“So, don’t touch the stuff, Elizabeth, and whatever you do, don’t put it in your mouth.” That’s what Dad said to me before the guys came with the trucks. After I saw the ground in the orange grove covered with all those little white pebbles, I thought they looked just like salt – the kind we use to make ice-cream. But when I told Dad that, and asked if I could taste to see if those pebbles were salty, he shouted: “Hell no! That’s super-foss-fate. It’s fertilizer, for crying out loud.” Then he caught sight of my little brother, Bebop, who was playing in the dog dish and had crumbs of K-9 Crunchies all over his shirt. “Phyllis,” he called my mom, real loud. “You gotta’ watch these kids!” To me, he said, “That stuff’s poison!”
Mom didn’t hear him, of course, because she was in the cellar sorting out canned goods and making way for all that strawberry jam she’d made. She’s always putting food in jars in order to save money and she likes to give jam away to her friends like Gary’s family. Gary loves to eat, and he loves jam. But so as my dad wouldn’t feel worried about me tasting the white pebbles, I said, “Just kiddin’ Daddo.” Then I got Bepop’s crumbs brushed off, took him inside, gave him a Zwiebach cookie, and showed him his favorite picture book. Mom doesn’t have time to read to him or do anything-at-all-for-herself, she says.
* * *
It doesn’t rain too often where we live, and even though our town is called Riverside, the river here isn’t more than a little trickle through some sand and old dusty bushes. And since the weather is mostly always dry, Mom and Dad have to spend a lot of time watering plants. Soon we’ll have a vegetable garden to water too, only there’s not much but straight lines dug in the dirt for the time being. They’re called furrows. I’ll put in some big seeds myself. Squash seeds. Dad’ll put in the carrot seeds because they’re too small for me to get in right. I love carrots because I’m skinny like a carrot, and Mom and Dad always want to put meat-on-my-bones, but boy do I hate squash, even with tons of fattening-me-up butter and lot of salt on it. Besides squash and carrots, our garden will have watermelon, beans, radishes, and tomatoes. Then all we’ll have to do is keep Bebop out and our dog, Klutz, too. They both like to dig. After all the seeds are in, we water and pull up those little weeds, and by the time school’s out, we’ll be eating homegrown vegetables.
* * *
It’s hot, and we’re not even in summer. As soon as I get home from school, I take my sandwich and go sit in the orange grove under a tree. That’s the coolest place to go when it’s hot like it is now, but I remember last year when it got hotter’n blue blazes, Mom filled up the wash tub for me to sit in. I don’t know why she calls it the ‘wash tub’ because she finally has a machine with a wringer and everything. But this year, now that I’m eight, I don’t fit in the tub anymore, so I want a plastic pool like I saw at Builder’s Emporium this weekend. Dad says it’ll kill the grass. He thinks everything has to be beautiful at our house. Not like Gary’s house which has dead grass in the back yard and no nice trees.
* * *
Under my orange tree is the only place to be right now though. In the branches I keep lots of stuff. I have a rock collection and a collection of animal bones. Plus I have little knick-knacks and gadgets, and my collections of shiny black seeds that I call aspirin and bigger red seeds I call vitamins. There is a nutcracker for breaking open the seed pods where I find my aspirin and vitamins. I just swallow some feathery cassia vitamin seeds when I need to feel strong, like when I have to carry Bebop inside when he gets out; and the pit-us-poor-‘em bush aspirin seeds when I get a headache like when Mom screams at me when I try to help her sometimes. Once I asked Mom if I could eat those seeds, and she said that it wasn’t a good idea to just eat things like that, but I don’t think they hurt me. Anyway, my tree is a very secret place.
I love the smell under my tree. It’s all kind of rotty but not like the garbage dump. It’s dry leaves mixed with dirt, and an old orange can add a good smell, too. But sometimes when those oranges turn that really pretty color of blue and green, I have to throw them against the fence because the smell is just too strong. They make a great splat sound when they hit.
What’s the best smell right now though is the blossoms. It’s funny because when I get out of the car after school, the air smells so strong like orange blossoms, but when I go and put my nose right up against the flower it doesn’t smell like anything but dust and tree branch. Mom says that ladies getting married like to use orange blossoms at their weddings. I wonder if I smell these blossoms all the time that I’ll be getting married one day, too. But not to Gary Bert. No way.
My mother likes Gary’s mother. I don’t know why. Gary’s mom is dumb. I want Mom to like Jenny’s mom best, or Sheila’s. We’re all in a car pool which means that my mom drives Monday and Friday. She says it’s practical. I’d rather she picked me up every day herself – just her and Bebop because I miss him when I’m at school all day. Mom says she does enough by driving twice a week. She drives extra because Sheila has a sick brother and Mom has to drive more often so that Sheila’s mom can take the kid to the doctor.
My favorite carpool day is when Jenny’s dad gets us. He takes the windy road and goes fast. When Sheila’s mom drives, she’s funny and makes me laugh and gives all of us Juicy Fruit gum. But Gary’s mom isn’t funny and doesn’t drive fast and Gary is always right there next to her in the front seat. His brother, who’s littler than mine, takes up space in the back seat. He’s a ratty kid, always with a dirty sun-suit and smelling like barf.
When Mrs. Bert is coming to a stop sign Sheila and Jenny and I yell “STOP SIGN” and then I give the baby a pinch – just with the ends of my fingernails, and he screams, too. Of course, Mrs. Bert thinks he’s screaming because we’re screaming and she tries to comfort Baby by goo-gooing to him and telling us that it’s not nice to scream. No one but Baby knows that I pinched, but I think Gary’s happy that Baby’s sad. Gary wants to be mommy’s own boy. Not like me. I can take care of myself.
* * *
Now Gary’s going to move far away, across the ocean. Mom’s never been there, but Dad was there once when he was in the army. They’re not moving right away, but when school’s out – Dad says about the time we pick our first squash which Mom will try to force me to eat, like always. I don’t know what will be better – no school or no more Gary. Until they go, Mom says that Gary’s mom has lots to do and my mom has offered to help out by inviting Gary over to our house on the days that we carpool.
* * *
I don’t know what’s worst about having Gary here. First, we always have to have jam sandwiches because Gary doesn’t like tuna or even peanut butter. Gary’s allergic to milk, so we can’t have ice-cream for dessert to cool off. We have to have banana popsicles. I hate bananas, and I hate popsicles. Klutz has to be locked up in the tool shed because Gary’s afraid of dogs. Klutz cries and scratches to get out and Dad’s mad because she scratched up the wood. Plus Gary won’t swim with me in the wash tub because his dad bought him a plastic pool from Builder’s Emporium. Gary says a wash tub is not a pool, and his dad doesn’t care about the dead grass in their backyard because they’re moving.
Maybe the very worst thing is not being able to go under my tree. If I want Gary to eat an orange after his sandwich, I tell him to stay where he’s put and not to move a muscle so that I can run to a tree that’s close to mine and get us each a good orange. Of course, he doesn’t like to peel his orange himself because his hands get dirty, so I have to run my thumbnail all around under the orange’s thick skin without letting a drop of juice jump in my eye. The sections come apart easy, and I tell Gary to eat his, and he does. But when his mom comes to get him, just before Dad comes home from work, I can see little tears in his eyes. He’s real happy to see his mom. She’s happy to see him too. Stupid lady.
* * *
“It’s poison. Don’t eat it.” That’s what Dad told me about the little white pebbles. Now every time the phone rings, I feel kind of sick hoping it’s Mrs. Bert telling my mom that Gary’s OK. But when I ask Mom if she’s heard from Gary’s mom and if Gary’s sick or anything, she just looks at me funny and says that Gary’s family moved far away right when school was done and school’s almost ready to start again, and she doubts that we’ll ever see the Bert family again. Then she wants to know why I care about Gary when I was so mean to him. And I say I wasn’t mean to him, but he was mean to me and didn’t like my pool, or my dog, and he wanted to grow up and get married which was dumb, and he wouldn’t do stuff I told him to do which was also dumb.
It’s just that when I finally decided to show Gary my tree and wanted him to take some aspirin and vitamins – which I told him were really good for him – he said that he didn’t like to eat seeds, and his mom wouldn’t let him. And I said that my mom let me. And he said my mom was crazy. So I showed him the pebbles on the ground in the grove and told him it was salt like to make ice cream, and it made the trees grow. He said that my dad wouldn’t put salt all over the ground just to make trees grow bigger, so I said, “Sure he would.” I picked up a little white pebble and held it close to his mouth. “It’s salty,” I said. “Come on. Just taste.”