Trifles

~A story of complicated sisterly love and tough choices ~

By Heather Smith Meloche

“chicago- hegewisch” © Heather Phillips https://www.flickr.com/photos/hphillips/5241961835/

 

When I walk into our trailer after school, Gracie’s already there, even though seniors don’t get out any earlier than freshmen, and she’s holding my flip-flops in her hand like she’s thinking of cutting them to ribbons. Or maybe sticking them on her gross feet with those toenails she never clips enough and when she does, she does it right over my mattress, so when I lie down, they’re like dirty little stickpins and I damn near puke.

Gracie might be my older sister, but she don’t take care of me like no older sister I know. She steals my shit, eats my food before I can get to the counter to grab it for each meal. She cuts holes in my socks when she’s mad at me, and she thinks she’s hilarious for it. And even when she graduates next spring, she most likely will stick around pestering me since none of us got enough money to do anything on our own.

Which means that living in this trailer – all jammed in with Ma and Gracie and Nolan and sometimes Pa whenever he chooses to stumble his ass in — ain’t going to get any better any time soon.

Even though Gracie ain’t paying me any attention, I give her my best glare while she stands there in our tiny sleeping area holding my flip-flops and coming close to stepping on my mattress with her dirty feet. Sometimes I just lie on that twin mattress, slammed near the window and shoved next to Gracie’s and little Nolan’s, and I stare out past the dust coating the glass to the birch tree outside. I stare really hard at its two giant branches reaching out like arms to either side and its trunk peeling like it’s trying to shed its life, trying to become something new, the way I hope I can. I lie there for hours sometimes and think about what I could be if I wasn’t still fourteen, shoved tight like a sardine in this life, just a poor white girl in a Missouri trailer park with no options but the pretty body God gave me and whatever smarts are growing in my brain. I think how I got to do whatever it takes to keep what’s mine mine. My clothes and my hair brush and my shoes and my hair pins. How I can keep it all away from Gracie or Ma or whoever takes it up in their own filthy hands.

“Put my shoes down,” I tell Gracie.

But she just ignores me. Which ain’t like her since her favorite thing is to yell at me. Gracie’s real good at telling me over and over that I’m trash, just like her, and she reminds me every damn day how I’m stuck just like her. But I think she says all that on account of her seeing I’m more than her. I’m close to one-hundred percent certain she’s jealous. I mean, Gracie is plumper than me. In the past couple years she’s started wearing Dad’s baggie plaid shirt over everything — no matter how hot it gets — to cover up her extra weight. But I got curves in more places. Even my math teacher, Mr. Heffler, can’t help but let his eyes wander to my chest now that it’s grown out bigger than Ma’s and my t-shirts are always too small since we can’t afford no others. And if I move my hips just right while I’m walking down the halls of Scott City High, I can swivel those heads of the quarterback and the receiver and the tight end all the way from Pom Squad’s Mindy Gillimp or Heidi Krist to me, snagging the attention of those boys like I’m holding a magic lasso.
But aside from my looks, I think Gracie can’t stand me maybe ’cause I don’t give up as easily when I lose or when people are yelling at me. I hold my head high and take it ’cause I know it’s bound to end soon since it always does. And then I just move on.

Maybe because of that, she knows that I have a chance of getting out. That one day I might just be getting more. Which makes Gracie so stinking mad she cuts extra holes in my socks with our rusty scissors until all my toes pop out the top. But I wear them anyway. Because I got hope inside me.

That’s more than I can say for Gracie.

She’s still pretending I ain’t there watching her stealing my shoes, so I jab my finger toward her. “Put ’em down.” I wait for her to shrink her brown eyes to glaring splinters and go off telling me what a pain in the ass I am and how my opinion ain’t worth shit.

But she doesn’t. Gracie’s eyes stay as open as ever and then she just blinks at me, like she can’t figure out what I said or maybe she didn’t hear me totally. I see her fingers with her nails the opposite of her yucky toenails, way too short and bit down to the quick until they’re close to bleeding, and they grip my flip-flops a little harder. Her brown hair, tied back in the purple rubber band, is sort of quivering, which tells me she’s shaking some, which must mean she’s feeling more than her usual bitterness for me.

But she’s still holding my damn shoes.

So I take the three lunging steps to get to her across the trailer and grab them from her.

“Wait, Cara,” she says, her empty hands dropping like bags of flour, all heavy and sagging. “I lost mine. And I need to wear yours.”

“No! They’re mine. Go beg your friend Lizbeth for hers. Or go down to Hale’s Bin. They got super-used pairs for a quarter.” I turn away from her and head to my tiny corner by my mattress so I can rest my shoes back in the small basket of my things. She’s pulled away the fleece Wonder Woman blanket that I use as a basket cover, leaving my personal items all exposed for Nolan or anyone to reach in and grab. Lord Jesus, I fucking hate that.

When I turn back around, she’s still standing there, staring at me all weird. “Jesus, Gracie,” I say, “just wear your damn slip-ons.”

She points to them making a sad X in the corner, one scuffed shoe stacked on top of the other, the top one’s heel hanging half off. Then she breathes out a long, thick breath like she’s actually trying to make her lungs fold inside out or something. “They don’t fit me no more.”

“Well, welcome to the damn party,” I say, pulling on my too-small shirt, then stalking through the trailer to the kitchen sink to fill a spotty glass with water before heading out into the humidity and heat to water the pink begonia. It hangs in a green plastic pot from a hook shoved into the side of the trailer. I try to care for the flower on account of no one else even realizing it exists. I mean, even though it was given to us free by the trailer park owners at the beginning of the summer, it’s the only nice thing this family owns, and I’ve kept it up all summer long and now into September, so letting it die would sort of be against my keeping-hope-alive policy.

Gracie follows me out, bare feet and all, but she’s had the decency to leave my shoes inside while she nags at me. “I need ’em now, Car. I got to go somewhere, like right now, and I got to wear shoes to get there, and I’m serious that my shoes don’t fit no more.”

She watches me standing on my tiptoes pouring the water real slow while the begonia drinks and drinks, and then the extra water seeps from those holes in the bottom of the plastic pot and drips right onto my battered canvas sneakers, then through to my bare toes poking out of the socks Gracie cut up too much.

“Well, that’s a sad story, ain’t it?” I slam back down on my heels. “But last I checked you didn’t give one hoot nor holler about my feet.” I point to where my bare toes are inside my shoes. “So I ain’t gonna give a damn about yours.”

Gracie might have made some scrunched-up face full of sadness and anger, but I’m distracted by Nolan’s plastic three-wheel bike we trash-picked for him in June. It’s sticking out away from the house in the trailer’s back yard, so I move to tuck it closer to our trailer before Mr. Femansky, the housing manager, bitches out Mom when she gets home all exhausted and smelling like the bacon and fries she serves. I mean, the last thing she’s gonna want to hear at that moment is how her kids leave all their crap all over the trailer park. But before I go around the corner to grab the bike, I shout back to Gracie, “Don’t go touching my shoes, or you’ll be in trouble. I mean it.”

But Gracie’s already gone, probably back inside to stew on being mad at me.

I grab up the heaviness of Nolan’s bike, setting it where it belongs, and think about how all the fighting we do for our space and stuff and own-ness is so damn exhausting. I think about how it might be less tiring to just let my sister use my damn shoes, no matter how much I can’t stand her.

But then I walk back to the front door, and there’s Gracie, already half-way down Bella Hollow Trailer Park’s main street, wearing my flip-flops like we didn’t just have this goddamn conversation about what’s mine staying mine, and that anger just bubbles up past the tiredness of it all. “I hate you, Gracie Ucker!” I give a good scream on top of that just so I know she hears me.

But Gracie doesn’t turn around. She moves away fast until she and the slap of my flip-flops on her stinking feet disappear and all I hear is the drip-drip of the extra begonia water falling from the plastic pot and Ms. Pozell next door coughing up a lung from all the cigarettes she chain-smokes even though she’s already got the worst case of chronic lung disease around.

And I feel myself shake a little, while something wells all up inside, and I try to grab up my hope that one day I’ll be getting out of here. But too much seems stuck. Like things are trying to move but so much of this life, at just this second, is glued right down, and whatever is loose enough is just pathetically flapping and coughing and dripping nonstop.

 


 

I do my homework sitting cross-legged on my mattress and think about how to get even with Gracie. But then I got to make Nolan a peanut butter sandwich when the bus drops him from elementary school, and he comes in with a wicked scratch on his chin from falling on the third-grade playground and with a booger sitting half out of his nose.

“You gotta wipe your nose more,” I tell him while I watch him eating at our tiny table. “You’ll gross people out. You’re grossing me out.”

“My teacher ain’t grossed out,” Nolan says, scratching his scalp with peanut butter-coated fingers and getting that shit all in his thick, curly hair.

“You need a shower,” I tell him. “You don’t shower enough.”

“My teacher don’t ever tell me I need a shower,” Nolan says, eating his crusts last.

“Your teacher don’t have to sleep in the same room as you.” I point at his head. “You need a shower.”

As soon as his last bite is down, I throw him in the shower so at least something in this damn place is clean.

Gracie’s still not back from wherever the hell she took my shoes, so I do homework but all I can think about is cutting the plastic bristles on Gracie’s brush so she’s got to smooth her tangly hair out with her stubby fingers and then I think, even though she’s so mean with those rusty scissors to me, I’m not sure I can bring myself to be that mean to her.

So, I clip my nails – toes and fingers — on Gracie’s bed instead and then feel satisfied enough to finish my homework even though I can’t stop looking at my basket of personal things open wide with the blanket pushed aside and waiting, like it’s some big mouth that’s still hungry because it’s not completely full.

“nails” © Joel Bombardier https://www.flickr.com/photos/bombardier/5552876130/

 


 

Mom gets home past dark with two, stuffed, white doggie bags of food that have big grease spots on the sides.

“Brought you dinner, lovies,” she calls and eases her feet out of her gray waitress shoes millimeter-by-millimeter as if yanking them off fast might make her feet crack into a million pieces since they hurt so damn much. Then she looks up at Nolan and me. “Where’s Gracie?”

“She stole my shoes and took off,” I say, trying to push all my bitter right into that sentence so Ma can understand just how much Gracie takes from me.

“Why’d she take your shoes?” Ma asks, pulling off her nylons and rubbing her calves to try to work some new life into them.

“Can I eat, Ma?” Nolan is already ripping into the doggie bags and pouring fries and chicken tenders onto our melamine plates patterned in these tiny pee-yellow flowers.

“You look good, Nolan,” Ma says. “Did Cara make you take a bath?”

“I told her I didn’t need one.” He shoves a grease-load of fries into his mouth, then scratches his head with shiny fingers.

Ma tries to laugh but it sounds like a grunt, like a laugh dropping fast to the floor before it can fly into the air.

“Gracie took my shoes, Ma,” I say to her so I can get her attention back and keep her on topic.

Ma rubs at her feet, sticking her fingers right in between her toes then digging her knuckles into the arches. “Right. Why’d she take your shoes?”

And I get all geared up to tell Ma how Gracie always crosses the lines and how she thinks she deserves more than everyone else and maybe even how she cuts at my socks when she’s mad at me for just being me, but I start with, “So right before she left with mine, she said hers didn’t fit.”

Which I realize real quick was a mistake because Ma winces. She tries to hide it by sort of ducking her head down, but it’s right there, and it’s not from how much her feet or her calves are aching. Her wince is like a nail that pokes right into me and lets all my fight whistle right out.

So I don’t say nothing when Ma just says, “’Kay,” then stands up slow, like she’s getting her balance, and walks past me and straight into the bathroom to shower.

 


 

Gracie shuffles through the front door while Ma is still in the bathroom getting clean. She’s got her own flip-flops on her feet now.

“Found mine at Lizbeth’s,” she mumbles.

She’s holding my shoes and tries to shove them into my hands as she walks by, but I scowl at her. “Put ‘em back where you got ‘em from,” I say.

“Flip flop days” © Denise Mattox https://www.flickr.com/photos/denisemattox/3873266919/

Then I get a good look at Gracie’s face and notice she looks all red-eyed and puffy-lipped. She don’t say nothing more, just takes my shoes and herself and goes straight into our room and closes the curtain that acts as our door so we can’t see her. She stays in there, without even coming out for whatever food’s left for dinner. And part of me is glad I didn’t do nothing as drastic as cut the bristles off her brush since she seems more upset than I’ve ever seen her. Not that I’m suddenly her best friend or anything, but I guess I feel kind of bad for her for whatever happened tonight.

I wonder where she went and what she had to do that badly, and then, when I go into our room with Nolan to get us both down for the night, I think about asking her. But with our three twin mattresses pressed all together and us lying like bacon on a plate – Nolan next to Gracie next to me — barely any space between us, I don’t want to ask questions in front of Nolan. Me and Gracie don’t say anything important about things like money or illness or Dad or anything that’s cry-worthy in front of him as a general rule. But Nolan jumps straight into sleep, snoring up a storm in less than five minutes. So I think about bringing it up with just the two of us conscious, but I only lie there in the dark watching the back of Gracie’s head, her ponytail still in, like she was too tired to even take it out.

She’s not making any restless moves, but I know she’s not sleeping since her breathing is all wonky and uneven, little sighs coming out of her sometimes, and I wonder if she’s getting poked by my finger-and-toenails scattered around in her sheets. If she is, she doesn’t seem to care, but for some reason I do, which doesn’t make any sense since she doesn’t give a rat’s ass about me getting her toenails stuck in my shoulder or thigh when I lie down.

Then, like she knows I’m staring at her, she turns around.

She’s crying like there’s no tomorrow, tears and sweat and snot all over. A flood of fluids is whirling around on her face, glistening in the light of the moon coming through the window, and I work as hard as I can to not tell her how gross she is right now.

Which is good, because she blurts right out in a whisper, “I got rid of a baby today.”

My mind flips around trying to make sense of that one statement, but somehow I just can’t. “What d’ya mean you ‘got rid of a baby’?”

Gracie lets out a huff and wipes her face, her tears stopping for a second while she feels all annoyed with me. “You’re so stupid sometimes, Cara. Sweet Jesus! I mean—” and her voice drops to an even quieter whisper— “I was pregnant with Jeremy’s kid, and now I’m not ‘cause Jeremy gave me some money and I went and took care of it.”

It’s kind of a brick-to-the-head sort of thing she’s sending my way, sort of painful and stunning at the same time, and I have a million questions. Lying on my side, I shimmy closer to her, leaving just a handful of inches between us. “How’d you do that? I mean, we ain’t anywhere near St. Louis. That’s the only place in Missouri you can go for what you’re talking about unless you headed right out of state. But you ain’t been gone long.” I drop my voice lower just in case Ma is somewhere nearby and listening, though I’d bet anything she’s already passed out asleep after working fourteen hours on three shifts. “And how’d you get anything done at a clinic without Ma signing for you with you being only seventeen?”

She turns on her back, her palms spread over the mound of her lower gut, and looks up at the ceiling like there’s something there to look at besides white-painted paneling and spiders sitting in the darkness. “I didn’t go to a real clinic.” Her head shakes against the pillow, spreading her ponytail all over the place. “I mean, it was a real place and all, but it wasn’t like in the phone book or anything.”

“You mean it was illegal?” my whisper snaps.

She smashes her eyes shut, sending a few more tears down her face before she flips away from me, her back and skull facing me again. And I imagine some hack who says he’s a doctor wearing a bloody apron and holding dirty surgical tools and calling in his next patient from a room filled with girls who are scared and crying as hard as Gracie is right now.

“That’s super dangerous,” I say to the back of her head.

“I’m fine,” she squeaks.

But I wonder how fine anyone can be after they’ve been sliced or scraped or God-knows-what by a stranger. “So, are you hurting? Like, are you cut up badly? Or bleeding?”

“It ain’t so bad. Like a heavy period. It’ll stop.”

And then I get mad, so mad, because we might fight a lot, but what would I do if there were just two mattresses in this room, just Nolan and mine? I might be sleeping on less finger-and- toenails, but it would feel wrong without Gracie here.

I rear up and lean into her ear to lay out what I think of it all. “Don’t you dare ever call me stupid, Gracie Jane Ucker, ’cause what you did today was about the dumbest damn thing I can think of.”

“Not as dumb as bringing someone else into this trailer,” she says. “Even if a baby’s small, it’s still more.”

And I think about that, up on my elbow, staring at the back of her head while Nolan, with his greasy hair, snores so chainsaw-loud right next to us, and Ma’s on her mattress getting all the sleep she can so she can get up and work herself bone-tired again tomorrow. Also how it’s a good thing that Pa ain’t here because when he comes home now and again, the trailer feels a thousand times smaller with all his stumbling and yelling.

Gracie draws in a shaky breath, and even though I still can’t see her turned-away face, I’m sure she’s crying pretty bad.

“Jeremy and me was stupid for not using protection,” she says. “But rubbers are expensive. And before you go asking me, I thought about putting it up for adoption. But with it being September now and how I was just pregnant, I’d be going through a whole school year getting stared at and whispered about in every damn class and in every hall. Then I’d be giving birth instead of graduating. I need school to be done so I can start working full-time.”

I try to stick myself in Gracie’s spot, to think on it the way she is, but all I can think is what Ma would say on a Sunday morning when we all file into church and got to face the Lord.

“Ma would say you went against the wishes of Jesus and God, you know?” I tell Gracie.

And Gracie actually sort of snorts. Not a laugh really, just a snort, direct and to the point. “If Ma found out tonight she was pregnant, she’d do the same thing as me. God or not, Cara, there ain’t enough for another.”

And I want to argue. I do. I mean, it’s a life, and how many times have we heard in school and in church that life is the only thing that matters and that’s why so many people we know took up their picket signs and their hollering voices and went out to get all them clinics shut down, besides the last surviving one in St. Louis.

But then I think how we are life, too.

And I wonder for a long moment if Gracie did what she did for herself, being sure to keep things the way they are and keep what little she has, including her self-respect, without sacrificing any of it. Then, maybe ’cause my hope returns and settles right into that core of me, I wonder if she did what she did for all of us too, like Gracie was actually trying to make sure we weren’t burdened by anything more.

I think on it for a long time, until Gracie’s breaths finally even out and everything seems still and quiet besides Nolan now snoring in this low rumbly way, and then I spy the basket of my personal things.

It’s covered again by the Wonder Woman blanket, and since I didn’t re-cover it on account of waiting for my flip-flops to go back in, I sit up and crawl over to it. Pulling back the fleece, I see my brush and my small necklace box of hair pins, my tiny plastic cosmetic bag with my almost-empty mascara and lip glosses, and also my flip-flops, tucked neatly against the side of the basket’s wicker, right where Gracie had found them. And next to those is a pair of socks, not cut at all and with a tag from Hale’s Bin that tells me they are brand new, not used like most of the things at Hale’s.

And I feel like smiling and crying all at the same time staring at those socks and thinking how Gracie must’ve felt guilty for ruining all mine and also thinking of how it’s a trade-off – how sometimes I wish I could just stand still and stop feeling hungry so I wouldn’t need to give the grocery store what we earn, or stop sweating in all this Missouri heat so I wouldn’t need a shower, which requires a towel we have to wash with detergent we have to buy. I wish every breath I take didn’t cost us something, but even if I just sit here, doing nothing, I’m expensive.

And I think about Gracie’s baby that isn’t anymore.

And I think how now I have socks without holes.

Then I pull the Wonder Woman blanket over the top of my basket of personal things, closing up the hungry mouth of it now that it’s full again. And I lie down next to Gracie, scooping my front right up against her back, like when we were six and three, and I flop my hand over her waist, just above where her hip rises like an ant hill from the rest of her body. I put my palm against her lower gut, spread my fingers out right there, and cover the space. And Gracie’s hand moves up until her sweaty fingers rest over mine.

 


Heather Smith Meloche’s work has appeared in Spider, Young Adult Review Network (“Crosswire Bend,” April 14, 2014), and Once Upon A Time. She has placed twice in the children’s/YA category of the Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition and won first place for Hunger Mountain’s Katherine Paterson Prize in 2011 for a short story in verse. A wild fan of dark chocolate as well as kickboxing and running (to be able to eat all that chocolate!), she lives in Michigan with her family. Penguin Putnam released her debut, Ripple, a contemporary young adult novel, in September 2016.

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