Marge was not a big woman. Still, she had a mannish way about her. It was in her plain dress, her short, combed hair. It was the way she walked with her feet too far apart, landing each step as if she carried twice the weight she did. She told Sarah often that Virginia was the one good thing that ever happened to her, which Sarah found very sweet and simple.
Sarah had a houseful of kids. Healthy kids, smart and outdoorsy. They all looked alike, with long limbs and long teeth. Virginia did not look like Sarah’s kids. Sarah’s kids were horses. They were hungry as horses, wild as horses, smart as whips. Virginia was not a horse. With thick glasses and a thick tongue, an untamed voice too loud for indoors, with feet that turned in and tripped her, Virginia was a lumbering baby goose.
Sarah and Marge had met at the American Standard plant where they both worked and became friends. Sarah enjoyed Marge’s direct, small town way and was touched by her struggle to raise this child alone. She didn’t admit it to herself too often, but Sarah felt that she would be a good role model for Marge. She also decided that her children would be good for Virginia, and that Virginia would be good for them. The two women would sit often on Sarah’s front porch and talk while all the kids played.
Marge laughed to herself.
"What's so funny?" Sarah asked her.
“Just something Lonnie said," Marge said. "He is a card. Tells a new, terrible joke every single day. I don't know, does he have some kind of book he checks each morning before work?" she laughed. "I don’t suppose you get to see that side of him much. It’s not the type of humor he’d share with you, I guess.”
She gulped her black coffee, which Sarah had served to her, as always, in the delicate china Marge used to mention she preferred not to use. “But he’s a funny man. I don’t know where he comes up with them.”
Sarah frowned slightly. “He is a wild one." she agreed. "Maybe you’re a little taken with him?” Sarah asked, pursing her lips and toeing the rusted bottom of the wrought iron railing that ran up the porch steps beside her.
“Oh, no. I don’t have the time or the inclination.” Marge looked into her cup, which she cradled like an egg in the palms of her hands. “The kid keeps me hoppin’.”
She answered Sarah the way she always spoke, as if she were testifying in court or directing the moving van: thoughtful, direct and honest. Sarah appreciated that. She hated the idea that Marge, flawed and unfeminine as she was, would waste her time with a ruffian like Lonnie. He was too red, too coarse. This town was full of that kind of hick trash, but Sarah had diligently proven herself to everyone here. She would always have the class of the city where she’d been bred. That was why Lonnie would never share his foul humor with her. She was intimidating to some of them, she knew. She had spent several lonely years sitting on this porch, staring into the high cornfields that completely surrounded the town after her late husband had relocated the family to its safety.
She stopped staring at the corn one day, seeing it not for its harvest, but as something more menacing. This town was like some tiny village being swallowed by the Amazon rain forest and she would have to cut her way through that corn with a machete to find civilization.
Eventually Marge made it her habit to come by with Virginia, and Sarah’s porch lost some of that hateful lonesomeness.
She looked again at Marge, who was watching Sarah’s two girls try to teach Virginia to jump rope. The twins would holler the signal to jump just as the rope hit the ground in front of their friend. Virginia squealed each time she heard, throwing her arms over her head as if to fly. She would reach her tip toes, and sometimes would fall over the rope as it dragged to a stop against her thick, black shoes or got tangled in the sleek metal of her leg braces. Invariably, the girls helped her back up and tried again.
“God knew what he was doing when he sent her to me,” Marge remarked. “We’ll grow old together. I feel for you sometimes, Sarah, watching yours grow up, knowing they’ll be gone some day.”
Sarah’s eyes arrowed and she considered Marge, who continued to watch the children, more closely. She was off-put at the thought, the very idea that Marge felt sorry for her. The very idea.
Wayne, one of Sarah’s boys, raced to the porch.
“Mom, what time can we go to the fair?”
“When Kyle Jr. gets home from work,” she answered him. Kyle Jr., Sarah’s oldest, was sixteen and bagged groceries at the IGA. He was saving up for a car. He was expected home around three and the children could walk to the fair then.
American Standard sponsored the county fair for one day of its two week run each year. The women did not know what that entailed, except that all the workers’ children were admitted for free on that day.
“Mom,” called the two in pig tails. “Can Virginia come to the fair with us?”
“Oh, no, sweethearts,” Marge answered for Sarah. “She’d get underfoot. She’ll stay here on the porch with me and your mother.”
The girls groaned a little and went back to jumping rope.
“Why don’t you think about it, Marge?” Sarah prodded. “The girls are so good with her, and Kyle Jr. will look out for everybody.”
“No, Sarah,” Marge answered in a hushed voice. “It’s too much of a task for them. They need to be with their own friends. They were sweet enough just for asking.”
“Nonsense. They’d take good care of her and they’d enjoy having her along. You need to let go a little bit, dear,” Sarah decided.
Marge’s attempts to convince Sarah that this was not a good idea - Marge’s hemming and hawing - were drowned by the machine gun of a bad high school muffler. Kyle Jr. had bummed a ride home from work with another IGA bagger. Sarah’s three older children cheered at the sight of their brother, then dashed to the porch, awaiting their mother’s commands.
Sarah stood and looked down at the children from her step. She pulled five dollar bills out of her pocket and handed one to each of her three younger kids.
Kyle Jr. moseyed toward his mother, his pimpled face hanging long. She reached down from her step to straighten his hair. He pulled his head back. She offered him a five dollar bill. Without looking at her – in fact, his eyes may have been closed entirely – he said, “I got money.”
Sarah smoothed her shirt front. She called to her friend’s child.
“Virginia, honey, come here for a second.”
When the girl made it to the step, Sarah smiled down on her.
“Take your hands out of your mouth, love. I have something for you.”
She put the last five dollar bill in Virginia’s wet fingers.
“This is for you to spend at the fair.”
Virginia squealed. Not like a little girl full of delight. More like the shrill, loud blow from a coach’s whistle.
Marge stared silently into her hands. Virginia’s money slipped out of her fingers and Wayne, the younger boy, picked it up for her.
Kyle Jr. asked from beneath his sparse mustache, “She comin’?”
“She’ll stay with the girls. Each will hold a hand. You can look out for everybody. You sort of shepherd them all.”
Sarah tousled her younger son’s clean brown hair.
“Wayne will help you.”
Wayne stood up straight and smiled.
Karl Jr. stripped to bare-chested and pulled a clean, non-IGA shirt out of the grimy gym bag at his feet. Once dressed, he started down the front walk without saying a word, neither to his mother nor to his flock. The younger children and Virginia, who was in fact as old as Kyle Jr., followed.
Sarah scooped up the abandoned gym bag, threw some cash in it and tossed it to Wayne.
“Hold up, Kyle Jr. You’re going to have to walk a little slower this time.”
The boy stopped in his tracks without looking behind him. He waited for the children to catch up, to gather around him, and he started forward again at the same pace.
Marge set her cup carefully on the step and stood. Without looking at Sarah, she began down the steps and after the group, keeping her distance.
“Where are you going?” Sarah asked her with some indignation.
Marge looked at the ground then back at Sarah.
“We could go,” she began. “We could make an afternoon of it.”
“The fair?” Sarah was flabbergasted. “Go to the fair? You and I? Do you know what kind of adults go unbidden to the fair?”
“The kind with children,” Marge responded, rather firmly.
“So you don’t trust my Kyle, Jr. Is that it? Because he is about to be a junior in high school, he works darn hard… well, he’s the man of this house is what he is!” Sarah just couldn’t wrap her head around Marge’s rude behavior, after all Sarah and her family had done, taking them in as true friends.
Marge shook her head and began again toward the band of children, now a good distance ahead of her on the street. One twin was on either side of Virginia, each holding a hand. Kyle, Jr. walked up ahead, while young Wayne walked closely behind. It did look a little like Sarah’s kids were forming a circle around Marge’s daughter.
“Marge, please,” Sarah said quietly. “Don’t tell me that you’ve spent all this time as an adopted part of this family, and still you can’t trust us.”
She stood a long time in the front yard looking after the kids – probably so long that she was eventually looking at nothing at all – but she didn’t follow them.
The sun was low and red when Sarah’s coffee was disturbed by the sirens. Oddly enough, the ambulance halted in the street in front of her house, which brought Marge immediately to her feet. Virginia’s mother had reached the swung rear doors of the vehicle before Sarah made the bottom porch step.
Sarah couldn’t shake the idea that the ambulance was a mistake because no one had called it and no one was hurt. It had stopped at the wrong house. She frowned at the inept driver until she saw her own twin girls hop out of the back of the vehicle and push past Marge, who was climbing in. In four quick strides, Sarah was on them.
“What goes on here?”
“Somebody took Virginia’s shoe,” one explained.
“We left her on the bench outside the freak show,” said the other girl, “because Wayne said it would be rude to take Virginia to a freak show. We had done it lots of times, left her on a bench, because we wanted to go on rides and she couldn’t. Why go to the fair if you can’t ride the rides, we figured, so it musta been okay to leave her on the bench. And besides, we really, really wanted to see the freak show. So we were gonna take her, but Wayne said it’d be rude, and we didn’t want to be rude.”
Sarah imagined her friend’s child sitting on one of the rotting wooden benches at the fairground, her feet dangling and knocking together the way they would, the metal of the braces clanging.
“Everywhere you went you could hear the guy callin’, singing’ like, ‘Gitchur tickets and walk in! Gitchur tickets and walk in! Gitcher tickets and walk in and see Fat Mama now!” the second girl piped up. “We wanted to see! And nothing’ happened to her all the times we left her until we went into the freak show.”
Sarah peered into the ambulance from her place in the street. Her eyes found the girl’s unshod foot, her toes showing bloody and stubbed through the tears in her sock. Sarah eyed the thick, sticky brown of the folded sock. Thick lines of blood she followed, almost unwillingly, from the sock, up an unshaven leg, smearing wide, wet and red under her skirt.
“It musta hurt real bad, too, them takin’ her shoe, ‘cause she just kept howlin’ and howlin’.”
Marge never turned around. She hunched awkwardly, her back to the ambulance door, cradling her daughter’s head and kissing her brow. Sarah remained in the street long after the ambulance was out of sight, wailing toward Mercy Hospital.
The phone rang the first time a little more than an hour later. Sara ran the girls outside before they could answer it. When it started for the second time she got out the vacuum. She considered really cleaning, beating the dust out of those old couch cushions, maybe rearranging the living room furniture. Instead she ran her sweeper back and forth, back and forth over the same section of carpet.
Sarah turned off the vacuum abruptly and called her girls in from outside, suddenly afraid of the corn, afraid the girls would be lost in it forever. She told her daughters to go to the neighbors’ to play, then thought better of it and sent them to their room.
It was dark when Sarah’s sons came home from the fair. She stood in her unlit kitchen, staring past her ringing wall phone to the comfortable rocker in the living room. She jolted at the noise of the back door, the sounds of her returning boys. She hadn’t, it seemed, given them a thought since the afternoon.
“Kyle Jr., where have you been?” Her voice sounded odd to her, weak and breathy.
“Got tied up.” His answer seemed to her full of defiance and indifference both, his eyes not on his mother. His hair was greasy and his clothes, his pants, were filthy. He looked different to her. He looked angry. He looked ugly. The younger brother walked through the kitchen, follow-the-leader fashion, weighted by Kyle Jr.’s duffel bag.
Kyle Jr. passed his mother, passed the now silent telephone, and opened the door to the cellar where he made his room.
“Kyle Jr., I expected you to look after the girls.” Again she barely recognized herself in the sound of her words. Was she so old, so tired?
“Did what I could.” He turned his head and eyed his mother from over his shoulder. “It’s a lot to ask, take a retard out in public like that.”
He turned to his brother, who stood behind him, next to their mother, and held his hand out for the bag. The little guy lowered his head to his chest and opened his fingers, dropping the bag with a startling thud and clanking sound, the gleam of metal in the bag catching the kitchen florescent.
Wayne shoved his hands into the pockets of his Wranglers. Kyle Jr. sucked air through is teeth and said to his mother, while looking at the boy, “Wayne is ready for bed, I believe.”
Kyle Jr. picked the bag up by the handles and both boys left their mother in the kitchen, one through the living room and one through the cellar door.
Sarah reached for the wall phone, finger tipped the receiver, then switched off the ringer.