Scoundrel Time

Certain Angles

Becka stretched out flat on the warm driveway, her arms and legs moving up and down on the asphalt, as if making an angel. She wondered what it would be like to have her friends over, make Jiffy Pop, and watch TV. Some of the other families in the large cul-de-sac that made up the community had black and white TVs, so she knew what she was missing.Martha’s cat strolled over, pressed her wet nose onto Becka’s cheek, and wandered off. Becka sat up and stared at the mailbox at the end of Martha’s driveway. Ninth grade loomed in a few weeks and still there was no reply. She wasted a heavy sigh, with no one around to appreciate it.

Becka lived in an intentional Quaker community outside Philadelphia, surrounded by cornfields. Her parents had farmed out her and her younger sisters, Anna and Liza, while they ran an orphanage in India. Martha, a young widow, had taken in the girls. Amalgams of related and unrelated souls lived in separate homes up and down the cul-de-sac: sharing Saturday morning work detail and Saturday evening potluck dinner, trading hand-me-down clothes, and gathering for celebrations and sorrows.

Becka could not recall—or, rather, chose not to recall—how many years it had been since her parents had been home. If asked if she missed them, she would shrug and say they were doing good work, as though there was nothing sufficient she could say as counter-weight to the blessings they brought to those in need. Nothing that wouldn’t draw attention to the fact that she was a Quaker orphan.

Martha had determined that television destroyed all creativity and had put a cloth over the front and a spider plant on top of the console. Becka begged for an opinion from a higher authority, and had been waiting for a response since spring. She dreaded the daily letdown though, like a mosquito bite she had to scratch, she hoped every day for relief—only to be disappointed.

Once her parents weighed-in, then it would be decided whether she could watch Ed Sullivan on Sunday nights. They had written earlier in the summer, a blue aerogram from India with tiny words, on and on about the desperate conditions faced by the children there and the supplies that they needed. Chalk and books for the classroom. Goats and rabbits for nutrition. Shoes. All that fit onto the sheet, yet there wasn’t room for a single word about Ed Sullivan.

This morning, once again the postman brought nothing.

Becka flopped down on the driveway. She let out another wasted sigh, and closed her eyes, waiting for Martha and her sisters to return from a trip to the Quaker meetinghouse.

She woke to the blare of a VW horn, but didn’t move. Martha stopped sharply and leaned out of the Beetle’s window. “We’re back. And we got one!”

Anna, who was twelve and the odd-one-out with curly, blond hair that hung to her rear, jumped out on the passenger’s side. “I have it! A letter!”

Becka didn’t move.

Liza stood behind the passenger seat and shook the back. At six, she looked like a miniature version of Becka, with straight brown hair that flowed to her elbows. Stuck, she shook the front passenger seat once more. “Let me out! Let me out! It’s mine!”

Anna disappeared into the house as Becka languidly got out of the way and let Martha pull into the drive. “There is no letter,” Becka told Liza, lifting the latch on the passenger side so that the seat folded forward. Liza scrambled out and the girls walked hand-in-hand into the house.

Liza lifted her chin. “There is so a letter.”

Martha followed them in. “You saw it,” she affirmed to Liza, then turned to Becka, “Would you mind helping in the kitchen?”

One day, I’ll say, ‘Yes, I do mind,’ Becka thought. By habit, she said the obligatory, “Coming in a sec.” When she got to the kitchen, Martha took a small, rectangular, piece of paper out of a plain white envelope.

Martha scanned the check. “School clothes!” She danced around the kitchen table. Her dark brown hair fell to her shoulders in a cut from another woman in the community—a cut reminiscent of a bob. There wasn’t a hint of grey, even though she was approaching forty. She was almost as slim as Becka, and twirled until she almost fell. “Someone at meeting wrote us a check.”

“Who’s it from?” Becka grasped for the envelope. “There’s no postage.”

Martha snatched it away. “Anonymous. That’s who it’s from. Remember what I told you about a gift horse?”

“I know, already,” Becka said, though she didn’t; she didn’t want to know how much, but who. She was sure it was from her parents. To press Martha was to risk finding out unbearable news: that it might not be. She was like a raw egg—unbreakable when squeezed at certain angles, fragile and easily crushed at others.

Sunday passed without television, and the next one, until school started and Becka was distracted with algebra and the five-paragraph essay. Thanksgiving, then Christmas, came and went, with a blue aerogram to commemorate each occasion, though nothing to speak to the ache that Becka felt on Sunday evenings.

One Saturday in February, she slept in and woke up refreshed. She peered into her sisters’ room. Though sleeping, Liza clutched a teddy bear to her chin. Anna looked half-girl and half-woman as she slept. A Raggedy Anne sat, propped up, in one corner of the bed. In another corner, a petite bra Becka had only recently outgrown hung from the bedpost. Becka backed out of the room.

Work morning began for the community at nine, but it was eleven and Martha hadn’t woken them. Becka bundled up and walked around the cul-de-sac in the crisp winter air. A couple of inches of powdery snow had fallen overnight. “Morning,” she said as she passed one community member, then another. She was answered with, “Are you looking for a shovel?” and “Almost noon, Becka,” and “Where’re that Anna and Liza?”

Becka waved at her friends, Sarah and Grace, who were huddled together, keeping warm. An idle snow shovel lay on the ground near them. They giggled and waved back, and opened their arms so that she could join them. Becka smiled and passed by. “Later.”

For it was Martha who Becka was anxious to find, and she continued walking, answering the adults with a cheerful, “Be back soon.” Though she was loath to lie, she had no intention of returning to work duty until she found Martha.

She walked to the end of the cul-de-sac and approached Jeff’s home. The old man invited all four of them to dinner once a week. She liked him because he knew that Liza loved macaroni and cheese and he made that without fail, with a salad from the community garden—until the frost killed everything green. His beard, mottled white and black, had been Becka’s main concern, for once she found curly black hairs in the dinner. She worried that there were white ones in the mac and cheese but that she couldn’t see them.

Martha laughed a lot when they were at Jeff’s. Weeks ago, when they got back from dinner, Becka mentioned that fact, but Martha insisted that that wasn’t true. The girls had huddled together and agreed: Martha had a ridiculous crush on old, curly-beard Jeff, who was old enough to be too old. Probably that fateful, decrepit, forty.

On a recent visit, Becka had left with Anna and Liza after dinner. Martha said she’d follow right behind, so the girls started down the starlit street. Becka thought that Martha was in a good mood, so decided it would be a serendipitous time to ask about plugging in the television. She ran back to Jeff’s. She hadn’t meant to sneak, though her sneakers made no sound.

Jeff and Martha were on the front porch with their arms snug around each other and Jeff’s head over Martha’s and her mouth tilted upwards, their mouths sucking onto each other—maybe sucking their tongues like a French kiss—sucking like Becka could not have imagined: Like life itself depended on how deep and how long they could go. She’d run home, unlocked her diary, and recorded the unspeakable incident.

Now that it was daylight and practically noon, Becka wasn’t surprised that Jeff’s porch was empty, save for a couple of rockers and end tables that had once been stained red. She didn’t need to knock—usually a “Yoo-hoo” sufficed for neighbors—but found herself stopped outside the door, with her hand raised at knocking height.

She gave up, unclear what she was hoping to find, and was about to step off the porch. Artificial light, reflecting in the living room window, flickered from inside and drew her to the window. Peering in, she saw something unimaginable. Becka backed up and silently stepped off the porch.

*          *          *

Sunday afternoon Becka finished her homework early, helped Anna with a book report, and played with Liza. She laid out her clothes for the morning and helped her sisters do the same.

Sarah and Grace appeared at the house a little before eight and presented Martha with homemade bread and elderberry jam. They left their coats and boots by the door.

“Becka,” Martha called down the hall. “Sarah and Grace are here.” She held the bread close to her nose and smiled. “Still warm, how lovely. Thank you.”

Becka came running from her room and nearly slipped in her socks, gliding into her friends, pushing Martha aside. “Come on.” She grabbed Sarah’s hand, and Sarah clutched Grace’s hand, and the girls ran and slid down the smooth, waxed, wooded hallway.

“Did you bring it?” Becka asked, after they got to her room and plopped onto her bed.

Grace said, “It’s under my coat.”

Becka got off the bed. “Let’s go into the living room nonchalantly.”

The girls walked quietly down the hall. Sarah, keeping up the rear, said, “‘Nonchalantly.’ Did you tell Martha we came over to study our French?”

“Of course,” Becka said, as the trio giggled.

Martha looked up from a book as the girls strolled into the living room. “It’s nice that you’re getting together tonight. Don’t stay too late. Remember—it’s a school night.”

“We know, Martha,” Grace said. She rolled her eyes at Sarah.

“We brought raisin bread,” Sarah said, “I made it with my mom.”

Becka raised her head toward Sarah and Grace, and nodded slightly to encourage them. “That bread sure smells good,” Becka said.

Martha turned a page and looked up. “You girls have had dinner, haven’t you?”

“Ages ago,” Grace said. “But some bread sure would taste good.”

Sarah nodded. “I think my mom thought we’d have some tonight.”

“Well then, Becka, why don’t you take the girls into the kitchen and slice it? The jam looks awfully good, too.”

Becka said, “I would, but I need to study a bit more with Sarah. French.”

Grace looked at Martha. “I could get the bread and everything ready, if you’d show me where things are.”

Martha turned her book over onto the arm of the chair. “I don’t want to hold up progress.” She followed Grace into the kitchen.

Becka stood immobile in the center of the living room, facing the TV console: the cloth over it, and the plant on top. She carefully lifted the sprawling spider plant, like a groom lifting the veil from his bride’s head, and placed it on the fireplace mantel. Its tentacles draped over the length of the mantel and reached nearly to the top of the mesh grate. Sarah picked up the cloth, which was covered with minuscule, dried leaves, folded it into itself, and tiptoed outside. She flapped the detritus to the wind and tiptoed back in. Meanwhile, Becka took a dust cloth that she’d stashed behind the TV and wiped the screen, up and down, sideways, up and down again, until it was spotless from every angle.

Becka scrunched as far as she could behind the console, reached for the cord, and plugged it in. Sarah expertly modulated the volume to a notch above inaudible. She found the channel and whispered, “Countdown minus five.”

One foot into the living room, Martha stopped like a performer with stage fright, holding a tray with sliced bread, small plates, and cloth napkins. She stared at the TV, as though it had been resurrected from the dead. “Heaven’s to Betsy!”

Grace moved quietly out of the kitchen and made a beeline for the front door. She fumbled under her coat, found what she’d been seeking, and darted back into the kitchen. Sarah hurried after her.

Alone in the living room with Martha, Becka took the tray and helped her sit. Her book fell from the arm of the chair onto her lap. Becka thought of saying something, but none of the words that she knew seemed sufficient for the task. She was saved by the theme music for the Ed Sullivan show, which came on faintly. She turned the dial until the tune filled the living room.

A few minutes into the show, the subtle, then overwhelming, smell of buttered popcorn permeated the room. Grace and Sarah came in from the kitchen, triumphantly carrying the expanded foil globe of Jiffy Pop, and a sharp knife.

“For you,” Sarah said, handing the knife to Becka.

Grace set the popcorn on the rug in front of the TV. Becka slit the foil and recoiled as steam streamed back at her. She made another slit, then pulled strips back until the top was fully open.

Liza and Anna, enticed to the living room by the unexpected aroma, sat mesmerized by the TV and took overflowing handfuls. As though Martha wasn’t in the room with them, Liza said, “What did she say?”

“Shh.” Becka stared at Ed Sullivan. Live from New York, waving as if he could see her, as he introduced the first singers. Quiet ensued, followed by a song.

The song finished and Martha said, “You’ve had your fun, now turn it off.”

Becka stood to face her. “No. I saw you. Yesterday.”

Martha straightened her back, like an oak. “You didn’t. You couldn’t have.” She paled. “The door was closed.”

“Through the window. It doesn’t have a curtain.”

“Which window?” Martha’s jaw fell open like she was in a comedy act. A dark purplish-pink, the shade of pomegranate flesh, crept up her neck and spread slowly across her cheeks.

“I was there, on the porch. I looked in the window and saw with my own eyes.” Becka stared. She’d never seen Martha’s face that color. She thrust her hands on her hips. “I saw everything. It’s disgusting.”

Martha pursed her lips, as if that could erase what Becka had seen. “You’re sure? You saw everything?”

“The TV was on! Don’t pretend you weren’t in there. With Jeff. I couldn’t see you because of the light, but the TV was flickering like no tomorrow.”

Martha leaned back. “You looked in the front porch window? Not the back bedroom?” Her blush faded. “Oh. I’m sorry,” she said, as if conceding a point.

“It’s back on,” Anna said, pointing to the show.

“Shh,” a chorus of Sarah and Grace scolded.

Becka sat cross-legged in front of the console, spread her arms out to encompass her friends, her sisters, and the lit screen. “Sunday nights. Right here, like this. My choice.” Reaching into the Jiffy Pop foil, she briefly contemplated writing her mom and dad, imagining their surprise at her oily fingerprints staining the aerogramme with her news.

She ate a handful of warm, buttery popcorn. It was the best that she’d ever had, the best that she could imagine ever having.





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