baby, let's play house

Posted on: January 1, 2013

It’s fifth grade, the year my mother takes me back-to-school shopping at K-Mart because I’ve outgrown everything. Mom buys me Husky jeans, a jungle print polo, a chambray shirt that’s too tight to button, which I wear as a jacket. This is before “childhood obesity” enters anyone’s lexicon, when adults are pretending this is a phase I’ll outgrow, and kids are doling out punishment in their own way.

At lunch we sit boy-girl-boy-girl and are discouraged from talking. Across from me is the new kid, Billy Carrollton, with his stupid gopher teeth and his oily black hair that he slicks back and combs into place. Billy is mean as a snake. He mixes his food together on his lunch tray and purposefully bubbles his milk over by blowing into it.

Mrs. Cook, our teacher, hates everyone in the whole fifth grade, except me.

“Mrs. Cook,” I tattle at afternoon recess, “Billy was doing disgusting things with his food.”

She studies me. Mrs. Cook is older than most teachers. She wears orthopedic shoes. I stare at their laces while she considers my claim.

“Thank you, Dorothy, I’ll take care of it,” she says.

The next day in the cafeteria, Billy kicks my shins and calls me ugly. 

“What’s it like to be the fattest girl in America?” he hisses.

I'm burning, but I spit back, “Your hair’s so greasy, you look like Elvis.”

At home that night, my skinny sister’s eyes seem to linger on me a little too long while I’m changing into my nightgown. I finish dressing in the bathroom, the door locked.

The next morning, I shower with the lights out. The mirror is as dark as a solid wall. For breakfast, I eat oatmeal with the little dinosaur eggs in it and feel nothing.

At recess, the popular girls are back in the woods playing house, kicking apart little trails of pine straw to make hallways and rooms, bartering with acorns, cradling and crooning over pine cone children. I’m leaning against a tree near Carly Ruth’s house, hoping she’ll let me be the maid again. Billy jumps down off the top of the monkey bars.

He has green stuff stuck in his gopher teeth, but his hair doesn’t look as gelled as the day before.

“Hey Dorothy, I wanted to say—”

“Don’t talk to me.”

“I just wanted to say sorry. You know I didn’t mean it. My mom says I need to make friends, since I’m new and all.”


“There’s something in the woods back there I wanna show you—for your house.”

“I don’t have a house.”

“Well, you can take it to Brittany’s house or Carly Ruth’s. Come on.”

“Are you going?” Carly Ruth asks, her hand on the hip of her Mudd jeans. “’Cause I need where you’re standing for my new porch.”

We walk to the back of the woods, where the fence divides school property from Holly Hills, the dark little housing subdivision I pass through on the way to school each day.

“Are we even supposed to be back here?” I say. “If you get me in trouble—“

“It’s fine,” Billy says. “Me and Taylor go back here all the time and Cook doesn’t say anything.”


“It’s right over here. Close your eyes for the surprise!”

He turns his back and starts searching for something in the leaves. I close my eyes, but peek out through my lashes.

When Billy turns around, I see his grin first, and then his hands. I see he means to terrify me; the evil dances in his eyes. In his hands is a bird, fresh from some unknown mishap. Its eyes are glassy like Billy’s. It’s rigid. Dead.

“It can be your baby!” he shouts, throwing it at me. I jump back. It lands on the ground belly up. Its legs, as delicate as dry pine needles, reach for the treetops. A tuft of yellow feathers on its belly flashes up at me.

“You’re sick,” I say, but Billy is running off to tell Carly Ruth and Brittany that I want a dead bird to be my baby, and I touched it and kissed it, and that I’m a freak.

I tell Mrs. Cook I have a stomachache, and she lets me go back in the classroom to read for the rest of recess.

By P.E., the word’s gotten around that I collect dead birds; that I’ve got a whole box of them under my bed at home; that I dug up a dead cat once too; that when the gifted class took that field trip in 3rd grade to the high school, I was the first one to ask to see the animals floating in their pickling jars.

“You know playing with dead animals is the first step to being a serial killer,” Brittany tells Tiffany in line at the water fountain.

Coach Sellers senses trouble, or maybe the universe smiles down, and we don’t play dodge ball. We play the game where you stand in line and try to shoot hoops, and if you miss, you’re out. I’m so, so ready to be out. When we go back to the locker rooms to change, my clothes are nowhere to be found. Carly Ruth and Hannah giggle as I search the stalls and through the cubbies. They turn up, miraculously, right after the bell rings.

The next day, Billy’s not in homeroom. Mrs. Cook and our other teacher, Mrs. Roberts, whisper in the hallway, and we start class late. Before morning break, Mrs. Cook announces that Billy will be absent for a while—that his mother has passed away and we should all keep him in our prayers.

At break, Tiffany, who has homeroom with Mrs. Roberts, shares the rest of the information—that his mother committed suicide. After lunch, Mrs. Cook passes around a card that reads “deepest sympathies,” on a muted image of the ocean.

I hold it for a moment. I pass it on unsigned.

Photograph by: Whitney Ott
Written by: Dot Dannenberg

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