They ate supper promptly at 6:30 when the sunlight turned the clear glass plates to the color of marmalade. The hour was busy, noisy, exciting. Needing to use two of Mama’s best china platters with the never-dying cabbage roses climbing the rims. The rectangular table in the kitchen was stretched to its fullest, reaching almost wall to wall. Daddy sat in the middle, because Mama had to be near the stove.
Dorothy had never seen this much company before. Daddy and Aunt Poe on one side and Uncle Browning on the other. Cousins, two boys. It was exciting. She felt very good, even squeezed, between Sam and Lenny. Daddy across from her. She thought the table must curve under the weight of all that food—hills of green beans and the mountain of bread. Roast beef running pink juice.
All day Dorothy anticipated the evening meal when they would be gathered together. With the company and all the food, there was no room on the table for the water pitcher. Midway through every meal Daddy would point his finger at Sam or Lenny or her. Get me a glass of water, he would say. She had an idea. Perhaps Daddy had not realized that, with all the company, the back of his chair was smack up against the sink. Instead of her or Sam or Lenny having to push their way around the table, why, Daddy had only to turn halfway to reach the tall kitchen-sink faucet. She thought he would be pleased at what she observed. Think, he always said. She waited—because if he didn’t point at her that evening, well, she wasn’t going to give away her idea.
Daddy chewed his beef. People were talking. The new cousins had loud voices. Then it happened. Daddy raised his hand and pointed his finger directly at her. “Get me a glass of water,” he said.
Dorothy smiled. “Daddy,” she said, “you can just twist around in your chair and reach the faucet.”
Daddy stood up and leaned across the table. He caught her under each arm and picked her up. The sleeves of her blouse pulled tight under her arms. She was lifted and dragged across the table; her knees limped through a slush of potatoes; a sword of butter slashed her from shoulder to hip; then a glass of milk must have tipped, and an embarrassing wetness chilled her. Daddy stood her up on the floor on his side of the table. He held one arm, not tightly, but she couldn’t get away.
“Turn on the faucet,” he said.
Dorothy reached over and gripped and twisted the chrome handle until the water became a steady flow.
“Get me a glass of water,” Daddy said.
Dorothy took a glass from the table, filled it with water, and carefully put it next to Daddy’s plate. Slowly, she made her way back to her seat and picked up her fork. The voices around her began again. She decided to play her favorite word game. It was when you took a word and made it go very fast in your mind. She took the word Daddy and sent it speeding until it became a chant, until it became a hum, until it became a sound.
~ ~ ~
Her name was Crystal. She threw the ball over the fence. Rudy picked it up and threw it back, an instinctive gesture rather than a kind one. Rudy was a sullen boy who played video games, engaged in minor vandalism, and sneaked regularly into movies. He was waiting, perhaps he would wait forever, for life to begin. He didn’t remember the ball or the small girl, but the next morning Crystal was in front of his house. She had only to cut through an alley to be on Lockwood Avenue where Rudy’s mother rented the bottom floor of a three-family. Crystal was not yet enrolled in kindergarten; her days were her own.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Rudy said when she appeared again on the second day. “Get away from me.”
It was as if she hadn’t heard. She was outside Rudy’s house before he left for school every day. That meant three blocks with Crystal trailing him. She was waiting when he left school, knowing his schedule. It opened him to jokes, to great embarrassment.
He thought about asking his mother for advice, but surely he could handle a little girl. What he had was his own sly and sharp nature. If he ignored her, Rudy believed that Crystal would soon stop and go off and do whatever little children did. He was prepared to wait it out. But his friend Arthur witnessed the scene and spread the story about Crystal, who became at once Rudy’s girlfriend. He was taunted with this connection. He couldn’t lie and say she wasn’t there. He couldn’t avoid the block where he lived, although he considered it. Boys began following him in school mimicking Crystal’s baby-fat walk.
He thought about kicking dust in Crystal’s face or knocking her down, but he was afraid that someone would see. When an idea came to him at last, he was proud of his ingenuity and positive that such a clever plan would work. If he could not ignore Crystal, he would use her, this pudgy little girl. She would become, he decided, his pet.
When Arthur showed up with three other boys to witness a scene of humiliation, Rudy was ready. “See my new puppy,” he said. As he had hoped, the laughter turned from him to Crystal. “I’m teaching her to fetch,” Rudy told his admiring audience. He had deliberately left an item on the top step of his porch. “Book,” he said, and pointed as if doglike she could comprehend only one word.
During the following days he taught Crystal to heel, to beg, and to sit on command. If he dared, he would have bought a leash. Within a week Rudy’s friends lost interest. Someone else’s pet was never yours. Rudy too ceased to notice Crystal in any real sense, although when he felt like it, he put her through her repertoire of tricks. Crystal obeyed, sometimes huffing noisily.
It was inevitable that Rudy’s mother would notice. “Why,” she asked, “is that child hanging around here?”
“Are you crazy encouraging a little girl to hang around you?"
“I don’t,” Rudy said sullenly.
“Get rid of her by Friday—I’m warning you.”
His mother always kept her word. Rudy decided Wednesday was best.
Something dead about Wednesdays. It was drizzling that morning. Crystal, never deterred by weather, wore a yellow plastic slicker, her face a circle of flesh outlined by metal snappers.
“Crystal,” Rudy ordered. “Stay.” She turned to stare at him as she waited, immobile, for the command that would release her. “Listen to me,” he said. “I don’t want to see you again ever.”
He had to be careful. He suspected that if he sounded angry, somehow she would not hear. “Because,” he said slowly, “I don’t like you, and I never did.”
If he expected that she would cry or was too dumb to comprehend, he had been wrong. He saw her face as she shook off the rain dancing past her slicker before she trotted away. He had ceased to exist for her. They would, he knew, not meet again. He couldn’t identify what he felt. It hurt.