From the moment I was six, I knew, that with my thick reddish hair and chubby arms, that not only I resembled Dorothy, but I was Dorothy. Even though I received the videotape for my seventh birthday and could slip it into the machine whenever I pleased, there was something about the film’s once-a-year appearance on television that filled me with haunting excitement—staying up past eleven o’clock, convinced that I had memorized the script more perfectly than anyone in the country watching at that moment, feeling an indescribable post-Wizard-of-Oz depression as I lay in bed afterwards and imagined showing up in school one day with my own pair of glowing red shoes.
“You really want to be her?” my mother said one night, standing behind me and nudging me with her toe as I sat Indian-style, my back hunched, staring at the screen and pulling absently on my lower lip. “You want to be a terribly lonely girl with no parents who gets sucked up into a tornado and dropped into a town full of crazies?” She remained quiet for a few minutes as she watched the film with me. “I don’t get it,” she finally said, and went back to the kitchen.
Slightly hurt, I pulled my focus away and looked to my father. “Put ’em up, put ’em up!” he snarled, much to my delight, in my mother’s direction from his easy chair. “I’ll fightcha with one paw tied behind my back.” He smiled at me from beneath his stubble. “Besides, that girl can sing.” And I felt much better.
I think St. Joseph’s had been an attempt at modern architecture, built with a slanted roof and walls of dark, mysterious glass, pea green carpeting and matching pea green leather pew cushions. Mr. Caverton was dressed in The Devil’s colors—red shirt and black pants and red and black tie. He was young and charismatic and believed in being infiltrated with the music he taught, so sometimes he would jump from his seat, pant legs flapping, and tiptoe across the floor as if the music were carrying his soul. I felt slightly embarrassed each time I raised my hand to ask a question about a chord or about going to the ladies’ room. He had this way of rolling his eyes up at me and jutting his ear forward as if I were about to say the most clever thing he’d ever heard.
“Theresa,” he said to me on Friday, “come down here and turn my pages, please.”
Emily poked me in the side. She liked Mr. Caverton’s overgrown blond hair and long red fingers, which always looked freshly scrubbed, hot from the shower. I ignored her and walked over to the piano while I listened to the choir’s collective breathing. Up close, I saw that the red specks on his tie were not just specks but tiny fish with black pinpoint eyes.
“Sit next to me,” he said. “You know what to do.”
“I’m not very good at reading music yet,” I said.
“Sure you are,” he said, and smiled. “That’s why I chose you. Understand?”
I sat up straight. “Yes.”
At the end of each sheet of music, Mr. Caverton’s head would bounce once, emphatically, as if he were punctuating the finish of a mini-masterpiece. So I knew when to turn the pages.
Later on, while Emily and I were walking home, she said, “Lucky. What’s it like to be so close to him?” She pulled her navy blue coat around herself as though nuzzling with the warmth of the thought. “What does he smell like? I bet he smells good…something floral…no, citrusy, maybe. Or musky. Definitely musky.”
“Emily, he’s like, twenty-five,” I said.
I thought about how I had felt his breath on the back of my hand as I flipped the sheet music, how the wooden bench had creaked and vibrated with his body as he became involved. For a moment I thought what his arms must look like beneath his thin, stiff red shirt. I pictured Emily on the piano bench next to him, their shoulders skimming.
“He’s too old for you,” I said, feeling queasy.
Emily turned her head and began looking inside the windows of the houses we passed. I liked to do that, too; there was something comforting about seeing into the order of other people’s lives. I almost didn’t hear her when she said, “You know, Theresa, he’s never asked anyone to turn his pages before.”
I squirmed. My scarf was wound around my throat a bit too tightly. “He smelled like…church,” I said.
Rosemarie began collecting baby things. She would bring home bottles and infant diapers and occasionally a toy—a ring of plastic keys, a pastel bulb that rattled. She showed them to me, stashed in a sweater box under her bed.
“I stole them from the hospital,” she said.
“And you don’t think Mom will find them?” I said. “Do you know how often she must search our rooms when we’re not around?”
Rosemarie let the ruffle swish down to conceal the corner of the box. The material was dingy and torn at the seam from nestling the heels of her shoes into the gap between mattress and frame every time she sat on the bed. “I don’t think she’ll find them,” was all she said.
I thought for a minute. “You didn’t really want to be a candy striper, did you?”
She took her throw pillow from the head of her bed and held it in her hand by a frilly edge. My mother had made it for her. Stretched across the front were the words I’d rather be praying in awkwardly stitched red yarn. Rosemarie looked at the pillow, then went to the full-length mirror on her closet door and lifted her shirt.
“No more Skinny Minnie,” she said, and tucked the pillow inside.
Good little girl, I thought, and my jaw stiffened. Angel. Like my father used to call her, teasing but kind. I had merely been Saint Theresa. It was a joke.
“Teri,” Rosemarie said, “I’d like to be alone, please.”
I poked a finger beneath the bed and pulled at the sweater box, gently, the cardboard whispering against the carpet, so that the corner was visible again, a sharpness draped in lace. “Fine,” I said.
At dinner that night, Rosemarie looked at the pot roast, thick and sizzling in its juice, and decided that she was having cereal instead.
“What are you doing, Rose?” my mother said, her blade halfway through the mound of meat, when Rosemarie left the table and reached up to the cupboard next to the refrigerator. I looked away when her shirt came away from the waist of her pants to reveal a neat, fillet-like strip of white skin. “Your dinner’s over here.”
Rosemarie glanced over her extended arm, dark eyebrows curving and small. “I don’t want that.”
My mother blinked. “That’s just too bad,” she said.
I looked at her. “Mom.”
Rosemarie dropped her arm. “That’s full of fat and it looks disgusting. I want cereal.”
I was mesmerized by my mother, someone who, the day before, might have rushed to granulate the sugar for Rosemarie’s Special K. The lines around her mouth were jumping. “Sit down, Rose,” she said.
Rosemarie stood, her feet apart, torso leaning forward. The way she looked reminded me of how she used to stop and stare at the piles of gifts on Christmas morning, halted at the bottom of the stairs so I couldn’t get by, hands clenched, chin tilted forward and mouth hanging open as if she wanted to swallow it all.
My mother abandoned the knife and shook her hands at my sister. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you. All week long you’ve been unbearable. You’re cranky. You don’t appreciate anything I do for you. Your own mother, God forbid…”
I think this was one of the only times I had ever seen my sister look mean, as if she wanted to hurt someone. She caught me staring at her and glared back, her eyes like cigarette burns.
“What are you looking at?”
I turned my eyes to the roast. The knife, sticking upright out of the meat, shone in the overhead light.
“Why can’t you be more like your sister?” my mother said evenly to Rosemarie. She put her hand back on the wooden handle of the knife and continued to saw, calm and concentrating, until the pot roast slumped into halves. She took one of the halves and transferred it to her own plate. Then she picked up the other, her fingers staining with juices, and dumped it onto mine.
“Theresa and I will eat, now,” she said quietly. And I decided at that moment that if my mother wanted me to finish the pot roast on my plate, I would, and with relish, as if it were the last piece of food on the planet.