I was barred from school for the day because I’d been biting again. Whenever I pressed my teeth into one of my classmates, my teacher stopped the lesson and called, “Tillie, Tillie.” There was always a struggle as she tried to wrestle the hand or arm from my mouth, but I held on—fighting until the last string of spit released—because I liked to leave a mark.
Although I had nowhere to go, I got up early and sat on the front steps in my nightgown, knees together, bare feet arched to keep my legs off the cold concrete. American flags rose up the poles and flapped against the Sandia Mountains, pale gray in the distance, as lights popped on inside the little square houses of our neighborhood, each the same size with their well-mowed lawns and rectangular flower beds under the front windows.
Soon, the men from each home walked tall and purposefully out their doors, one after another, in their crisp blue uniforms or camouflage jumpsuits, all with the same haircuts, the same pair of glasses. Some, like my father, had more decorations on their uniforms. But from this distance I noticed the sameness.
There was a sense of music to the slamming car doors and starting engines, a distinct sense of order as each man backed out of his driveway. Looking from one open garage to the next, I could see that we all had bikes, silver metal trash cans, reel mowers, and rakes. Our home was like all of the others on our street. The only difference was our front door. My mother had painted it turquoise blue.
The children were the next to leave with their lunch boxes and textbooks—girls in plaid and flowered dresses that fell just above the knee, boys in jeans and short-sleeved, checkered button-ups. When I recognized another second grader, her pigtails tied in yarn, I waited for her to see me there with my face decorated in yellow smiley stickers.
At first, she seemed to pass without noticing me, but at the last moment she turned her head over her shoulder and shrieked, “You have rabies!”
I smirked until the stickers pinched my skin. “I get to stay home,” I said.
And then came Mary Beth, wearing a huge Band-Aid with my teeth marks underneath it. During yesterday’s class, while she cried and held her arm, I had to stand in the corner of our classroom with my nose to the wall. I found the exact smudge where I’d put my nose the other times, and I listened to Mary Beth’s whimpering, the whispers of her friends, and the stern voices of teachers. But there were giggles, too, because even with my nose to the wall, I could still turn my feet inward like pigeons’ toes or shake my behind.
“My dad says you should keep your teeth to yourself,” she said, suddenly gripping the hand of the girl in pigtails.
“So what? ” I said, standing as they ran together toward the school. “My dad’s the boss of your dad.”
Finally, my brother rushed out of the garage door, trying to close his Scooby Doo lunch box without dropping his textbooks. He stopped beside me to see why it wouldn’t latch, opening the lid and shifting the jar of green olives and the two hot dog buns inside.
“You have to slam it,” I said.
He did, and it bent the lid but closed shut.
“Did you check on Momma?” I asked.
Phil shook his head.
Our mother had not left her bedroom in four days. The last time she’d come out was suppertime the night Dad left for his business trip. She said she felt too tired to cook and handed us a box of chocolate donuts before shutting her door. She was so tired these days, I wasn’t surprised when we didn’t see her the next morning. Phil made sure we left for school on time. And when we still hadn’t seen her leave the bedroom by suppertime the next evening, we opened the door just a crack. The room smelled strong and sweet, like rotting flowers, and Phil shut the door again, saying we should wait for Dad.
My brother gripped the handle of his lunch box, sitting too straight, the way Dad taught him, as students continued to stream past our house on their way to school.
I pulled a piece of hair from underneath one of the smiley stickers. “Do you think we should tell someone?”
His head shook slowly back and forth. “Dad will be home tonight,” he said. “We should just wait.” He kept his eye on the passing students, and when he spotted a fifth grader from his class, he jogged to catch up, the jar of olives banging back and forth inside his lunch box.