Just a few paragraphs to give a sense of how Half-Penny Sparrows begins…
Maybe if I keep my eyes squeezed tight shut, I won’t really be here in this strange bed. Maybe I’ll still be at home, under my own white chenille spread, listening to the early morning sounds of Mama in the kitchen. Isn’t that her I hear now? She’s rattling pans and setting the skillet on the stove for frying bacon. That’s what Daddy wants first thing, after his coffee. Maybe he’s walking down the hall right now, headed for the steaming cup Mama always puts out for him. Maybe he’s feeling better this morning and won’t be jumping every time Darryl moves. He’s little, Daddy, only nine, he doesn’t know how bad your nerves are. It’ll be ok, just drink your coffee and smell that bacon cooking. Umm-umm. Eggs will be coming along right after, and then the pan of biscuits will be out before you know it. Darryl, come on over and talk to Daddy. Look at him, give him a smile, show him you love him. Don’t be sitting over there all sulled up. Who do you think got you that new bike last week? You know he loves you Darryl, and you know he’s sorry for hurting you. You should’ve done what he told you and nothing would have happened, so it’s half your own fault anyway. Besides, you’re not hurting now, are you? So there. Look here, Mama’s got a good breakfast coming. Thank you, Mama. I’ll help you carry everything to the table. Darryl, go get Daddy the newspaper. You know he’s got to read what all President Johnson’s got to say today about that war over in Vietnam. I don’t understand it enough to have my own opinion, but Daddy sure does. He says America ought to get in there and blow every stinking Communist off the face of the earth.
I turn over and hunker down in the bed, trying to find a comfortable spot. Maybe if I could have made Darryl understand, I wouldn’t be here now and he wouldn’t be God knows where. Maybe we’d be waking up together in the same room, like we did sometimes on those nights when Daddy was sick. It was better to keep real quiet then and maybe even hide in the closet if he started slamming doors too loud. Even if he came in looking for us, he’d forget why he was there in a minute or two, especially if Mama came for him. “Gerald, don’t wake the children. Come on to bed now. Come on.” And she’d lead him away. Darryl and I would climb back into my bed, but it would take me a long time to get to sleep.
A door opens down the hallway and I hear the sharp tap of high heels on the wooden floor. Gospel music is playing on the TV at the other end of the house, and I know what’s coming. I wish I could shut my ears too, not just my eyes.
“Madelyn? Get up and get ready, dear. You know we have to be out of here in an hour.” Mrs. Cochran stands in the doorway, not Mama. “I ironed your blue dress and laid it out for you. And don’t be wearing those old brown shoes. Margaret Ann has a good pair she can give you. Nothing wrong with them, she’s just outgrown them. Get on up.” I can hear her heels click away toward Jackie’s room next. He’s the least one, younger than Darryl and twice as nervous. All you have to do is look at his fingernails. They’re chewed clear up into the quick. It’s a wonder he doesn’t get an infection.
I pull the covers up around me for just another minute. If I thought it would do any good, I would just lie here and make out like I was asleep, but that hasn’t worked yet and it’s been three weeks already. Two Sundays in all, and now this is the third. We always went to church with Mama back at home, but that was different. We just blended in there. Here, we have to sit on the second row with Mrs. Cochran, while Mr. Cochran preaches. He’s the pastor. Everybody’s watching us, I know they are, especially me. I try to sit as still and straight as Margaret Ann, who’s thirteen, two years older than I am. I don’t want to be the subject of anybody’s conversation over Sunday dinner. Jackie sits on the other side of his mother and fidgets through the whole thing. He picks his nose sometimes too, which I’m sure drives Mrs. Cochran to distraction. She doesn’t seem cut out to be the mother of a boy, in my opinion. I have to agree that nose picking is not an attractive habit, but she’s just going to have to get used to some things, like spitting and sweating and smelling bad. Boys can’t help that. She’s got Jackie so nervous trying to make him perfect that he doesn’t know which end’s up.
I hear Jackie head toward the bathroom to pee, so I sit up, put my feet on the floor, and look around. The bedroom here is all right, I guess. I can put up with it for no longer than I’m going to be around, although I tell you I’m not in favor of this much pink. The rug, the curtains, even the sheets: all cotton-candy pink. There’s some pretty things on the dresser though; a perfume bottle, a silver hairbrush, and a little yellow ceramic bird sitting on a branch, with black eyes and tiny feathers that look almost real. There’s my pocket change too, and my lucky penny, but I wouldn’t count those. I tried to make my bedroom at home look nice, but I didn’t have fancy things to set out everywhere. My best thing was a picture I made myself out of little cut up squares of construction paper, all put together to make a unicorn hiding in the woods. I like to have never got it finished, seeing as how I had to put a dab of glue on the back of each and every little piece before I stuck it on. I know it’s what people call a mosaic. Mama gave me a frame, and I hung it on the wall where I could see it every night before I went to sleep.
Image credit: Photos8.com