The day I decided to steal a dog was the same day my best friend, Luanne Godfrey, found out I lived in a car.
I had told Mama she would find out sooner or later, seeing as how she’s so nosy and all. But Mama had rolled her eyes and said, “Just get on up there to the bus stop, Georgina, and quit your whining.”
So that’s what I did. I stood up there at the bus stop pretending like I still lived in Apartment 3B. I pretended like I didn’t have mustard on my shirt from the day before. I pretended like I hadn’t washed my hair in the bathroom of the Texaco gas station that very morning. And I pretended like my daddy hadn’t just waltzed off and left us with nothing but three rolls of quarters and a mayonnaise jar full of wadded-up dollar bills.
I guess I’m pretty good at pretending.
My brother, Toby, however, is not so good at pretending. When Mama told him to get on up to the bus stop and quit his whining, he cried and carried on like the baby that he is.
“What’s wrong with Toby?” Luanne asked me when we were standing at the bus stop.
“He has an earache,” I said, trying as hard as anything to look like my life was just as normal as could be instead of all crazy like it really was.
When I saw Luanne’s eyes narrow and her lips squeeze together, I knew her nosiness was about to irritate me.
Sure enough, she said, “Then how come your mama is making him go to school?” She kept looking at me with that squinty-eyed look of hers, but I didn’t let on that I was irritated. I just shrugged and hoped she would hush up about Toby.
She did. But then she went and turned her nosy self loose on me.
“No offense, Georgina,” she said. “But you’re starting to look kind of unkempt.”
Unkempt? That was her mama talking if I’d ever heard it. Luanne wouldn’t never have said that word “unkempt” if she hadn’t heard her mama say it first.
And what was I supposed to say to that anyways? Was I supposed to say, “Well, for your information, Luanne Godfrey, it’s kinda hard to keep your clothes looking nice when you’ve been sleeping in the backseat of a Chevrolet for a week”?
Or maybe I was supposed to say, “I know it, Luanne. But my hairbrush got tossed out in that pile of stuff Mr. Deeter left on the sidewalk when he kicked us out of our apartment.”
And then Luanne would say, “Why’d Mr. Deeter do that?”
And I would say, “’Cause three rolls of quarters and a mayonnaise jar full of wadded-up dollar bills doesn’t pay the rent, Luanne.”
But I didn’t say anything. I acted like I hadn’t heard that word “unkempt.” I just climbed on the bus and sat in the sixth seat on the left side with Luanne, like I always did.
I knew Luanne wouldn’t give up, though. I knew she’d keep on till she found out the truth.
“What if she wants to come over?” I said to Mama. “Or what if she looks in the window or something and finds out we don’t live there anymore?”
But Mama just flapped her hand at me and closed her eyes to let me know how tired she was from working two jobs. So every day I imagined Luanne peeking in the kitchen window of Apartment 3B. When she did, of course, she wouldn’t see me and Toby and Mama and Daddy eating our dinner and being happy. She’d see some other family. Some happy family that wasn’t all broken up like mine.
And then one day, when we got off the school bus, Luanne went and did the nosiest thing I could imagine. She followed me. I was trying to catch up with Toby ’cause he had grabbed the car key and run on ahead of me, so I didn’t even notice her sneaking along behind me. She followed me all the way past Apartment 3B, across the street, and clear on around the back of Eckerd Drugstore, where our car was parked with laundry hanging out the windows and Toby sitting on a milk crate waiting for me.
If there was ever a time when I wished the earth would open up and swallow me whole, it was when I turned around and saw Luanne looking at me and Toby and that car and all. I could see her thoughts just plain as day right there on her face.
I wanted to wave my hand and make that dented-up car disappear off the face of the earth. But more than anything, I wanted my daddy to come on home and change everything back to the way it was before.
I set a smile on my face and said, “It’s just temporary,” like Mama had said to me about a hundred times.
Luanne turned red and said, “Oh.”
“When Mama gets paid, we’re moving into our new apartment,” I said.
And then we both just stood there, looking at our feet. I could feel the distance between us grow and grow until it seemed like Luanne Godfrey, who had been my friend forever, was standing clear on the other side of the universe from me.
Finally, she said, “I better go.”
But she didn’t. She just stood there and I squeezed my eyes shut and told myself not to look pitiful and, for heaven’s sake, don’t cry.
And then, of course, Toby had to go and make everything worse by saying, “Mama left a note that she’s working late, so we’re supposed to eat that macaroni that’s in the cooler.”
Luanne arched her eyebrows up and then she said, “I haven’t seen your daddy in a long time.”
That did it. I couldn’t stop the tears from spilling out of my squeezed-up eyes. I sat down right there in the drugstore parking lot and told Luanne everything.
I felt her arm around me and I heard her saying something, but I was too lost in my misery to do anything but cry. When I was all cried out, I stood up and brushed the dirt off the seat of my pants, pushed the hair out of my eyes, and said, “Promise you won’t tell?”
Luanne nodded. “I promise.”
“I mean, not even your mama.”
Luanne’s eyes flickered for just a second, but then she said, “Okay.”
I crooked my pinkie finger in the air and waited for her to give me the pinkie promise, but she hesitated.
I stamped my foot and jabbed my pinkie at her. Finally she crooked her pinkie around mine and we shook.
“I better go,” she said.
I watched her hurry across the parking lot, then glance back at me before disappearing around the corner of the drugstore.
“I hate that macaroni,” Toby said from his seat on the milk crate. It was just like him to not even give me one little minute to wallow in my misery.
I stomped around to the back of the car and kicked the cooler, sending it toppling over on its side. Ice and water and plastic containers spilled out onto the parking lot.
“Me too,” I said.
Then I climbed into the backseat of the car and waited for Mama to come back.
It was way past dark when I heard Mama’s shoes click-clacking on the asphalt as she made her way toward the car. I sat up and looked out the window. Even in the dim glow of the streetlights, I could see her tired, sad look. Part of me wanted to stay put and just go on back to sleep and leave her be, but another part of me wanted to get out and have my say, which is what I did.
Mama jumped when I opened the car door.
“What in the world are you doing awake, Georgina?” she said.
“I hate this,” I said. “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
I pushed the car door shut softly so Toby wouldn’t wake up; then I turned back to Mama and said, “You got to do something. You got to find us a place to live. A real place. Not a car.”
Mama reached out like she was gonna touch me, so I jerked away. She dropped her hand to her side like it was heavy as cement. Then she let out a whoosh of breath that blew her hair up off her forehead.
“I’m trying,” she said.
“How are you trying?”
She tossed her purse through the car window into the front seat. “I just am, okay, Georgina?”
“I’m working two jobs. What else do you want me to do?”
“Find us a place to live.” I stomped away from her and then whirled back around. “This is all your fault.”
She stormed over and grabbed me by the shoulders.
“It takes money to get a place.” She gave me a little shake when she said the word “money.”
“I’m trying to save up, okay?” she said.
She let go of me and leaned against the car.
“How much money do we need?” I said.
She looked up at the sky like the answer was written up there in the stars. Then she shook her head real slow and said, “I don’t know, Georgina. A lot, okay?”
“Like how much?”
“More than we got.”
We both just stood there in the dark and listened to the crickets from the vacant lot next door.
Mama draped her arm around my shoulder, and I laid my head against her and wanted to be a baby again—a baby that just cries and then gets taken care of and that’s all there is to a day.
Finally I asked her the same question I’d asked her about a million times already.
“Why did Daddy leave?”
I felt her whole body go limp. “I wish I knew.” She brushed my hair out of my eyes. “Just got tired of it all, I reckon,” she said.
“Tired of what?”
The silence between us felt big and dark, like a wall. Then I asked her the question that had been burning a hole in my heart. “Tired of me?”
Mama took my chin in her hand and looked at me hard. “This is not your fault, okay?”
She peered inside the car at Toby, all curled up in a ball in the backseat.
“We got to go,” she said.
“I don’t know. Just somewhere else.” The car door creaked when she opened it, sending an echo into the still night air. “We’ve been here two nights now,” she said. “The cops are liable to run us off if we don’t leave.”
She shot me a look when she saw the overturned cooler, so I helped her gather things up before I climbed back in the car. As we drove out of the parking lot, I slouched down and stared glumly out the window. The empty shops we passed made Darby, North Carolina, seem like a ghost town, all locked up and dark.
Mama pulled the car into the alley beside Bill’s Auto Parts. When she shut the engine off, we got swallowed up in quiet.
I draped a beach towel over the clothesline that Mama had strung along the middle of the car to make me a bedroom. I could picture Luanne, snuggled in her pink-and-white quilt with her stuffed animals lined up along the wall beside her and her gymnastics ribbons taped on her headboard, and I sure felt sorry for myself.
Then I curled up on the seat, turning every which way trying to get comfortable. Finally I settled on my back with my feet propped against the car door and stared out at the starry sky.
And then I saw it. A sign, tacked up there on a telephone pole right outside the car window. A faded old sign that said: REWARD. $500. And under that was a picture of a bug-eyed little dog with its tongue hanging out.
And then under that it said: HAVE YOU SEEN ME? MY NAME IS MITSY.
Five hundred dollars! Who in the world would pay five hundred dollars for that little ole dog?
“Mama?” I whispered through my beach towel wall.
Mama rustled some in the front seat.
“Would five hundred dollars be enough money to get us a place to live?” I said.
Mama sighed. “I suppose so, Georgina. Now go to sleep. You got school tomorrow.”
I looked up at Mitsy and my mind started churning.
What if I could find that dog? I could get that money, and we could have a real place to live instead of this stinking old car.
But that dog could be anywhere. I wouldn’t even know where to look. Besides, that sign was old. Somebody had probably already found Mitsy and got that five hundred dollars.
I stared out the window at the sign, thinking about Mitsy and wondering if there were other folks out there who would pay money for their lost dogs.
And that’s when I got a thought that made me sit up so fast Toby mumbled in his sleep and Mama hissed, “Shhhh.”
I folded my legs up and lay back down in my beach towel bedroom. The damp car seat smelled like greasy french fries and bug spray. I closed my eyes and smiled to myself. I had a plan.
I was gonna steal me a dog.
HOW TO STEAL A DOG. Copyright © 2007 by Barbara O’Connor.