by Amy Barnes
I remember 1973. It was the year the hieroglyph lines finally stopped dancing and became letters and words on pages in books. It was the year my illiterate baby sister arrived. It happened all in one gasp. All in one gulp. All on one plate.
When my belly growls, I sneak slices of homemade bread because there is really no one around to stop me. The bread smells sour as it cools enough for jelly. No one at school thinks it’s cool to make bread or knead bread or need homemade bread; it’s only cheaper than the wonder of Wonder Bread that other kids get to eat. I read the recipes too, perched on a stool pouring out math bread into a bowl. The words line up like bread slices, a cup, a pinch, a pint, a quarter.
As my mother chats words to her friends on a yellow telephone, I read books in gulps and bites too, one breath per page per story per character. I eat words like they are food falling into my belly in Golden Book and Berenstain bites. Bears in dresses and overalls and fireman pants climbing fireman ladders to rescue screaming families trapped in burning buildings and restaurants serving toast and eggs and bacon and fish on plates and plates on top of plates stacked in sinks from all the people and bears and plates. The stoves and refrigerators and dishes are white and sparkling. I am not. I am dirty-faced and often facing the corner, my dirty fingers counting to time-out-corner one hundred.
In our kitchen where the clickety clacky whir whir phone lives, there are floral Green Stamp green plates stacked in green Dawn bubbles, next to brown and gold kitchen appliances that are given away on shiny game shows but feel heavy and dirty and unappetizing like what I imagine the inside of my stomach looks like. I learn how to count higher and higher as dishes stack until the church lady army arrives and reduce them to zero. She and I bring the plates home one at a time, adopting dishes exchanged for books of stuck-on stamps that leave my tongue and fingers sticky and sliced and minty. My mother is adopted too, and I think of her brought home from wherever adopted babies are stacked waiting for a family to finally buy enough groceries to save enough stamps to fill enough books.
How much does a baby cost? How many books does it take to buy one?
My mother pretends like she doesn’t hear me.
I continue wiping down the one plate that belongs to me and me alone because I licked all the stamps into the books when I thought I might get a brother in return. I wipe it down as a chore when it’s not dirty because it looks like playground dirt and makes everything taste like harvest gold dirt.
When we go to the grocery with our stack of filled stamp books, I see a man with stamps on his skin, inked messages and symbols imprinted like stories to read.
Don’t stare, my mother says loud enough for the man and me to hear.
We stop at the gas station and wait in a long line for three dollars worth of fuel and cartoon character glasses that are free with fill-up. They don’t match our grocery store dishes but I know that doesn’t really matter and I’m glad there are no sticky tacky stamps to lick, just a tissue-wrapped glass handed through a freshly squeegeed window. I blow out my breath until there is a tiny smoky circle on the glass. Three letters fit in the frosty bubble. By the time we get home my name is gone again.
I am angry. I drop jelly jars. I drop pickle jars. I drop grocery store plates. The kitchen floor is sticky and the shards lay out like a glass mosaic. I hear my mother gasp. We climb in the giant station wagon. My feet are still sticky. We go to the grocery store to buy more jelly, more pickles, and to trade in stickers for more plates. The man in front of us in line pretends he doesn’t hear her but lets her go ahead because her belly is swollen. We go home and I stack plates and push jelly and pickle jars onto low shelves while reading their contents out loud to no one. There is a scratch on my foot and I smell like something.
The next day, I draw words on the walls with thick black ink and pretend I don’t hear my mother calling. She finds me with a stamped kitchen and mean messages to her in lowercase letters and flowers and ghosts and cats. I’m sent to my room to read and think about my actions. I don’t do the thinking part. Instead, I read books that belong only to me and don’t taste of minty envelope backs or look like dirty appliances.
The next day, a sister arrives from where you exchange stamps for babies. I write her name on my skin. Over and over again.