Shipshape and Heartbreak

Her name was Madge, and she loved the color blue. On the last day of her life, she wore blue socks rolled at the ankle, a blue-and-white striped dress (because they were the easiest to put on) and tiny blue stud earrings (like what ladies wear). She’d also slid on a headband to pull back the wispy bangs that hung in her eyes. When she’d checked the band from all angles (left, right, front and behind), she stepped back from her vanity and carefully closed the headband drawer, making sure that everything in it stayed tidy. Shipshape, her mother always said. Madge whispered it to herself whenever she closed a drawer.

“Shipshape.”

Although she was thirteen, Madge didn’t look much older than nine. She was petite and chubby, her body snug in the dress like a pork sausage in its casing. Madge wasn’t aware of her size, but she had the habit of running a hand down her rotund belly. She’d seen her mother do the same when pregnant with baby Ashby; Ashby, unfortunately, had not survived infancy, and Madge’s mother had become very tired. Madge believed that Mama had taken to the color black, so she’d wrapped the dark around her like a winter coat filled with goose feathers. That’s why she stayed in bed all the time. It was warm and soft and opaque. But with Mama always sleeping – and Madge frequently tiptoeing in to kiss Mama’s cheek and tuck her in – the house had become messy.

Madge stood in the kitchen doorway, surveying the wreckage.

“This is not shipshape,” she whispered to herself. “Not shipshape. Not Bristol fashion.”

She wagged at a finger at the room, shook her head from side to side so her hair swung, kissing her rosy cheeks, and tsked. She loved to tsk. She visited Ms. Marie every week to work on her speech, and tsk had been some of the first consonants she’d mastered.

“Tsk, tsk, tsk.”

Banana peels lay on the floor, coffee grounds sprinkled the counter, dirty dishes were piled precariously in the farmhouse sink. A few cupboard doors were ajar. Tomato skins from spaghetti dinner a few nights back were piled next to the silverware drawer, and a carton of expired milk had tipped over. White chunks slopped out of the cardboard opening.

Madge, earnest and hardworking, plodded over to the trash can. She lifted the lid, placed it on the floor, and grasped the plastic bin with both hands, lugging it over to the dirty counters. With a sweep of her chubby, pale arm, the old food, the crumbs, the wadded paper towels tumbled into the white plastic bag.

Madge clapped, applauding her own efforts. She beamed at the now slightly less cluttered counters and moved down to sweep more crumbs. They tinkled into the bag like rain, and Madge, who loved a good sprinkle – but not thunderstorms, never thunderstorms – giggled. She pushed up her blue plastic-framed glasses with one stubby finger then got on her hands and knees to scoop up the abandoned peels. After she’d tossed them, she wiped her hands and called it a day.

“That’s a day!” she trilled.

She galloped, tripping once but catching herself on a hall table, to Mama’s room. She knocked at the door then pushed it open.

“I cleaned, Mama!”

The lump on the bed didn’t move. Didn’t make any response, any acknowledgement of Madge’s proclamation, let alone her presence.

Madge bounced around the bed and knelt in front of the blanket-covered swelling. She stroked a hand gently down the worn cotton blanket and dropped her chin to the mattress.

“Mama,” she whispered. “The kitchen is shipshape. Shipshape.”

Mama didn’t move, at first. But she moaned, long and low and muffled by the covers. Madge, her big, compassionate heart bursting, scrunched her face in sadness. Her voice shook as she asked “Mama?” With a sniff of her small, pushed-in nose, she resumed her stroking and a hot tear slid down and around her cheek to drop onto the pilling flannel sheet.

“I love you,” Madge said, then hefted her pudgy hulk onto the mattress. Mama scooted over with a groan, but when Madge lifted the sheet to crawl in, Mama reached out an arm and pulled her girl close.

Soothed, Madge swiped first at the tear, then at her running nose before snuggling into her mother. She laid a chaste kiss on Mama’s dry cheek and rubbed her head against Mama’s chest.

“You will be happy?”

Mama didn’t answer.

“Mama?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“I make you happy. I know the trick. Be back soon,” Madge told her mother, excitement tingeing her voice.

Madge crawled out from under the blankets and hopped like a bunny rabbit over to her room to grab her favorite purse. It was made out of blue denim and had the name “Madge” scrawled across in silver sequins. Madge picked at the sequins with her fingers before sliding the strap over her arm.

“Bye-bye,” she called to the house. To her mama.

“Bye-bye,” came the murmur from the other bedroom.

Madge stepped out into the sunshine and closed the front door tightly. It must be shut then pulled, so the latch would catch. Madge loved that phrase. Latch would catch. Latch and catch. Latch catch. Ms. Marie liked those sounds too.

She clutched the handle of her purse with one hand and bounced down the concrete sidewalk. Some of the neighborhood kids were playing down the street. Madge’s eyes brightened with anticipation. She continued her lope down the broken and cracked pavement and called hello to the neighbors outside enjoying the summer afternoon.

“Hello, Mr. Bates! Hello, Mrs. Klein!”

Mr. Bates and Mrs. Klein responded with waves and well wishes for Madge to enjoy the lovely day. And Madge went merrily on her way, eager to play with the kids at the end of the block.

But when she reached them, they formed a line, not allowing her to cross.

“What do you want, Mongoloid?” Joey Foster from 612 Rosemont Street asked.

Madge was puzzled. Her forehead crinkled, and she tilted her head to the side. What was Mongoloid? Was that like a creature from another planet? Like the movie that Rebecca from school talked about all the time? The one with the bicycle and the candy? Madge loved candy. So maybe she would be a Mongoloid, if they liked candy like the E.T.

“You can’t cross here. No Mongoloids allowed.”

Joey crossed his hands over his chest. He looked to the other kids, staring them down with icy blue eyes until they straightened their stances and glared at Madge.

Joey was the product of a broken home. Madge didn’t know what a broken home was, but Mrs. Klein had told her that earlier in the summer. She said that was why Joey was a mean boy. Madge thought her own home was broken as well. Like a giant crack ran down the length of it, and Mama was on one side and Baby Ashby’s room was on the other. But Mrs. Klein said that was different and that Madge was a honeypie who should just ignore Mean Joey.

“I’m not Mong-Mong-Mong-o-loid,” Madge stuttered. “But I like candy.” She grinned.

Mean Joey stepped forward, the toes of his shoes inches from Madge’s white Velcro sneakers.

“I said, no Mongoloids.”

Madge couldn’t look Mean Joey in the eye. She felt uncomfortable, both with the harsh delivery of his words and the closeness of his rail-thin body. Mean Joey was all sharp angles, a body of knives. Madge thought that he could easily slice her, so she looked at the ground and took baby steps backward.

“I’m not alien,” she whispered, eyes focused on the blades of grass growing out of a crack in the sidewalk. Her headband slipped forward, landing on her hairline.

“What did you say? Did you say ‘alien’?” Mean Joey swiveled in his black high tops to look in disbelief at the line of kids behind him. “She thinks she’s an alien?”

Mean Joey laughed, his mouth wide open, his teeth coming to points. His body shook and bowed back, and he laid a hand on his stomach. His eyes, however, didn’t show any humor. They stayed mean.

Madge, not understanding, began to smile. Giggle. Suddenly, however, Mean Joey stopped. He looked Madge up and down then reached a skinny finger out to press it into the soft, spongy skin at her shoulder. Then he pushed her. Startled, Madge fell back, landing hard on her rear. She looked up at Joey. Her bottom lip slipped out from her smile and began to tremble.

Mrs. Klein, who had been watching the exchange from her yard, threw down her hose and stomped down the sidewalk. Her chunky black oxfords squeaked with each footstep, and her thick-lensed glasses slid down her nose. She was retired, a widow. She and her husband, Jacob, had never been blessed with children – which Mrs. Klein never really minded, to be honest – but she’d taken a shine to the sweet-natured Madge. And Mrs. Klein was not one to stand bullying of any kind. Of any kind.

“Young man,” she said, her arm outstretched, her finger pointed, her body subconsciously echoing Mean Joey’s aggressive posture. “You stop that right now. Right now! If you don’t leave this poor child alone, you can bet I’ll be on you faster than a duck on a junebug. And I have your mother’s ear. Now git. Git!”

Mean Joey sneered at the tiny old lady who glared up at him, her watery brown eyes magnified by her lenses.

“Whatever, lady. C’mon,” he said to the row of kids who had stood silent in awe, in fear.

They trooped off. Mrs. Klein helped Madge to her feet, brushed off the gravel stuck to her legs and gave her a little tap on the bottom.

“Now, you are a strong girl, you hear? But you stay away from that boy. He’s bad news.”

Madge nodded. Bad news.

“Now, you git too. Enjoy the sunshine. Maybe later, you can stop by for some gingersnaps, all right?”

Madge sniffled, nodded. She liked the snappy cookies. They were crisp like their sound. Snap.

“Go on.”

Madge started forward, looked back at Mrs. Klein. Waved. Mrs. Klein smiled, and her glasses slipped to the tip of her nose.

Collecting herself, Madge resumed her lumbering skip down the street, though it was ever so less energetic as before. At the end of the block, she turned right. She wasn’t allowed to cross the street, but there was a market just around the corner. No crossing the street. Mr. Jackson, who played with the money, was nice, and he sometimes gave her a lollipop.

She pushed inside, her mood restored when she heard the tinkling of the bells that signaled a customer’s entrance.

“Hi, Mr. Jackson!”

Mr. Jackson, an elderly gentleman who had just welcomed his seventh grandchild – and his first granddaughter – welcomed Madge with a great big hug, wrapping strong arms around the squashy girl. Madge hugged back, love floating out of her body to dance around Mr. Jackson.

Perhaps more emotional than usual, Mr. Jackson felt tears prick his eyes at the easy affection. Lord, he loved this girl. Sometimes God takes things away from people, but he gives them something else. Madge, she might not have a normal life, but she had an abundance of goodness. That was a rarity.

Mr. Jackson stepped back, pushed Madge’s headband into place.

“What can I get for you today?”

“Chocolate. For Mama.”

“Ok. Anything else?”

Madge blushed, lifted her shoulders to her ears.

“I want candy. I’m an alien.”

Mr. Jackson was puzzled, but didn’t say anything.

“Alright, you know where it is. I’ll be up here at the counter.”

Madge knew where it was. It was her favorite aisle. The brightly-colored packaging spread before her like a glistening rainbow. Different shapes – squares, rectangles, circles – and different sizes – teeny-weeny, small, medium, large, super large – were hers for the choosing. But that was the difficult part. Choosing.

She stood in the middle of the aisle, surveying the selection. She knew Mama’s favorite already. Hershey’s. She picked one up, balancing it in her warm palm. For herself, she wasn’t sure. She loved m&m’s. She loved Reese’s Pieces. She loved Jujubes.

Madge tapped a finger to her scrunched lips. She swayed back and forth, hemming and hawing. She reached her hand out once, twice. Finally, she moved a few feet down to grab a clear plastic bag of gummy worms. Gummy worms. Those were the best choice. She could slurp them up like the spaghetti on Tuesday night. And she’d picked a package that had lots of blue ones.

Her task completed, she met Mr. Jackson at the counter and plunked down two dollars’ worth of coins. Mr. Jackson’s nimble fingers picked through the pennies, nickels and dimes. When he rang up the total, Madge clapped at the ringing of the machine.

“You have a good day, Madge.”

“You, too,” Madge replied happily as she left the store, goodies in hand.

Madge stepped on to the street, impatient to slurp a worm. She tucked the Hershey’s bar into her denim handbag, then ripped into the gummy worms. In her excitement, she split the bag down the middle, and wiggling, colorful worms dropped onto the street. Madge shrieked and bent at the waist to gather them up. She tucked the half-filled bag under an arm, then rubbed the dirtied worms on her dress. They’d be clean now. Shipshape.

As she wiped down her treats, Mean Joey watched from a few sidewalk squares away. He hated Madge. He didn’t know why, but she sparked a rage in him, not unlike the rage he seemed to spark in his own father. Of course, that rage always came with a six-pack. Still, it felt good to be powerful over someone, to cause them fear and pain. Serves that Mongoloid right. Mean Joey didn’t know who she was, skipping up and down the streets like some retarded elephant.

The thoughts grew louder in Mean Joey’s head, and his hands fisted. Madge, oblivious, continued to wipe the worms on her dress before biting into them. When Joey stepped forward, Madge turned. Fear flooded her eyes, causing them to bulge, and her cheeks drained of color. Bad news. But, she still offered him a worm. Not a dirty one. A clean one from the package she’d taken from under her arm.

Disgusted, Mean Joey slapped at the worm so it flew onto the street, crushed under the spinning wheels of a passing car. Madge watched her blue-and-green’s worm death. She turned to Mean Joey, confused.

“Why?” she asked.

“Why not,” Mean Joey sneered before pushing Madge into the street.

Madge didn’t have time to scream, only yelped as she stumbled into traffic. As the speeding red car hit her. As her body tumbled up and over the hood. The worms went flying, sprinkling onto the street. The car squealed to a stop. Joey ran away. Mr. Jackson came running. Mrs. Klein came running.

And somewhere down the street, in a desolate room, under a pile of heavy covers, someone began to sob.