Bebe Cohen was ushered out of the screen door, held open by her mother, and climbed down two high steps to the backyard using her hands for balance.
“Go play,” her mother’s face was a wilted jack-o-lantern, drawn inward since early morning.
“But I don’t want to,” Bebe stood facing the door with her toes touching the bottom step. The air conditioner, a shivering box that protruded from the house like an elbow in a sling, rumbled to a stop. Bebe remembered she’d left Morrie’s plastic cowboys on top of the unit, arranged in a semi-circle. She wanted them to recite the lines from her favorite book, The Smiling Cowboy. Now they would act out the good parts without her.
“Tough,” her mother closed the screen door and the heavy back door. The click of the lock signaled a finality Bebe didn’t expect. She climbed back up the steps and banged her knuckles against the panel in the middle of the screen door, the only solid part she could reach.
The door didn’t open.
“Mommy! Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!”
She sat down on the top step and waited. Her black hair gathered heat from the midday sun. She felt the top of her head and sensed it was hotter than the rest of her body. Her fingers sprung away like she’d touched a match. She wanted to look up and see if the sun had turned blue around the edges like the flame under a pot on their gas stove, but Morrie told her she’d go blind if she looked at the sun.
Bebe pulled her shirt up over her shoulders to the top of her head and let it cascade down her back like an Eagle Scout headdress. Her pale chest was exposed, and she knew she wasn’t supposed to be in the sun without sunscreen, but she didn’t have any and wasn’t good at spreading it on anyway. Mommy said she didn’t do a good job.
Bebe surveyed her options. The green plastic pail, her brother’s, was cracked along the side under the handle, and there was no shovel for digging up Indian arrowheads. What can you do with a broken pail without a shovel?
The swing set was partially shaded by a maple tree, but on the empty side, not the side with a swing. The remaining seat, adjusted for Morrie’s long legs, hung at a slant, the frame propped on a clump of brown grass. The four uneven legs resembled a spider walking. Bebe hated spiders. Anyway, the swing set had been moved to the far side of the yard, too close to the street where she wasn’t allowed to go.
The sprinkler had been abandoned in the middle of the yard. Bebe had never tried to turn it on by herself. It needed to be attached to a hose so water could squirt inside and come out the top. There was no hose in sight.
Sweat trickled down her face.
She was thirsty.
The spigot where the hose was supposed to be attached was next to the door. When she turned it on, water rushed out much faster than she expected, creating a mud puddle in seconds. She put her hands underneath to collect some water to drink, but the pressure was too great and the water stung. It pushed her hands away.
Turning off the spigot was much harder than turning it on. She managed to get it down to a dribble by tugging on it with both hands. Twisting her sweaty face underneath, she collected the water drops with her tongue.
Her new white sandals stuck in the mud and when she lifted her feet they made a sucking noise, whooap, whooap. To unfasten the buckles she had to push and pull the straps until they loosened and she could wiggle her toes out. Bebe flung the shoes into the yard. Her feet dug into the mud and the gooey, chocolate-pudding glop squished between her toes and crept up her ankles. It felt cooler in the mud, so she sat down. From her new viewpoint, the mud looked like wet sand at the beach.
Wet sand was for building.
It was harder to build a fort out of mud than sand. She formed a wall but it drooped over in a slow slide as soon as she picked it up with her hands. Bebe tried adding grass to the mud but that only made it fall faster. Stones might have worked but there were no stones in the backyard. There was gravel in the driveway, but that was in the front yard, and she wasn’t allowed in the front yard alone. Wasn’t allowed this, and wasn’t allowed that, but here she was in the yard with nothing to do and no toys and not even anything to drink.
She crept around the side of the house, sneaky quiet, being careful to crawl under the side windows in case Mommy was in the bedroom having a headache. To keep herself steady, she used her right hand on the white vinyl siding. She left Bebe-sized handprints in a row like bird tracks in the woods. Around the corner, there was no way to hide from the big eye of the living room picture window. When she got that far, she made a dash for the gravel.
Her hands were clumsy from the rapidly drying mud. Scooping up some gravel, Bebe scraped a finger. She used her other hand to shovel gravel into her left pocket. Bending over caused hair to escape the shirt headdress. Sweat wet her hair, and when she pushed it back, her hands were muddy again. She swiped three fingers across each cheek to paint warrior stripes.
She’d never seen the neighborhood so deserted, as though the African heat, misplaced by eight thousand miles (Morrie told her) had driven all the neighbors to frosty movie theaters or Nettie’s Ice Cream Parlor or, like Morrie, to the YMCA swimming pool. Bebe wished she could swim.
A noise prickled her neck, a loud bark followed by an angry growl. Bebe spun around. A toy terrier on the far side of the lawn stretched out his front legs as if ready to spring. His belly was so bloated it made him look giant, like a fairytale wolf. No collar, no tags, teeth dripping saliva, hair sticking up. Morrie said to freeze if you saw a growling dog. If you run, he’ll run after you.
The dog stood his ground and continued to growl. A bee buzzed around her muddy bottom. How long until the dog got tired and ran away? Water and sweat ran down Bebe’s face, dripping in rivulets on her warrior paint, making a tic-tac-toe board on each cheek. The bee landed on her right thigh. She could almost hear the bee pull out his stinger. Forgetting she was supposed to stay frozen, she ran to the backyard and the dog, barking loud and mean, ran after her.
Bebe didn’t stop until she was at the screen door. “Mommy, help!”
There was no answer.
The dog came close enough for Bebe to smell his bad breath spitting into the air, as bad as one of Morrie’s gym shoes. He was a dirty dog with matted fur and a red gash on his hindquarter. He was a stray, and that was the worst kind of dog. Morrie said so.
Bebe stood her ground on the higher of the two high steps. The dog planted his front paws on the bottom step.
“You,” she pointed at his nose.
“Go away,” she frowned at him. Her eyebrows pushed down and her eyes became straight lines.
He stopped growling and sniffed the air around her. Backing down the step, he turned his snout toward the spigot. With his nose sniffing the whole way, he found a puddle made from the dripping water and the indentation from Bebe’s foot. His long pink tongue reached out and drank the water out of the hole. He stood there drinking for a long time, water flying out the sides of his mouth. When he was finished, he trotted away, as if there had never been anything between them.
Mimi Drop is a writer by trade. She has written blogs, educational materials, grants, articles, TV commercials, and print ads. For most of her career, she has been an advertising copywriter who rose to VP Creative Director for a division at Ted Bates, WorldWide. To keep her sanity in the commercial den, Mimi writes poetry and short stories. She has a degree in Literature, Science and the Arts from the University of Michigan. Mimi is currently in the process of finishing her a novel and is planning to send it out this year.