THE MAP OF ME (Chapter 1)
My pencil scraped a skinny gray line across the newsprint, then a square, then a triangle on top. A house. A teeny-tiny house for teeny-tiny little—
“That’s ugly,” Peep said. But her voice was the ugly thing, as high-pitched as a kindergartner’s, even though she’d had her ninth birthday last October.
Still, I threw my pencil down. I was no good at drawing, especially drawing a Map of Me.
“Homework!” Momma said, like one word was threat enough. Okay, it was. I picked up my pencil and started again. And Momma flipped through a catalog of teeny-tiny-house plans, keeping watch, one eye on me, the other out the kitchen window. She’d have a two-minute warning before Daddy walked through the door. Plenty of time for a smear of Coral Sunset lipstick and a splash of eau de cologne, which was the mannerly way to say toilet water. And the good and proper way to say “Welcome home!” to Daddy.
Momma was not the only one watching me. The biggest chicken collection in the state of Kentucky winked and grinned from every surface. Poultry potholders and pitchers, hen’s-nest holders and rooster racks, all staring down at me.
Plus there was Peep. “My map is finished,” she said. “I turned it in yesterday.”
Peep did everything before it was due. She’d kept quiet through kindergarten, first grade, and second, too, pretending to be normal. Then last fall she blabbed, spilling smart right and left, learning stuff before any teacher mentioned it, before she saw it in a book, probably before scientists, and professors, and mathematicians invented it. She sat in third grade for three weeks, until her teacher begged for mercy. They tried her in fourth (week and a half), then fifth (less than an hour). Finally they shoved her up to Miss Primrose’s sixth grade.
Momma was oh-so-proud. Daddy said they’d have put her in high school but she was too short for the desks.
I hoped she’d grow soon.
Or something worse.
My tennis shoe thumped against the rail of the hard kitchen chair as I scribbled some more. A bird on top of that triangle roof, a little rooster weather vane, like the one Momma had just ordered.
I hated homework.
I double-hated the Map of Me.
During quiet time after lunch, Miss Primrose read to us from a book called The Hobbit. Lots of kids were happy because teachers didn’t read out loud to sixth graders, not usually. It meant we wouldn’t have silent-at-your-desk work. But I didn’t listen to Miss Primrose’s boring words. I just heard the rumble rumble of her voice, the buzz of the fluorescent lights, and Jimmy McDonald’s steady breathing in the row behind me. And a million different thoughts chitchattering inside my head.
Then Miss Primrose turned the whole story time against us, using that book to justify her Map of Me assignment. Because J. R. R. Tolkien, that author, he imagined Hobbitland and wrote the book about it. Then he let his son draw a map for the front. Not just a map of Hobbitland, it was a map of Mr. Tolkien’s insides, his brain, and his heart, too. He let his kid stick his nose into every private place. And print it down on paper.
That was not going to happen to me.
Not for everyone to see.
I shoved my pencil into the page and added another bird. And when I pushed my pencil to draw his triangle beak, the paper ripped in a row of mini-pleats.
“That’s really ugly now,” Peep said.
Shut up! I wanted to say back, but “shut up” was a cussword in our house, and I was on probation. Instead, I wound my arm around my page, to make it private.
“Hush, girls,” Momma said. “Your daddy’s home.”
The front door jangled. Daddy-size footsteps clomped through the living room, and quick! Momma rolled her catalog into a little bat and slapped it behind her hen-and-chicks cookie jar.
Peep grabbed the placemats.
I rubbed my eraser across my messed-up chicken and made a bigger mess.
Then Daddy was in the doorframe, right in front of us. His white work shirt was still starchy-crisp and his tie was still knotted tight. The very picture of Mr. Super Salesman. Daddy had a talent for tires, that’s what they said. There wasn’t a rim or a hubcap he couldn’t tick off, manufacturer’s suggested retail price and everything. Daddy knew his tires all right. And he knew me. At least he thought he did.
“Hi, Daddy,” I said, sitting up good and straight.
“Get back to work, Margie,” he said.
He pecked Momma on the cheek as she wiped invisible spots from the counter with a sponge. “Sell a lot of tires today?” she asked.
He grunted and leaned toward the cookie jar, and Momma practically threw her body between him and those chickens. “You’ll ruin your dinner,” she said.
“Just a little snack.” Then Daddy took a step, his eyebrows twitching like a pair of fighting caterpillars. “What is this?” he asked, pulling the booklet from behind that cookie jar. “‘Backyard Chicken Coops for Fun and Profit’?”
Peep gripped a placemat. Momma put down her sponge. I stopped erasing. All of a sudden the kitchen smelled like singed feathers.
“Live chickens?” A vein strutted up and down Daddy’s neck, and Momma’s shiny black eyes darted left, then right.
“Live poultry is where I draw the line,” Daddy said.
He’d drawn the line lots of times. No more roosters in the dining room, because their staring put him off his feed. No more chickens on the refrigerator door, because you couldn’t pull out a bottle of pop without the whole flock dropping all over your feet. “My collections make our house a home,” Momma had said. “More like a barn,” said Daddy. But Momma’d waited and Daddy’s lines had faded, until they evaporated out of sight. Now our dining room had a brand-new Randy Rooster wallpaper border to show for it. Daddy didn’t look up when he ate.
But this was different.
“No live poultry in the backyard, Helen,” he said, so loud the chickens rattled on their racks.
“I’m just talking reasonable,” he said.
Then Daddy stomped out of the kitchen and out the front door.
THE MAP OF ME Text copyright © 2011 by Tami Lewis Brown