Elaine and I walk down the block from my grandmother’s house on Avon Avenue to the Avon Avenue Elementary School. My parents have hired her to walk me to school for 25 cents a week. I ‘m six years old and just recently returned from Paris, France where I’ve spent the last five years. Now we’ve moved to Newark, New Jersey with Grandmother Hollander until we can find our own apartment. Grandma who has hairs growing out of her nose and says children should be seen and not heard. And keep their fingers to themselves. She says it’s foolish of my mother to dress me in the lacey French dresses that I have always worn. Girls in Newark wear skirts and knee socks. I know a little English, not much. No one speaks French in Newark.
Elaine is ten; a tall, gangly girl who wears long plaid dresses. She and her family live on the first two floors of Grandmother Hollander’s house. Elaine has a large purple birthmark on her neck I’m not supposed to look at. In Newark, mothers here wear housedresses, not real dresses. And they wear house slippers instead of shoes.
“Come on,” Elaine shouts at me as I head down the stairs. “Come on, I don’t want to be late because of you.” She has long, straggly blonde hair that is twisted in two thin braids.
As soon I reach the bottom step and am on the street, she kicks me. Then she pushes me toward the curb as we walk.
“Stop,” I say in French, but this only spurs her on. She mimics my accent. She walks slowly and then races. I hold on to my one book that is at the end of a rubber strap. It’s my first grade alphabet reader. When we get to the curb to cross to school, she yanks my arm and jerks me across like a puppet.
Her friends laugh and call me a French doll.
Finally, I wait until dinner is over one night and approach father who has just finished his second Southern Comfort.
“What is it dear?” His voice slurs; his lap is soft and wobbly. I spill out the story of how Elaine is treating me.
“I want to walk to school myself,” I declare. “I know the way. I don’t want her. “
He smiles. “Well, we’ll have to consult with your mother,” he says. “That’s really one for your mother.”
“There’s a light,” I say, “and I will walk when it’s green.”
Wake up. Wake up. If only I could shake him and wake him up.
My mother and father aren’t talking but aren’t getting divorced either. That’s what my grandmother says. She whispers that my mother is not good enough for him, that she is a tramp. But he does call my mother over.
No, no. I am too young to walk to school on my own; she replies to my request. What if I get lost? What if a stranger kidnaps me? What if I got hit by a car?
I receive this verdict in silence…complete silence. They are voices to me. They are invisible. They are storm clouds.
The next morning Elaine calls me from downstairs. “Come on. Hurry up. I can’t stand waiting for you all day.”
I walk down the stairs slowly, silently.
We reach the curb and start to walk. She kicks me. I do nothing. Then she pushes me toward the street. I resist and side step. I hold my rubber strap tight in my fist. I distance myself from her by a few feet: I begin to whirl. The alphabet book hits her chest. I whirl again. The book hits her chin, her nose, and her scalp. She catches in whirlwind of rage. She screams and I see blood running from her lips, her nose. I smell it. Blood drips down her plaid dress. Her mother is running toward us…I don’t care. Voices shout, “Stop.” Nothing stops me. A wind of strong as one hundred fists propels me round and round until I am exhausted and stand still.
“Your child is a monster,” Elaine’s mother screams.
Elaine runs back into the house. I hear her sobs mixed with screams. Her mother races out toward me. She yells in my ear but I hardly hear the words and I don’t care, anyway. My mother also rushes out to the sidewalk wearing her light pink fluffy negligee.
I am punished. I am in disgrace . They bring dinner to my room. Grandmother Hollander calls me a monster. I am too terrible to eat with the family. I don’t care. I don’t feel badly about Elaine, but I don’t savor the memory of all that blood either. What I do know is that from now on I’ve only myself to rely on when troubles come my way.
Elaine, of course, refuses to walk me to school. She doesn’t try to retaliate either. She keeps her distance. I try to forget she’s even alive. I suppose I would feel better if I saw this as a huge victory…but truthfully I eventually feel some sympathy for Elaine. It took so little to topple her from her position of total control. If I smile at her, it’s a superior smile holding a secret I know about her.
My father walks me to school the next day but within a week, not only am I walking to school by myself but I’m confident enough to stop at the Penny Candy store and study the huge bins of caramels, chocolates and jelly beans before I cross the street. Then I know the exact candy that I will buy on the way home with my ten-cent allowance. I chew these candies at night in the dark, knowing that the sweetness will carry me past Grandma’s words, that it will help me cross other streets, and that I will need to depend upon myself. I know this because I hear the grownups during dinner: their sudden bursts of laughter, their long silences, the angry way they ladle their dinners onto the Grandma’s silver lined plates.