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 washcloth.

"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 blow.

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 come over.

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 proportions.

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 profile.

"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
[email protected] | October 2000 | Volume 8

 

 

 

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