadn’t gotten farther than writing the date—May 13, 1955—at the top of my paper. I knew that was about all the farther I’d get, too, because I was supposed to write about Moby-Dick, and I didn’t even know who the guy was. I wasn’t really listening when Mrs. Carlton read us a chapter after recess for about a bajillion days in a row. I could see the book cover in my head, though, and it had a big fish on it, so I was thinking Moby-Dick might be that guy who got swallowed by a whale and became a rib bone in the story that Miss Tuckle, the Sunday school teacher, told us. But I wasn’t sure because I wasn’t exactly listening then, either.
“Isabella . . . your paper . . . ,” Mrs. Carlton said, and I turned away from the window.
“I can’t concentrate with all that yelling and laughing going on outside,” I told her.
“Try,” she said, without looking up.
“Plus,” I added, “I’m about melting to death. These windows are working like a magnifying glass. I’m not kidding. It’s so hot on my arm that I think I might start on fire. That can happen, you know. Jack Jackson started a grass fire in his backyard using a magnifying glass, and Johnny, his big brother, had to put it out with a blanket. I have very dry skin, Mrs. Carlton.”
She looked up at me and sighed, her lips painted big and red like Lucille Ball’s, and said, “Then take a seat over there.” She pointed to the first desk on the other side of the room. The one closest to the door.
Me and my big mouth!
I didn’t have a thing to do but hum and think about how hungry I was. After recess we still had to have math and reading class before it was lunchtime.
I thought about the ice cream we were going to have for dessert, and the next thing I knew, my mind was scooting off to the drugstore to remember the best strawberry sundae I ever had.
I guess you could say that I got that sundae because of Ma. All because one night while I was still in kindergarten, she came and sat on my bed, the stink of smoke and booze from The Dusty Rose still clinging to her auburn curls, and she said, “I gotta go, kid. I’ve got dreams to chase.” Then she walked out. Just like that. Leaving nothing behind but me, a sinkful of dirty dishes, a pair of elbow-length gloves still in their box, and Teddy, her boyfriend of a year, bawling on the arms of his ratty work shirt.
After Ma left, Teddy tried to help me stop missing her so badly. He was sweet as sugar at first, hugging me when I cried and playing with me when I was lonely. But when a few days went by and I still wasn’t eating more than a sick mouse, he got downright bossy.
“Teaspoon, I know you miss your Ma. I do, too,” Teddy said. “But you’ve got to start eating again, even if you don’t have an appetite.” He put a plate of scrambled eggs and a cup of milk in front of me and told me I had to get them down. “If you don’t, you’re going to make yourself sick.”
I didn’t know people could make themselves sick by not eating, but I sure was glad to hear it! When we were living above the bar in Peoria, Ma left me with a lady down the hall, and on the third day I got so sick that I puked on her quilt and her cat. She somehow got ahold of Ma and told her to come get me. So when Teddy told me I would get sick if I didn’t eat, I decided that it was a good plan. I slid my plate away and crossed my arms, and said I wasn’t going to eat for nothing. Teddy swayed on his feet a bit, then he planted his boots on the floor and cleared his throat and said, “Isabella Marlene, if you don’t eat, I’m going to have to punish you.”
Maybe it was Teddy’s scrambled-egg-soft voice, or the way he couldn’t set his chin when he gave an order because he didn’t really have one to set in the first place, but whatever it was, his warning didn’t scare me. It only grated on my nerves like a skeeto bite itch. So I crossed my arms and I said, “I hope I do get sick, because then you’ll have to call my ma and she’ll come and get me.”
Teddy’s squished-back chin quivered a little, and he put his hand on the top of my head. “Teaspoon, your Ma wouldn’t even know it if you got good and sick, because I don’t know where she is to tell her.” He looked down at me, and there was water in his eyes. “It’s just you and me now,” he said. “Teaspoon and Teddy. And I’m not going to let you get sick.”
My arm came up to hide my eyes when he said that, because I started crying and I didn’t want Teddy to see. He hugged me to his leg and stroked my dark curls. And when my tears turned to hiccups, he took me to the drugstore and bought us both a strawberry sundae for supper. While we were there, somebody popped a quarter into the jukebox and played Teresa Brewer’s “Music! Music! Music!” and just like that my toes got light enough to tap (even if all they could tap was air, since my legs were dangling off the bar stool), and I started singing along with that snappy tune: All I want is having you, and music, music, music! Teddy didn’t even tell me to stop singing because I was in public and had a mouthful. He just put another coin in the jukebox and asked me what else I wanted to hear. Course, I knew that that would be the last time Teddy’d ever let me sing at the table or with food in my mouth without harping, and so far, I was right.
“Isabella. Stop daydreaming and get to your paper,” Mrs. Carlton said, not in a very friendly tone, either, and the memory of that sundae melted right off my tongue.
I picked up my pencil and poked the lead between my two front teeth as I tried to think about what to write, wishing I hadn’t thought about strawberry sundaes because it made me start thinking about how sad I was when Ma left. I didn’t like thinking about that, so instead I tried to think about how pretty she was. How good she could sing. How nice she smelled. I didn’t have much luck, though, because the truth of the matter was, by the time I was eight years old most of the pictures of her I had in my head had dried like spilled milk nobody sopped up, and they flaked away. I had six stupid miniature plastic baby dolls to thank for that.
I got those dumb things and that little pink crib to put them in at Ben Franklin, and all I did in the days right before Ma left was sit on the floor and play with those dolls. I should have been looking at Ma instead, because after she was gone for about a year or so, when I tried to see her all I saw were those dolls—naked and pink like newborn hamsters, two blue dots for eyes painted crooked on their faces, seams running along their sides.
Sure, sometimes I tried to talk to her when her bath was done and she was sitting under that helmet drying her rollers and paging through movie magazines, but she couldn’t hear me with that hair dryer whizzing in her ears, so I just went back to playing, bouncing those dolls in the plops of water Ma dropped on the floor when she stepped out of the tub because those were their mud puddles.
I let everyone believe that I still remembered Ma well—how she looked, the sound of her voice, the way her skin smelled—but the truth of the matter was, I wasn’t sure I remembered her right anymore at all, because when I thought of her, her face looked suspiciously like Glinda’s, the good witch from The Wizard of Oz. And when I thought of her singing voice, it sounded an awful lot like Teresa Brewer’s. Even when I thought I was remembering her smell, I’m not sure if it was her smell I was remembering, or the perfume of Mrs. Fry’s peonies in summer.
It didn’t matter, though, I told myself. One day soon I was going to be watching a movie at the Starlight Theater and Ma was going to come on that screen and I’d take one look at her face and remember her as though I’d never forgotten her. And then I’d know that she’d be coming home to Teddy and me soon, because the way I saw it, chasing your dream was like winning a race at the last day of school picnic, and once you crossed the finish line the winner, there wasn’t nothing more to do but pick a prize out of the basket and head home.
And wouldn’t it be a happy day when Ma came back! For me, and for Teddy, who I knew missed not only her but his Oldsmobile, too.
Teddy didn’t have the money to buy another car after Ma drove away in his, and it was too far for him to walk to work come winter and would cost him too much to take Ralph’s taxi every day. So he had to quit his job with the Soo Line Railroad to take one closer to home. At the meatpacking plant over on the south side of town, Mill Town Meats, though most folks called it The Hanging Hoof. Every morning until I was eight and could get around by myself, Teddy got me out of bed, fixed me an egg, and walked me across the street to the Jacksons’ to get sat on—babysat by Mrs. Jackson, or sat on by Jack for real, if he was in a scrappy mood—then Teddy hiked to work. When his shift was done, he’d pick me up, fix me some supper—usually eggs and fried potatoes, because after seeing all that blood at work, the last thing Teddy wanted was to see more of it sizzling in his fry pan—then he’d sit on the sofa and mourn the loss of the lady he loved more than electricity.
I was upset when Teddy had to stop working for the Soo Line after Ma left—upset because I thought he was the conductor, and whenever a train rattled through town while he was gone, I was sure it was Teddy blowing that whistle. Promising me that he was at work, and that he hadn’t run off to chase his dream of becoming an electric man. Jack Jackson set me straight on that one, though. Telling me right in front of his brothers and sisters—all six of them with J names and heads shaped like lightbulbs—that Teddy wasn’t nothing but a Soo Line shit shoveler. “It’s true!” Jack yelled when I called him a liar. “Teddy doesn’t do nothing but scrape the shit out of the cattle cars once they’re delivered to The Hanging Hoof.”
I never did tell Teddy that I knew he was a shit shoveler and not a conductor, which was probably for the best, him always wanting to look so respectable and all. Not that it mattered, because soon after, Teddy stopped being a shit shoveler and took a job at The Hanging Hoof, probably butchering cows, judging by the blood on his clothes, even though that seemed impossible since Teddy wouldn’t even kill a spider. Not even if it was big as a fifty-cent piece and I was standing on a chair screaming at him to lambast the creepy bugger. Instead he got a plastic cup and an envelope and he trapped the spider under the cup, then slipped the envelope under it for a cover and carried him outside. If Teddy did kill cows at The Hanging Hoof, I told myself, then it had to be one of those contradictions. I didn’t know for sure if I was using that word right, though, because when we had it on our spelling list and Mrs. Carlton asked for a sentence using the word, I raised my hand because I thought I had a good one: Teddy Favors is a cow-killing, spider-saving contradiction. But Mrs. Carlton called on Jolene Jackson instead.
It was the same week we had affliction on our spelling list and I raised my hand for that word, too, planning on saying: People who sing while peeing on the toilet probably have an affliction, but she didn’t call on me that time, either. Which is probably a good thing, come to think of it, because we weren’t supposed to say pee in school. Only restroom. And I didn’t think that People who sing while rest?rooming on the toilet probably have an affliction was a real sentence, because it didn’t sound right to me.
I looked at the desk at the front of the room. “Mrs. Carlton?” I said. “Is People who sing while restrooming on the toilet probably have an affliction a proper sentence?”
Mrs. Carlton looked up from her work and frowned. “Isabella, what does that have to do with Moby-Dick?”
I shrugged. “I was just wondering.”
She sighed and told me to get busy, then she went back to grading papers.
Excerpted from How High the Moon by Sandra Kring. Copyright © 2010 by Sandra Kring. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.