Sweet Saturday Samples


This week for Sweet Saturday Samples, I’m featuring the end of Chapter 32 of Adicia’s story, “Wedding Preparations.” Shortly after Easter 1966, Adicia, her sisters, and their friends pay a visit to Upper East Side Beautiful Brides to find a wedding dress for Lenore and bridesmaid dresses for themselves. The owner of the salon, Mrs. Marsenko, is one of my favorite secondary characters in the book. Ever since the miserable Mrs. Troy and her unhappy daughters first marched in there in June of 1960, she’s never forgotten them, and this time she was pleasantly surprised to discover Mrs. Troy isn’t there and this is for a wedding everyone wants, not an attempted forced marriage. She appears in five chapters and the first section of the Epilogue.


“That first wedding dress you all liked so much is one hundred,” Mrs. Marsenko informs them as an associate starts ringing up the purchases. “The dresses for the maid of honor, bridesmaids, and flower girl are between twenty and thirty each.”

“Wow, that’s an awful lot of dough,” Baby says.

“Have we decided on the wedding dress yet, or will you need to come back to look at more?”

“Wear the first one!” Adicia insists. “Take this blue one off and try the first one on again and see if you like it more.”

“I’ll handle paying,” Emeline says, taking Lenore’s pocketbook off her arm. “Just try on the first one again and see how you feel the second time.”

Lenore follows an associate back to the dressing room while Emeline counts out the cash Allen put into Lenore’s pocketbook.  Almost his entire monthly salary is there.  Emeline marvels at how her brother has moved up in his station sufficiently enough to be able to spend so much money.

“It still seems wasteful that we can’t wear these dresses to any other events,” Ernestine says. “We’re not uptown girls who go to parties and society functions every week.  It’s like throwing money away, just so we can look nice on one day.”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll be able to wear them at four other events this spring,” Lucine smiles. “We’ve got four graduations coming up in this family, and you always wear nice clothes at a graduation ceremony and party.”

“Four?” Adicia asks. “There’s my graduation from elementary school and Ernestine’s graduation from junior high.  Who else is graduating?”

“I’m graduating high school!” Emeline reminds them. “You’re all invited to the ceremony and my party in Yorkville in June.”

“And you can all come down to Hempstead in May for my college graduation,” Gemma says. “I’m in my last year at Hofstra.”

“Isn’t your school in Long Island?” Ernestine asks.

“Yes it is.  I’ll be the first person in our family to graduate from college, after I was already the first to graduate from high school six years ago.  Wish I’d been able to graduate two years ago, but the past is what it is.  My friends and I are going out to supper at a nice restaurant that day, and if you want, you can go down to onea the beaches on the island.”

“A real beach?” Justine asks. “With warm sand, pretty shells, lighthouses, and pretty blue waves?”

“I can’t wait to go to the beach!” Adicia says. “You’re a neat big sister.  You got a lot nicer since we last saw you.”

Lenore comes back out in the first dress, this time with a veil over her hair and a pair of white leather shoes with a slight thick heel.  Everyone stops to stare at her in awe.

“Now you look like even more of a bride!” Adicia says. “Please get this dress!  Allen is going to fall in love with you all over again when he sees you!”

“Who’s walking you down the aisle, by the way?” Lucine asks. “I suppose Father Murphy will escort me when I get married someday, though I don’t know if he’d be allowed to do that since he’d be performing my ceremony too.”

“Do I have to be escorted by someone?” Lenore asks. “I see it as Allen and I giving ourselves to each other, since we don’t have decent parents to give us in marriage to each other.”

“Our parents aren’t invited to the wedding,” Emeline says. “But in the meantime, are you or aren’t you gonna buy this gorgeous dress?  You look like a Medieval princess, like Ernestine said.  Allen will feel like the luckiest guy in the world to be marrying such a beautiful bride.”

“Please get this one!” Justine begs.

“Even I think it’s beautiful, and I don’t ordinarily get into alla that girly stuff,” Girl says.

“All you need is a bouquet and you’ll look like the perfect bride,” Julie says.

“You know Allen won’t be satisfied with anything but the best for his beautiful bride,” Adicia says. “All you have to do is change back into your clothes, pay for the dress, and let Mr. and Mrs. van Niftrik store it at their place so Allen won’t be able to see it till your wedding day.”

“And then we can pick up my brother and go out to eat, if you’ve got any money left,” Girl says. “I kinda wish I was a girly girl right now, since I’d love to play dress-up and look like a princess for one special day.”

Lenore looks around at the girls, then turns around to look at herself in the mirror for the umpteenth time. “It is a really beautiful dress.  I suppose I deserve a gorgeous wedding dress like this after what I’ve been through.  Okay, it’s the one.  I’ll get this dress.”

Emeline pulls out five twenty-dollar bills from Lenore’s pocketbook as she goes back with the attendant to change into her street clothes.  The younger girls are all smiles as they take their boxed dresses and sit down in the lobby to wait.

“Do you think I’ll be lucky enough to bag a nice guy of my own someday and wear a pretty dress like Lenore’s?” Adicia asks. “Surely our brother can’t be the only nice guy in the world.”

“You’re a pretty girl,” Emeline says. “I’m sure any nice boy would love to be your fellow when you’re old enough.  And even if you have to wait awhile, there’s no shame in being a dark horse.  You’ll just find your fellow later than most girls, and when no one expects it.”

“What’s a dark horse?”

“Like an underdog. The one no one expects to win the race, the one everyone underestimates.  I guess all of us Troys are like that, at least all of us except Carlos and Tommy.  No one ever expected us to come up in society and do as well as we have.  Gemma’s graduating from college, Allen graduated high school and got a cake job in a nice neighborhood, Lucine’s in college, I’m gonna graduate high school, Ernestine’s going to high school in the fall, in a nice neighborhood, and I’m sure you and Justine will do well for yourselves too.”

“So it’s like someone who sneaks up on the other horses and wins at the last minute?”

“Yes, the one no one pays much attention to ‘cause they think he’s of no account anyway.  I think it’s good in a way that we’re a family of such dark horses, since we’ll get an even better last laugh on the people who made fun of us all these years.  They won’t even see it coming when we make good.”

Sweet Saturday Samples


This week’s installment for Sweet Saturday Samples is the opening of Chapter 31 of Adicia’s story, “A New Year Full of Hope.” This is one of the shortest chapters, and it was really cute and fun to write.


“You are not,” Julie insists. “You are not going to call up the radio station with the van Niftriks’ phone and ask them to play a Beatles’ song with your name in it.  The disc jockey would either think you were joking or wonder where your parents are and try to get them arrested for not giving you a proper name.”

It’s the first day of 1966, a Saturday, and Adicia, Justine, Ernestine and her friends, and Betsy are sitting around in Betsy’s apartment, having snacks, and playing records while Mr. and Mrs. van Niftrik are out visiting friends for the New Year’s celebration.  Girl has been beside herself with excitement since they all got their own copies of Rubber Soul for Christmas and found a song called “Girl” on side two, sung by John, her favorite Beatle.

“It’s my name, ain’t it?  I’m proud of my name.  I know it might not be my name forever, since I’ll be a woman eventually and it’d seem silly for a woman to go by Girl, but it’s my name now.  Why can’t I ask that my special song be played on the radio just for me, as a cool treat for the New Year?”

“I like the song and all, but it’s not exactly about the nicest girl in the world,” Ernestine says. “The girl in the song is really mean to him.”

“Why don’t you lie and say your name is Michelle, if you really want the disc jockey to play a new Beatles’ song with a girl’s name in it?” Julie asks.

Girl laughs. “How many Michelles have you ever known?  It might be more common in France, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard it on a girl here.  If it does ever get more common, you can bet it’ll be onea those names that gets really popular all of a sudden and then probably seems old hat in another generation or two.  Take your mother’s name.  Didn’t you say it was Susan?  That name’s so popular among girls our age right now that you can’t throw a stick without hitting five of ‘em.”

“My mommy’s name was Suzanne.”

“I like that name,” Justine says. “Our next door neighbor Mrs. Doyle told us her real name is Suzanne.  I think it has more personality than Susan, even if it does sound almost the same.”

“You got your neighbor to tell you her real name?” Baby asks in surprise. “I thought it was supposed to be rude to ask a grownup her real name.”

“We were looking at her engagement ring in the candlelight during the blackout, and it was inscribed on the inside with her and her husband’s initials and the date they got engaged,” Adicia says. “So we asked what they stood for.”

“What are your parents’ real names, Betsy?” Julie asks. “I guess grownups really do have their own names they use when they’re with other grownups.  I know in some places, all grownups call each other Mr. and Mrs. even when there are no kids around, but I don’t think we live in a place like that.”

“My mom’s name is Gloria Ruth, and my dad’s name is Arthur Lawrence.  My mom’s maiden name was Reinders.  That’s a Dutch name too.”

“Is your real name Betsy?” Infant asks. “I mean, is it short for Elizabeth?”

“Just Betsy.  My parents must’ve liked how it sounded on its own.  Not all nicknames work by themselves or sound grownup when you get older.  Did you ever think of what name you might like for yourself when you get older and might need a true name?”

“I never thought about that.  I’m only going on seven.  I won’t need a grownup name for a long time.”

“I think I can get away with being called Baby forever,” Baby says. “At least that sounds like a respectful nickname for someone.  And your mother once said there’s a French name that sounds like Baby, some name a couple of actresses from the olden days had.”

“Bebe,” Girl supplies as she inches closer to the phone. “I remember one of the women at the squat saying there was an actress named Bebe Daniels that she really liked.  She said she also got the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Truman for her war efforts.  I’d assume she and those other famous Bebes were going by nicknames, though, since it just means ‘baby’ in French.” She raises the receiver from the hook.

“You’re not really doing it,” Ernestine protests.

“I have the number memorized from how many times they announce it on the air for folks who wanna make requests,” Girl brags as she begins dialing.

“What if Betsy’s parents get mad at an extra charge on their phone bill?” Boy asks.

“I’m so glad we don’t need to talk to an operator and ask to be connected anymore when we place phonecalls,” Girl says as she waits for the disc jockey to pick up. “No more middlewoman.”

The other children sit back in suspense as they hear someone responding on the other end of the line.  She surely can’t be so stupid as to publicly admit on the air that her name is actually Girl, and thus invite a lot of questions about her parents and maybe even birth.  None of the Ryans have birth certificates, not having been born in the hospital or even attended by a midwife. Their parents knew they could never get away with it if they put down the names Girl, Boy, Baby, and Infant, and admitted they hadn’t been born with any qualified birth attendants in sight.

“Hi.  My name is Colleen Ryan, and I’m calling to request my new favorite Beatles’ song, ‘Girl.’  I like it so much ‘cause it’s sung by John, my favorite, and my name means ‘Girl’ in English.  I like to pretend he’s singing to me when I hear it, even though I know the girl in the song isn’t so nice.”

“Your wish is my command, Miss Ryan,” the disc jockey tells her.

Girl smiles at them after she hangs up. “See?  I told yous guys I could pull it off.  You just have to know how to say the right things, use proper English, make up a convincing story.”

“Where’d you dig up the name Colleen?” Julie asks. “Does it really mean ‘girl’?”

“Yup.  No one in Ireland would use it, of course, but Irish-Americans who don’t know jack about our language or heritage don’t balk at using it.”

“Maybe you should really pick an Irish name when you have to get a legit name,” Adicia suggests as they hear the disc jockey starting to announce the request on the air. “It’s nice to have a name that shows off where your ancestors came from.”

Girl sits back with her eyes closed dreamily as the radio plays “Girl.” Julie, Ernestine, Betsy, and Adicia like the song too, but still wonder why in the world she’d enjoy having her name in it so much when the lyrics describe a girl who makes her boyfriend feel so poorly and uses guilt to keep him around every time he tries to break up.  None of them would ever dare treat a man who loved them so meanly.  They’d be too happy just to find a guy to like them and treat them special that they’d never mistreat him or take him for granted, unless of course he were some abusive creep like Francesco.  Adicia hopes there are more than a few guys in the world like her big brother Allen or Mr. Doyle and Mr. van Niftrik, and that not all men are as grotesque as Francesco, Carlos, Jacob, Julie or Lenore’s fathers, or her own father.

Sweet Saturday Samples


This week for Sweet Saturday Samples, I’m presenting another excerpt from Chapter 29 of Adicia’s story, “Allen and Lenore’s Romance.” It’s the day after Lenore’s 18th birthday, and Adicia, her sisters, and their friends have come over to the apartment to give Lenore their presents and celebrate with her. Bit by bit, Lenore confesses to them what happened last night.


Adicia, Justine, Ernestine, Julie, and the Ryans come up to the apartment on Saturday afternoon, carrying a shopping bag with their birthday presents for Lenore.  Lenore seems a bit moony-eyed as she greets them.

“You seem different,” Ernestine says. “Does that happen to everyone when they turn eighteen and magically become adults?”

“Did you feel different overnight when you turned thirteen and became a teenager?” Lenore asks her.

“A little,” Ernestine says. “Girl says she didn’t feel like a teenager right away.”

Girl pulls up a seat at the kitchen table and sits with her head in her elbows, an annoyed look on her face.  When Lenore offers the children birthday cake, Girl gives a little sigh and accepts a thin slice.  She says nothing as she slowly chews the cake.

“What’s eating you?” Lenore asks. “You’re usually so animated.”

“She started menstruating last night,” Ernestine tattles.

Adicia looks at Girl with a mixture of jealousy, admiration, and surprise. “Why’d you keep it a secret?  You didn’t say anything about that when Justine and me met yous guys at your place.”

“I was not looking forward to this,” Girl grumbles. “I wanted to hold out till I was seventeen.  Lucky Ernestine still ain’t gotten hers.”

“She went across the hall to Mrs. van Niftrik for help when she realized what was going on,” Julie says. “She said Mrs. van Niftrik thought her homemade washable napkins were ingenious, and so much more practical and thrifty than the Modess napkins and the belt she uses.  Betsy turned thirteen in March, but she hasn’t menstruated yet.  I’m glad I have at least two more years left to not have it.”

“What did Allen get you for your birthday?” Baby asks, glad she’s only eight years old and too young to be dealing with such a situation.

“A stuffed monkey, perfume, blue flat-soled shoes, and an emerald bracelet,” Lenore smiles. “He spends too much money on me.”

“A guy only spends so much money on a girl when he really likes her,” Ernestine says. “You think he’ll come home from work this evening with more gifts?”

“Even if he does, I’m not wishing for anything more!” Lenore says. “Your brother has already gotten me a miniature zoo, and now he’s gotten me jewelry, shoes, and perfume!”

“Can we go out to the park after you open your presents?” Infant asks.

“Sure, that’ll be fun,” Lenore says.

She takes the bag from Boy and pulls out the presents, wrapped in newspaper.  Ernestine and her friends pooled together their money and got her a mauve-colored jewelry box with seashells and bits of rounded colored glass for decoration, Adicia got her a compact mirror with rhinestones with some of her windshield-washing money, and Justine got her a potholder she made in her kindergarten class.  All of the other girls were making them for their mothers or grandmothers, but only Justine had to make hers for an older female friend who serves as one of her surrogate mothers.  She used green, white, red, and yellow loops.

“Someday when we’re older and have jobs, we’ll get you presents as nice as the ones Allen got,” Adicia promises.

“He took me out to a Greek restaurant for supper too,” Lenore says. “He held my hand part of the way home.”

“How romantic!” Ernestine says. “I think hand-holding is very underrated.”

“And then when we were watching television after we got home, he put his arm around me.”

“How exciting!” Julie says. “I bet you didn’t put up a fight when he did either of those things.”

“He asked my permission for both things,” Lenore says proudly. “I know a lot of guys would just make their move and not even think about if the girl was interested in that.  You should’ve seen how nervous he was about asking me if he could kiss me.”

“What!” Ernestine gasps, a big smile appearing on her face. “My brother really kissed you, on the mouth I’d assume?”

Lenore giggles nervously. “It was very nice.”

“What does it feel like?” Girl asks, suddenly interested in her surroundings. “Not that I wanna do that with anyone till I’m a bit older, but I’m curious.  I should know what to expect.”

“Like being tickled by butterflies,” Lenore says. “You can feel invisible electric sparks and you get butterflies in your stomach.”

“I don’t know why anyone would wanna do that,” Infant says, wrinkling her nose. “It’s like chewing on someone’s face.  Older people do lots of stuff I think is goofy.”

“You’re only six, sweetie.  When you’re my age, you’ll probably think a lot differently.” Lenore picks up her purse. “Now who wants to go out to the park?  I’ll buy yous guys snacks or ice-cream if we pass a vendor.”

“That’s it?” Girl asks. “You’re gonna drop the bomb that Allen kissed you last night and then leave it at that?  No other details?”

“I wouldn’t want to bore you with details when you’ve never had your own boyfriend.  I don’t think you could really understand what I’m talking about if you haven’t experienced it yet.  Besides, I think Ernestine, Adicia, and Justine might be a little grossed-out if I go into any more detail about their own brother kissing me.”

“You’re right,” Adicia says immediately. “I hope no boy kisses me till I’m at least eighteen.”

“When you’re eighteen?” Justine asks. “I don’t want to do that ever, with any boy!”

“I told you,” Lenore says.

Girl looks at her in awe as they file out of the apartment, as though she’s now a species from another planet.  She knows Lenore is five years older than she is, but now she seems even older by mere virtue of having a boyfriend.  That’s the kind of growing up experience she’d prefer to be having right about now, instead of being stuck having her first unwanted menstrual period.

Warm Fuzzies Blogfest, Week Four


For the final week of the Warm Fuzzies Blogfest, we’re being asked what makes it all worth it as a writer, and to share something from a WIP or finished work that’s one of our own Warm Fuzzies moments. I’ve known how to read since I was three and started writing (primarily picture books) when I was four, so I can’t really remember a time I wasn’t writing in some form or another. When I was a preteen, my stories started getting longer and more complex, and I settled on historical fiction as my great love in the fourth grade. Twentieth century historical fiction soon won out over 19th century historical fiction, and that’s what I’ve been writing ever since (along with select soft sci-fi).

What makes it all worth it for me is knowing, if I’m good enough, I’ll be remembered as a writer for all time, like Shakespeare, Dante, Hermann Hesse, Kahlil Gibran, Mark Twain, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. Yes, they wrote about issues relevant to their own eras and geographical locations, but the books and stories themselves resonate across cultures and eras because they didn’t write to trends or try to copy an in vogue writing style. They just wrote from the heart. Writing non-YA books that are all of 300 pages would never cut it for me. I feel so much pride and accomplishment upon finishing one of my sagas, even knowing many people now react to someone who’s written a saga that goes WAY above 100,000 words the same way many people react when they learn a woman didn’t have a C-section for twins, a baby over 10 pounds, or a non-transverse breech. That used to be the norm, but only because it’s been so long since it was, it’s now viewed with surprise or disbelief, like they don’t realize people still do that when no one has told them they can’t or shouldn’t.

Many of my storylines and books are memorized in my head for years before I get to them. My recently-finished 406,000-word Russian novel sequel was locked in my head for about 15 years before I was able to really get down to it, though I’m glad I had the notes/outline from 10 years ago to refresh my memory about some plot points. I got the idea for a sequel when I wasn’t even halfway done with the first book. All I can say is, thank God I decided to change the juvenile original plot structure so that Lyuba and Ivan would be together, and that they’d secretly been in love since they were children. Had Lyuba indeed permanently ended up with Boris, and had Boris never turned to the dark side of his personality, not only would the first book have been extremely boring, short, and predictable, but it also wouldn’t have left much room for a natural sequel.

After keeping this book in my head for about half of my life (since that’s what 15 years represents to someone who’s not quite 32), it felt so good and liberating to advance in my progress, and to finally get down on paper scenes, chapters, and lines I’d had memorized since I was rather young. Chapter 41, “Union with a Snake,” just came blasting out of me, as did Chapter 43, “Facing the Music in Minnesota,” Chapter 45 (the final chapter), “Who’s the Father?,” and the Epilogue, “No Thirteenth Time.” One of the chapters for the future third book, “Lyuba Becomes a Levshá,” is also now memorized in my head. (Levshá is the Russian word for a lefty, and in the third book, another part of a nightmare Lyuba has in the second book comes true. Not to give away too much, but she gets in an accident in late 1938, while eight months pregnant with her eighth child, that renders her right arm and hand pretty much useless.)

For my own Warm Fuzzies moment, I’m sharing something not from one of my Russian novels, but from Adicia’s story. There have been quite a few books I’ve put on permanent hiatus over the years, or that I planned to write but lost interest in, but only Adicia’s story did I ever come back to. After 16.5 years after the first of my two disk files got some kind of bug, I finally bit the bullet and went back to reconstruct it from memory as best I could, and using the storyline I’d had memorized in my head since 1993. And I’m so glad that first part of the discontinued first draft was only miraculously resurrected some months after I’d finished the book, since it just wasn’t bringing the story in a very positive or well-plotted direction.

It was like a Grimm’s fairytale on acid, with characters who aren’t particularly three-dimensional, and with a really annoying, D.W. Griffith-like narrative essentially telling the reader to feel sorry for Adicia. The purple prose describing their poverty and the parents’ and older brothers’ drug use was also way over the top. It’s much more realistic and natural when Allen, the one decent Troy brother, goes clean and makes good in the new version, since he’s depicted from the jump as a nice guy who loves his sisters, doesn’t drink or use drugs nearly as often as his parents and older brother Carlos, who prefers the relatively innocuous pot over the harder drugs the other three are frequently imbibing, and who desperately wants to find a way out of this life. In the discontinued first draft, his move from druggie, drunk, sleeparound, thug, and thief to stand-up family man, protector of his sisters, sober person, and hard worker is pretty damn sudden. I didn’t realize at 13/14 that you can’t just have characters completely reform their established personalities overnight, for no compelling reason. It has to follow the story and character trajectory that’s already been established.

Anyway, one of the reasons I finally got back to the book was because I didn’t think my conscience would ever forgive me if I didn’t. I owed it to that dear little girl who was the real-life inspiration for Adicia. There are a number of chapters in Adicia’s story that give me warm fuzzies and that I was really excited to get to, like when Allen and his sisters first meet Lenore and invite her into their home, when Allen and Lenore finally get together romantically, when Adicia first meets Ricky, when Justine arrives in Hudson Falls to join Adicia and Ricky after her harrowing escape from Manhattan, when Allen and Lenore get married, and when Ernestine first meets Girl and Boy Ryan (as they’re then called). But my favorite part, my whole reason for writing the book, is Chapter 26, “Rendezvous with Destiny.” Here in its entirety, and with some new lines correcting my embarrassing oversight of not having any lefties. (I always have at least a few lefties and ambidextrals in my sets of characters, and if I get famous enough, I’ll be proud to have characters in the rather lacking literary canon of lefties.)


“Window-washing,” Girl says. “I’ve scored so much money from it I’ve been able to buy Beatles’ records after we’ve bought our food supply for the week.”

She, Ernestine, and Julie are sitting around talking to Adicia and Justine on a balmy day in June, while Boy, Baby, and Infant are off begging and performing for money in Chelsea.  Since losing Emeline at the beginning of February, Adicia and Justine have been coming over to see Ernestine fairly often.  She’s the only older sister they have left whom they know the whereabouts of, and they always feel better after they visit with her.  Right now Girl is suggesting to them ways they can make some extra money over the summer vacation.

“Don’t the drivers get mad and cuss you out?” Adicia asks warily.

“A couple of ‘em always do, but you gotta grow a thicker skin if you wanna make a living off of begging and doing odd jobs like this.  Some don’t curse me or honk, but they don’t give me any money.  Most of ‘em are decent and give me a quarter.  Sometimes I get a whole dollar.  Even though most New Yorkers take public transportation, there are still tons of cars.  And with daylight hours so long this time of year, you can hustle up plenty of unwitting customers each day.  Whenever there’s a red light or some kind of road delay, you go up to a car and wash the windshield, maybe the side windows if you got enough time.  I guarantee you’ll get plenty of change by the end of the day.”

“Where do you work?” Justine asks. “Just in your neighborhood?”

“We make the rounds.  Here in the Meatpacking District, Chelsea, the West Village, sometimes even up into your appropriately-named hellhole of a neighborhood.”

“It’s not such a far walk,” Ernestine says. “Yous guys walk here to see us often enough.  All you need to get started is a bucket of soapy water and a sponge or rag.  We can even demonstrate to you how to do it on onea the cars parked down on the street.”

“But you can’t really mess it up,” Girl says. “Ain’t no wrong way to wash a car windshield, so long as you don’t accidentally use a bucket full of coal dust or something.”

“Do I need two buckets?” Adicia asks. “I don’t want people to get angry at me if I wash their windshields with the same dirty water I used on thirty or fifty other cars that same day.”

“You don’t need one bucket of clean water and another of soapy water,” Girl says. “So long as you wring out your sponge or rag before you use it to wipe off the soapy stuff.  I’m sure none of these drivers are expecting a professional carwash from a street urchin like us.”

“Could we be reported to the cops for washing their cars without permission?” Justine asks.

“How would they get our names or addresses?” Girl scoffs. “The most they can do is honk or yell.  They can’t very well drive their cars away when they’re stuck at a red light or stopped in the middle of rush hour, and they’d be damn stupid if they up and walked out of their cars, leaving them abandoned in the middle of the road.”

“So long as you don’t make the mistake of washing a cop car,” Ernestine says. “Then I’m sure there might be some trouble.”

“You think I might get extra dough if I washed a limo or some fancy rich person’s car?” Adicia asks.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a limo or a really expensive car coming through the likes of our neck of the woods, but I’m sure it’s possible,” Girl says.

“Make sure you’ve got nice deep pockets when you do this,” Ernestine says. “I always have a purse with me too, just in case I get so much change it won’t all fit in my pockets.”

“Can I do this too?” Justine asks. “I’m so small, I don’t think I could reach up to the windshields.”

“Maybe you’re a little bit too short for it, but Adicia is just the right size,” Girl says. “She’s small for her age.  The drivers might not always realize someone’s about to wash their cars when they get to a light.  They’ll suddenly see a hand coming up and will be stuck.”

“It’s sure easier money than begging or performing,” Ernestine says. “At least this way, you know for sure you’ve got money coming to you from most of the jobs you do.”

“Has anyone ever pulled a gun on you or yelled at you so bad you had to run away?” Adicia asks worriedly. “I do live in a bad neighborhood.”

“Who could get mad at some poor street kid?” Julie asks. “They’ll know by our ragged clothes and dirty faces that we’re not privileged uptown kids and that we’re one of them.  Who could say no to giving one of us urchins some spare change?  I got a whole dollar a few times too.”

“So have I,” Ernestine says.

“Ever get any five dollar bills or anything above that?” Justine asks.

Girl laughs. “The drivers might take pity on us or do the decent thing, but they ain’t nuts.  You don’t hand out five or ten bucks like candy to street kids.”

“I don’t know if we have a bucket back at our tenement,” Adicia says. “Our mother never washes the floors or windows with anything besides some rag or a mop.”

“Then you’re just in luck, since we have a supply of buckets,” Girl says, going over to one of the closets. “Me, Ernestine, and Julie each have one, and it looks like there’s one more for you.  All you do is fill it up at the beginning of the day and put some soap powder in it, then drop a sponge or large rag in it.  Do you have any of them at your place?”

“My mother won’t notice or care her cleaning rag is missing,” Adicia says. “I think we’ve got at least one sponge too.”

“Perfect.  And if you notice the water getting too rank, just dump it out and get a fresh supply at a nearby fire hydrant or fountain.  I carry around a little packet of soap powder in case that ever happens.  I’m smart like that.”

“Where do you store your extra money, when you’re done buying food, records, and whatever else you buy?  I don’t want my parents to discover my car-washing money and use it to buy drugs or booze.”

“This is a pretty safe neighborhood and building, so I don’t worry ‘bout people breaking in and taking our money, but just in case, I store our extra dough in a hole in the davenport.  Some people store their valuables in a hole in the bed, though I don’t like the idea of destroying our beds.”

Adicia feels very excited at the thought of having money to keep and spend for her very own, and feels full of nervous excitement and anticipation over going out to wash strangers’ windshields and make it happen.  Sarah once told her everything new seems scary the first time you do it, but sometimes the nervousness makes it better or more exciting.

“I wouldn’t get a piggybank if I was you,” Ernestine says. “Our parents have no shame, so they’d probably raid it.  Our dad took money from Tommy’s piggybank once, and caught hell from our mother, but I know she wouldn’t see anything evil about taking money from her daughters’ piggybanks.”

“I also recommend hiding money in furniture legs,” Girl says.

Ernestine looks at her best friend’s free-swinging breasts and laughs. “I know something else you need to buy with your car-washing money, and that’s a bra.  You could get arrested for indecent exposure if you walk around in public much longer with those things swinging around like that.”

“Why should I wear onea them things?  As far as I’m concerned, they’re just a more updated form of the corset string or Chinese foot-binding.”

“Well, we are twelve years old now.  Girls our age are supposed to be wearing bras by now if we’ve got bustlines.  Emeline was sporting an ample bustline by our age too.  She was even younger than us when she started sprouting breasts, as a matter of fact.”

“Soon you’ll both need belts and sanitary napkins,” Adicia says. “What’s that long word again for when you bleed every month?”

“Menstruation,” Girl says. “Thank God, that ain’t happened to either of us yet.  Don’t worry, I’m not so radical I intend to go around bleeding into my clothes every month.  I think we’ll make our own to save money.  We can get some snaps for cheap at a home goods store, and then stuff some cut-out rags with cotton or old washcloths.  Damn those stupid belts your older sisters have to use.  I know there’s a better way to handle that time of the month, and I ain’t about to finance the fat cats who run those companies.  I’m sure most of ‘em are men, since a woman would probably never design such horrid things.  Come on, having to wear a belt around your waist under your clothes, and having to fasten a napkin to said belt with hooks or pins?  That sounds like a form of Medieval torture!”

“We saw an awful filmstrip in my class this year about menstruation,” Ernestine says. “Lucine and Emeline were right about how terrible those filmstrips are.  The pamphlets we girls got stunk too.  They were called ‘Growing Up and Liking It,’ from Modess.  The time when I start to wear lipstick and go on my first date, what baloney.  Poor kids like us don’t get to wear makeup or have boy-girl parties.  And I have more pressing things to do with my time than keep track of my menstrual cycle in that calendar.”

“That pamphlet was a hoot,” Girl says. “I lost track of how many times they used the words ‘dainty’ and ‘daintiness.’  Ain’t nothing dainty about us urchin girls.  Who wants to be dainty anyway?  Dainty girls and women are a waste of society.  They don’t do nothing to contribute to it.  All they do is sit around putting on makeup, dancing, and throwing supper parties.  A delicate girl would never last a day in our world.”

“Can we get back to what we were talking about?” Adicia is dreading the time when she too starts to become a young woman. “When can I start washing people’s windshields?”

“Let’s go outside and have a practice run on a parked car right now.” Girl drags a bucket over to the kitchen sink, which looks more like a basin sink than a normal-sized kitchen sink. “You’ll be a pro in no time.”

“And remember to come back to us and report how you’re doing,” Julie says. “You’re newer to it than we are.  You might need some advice, or just want to share how much dough you’re raking in.”

“Oh, yes, let’s compare how much we’re each making!” Ernestine says. “Of us three, so far Girl is in the lead, but then again, she’s been a street kid her whole twelve years and knows how to do these things.  Julie and I haven’t been in the business quite so long, even if we’re all from poor families.”

“We’ll meet back here in a week to discuss how you’ve done your first week in business,” Girl tells Adicia. “With a sweet face like yours, who could resist giving you some extra change?  You look like such a dear little ragdoll, someone everyone would feel pity and compassion for.  You don’t even need to do nothing extra to act the part, since you were born to play it.”


Adicia was nervous about starting to wash strangers’ car windows and windshields, but quickly came to realize Girl, Ernestine, and Julie were right about how simple it is, and how many drivers would take pity on her and give her some change.  During her time in operation so far, she’s canvassed most of the blocks of Hell’s Kitchen, and has found she does blend in pretty well.  Even tough-looking people leave her alone or at most glance at her before moving on.  They know she’s no danger to them, not a girl from the moneyed classes trying to pass herself off as one of the underclass.

At most she’s gotten a dollar bill when people don’t have change, but usually she gets a quarter or a half-dollar.  Some people have been cheapskates and only given her a dime, but they’re far and few between.  Her favorite place to get business, though, is one light that seems to always last for a good three minutes.  With the cars forced to stop for that long, she has more time than usual to wash the windows.  She tries to impress the drivers by how seriously she undertakes her endeavor, instead of trying to smile at them and make small talk.  If they smile at her, though, she’ll return the smile.

Adicia wonders if some of them might have been in her shoes when they were young themselves, and so feel obligated to help her out in the small way they can.  She also wonders what they might be assuming about her.  Maybe some of them think she doesn’t go to school, or that she’s homeless, or that she’s an orphan.

One day, not that long after she’s begun her business, she sees a nicer car than usual pulling to a stop at the light.  Not wasting a moment of the long light to admire the car, she immediately puts up her left hand to start washing the windshield.  She hopes the driver thinks she’s doing a good job with his nice car, and is glad he’s not one of the drivers who’s given her a strange look upon realizing she’s a southpaw.  Though she isn’t wasting any time in the three minutes she’s got to do her job and make a good impression, she does notice out of the corner of her eye that the driver has a kind face.  Hopefully he’ll be a nice guy and give her a quarter or even a whole dollar bill.

As the light changes, she stands back and waits for him to give her her fair due.  She sees him reaching into his pockets to search for change, then hesitating when he pulls out a bill.  Adicia hopes he doesn’t want to cheap her out by giving her nothing or only change if a dollar bill is all he’s got.  Then, with cars starting to honk at him to get moving, he hands her the bill and starts to drive away.

Adicia glances at it, expecting to see the familiar face of George Washington, but instead sees a different face.  Her eyes widen and she looks at the departing driver in pure astonishment when she realizes that she’s just been given a ten dollar bill.  She can’t decide if he’s a millionaire or just some local philanthropist who likes to give larger bills to needy children.  At any rate, this is definitely the most money she’s ever going to earn washing windshields, and a story that Ernestine and her friends will probably never believe without the evidence.


“No way!” Ernestine gasps in astonishment when Adicia pulls out the ten dollar bill. “Some guy in a fancy car gave you ten whole bucks just for washing his windshield?”

“I wish I’d been on that street that day and been able to catch him too,” Julie says jealously.

“Maybe he’s a celebrity who’s in town for the opening of his new movie or play,” Girl says. “Or maybe he’s a new resident with a little money.  Boy, I hope the rest of us run into him too, and often.”

“He hesitated a little when he first pulled it out, like he wasn’t sure about giving me so much money,” Adicia says. “Maybe that was all he had, and he felt bad for me and gave it to me anyway.”

“Who cares why he gave it to you!” Ernestine says. “The most important thing is that he did give it to you!  Now we just need to decide what we’re going to spend our new fortune on.  God knows you don’t get ten bucks for doing that every day.”

“You said Betsy is going to a Beatles’ concert in town in late August.  I know you, Girl, and Julie love them too, and would really love to go to that show with Betsy.”

“Don’t you even think about that,” Girl chides her. “I ain’t so crazy about them that I’d use a friend’s surprise fortune, which you’ll probably never be seeing again anytime soon, to pay for some concert tickets.  A concert is over in a little while and don’t last like, say, a new dress or a sturdy pair of shoes.  Even buying a nice meal at a restaurant would be better than wasting it on a concert.”

“Ten bucks can buy a lot of candy,” Justine says, propping her rabbit up on a pillow.

“It could probably also pay for a visit to the dentist after you rot all your teeth from eating ten bucks worth of candy,” Girl says. “I say we should look at some catalogues to determine average prices of stuff we need, and then if there’s any money left over, use that for something we don’t need, like some gumdrops or a record.”

“Lucine got five bucks once from the Bowery Mission people when she volunteered to wash dishes after Thanksgiving supper,” Ernestine says. “They felt bad for her and gave her some money instead.  She used it to buy a baby-sized coat for Justine.  She was the warmest of all of us girls that winter.”

“It’s a good thing your mother don’t know about this,” Girl says. “Knowing her, she’d make you give her your hard-earned money.  Bad mothers like her have this attitude of what’s yours is mine, and feel it’s their right to take everything away from their own children.  I hope that bitch rots in Hell or comes back to earth as a neglected child herself someday.”

“I probably could use some new clothes,” Adicia admits. “It’s no fun wearing these ragged hand-me-downs my whole life.  And I don’t think I’ve had a new pair of shoes ever.”

“With only about two bucks, we could buy some milk, eggs, and bread,” Julie says.

“We could buy a ticket to the World’s Fair that’s in town,” Girl says. “It’s only a buck for kids to get in.”

“It’s here in Manhattan?” Julie asks. “I heard it was in one of the other boroughs.”

“It’s in Queens, so we’d have to take the subway,” Girl says.

“I’d love to go to the fair, but that would be eight dollars for tickets for all of us,” Adicia muses. “It wouldn’t be fair if only some of us went.”

“Where do you think the ticket money would go to?” Ernestine asks. “I know I’d feel uncomfortable if I knew it was going to rich fat cats who live off of our sweat and blood.”

“How about a belated birthday present for Allen, or a birthday gift for Lenore?” Adicia suggests.

“I’m sure they’d love the thought, but would insist you keep your money to spend on yourself,” Ernestine says. “It’s not every day you score so much money from just washing a windshield.”

“Speaking of Allen and Lenore, is there any word about whether they’re finally more than friends?” Girl asks, grinning.

“Nope,” Ernestine sighs. “Lenore’s almost seventeen now, Allen just turned twenty, and he still won’t lay a hand on her.  I bet she’s wondering at this point why a good-looking nice guy like him hasn’t even been on a single date in the almost two years she’s known him.”

“He said it would feel like cheating on her if he dated someone else,” Adicia says. “Anyway, I do like the idea of clothes, but at my age, I’m still growing.  Those clothes and shoes would be too small for me in another year or two, and Justine is a bit over four and a half years younger than me.  She’d have to wait a long time to wear them, and they’d be old by then.”

“Well, what else could we get that’s practical and that you need?” Girl asks. “Get some nice clothes.  Don’t think about how you’ll outgrow them eventually.  You get what you need when you need it.  It’s the same reason we spend money on food, even though before long the food turns into waste products.”

Adicia suddenly looks worried. “Do you think the saleslady would think we stole the money if we come in there looking like we do and have a ten dollar bill to spend?  Kids like us don’t just come into bills like that on our own.”

“We’ll wear our nicest clothes and scrub our faces and hands really well,” Julie says. “If anyone asks, you can say you have a nice relative with some money who gave it to you as a present.”

“Let me start by brushing your hair,” Ernestine says. “Then you’ll scrub up real well and borrow one of Julie’s dresses.  You two are about the same size, and she’s got nicer clothes than most of yours now.”

“Julie is taller than me,” Adicia protests.

“I know I’m a little bigger than you in that way, but our body types are both little,” Julie says. “That’s called petite, right?”

Girl nods. “You both have small bones, even if you ain’t the same height.  Now let’s start getting you spruced up so we can go out to a store and look for some decent clothes and shoes.  Maybe you can even buy the clothes a little bit too big so you can grow into them and keep them longer.  If we’ve got any money left over, you can buy a treat for yourself.”


Since it gets hot in the factory turned apartment building, the van Niftriks have let the six children across the hall borrow one of their electric fans for the summer.  It’s a good thing, since it’s now July and the sticky heat is really bothering them, particularly Baby and Infant, who are starting to miss the pleasant coolness of the basement in Allen’s apartment.

“Can we listen to something besides The Beatles?” Adicia asks as the girls are lying on the floor and playing records. “I think they sound nice, but I don’t want to get bored of them by listening to only them all day long.”

“Sure thing.  The Four Seasons are still my favorites, no matter how much I love The Beatles.” Betsy stands up. “I’ll go over to my place and bring back a couple of their records, and some other non-Beatles stuff too.  It probably is a good idea to break it up with other music.”

“I hope you don’t think I sound ungrateful,” Adicia says as Betsy’s going back to her apartment for the new records. “I know I’ve never gotten to listen to our own records before, but I don’t want to get sick of listening to the same songs or band over and over again, no matter how good they are.”

“It’s a good point,” Girl says. “I get sick of a song too when I hear it too much.  You can have too much of a good thing.”

“Do you have a favorite, Adicia?” Ernestine asks.

“A favorite what?”

“A favorite Beatle, of course,” Girl says. “Though you ain’t seen them on television like we have.  You’ve only heard their songs and seen their pictures.  Maybe it’s easier to choose your favorite when you’ve seen them in motion and heard them talking.  Ernestine and I both like John best, Julie likes Paul, and Betsy’s favorite is Ringo.”

“I never really thought about it.  I have to live in that hellhole with my parents, so I have other things to occupy my time besides picking a favorite Beatle.”

“You’re probably right,” Girl admits. “The three of us wouldn’t have cared about that either only a short time ago.”

Betsy comes back in carrying a small pile of records. “Here you go.  Some of them are a little old, but I hope you don’t mind.  The Beach Boys, The Four Seasons, and Ricky Nelson.  I have a bunch more, but I didn’t want to bring over too many of them.”

Adicia reaches over for the record on the top of the pile, Rag Doll, by The Four Seasons.  The face of one of the bandmembers looks oddly familiar, though she can’t quite place where in the world she would’ve seen any famous person before.  Then, as she keeps staring at it, it suddenly dawns on her.

“What’s wrong, Adicia?” Julie asks. “You look as though you’ve seen a ghost.”

“That man, the one on the far left.  He looks exactly like the fellow who gave me ten bucks for washing his windshield.”

“What!” Ernestine says. “I really think you’re imagining things.  What would a member of a famous band be doing driving through Hell’s Kitchen and handing out ten-dollar bills to street kids?”

Adicia paws through the pile of records and picks out the rest of the Four Seasons records Betsy brought over.  Each time she sees his face, the more convinced she becomes that he and the man whose windshield she washed are one and the same person.

“Betsy, this man, what’s his name?”

“That one?” Betsy asks, looking at which one Adicia is pointing to in all of her records. “That’s Bob Gaudio.  He plays the piano and writes a lot of their songs.  Do you really mean to tell us you think he was the one who gave you that money?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe he just bears a resemblance.  It could happen.”

“That’s probably all there is to it,” Ernestine says.

Adicia still can’t shake the feeling from her head. “Betsy, do you have any other pictures of this band I could look at?  I really want to find out if I’m just seeing things or if this really is the same guy.”

“Sure, they’re my favorite band, I’ve got tons of pictures and clippings of them.” Betsy jumps up again. “I’ll be right back with my scrapbook.”

Adicia sits shaking and confused while she waits what feels like forever to Betsy to come back from across the hall.  While the Rag Doll record is playing, she pores through Betsy’s extensive scrapbook of The Four Seasons, looking at every picture and news clipping carefully.  Her heart is racing by the time she gets to the last page.

“That’s the man,” she insists. “The tall guy in that band is the one who gave me ten dollars for washing his windshield.  I would swear on my own life that that is exactly the same man.  I’m more and more convinced with every picture of him I see.”

“You’re sure?” Julie asks.

“I am positive he’s exactly the same man.  I’ve seen too many pictures now to just be seeing things or thinking it was some other guy who just looked similar.”

Betsy looks at her with a slight grin, then breaks into a huge smile. “I am so jealous of you!  You actually got to meet one of the members of my favorite band and even got money from him!”

“You met a celebrity!” Girl says excitedly. “I can’t believe one of our kind actually got to meet a real-life celebrity!”

“You washed a millionaire’s windshield!” Ernestine says. “No wonder he gave you ten bucks!”

“Maybe he’ll drive through again and give me fifty bucks next time,” Adicia says hopefully.

“I don’t think he lives here,” Betsy says. “They record at a studio in the city, but when you’re as rich and famous as he is, you don’t hang around in a part of the city like this.”

“I can’t blame him,” Adicia says. “I wouldn’t want to live here if I had money either.  I don’t even want to live here now.”

“Isn’t the title track a sad song?” Girl asks. “It makes me think of one of us.  We’re all girls from the wrong side of the tracks too, laughed at by the rich kids and wearing ragged clothes.  And we’ll probably never be the wife or girlfriend of a boy from the nice part of town, since our kind ain’t supposed to mix.  Even if a guy from money did like one of us, you know his folks would never approve.”

“The song is number one on the charts right now,” Betsy says. “A lot of people like it.”

“So if this is a new song, maybe he wrote it not long after he saw me,” Adicia says. “Do you think it’s possible he was inspired by me?”

“Okay, now you’re probably dreaming,” Ernestine says. “Good songwriters turn ‘em out like candy.  They get inspiration from all sorts of people and stuff.  I mean, maybe it is possible, but I don’t think the odds are in favor of him having written that song because he saw you.”

Adicia pulls herself up into a sitting position and hugs her knees. “I don’t know.  Even if he probably was thinking of someone or something else when he wrote it, it’s nice to know some millionaires are nice people and that a girl like us can be written about in a song that goes to number one.  I’ll never forget how kind he was to me when he didn’t have to give so much money, or even any money, to some sad little girl who does look like a ragdoll.”

“Halloween 1959”


Halloween is my favoritest non-religious holiday (my favorite religious holiday is Yom Kippur), and I was hoping for a Halloween wedding. Unfortunately, someone wasn’t on the same urgent timetable I am about making things official and actually planning a wedding far enough in advance. Anyway, I freaking love Halloween, all the spooky decorations, the ghost stories, the candy, the haunted houses, the classic horror movies (back when movies were still intelligently-written instead of full of unnecessary sex, violence, and curse words that serve no purpose to the plot or characters’ development), the traditional Irish customs of Samhain, the costumes, the everything.

I’ve written Halloween scenes/chapters in quite a few of my books, but the one I’m sharing here is Chapter 3 of Adicia’s story, “Halloween 1959.” This was written when I was still reconstructing what I could from memory, and I knew I’d had a Halloween section in the then-lost first draft. The 10 chapters of Part I were deliberately written as short (Chapter 10, “The Sacrifice of Gemma,” is by far the longest, at 30 double-spaced pages; all the rest are about 10-15 pages), simplistic, centered around a holiday or period in the calendar year, like Easter, Xmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, St. Patrick’s Day, New Year, etc.

I was going for the style a lot of the classic young people’s series I loved growing up did—the writing style starts out rather simplistic since the characters are so young, and as they get older and more mature, the writing style and the storylines gradually get more complex, mature, deep. In Part I, Adicia is just a little girl, five years old until the closing section of Chapter 10, when she’s six and serving as the flower girl at Gemma’s forced wedding. I tried as best I could to write most of it through the eyes of a five-year-old girl with a big imagination in spite of her uncertainty about getting away from her poor class origins. She knows the world isn’t all puppies and flowers because of where she’s from, but at heart, she’s still only a little girl. I know now it’s not so popular to write an adult or mature teen book whose protagonist is a child for about half of the book, but I’m sure it’s not the first time such a book has been done.


“Look what I’ve got for you, Tommy!” Mrs. Troy dangles a sack in front of her pet child. “My friend and co-worker Mrs. Rossi on the third floor let me come over to use her sewing machine so I could make you this darling little Halloween costume!”

“Did you make the rest of us Halloween costumes too?” Adicia asks eagerly, wondering if perhaps her mother is growing a heart.

“Of course not.  I can’t waste my hard-earned money on fabric and thread to make costumes for eight other children.  And I’m not one of those television mothers, June Cleaver or Donna Reed.  You know very well I hate homemaking and don’t coddle children besides Tommy.”

Adicia’s heart sinks.  Her mother is still as self-centered and mean as she’s always been.

“You watch television, Mother?” Ernestine asks. “Do you watch it when you’re at work?”

“Some of the people I’ve worked with and for discuss the programs they like to watch.  I know as much about the popular shows as I would if I actually watched them every week.  Anyone who wants to can pitch in to get me and your father a television set for Christmas so we don’t have to learn about them from the weekly updates at work.”

“A television set must cost a fortune!” Emeline says. “The prices I see on them when we go to Macy’s and the other stores are more than a few weekly paychecks for both of you!”

Tommy rips open the sack. “I love you, Mommy!  I’m going to be a red crayon and collect lots of candy!”

“Can we go trick-or-treating too if we get our own costumes?” Adicia begs.

“You mistakes can do whatever you want, but I’d just make you turn over all your candy to Tommy.  You don’t deserve candy and chocolate.”

“What if Tommy gets so many cavities all his teeth fall out?” Emeline asks. “Can you afford the dental bills?”

“You think I really care if all his teeth fall out?  My golden boy prince has earned the right to eat a million pieces of candy in a row if he so wants.  Most people get a lot of false teeth and fillings through their lives.  Only uppity rich folk think they need to waste money on a foolish luxury like going to a dentist every year.  Ain’t it enough you all have toothbrushes?”

“And if my teeth fall out from eating lots of yummy candy, the Tooth Fairy will visit me and put money under my pillow!” Tommy crows.

“The Tooth Fairy never visited me any of the times I lost my teeth,” Adicia complains. “She’s never visited Ernestine or Emeline either.”

“The Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist,” Emeline says. “It’s a feel-good myth parents tell their children, like Santa or the Easter Bunny, so they won’t think their parents are the ones leaving money or presents.  If any of those figures really existed, they would’ve visited all of us equally, not just Prince Tommy.”

“Tommy, we’re going to carve a spooky jack-o-lantern together,” Mrs. Troy goes on, tuning out her daughters. “And you’re going to get a cute little plastic jack-o-lantern of your own to collect your candy in.  We’ll trick-or-treat at all the houses and apartments on the Lower East Side and try to get to at least one other neighboring area before the night is over.  I’ll be carrying a big pillowcase so you can dump your candy into it when your pumpkin overflows.  How could anyone not want to give such a sweet little angel an extra share of candy?”

“I’ll know if any of you dumb girls steals my candy!” Tommy warns his sisters.

Everyone in Adicia’s school except a few odd people from extremely religious families celebrates Halloween, and even most of the people in their otherwise downtrodden neighborhood decorate for Halloween and celebrate too.  The kids in the high school Gemma, Carlos, and Allen go to are having a Halloween dance and party, and even Lucine’s junior high school is having a Halloween dance and party festivities.  The elementary school Emeline, Ernestine, and Adicia go to has announced costume contests in each classroom, along with class parties and a big Halloween parade all around the school.  Adicia and her sisters will look and feel like outcasts when they show up to school on Friday, the day before Halloween, wearing their usual ragged hand-me-down clothes instead of Halloween costumes.  Sarah would probably make them costumes if they asked, but there isn’t enough money to get the fabric and thread, nor enough time to sew them by hand.  The Troys don’t own a sewing machine, so Mrs. Troy uses their neighbors’ machines on the odd occasion she wants to work on a larger sewing project like Tommy’s Halloween costume or a baby animal-themed quilt Tommy received for a third birthday present.

Most of the other kids in their classes will also be bringing in food for the parties, food made by their loving, attentive mothers.  A lot of the food will be Halloween-themed, like cupcakes with little ghosts outlined on top, cakes with bats and spiders frosted on them, and hollowed-out pumpkins filled with soup made with autumnal vegetables.  Those mothers take pride in their cooking and homemaking.  Mrs. Troy can’t understand the idea of asking children to bring in food from home for parties, and says it’s just a way for mothers to compete with one another in who makes the best baked goods.  She wouldn’t even know what to do with a box of pre-made cake or brownie batter if it dropped into her lap along with the mixing bowl, baking pan, whisk, and wooden spoon.

“Do you think we’ll get punished by our teachers when we show up tomorrow without costumes?” Adicia asks Ernestine on Thursday after dinner, when they’re in their tiny bedroom.

“We live in a historically poor neighborhood,” Emeline speaks up. “Our teachers will be idiots if they send us to the principal’s office because we didn’t wear costumes.  My teacher never said it was a required assignment like doing your math homework or bringing something for show and tell.”

“Maybe we can take some of Gemma’s makeup and use that as part of a costume,” Ernestine suggests. “And you know she sometimes leaves her handbag lying around.  We could take a little money from it and go out to buy something.”

“Gemma would notice we stole her makeup and her money,” Emeline points out. “I saw her costume hanging in her wardrobe.  She’s going as a ballerina to her Halloween party on Saturday night.”

“How can our mother call herself a real mother?” Adicia protests. “Real mothers love all their kids and do nice things for them.  Our mother only loves Tommy and maybe Gemma.  I don’t even think she loves Carlos and Allen.  She just likes them ‘cause they’re boys and they help with money.”

“Like Sarah says, giving birth to a child doesn’t always make you a mother,” Emeline says. “And there are more ways to be a mother than having biological children.  Some teachers and nuns have more kids than a lot of people who just happened to reproduce.”

Out in the living room, Gemma is spinning around in her ballerina costume and whining about how it doesn’t fit as well as it did when she bought it.  Sarah has been pressed into commission letting out the waistline.

“I think someone had a few too many cream puffs on her last date,” Carlos sneers. “Or you’re just overeating on your lunch break at your big fancy job.”

Gemma steps back into her room quickly to take it off and put her normal clothes back on.  When she comes out, she dumps the costume in Sarah’s lap.

“I had a sundae on my last date with Johnny Jefferson, and he was nice enough to let me eat most of his too.  We also had steak for dinner and then went out again for apple pie before he walked me home.”

“Men don’t like a woman who overeats,” Mrs. Troy proclaims as she lights a cigarette. “Nobody loves a fat girl.”

“It’s called a healthy appetite, Mother, and why shouldn’t I eat my fill when I have the chance?  You’d prefer I keep to our pathetic roadkill and spoilt turnips diet even when I’m at work, on dates, and out with friends?”

“She’s getting above her raising,” Carlos says derisively. “Next thing you’ll know, she’ll be moving into a swank mansion on Long Island with a millionaire husband and putting her three kids in private schools.”

“I actually would like to move to Long Island or one of the nicer neighborhoods uptown, and I do intend to only have a few kids as opposed to a huge pile of brats.  I bet your stupid self will be in jail or a sanitarium when I’m a proper society woman with a respectable husband.  How many times have you gotten high or drunk already this week, Carlos?  I admit I smoke sometimes on dates or with friends, but smoking cigarettes isn’t bad for your health or something only degenerates and delinquents do.”

“We’ll find you a husband we approve of by the time you’re twenty, Gemma,” Mrs. Troy promises. “He won’t be as bad-off as we are, but he won’t be a rich man either.  I hope you get all this teenage foolishness out of your system by the time you need to settle down and be a full-time wife and mother.”

Gemma dismissively waves her hand at her mother. “I am going to graduate high school as the Class of 1960, a woman of a new decade.  Your worldview will be a relic before you know it.  I’m going to have fun, not saddle myself down to a guy you want me to marry when I’m not even old enough to vote yet.”

“Do you think you expanded your waist for another reason besides overeating recently?” Allen asks.

Gemma turns bright red. “What kind of immoral, loose woman do you take me for?  Maybe you and Carlos do those things with girls, but I value my reputation.  God, I’d kill myself if I got in trouble like that.”

“Sometimes I want to kill myself just for living in this tenement,” Allen says. “But unlike you, other people depend on me to help take care of them.”

Carlos wanders over to the kitchen, where he, Allen, and their parents have a drug lab of sorts.  He wishes his sisters would all shut up about how the money they’ve poured into drugs, drug paraphernalia, and the home lab over the years could’ve been used to buy better food and clothes, or to upgrade their living quarters somewhat.  Carlos expects all of his younger sisters to take up drugs and alcohol themselves when they get a bit older, and for the same reasons he, Allen, and their parents did.  They weren’t motivated by a love of breaking the law and putting potentially dangerous chemical mixes into their bodies so much as they wanted an easy, reliable escape from the hard life they were born into.  It remains a surprise to him that Gemma has never touched drugs, and that Lucine hasn’t expressed any interest in them either, despite being about the age he and Allen were when they started dabbling.

In the morning, Adicia, Emeline, and Ernestine head out to their elementary school, wearing their usual hand-me-down rags.  Ernestine tried to go to school in her pajamas and pass that off as a costume, but Mrs. Troy wouldn’t let her leave the house like that.  Emeline thought of going dressed like a boy, in pants and an old shirt belonging to her older brothers, but couldn’t find a hat to tuck her hair up under.  At least Lucine is in eighth grade now and isn’t expected to wear a costume to school, in spite of the class parties.

“What a surprise, the dirty Troy girls couldn’t afford costumes,” one of the Debbies in Emeline’s class taunts when they get to the schoolyard.

“I think they did dress up.  As their ragged selves, in costumes they didn’t need to make specially for today,” one of the Barbaras in Ernestine’s class says.

“How often does your mother brush or comb your hair?” Theresa Mladsky comes over to them and starts walking around them. “All three of you have hair full of rats’ nests.”

“We do get our hair brushed by our nanny,” Ernestine says. “It’s harder to untangle when you’re not able to get it brushed every day.”

Adicia looks around with a mixture of jealousy and wonder.  All the other boys and girls on the schoolyard are dressed in Halloween costumes—witches, wizards, cowboys, cowgirls, Indians, monsters, princesses, kings, queens, princes, ballerinas, Chinese girls, outlaws, circus animals, cereal boxes, scarecrows, Vampyres, and Frankenstein’s monster.  Their mothers probably spent a lot of time sewing their costumes, and making the special Halloween-themed baked goods they’ll be eating at their class parties.

“I don’t think girls who came to school without costumes should get any candy or food at our parties,” Jody Krause says.

“And I don’t think people who are so rude and mean to the faces of people who never did anything bad to them deserve to go through life with so many nice things,” Emeline says. “Why are any of yous so mean to us?  Are yous just offended we’re different from you, and that difference makes yous uncomfortable?  I was reading the English translation of a book our German nanny recommended, and it says when you hate someone, you hate something in that person that’s part of yourself, since what isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.”

“Stupid bookworm,” Jeanie Mraz says as she walks into the building.

“I bet you need glasses before we graduate sixth grade,” one of the Lindas in Emeline’s class says. “I’m shocked you don’t need them yet from all that squinting at books you do.  And no boy wants to date a girl with glasses or who knows more than he does.”

“Can I read that book after you’re done with it?” Ernestine asks.

Emeline smiles down at her. “I don’t know if it’s at your reading level.  It’s a book from the adult section of the library.  Sarah says the author won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946.”

“I wish I read well enough to read grownup books.”

“You can borrow some of my other books I have out from the library.  I’m working my way through the Five Little Peppers series and am only on the second book right now.  They’re really old books, but they are children’s books.  The author had a number of limitations as a writer, and it’s really obvious it was written in the Victorian era, but they’re nice classic children’s books at heart.”

The children start filtering into the school when the principal appears on the steps.  The Troy girls join hands and slowly walk over to the steps leading up to the entrance for girls.  Emeline grumbles under her breath about how stupid it is that schools still have different doors for boys and girls when it’s practically 1960.

“We’ll meet back out on the playground for lunch,” Emeline tells them. “And I’m sure we’ll have a nice Halloween celebration of some type with Sarah, Justine, and Lucine tomorrow, when we’ll have the apartment to ourselves.”

Adicia sits through the day miserably, watching the other little girls and boys in kindergarten walking about in their wonderful costumes and helping themselves to the cupcakes, cookies, cakes, tortes, pies, and other wonders whipped up by mothers who actually enjoy being mothers and treating their children in a special way.  She and her sisters are in a very small group that has to stand off to the side when the costumed students put on their big parade around the entire school.  At least the teachers didn’t have to make them feel even more shunned and just had students with the best costumes go on the parade.  Adicia can hardly stand the thought of sweet little Justine, almost eight months old, having to go through this same ordeal when her time comes to start school.

Saturday is Halloween.  The apartment is indeed emptied out for Adicia and her sisters, as Gemma is at her party, Carlos and Allen are out with some girls, Mrs. Troy is taking Tommy trick-or-treating, and Mr. Troy is picking up a few extra shifts at the factory.  As depressing as their surroundings are, it’s still nice to have a little privacy for awhile.

“I’m going to make lovely Halloween costumes for my kids when I’m a mother,” Ernestine declares as they gather under the table, the lights dimmed, to tell spooky stories. “I’ll have a nice modern sewing machine instead of that ancient black thing our mother uses when she makes stuff for Tommy.”

“I would’ve loved to be something historical,” Emeline says. “A Pilgrim, a Colonial girl, a pioneer, a Medieval princess, something that lets me express my love of history.”

“Did you celebrate Halloween in Germany, Sarah?” Adicia asks.

“Halloveen is an American holiday.  I never saw anybody celebrate it.  All I know about it, I learnt since I came to dis country.”

“Halloween started in Ireland thousands of years ago,” Emeline says. “It’s only relatively recently gotten more and more popular in the West, mostly America and Canada.  It’s still celebrated in a more traditional fashion in Spanish-speaking countries.  If the high school taught Spanish, I’d be looking forward to learning about how it’s celebrated in the various parts of Latin America when I start high school in three years.”

“In any other family, you vould’ve been enrolled in a special school for gifted yout or at least skipped a grade or two,” Sarah says.

“My teachers always knew I’m advanced for my age and that I’ve read my way through almost all the books in all my classrooms’ libraries and the main school library.  It’ll probably be awhile before I get through every book that interests me at the Tompkins Square Library.  I go to the Hamilton Fish Park Library sometimes too.  That’ll have to do for now.”

“It’s colder than usual in here,” Adicia says. “Can someone put the stove on?”

The lights go out as Sarah is getting up and going over to the stove.  Lucine picks up the flashlight and starts looking through the apartment for matches and candles.  The fuse box is located in the basement and is only supposed to be accessed by the landlord, who usually only has anything to do with his tenants when he’s evicting them, demanding back rent, or shutting off various utilities for failure to pay those bills.

“Do you think our cheapskate parents didn’t pay again, or is it just a blackout?” Lucine asks. “Usually they don’t shut off utilities at the end of the month.  It’s usually a week or two after the first of the month.”

“It’s probably just a blackout,” Emeline says. “We can live without electricity for a little while.  How do you think people functioned in the days before gas and electricity gave us light and heat?”

Ernestine goes over to the door by the fire escape and looks outside. “The people in the building across the street from us don’t have any lights on either.  It must just be a local thing.”

“Can you tell us a scary story, Sarah?” Adicia asks. “But don’t make it too scary.”

“Oh, you can’t scare us that easily,” Ernestine boasts. “We are not babies, and we live with scarier stuff than some ghosts and witches that don’t even exist.”

Justine begins fussing on Sarah’s lap.  Lucine shines around the flashlight to locate the diaper bag where Sarah keeps diapers, diaper pins, bottles, Enfamil, and other baby supplies for Justine.  Since Justine was born in March, her own mother has never even changed one diaper or administered one feeding.  Since having her first four children before Sarah came along, she has only been actively involved in mothering with Tommy.  Adicia was only nineteen months old when Tommy was born, but Ernestine was two months shy of four, and remembers Mrs. Troy holding Tommy nice and close while she fed him a bottle of Similac she heated up, then lovingly burping him, bathing him, rocking him, changing him.  All because he turned out to be a boy.

“I’ll tell you a story from Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” Sarah says as she sits back under the table and guides the bottle into Justine’s mouth. “Emeline is very familiar vit dese stories, but I don’t know if she’s read all of dem.”

“It was the first book I ever read,” Emeline nods. “Our parents caught me reading it when I was three years old, and I got scared and pretended I was just looking at the pictures.  I didn’t get caught knowing how to read till I was four, but Sarah knew most of that time I could read.”

“I wish I could’ve learnt to read all by myself that young,” Lucine says. “I still think you’re some kind of savant for just waking up one day and starting to read from an adults’ book, no previous reading lessons or anything.”

“Let me tell you de story of de boy who vent to learn vat fear vas.  Once upon a time, a vater had two sons.  De younger son vas asked by his vater vat he’d like to learn to make a living, and said he vanted to learn how to shudder.  A man at church said he could teach de boy. After he learnt how to ring de church bell, he vas sent at midnight to ring de bell and de church man appeared dressed as a ghost.  De boy vanted to know vat vas going on, and ven he didn’t get an answer, he pushed de man down de stairs.  His vater vas very upset, and made him leave to learn how to shudder.  All de time de boy complained dat he didn’t how to shudder.  Den he vas advised to spend a night under de gallows, vere seven men vere hanging….”

Adicia and Ernestine sit wide-eyed as Sarah tells the story of the little boy who was so arrogantly fearless he wasn’t even scared by things that would scare the pants off any other child, like seeing a ghost, spending three nights in a haunted castle, sleeping under a gallows with seven dead bodies dangling from nooses, being attacked by dogs and cats in the darkened castle, seeing half a man falling down a chimney, witnessing a game of bowling played with skulls and severed legs, and being attacked by a man who comes back to life in a coffin.  They think the story is pretty scary, but can’t help but wondering if they would react in a similar apathetic and annoyed fashion if they were dealt with some of these terrifying things.  Sarah went through a lot of things they think are pretty scary and horrible too, and she’s said she became numb to it all after awhile.  It seems only fitting to the two of them that the first book Emeline ever read contained this and other grim and disturbing stories.  They all know better than to believe life is like a Disney fairy tale.  Where they’re from, life is more like a Grimm’s fairy tale.