It was a September morning, hazy with late summer, and now with all the years between. Mother was seeing me off at Dearborn Station in Chicago. We’d come in a taxicab because of my trunk. But Mother would ride back home on the El. There wasn’t much more than a nickel in her purse, and only a sandwich for the train in mine. My ticket had pretty well cleaned us out.
My trunk, a small one, held every stitch of clothes I had and two or three things of Mother’s that fit me. “Try not to grow too fast,” she murmured. “But anyway, skirts are shorter this year.”
Then we couldn’t look at each other. I was fifteen, and I’d been growing like a weed. My shoes from Easter gripped my feet.
A billboard across from the station read:
WASN’T THE DEPRESSION AWFUL?
This was to make us think the hard times were past. But now in 1937 a recession had brought us low again. People were beginning to call it the Roosevelt recession.
Jst added 10 min to #ProjectReadathon w. @PenguinRandom by reading to support @SavetheChildren #ReadWell
Dad had lost his job, so we’d had to give up the apartment. He and Mother were moving into a “light housekeeping” room. They could get it for seven dollars a week, with kitchen privileges, but it was only big enough for the two of them.
My brother Joey—Joe—had been taken on by the Civilian Conservation Corps to plant trees out west. That left me, Mary Alice. I wished I was two years older and a boy. I wished I was Joey.
But I wasn’t, so I had to go down to live with Grandma Dowdel, till we could get on our feet as a family again. It meant I’d have to leave my school. I’d have to enroll in the hick-town school where Grandma lived. Me, a city girl, in a town that didn’t even have a picture show.
It meant I’d be living with Grandma. No telephone, of course. And the attic was spooky and stuffy, and you had to go outdoors to the privy. Nothing modern. Everything as old as Grandma. Some of it older.
Now they were calling the train, and my eyes got blurry. Always before, Joey and I had gone to Grandma’s for a week in the summer. Now it was just me. And at the other end of the trip—Grandma.
Mother gave me a quick squeeze before she let me go. And I could swear I heard her murmur, “Better you than me.”
She meant Grandma.
Rich Chicago Girl
Oh, didn’t I feel sorry for myself when the Wabash Railroad’s Blue Bird train steamed into Grandma’s town. The sandwich was still crumbs in my throat because I didn’t have the dime for a bottle of pop. They wanted a dime for pop on the train.
My trunk thumped out onto the platform from the baggage car ahead. There I stood at the end of the world with all I had left. Bootsie and my radio.
Bootsie was my cat, with a patch of white fur on each paw. She’d traveled in a picnic hamper. Bootsie had come from down here, two summers ago when she was a kitten. Now she was grown but scrawny. She’d spent the trip trying to claw through the hamper. She didn’t like change any more than I did.
My portable radio was in my other hand. It was a Philco with a leatherette cover and handle. Portable radios weighed ten pounds in those days.
As the train pulled out behind me, there came Grandma up the platform steps. My goodness, she was a big woman. I’d forgotten. And taller still with her spidery old umbrella held up to keep off the sun of high noon. A fan of white hair escaped the big bun on the back of her head. She drew nearer till she blotted out the day.
You couldn’t call her a welcoming woman, and there wasn’t a hug in her. She didn’t put out her arms, so I had nothing to run into.
Nobody had told Grandma that skirts were shorter this year. Her skirttails brushed her shoes. I recognized the dress. It was the one she put on in hot weather to walk uptown in. Though I was two years older, two years taller than last time, she wasn’t one for personal comments. The picnic hamper quivered, and she noticed. “What’s in there?”
“Bootsie,” I said. “My cat.”
“Hoo-boy,” Grandma said. “Another mouth to feed.” Her lips pleated. “And what’s that thing?” She nodded to my other hand.
“My radio.” But it was more than a radio to me. It was my last touch with the world.
“That’s all we need.” Grandma looked skyward. “More noise.”
She aimed one of her chins down the platform. “That yours?” She meant the trunk. It was the footlocker Dad had brought home from the Great War.
“Leave it,” she said. “They’ll bring it to the house.” She turned and trudged away, and I was supposed to follow. I walked away from my trunk, wondering if I’d ever see it again. It wouldn’t have lasted long on the platform in Chicago. Hot tongs wouldn’t have separated me from Bootsie and my radio.
The recession of thirty-seven had hit Grandma’s town harder than it had hit Chicago. Grass grew in the main street. Only a face or two showed in the window of The Coffee Pot Cafe. Moore’s Store was hurting for trade. Weidenbach’s bank looked to be just barely in business.
On the other side of the weedy road, Grandma turned the wrong way, away from her house. Two old slab-sided dogs slept on the sidewalk. Bootsie knew because she was having a conniption in the hamper. And my radio was getting heavier. I caught up with Grandma.
“Where are we going?”
“Going?” she said, the picture of surprise. “Why, to school. You’ve already missed pretty nearly two weeks.”
“School!” I’d have clutched my forehead if my hands weren’t full. “On my first day here?”
Grandma stopped dead and spoke clear. “You’re going to school. I don’t want the law on me.”
I could have broken down and bawled then. Bootsie in her hamper, banging my knees. The sun beating down like it was still summer. I could have flopped in the weeds and cried my eyes out. But I thought I better not.
Under a shade tree just ahead was a hitching rail. Tied to it were some mostly swaybacked horses and a mule or two that the country kids rode to school. One horse was like another to me, but Grandma stopped to look them over.
There was a big gray with a tangled tail, switching flies. Grandma examined him from stem to stern. I tought she might pry his jaws apart for a look at his teeth. She took her time looking, though I was in no hurry.
Then on she went across a bald yard to the school. It was wooden-sided with a bell tower. I sighed.
On either side of the school was an outdoor privy. One side for the boys, one for the girls. Labeled. And a pump.
Grandma slowed again as the bell tower rose above us. She’d never been to high school. She’d been expelled from a one-room schoolhouse long before eighth grade. I happened to know this.
Crumbling steps led up to a front entrance. Somebody had scrawled a poem all over the door:
Ashes to ashes,
Dust to dust,
Oil them brains
Before they rust.
Steps led down to the basement under the front stoop. Grandma went down there, closing her umbrella.
The basement was one big room. A basketball hoop hung at either end, but it didn’t look like a gym to me. Smelled like one, though.
A tall, hollow-cheeked man leaned on a push broom in the center of the floor.
“Well, August!” Grandma boomed, and the room echoed.
This woke him up. When he saw Grandma, he swallowed hard. People often did. He wore old sneakers and a rusty black suit under a shop apron. His necktie was fraying at the knot.
“I’ve brought this girl to be enrolled.” Grandma indicated me with a thumb. She didn’t say I was her granddaughter. She never told more than the minimum.
I stood there, fifteen, trying to die of shame. Grandma didn’t understand about high school. She was trying to get the janitor to enroll me.
But I had it all wrong. Thye’d fired the janitor when times got hard. August—Mr. Fluke—was the principal, which made him the coach too. And he taught shop to the boys. And swept up.
“Well, Mrs. Dowdel,” the principal said, “can this girl read and cipher?” Even I saw he was pulling Grandma’s leg, which never worked.
“Good enough to get by in a school like this,” she replied.
Mr. Fluke turned to me. “Mary Alice, is it? Down from Chicago?” Everybody in this town knew everything about you. They knew things that hadn’t even happened yet. “What grade did they have you in up there?”
“Would have been tenth,” I mumbled. “Sophomore.”
“Let’s call that junior year down here,” Mr. Fluke said. “It don’t matter, and there’s plenty of room for you. High school’s getting to be a luxury in times like these. So many boys have dropped out entirely, I don’t know where I’ll find five to play basketball, come winter, or to field the Christmas program.”
The thought of winter—Christmas—here chilled my heart.
“Oh, we’ll pull a couple of the farm boys back after they get the last of the hay in,” Mr. Fluke went on. “But some of ’em won’t drift back to school till that last ear of corn is picked in November. You know boys.”
Grandma nodded. “Boys is bad business,” she said, quite agreeable for her. “Though girls is worse.”
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck. Copyright © 2000 by Richard Peck. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.