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Hamster Island
cover design Ardy M. Scott.



A story about growing up in a family that embodied dysfunction. Funny and heart-breaking simultaneously, Hamster Island is a coming-of-age in the tradition of darkly comic memoirs.



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Hamster Island


Joan Heartwell






1958 – 1976


Chapter 1

Miracle Climb

Grandma doesn’t give a hoot about shrines, but if visiting some means getting out of the house for a few days, she is all for it. She hates the house—especially on weekends when my father is home. She hates my father. He is loud and dirty and he pisses like a racehorse. The bathroom is centrally located, right between the room I share with my brother and my parents' room, at the end of short hall that joins both bedrooms with the living and dining rooms. We can easily hear him pissing, and grandma is right: it does sound like something big—as big as a horse—is in there. A worse offense, in her mind, is that he takes the long-sleeve shirts she feels obligated to buy him every Christmas and on his birthdays and cuts the sleeves off. Since he doesn't bother to hem them, the edges fray, more and more over time, and she hates him most when she sees him wearing faded shirts with sleeves that have frayed edges. Still, she goes on buying them, and he goes on accepting them without a word of complaint.

It is Tyla Topal who has invited us to go to Montreal to see shrines. Tyla is a widow like my grandmother. She lives across the street in a tidy brick ranch-style house with her three children, the youngest of whom is Denise, my best friend. Since it has already been decided that Denise will go on this trip with her mother, it is all important to my grandmother that I be allowed to go as well. That way we will be matched sets: two widows, two little girls to keep each other company.

But when we leave the Topal house and go into our own, my mother says no. No, I can't take off time from school. She is sitting at the dining room table, her face puffy and unhappy looking, her short dark hair looking like it was cut with a hatchet. She has the appearance of someone who has been freshly insulted. Her eyes blink out the code for her confusion. She doesn’t get us, Grandma and me. We are a mystery to her. David, my brother, who is two years older than me, is sitting on her lap. On the table is a checkerboard. We have caught them at play.

My mother and grandmother argue for a while. "Why the hell…?" my grandmother asks. That is how she starts all her questions. Grandma reminds my mother that my grades are perfect, that taking off a few days from school will not make much of a difference. My mother says there is not enough money for me to go on such a trip. Grandma says I don't need money, that she will cover my expenses herself. My mother says it's not fair for me to go since David has not been invited.

Grandma stops arguing for a moment to look at him. We both do. He is squirming on my mother’s lap, getting cranky because while she's still playing, still moving pieces around the board, she's not really paying attention anymore. David has terrible allergies, and his big beak of a nose is red and his eyes are watery. He breathes through his mouth. His bottom lip hangs loose, as if it weighs too much for any normal lip muscle to support it. Sometimes a string of saliva will drip from one side of his mouth, though nothing is dripping just now. "What the heck’s the matter with that woman, anyway?" my mother finally asks, breaking the spell. "Doesn't she have enough to do with a house and kids? Who the heck does she think she is, with her highfalutin trips? You want to go, fine, but she stays here." And with that she casts an angry glance in my direction.

For all that my mother's domestic routine is based almost exclusively on my grandmother's guidelines, when it comes to my brother or me, once she makes a decision, she will not budge. "I guess you'll have to stay home, Joan," my grandmother says. But when I look at her, I can see in her eyes that she is only egging me on, letting me know that she's done what she can and now it is my turn to go a round in the ring.

At first I’m not sure what more can be said to change my mother’s mind. But then it comes to me, loud and clear. "Ma," I say, approaching. As if he thinks I am coming to steal some of the checker pieces, my brother raises an arm threateningly and emits a sound that is midway between a growl and a hum. "Ma, this is not just any old trip. This is a trip about God. This is the kind of trip God would want me to go on, because He wants me to be closer to Him. And this is a trip He would definitely want Grandma to go on, since she's not close to Him at all."

While my kickoff is dignified enough, as I continue, I collapse into a shameless whine: "And if you don't let me go, then Grandma can't go either, because Mrs. T already told Denise she could go, and she’s not going to want Grandma tagging along if only Denise’s going, and then you’ll be responsible for Grandma’s soul not getting saved. This is Grandma’s big chance. If she goes to hell, it’s all your fault."

My mother’s eyes flood slowly with tears of frustration. She doesn’t raise her hands from the checkerboard to wipe them away. She lets them pool there. She lets us have a good look at them. Once again I have filled her with unhappiness, and now it is running over. It is palpable, unavoidable, soaking through everything in the room. Her head droops. "I know God wants us to go on this trip," I add gravely, through my teeth.

My mother has broken. Grandma and I exchange a quick look that confirms we both know this, but we stay quiet and wait. My mother is the most devout Catholic on the face of the earth. She will deny God nothing. Nothing at all. "Go ahead and go," she snaps, lifting her head. "Go ahead. Go. I don't care anymore what you do."


And so it is that a few days later we leave for Montreal, me and Denise and Mrs. T and Grandma. Mrs. T drives us to the bus terminal and there we park the car and get on a waiting bus with other people taking the tour. The women sit behind us on the bus, and for hours and hours they talk and talk. It surprises me to see how chummy they are; at home my grandmother says plenty of nasty things about Mrs. T. She calls her a know-it all, a conniver, a whiner. But now they are the best of friends, agreeable on every matter. Grandma mostly talks about my father, about how much she despises him, and Mrs. T clicks her tongue disgustedly in response, as if to say she totally understands. Grandma also talks about her job, the people she works with at the garment factory. Mrs. T talks about various neighbors in her nasal, heavily-inflected voice. They are comfortable in each other's company.

Denise and I take turns sitting by the window. When it is my turn, I rest my head against the glass. I know as surely as I know my name that I am getting sick, that I am coming down with a fever. My throat rages and I can barely keep my eyes open. But I have never been out of New Jersey before, let alone out of the country. And I know Mrs. T and Grandma will find a way to make the driver turn the bus around and take us back to Bergen County if they learn that something is wrong with me.

We reach Montreal in the evening and stay the night at a hotel that is glorious. The halls are wide and dark and thickly carpeted. There are alcoves on every floor, small sitting areas where you can look out the window at the city lights. I have never been in a hotel before and I can't believe my good fortune, that my first one should be this one, a hotel as big and old and dark as a castle. We put our suitcases down in our room and decide who is sleeping in which bed—me and Grandma in one and the Topals in the other. The adults are still gossiping. If it were just my grandmother and me, she wouldn't let me out of her sight. But Denise tells her mother that we are going to explore, and when Mrs. T says to go ahead, just be careful and don't get lost, my grandmother doesn’t make a peep.

Then we are gone, flying down halls, soaring up through elevators, gliding down stairs, alighting on every sofa and wing-backed chair in every alcove, smudging every window with our noses and our breath. We are two princesses in this fine, dark castle—one small, petite, and beautiful, with long dark banana curls, as light on her feet as fairy dust, her laughter a jangling of tiny bells; the other, bigger, chubby, clumsy, not incapable of falling over her own feet, tripping over her shadow, a bowl of dark straight thick hair gleaming atop her head like the helmet of a knight. We hide on each other and shriek with joy when we are found. Our little girl voices echo back to us. It seems that we are the only people in the whole castle, in the whole world. It is the best night of my life.

In the morning we have breakfast in the hotel restaurant. I order French toast because I am in Quebec. Everyone laughs when I explain myself. I am beet red with fever, my throat is swollen and practically closed, my breath is insufferable, my vision is so blurry I can hardly see what the others are eating, and my head is so thick that I feel as if I am hearing the conversation from under water. But as no one notices, I don’t volunteer the information. Everyone is talking and laughing and having fun. We are having an adventure and no one, not even Denise, needs to know I am as sick as a dog.

After breakfast we board the bus that will take us to the first shrine. While we travel, the driver tells us a bit about where we are going and what we can expect. For the most part I don't pay attention. Just keeping my eyes open takes enough of an effort. But then I catch something about a chapel at the top of a hill where miracles occur. Even in my leaden state I quickly become excited.

I know all about miracles. I go to a Catholic school and we talk about miracles every single day, usually in the late morning just before lunch, and sometimes again at the end of the day. We talk about sinners who have seen the floors split open before them, who have miraculously been granted the glimpses of hell that ultimately turn them away from sin and save their souls. We talk about Our Lady of Fatima, Joan of Arc, statues that weep, hands that bleed, food that multiplies. I love miracles. I have been praying all my life for a miracle of some kind, even a small one, but it hasn’t happened yet. I demand that Denise explain what the driver has been talking about. Denise, who attends the same school and has in fact experienced a miracle (she awoke one morning to find the Blessed Virgin Mary sitting at the foot of her bed) says that this chapel of miracles that we are going to can be gained by ascending a flight of almost three hundred stairs on your knees. The pain is enormous, horrendous. But if you get to the top and go into the chapel there, you can pray for whatever you want and your prayers will be answered. St. Joseph rules over the chapel; he’s the one you pray to. That’s all she remembers, she says.

We bounce along on the bus. I stare at her with my mouth open, in part because I am speechless and in part because I can no longer breathe through my nose. She stares back at me for a while, expressionless. When she looks away, I glance at the faces of the other people I can see: a man and a woman sitting across the aisle holding hands, and the profile of the young woman sitting just in front of them. They all stare ahead or out the window, their expressions too vague to read. Behind us, Grandma and Mrs. T are still chatting, speculating now on whether an old woman in our neighborhood might be not the mother she pretends to be but the grandmother of the child who lives with her, and if so, what improprieties that might suggest. How is it, I wonder, that we are not all on our knees? That we are not all holding our hands over our hearts to keep them contained? That we are not all chanting Alleluia, Alleluia, Gloria in excelsis Deo?

I know I am going up those stairs on my knees, even if I have to run away from Grandma to do so and endure her nagging for the rest of my life. I think about all the things I can pray for when I get to the top. There is Francis Amato, the boy I am in love with. I stare at him constantly in class. When we get up to pray or sing or do the pledge, I stare at his straight back, willing him to turn his head and look at me. He did once. Once he twisted his neck and turned his head and one eye fell on me, and in that instant I flushed crazily and knew I wanted one day to marry him, only him, my Francis, my true love. I could pray for that.

But getting married is years away—and besides, everyone in our class knows that Francis wants to go into the priesthood—and I am only a little kid. I am torn between ensuring my future and praying for something more immediate. Money, maybe, money for toys, lots of toys, and then if there is any extra, for my family. Money so that my father doesn't have to work so many jobs, so that we can have a nicer house, so that my mother can buy me school uniforms that fit and not stuff I will "eventually grow into." But then I remember that the nuns have warned against praying for money, and while it is great fun to imagine all the bikes and hula hoops and yo-yos and pick-up-sticks and cut-outs and View Masters I could buy, I know in the end I will not take the risk. I know what God is like when He is angry. I know that He can (and does) hear my thoughts and see my every move. At the end of the world, the nuns remind us at least once a week, each of our lives will be run on a screen of air, like a drive-in movie, from beginning to end, and everyone will see what everyone else did—and thought! We all stare at them, speechless, when they say that. We all imagine how it will be to see one another in the bathroom. Peeing. Picking our noses. Wiping our backsides. It will be awful, awful. And for me it will be worse. Everyone will know that once, when my brother and I were jumping up and down on the bed back at the old house, I struck out at him with a belt I happened to be holding and the buckle made his head bleed. Everyone will hate me for that.

Just the thought of David settles me down. Day-Wit, he calls himself, because he cannot get the v sound right. What a shame they had to name him something he can’t pronounce. I close my eyes and drift away, thinking that I may never visit Montreal again, that I may never have another chance to go to a chapel that is miraculous, where all you have to do is climb some stairs on your knees to get your wish. For all that I was the ogre princess last night, sister to the great and beautiful Princess Denise, co-guardian of the ancient dark castle (and for all that I become a mermaid almost nightly, slipping two legs in one flannel pajama pant leg, imagining long curls flowing from my head instead of my short Buster Brown crop, swimming in a lagoon with the other mermaids, awaiting the arrival of Peter Pan), I am a serious child. And I know in the end I will pray a serious prayer.

Denise pokes me awake. We have arrived. We follow the others off the bus. As much as Denise and I want to take off and explore, the adults insist we eat again. It takes forever. I'm not even hungry. My grandmother is astonished, because I always have an appetite. I force myself to order something, French fries (again, in keeping with the French theme) so that she won't suspect I am half dead.

Finally we are out in the sun, standing on the street in front of the church. The sky is so bright and the sun so strong that it hurts my eyes to look up, but when I do I see that the church is built onto the side of a hill and it features a great silver dome. Mrs. T, who has a guidebook, tells us that while construction began initially just after the turn of the century, it is still going on today and we will find that some areas are closed. It seems to me that almost sixty years is way too long to complete a project, even one as beautiful as the one before us.

We approach the stairs, which are separated into three sections by handrails. A few people in the center section are on their knees. The people on both the sides are walking up normally. I nudge Denise. "Joan and me want to climb up on our knees," she tells her mother. Mrs. T immediately grabs her by the shoulder of her coat and drags her to her side. "You’ll ruin your clothes," she snaps. Denise looks back at me over her shoulder as she begins to climb beside her mother. Her expression tells me nothing about how we are going to get free of the adults.

When we get to the top, the adults huffing and puffing after the long slow climb, Grandma and Mrs. T say they want to go into the main section of the church, to light candles and pray for the dead. Denise's father’s name was Lou, and though he's only been dead a few years, I can't remember much more than his fuzzy gray-brown hair, the way it separated at the top of his head. Mr. T had a small Syrian grocery store that he would sometimes drive us to, me and Denise and Mrs. T, on Sundays, when the store was closed. That way he could do his paperwork in peace; Mrs. T could go up and down the aisles and pick out canned foods to bring home and store in their basement for when the Russians attacked; and Denise and I could pretend it was our store and carry on conversations with phantom customers. ("I saw you steal that sugar, you thief! You put it back or I’ll call the cops." "Oh, yeah? Who’s going to make me?") Once, when I was getting in the car to make the trip with the Topals, the car door slammed closed on my fingers and Mrs. T sent me home crying, carrying my bruised hand in my good one, and off they went without me, Denise on her knees, watching me, getting smaller and smaller in the back window.

My grandfather’s name was Lou too, and I don't remember much more about him than I do Mr. T. Once, at the old house, where we lived until I was five, I fell in the river that used to be our backyard, and my grandfather, who was fishing at the time, saved me. I know from my mother, who adored him, that he liked to sit outside under a tree when there was lightning and that he was forever bringing home stray dogs. I know from my grandmother that she would take his stray dogs for long walks, and then hop a bus and come home without them. When asked where Spotty or Rusty or Snappy had gone, she would play dumb. "How the hell should I know?" she would ask him.

I am tempted to tell Mrs. T that my grandmother never goes to church, that she says the roof will cave in if she does, that she didn't even really like my grandfather and is likely to be thinking about something else entirely when she lights her candle. My grandmother is playing along, pretending to be interested in churches for the sheer pleasure of Mrs. T’s company, for the chance to go on trips like this. When Mrs. T says, "Come on, girls, let's go in," I hold my breath. I can only hope that Denise will tell her mother that we have other plans. I do not talk to Mrs. T myself, at least not to say anything contrary. I am afraid of her. With my grandmother here it's not so bad, but when it’s just me at their house, I don't even lift my eyes.

Denise doesn’t let me down. "We want to wait outside," she demands in her little girl voice, her hands on her hips. She is so adorable that both women break form to exchange a quick smile.

"Why?" Mrs. T asks.

"It's nice out. We want to stand in the sunshine."

"No no no," Grandma butts in. "You girls are crazy. We're in a foreign country. Someone could snatch you and we'd never find you again."

"We promise," I chime in. "We won't go anywhere. We'll wait right here, just stand in the sun."

Mrs. T’s thin lips press together under her hook of a nose. She shakes her head. "Oh, let them, Maggie," she says to my grandmother. "They'll be okay." She looks me up and down and I can't read what she is thinking.

The women go in, my grandmother turning her head to shoot daggers at me and Mrs. T reaching into her purse for a black lace doily to place on her head. As soon as the big wooden doors shut behind them, Denise and I run down the stairs we have just climbed up, quickly, skirting current climbers as if we are skiing down an obstacle course. "What are you going to pray for?" I ask Denise breathlessly as we near the bottom.

"Not telling," she responds.


"Might not come true."

"Did the driver say that?"

"I know that; that's how it works."

"Like wishing on a star?"


"I think you're wrong. Why would God care if someone told or not? He’s God, not some shooting star."

She doesn't answer. Even though I'm arguing with her, I know I'm not telling either. Why take the chance?

Once we are on our knees, the church at the top seems very far away. And even when we reach it, we will have no idea how to find the chapel of miracles. We can’t ask; from what I can tell, most of the people here are speaking other languages. And I’m not supposed to talk to strangers anyway.

Denise looks upward too. "Do we really need to go on our knees?" she asks.

"Do you want a miracle or not? But we better move fast. When they come out and don't see us, they'll throw a fit."

"Your grandmother will. My mother will know we're just exploring."

"Come on. Let's go. Three hundred steps. Three hundred prayers."

We are only on the bottom step and already it hurts like hell. We are wearing skirts and knee socks, and our knees are exposed. Denise is wearing a little pale green coat that is the same length as her skirt and the same color as her knee socks. She has a bow that color in her hair as well. Her shoes are black patent leather with T straps. Mrs. T always likes to make her beautiful, like a little doll. It is her greatest pleasure. Every day when I call for her for school, I must stand at the door in the kitchen and watch while Mrs. T, seated sideways at the kitchen table, puts the finishing touches on Denise's banana curls, brushing each curl around her finger until it is perfect and then pulling her finger out so very carefully, so the curl will hold. Then Denise must gently, gently lift her hair while Mrs. T slides her coat over her shoulders. Only then can we leave for school.

As for me, I am wearing my brother's reversible jacket, which doesn’t fit him anymore. One side is solid navy and the other is a navy and red plaid. Today I have the plaid side facing out. A pink plastic headband curves over the top of my straight black hair. (My mother says I must keep my hair short so it will be easier to dry. In the winter she dries it with the exhaust end of the vacuum cleaner, and it’s not fun for her, or me.) My knee socks are black, and I am wearing my school shoes, white and brown saddles. "Say a Hail Mary before you climb to the next one," Denise warns.

"HailMaryfullofgracetheLordiswiththee," I whisper. I say the words so quickly they sound like a mere rustling of wind in the trees. Denise is praying the same way. We look at each other and smile through our muttering. Without saying a word, we have just agreed that we will race, to see who can get to the top first. I am glad for this, glad that we will move quickly. I am worried about my grandmother being worried, and I have to fight to keep the thought of her worrying—and her anger—from overtaking me.

We pray so fast that we are really walking up the stairs on our knees, not stopping to pray on each one. We shudder and tremble with suppressed laughter. By the time we are halfway up, our knees are scraped raw, and while blood is not yet flowing, it is visible, beneath the outermost layer of purple skin. As we get closer to the top, we pray faster yet; watching each other’s mouths and eyes carefully as we mutter, still racing along despite the pain, still trying not to punctuate every Amen with wild laughter.

Finally we reach the top, and after ascertaining that the adults are not there looking for us, we begin a wild race from door to door in search of the chapel. I am the one who finally finds it, the door that leads into a long hallway full of candles, more candles than I have ever seen in my life. My head is burning with fever; every tooth in my mouth is screaming in pain; my eyes feel like they may pop out of my skull at any time. But I know as I enter the chapel that I am in a holy place, that I have arrived in the presence of the Lord—or at least in the presence of Saint Joseph—and in I float on a cloud of enchantment.

I am about to experience a miracle. I keep thinking about how so many of the saints were made to suffer right before their miracles happened. It’s all part of the process; I understand that now.

To our amazement, you cannot even see the walls of the chapel because they are totally covered with crutches, canes, and braces. I have never seen anything like it. I have to think for a minute why they would keep crutches on the walls, but then it hits me that these are the crutches of people who came up on their knees like us, who said their prayers and received their miracles. But how could a person on crutches get up all those stairs? I think about it some more and conclude that someone else must have gone up on their knees and said the prayers for them, and when they were cured, they carried the crutches up themselves. Some of the crutches and braces are very small. It takes my breath away to imagine all the children whose whole lives changed as a result of someone coming up here on their knees to pray for them. There is only one other person in the chapel, an old woman lighting a candle near the statue of St. Joseph. It is as quiet as a crypt.

Denise and I approach the wooden kneeler together and squeeze our eyes closed and pray. It only takes a few seconds. And once we are done, we do not linger. We are out of the chapel, rushing around to the front of the building to find the adults.

They are there in front of the main part of the church, turning in circles, shielding their eyes from the sun to look for us. When Mrs. T sees her daughter, her hand flies to her heart. My grandmother begins to mutter under her breath. I can see in her eyes that she is really angry. I am sure she will smack me, but when we get close, she only grabs my arm. "Where the hell were you?" she yells as she shakes me. I look around to see if anyone has heard her cursing in a holy place.

"We climbed the steps to the chapel," Denise explains to her mother excitedly.

"What are you talking about? I told you not to do that. What about your clothes?"

"They’re fine. We said a prayer on each step, like the bus driver said. It was our only chance for a miracle!"

Mrs. T's expression softens as she looks into her little daughter’s upturned face, her banana curls, mussed now, dangling halfway down her back. Mrs. T can’t help herself; her pressed lips part and she begins to laugh. My grandmother’s face stays pinched and angry. The year before she looked just like that, when I shot a suction-cup-tipped plastic arrow at her with my toy bow and arrow set. How shocked I was when the arrow landed on one of the lenses of her eyeglasses. And still I laughed—even though I knew what I had done was reprehensible—because it bobbed there for a moment while she screamed at me, making a booo-ooo-o-iiii-n-ing sound like you would hear in a cartoon. She didn’t speak to me for a whole week.

We get back on the bus and visit a few more churches, but they offer nothing unique and we don't explore. Besides, now my grandmother won’t let me out of her sight. We stay at the beautiful hotel another night, but Denise is tired and doesn’t want to play castle. I almost never let an opportunity to play anything pass me by, but I don’t push her because I feel so sick. And the next morning we are back on the bus, heading for home. My grandmother is still angry. A couple of times I hear Mrs. T say, "Oh, they're only kids, Maggie. That’s what kids do."

When we are about halfway back to New Jersey, Denise asks me what I prayed for. "I can't tell," I say.

But Denise is persistent when she gets going, and she will not leave a thing alone. She tries everything. She offers to tell me what she prayed for. When that doesn't work, she offers to tell me some secrets she knows about Debby, a girl who recently moved into the house around the corner. Debby is awesome. She is bigger even than me. She has a huge mop of frizzy red hair and she is almost always dirty. Although she is only eleven, she already has breasts. Debby will say anything to anyone. She is not afraid of her mother or anyone else's mother, and, being a public school student, she only yawns when we talk about God.

When I don't show any interest in Debby gossip, Denise threatens to tell Francis Amato I'm in love with him. When I still don't give in, she says she won't be my best friend anymore. I answer right away then, saying, "I prayed that I'll be beautiful when I grow up." Denise sits back, satisfied. "Me too," she says.

I don't believe her. Since I lied I figure she has too. Besides, she is already beautiful. She is beyond beautiful. She is perfect.

I freeze all the way home. My teeth chatter. My grandmother finally touches my head and exclaims, "Oh, my God, you're burning with fever." Mrs. T warns Denise not to get too close to me. Grandma tells Mrs. T that Virginia, her daughter, my mother, is going to kill her, that she didn't want me to come in the first place.

I don't even listen to them after a while. In spite of the fact that physically I am burning, dying, nearly delirious, spiritually I feel as calm as the settling dusk. I have made the ultimate sacrifice. I have given away my one chance for fame, beauty, an endless array of cut-out doll books and hula hoops and other possessions—I have even given away my one chance for a long life with Francis Amato—to pray for a miracle that is really meaningful. I can practically see Jesus smiling down on me.

We return to the parking lot at the bus terminal and get into Mrs. T's car. In a short time, we are pulling into Mrs. T's driveway. I turn my head to look behind me, at my house.

Even though they have talked endlessly for three days, my grandmother and Mrs. T still find more to say in the driveway. My grandmother is thanking Mrs. T profusely for inviting us. "It's nothing, it's nothing," Mrs. T says. "You'll have to come by soon and see Virginia," my grandmother says, though Mrs. T almost never comes over to our house, and when Grandma and I go to visit her, my mother never comes along. I yank on Grandma’s elbow. I want to go home.

As we cross the street I fumble in my pocket for the souvenir I bought my mother. It is both a plastic replica of one of the churches we visited, and, if you turn it upside down, a pencil sharpener. Even I know it’s a cheesy gift. But I also know that my mother is the kind of person who doesn't mind cheesy gifts, who will say thank you no matter what you give her. She will also tell me my drawings are good even when I switch them with Denise’s.

The minute we walk in the kitchen door, I hear the TV blasting—not a good sign. My mother is standing in the dining room, near the window. She has been watching us, waiting for us to cross the street and come in. I rush to her and let her give me her quick pat-hug. She doesn't notice that I am on fire.

"We had a great time," I cry. But then I think about how Mrs. T likes my grandmother a hundred times more than her and I tone it down. "We had an okay time," I say. I give her the church/pencil sharpener. "This is for you. It's one of the churches we went to."

Her face lights up as she ponders my gift. "Thank you," she says, turning it in her hand. "It's beautiful." She has a faraway look, as if it reminds her of something wonderful that happened a long time ago.

"How's David?" I ask.

She doesn't answer. She is still studying the plastic church.

I run into the living room to see for myself. My brother is sitting on the floor, cross-legged, in front of the TV console. Dinosaurs are fighting on the screen, and beyond them, a little man in a loincloth is running from one boulder to another, trying to keep from getting hit with their smacking tails. "David, I'm home," I call out over the noise. He doesn't look at me. His mouth hangs open. His eyes are red. Even though he is only eleven, there are dark bags under his eyes, as if on the inside he is a very old man.

I take a deep breath then walk to the console and turn off the TV. "David, I need to talk to you," I begin softly. But before I can say more he is on his feet. He knocks me out of the way. He turns the power dial and for a moment there is only TV snow-static and then the dinosaurs reappear on the screen. He screams for our mother. He takes his snot rag out of his back pocket and wipes it up and down his face, then sticks it back in his pocket again, where it dangles half in and half out. When he sits, he is closer to the TV than he was before. My mother comes running into the room, "Leave him alone," she yells. "Why do you have to tease him all the time? You know how he is."

I look at her, aghast. "I wasn’t teasing," I say, but there is too much noise for her to hear me.

Nothing has changed.

My miracle has been denied me.

My brother is still retarded.


Chapter 2

The Contemplative Life

My house is completely surrounded by concrete. In the back there is only a narrow strip of yard and a withering row of hedges to separate the property from the parking lot behind it. The lot is for the shoppers at the Acme Supermarket, located on Route 4, a highway that will take you all the way to Manhattan if you let it. To the left of my house there is another parking lot, though this one has not yet been developed and cars don't park there at this time. In front of the house is Ellington Road, which separates my house from Denise's, and to the right is Plaza Road, which runs for miles in both directions, cutting the town in two.

The best time of year is winter. We get a lot of snow, and when the plows come they push the snow from the parking lot right up to my backyard, right against the hedges. After a few storms, we have mountains growing there. There are a lot of girls my age in the neighborhood, and when the snow mountains are as high as the Alps, they all march over and we build tunnels with garden tools or serving spoons we have pilfered from our mothers’ kitchens. Or we walk along the peaks single file singing Everly Brothers songs.

But when it is not winter, I hate the house, just like Grandma does. I don't like people to know I live there because there is always noise. Most of the noise comes from my brother, who yells to high heaven when things don’t go his way, which is most of the time. But on the weekends, when my father is around, most of the noise comes from him.

My father works the second shift, from three to eleven. He leaves before I am home from school and comes home long after everyone has gone to bed. So we really only see him on the weekends. He works as a machinist, making the metal disks that go on the bottoms and tops of cans. Sometimes he brings home bags of defects, and my brother and I empty them on the living room carpet and pretend they are oversized silver coins—beautiful, shiny coins that we can see our faces reflected in. Or we roll them across the kitchen floor, in part to see whose will go farthest and in part for the sheer joy of listening to the tings and plinks they make as they collide, for the thrill of watching them spin to a stop.

The machines my father works on are so loud that he has become hard of hearing, which, my mother says, is why he is so loud. When he is home and making a fuss, my grandmother runs from window to window with her cigarette between her fingers, looking to see who is outside and may be listening to him. "Goddamn fish bowl," she snarls. Except on Sundays, when everything closes, there are always people, shoppers, surrounding the house. They try to park mostly in the lot behind our house, but when the lot is full, they park on the side of the house or in front of it. Often they leave their shopping carts in our yard. Grandma is right; no matter which window you go to, you can find someone looking into our fishbowl, especially when my father and brother are yelling at the same time, especially when it is warm and the windows are open.

The worst of the yelling happens on Sundays, when, thank goodness, no one is in the lot to hear and Grandma and I have only the casual strollers to concern ourselves with. On Sundays, my father works for the Acme Supermarket. His job is twofold. He must drive around the neighborhood in his beat-up station wagon and pick up the carts that careless shoppers have walked home with, and he must clean the parking lot. To save his back, he does this latter task with a nail protruding from an old broom handle. He carries a canvas bag on his shoulder so that he can stab at debris with his nail, flick the stick like a baton, snag the litter, and bingo, into the bag it goes and he’s ready for the next attack.

His mission in life is to get my brother to clean the parking lot with him; he wants my brother to learn to work. He says one day he'll be gone and if my brother doesn't learn how to work now, he won't know how later, and he’ll wind up living on the street like a bum. My brother hates work more than anything, and when he sees my father retrieving his stick and canvas bag from the corner in the living room, he begins to howl. "No, no," he yells. "I don't want to go. I don't want to go in that lot." He yells this at the top of his lungs, his spittle flying in every direction, while my father yells at the top of his that like it or not, he is going, and my mother begs my father to go easy on David, and my grandmother runs from window to window, her mud-brown eyes full of alarm, muttering under her breath and cupping her hand under the glowing ash of her cigarette.

If the weather is nice, I go outside and cross the street, where the screaming and yelling is not so loud. Sometimes Denise is out in her yard and we listen together. We watch quietly as my father and David finally emerge, David with a stick just like my father's but smaller, and they march to the lot, my father in the lead and my brother shuffling behind—as if he is wearing shoes that are four times his size and he can’t quite get his feet off the ground—blowing his nose, wiping his snot rag over his face. My father’s yelling continues in the lot. "Come on. Work like a man. Be a man. No handouts in life." My brother cries the whole time, big body-wracking sobs that make his nose run incessantly. Each time he stops to wipe his snot rag up and down his face, my father yells at him for slowing down. It's crazy. They're crazy. My brother is crazy.

In fact, there are a few other crazies on the road, and so Denise and I have named the stretch of Plaza Road that includes my house and the others Crazy Row. Across the street from my house (and beside Denise’s) there is the McSwan house, and then the Pasternak house, where awesome Debby lives. The McSwans are two middle-aged brothers. The one who is always in the house used to be a priest. That is all we know about him. That, and that he can be counted on to show up at my house every Christmas Eve like clockwork with a bottle of whiskey, which no one in my family ever drinks. His brother, who visits him frequently and stays a week or two at a time—we speculate that he is institutionalized the rest of the time—is the nutty one, or so we think. (We will change our tune a few years hence when the ex-priest brother sees me in the Acme and reaches out to touch the bag of Wonder Bread I am carrying but has a change of heart and squeezes my breast instead!) Every time the brother visits, he gets the huge hedge shears out from the garden shed and spends hours and hours cutting. The crazy part is that he does not cut the hedges, ever. He cuts just above the hedges. In other words, he cuts invisible hedges that exceed the height of the real ones. He holds his huge shears in two hands and clip-clip-clips, very carefully, as if it will make a difference whether or not he does a good job. From our secret hiding places, Denise and I can watch him for hours. His eyes never leave his work. We never cease to be amazed.

There is not really anyone crazy in Debby's house, but Denise's mother and my grandmother like to gossip so much about Gloria, Debby's mother, that we include her as one of the crazies on Crazy Row too. She has two children, Debby and Joanie, from two different husbands. We hardly know anyone who is even divorced, let alone divorced twice. Also, there are rumors that her first husband, Debby's father, was a Negro. And sure enough, Debby's got frizzy hair and a wide nose and thicker lips than the rest of us. But whether Gloria is a "floozy," as my grandmother and Mrs. T call her, or not, I like her, because she is the only neighbor who ever visits my mother. She is big and loud and redheaded—just like Debby. She wears what my mother calls "revealing" clothes, and she has a "filthy" mouth and she drinks. But I notice that when she comes over with her cleavage bubbling up out of her shirt and lights up a cigarette at our dining room table and tells my mother to break open one of Mr. McSwan’s $#!$&! holiday bottles, the whole house fills with laughter, most of it hers but some of it my mother's too. Once, I got on all fours and crawled beneath the dining room table just be closer to it.

I like thinking of my house as one of the three that make up Crazy Row. It’s good to feel like you’re not alone in this world.


One sunny autumn day when I am ten I get the shock of my life. I am outside playing jump rope in the girls' school yard (St. Anne's keeps the sexes divided as much as possible) when I see my father crossing the street. My father has never been to my school before. I am stunned; I can't imagine why this is happening. He is wearing brown pants covered with paint stains and one of the frayed shirts from my grandmother. His pants are too short for his huge frame and his skinny ankles stick out like umbrella handles. Behind him is our spotted green Ford, one of two cars that he owns, the other being the station wagon with the hole in the floor near the gas pedal that he uses to pick up the grocery carts and haul ladders around when he is doing house painting or other odd jobs for the neighbors. At home it makes me laugh to see our spotted Ford. The car is light green, but when it began to rust, my father used dark green paint he had on hand to cover the rust spots. Here it is not funny. This is my school, my turf. My father, with his frayed shirt sleeves and polka-dot Ford, has no business being here.

I drop my end of the rope and go to him on concrete legs, so that he won't have to stand there looking for me among all the other girls, all of us with our navy blue jumper-style uniforms and white blouses and bowties. "What?" I mouth when our eyes meet.

He is trembling. I have never seen my father tremble before. We continue to walk towards each other, until we are about five feet apart. "Your mother had a baby girl," he says at last.

I look at him, at his light blue eyes, his cupid lips, his Frankenstein-shaped forehead. My mother had a baby girl. I knew she was "in that way" of course, but the news is still shocking. The only times I can recall taking stock of the progress of her pregnancy are the times when I was asked to do some chore that she would have done herself if she were not so fat and tired. I am positively flabbergasted. And I am thrilled. I have a baby sister. "Can I come home?" I ask. "Can I drive home with you and see her?"

"She's in the hospital, with your mother," he says. "You stay here and be a good girl." And with that he turns and walks back toward his spotted car.

When I come home from school that day, it all makes sense to me. There are two rooms upstairs, in the attic of the house, one of which is my grandmother's. The second room was unfinished when we moved in, and my father said it would have to stay that way, because of the expense. But more recently he's been up there on Saturdays when he doesn't have to work, hammering and sawing and making lots of noise. Now I go up the stairs and see that the room is finished. It has an ugly green and gray linoleum floor and white painted walls where there used to be just studs. My grandmother comes out from her room. "Who's it for?" I ask her. "The baby?"

"It’s for your brother," she says.

"Why does he get it?"

"Because the baby will be going in your room."

The baby will be going in my room. And my brother will be leaving it, after ten years of sharing. This is amazing, amazing! My brother is tormented by nightmares all night long, every night. All night long he calls out in his sleep, "Stop, stop," and "No, no," and "Wait, wait." He pants. His legs jump as if he is running. He kicks the covers off his bed. Thinking about the things that might be chasing him to make him cry out so incessantly is enough to give me nightmares too. Plus there are his allergies. He sneezes and snorts and sniffs and sits up to blow his nose. He tosses and turns, never able to find comfort. In the morning, his dirty snot rag is on the floor between our beds, along with half his covers. His little ugly snake—which my mother says I must never look at—peeks out of the slit in his pajamas and tries to look at me. And there is so much yellow gunk in his eyes that it’s all I can do to keep from puking. Sometimes one eye is glued shut with crusty yellow gook, and then he screams and screams until my mother comes in with a washcloth and a bowl of warm water.

Now he will be replaced by a baby, a pink gurgling baby girl that I already know will be the love of my life.

I can hardly wait for all this to happen. But when my mother comes home from the hospital with my new sister, a precious beautiful blue-eyed baby that I am allowed to hold if I sit still on the sofa and rest my elbows on a cushion, I am told it will be awhile until she can sleep in my room. In the meantime, she will stay in the room with my parents.

To get David to sleep in his new room, my parents borrow money from my grandmother and buy him his own TV, which he is allowed to watch until bedtime. Even so, the first several nights he runs downstairs during commercials and screams his objections into the middle of the living room, where the rest of us are trying to watch TV. Then, as soon as he realizes that the commercial has ended, he stops screaming and runs back up again. "Goddamn lunatic," my grandmother says each time. "Mommmmm," my mother warns in three syllables, her stock response to most of my grandmother’s sarcastic remarks.

After a week or so, even David comes to see the futility of his actions, and he begins to do his screaming during commercials directly from his bed, which is tolerable to the rest of us by comparison. In fact, I seem to be the one who is having the hardest time adjusting to a room of her own. For some time now I have been tiptoeing out of my room after bedtime to stand in the hall and peek at TV shows my mother and grandmother watch in the evenings while they wrap locks of hair around their fingers and secure their curls with crisscrossed bobby pins. In this way I have seen "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and a new show, called "The Twilight Zone," and before it was canceled, a show called "Panic." Now that I am sleeping alone, no longer distracted by David's discomforts, the scariest episodes come rushing back to me. There is a chair in my room where I pile up my clothes. Once everyone has gone to bed and the house is quiet, the clothes take on the shape of a man, Bela Lagosi. If I close my eyes, I know the next time I open them, Bela will be hovering right over me, his face fierce, his hand gripping a knife or a club. I stay awake for hours, until sleep overtakes me so artfully that even I don’t notice.

Sleep becomes impossible without the security of knowing that the monsters are too busy chasing David to notice me. I see an episode on "Twilight Zone" about a man who is afraid to go to sleep because of a dream he is afraid to have. I know exactly how he feels. There is a scene in which, after days and days of forcing himself to stay awake to avoid the dream, he glances into the rearview mirror as he is driving down the road, and sure enough, there is someone in the backseat of the car, the cat woman from his nightmares! This scene scares me so much that I ask my father to remove the mirror above my dresser. He complies. I beg my parents to let the baby, my sweet sweet Judy, come into my room now, but my mother says she is still too small. A little longer.

Trucks come at night to deliver product to the Acme. Since the back of the store faces the back of our house, where my room is, I can hear them and I can see their lights. I can hear the lifting of the steel doors of the loading dock, the gruff voices of the men working. Somehow I didn’t notice them so much when David was in my room. One night I hear a baby crying, not my beautiful baby sister, who really doesn’t cry much at all, but someone out in the parking lot. The next day my grandmother says it was only a cat, that sometimes when cats want to get in that way, they cry just like babies.

But who am I kidding? Even if Bela Lagosi were to disappear tomorrow and I never saw another scary TV show or heard strange noises from the lot behind the house again, I would still have trouble relaxing alone in a room in the dark, because of the devils. The nuns never tire of talking about them. They are more watchful than God. They wait for you to slip, to show one sign—a glance at your breasts in the mirror, a lie told to your parents—and then they pounce, ready to lead you along the dark path that will ultimately bring you right to the doorstep of the place they call home. Oh, how I fear the devils. I fear them for that first microsecond after I’ve opened my closet door. I fear them when I awake in the night to find my arm dangling over the side of the bed. But most of all I fear them when I must go down the basement. David knows they are down there too, and sometimes I succumb to irresistible temptation and turn off the light when he is down there, only for a second, only long enough to hear him scream.

If we are not skipping rope on the girls’ playground, we are standing in tight circles talking about devils, about who has seen one and who has not, about what kinds of seemingly harmless acts—such as wearing patent leather shoes that allow the boys to see up our uniforms—might get their attention. The only thing we talk about nearly as much—ironic, since the subject itself is worthy of their attention—is how girls get pregnant. Janice Pipson, who has several older brothers and thinks she is an authority on subjects concerning the sexes, tells us that a boy must stick his big toe in a girl's pee pee in order for babies to be conceived. Janice is a good girl who never gets in trouble. She never drifts, no matter what Sister Francine, our teacher that year, is talking about. She nods her head constantly, almost imperceptibly, as if she gets it; she gets everything all the time. Janice’s breasts are huge, as big and puffy as pillows. She is short and has the smallest feet I've ever seen on a ten-year-old girl. It is amazing to me that she doesn’t tip over, with all that weight in front. I look at her feet a lot, because they are always side by side, lined up perfectly in their little black MaryJanes and perky lace-fringed anklets.

I don't buy the toe-in-the-pee pee theory. I think of my father's toes, his thick fungi-filled yellow toenails, and the smell of his feet. My mother says his feet smell because of something that happened to him in the war, when he was in the Philippines. Some disease he got. Even though my mother allows my father to boss her around constantly when he’s home, I can't believe that she would let him stick his stinky feet between her legs.

One day I tell Denise Janice's theory and she says she doesn't believe it either. We are in my room, on the floor, on our stomachs, our legs up in the air, our feet crossed, drawing. Today we are looking at the grain of the wood of my knotty-pine dresser for inspiration. If you stare at an area long enough, you begin to see faces in the knots and in the grain—puppy faces, pandas, kids, old men—just the way faces appear in clouds. Denise hates to draw, but whenever we are at my house, I insist it is the only thing there is to do. That or cut furniture and toasters and vases out of Green Stamp catalogs and paste them into cardboard boxes to make homes for our paper dolls. I pay for it at her house, where the only thing to do is play tag, which I am terrible at, or worse, help her mother to make Syrian string cheese in the kitchen.

"Ask your sister," I urge. Sharon is three years older. She has boyfriends already. If anyone will know, she will.

"She won't know," Denise says.

"Well, at least ask her."

"Ask her yourself."

"Okay, I will," I say determinedly.

But in the end, I don't have the nerve to ask Sharon. I just can't find the words. I am shy around her, because she is so outgoing. She has a joke, because I blush so easily. When she is with her friends and she sees me outside, she says, "Watch this," and then to me, "Joan, blush." Her friends look at me and laugh. She says, "See, what did I tell you?"


One night just before bedtime I happen to lift a slat of the Venetian blinds just about the time that the supermarket is closing. There is a boy who works there, a tall, slim teenager who Denise and I have a crush on, because he is so cute. He looks like Ricky Nelson, we think. Denise and I get to see him often because we are in the supermarket constantly. Mrs. T sends us every time she thinks of something else she needs, even if we have just been moments ago. If Denise is elsewhere and Mrs. T sees me on the street or in my yard, she will call me over to go to the store by myself. I think she has a lot of nerve to ask me when she could just wait for Denise or Sharon to come home, but I always comply, even though when I return with her stuff she makes me wait in the kitchen while she reviews the receipt and counts the change. And always—alwaysI have been cheated a penny or two pennies or a nickel, and then I must go back again and ask for the difference—the equivalent, for me, of being asked to read out loud in class, or having one of nuns pull me out of line because my shoes need polishing or my beanie is crooked.

The Ricky Nelson look-alike comes out of the supermarket with some other boys and then veers off alone to head for his car, which is parked all the way over to the left, almost in the pharmacy parking lot, which the supermarket lot bleeds into. But when he reaches his shiny black '55 Chevy Impala, instead of turning the ignition and heading for home, he just sits there. I can't imagine what is detaining him. I fantasize that he has car trouble, that he will come to our house—like a woman did last year when her daughter fell out of the car and cracked her skull while they were cruising in the lot looking for a space—and ask for help.

But he only continues to sit there, too far away for me to see what he's doing. I turn my attention to the others departing the store. There is a young woman, very pretty, who parks her car right up against the hedges that are right behind our house, right behind the window I am looking out of. She is one of the cashiers. She is skinny and quiet and has long black hair. She is walking with other women, a unit from which pieces break off as each reaches her own car.

One by one, all the other women pull away and exit the parking lot. The Ricky Nelson look-alike and the quiet girl who is parked just beyond the hedges are the only two who remain. Maybe they are both having car trouble, I speculate. Minutes pass. Then Ricky starts up his Chevy, and without even turning on his headlights, he cruises over and parks right beside her.

Now they are both outside my window. I can't believe it! Ricky gets out of his car and closes the door and leans against it, his arms folded, his head titled, smiling lopsidedly, waiting. The girl reaches over and pops the button on her passenger door. Ricky gets in; she slides over. Immediately he puts his arm around her and she turns to him and they begin to kiss. Her back arches as she presses herself against him. Their heads move back and forth. They kiss hungrily, greedily, as if their goal is to swallow each other’s faces. I have never seen anything like this. People kiss on TV sometimes, but never like this. His free hand travels up and down her back, pressing her even closer. Then it slips under her blouse. I feel uncomfortable, hot, as if I am running a fever, as if I may pee in my pants. I don't know why I should be feeling what they are doing, but it occurs to me that Janice Pipson may have it half right.

They slip down in the seat and I can't see them anymore. The hedges are in the way. I wait for a long time but they do not resurface.

I begin to spend more and more time in my room looking out the window, at the lovers when they are there but at the rest of the world as well, and at all times of the day. Here I have always hated my house because people try to see in—primarily when there is noise, but often even when there isn’t, simply because it is there, right smack in the middle of all the possible places where a shopper might park a car. But now I realize that there is a whole world going on out there in the parking lot, and I can observe it without being seen. In fact, in many ways it is even more interesting than peeking at the TV shows my mother and grandmother watch. All I have to do is lift a slat on the blinds, at any time of day, and presto! Angry mothers are pushing screaming toddlers in grocery carts; boys are whistling and kicking cans; young couples are arguing as they get out of their cars, slamming doors behind them; old men and women who take forever to exit their vehicles are using canes to navigate their way across the lot to the store; men are sitting in the driver’s seat waiting while their wives shop, their expressions confirming that their thoughts are a million miles away. Sometimes I even see kids I know from school getting out of cars with their moms. Once I even saw my mother and David in the lot, which was a shock, because my mother hardly ever leaves the house. How prickly she looked out there, ready to be irritated with anyone who even looked sideways at David. How hunched she was, curled over him like an apostrophe.

Everyone needs food. Everyone shops at the Acme. No matter what is going on in our house, no matter who is yelling and who is crying, I have a secret world, as sacred and remote as a world in a snow globe.


Chapter 3

My Baby Sister

My baby sister is the most beautiful baby in the world. She has my father's light blue eyes and hair the color of corn silk. How we fuss over her, Grandma and me, cooing into her face, doing everything we can think of to make her smile. My mother fusses too, of course, especially during the day when Grandma is at work and I am at school, but in evenings she has David to contend with. And David is a handful. So she's glad to have us to take over.

David does not like Judy. David does not like anyone who gets between him and the TV or between him and our mother. If Judy crawls over and puts one small hand on his thigh, he will look up quickly, to signal that he needs someone to get her off right away. If she begins to crawl into the space between him and the TV, someone has to swoop down and pick her up and redirect her, or he will push her out of the way, roughly, as if she is a bag of potatoes. One day, just after her first birthday, she manages to get up the stairs without anyone noticing, and when David sees her about to commit the ultimate trespass by entering his room, he gives her one good shove. Thump, thump, thump, and then the next thing you know we are all running, all screaming, "Is she okay? Is she okay?"

And she is. She rolls all the way down the stairs and doesn't break a single bone. My mother and grandmother yell at David for what seems like hours, and in the end he promises never to push Judy again, though I suspect he is just saying it to get them to clear out of his room. But on another occasion, when I am in our room with her, she reaches up to get a doll that is half hanging off her dresser and falls backwards and hits her head on my bed frame, which extends out too far beyond the mattress, and breaks her collar bone. I hate myself for weeks, right up until the white collar comes off and she is herself again.

She is the apple of my eye, my pride and joy. Each day when I come home from school, I hurry to change out of my uniform and into play clothes and take her for a walk in her stroller. Sometimes Denise and I walk Judy and Jeffrey together. Jeffrey is the little boy who lives in one of the houses down the block. His mother pays Denise or Sharon, whoever is around, to take him for nice long walks so she can get some things done around the house without him.

One day it is both Sharon and Denise together walking Jeffrey. It is autumn and it is cool outside and I am wearing my reversible jacket, the navy side out. Judy, who is almost two, has blankets tucked around her to keep out the cold. I catch up with Sharon and Denise and Jeffrey and we start around the block together, three girls, two strollers, heading not towards the highway and the stores but in the other direction, which becomes increasing more residential. Denise and Sharon push Jeffrey ahead, and I push Judy behind. When Judy throws her little arms out to accompany a big yawn, I yell, "Look at her! She's so cute!"

Sharon and Denise turn to look, their faces blank, and then turn back and start walking again. Denise calls over her shoulder, "Jeffrey is way cuter."

What? Have I heard her right? "Judy is definitely cuter than Jeffrey," I say. "I don't know how you can say a thing like that. Jeffrey is cute but Judy is beautiful."

Sharon and Denise stop walking. We make a circle around the two strollers and peer in at the babies. Jeffrey sees us staring and smiles; he likes to be the center of attention. Judy is looking beyond us, taking in the colors changing on the leaves no doubt. "Jeffrey is cuter," Denise says decidedly.

I know this is not true. I know it with my whole heart and soul. And moreover, I know that Denise knows it. Sometimes she will do that; she will say something contradictory for no good reason. I give her a little push, just to let her know I've got her number, and she immediately shouts, "You ripped my new jacket!" I look at her yellow sleeve. There's no rip there. "Your jacket isn't ripped!" I turn in desperation to Sharon. "You don't think Jeffrey is cuter, do you?"

Sharon studies the babies for a long time. Finally she says, "They're both the same. They're both cute."

I am willing to accept this, because I want peace. But then Sharon adds, "But Jeffrey is definitely smarter."

"Yeah," Denise chimes in. "And he's even younger than Judy, but he definitely knows how to do more things."

I feel the tears rising up to form puddles over both my eyes. Something large and volatile is happening inside me. This is my sister, my beautiful perfect sister, they are talking about. I turn and make a beeline back to the house, giving Judy the ride of her life in her stroller.

I see Denise outside the next day, walking around in her yard and looking over in the direction of my house, and I know she wants to make up, but I have been stung deeply and I don't want to play with her. A few days later, when she has a friend over from school, I go outside just to get some fresh air. But I hear Denise say, "Come on, let's go in," and they disappear before I can decide whether or not I want to try and make friends again.

Winter comes. The snow mountains go up, and I climb them with Debby and a few other girls, but it's just not the same. Debby is too wild for me. She doesn't like to sit and talk like Denise does. Not only does she hate to draw, but she can’t be manipulated into it either. She has no interest in cute boys. She doesn’t even watch Ricky Nelson on TV. She likes always to be doing, moving, building, with no breaks in between. She is always dirty. Her little sister, Joanie, who she sometimes drags along, is even dirtier, filthy.

When Christmas comes, I stare out the window, across the street at the Topal tree, centered precisely in the middle of their big picture window. It is so full it reminds me of a queen gathering her many skirts as she lowers her bottom to sit on her throne. Except for this year, I have been there every year when Denise and Sharon and Mrs. T decorate the tree. Mrs. T is an artist when it comes to tree decorating. She will hang one ornament on a branch and then stand back to make sure its position is perfect. Only when she is certain will she place the next. Each ornament is a work of art in itself. Some have nativity scenes hand-painted. Some are made of tinted glass, so delicate that we all whisper as we work. My job is to check the hooks and replace the ones that are missing while the ornaments are still in the boxes. When it is time for the tinsel, Denise and Sharon must separate every strand and place each individually. Never are two strands allowed to touch. Never are they allowed to hang unevenly. The work requires so much precision that I—the klutz—am relegated to distributing the tinsel in bulk to the sisters as they call for it. But it is enough; it is enough just to feel it in my hands, so slick and luminescent it might as well be alive.

In our house, it takes about five minutes to decorate the tree. The process begins with my father bringing the same old dusty rectangular box up from the basement. The tree is in the box. Each year when he inserts the branches in the holes on the pole that is the center of the tree, I am amazed that any manufacturer would make such a cheesy tree. There are huge gaps between the branches. It doesn’t even look like a tree. It looks like a green broom handle with twigs sticking out of it. I’m sure you are supposed to put the larger twigs on the bottom and the smaller ones at top to give it some shape, but my father is in too much of a hurry to correct himself when he messes up. Before he stands the tree up, I get to place the angel. I love that angel. She is beautiful; she has yellow hair and she wears a white gown with gold stars. Her smile is the most gentle smile I have ever seen.

Once the tree is up in its stand, on a table in the corner of the room because it is too short to stand on the floor, my father runs a strand of lights around its middle and then the balls are placed any-old-which-way, and hence half of them fall off and break before the decorating process is finished. Then David does the tinsel. Each year I beg my mother to let me do it; I beg her to see that properly placed tinsel, one strand at a time like the Topals do it, can save a tree, even this one. But David screams that he’s in charge of tinsel, and no one wants to argue with him. David removes the tinsel from the box by the handful. Then he takes aim and throws a clump at a time. It lands in globs. The globs look like metallic birds’ nests. Each year I can hardly wait for New Year’s Day, when the tree will go back into the basement and there will be nothing but a few stray pieces of tinsel in the corner beneath the table to remind me that it was ever there.

The snow mountains block out the parking lot the entire winter. I can’t see a thing from my bedroom window. My world feels small and empty. At least I have Judy. I can spend hours looking at her sweet face, watching her sleep. When she is awake, I put on puppet shows for her with her dolls. I make them dance and sing. Sometimes I can get her to smile, even laugh if I work hard at it. But there are plenty of gloomy winter days when it feels like too much work. Sometimes I park her next to David, in front of the TV. By now she has learned not to touch him, not to disturb him in any way. She will sit in front of the console like he does, staring ahead at the monsters on the screen, for hours. Then I can lie down on the sofa behind them and keep an eye out while I think about how much I hate Denise, how terrible she is, how I am never going to speak to her again for our entire lives.

My mother and grandmother take my side. How dare anyone say anything bad about our Judy? At night when I am lying in bed I can hear them talking. On the nights I peek out from the hall to watch what they are watching on the TV, I can see them, a pair of bookends on the sofa. They both wear cardigan sweaters over their flowered cotton housecoats. All four housecoat pockets bulge with tissues. They sit with their arms folded beneath their breasts, their feet extended and crossed at the ankles. My grandmother’s feet are bare in her fuzzy blue slippers. My mother wears thin white anklets and worn penny loafers. My grandmother’s face is set in a permanent scowl. My mother’s expression is blank. They keep their eyes on the TV screen, but they talk constantly—in a low dull monotone that sounds like the drone of bees—if not about Mrs. T, because ultimately they transfer their anger to her for having daughters who would say such a thing, then about other people. Talk. Talk. Talk. Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. Everyone in the neighborhood comes under their scrutiny over time.

By the time spring rolls around, we all make derogatory remarks when we see any of the Topals from the window. The only exception is Nathan, Denise and Sharon’s older brother, because he is seldom around and really we don’t know enough about him to bad-mouth him. "There's Miss Know-It-All," my grandmother will say when she sees Sharon. "Miss Prim, isn't she?" my mother will add. Sharon is becoming a beauty queen. You can see by the way she walks, by the way she turns her head to laugh with her friends, that she exudes feminine confidence. "And that little one," my grandmother will add if she sees Denise. "Who the hell does she think she is?" "I don't know who the heck she thinks she is," my mother will answer. For Mrs. T they save the really nasty stuff, saying mean things about the shape of her nose and the size of her rear end, which really isn't any bigger than my mother's.

One day in the summer, when it is boiling hot and we are all grumpy and dripping with sweat, there is a knock on the back door. My grandmother, who is in the kitchen cooking, answers it. My mother and I are in the living room. I am sitting beside Judy and David in front of the TV, playing pick-up-sticks, and my mother is sitting on the sofa with two brown paper bags on the floor between her feet, snapping the ends off green beans from one bag and throwing them into the other. My mother and I freeze and try to listen to what is happening in the kitchen. It is hard to hear over the TV and the fans we have whirling throughout the house. Except for Mr. McSwan coming over at Christmas time, and my aunt Eleanor (my mother’s sister), who comes to visit maybe twice a year, and the very well announced visits from Gloria (who yells even before she gets to the door, "Hey, Gin! It’s me, Gloria!"), we never have unannounced guests. In fact, we never have guests period.

"Come on in, come on in," we hear my grandmother say. "Sit down. Get comfortable."

Then Grandma appears in the living room, her face full of light, as if she has seen God for the very first time. This is such an unusual expression for her that my mother and I, who share almost nothing, share a quick look of surprise. "Tyla's here," Grandma says, waving her arms toward the kitchen, "with the girls. They brought ice cream. Come on now. Come on. Hurry before it melts."

Without regard for my pick-up-stick configuration, I jump to my feet. My mother puts aside her paper bags and hustles too. Even David gets up. Only Judy remains in front of the TV. Our war with the Topals has gone on for months. I have no idea whether this visit will result in an escalation or terms for peace. We all follow Grandma into the dining room to find out.

Sharon is perched on the edge of the little table where our telephone is kept. Denise is standing next to her, leaning against the wall. I look from one to another and nod hello. They nod back. Sharon almost smiles. David takes a seat at the table and says, "Where’s my ice cream?" No one answers him.

I catch a bit of what Mrs. T and my grandmother are saying, about the stupidity of it all, neighbors who have always been there for each other, getting upset because of some little thing. I want to open my mouth and remind everyone that Judy is not some little thing. She is a real person. She's cuter than Jeffrey by a long shot, and smarter too. Well, maybe not smarter now, but she will be, you wait and see. Even Einstein didn’t talk until he was ready and look how he turned out. And she is surely cuter in the meantime, any idiot can see that. But of course I say nothing. Bowls appear, spoons clink, my grandmother dishes out the ice cream, her elbows pumping, while David keeps up the pressure, "Where’s mine? Where’s mine?" until the first full bowl—vanilla, I see—is passed to him with a bit of a shove, to show him how annoying he is, as if he might notice such a subtle gesture.

My grandmother and Mrs. T go on talking, saying the same things over and over like broken records. Their conversation is punctuated with compliant phrases: "Oh, sure." "It happens." "That’s right." "Of course." My mother adds little, but she underscores their sentences with nods of agreement as she sees fit. I notice for the first time how Sharon and Denise, who are both wearing bright, starched, light-colored sundresses, suck the ice cream off their spoons just a little at a time. So dainty. Not at all like the way Debby and Joanie eat. I try to suck my own ice cream that way, daintily, a little at a time. But my trembling jaw prevents precision. I want to cry, half because I’m so angry and half because I’m so relieved to have Denise here in my dining room, sucking ice cream from a spoon and saying not a single word.

David pushes his empty bowl away from him. It wobbles for a moment in the middle of the table and then falls silent. He gets up and heads toward the living room. "Did you even say hello to anyone?" my grandmother cries, but he is already gone.

A moment later Judy appears. My grandmother and Mrs. T break off talking to look at her. Then Mrs. T follows the three tsking sounds she makes with her tongue with, "Oh, look at her! Isn’t she just a darling? And getting so big." She changes her voice to a cartoon-character voice, the kind adults use when they talk to babies. "Come here and see Aunt Tyla. Come on now," she says, patting her leg. "Come on. Come sit on Aunt Tyla’s lap and have some ice cream." She holds her arms out.

Judy slinks against the wall, her chin lodged on her shoulder. She regards Mrs. T with suspicion, as well she should. The ice cream has already been put away, to keep it from melting in all this heat. No one volunteers to go for it. The silence becomes unbearable. The only sound is the whirring of the fan on the floor. I get up suddenly, surprising myself. I hoist my sister into the air and swing her down into her high chair. Then I give her my bowl and spoon. She looks at me for a moment, startled. Then she puts her chubby hand into the bowl and swirls it around in the melting vanilla ice cream. When she lifts her hand back out, it is totally white. She holds it in the air for a moment, as if wondering herself what she should do with it, then smears the ice cream all over her face and shirt. She laughs. A second passes. Then we all laugh. "They all do that at that age," Mrs. T says.

I look at her, shocked, but she is still looking at my sister, still smiling. I want to punch her face just then. Don’t you think we know that? I want to ask her. We didn’t need you to tell us that, I want to say. But instead I go into the kitchen for a towel to wipe my sister’s face clean.





About the author

Joan Heartwell is an award-winning author and a former indie publisher now working as a freelance writer, ghostwriter, and book consultant. She lives with her husband and dogs in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

TTB title: Hamster Island

Visit Joan's web site.




Hamster Island Copyright © 2014. Joan Heartwell. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.


To order this book:
Format: ePub, PDF, HTML, Kindle/Mobi
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List Price: $6.50 USD

Format: Trade Paperback
    Available May 2014!
List Price: $17.95 USD


  Author News

Joan Heartwell, author of Hamster Island, has been making media appearances in conjuction with the release of her memoir.

Barry Eva Show -- A Book and a Chat on Feb.5th

The Michael Dresser Show -- Jan. 30th

Julie Mars interviewed Joan Heartwell. The interview is up at the Compulsive Reader.


  What people are saying:

“Bittersweet, engagingly written, and populated by a household of strong-willed, idiosyncratic characters, Hamster Island has, at its core, a conflict familiar to us all: How can we be good to others while also being good to ourselves? ... This tale of caregiving and self-actualization is unique, but it abounds with insights for us all.”
~ Rachel Simon, New York Times bestselling author of Riding The Bus With My Sister and The Story of Beautiful Girl

“Joan Heartwell invites us into her life on Hamster Island with great honesty and humor and warmth. This memoir will resonate deeply with anyone who ever longed for a ‘normal’ family, anyone who ever escaped the chaos of their childhood home, anyone who was ever bound by love to return.”
~ Gayle Brandeis, novelist, winner of Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of Literature of Social Change

“The most gorgeous literary works are, in my mind, the most courageous. They take language as their tool and use it to winnow wheat from chaff until the story stands out in all its pain and glory. Joan Heartwell’s Hamster Island does this and more....”
~ Kate Niles, author of The Basket Maker (ForeWord Book of the Year) and The Book of John

“A riveting story of a life-long struggle to relate to a by-times jealous and by-times indifferent mother and siblings afflicted by mental and social challenges.”
~ Damian McNicholl, author of A Son Called Gabriel

“Joan Heartwell’s poignant and unsparing account of growing up with her disabled siblings will resonate with those whose siblings can never be their peers, and help them realize that they are not alone.”
~ Jeanne Safer, PhD, author of The Normal One: Life with a Difficult or Damaged Sibling and Cain’s Legacy




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