These Houses Chapter Thirteen

Copyright Amy L. Montz

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

            “…take care of herself.  She always has.”

            “Parents are supposed to take care of children, not the other way around.”

            Mags blinked further awake as the conversation came into focus.  The sky outside was ominous and black, and even with the windows closed, she felt the ozone, thick and sharp, cloying against her senses.

            “This is what is best for everyone.  I don’t know why you can’t see that.”

            Her mother’s voice, so near to her room.  How was her mother awake and mobile this early in the morning? 

            “I think you’re being ridiculously, abundantly selfish.”

            Mags checked her alarm to make sure but no, she hadn’t slept in.  It was just now six.  Her door was open a crack, and unbidden, she smiled.  It meant her father had come to kiss her goodbye while she slept.  He hadn’t done that since, well, for a long time.

“You would think that.  You’ve always thought that about me.”

She began to comprehend the tone of the conversation happening just outside her door.  Mags sat up and wristed the sleep from her eyes.  “Mom?”

            There was a pause, then, “Margaret?”

            “Is everything okay?”  Mags flung back her covers and shivered as the colder air hit her naked toes.  “Are you sick?”

            Another pause.  “No, bebé.  I’m fine.  I just couldn’t sleep, is all.”  Another pause.  “Freddie called last night.”

            Mags bounded out of bed and flung open the door.  “Did he?  Is he okay?  Why didn’t you wake me up?”

            Her grandmother was standing near the coffee maker, one hand on the pot handle.  “He called late.  Your mother didn’t want to disturb you.”

            “You can always wake me up for Freddie.”  Mags sat at the table and tucked one leg under the other.  “Where’s dad?”

            “Practice,” her mother said.  “Well, planning, then practice.”

            Mags nodded.  Everything had changed since Sunday, since Coach Keegan had resigned and her father had taken his place.  This was the third morning in a row her father was gone before dawn, and, with the extra practices and the confusion, she had to catch rides with her grandmother.  Even Sean Thornton was too busy for his grandmother, she thought.  And thus, inconvenient her.  “So tell me everything Freddie said.  Is he okay?  Does he need anything?”

            “Letters.”  Her grandmother put a plate of French toast and sausage in front of her.  There was powdered sugar sprinkled on the toast, and fresh raspberries dotting the syrup.

            Mags gave her grandmother a smile, but it fell when the smile back was forced, at best, pained at worst.  “Something’s wrong,” she said.

            “No.”  Her mother reached over and patted her hand.  “No, your brother’s fine.  I swear.  I wouldn’t lie to you.”

            She twirled the fork in her hand.  “What were you and Grandma fighting about?”

            The two women exchanged a look.  When her mother turned back to her, Mags knew something had happened, but couldn’t, for the life of her, figure out what it was.  “Your dad,” her mother said.  “And his new position.”

            Her grandmother turned from the table then.  “Margaret, would you like milk, juice, coffee, or all three?”

            “All three?” Mags asked.  “I can get it, though, Grandma.  It’s no big deal.”

            Her grandmother shook her head.  “No, Mags.  No, you let me do for you right now.  You do too much as it is.”

            Her mother’s hand tightened on hers and Mags looked down at it.  “Thank you, Grandma,” she said, interpreting her mother’s gesture as a reminder of her manners.

            “Your brother said he is going to try and Skype with you tonight, so make sure you leave your computer on.”  Her mother pulled her hand away and cradled her coffee cup.  “Okay, Mags?”

            “Of course.  Did he say what time?”  Mags used her fork to cut into the toast, and watched as the powdered sugar dissolved in the maple.  The buttery yellow of the toast reminded her of the absent sunshine, of brioche, and she realized it was egg bread.  “Is this Challah?  I love Challah French toast.”

            Her grandmother brought two glasses, milk in one hand, juice in the other.  “I know.  That’s why I made it.  And those are the fresh sausages you like, too.”

            “How I have not gained four hundred pounds since I moved in, I will never figure out.”  Mags took a long draught of her milk.

            “I’m surprised, too,” her mother said, “with the way your grandmother feeds you.  But no, you’ve managed to keep the weight off.”

            Mags lowered her milk glass and set it with a careful thump on the table.  “Must be gym,” she said, her voice quiet.  She was being punished, subtly, carefully, but she didn’t even know why.  It had been a careful navigation over the last two years, careful realizations that her mother blamed her for Freddie.  Not overtly, not explicitly, just in the little thousands of ways that, in the end, hurt worse than her mother’s actual blame.

            It was a simple equation, really.  Because of Mags, Freddie went to war.  And her mother, no matter what she said, would never forgive her for it.

            Her grandmother placed a cup of coffee in front of her, with sugar and real cream, just as she liked.  Awkward now, feeling her shirt to be too small and her pajama pants too tight, Mags pushed back from the table.

            A strong hand gripped the back of her chair.  Surprised, Mags looked up to see her grandmother.  “There are children in this world who don’t get enough to eat,” she said, her words for Mags, but her eyes only for her daughter-in-law.  “In my day, we were grateful our children could eat as much as they wanted.  It meant they were loved.  Cherished.  Safe.”

            “I’m tired.”  Her mother stood up from the table and smoothed down her nightdress.  “Have a good day at school, dear.”  And then she shuffled out of the kitchen to return to her invalid bed.

            Mags stared down at the congealing syrup on her plate.  “I’m not very hungry, Grandma.  It’s too much for me to eat.”

            “No, it’s not.  You work yourself to death, and you’ve lost weight since you moved here, not gained it.”  She sat in the empty chair next to Mags and looked in earnest at her granddaughter.  “She doesn’t mean it,” she said in a soft voice.  “She’s… she’s unwell.”

            “I know.”  Mags poked at her sausage with her fork.  “She wasn’t like this before Freddie left.”

            “She blames you.”

            It was the first time an adult had said the words.  Mags looked up at her grandmother and felt her bottom lip tremble.  “I wish I had never told him.  I wish I had never gone to that party.”

            “I wish your brother hadn’t brought you to that party, either,” her grandmother said. 

            Mags noticed it, the purposeful rewriting of her sentence.  But her grandmother went on before she could explore it further.

“But you did the right thing, telling your brother.  He was an adult.  What he did afterwards was on him.”

            Mags looked down at her plate again.  “He put two guys in the hospital.  Because of me.”

            Her grandmother reached over and lifted her chin so she could look in her eyes.  “He put two boys in the hospital,” she said.  “Because of what they did to you.  Not because of you.”

            Tears, hot and shameful, fell down her cheeks.  “Mom told you?” Mags asked, her voice pitched higher than normal.  “She told you about… about the video?”

            “No, sweetie.”  Her grandmother’s smile was soft, sympathetic.  “Your dad did.”

            “I got drunk.”  The words burst forth from her mouth and she started crying, silent and shaking, but not loud enough for her mother to hear in her room.  Never that loud.  She had two years’ experience hiding her tears, after all.  “It was my fault.  I got drunk and I—”

            “Do you know how old your father was when he came home drunk the first time?”

            Mags blinked with the sudden force of the interruption, and tried to catch up with the change in subject.  “What?”

            “Fifteen,” her grandmother said.  She lifted a napkin and wiped Mags’s left cheek.  “He was fifteen years old.  There was the big Ball at Helstone—it’s their Homecoming—and he was a sophomore.  He and about five of his football buddies split a bottle of rotgut whiskey they took from some dad’s liquor cabinet.”  Now, the napkin moved to the right.  “Lord, he was a mess.  Came home barely able to walk on the two legs God gave him.  And then the next morning, he was so sick he couldn’t even get out of bed.”

            “What did you do?” Mags asked.  “Did you punish him?”

            Her grandmother lowered the napkin in her hand.  “I turned on all the lights in the house,” she said.  “And the television.  For breakfast, I cooked him eggs, over-easy, and sausage patties.  And then I cooked a lamb.  Slow-roasted it.  All day.”

            Mags bit her bottom lip to stifle her laugh.  “Did he throw up?”

            “I figured that was punishment enough.  I don’t think your dad touched a drop of liquor after that, until his twenty-first birthday.”  Her grandmother gave her a smile.  “So on any other day, at any other party, you would have had too much to drink, gone home, and woken up hung over and ashamed.  Because that’s what kids do, Mags.  They do stupid, idiotic things and it’s our job to protect them.  All Freddie was trying to do was protect you, and to make it up to you.”

            “Make it up to me?” Mags asked.  “Make what up to me?”

            Her grandmother’s eyes grew hard, the hazel sharpening to brown.  “My twenty-year-old grandson brought his fifteen-year-old sister to a college party, and she was hurt because of it.  I can promise you one thing.  He will be making it up to me for years to come.”  Her eyes cleared and she patted Mags on the hand.  “Now, eat your breakfast before it gets too cold.  I’ll drive you to school when you’re done.”

#

            For two days straight, it was all anyone could talk about: Coach Keegan and The Big News.  Mags, grateful that for once The Big News wasn’t about her, retreated into her invisible camera-wielding status through the halls of Milton and worked her way through Block A without much attention from anyone at all.  It was a lonely day, however, because Bess had to go to St. Louis for medical tests—“Stupid first Wednesday of the month bullshit,” she had texted.  “Be back soon.”—Nupur had to fill in at the office first lunch, and Mags had no one else to eat lunch with.  Too much of an introvert to hone in on anyone else’s table, and suspecting now that Alex would not welcome her intrusion at his table anyhow, Mags sat at their usual table, alone, with her MacBook open to the latest news on Coach Keegan.  While the school had restrictions on their network, lucky for Mags they were a) mostly social networking sites, to which she no longer subscribed or cared, or b) PC blocked, and she had a Mac.  Mags nibbled on the chicken-bacon wrap her grandmother had packed her while she scrolled through her news-sorting program.

            Three national sites had already picked up the story, giving the details even the local papers couldn’t or wouldn’t reveal.  Coach Keegan had apparently been maintaining an anonymous blog for well over a year, documenting the increased salary and benefit cuts for faculty, as well as the increased revenue taken in by the school system.  “The money’s going in,” he had written, “but no one knows where it’s coming out.  I suspect our beloved superintendent.”

            That alone was enough to get him on leave, but then he supposedly violated confidentiality by revealing private conversations held between himself and students.  While the blog was no longer active, several websites had mirrored it before it was disabled, and Mags scrolled through what was salvaged.  As far as she could tell, the confidentiality breach was a stretch at best.  They were looking for an excuse to fire him, and they had found it, any way possible.

            Of course, they hadn’t fired him.  They had asked him to resign.  Because he had agreed, and signed a waiver, he could not sue the school board.  However, several anonymous blogs were now calling the Marlborough school system to arms to protest in support of Keegan’s forced resignation.  Even more blogs had popped up calling for unionizing, and striking.

            “My family now qualifies for government assistance,” one blogger wrote.  “My children receive reduced lunches at the school where I teach.  I’m a single parent.  What am I supposed to do?  I’ve done everything right!”

            “I serve better food at the schools than I can afford to eat at home,” another blogger wrote.  “And you will not believe how thankless everyone is when you serve them lunch.  Not the students, even.  The faculty!”

            Story after story, personal frustration after personal frustration, faculty, staff, even, if Mags had read the information carefully enough, administration, protesting their loss of salary, their reduction of benefits, and their overall lack of voice and representation in the Marlborough school system.

            In AP Euro history, they had just read about the rise of the working classes across Europe, about the sabotage of machines, about massacres and large-scale protest movements, about the Match Girls’ Strike of 1888 namely against—here, horror of horrors—phossy jaw, a horrible disease caused by using white phosphorus for matches. 

Thousands of people willing to fight and die for a representative voice in Parliament.  For viable living and working conditions.  And it all started with one angry voice.  One thrown shoe.  One salary too short, one set of benefits cut too close for comfort.  Two children on the reduced lunch program.  One coach getting fired for trying to stand up for what he believed in.

And perhaps, just perhaps, Mags was beginning to understand why Marlborough was so proud of its industrial strike heritage.

#

“There is a lovely even number of you in my class,” Mrs. Scotch said last period.  She leaned on the edge of her desk and smiled at them.  “Let’s count off.  Four groups.  Tara, you start.”

            Mags doodled in her notebook as she half-listened to everyone else in class call out their numbers.  The number calling went around the U-formation of desks, and Mags, dutiful, said her number when it came to her turn: “3.” 

            “Now,” Mrs. Scotch said, when the last student had said “4.”  “Before we divide into our groups, your assignment.  Each group will be assigned a century, each group must pick a theme, and each member of the group must pick a major social concern to cover within that century and theme.  Group 1, you’re the seventeenth century.  Group 2, you’re eighteenth.  Group 3, you’re nineteenth, and Group 4, that means you’re twentieth.”  She wagged her fingers.  “Nazis are strictly off the table.”

            There was a groan from Group 4.

            “It’s for your own good,” Mrs. Scotch said.  “Keep in mind some of the bigger themes we’ve discussed so far this semester: Labor, Suffrage, Empire, and everything else you’ve supposedly listened to.  There will be a group presentation, individual research papers, and a visual component for everything.  Yeah?”

            The class nodded.

            “Good!  Go ahead and divide up.  Group 1 up front, group 2 to the left—my left, Skye, not your left—group 3, to the right, and group 4, in the back.”  Mrs. Scotch clapped her hands.  “I want individual topics and a research agenda by the end of class, people!”

            Mags gathered her notebook and shoved it into her bag before she stood up.  When she looked to Mrs. Scotch’s right, her left, she felt herself falter.  Of course.  Of course she would have been assigned a group with Bronwyn, Bronwyn’s best friend, Marci, and Sean Thornton.

            They hadn’t been sitting together, she realized.  For the first time since school started.  Bronwyn must have known today was group selection and had purposefully placed them apart.  She hadn’t banked on Mags, however, and her eyes widened as Mags walked over.

            “Really?” Bronwyn asked.

            Mags shrugged and adjusted her bag on her shoulder.  She looked for an empty seat but Bronwyn had cuddled the three of them close together.  No matter, Mags thought.  She put her bag down and went to grab a chair.  By the time she came back to the group, they were already discussing which theme they wanted to cover.

            “I think Labor,” Bronwyn said.  “It’s important, it’s, like, huge to the nineteenth century, and we can do all sorts of things with it.”

            Mags sat in her seat and pushed her peacock bracelet up her arm from where it had fallen at her wrist.

            “That sounds great,” Marci agreed, because she always agreed with Bronwyn.

            Sean flashed his too-bright eyes to Mags and gave her his ghost smile.  “Any thoughts?” he asked.

            She shrugged again and tucked her legs under her.  “I don’t know.”  But actually, she did, because since lunch she had been thinking about the blogs and news stories, about the people who worked behind the scenes, unappreciated, underpaid.  She thought about what Mrs. Scotch had said about gender differentiation throughout the centuries.  About unpaid labor of women.  About the plight of the domestic servant.

            Mags?”

            She looked up to see three sets of eyes staring at her with varying degrees of hostility, ranging from Sean (no hostility), to Marci (confused, mimicked hostility), to Bronwyn (open war declared).  God, she hated that all three of them were staring at her, waiting for her to have an opinion.  She had no idea how she would ever handle an entire group presentation without wanting to fall through the floor.  Lucky for her, she was sure Bronwyn would never let her get a word in edgewise anyhow.

            “Sure,” Mags said.  “Labor sounds good.”  She pulled out her notebook and favorite thick black pen out of her bag and set them on her lap.  Her peacock bracelet had fallen to her wrist with her movement again, and she pushed it up with her other hand. 

            Bronwyn visibly rolled her eyes.  “Excellent.  I am so glad we are all in agreement.  Now, let’s come up with ideas we want to cover.  Sean, yesterday, you were talking about the Peterloo Massacre.  I think you should do that.  I really think I should cover the Match Girls’ Strike.  Mrs. Scotch was like, really into it in class last week.  And Marci, you should do—are you even listening to me?”

            Mags stopped in mid-doodle and dropped her arm from her notebook.  Her peacock bangle fell to her wrist and she slid it back up her arm again.  “You want Sean to do the Peterloo Massacre.  You want to cover the Match Girls’ Strike because Mrs. Scotch was like, really into it in class last week.  You haven’t gotten to Marci’s assignment yet.”

            Bronwyn blinked.  Marci, because Bronwyn did, also blinked.  Sean just watched her with those unreadable eyes.  “Well, what’s your bright idea?”

            Mags shrugged and returned to her doodling.  Her bracelet fell again and she shoved it back up her arm with an impatient hand.  When she glanced up, she noticed Sean staring at her.  Not at her, but at her bracelet.  For some unknown, bizarre reason.  When he looked up, he caught her looking, and he blushed, actually blushed, the spread of it over his cheeks and up to the tips of his ears.

            “Seriously?  You have to have an opinion.”

            Mags turned her eyes to Bronwyn’s, met her full-on and some small, petty part of her was pleased to see Bronwyn visibly pull back.  “Domestic labor,” she said.

            Bronwyn wrinkled her perfect little tanned nose.  “What?”

            “Domestic labor,” she said again.  She lifted her pen to her cheek and tapped it against her lips.  “I want to do domestic servants.  Scullery maids.  The paid and unpaid labor of women.”  She paused for a second, and then, with a quick glance at Sean, said, “Cooks.  I want to do female servants in the nineteenth century.”

            “That’s not important,” Bronwyn said.  “Mrs. Scotch wants us to look at huge social issues.”

            “Do you know how many women were employed in service in English households?” Mags asked.

            “No,” Bronwyn said.

            “Neither do I, but I want to find out.”

            Bronwyn stared at her, open-mouthed, astonished.  “But who cares about cooking or cleaning?  What does that have to do with the development of Europe, or the British Empire?  This is AP European History, for God’s sake, not… not… not whatever class would give a shit about people who cook and clean.  That’s women’s work.  Housework.  It’s not real work.”

Mags understood then why Sean didn’t want to tell anyone his ambitious dream of becoming a chef.  They thought it was women’s work.  Work no one cared about.  Work people like Bronwyn didn’t care about.  But Mags wasn’t going to let it go.  She couldn’t.  For some reason, it was vitally important that she present on female servants in the nineteenth century. 

“Of course it’s real work.  It’s a business, Bronwyn.  The world runs on the backs of the overworked and underpaid.  It always has.”

            “I want to get an A on this project,” Bronwyn said.  “So let’s do something actually important, okay?”

            Mags had no idea why she was pressing this, but it felt important to her, representative of something bigger than she was.  The easy dismissal of Coach Keegan for standing up for his fellow colleagues.  The constant assumptions about the so-called laziness of teachers—she knew better, because she was here every evening and saw Mrs. Scotch, Mr. Weinbacher, Principal Higgins, her father at their desks or practice or school events, working, well into the night after the close of school.  Bronwyn’s astonishment that anything important could ever come of women, cooking and cleaning for those richer than themselves.  “Do you like tikka masala?”

            “How is this at all relevant?”

“Bronwyn loves it,” Marci said.  “It’s all she orders at Taste of India.  What?”  The last, directed at Bronwyn.

            “I love tikka masala,” Sean said. 

            Mags turned to Sean but didn’t smile.  Not in front of Bronwyn.  That would be unforgivable in Queen B’s eyes.  “Do you know why we have tikka masala?”  When he shook his head, she turned to Bronwyn.  “Because some English colonel in the nineteenth century decided he wanted gravy on his chicken tikka.  It’s not even Indian.  It’s English.”

            “But who cares?” Bronwyn asked.  Mags realized now that she wasn’t just being a bitch because she could be.  She really didn’t understand how something like cooking and cleaning—domestic work, so-called ladies’ business—contributed at all to the larger infrastructure of the nineteenth century.  Or now.  But it was real business.  Important.  And Mags wouldn’t, couldn’t let it go now that her teeth were sunk in so deep.

            “I care,” Mags said.  “Food is a multi-billion dollar industry now.  How many celebrity chefs do we have just on reality shows?”

            “But it wasn’t then,” Bronwyn said.  “Not in the nineteenth century.”

            “Actually, that’s not true.  Do you know about Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management?

            They all turned to see Mrs. Scotch standing next to them, listening to their conversation.  Mags wondered how long she had been there.  All four students shook their heads.

            “Strange,” she said.  “It’s a Victorian cookbook that’s only outsold by the Bible.  Clearly, something England cared about.  Besides, as Napoleon himself said, ‘An army marches on its stomach.’”  Mrs. Scotch turned to Mags.  “I think it’s a great, original topic, and completely appropriate for a group on nineteenth-century labor.  What else do we have?” 

            Mags bit her lip and looked down at her notebook.  She resumed her doodling and tried not to smile at having triumphed, even just a little, over Bronwyn.

Mrs. Scotch cocked her eyebrow at them when Bronwyn finished detailing their group assignments.  “So it’s settled?  Sean’s doing the Peterloo Massacre, Bronwyn’s doing the 1885 Match Girls’ Strike, Marci, you’re doing Chartism, and Mags is doing domestic labor.”

“That’s everything.”  Bronwyn smiled, nice and bright, at Mrs. Scotch.

“Okay then.”  She mimed pen to paper.  “I need a research agenda.  Let’s get to work, people.”

Surprisingly, they did.  As much as Mags hated to admit it, Bronwyn was a good team leader.  She was bright and wasn’t afraid to disagree—or, surprisingly, agree—with someone if she thought it best for the group.  By the time the bell rang, they had a solid research agenda, a plan to reconvene in a week to work on a plan for their group presentation, and even a few ideas toward the visuals.

Bronwyn, as self-appointed team leader, bopped up to turn in their report to Mrs. Scotch.  Marci, naturally, trailed after her.  Mags stood up and settled her bag on her shoulder but dropped her pen.  When she went to pick up her pen, her notebook slid out of her bag.  “Goddammit,” she said under her breath.

But before she could pick them up, Sean reached down to pick it up both for her.  “Stop throwing your stuff at me, Gown, in some vain attempt to capture my attention.”  When he stood up, his mouth curved up into a smile and there was the barest flash of dimple in his cheek.

“You wish, Town.  I just like seeing you grovel at my feet.”  She smiled back at him as he passed along her things.  When she reached for them, her bracelet dropped and she pushed it back up with an absent hand.

There.  Once again, Sean Thornton was staring, for some unknown reason, at her bracelet. 

“Do you like it?” she asked.  “I got it on clearance.”  She looked down at the wide antiqued gold bangle on her arm.  She had worn it because it matched the belted peacock tunic dress her grandmother had given her from her sixties’ and seventies’ stash.

“It kept falling all through class,” Sean said, his voice soft and a little distant as he looked at her bracelet, her arm, curved so protectively to her chest.  “I thought to myself, ‘there it goes, again!’ and you’d push it back up.” 

She felt herself flush, but it had nothing at all to do with embarrassment or shame.  This was something different, something warmer, the rubber-band snap once again.  “Nervous habit, I think,” she said, her voice soft, too.  Distant, as this was a new realm they hadn’t explored.  “I always fiddle with my jewelry.  I just… I just never think anyone pays attention.”

His eyes cleared and he looked up at Mags, a new smile curved on his face.  Dimpled, yes.  Half-smile, yes.  But his eyes were darker.  Unreadable.  She felt the snap! between them.  “It’s a nice bracelet.”  Those words were the ones he spoke but not the ones he meant.  There were other words there, underneath.  Darker.  Exciting.

Click.  She snapped this image in her head so she could dissect it later.  “I’m glad you like it,” she said, and she smiled back at him and felt her lips stretch anew, form shapes and suggestions that were unfamiliar, but nonetheless enjoyable.

Bronwyn’s face swam into view behind Sean and Mags had never seen such an ugly expression appear and disappear so quickly on someone’s face before.  Mags thought that perhaps she had imagined it, but no, Bronwyn walked over to take Sean’s hand and link her arm with his.  “Come on,” she said, smiling up at him, a familiar and comfortable smile that promised familiar and comfortable—exciting—things.  “We’ve got fifteen minutes before practice.  You promised we could spend some quality time together.”

Sean’s eyes cleared and he looked down at the girl on his arm.  The moment broken, Mags slipped by them and into the chaos of the hallway, without waiting to hear Sean’s answer.  Not that she cared what his answer was—no, she really didn’t, she told herself—but because it wasn’t her place to be a part of such an intimate scene between a couple.

No matter what Bess said, Sean and Bronwyn were a couple.  That much had become obvious.

Mags stopped short: of the doors outside as the sheets of rain crashed down on the parking lot, of her train of thought, before she could try to figure out why she would even care if they were dating after all.

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