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The Alphabet Year
By Kathryn H. Kidd
|Edition: Trade Paperback|
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If Kate Carbine had indeed left her heart in San Francisco, it was now approximately 763 miles from where the rest of her body was sitting. Most of Kate was somewhere in Salt Lake City, Utah, driving the kids behind the U-Haul trailer that Martin was steering up the potholed streets toward their new home.
As Kate tried to concentrate on her driving, the children screamed and fought and whimpered in the back seat of the station wagon.
They weren't Kate's children, she knew. Oh, she had carried each one of them inside her for at least nine months (and she would have sworn it was more like fourteen). She remembered birthing them all, too. But sometime, maybe when Kate was asleep after the trauma of childbirth, each of her civilized offspring had been replaced by a barbarian - a child who whined and cried and asked questions and threw up on the sofa and did all the things they never told you about when you were innocently planning your temple wedding.
It must have come from Martin's side of the family.
Kate was almost in tears even before Martin turned the U-Haul onto the street where he had bought a house three weeks ago. When she actually saw the neighborhood, her eyes glazed so that she could barely see the road. Kate was sure she had moved to another planet.
Martin had promised he wouldn't buy a bungalow when he went on the house-hunting trip without Kate. That was Kate's only criterion - more important to her than shopping or schools. As soon as he got off the plane in Oakland, Kate knew from his face that he had let her down. When he didn't even have a picture of the new house to show her, she steeled herself to accept the worst. All he could say in his own defense was that he'd had a feeling this was the house they were supposed to buy. Martin never argued with his feelings, just in case they were inspirations. Once he had a feeling about the bungalow, Kate's misgivings didn't matter anymore.
Kate had never wanted to live in a bungalow. Even the name sounded squalid. It was abbreviated on the realtors' sheets, bung. And that's what the houses looked like - Bung the Circus Elephant, balanced precariously on his two front feet. Purple bricks. White trim. Tiny rooms with no closets. Bungalows were even worse than the split-levels that comprised most of Salt Lake City's recent architecture. At least split-levels had decent bathrooms.
Kate sighed. She knew she should have helped Martin pick out the house. She could hear his voice, with the pedantic tone that drove her crazy, reminding her, "There's a reason we're supposed to live in this house. We just have to find what that reason is."
Looking at the houses on Farley Avenue, Kate didn't care what the reason was. All she saw was that all the houses on the street looked alike. All of them looked like Bung the Circus Elephant. All of them were tiny, one-story structures with a basement. All were built in shades of purple brick and trimmed in coats of white paint that were in various stages of peeling. And Kate would have wagered that not a one of them had any storage space at all.
Finally, at the far end of the block, Martin eased the U-Haul against a curb and turned off the engine. Kate parked the station wagon behind him. Turning off her ignition, she crossed her arms over the steering wheel and warily looked from house to house, wondering which of them was her new home. She finally placed the house by the lawn, whose grass had sprouted a full nine inches before it died, unwatered, in the summer heat.
Martin bounded from the cab of the U-Haul. The spring in his step told Kate he was pretending things were all right. Martin thought he could make any problem disappear by pretending it didn't exist. His smile was as phony as NutraSweet. No, it wasn't a phony smile; Kate had to be honest. It was a hopeful smile. Martin hoped Kate would at least give the new neighborhood a chance.
"This is it!" he boomed, confirming Kate's worst fears.
"I hate it already." To Kate's surprise, the words didn't come from her. She looked in the rear-view mirror at Angela, her oldest child. Angela's face was an eight-year-old mirror of her own. Both Kate and Angela were tired and scared and miserable, and nothing Martin could say would comfort either one of them.
"I think it's neato." Sam, who was seven, thought everything was neato. "Look at all the purple houses!"
"I hate purple," Angela said.
"Well, I like purple," Sam said forcefully. "I bet the Bat Cave is purple."
"I don't want to live in the Bat Cave."
Kate couldn't argue with Angela. She didn't want to live in the Bat Cave, either.
"Which one is ours, Mom?" Sam asked, looking appraisingly at all the identical houses within view.
"The one with the grass," Kate said, trying to sound cheerful. Martin nodded, apparently pleased that Kate was making an effort.
"Neato!" Sam bounded from the car and waded through the dead lawn, looking for bugs in the former grass.
Only Jessie's opinion was left to be heard. When Sam had slammed the car door behind him and the rest of the family was silent, she spoke. Only, Jessie never spoke; she shouted. At three, her body was the smallest in the family, but her voice was the biggest. And she always waited until the world around her was quiet and her shouts would have the most effect.
Kate turned around to Jessie, keeping her face neutral.
"DO I HAVE TO LIVE IN THIS HOUSE TILL I'M DEAD?"
Martin looked at his watch, biting his lower lip as if he were gauging the minute and the hour. "Not quite that long, Pumpkin," he said. Martin was always better with the children than Kate was.
"OKAY!" shouted Jessie, apparently satisfied. The car door slammed behind her, and she joined Sam in the grass. Suddenly, Jessie stomped on the sidewalk, landing on a moving object with both feet. Then she knelt to the pavement and inspected the spot she had made.
"WOW!" she said.
Sam ran over to see what made Jessie so excited. "Wow! Neato!"
Jessie stood, balancing herself on sturdy legs. Turning toward the car, she screamed, "MOM! THERE'S NEAT GRASSHOPPERS IN UTAH. IF YOU SQUASH 'EM, THE GUTS ARE BOOGER GREEN."
"That's gross," Angela said. Folding her arms in front of her, she slumped in the back seat of the station wagon.
"At least two of the family don't hate me." Martin said it quietly, and Kate felt immediately guilty.
"I like you, Daddy," Angela said, straightening up again. Martin's job had brought them to Utah, but Angela was only angry with Kate. Angela was always angry with Kate. She and Kate had been adversaries since the day she was born.
"I like you, too." Kate did like Martin. She knew it in spite of Utah. "You did the best you could, Martin. Eventually, we'll get used to it."
"There's a reason for all this," Martin said doggedly.
It was the worst thing he could have said. Kate smiled, a grim smile that wasn't a smile at all. "I know there's a reason," she said. "Maybe we'll find it soon. Then we can move home to California again."
Inside, the new house looked much as Kate expected it to look. The entrance had opened on to the living room, which extended into a dining room that was barely big enough for the dining room table. There were three bedrooms on the main floor, each no larger than her laundry room back in California. Kate thought there might be an advantage to that. She could turn off the light or turn on the television or get clothes from her dresser without ever getting out of bed. At least there wasn't much floor space to vacuum.
The whole family inspected the new house at their own pace. If Martin wanted to act as tour guide, he must have been sorely disappointed. Jessie and Sam skipped the entrance hall altogether and started in the living room. They stayed a room ahead of Martin and Kate and Angela throughout the house. In each room, the comments were the same.
"Neato!" Sam liked every room, and his cheerfulness bounced off empty walls.
"IS THIS ROOM MINE?" Jessie asked it about the living room and the dining room and the den, as well as each of the bedrooms. As far as she was concerned, only one room was important. It didn't matter which room was hers, Kate knew - only that a room was hers. Until the room assignments had been made, Jessie surveyed each room only enough to wonder if she would be sleeping there.
Angela's remarks were also predictable. Lagging behind Martin and even Kate, she only said, over and over, "I hate this house. I want to go back to California." Kate only realized when Martin gave her a look of disgust that she was nodding her head in agreement with each of Angela's complaints.
Finally, Angela found one room that was acceptable. It was the corner room in the rear of the house, next to the bathroom. It was also the master bedroom: Kate could tell because there were two tiny closets along the wall instead of just one. When she saw the room, Angela sat against a wall and folded her arms across her chest. "This room's mine," she announced, looking sullenly down at her folded arms.
To her surprise, Kate didn't get angry with Angela. She only shrugged. "I don't see that this room is much larger than the others," she said. "It just has two closets. If Dad says it's okay, you can have this room."
Angela looked questioningly at Martin, who nodded yes. Angela brightened long enough to give Kate a half smile of gratitude. Smiles were rare from Angela, and Kate leaned over and kissed her on the cheek.
Angela stayed on her new floor, still unready to stop sulking. Everyone else trooped down the stairs to see the basement, and Kate was pleased that the bedroom downstairs was just a little nicer than the one she had sacrificed for Angela. There was even a closet that was bigger than both of the ones in Angela's room. Kate smiled her first real smile of the day. She liked the basement. That was one feature of bungalows that California houses didn't have.
The thing about moving in on a Wednesday was that no men were available to help. In fact, the whole street looked deserted. Children were either off at school or down for their naps; mothers were either away at work or indoors cleaning house; fathers were at the office until nightfall. Kate hoped the Elders Quorum would miraculously appear out of nowhere, ready to unpack the U-Haul while she supervised. But Martin hadn't tracked down the new bishop, and no one knew the Carbines were members of the local ward. Minutes passed, and only an occasional passing car showed there were people living in Salt Lake City.
If Kate hadn't majored in physical therapy in college she would have had an excuse to sit back and let Martin do the work, but years of patterning hydrocephalic children had made her biceps as hard as granite. She suspected she was stronger than Martin, and she knew she had more stamina than he did. Wearily she blew her bangs out of her eyes and started hauling furniture and boxes.
"Dad, when are you going to unload the refrigerator?" Sam asked. Kate and Martin were sitting on the back of the U-Haul, drinking warm 7-Ups from the Coleman cooler. Between sips, Kate held the metal can to her forehead, pretending the aluminum was icy and cold.
"There's no food in the refrigerator," Kate said. "Maybe we'll get a pizza tonight."
"Neato, but when are you going to unload the refrigerator?"
Martin surveyed the contents of the U-Haul. "We'll unload it when we get to it," he said. "See? The sofa's in front of it, and the dishwasher and the love seat. The refrigerator's almost the last thing on the trailer."
"Bummer," Sam said, scowling at the U-Haul. He stood motionless for a moment, as if hoping the refrigerator would move on its own accord. When nothing moved, he shrugged and walked away.
A few minutes later, he was back. "Mom, how long can you breathe in a refrigerator?"
"Not very long," Kate said absently. "Refrigerators aren't made for people."
"I know that. I'm not dumb enough to get in a refrigerator." Sam sounded exasperated. That made Kate raise her eyebrows. Sam was her one child who was usually even-tempered. He trampled down the dead grass into an "S" at his feet. Kate watched him, listening to the dead grass crunch under Sam's neon tennis shoes.
Then, "Mom, if I was littler, could I live in a refrigerator?"
"How much littler?" she asked, playing the game.
"Dog-sized. Or cat-sized. Or frog-sized. If I was frog-sized, how long would I last?"
"Oh, I think you'd last for days and days. Frogs don't use much air at all."
"Neato." Sam rewarded Kate with a grin and skipped away.
Kate took another swig of soft drink, then another. Draining the can, she crushed it and tossed it on the U-Haul. She had never crushed a can in her life, but she thought that people who unloaded moving vans should crush aluminum cans and toss them aside. She felt like an athlete in a beer commercial, although she had drunk her 7-Up instead of just waving the can aloft. Martin watched her and braved a smile. He seemed relieved when she smiled back.
"Little kids ask crazy questions, don't they?" he asked, stretching a kink out of his neck.
She nodded. "He's been fixated on frogs lately. Ever since he found that frog in the yard last weekend, it's been frog this and frog that. He'd never seen a frog before that one."
Kate stood and surveyed the contents of the van, deciding what to move next. If she left the moving to Martin, he would relax in the shade of the U-Haul all afternoon and nothing would ever get unpacked.
Then Martin asked, "What did Sam do with the frog?"
Kate's breath caught in the back of her throat. Dimly she remembered telling Sam of course he couldn't take the frog across the country with him to Utah. She had assumed he had let the frog go. Suddenly, she knew he hadn't.
"I think we'd better unpack the van. Fast." But Martin was moving before the words were out of her mouth. Out came the love seat and the sofa and the dishwasher. Out came the brass headboard and the queen-sized mattress and box springs. Out came box after box after box. Everything was hastily dumped on the lawn instead of being taken inside the house. After each load they were back in the van, picking up another heap of household items to be quickly jettisoned on the grass.
Finally they reached the refrigerator.
"It's still taped shut," Martin called jubilantly as Kate shoved the last carton aside and returned to the back of the U-Haul.
Kate bent over and inspected the refrigerator door. The light was so dim that she confirmed her suspicions by running her fingers over the area. Just as she thought - there were places where her fingertips stuck to the enamel paint. "No," she said finally. "It's been taped again. Feel it? There are sticky marks where the tape used to be."
"Do you want me to open it?" This was Martin talking, the same Martin who had fainted in the delivery room when Angela was born.
"I'll do it." Kate knew she sounded like a martyr, but she felt like a martyr. As soon as the words left her mouth, Martin trotted to the glove compartment and retrieved a flashlight so Kate could see to do the job.
Kate didn't find the frog immediately, but the smell almost knocked her flat on the floor of the U-Haul. Sam must have hidden the frog soon after the refrigerator was loaded on Monday. Yes; Monday was the day Kate had taken the kids to McDonald's for lunch. The remnants of a McDonald's hamburger sat on the middle shelf of the refrigerator, rotting. There was also a jar cap that had probably held water before it sloshed out as the U-Haul rumbled toward Salt Lake City. Judging by the stench, Sam's frog had died roughly thirteen seconds after Sam had shut the refrigerator door and had been busily decomposing ever since.
Then Kate saw the frog. It had expired on the uppermost shelf, and its carcass drooped through the metal bars. The floor of the refrigerator was wet with urine. Frogs peed when they were scared, and they had immense bladders. Kate suspected that Sam's frog had been the Urine King of San Francisco.
"I'm sorry. I have to throw up." Martin sounded apologetic, but Kate couldn't help thinking he was already ten paces away from the source of the smell. He stopped long enough to pick up a box before he jumped down from the U-Haul. Then he disappeared inside the house.
Sighing, Kate returned to the mess in the refrigerator. She was still wondering who was going to clean it out when Sam appeared. As if he knew what had happened in the U-Haul, he stayed outside the van. When he spoke, his voice sounded little and far away.
"Grover's dead, isn't he?"
Kate shut the refrigerator door and left the U-Haul to kneel beside Sam on the grass. "I'm afraid so," she said. "Grover's been dead for several days."
"I left food for him. Water, too." Sam sounded almost angry at Grover; he hadn't expected the frog to die. "You said there was enough air in there." Sam sounded angry with Kate, too.
"This is August, Sam. Maybe the heat killed him."
"I don't care. He shouldn't have died."
"You shouldn't have put him in the refrigerator," Kate said.
"I had to. You wouldn't let me bring him in the car." Before Kate could defend herself, he added, "Grover stinks. I didn't know he'd stink that much. I've never smelled anything that stinked as much as Grover." Under the mournful expression, Kate detected a glimmer of pride.
"Tell you what," she said. "If you'll help me find the Lysol in one of these boxes, I'll clean up Grover and your Dad will take you all out for ice cream. Is that okay?"
"I'd rather have Grover," Sam said.
"I promise you - you don't want Grover the way he is now. Go get some ice cream with your Dad. When you come back, we'll have a froggie funeral."
"Neato." Sam ran off to find the Lysol. Already, the pain of Grover's death was dimming.
Cleaning the refrigerator after Martin and the children had gone for ice cream, Kate suspected that the smell of Grover would linger long after the memory of him was gone.
Copyright © 1991 by Kathryn H. Kidd
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