Writers Institute

Too Big or Too Small

Jessica Jackson

 

It was a hot day in that little yellow house. It was early January, so it should have been a cool day, even in rural Texas. But when Grandma June cooks dinner, she makes almost everything from scratch and the heat from the old oven fills the little house and cooks everyone. The little girl of the house asked her grandmother if she could turn on the air conditioner. Grandma June told her she’d have to wait until she was old enough to pay electric bills. Sweat was pouring out of the wrinkles and creases of her forehead when she said that. It made her granddaughter wonder if wrinkles were the result of sweat dripping out of the body until it shriveled up like a dead spider. That’s when she decided to put on a jacket and go outside.

She didn’t want wrinkles.

She wasn’t old enough to pay electric bills and wouldn’t be for some time. She was young enough to wonder why she and her family were called “Black” when their skin was clearly brown, brown like the crayon she used to color in trees and dirt and dogs. She was old enough to know that her ancestors had once been slaves, but too young to give that knowledge any meaning. She was young enough to love small things like bobby pins and rubber bands, which in combination made a decent slingshot. She was old enough for the straightening comb, but too young for a relaxer. They called her Izzy.

Most importantly, she was old enough to have memories.

Memories of a tall, sturdy man she and her sister called “Daddy.” Good memories. Bad memories too. Daddy-Leaving-Mommy-Crying, I-Promise-To-Call memories. It had been two months, but Izzy was still sure he’d be back. She was young enough to be an optimist. And after all, he did call from time to time, even if he never revealed exactly when they would see each other again.

Izzy stepped out onto the porch, enjoying the familiar creak of wooden porch planks. If she jumped hard enough on certain spots, the wood squeaked like a chorus of singing mice. Church choir mice. But her grandmother would yell, “Stop that racket!” and the racket would have to stop. So she satisfied herself with taking a flying leap one loose board into the ankle-high grass that grew around her house. The farther she went, the taller the grass got, and she could go as far as she wanted as long as she didn’t cross the road some fifty yards away. It was the only trafficked road for almost half a mile and it represented the limit of her long-grassed playground. It was the road by which the bus would come every morning to pick her up and the road on which many of her furred and feathered playmates had been squished into little wet road-kill cakes. “Daddy” had driven away on that road. Even though her mother and sister returned home on it every evening, it could not be redeemed.

But not too far away, someone was riding home on an old two-wheeler who was too old to care about “little things” like roads, road-kill, divorces, or “Daddy.” At least that’s what she wanted everyone to think. Brianna, Izzy’s older sister, was on her way home from After-School Activities. She pedaled hard and fast, eager to unpack the contents of her conspicuously larger-than-usual backpack, settle down, and watch TV. She’d grown to love TV ever since the end of the “Daddy” days. She could put away hours stretched out in front of the set, with just a box of Devil Dogs for company. All of this TV-watching had the unfortunate side effect of making her rather fat. Calves, thighs, and belly had nearly doubled in size. It was a small price to pay, she reasoned, for the possible doubling or quadrupling of her intellect. Brianna did not watch music videos, sitcoms, dramas, or cartoons. Reality TV disgusted her. She had no idea who hosted American Idol. Her domain consisted of CNN, MSNBC, FOX News, and C-SPAN. These channels were her window to “big things” in the world like elections, famine and war. Who had time to care about the departure of one man from one family when Kosovo was about to declare independence? When a Black man had a good shot at becoming President of the United States?

She gripped the brakes a little, slowing down as she rolled off the road onto a nearly obscured footpath in the tall yellowed grass. She dismounted and walked the bike towards the brighter yellow house at the end of the path. A sudden rustling to her right made her stop. She was far enough from the house for the grass to be waist-high, just high enough for a smaller girl to crouch in and remain hidden.

“Izzy,” she said, frowning. “I know you’re in there.”

A few rustles later, her skinny-armed sister crept out of her hiding spot onto the footpath. In small grubby hands, Izzy clutched a green pop-eyed toad. On her equally dirty face she wore a look of excitement subdued somewhat by disappointment.

“Aw, I wanted to surprise you with this frog. Isn’t he cool?”

“It’s a toad. Yes, very cool, now put him back where you found him. He’s filthy.”

“No way, I’m showing him to Mom first.”

“She won’t be home for about an hour. What are you going to do with him until then?”

“I’ll think of something.”

They reached the house, and Brianna carefully chained her bike to a post. She knew that there wasn’t anyone for miles who would bother robbing such an out of the way home, but if her grandmother discovered the thing unchained, she’d have to sit through a lecture on taking care of her things. That old lady was a force to be reckoned with.
Inside the house, Grandma June had turned off the stove, so the stagnant humidity and heat had become somewhat less oppressive. The heat had been replaced by the wafting scents of dinner, which might have been called wonderful if it weren’t for the familiar smell of thoroughly burnt cornbread. She usually blamed that on their old, unpredictable oven. Grandma June sat straight-backed and cotton-dressed on the living room couch. She looked up from her magazine long enough to welcome Brianna home.

“You’re late again today, girl. Why don’t you come home when school ends? You want me to worry?”

“Grandma, I told you I have club meetings after school. The first primary of the election cycle is tonight.”

“Oh right. Who are ya’ll supporting again?”

“Barack Obama, who else?”

“Don’t know why you bother, you can’t even vote yet.”

This was true. Brianna was old enough to go to high school. She was old enough to appreciate the big things. She was young enough for optimism about some things, not all. But she was not quite old enough to vote. Brianna rolled her eyes and took her bag off her back.

“We can’t vote, but we can support him. We had a fundraiser at school, see?”

She pulled a clear plastic jar out of her backpack, and held it close to Grandma June’s face for dramatic effect. Izzy was so impressed she nearly dropped her frog-toad. Grandma June even looked up from her magazine again. The jar was stuffed to the cap with money. Bills the color of the green crayon Izzy used to color in plants and frogs (or frog-toads). Presidents, all white, who were long since dead. Something about the money prodded Grandma June to give her granddaughter’s enthusiasm a little bit more legitimacy. Maybe half a percent more.

“And do y’all plan to do with that money?”

“We’re going to send it to the Obama campaign. That’s my job, I’m the treasurer.” Brianna marched proudly to the living room table, where she placed the jar. Grandma June wouldn’t let it rest.

“I don’t know why you bother. You know he doesn’t stand a chance.”

Brianna ignored her. They’d had this argument before. Grandma June was old and practical. Old enough to remember ‘For whites only’ signs and nooses. Too old for optimism, too practical for frog-toads. Izzy tried to show off her own catch of the day, but without looking up again, Grandma June said, “You let that thing loose in this house, you’re gonna get it.”

To avoid the “it,” while Brianna stretched herself onto her favorite spot on the floor in front of the television, Izzy ransacked a kitchen cabinet, found an empty mason jar, and dropped Kermit inside. He hit the bottom with a “plunk,” straightened into a sitting position and blinked. This was a very peaceful frog-toad, Izzy thought, either very peaceful or very scared. She placed her own jar next to Brianna’s. It wasn’t a bad display, she decided. Together they had a whole lot of green.

Izzy joined Brianna in front of the TV and tried to get interested in whatever had been able to inspire all of that money-gathering. She stretched out on her stomach and watched. She rolled over onto her right side. Then her left. Finally she turned herself on her back, and watched MSNBC upside-down. It didn’t make it any more interesting.

“Hey Brianna?”

She received a grunt in response.

“Are you going to send away all of that money?”

Another grunt.

“Who are you sending it to again?”

“Barack Obama, don’t you pay attention?”

Izzy liked the name Obama. She plugged it into the name game. Obama-bama Bo-bama, Banana-fana Fofana, fee fi Momana.

“Do you have to send it all to him?”

“Yes, Izzy. All of it. None of it’s for you. It’s for a greater purpose.”

Izzy wondered what purpose could be greater than a new bike or frog-toad tank.

“Brianna, when does your show go off?”

“I don’t know.”

“A half-hour from now?”

“I don’t know.”

“An hour?”

No response. Not even a grunt.

“It’s so booooring . . .”

“Then go outside.”

Izzy got up and looked out the window by the TV. It was still light out, but the sun was dipping ever closer to the horizon.

She knew that going out now might mean mosquito bites. A lot of them. She looked over to Grandma June, who didn’t return her gaze. She saw that it was no use appealing to her, so she left the room and returned with some sheets of printer paper, her box of crayons, and a hardcover Children’s Bible to prop the paper on. She arranged them on the floor then announced, “I have no idea what to draw.”

Brianna groaned.

“Draw what’s on the TV then.”

“But it’s bo—”

“Too bad. It’s important.”

Izzy saw that Brianna had encircled the TV remote with two meaty arms and knew that she had lost, at least for the time being. All she could do was mutter, “When Mom gets home, she’ll let me have a turn with the TV.”

No response.

In time, the only sounds in the house were the sounds of crayons on paper and the alternating voices of Chris Matthews, Keith Olberman, and Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager. Outside, the sun dropped lower and sent rays of orange light cascading across the yellowed grass. Crickets stirred from their homes, warmed up their legs and prepared to serenade the oncoming night. Thirsty mosquitoes, joined by crane flies and moths, attached themselves to the yellow house’s screen door, lured by light and perhaps the scent of somewhat-burned food. A tiny sparrow perched itself on the bike post and preened. Chris Matthews announced that exit poll data had started to come in. On the road, a public bus rumbled to a stop and dropped off a lone passenger who made her way towards the yellow house.

Inside, Izzy was choosing the colors of her crayons carefully. A darker-than-sky-blue for the color of Olberman’s suit. Strawberry red for the tie. Brown for Barack (rock bo-bock) Obama, even though he’s “Black.” She had already noticed that white crayons don’t show up well on white printer paper, so she selected a nice peach color for Hillary Clinton. People couldn’t really be White unless they were ghosts anyway. They couldn’t be Black unless they were burned up like Grandma June’s cornbread. So Izzy busied herself with drawing all kinds of familiar and unfamiliar brown and peach people until the creaking of floorboards and the sound of a screen door opening and shutting ended her session.

Her mother arrived home after a long shift at the hospital. Since the end of the “Daddy” days, her shifts had grown longer. She was tired, perhaps too tired for a usual greeting. Instead she asked, “Why is there a jar of money on the table?”

•  •  •

Brianna took a rare break from her vigil and brought the jar to her mother proudly. She accepted it, and turned it over in her hands weighing it, studying it.

“You raised all this at that Bake for Barack thing?

Brianna nodded.

“Well I’m glad all those cupcakes didn’t go to waste. You really think he has a chance to win?”

“Not a chance,” grunted Grandma June from the couch, “I won’t live to see a Black president. He doesn’t stand a chance.”

“Of course he does, Grandma.” Brianna shifted her weight a little. “His Iowa poll numbers are really good right now.”

“Well I guess they should be,” her mother reasoned, “after all, he’ll definitely get the Black vote.”

“There is no black vote in Iowa, Mom. And actually more Black people are supporting Clinton right now . . .”

Izzy watched the debate from her spot on the living room floor, unable to understand or give their words any Meaning. Her mother hadn’t noticed the peaceful frog-toad in the jar that had been right next to Brianna’s. Something ugly and resentful bubbled up inside of her, threatening to spill out. That’s when she noticed that Brianna had left the TV remote unguarded.

Brianna continued the debate with her mother, finding the results more promising than she had with her grandmother. After all, her mother was both old and young. Young enough for a pinch of optimism. Too old to have as much faith in “Daddy” as Izzy did. And old enough to feel tired, very tired. Too tired for frog-toads. She sank into couch next to Grandma June.

“All right, I’ll watch the caucus results for a while. Then we eat. Then I’m going to bed.”

Brianna moved to reclaim her spot in front of the TV, but then realized that Chris Matthews and Keith Olberman had been replaced by Batman. The remote was nowhere to be seen. Brianna’s face twisted into a scowl.

“Give me the remote Izzy, NOW.”

“No.” Izzy matched Brianna’s scowl with her own stubborn pout. She didn’t move from the floor. Brianna towered over her, but she didn’t even flinch.

“Where did you hide it?”

“It’s my turn to watch TV. You’ve been watching for hours.”

“I have not!”

“You have too. Grandma, she’s been watching for a long time, hasn’t she?”

“Don’t tell me you two are arguing over this TV—” lectured Grandma June.

“Mom wants to watch the caucus with me,” Brianna interrupted, “so that’s what we’ll watch. Right, Mom?”

Her response was a light snore. Their mother had let her head rest against the back of the couch and had fallen asleep with her nose pointed at the ceiling. Brianna was undeterred.

“She said that she wants to watch the caucus results, I want to watch the caucus, and Grandma June doesn’t care what you want to watch. You’re outnumbered! Where is the remote?”

Izzy knew that when her mother woke up, she would lose the argument for good. So she relied on a failsafe that had gotten her what she wanted for the past two months.

“If Daddy were here, he’d let me watch TV.”

Brianna’s scowl faltered for a moment and Grandma June stopped trying to lecture. Even their mother, roused from her nap by That Word, snapped open her eyes and stared at a cobweb on the ceiling. She didn’t move. Nobody did until Brianna, who had heard quite enough about small things like divorces and frog-toads, countered the D-word for the first time.

“Well he’s not here. He’s not coming back. Get over it like the rest of us.”

Shocked that someone had dared to deflect her best ammo, Izzy growled, “Maybe he wouldn’t have left in the first place if you weren’t so mean.”

Brianna didn’t know why she let such a juvenile comment affect her in the way it did. It could be that her frustration over missing a historical event was being overshadowed by one stubborn little girl. A stubborn little girl who had brought up the one thing she and everyone else in the room didn’t want to talk about. What Brianna knew was that in less than a minute she had taken Izzy’s jar, unscrewed it, ignored a warning from her mother, walked to the open window by the TV, and hurled the frog-toad into the ever darkening field.

“Brianna!” Izzy was on her feet, but her sister ignored her. She had discovered the remote hidden behind the television and was putting it to use.

“Bring it back! Don’t change the channel!”

But the channel had been changed, Brianna was back in her favorite spot and frog-toad was gone. Brianna avoided the reproachful glares from her mother by focusing on ripping open another packet of Devil Dogs.

“Don’t eat that junk before dinner,” chided her mother. “And when will you learn to be more patient with your sister?”

Before Brianna could answer, Chris Matthews announced that early exit poll data seemed to favor Barack Obama. Brianna flashed a sticky smile, her mother looked a little more awake, and even Grandma June showed some interest. “So does that mean he’ll win?”

“He might,” replied Brianna. “We won’t know for sure until much later tonight.” Brianna glanced over at the couch, basking in her grandmother’s expression of awed disbelief. “There’s no reason why he shouldn’t win, he’s the best candidate in this race,” continued Brianna. “He’s all about hope and not giving into fear. He says that fear of things like terrorism and poverty creates divisions and anger which . . .” She let her speech stop there. She didn’t think she needed to talk about fear. They’d all felt it. It was fear of things like Electric Bills and Foreclosure that had kept her mother working by day and her father by night so they hardly ever saw each other. Fear was what made everyone in the yellow house feel as though the old stove had sprung a gas leak and that at any moment a spark of anger would make the whole place explode. Sparks flew, fear ignited, and when the smoke cleared, the “Daddy” days were over. Brianna remembered that fear well, and she didn’t want to feel it again.

“If this thing is going to go on for a while,” said her mother, “We might as well eat dinner here, by the TV. Get a plate of food for me, Bri. My feet hurt.”

On her way to the kitchen Brianna gazed at the living room table and realized that something was wrong.

“The money’s gone.”

So was Izzy.

While poll results trickled in, grandmother, mother and granddaughter bustled around the house peering under tables, peeping behind the sofa, opening closets, and calling Izzy’s name in somewhat worried but mostly irritated voices. Their mother made her way upstairs to check the bedrooms. Grandma June decided on searching outside. But Brianna knew from Hide-and-Seek experience that Izzy specialized in hiding right under the seeker’s nose. She slipped behind the couch and waited. Her eyes scanned all
corners of the room, searching for movement. A drawing Izzy had left by the TV caught her eye. It was of their father. Or was it of Obama? With Izzy’s drawings it was hard to tell.

A few minutes later, apparently confident that she was alone, Izzy peeked out from her hiding spot into what looked like an empty room. She had crouched between the open front door and the wall with the money jar hugged to her chest. She crept from her hiding spot back in front of the TV among scattered crayons, drawings, the remote, and a half-eaten Devil Dog. From only two or three feet away Brianna watched her and the money jar hungrily.

As soon as Izzy reached for the remote she’d jump out from behind the couch and grab her. She’d call her mother and grandma back and Izzy would be reprimanded, or better yet, sent to bed so the adults could watch the caucus returns in peace.

But Izzy didn’t reach for remote. She had curled up around the money jar with her chin on the lid and a trembling pout on her lips.

Brianna couldn’t figure out why with victory so close, Izzy would look so . . . defeated.

Brianna didn’t move.

Izzy didn’t either.

They sat together, only a few feet apart with silence between them. MSNBC returned from a commercial break but Brianna didn’t look at the TV. Izzy didn’t look at the TV. Instead she stared with an amazing intensity out the window from which Brianna had dumped the frog-toad, out towards the road from which she heard the rumble of an approaching car or truck.

By now, Brianna thought, she must have realized that he’s not in that car, that he’s not in any of those cars, right? Hasn’t she?

Yet while exciting patriotic music played, Izzy continued to stare even as the rumble passed the house and faded into the night. Brianna could feel her gaze joining her sister’s and together they traveled out past the road swaddled by the inky-black sky in which the first stars of the night twinkled like a young girl’s hopes.

 




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