The Austin Chronicle

What Happens to Us

First Place winner

By Jessica Rutland, February 27, 2015, Arts

In my head I keep a list of things that Madeline has that I don't. I wouldn't tell anyone about the list, but if I had to, I would rather tell Madeline than my mother. I think that Madeline might have her own list, so she would understand better. I have a list, and Madeline has a list, and that's why she gives me things sometimes when she doesn't want them anymore.

My mother doesn't like Madeline because Madeline's family has money, which is on the list. Mom tells me that I should watch out for Madeline because a rich girl like that doesn't have poor friends, only pets, and that if I think we are friends, then I am probably just like a dog to Madeline. But I think I am more like a cat.

My mom wouldn't understand the list. She would think it was evidence of resentment, which I don't have – just a list.

On Saturday, Madeline comes to the flower shop where I work on weekends. I am packing Katie Scarlett in a white box. All the arrangements are named after characters in old movies. Katie Scarlett is just a dozen red roses and baby's breath. It's our top seller. Madeline stands on the opposite side of the counter and picks up the card that goes with the arrangement.

"Love, Keith," she says and convulses like she's going to throw up. "Keith probably did something stupid." She plucks another red rose from a vase on the counter, and she moves my hands out of the way to place it with the others.

"Why are you giving him an extra flower then?"

"I'm giving him a 13th flower. It's unlucky. I'm cursing Keith."

But the flowers are for a girl named Hannah, and maybe Madeline is cursing her instead, but I don't say anything.

"Can you leave yet or what?"

I cross-tie the box in purple ribbon, set it on the pickup table, and call to Mrs. Blacklock in the back office that it's four o'clock, which means it's time for me to go.

Madeline has a car, but she only has a permit, and when she got pulled over for the second time for driving without an adult, her parents hid the keys. Now we walk everywhere.

"Let's play Death of a Salesman," she says. "We haven't played in forever."

The game wasn't always called Death of a Salesman. First, we just called it Door-to-Door, but then in freshman English we had to read the play, and Madeline called it Death of a Salesman after that.

Madeline didn't even read that play, but she likes the name. I read it, and I didn't like it because no one falls in love. I asked once if we could call the game Summer and Smoke instead because that play has a salesman, too, and he falls in love with a girl named Alma, which means soul, and it is beautiful like everything by Tennessee Williams. Madeline just called me a dork, which she uses as a term of endearment for me sometimes.

The game started when we were in seventh grade. We were on the volleyball team, raising money to go to the out-of-town games. We sold something called a sponsorship, which was when people gave you money for nothing. If you raised enough, your parents didn't have to pay for the bus fare or the meals.

People gave us money because Madeline was really good at asking them to, and we got over three times what we needed for the season, but the school didn't let us keep the extra. Madeline thought it would be better if we just sold sponsorships without the school, so sometimes we go to houses and sell sponsorships even though we both quit volleyball after eighth grade.

I say okay, and we turn off Main onto one of the side streets that eventually leads into an old neighborhood. Used to be, the houses around downtown were where rich people lived, but now only poor people live here, and the rich people live in newer houses.

"Pick," Madeline says. I shrug my shoulders. "Pick, or you have to be the salesman." She knows that I hate being the salesman. I'm bad at talking to strangers and worse at lying. My face and neck get red and hot, and if anyone gives us money when I am the salesman, it's probably only because they feel bad for me.

I point to a brown brick house on the left side. It's an ugly house with a door of peeling white paint, cracked all over so that there are a thousand different shifting pictures in it – the kind you see when you stare long enough at the texture of walls or clouds in the sky.

And there are spiders. There are so many webs that they look fake, like the house is still decorated for Halloween in February. There are webs on the columns of the porch and in the corners of the windows, across the outer vents, and even in the brittle dead bushes in the front yard.

Madeline grins, and we walk up the sidewalk to the door. It has an old brass knocker in the middle, but its screw on one side has come loose from the wood, and it dangles limp. She raps it anyway – three times and loud.

The house is quiet, but Madeline and I have learned how to read the silence of houses, and this house is sudden-quiet, which means someone is definitely home. Sudden-quiet is what happens when the little noises that you wouldn't even notice stop right when you knock on the door. Then – shhh! Everything stops – footsteps, dish washing, the television – and you'd swear you can hear the person inside not moving, not breathing, waiting to see if you'll go away.

Madeline knocks again, and now there's a slow shuffle from inside. Madeline stands up straight and smooths her shirtfront with her palms. She hooks her fingers and roughly places my hair behind my ears.

The door is loud when it's opened. It groans, and the bottom drags along the floor. A woman stands behind it. She is old, and she is the kind of small that happens when a body begins to compress into itself. Her head has settled into her shoulders, her shoulders have fallen toward her chest, her chest has caved into her back. All stretched out, she might be as tall as Madeline, but these parts do not move back.

The old woman does not speak. She looks from me to Madeline and back again, and then keeps her eyes on mine, even when Madeline is the one to talk.

"Hello," Madeline says. "My name is Jennifer, and this is my friend Grace. We're on the girls' soccer team at Lamar High School, and we're raising money for new uniforms. We were wondering if you might be willing to help us reach our goal." The woman is still looking at me. I try to smile, but it feels vicious in my mouth so I smile with my mouth closed and my teeth hidden.

"The budget for the girls' team is very tight," Madeline says. "Much tighter than for the boys' team, so every little bit helps."

I think that the woman is about to close the door on us, but instead, she moves aside.

"Please come in," she says, and her voice surprises me. I thought she would sound old, but her voice is light, and she's matched Madeline's melodic pitch.

The front door opens inside a tight hallway, and there are picture frames sitting on the floor along the walls, which are done in unfinished drywall like she's redecorating. Only the drywall is yellowing, and all the pictures have a layer of dust over them.

"Just through here," the woman says. "Pardon the mess. Can I take your bags, your coats?"

I shake my head, but Madeline smiles and heaps her nubuck leather messenger bag into the woman's open arms. She keeps her coat on. The woman seems to buckle under the weight of the bag, but she steadies and hangs it on an empty coatrack.

"I've put the kettle on if you girls would like some tea."

Madeline gives me a look like, Geez, who drinks tea? But out loud she says sweetly that tea would be love-ly.

"Forgive me," the woman says. "I'm Madeline – Maddie's fine."

I wide-eye Madeline and open my mouth, but Madeline elbows me in the stomach to stop me talking. She didn't give the woman our real names, so I can't tell her that they are both Maddie. Also, Madeline doesn't like it when anyone shortens her name.

Old Maddie sets two mismatched mugs in front of us and one for her, too, and she fills each with hot water. The game almost never goes on this long, and I wish there was a way to tell Madeline – the Madeline who is being Jennifer right now – that I want to leave without saying it in front of the other Maddie.

Old Maddie plunks bags of Lipton into our mugs. She stands behind Madeline, staring at her neck, and she picks a tiny thread off of her collar.

"That's a very nice coat," Maddie tells Madeline-Jennifer. It is a nice coat. It's black wool with silver thread embroidered into smoky swirls. I've been trying not to look at it too much since Madeline got it, hoping that maybe when she's done with it she might give it to me. That never seems to happen with the things I really want, so I've been trying not to want it.

"Thank you," Madeline says.

"Your father must work very hard."

Madeline can't help it – her mouth opens and doesn't close. She gapes at me and clears her throat to find the sweet voice again.

"He works in finance," she says.

Old Maddie smiles wide and claps her hands together. "Mine too! Before he passed, of course – years and years ago." She rises again and leaves the room.

Madeline grips my wrist and rolls her eyes dramatically. The old Maddie re-enters with her purse in hand.

"Finance," old Maddie says with a heavy sigh. "Such an unpredictable business, isn't it? It goes well until it doesn't."

"My father is very good at what he does," Madeline says.

"Oh, yes of course," old Maddie says. She pulls bills from her wallet, and hands them to Madeline. "I hope this will help with the uniforms."

Madeline smiles and nods, but to me she spreads the bills in her hand so that I get a good look at the seven dollars we've been given.

"I had hair like yours when I was young," Maddie says to Madeline. "Both our fathers in finance, too. You know, I heard something once. Someone told me that the universe only has so many stories to spit out, so people's lives are re-lived, that you might meet someone one day who has your same story. Isn't that interesting?"

"No," Madeline says. Her voice isn't sweet anymore, and there is no music in its tone. Her voice is a note so dead that it couldn't be played on any instrument.

"I only say it because I thought you might want to know."

"Know what?"

"What happens to us," old Maddie says. She pulls out a cigarette pack from a long coin purse, and she lights a 100. "We'll go to college, but we won't do well. Not news to you, I'm sure. We never did well in school, did we?" Old Maddie chuckles and winks at Madeline. "There will be boys that don't matter until the one that ruins us. School won't matter after him. But it's all right because there's still money then. Money until there isn't. Mommy and Daddy will run dry after a bit, and you'll be amazed at how fast we manage to run through the rest of it."

"You're crazy," Madeline says, and her whole face seems to shake even after her mouth stops moving.

Maddie slaps her hand on the table. "Let's check," she says. "Maybe we're not a pair after all." She holds her chin in her hand like she's thinking of a proper test. Then she lifts a finger to the sky – an epiphany. Old Maddie moves her hair off her left shoulder and curls her fingers around the collar of her blouse to pull it to the side. She leans over the table, twisting her back to us. She points out a mark on the back of her neck, a small irregular freckle.

"It's almost a star, wouldn't you say?" old Maddie says. "I wonder if you have anything like it."

Madeline kicks me under the table. She knows I've seen it before.

"We're going," Madeline says. She pushes her chair from the table and leaves the room without waiting for me. I hear the front door scrape across the floor and slam shut.

My hands are still around the mug of tea. I set it down on the table as softly as I can, thinking maybe old Maddie won't notice I'm still here at all, that I can float out the door in Madeline's wake.

When I look up, Maddie is looking me right in the eye just like she did while Madeline was talking at the front door. Like all this was for me.

Maddie puts her cigarette out in my tea and pulls an eyeliner pencil from her purse, waving it in the air. She licks her finger and drags it over the back of her neck. The freckle comes off in a smudge of brown.

I get up to leave, hoping Madeline is waiting outside. I push the chair in gently, and I can feel old Maddie staring at me, even when I'm out of sight.

Madeline is standing on the sidewalk, frozen. She's watching something, and I realize it's the spiders. The webs all around the house are pulsing together. I read about this, how spiders talk through vibrations. Maddie looks terrified, but it's not anything to be afraid of.

She notices me and puts a hand on her hip. Her bag is facing me, and I see that "Madeline" is engraved in the leather. I'll tell her about the spiders, and about the fake freckle, too. We'll laugh about it.

"Great house," she says like she's angry with me.

I'll tell her that the woman took her bag and saw her name on it.

"Let's go," Madeline says, and she stomps her foot on the sidewalk.

I'll tell her that the old Maddie must have seen her freckle when she took the thread from her collar.

Madeline turns and begins to walk away without me.

I rush to meet her, and I follow behind her heavy strides in silence.

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