We live on the first floor, just one set of stairs up from the sidewalk. The Flanagans are in a building just like Gramma’s on one side, and Mrs. Greenman is in the same kind of building on the other side. They live on the first floor of their buildings too. So my world doesn’t go up farther than that. I know people live on the upper floors, but I’ve never met them, and I’m not allowed to crawl up and knock on their doors. But I don’t even have to knock at Mrs. Greenman’s and the Flanagans’. I just climb up the stairs, put my hand on the doorknob, twist a little, push, and I’m in.
Mrs. Greenman lives alone, except for her two little dogs. They have long bodies and really short legs, and I love to stand over them because it makes me feel big for a change. One of them is solid brown, the same color as Mrs. Greenman’s hair. The other is black and brown. He has brown rings around his eyes, so he looks like he’s wearing a mask. The dogs have high, tinny barks. Mrs. Greenman’s voice is high and tinny too, for a grown-up. But her words are splashed with lonesome, especially when she talks about her children. She shows me these papers, real thin and pretty so you can see the light from the window coming through them. They’re full of lovely blue swirls that fly across the pages, like angels. She says they’re letters from her daughter who lives far away.
She misses her daughter. Sometimes she folds a letter very slowly making sure it’s creased nice and even, and then she sticks it inside her dress at the neckline and slides it down between her sagging skin and her underwear. Then she looks out the window and pats her chest. It makes me so sad I can hardly breathe.
Mrs. Greenman always gives me a piece of chocolate just before I go. She lets me choose from what she calls an assortment—all these candies in a box each surrounded by its own pleated dark brown paper. I know there must be some good ones in her assortments, like chocolate-covered cherries or milk chocolate with caramel inside, but I always get one with this bitter kind of fruit in the middle. After one bite, I have to get outside quick so I can spit it out into the dirt.
The Flanagans’ house is completely different than Mrs. Greenman’s because it’s full of kids like me. I go inside, and one of them will just call to their mom, “Laura’s here,” and she calls back, “Okay then,” and I just fall in with the crowd. My favorite is jumping on their beds. I like to scribble in their coloring books too, and try to dress up dolls, which I’m not all that good at yet. If it’s an especially hot day, sometimes they pack everybody up, including me, and we go visit the Lake Michigan waves. One of the biggest kids will always run to let Gramma know they’ve got me, and we’re all heading to the beach.
I love squeezing into their sedan. There are so many of us, sometimes the bigger kids have not one, but two of us smaller kids on their laps, just stacked one on top of each other. Then there are always a couple on the floor in the front and the back squished in. When we reach the beach, we all fold out, and we run through the sand, so soft and warm, and a beautiful color. It looks like our drinks when Unc every so often, with a wink of one of his bright blue eyes, lets us have just a little bit of his coffee poured into our milk.
I like to race along the shore, hot dog in my hand, because it takes me so long to eat I can’t sit still on the blanket the amount of time it would actually take to finish it. I race in and out of the waves as they lap onto the wet sand and pretend my footprints are made by an invisible child, someone who lives in the lake. I think she eats the silvery dead fish that wash up in long, narrow piles on the shore.
I don’t know how to swim like some of the big Flanagan kids do, but sometimes one of the big boys will take me on his shoulders and walk out to where the water’s over my head. But I’m never worried. They never even pretend to drop me. Gramma doesn’t worry either. She says if I don’t come around to the kitchen for a while, she knows I’m at the Flanagans’. If it gets to be time for my nap, she sends Kathy or Mary Ruth to fetch me, and I come right back.
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