The park down the hill from Castle
Rock was gray and deserted. The sand was even wet, from the rain
the night before. It clotted around our sneakers, coating our
ankles with a thick layer of fine gray gravel, the color of a
man's facial hair. Jessica didn't seem to notice. She plodded
on as if against an invisible storm, her long white hair strapped
across her face. Corine and I followed her to the swing set, keeping
up her silence. She hadn't said much since we entered the park.
Corine stopped to dig some sand out of the side of her shoe. Her
head looked brown under the darkening sky, nothing but sunless
dunes and then cracked plates of concrete stretching out around
her. The park was mostly paved, except for the sandbox with the
swingset and the lopsided wheel ride in it. The only grass that
grew pushed up through tarless seams but didn't get too far. Corine
and I hadn't been to this park in a while. And when we had come
there had been other children playing in it, and sunshine, a whole
line for the swing set. Now it was as if we had come back years
later and all of the children from the houses nearby had long
since grown up and moved away.
Maybe Corine's hair looked dark because Jessica's head looked
so white. Almost as white as the blouse she had on, tucked hastily
into a pastel plaid skirt from another decade, a little oversized,
a shade dirty, and with more than two tiny holes close to the
seam. The skirt had gotten twisted during our walk to the park;
it seemed to wrap tighter and tighter around her like a wrung
"Grace! Corine! Over here!" We heard Jessica call over
her shoulder. Her voice was soft, muffled. She never made sharp,
screeching sounds like our other friends made. She always talked
as if the world were taking a nap.
And it felt like it that afternoon, like the whole valley had
gone to sleep and the three of us were the only ones to crawl
about and see things. The sky was smothered in clouds, though
the rain still seemed far away. The wind had not yet begun to
Jessica had asked if we wanted to come over to her house earlier
that day to play. Corine and I were coming back from visiting
Old Sunny, the golden retriever up the street. The dog, almost
blind and nearly all deaf, would sit in the middle of the street
with his back to oncoming traffic (not that there was much on
the one-lane street, a winding, sloping road that had once been
a lumber trail before it was paved and capillaried into driveways
and houses perched on stilts). Corine and I would visit Sunny
after school sometimes, sit with him for a time and pet him, watching
his long wet tongue pant. On our way back down the hill that day
we had run into Jessica standing as if caught in the middle of
going somewhere just outside our house. She waited still and expressionless
as we made our way up to her. She never smiled and giggled at
us like our other friends did. She never mentioned the fact that
we were twins.
Jessica had a dog, too, who was older than Old Sunny but not as
big. She wanted to show him to us. She wondered if we wanted to
Corine and I had never been to her house. In fact, the only time
we had ever played together was that weekend before, when Jessica
came over and we took our pet rabbit up to our room. The rabbit
had hopped limpedly in circles, dropping round pellets along the
way, making Corine and I scream with laughter and Jessica crinkle
the white skin of her cheeks into the outline of a grin, until
finally the rabbit jumped into Jessica's small, skirted lap and
huddled there, her trembling slowing and shutting off completely.
Jessica stroked her rounded ears and cottony back. Corine and
I watched, wondering.
But just as there was something soft and quiet about Jessica there
was also something hard and dark. She led us into her house that
afternoon but did not take us to meet her Mom, who we could see
from the hallway, sitting at a desk, her hair and neck outlined
in lamplight. Her Mom said hello over her shoulder but Jessica
did not say anything back.
Instead, we followed her into the kitchen where the dog lay, his
ear in the water bowl. He whined a little as we walked in but
did not raise his head. The clock ticked loudly on the wall, a
woodpecker. Something about being with Jessica made me feel invisible.
The house was walled in with unpacked and half-emptied boxes.
Their flaps opened like wooden petals. Dishes were stacked on
chairs in the living room, where a sofa suffocated in its delivery
plastic. There were throw rugs tossed about and many of them were
the movers' dirtied blankets forgotten on the floor. Plants still
in their plastic carriers sighed about on top of book stacks and
pillows, bleeding their waterings into all belongings.
We watched Jessica feed the dog (she never spoke his name) and
then we followed her to her room, tucked deep and shadowed into
a corner of the house guarded outside by tall trees. The room
was peaceful, full of fabric and pillows, one giant bed. She had
a few stuffed animals and some books, nothing much else. We realized
she had just wanted to show it to us. We weren't meant to play
there that day. "No," she said as if to answer one of
us. "Let's go down to the park."
Before leaving we could hear her mother in the kitchen running
water and clicking on the stove. We heard her walk about in the
small space as if she were looking for something. We could hear
her footsteps back and forth, back and forth, but she never stopped
to open drawers or cabinets, just a steady pulse of steps, a pause,
a steady pulse of steps.
In the living room Jessica found her sneakers in a cardboard box
and tied them on with quick, sharp strokes. The three of us walked
down the hall and outside onto the wood landing, at which point
Jessica darted ahead and we could hear the rubber of her soles
slapping the steps that led to the road. Just before closing the
front door behind me, I had heard someone creak back down the
hall and a body sink into an old desk chair. I followed Corine's
careful steps across the wet wood and thought about how there
hadn't been a moment during our short visit in which Jessica and
her mother had stood together in the same room.
Jessica was waiting for us at the far end of the playground. She
wanted to show us something. She walked a few steps ahead and
then pointed at the ground. We followed and looked. It was a drawing
in chalk scratched into the pavement. It ran with rivers of weeds
and old, graying tar but we could still see what it was. A rabbit,
smooth and white with yellow, slitted eyes, its mouth dropping
open, as if grazing, upon a grouping of six little figures, all
children, three girls and three boys.
"I made that yesterday," she said. She seemed to want
to stand there solemnly, and so Corine and I nodded and watched
it with her, watched it until the first heavy drop crashed down
on the rabbit's mouth, beginning to blur it and turn the dusty
pigment into swirling streams of dirty color.
"We'll have to get under something," Corine urged, touching
Jessica's arm. I watched the drops push her hair onto her forehead
and her shirt sprout spots like a leopard. Jessica reached for
something in her pocket and then knelt down by the chalk rabbit,
her hair turning gray with rain water.
"Go over under those trees. I'll be there in a minute,"
she ordered without turning her head. She had a stick of white
chalk in her palm, and was already mending the rabbit's soft spots.
Her other hand waved in the direction of a line of old sycamore
trees, their wide, flat leaves splayed out in a yellow shelf.
Corine and I ran and ducked ourselves under them. We could see
Jessica in the middle of the blackening pavement, the drops like
tiny bombs going off around her. She seemed oblivious even though
the back of her blouse was now skin colored and her arms shown
like white satin. She carved on into the soaked ground, using
the water to flesh her rabbit out, expand him into even greater
None of the girls in the third grade acted like this. Mona especially
would have thought this was perfectly ridiculous if she had seen
us, crouched there like bristling house cats caught out in the
rain. She would have taken one look at Jessica squatting, getting
drenched, her small hand pasted with white, and shaken her head
like her Mom did when Mona forgot a rule in the Scrabble game
or misplaced the Sunday Times. "This girl is strange, you
guys," she would have said. "Why would you try to draw
with chalk in the rain?"
Mom and Dad didn't know much about Jessica's mother, except for
the fact that she was divorced, and that Jessica had a brother
back East, two years younger, who lived with the father. Their
parents had separated when they were very young, and so Jessica
hardly knew her brother at all. She had grown up a single child,
daughter to a single woman. Mom seemed to think the mother was
a writer of some sort, but she wasn't certain. On the way to pick
us up from school one afternoon she had run into her carrying
a manuscript under her arm. Our mom was not one to pry, but she
guessed it was part of a book. The mother said nothing more than,
"I'm just fine," and then ducked into her car and slammed
the door. Mom said she didn't seem mad, just stand-offish. Some
people are just like that, she said.
As for where they had come from, Mom and Dad could only guess,
that the mother had broken away from back East, where the ex-husband
lived. Vermont maybe, or Maine. There was something about Jessica's
palor and her way of acting as if she had been living in trees
and ravines all her life that suggested she might be from a state
that still had back country in it, and a good amount of forest.
Of course, all of this was only conjecture. Jessica and her mother
could have come from anywhere, even close by. Still, a feeling
trailed down the street and lingered there outside our house,
the feeling that no matter what we were told, we would never know
for sure what was true.
Corine and I decided to invite Jessica to sleep over. We could
stay up late reading ghost stories, or making animal drawings.
We wondered if she had sleep-overs with other friends. So far,
it seemed she only played with her dog and with the other pets
on Castle Rock Drive. We could have been her first human playmates.
When Jessica finally stood up, we grew silent and waited for her
as she made her way toward us through the rain, tucking her bit
of chalk back into her skirt.
"Is it okay?" I asked, about the rabbit.
"I think she'll be all right," said Jessica, gazing
steadily at the white puddle off in the distance. I looked at
Corine and she swallowed, turning to face Jessica's curled up
"Hey, Jessica, we were wondering if you'd want to spend the
night on Friday. We could have a sleep-over in our room."
Jessica didn't answer at first, and I almost thought she hadn't
heard her. But then just as I was about to repeat the invitation,
she said, "Yeah, I guess. I'll have to ask my mom. . . .
But she'll let me, I know," she nodded at each of us, even
smiled a little at Corine. We sat, aligned and quiet, Jessica's
head dripping. The rain hit the pavement in a steady knock, just
inches from the toes of our sneakers. One, two, three. Waiting.
Jessica was there on the other side of the
door just after six o'clock. She had with her a pillow, a small
cloth backpack hooked to her left shoulder, and a bundle that
looked like a blanket but then up close turned into a white blouse,
somewhat dirty-looking, wrapped around something soft and lumpy.
We didn't ask, assuming we would find out soon enough when she
set the bundle down on the floor of our room. But in the confusion
of welcoming a new guest over for the night and the obligations
of pointing certain things out, such as "This is our room,"
and "That's Gabe's room," and "That's the bathroom,"
we did not notice when the bundle was put down and stashed away.
We both nervously wanted to please and make our white-haired friend
feel at home.
our eyes lowered
in devotional concentration, our breaths matching each others',
inside out, inside out.
Free Williamsburg | 93 Berry Street | Brooklyn, NY 11211
| October 2000 | Volume 8