We parked outside a house with drooping gutters and a broken porch railing. Mom grabbed Dad’s lunch box off the front seat. “I swear he’d forget his pants if I didn’t remind him.” She got out, shut the door, and wagged her finger. “Stay in the car.”
Dad worked a lot in the colored neighborhoods. His car read Frank the Exterminator. He killed lots of creepy things in their houses, like mice and roaches. Mom said she’d only be a minute and disappeared down the walkway to the back of the house. Next door, a girl sat alone on a porch step, playing jacks in the sunshine. I watched her from the backseat window of our Ford Falcon. She looked the same age as me.
We’d just been to the farmer’s market. Tucked next to my feet on the floor were bags of fresh corn, carrots, rhubarb, lettuce, and three pounds of apples, half for us and half for Grandma Mags. Mom was taking long. The apples smelled sweet and juicy. I reached for an apple, taking a big one. I bit into it and swallowed the pulp and sugary spit. In between bites I rested it neatly on my lap. I closed my eyes, drowsy in the noon sun. Apples tasted best in summer. Ripe. Fresh. Ready to be eaten.
When I opened my eyes, the jacks girl was staring at me. She got off her porch steps, came over to the car window and tapped. I rolled it down, and she looked into our car. At my apple. Her eyes were bright, wide and anxious.
Can I have one too?
Her blouse was thin, washed many times. Her skin was smooth like melted chocolate. And she was the first colored girl who’d ever talked to me. She must be poor. She eyed the apples in the bag and I moved forward to block her view. But that was wrong, so I stopped. I took out a medium apple and handed it to her, thinking Mom wouldn’t notice two missing. And if she did, she’d probably forgive me because she was taking so long.
“Here. They’re juicy.”
She ran back up her porch steps right past her jacks and entered a ripped screen door. The sunshine felt like a warm, happy bath. I’d shared our apples with her! Mom might even be proud. Grandma Mags would be cross, but she wouldn’t have to know about it. Sharing was something good people did, they said so in Sunday School. Jesus said love those less fortunate, that we are all God’s children dark or light. I believed this. But I think Dad didn’t believe it because he sometimes used bad words. Mom said his heart was in the right place, whatever that meant. Maybe if the girl came back out, she’d ask me to play jacks with her. But Mom said to stay in the car. I took another bite of my apple, picturing the grey-haired farmer who sold them to us. He wore overalls and his hands looked like hard work.
The jacks girl came out of the porch door with a little girl and hurried over to our car. The little girl’s face had peanut butter on it and her hair was a forest of finger braids with pink plastic ties.
This’s my sister, can she have an apple, too?
The sister was maybe in kindergarten. I looked into the apple bag and chose a small apple from the sack. I handed it to her and she ran away. But the jacks girl stayed and said thank you.
“What’s your name?”
Lenora. My little sister’s Beulah.
“I’m Elaine. How old are you?”
I’m 9. How old are you?
“I’m 8. Eight-and-a-half.”
Lenora thanked me again and ran up the steps of her house, stopping to gather her ball and jacks. I rested my head against the back seat, feeling good. Mom was taking a long time. I nibbled on my apple. It was a big one, bigger than the ones I’d given away, not because I was bad but because they were our apples. They cost a dollar. Dad said a dollar saved was a dollar earned. I glanced at the bag. Three apples gone. I moved the apples around so that the bag looked full, but it still sagged. I rolled up the window, and between bites I hid my apple with my hand.
Two more of them appeared from behind the house next door, a boy and a girl. They stood on the walkway until our eyes met, then came over. When they got up close, the boy tapped the window. He was older, maybe ten. I didn’t roll it down. He pointed back at the porch next door. Lenora was watching from behind the front screen.
Hey, my cousins say you givin’ apples. Can we have some?
My heart thumped faster. Now that the window was up, the car had gotten warm. The sun burned the back dashboard, heated the air and seats. I wanted to say ‘no’ but couldn’t. Because I was afraid. There were two of them. And I was afraid my mom would be upset with me. “I can’t give out my mom’s apples.”
The girl made puppy eyes and said Please? The boy looked mixed-up. Then how come you give apples to my cousins?
My mouth was dry, and I felt stupid. Trapped. Would Mom be cross? I reached in the bag for another apple, not wanting to. I rolled down the window just wide enough to hand it to the boy. “Here. The two of you can share it.”
They ran off and didn’t even say thank you. The girl chased the boy, who held the apple. Would he share it with her? I looked at the apple bag, sagging at the top. Heat rose from my tummy in a roll of sick. The car was like a glass house. I was alone on this block, and Mom wasn’t coming. I locked the doors. I glanced again at my half-eaten apple. It was turning brown. Two boys passed by on bicycles, big boys. Maybe 12. One of them glanced at our car but they didn’t see me. Why did Dad kill cockroaches for a living? Why couldn’t he do something else? Dina Vanderbeek’s dad was a dentist.
A large girl came out from behind the house. She was a teen. She had a jump rope in her hand. She came right over to our car and looked in. My heartbeat got fast, and I sat perfectly still. I didn’t glance at the bag.
You got more apples?
She was really big—kind of fat—and she had boobs. She pulled the rope tight against her back, yanking its ends. She didn’t like me. I thought of Jesus and of the loaves and fishes. They’d multiplied in his hands. I looked at the sagging apple bag and shook my head slowly. “I don’t have any more to give. Ask your sisters to share theirs.”
They ate theirs.
“I can’t give my mom’s apples away.”
The big girl looked annoyed, and I could barely breathe. Mom was going to kill me. Why did I give away the apples? The big girl started to jump rope on the sidewalk near our car. She watched me watching. Her feet flew high over each loop, and accidentally the rope snapped against our car door handle. I moved back, and she saw it and laughed a little. The big girl started the rope again, this time jumping faster. Fast, like a sharp propeller coming my way.
Mom suddenly appeared on the walkway. I sat up tall so that the jump rope girl noticed. She stopped jumping and looked behind her. She stepped aside so my mom could pass and Mom walked by with a soft smile and said something to her I couldn’t hear. The half-eaten apple burned my hand. Without looking at it I dropped it into the saggy apple bag. She opened the car door. “Your father would forget his own shoes if I didn’t remind him every morning.” She went tsk tsk tsk and climbed into the driver’s seat, noticing the heat. She started to say something, but stopped and rolled down her window, glancing at the jumping girl and then over to me.
“That girl’s too old to be jumping rope, don’t you think?”
“Did she speak to you?”
I nodded. “She wanted an apple.”
Mom looked at the apple bag, then at me. Her mouth went from soft to hard. “Did you give her one?” I confessed about the girl playing jacks, and her little sister, and then I mentioned Jesus and the loaves and fishes. Mom shook her head crossly and told me don’t blame Jesus, that he was the Son of God and I wasn’t. Besides, the story was a ‘parable.’
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Well I hope you learned something today. Your dad has said it time and again, the more that you give these people, the more they’ll try and take.”