Where Readers & Writers Connect
Eleven-year-old Jacqueline Washington dumps her Hello Kitty backpack on the yellow Formica kitchen counter of the Philadelphia, Mississippi studio apartment her family rents. She’s barely remembered to take out her new diamond earrings and she waves to her father’s departing silver Porsche through the single room’s torn-screen window.
“How was your dad’s?” asks her mother. Grey-haired Isabella daubs out her slim menthol in a school-made pottery ashtray.
“Good. Same. We took the sailboat out on Lake Pontchartrain. Dad’s assistant caught a catfish for me. I forgot it at the lake house, though.”
“Sorry, Honey. Put your laundry in the hamper and get started on your homework.”
“Mom! I just walked in. Anyway, Maria already washed it all.”
“Maria’s the new girlfriend?”
“Housekeeper. The girlfriend’s Frieda.”
“Right. Okay, you do your homework and I’ll put your clothes away.”
Jacqueline’s seven-year-old sister, Naomi, comes home from playing next door, dragging her stuffed Clydesdale, Sparkle. “Hi, Crayfish Butt. How was Dad’s?” she asks.
“Same. Good.” Jacqueline secretly hands the diamond earrings to her sister and puts a finger to her lips.
Isabella hangs up her daughter’s clothes in the apartment’s narrow closet but stops when she finds a fluffy wad in Jacqueline’s skinny jeans.
“Jacquie, what’s this?” She unfolds and holds up laundered fragments of a certificate for Second Place in the Philadelphia Public School District Elementary Spelling Bee.
Jacqueline cringes. “Sorry, Mom.”
“Sorry you didn’t win? Jacquie, second place is admirable. I’m sure you tried.”
“No, Mom, sorry I didn’t tell you. I didn’t… I didn’t want to make you take off work.”
Naomi smiles, missing two teeth. “What word made you lose?” she interrupts.
“Hypethral. It means ‘open to the sky,’ like your brain, ‘Hollow Head.’”
“You totally know how to spell that word, ‘Lobster Face.’”
“What? Do not.”
Naomi, still holding Sparkle, pulls down a color brochure from a particleboard bookshelf, tugging the book out from between the black Bible and the ivory scrapbook. It’s a souvenir from the girls’ cruise to Greece the summer before with their father. A photo graces the back cover with the caption “Hypethral ruins of Poseidon’s Temple.”
Naomi points. “See, there’s the runes and ‘hi-pee-thral’ right there.”
“’Ruins,’ not ‘runes.’ Anyway, so? That doesn’t prove anything.”
“Jacquie?” asks Isabella, brow furrowed.
Jacqueline breaks down and cries. “If I won, I’d have to go to Jackson for the Regionals. We can’t afford that. You can’t miss work.”
“Jacquie!” say Naomi and Isabella at the same time.
Isabella says, “Naomi, pack your things for next week. Your dad’s picking you up tomorrow night.”
Jacquie’s still crying and tries to change the subject. “What are you and Dad doing next week, anyway?”
“Going to an auction.”
“Dad buying another Jaguar?”
“No. Barbies. Collectibles. I’m getting a Francie to ride Sparkle, I hope. Maybe just some plain collectible Barbies, but hopefully a Francie. Right, Sparkle?”
Isabella says, “Jacquie, Honey, please stop crying. Naomi, go pack. Jacquie, listen, do you know what my collectibles are?”
After an awkward pause, Isabella says, “No, let me show you.” She opens the cabinet under the kitchen sink where two orange plastic tubs sit. She pulls out the bin of everything Jacqueline’s ever brought home from school: straight-A report cards, dozens of blue ribbons, misshapen pottery projects, a mask with purple feathers.
As Jacqueline sifts through her mementos, Isabella lights another cigarette, her 1.76-carat diamond solitaire sparkling. “Jacquie, never sell yourself short. You have to take your opportunities when they come because they don’t last forever. We’ll always find a way to help you, even if I have to ask your father.”