Love, Life & Death on the Oregon Trail: A Play by Krista Robinson, Age 11 2/3
Miss Willson—that’s 2 L’s! great name!—says a unit on creative expression is next, and when no one’s hand raises to ask, “What’s creative expression?,” mine leaps up, straight and tall.
Miss Willson’s body slumps. “Yes, Krista?”
“What’s creative expression?” I ask.
She sighs. “I’m getting to that.” She’s barely old enough to be our teacher, right out of the university where my father’s a professor, and this is her first year at Twain. We’re her guinea pigs! “But thank you for asking, Krista.” On the first day of class, she said every question is valuable. Now it’s March, and maybe she’s tired of my questions, but I can’t not ask.
She paces like a beautiful lioness in front of the long chalkboard: “In our creative expression unit we’ll explore our inner selves, look to express our deepest feelings through artistic pursuits: music, dance, visual art, and theater. This unit is a complement to our ongoing work with our art and music teachers.”
How I love Miss Willson’s big, fancy words!
There’s more, but what’s exciting is that we’re dividing into groups, and the sixth grade will present artistic visions to the whole entire school at an assembly. With parents invited. We’ll be artistic hotshots. I instantly know I’m writing a play. And starring in it. My deepest feelings belong on stage in the auditorium in front of everyone.
Miss Willson writes on the board in her perfect handwriting a list of big topics we can focus on: peace, love, hope, faith, nature.
I raise my hand.
“Yes, Krista?” She rubs her forehead with two fingers pressed tight together.
“What if our project includes all those themes?”
“I’d say that someone who can incorporate all those themes into one project must have very big feelings indeed.”
“Oh, I do.” I nod hard. Also, “incorporate” is a good word to make the sixth grade think.
I stay after school like usual, today standing at the sharpener holding a fistful of pencils I’m pretending aren’t already pointy-sharp as everyone shuffles for coats. Miss Willson’s arranging papers on her desk, in and out of one red folder, fake-busy like me. I should tell her there’s no reason for me to hurry home. My mom will be napping with the bedroom door locked (I know ’cause I jiggle the knob). Most days the front door’s unlocked for me, but when she forgets, I go to Suzanne and Tracy’s—they’re sisters in a house of five girls, so no one barely notices one extra. When it’s almost dinner, her mom calls my house, and my mom wakes up to open the door, and I go home.
Anyway—the classroom’s quiet except for the pencil sharpener grinding, and Miss Willson stands like she’s thinking about grabbing her own coat, so I say, “Miss Willson, I want to write a play for my artistic expression. And star in it. But I’ll write parts for everybody, for the whole class, if you want.”
She looks at the clock on the wall that we stare at all day. “That’s a significant thing, writing a play. What do you know about plays?”
“My mom took me to Romeo and Juliet at the university last week because my dad said no way he was going. We sat in red velvet seats, and there were at least a thousand people watching, and the one guy’s knife flashed like a laser beam before he stabbed the other guy, and I screamed, and the whole auditorium heard because everything was so tense and quiet. I have such big feelings,” I say, talking faster, “that’s why I screamed. All my feelings came out, because of that play. I just know I’ll die if I don’t write a play. I’ll die! Do you know what I mean, Miss Willson? Do you ever feel like that? I do every day, all day—even now, right this minute.”
Miss Willson doesn’t say no. She says, “Krista, it’s time you head home.” I don’t want her ever to be mad at me, so I go.
Miss Willson announces I’m in charge of the play. “Krista’s the director,” Miss Willson says, “meaning she organizes actors and stage design and props and, well, everything.”
I hear rustling, like tree leaves feeling autumn coming, but I gaze down at my neatly folded hands. My mother tells the school to sit me in the front row so I can pay close attention, which means I can’t see kids’ faces behind me, but I bet they’re bursting with amazement.
“Here’s the inherent beauty of student-centered learning,” Miss Willson says. “Each class member expressing their feelings through their own unique talents. I believe one of Krista’s unique talents is her special enthusiasm. So, who wants to join her in producing a play?”
I wait for every hand to lunge up because who’d not rather do a play like Romeo and Juliet instead of a dumb dance to a dumb song off the radio or whatever dumb thing the art teacher’s planning; last week we did self-portraits that were so bad no one could tell who anyone was when they were hung on the walls. I spin around to count the hands raised, which is easy because there’s one, two—and when she catches me watching her—three: Tracy, my neighborhood friend.
“An excellent start,” Miss Willson says, with her sunniest smile, and I disagree because three is not excellent, but her eyes gaze into the back corner of the classroom, that place she looks when she says, “Someone besides Krista,” because my hand’s up, and I’ve already answered perfectly twice in a row.
She talks about other projects—dances, a mural with the art teacher, singing—but I don’t pay attention. I’m thinking about the cozy circle of spotlight surrounding the principal last school assembly when he talked about safety patrols—which my mother won’t sign me up for, not that I care now because instead I have all this.
Four of us are putting on a whole play: me, Tracy, Robin, and Lisa. Lisa was in a real show in the Iowa City Community Theatre, where she played Tiny Tim. I say, “But you’re not a boy,” and she says, “That’s acting,” and right away she says she’ll paint the mural if she’s not the star. I’m a fast thinker—too fast, says my mother—so I explain the play I’m writing has two equal stars, her and me. My plan will work because she’s always claiming she’s allergic to clay and papier-mâché to sit out sloppy art projects, so she won’t paint. Robin’s quiet, a girl who’s invited to parties only when the mom (like mine) says to invite every girl in the class. Robin doesn’t want to be a star and doesn’t want to organize props, but she agrees to take some small parts with hardly any lines and to help with props. My director’s eye tells me she’ll be easy to boss around.
Tracy, my friend, asks if there’s a dog in our play or a cat or any animals, and can she be in charge of them? My mouth drops open because I wish I had that good idea myself. Our group is working at the small table by the window, so I jump up and hurry to Miss Willson’s desk, to get permission. She’s chewing the eraser off the end of a pencil and is so startled to see me that the pencil falls and rolls to the floor. When I pick it up, I feel teeth marks ground into the yellow paint, just like my pencils. I set the pencil on her desk and say, “Do we have permission for animals to be in our play, like two dogs and maybe one cat if it’s a cat that likes dogs?”
She says, “No. No animals, Krista. Not even a guinea pig. No to fish.”
Well. One of the topics we can address is nature, so this feels unfair.
I say, “My mother says biting pencils is bad for my teeth.”
“Thank you, Krista.” She picks up the pencil. “No fish, amphibians, reptiles, or birds. Definitely no mammals.”
I report this information to the group, adding, “I’ll write in one animal in case she changes her mind, and Tracy’s in charge of it. Maybe she won’t notice a turtle.”
Tracy also agrees to take charge of props and to be a non-star in the play. She’ll be easy to work with, so secretly in my mind I make her assistant director.
I’m writing the play, directing and starring, and everyone’s happy I have so many talents and feelings to express.
We talk about Miss Willson’s list of topics and jot down every single choice as a possibility. Lisa says she wants to wear a long dress—which reminds me to put Tracy in charge of costumes—and then I have the best idea, which I announce: “The play’s about covered wagons going West.” What a great idea because we had a unit on covered wagons last fall, so Miss Willson can’t say no, and because I’ve read every pioneer book in the Children’s Room in the Iowa City Public Library, and because Tracy’s all-time favorite characters from any book are Almanzo’s horses in the Little House books. Lisa can wear long dresses. There are amazing props like butter churns. And Robin will do whatever we say.
So I jump up again and walk through our classroom that’s buzzing with creativity and stand in front of Miss Willson’s desk, accidentally scaring her again—like I’m some kind of ghost haunting her!—and say, “We want our play to be about covered wagons and westward expansion, and we’ll talk about love and hope and nature.” I can’t remember the other topics because I’m so excited, but I’ll check and slip them into the play.
She picks at the side of her fingernail. “What a wonderful idea.” I want her to call me a great director, but “What a wonderful idea” is good, and I can’t wait to tell my parents all about my wonderful idea tonight at dinner.
Dinner is canned fruit cocktail and broiled hamburger patties because my mother’s on a diet though last week my father called her arms “toothpicks.” My father brings the newspaper to read though I’m never allowed books at the table, not even when I’m eating by myself because my mother says, “In this house we keep standards.”
The only thing she eats is the lettuce leaf under the hamburger patty. But she stabs her fork into the hamburger again and again. I want to ask if I can pick out the cherry from her fruit cocktail and the grapes but waiting until after my big news will be better. Also, I can’t decide if my mother will or won’t yell at my dad about the newspaper: both ways are bad, but at least yelling ends fast. Silence goes for days, like fog filling every crack of the house. Because fog disappears in sunshine, my job is to be the sunshine of this family.
Tonight is silence and that stabbing fork. My father turns newspaper pages loudly. My hamburger has a thick, dark crust that’s never on burgers my dad cooks on the grill outside or from McDonald’s. Because I’m sunshine tonight, I don’t complain, and because I’m tired of waiting, I just say, “I’m writing a play! And starring in it! The whole school’s going to see it!”
My father puts down his newspaper! “Krista, honey,” he says. His words are like pancake syrup smoothing its way down a stack. “That’s terrific.” He looks right at me. His eyes are blue-gray, surrounded by crinkles. He’s fifteen years older than my mother, and they met when he was teaching a class about ancient Greeks, which is so romantic. I imagine her sitting in the front row, like me, raising her hand because she likes him calling on her. My father says again, “That’s terrific.” He looks right at my mom. “Isn’t that terrific, Jill, how talented our wonderful daughter is?” It’s the voice he uses to talk to dogs in the park.
My mother lets go of her fork, leaving it stabbed straight up into her hamburger patty. It tips over and clatters on the plate, and I jump like I’m electrocuted. I think maybe yelling’s about to start.
My mother stands and presses her fingers into the edge of the table, like she’ll tip over if she doesn’t. “That’s terrific, Krista,” she says. Then she walks out of the dining room, and the bedroom door closes, not slamming, but noisy enough to hear.
My father lifts the newspaper. “That’s really terrific, Krista,” he says, his blue-gray eyes flicking sideways as he reads.
Anyway, I eat my mother’s fruit cocktail, and my father tells me to leave the dishes on the table, but I clear the plates to the kitchen and rinse them in the sink. I eat my mother’s stabbed-up hamburger patty with my fingers though I’m not hungry. My father watches Hawaii Five-O on TV, but I go to my room and start writing my play into a fresh spiral notebook with my BIC 4-color pen, writing different parts in different colors. My part’s red, the best color.
No one checks on me, so I finish at midnight. My play’s twenty-five pages long. The last thing I write is the title: Love, Life & Death on the Oregon Trail.
Everyone loves the play! Lisa’s sisters have maxi skirts we’re allowed to borrow, and we slide them up over our pants to practice walking in them. Robin can’t find a butter churn, but Tracy’s mom has an ice cream maker with a crank. Everyone brings a frying pan from home, and I get a rolling pin. Robin’s mom volunteers to bake corn muffins the day of the play. Lisa thinks she’s the star because she plays a teenage pioneer girl and has the most lines, but I’m the real star because I play the mom and have the biggest dramatic moments. I wrote in an ox because something has to pull the wagon, but Miss Willson would notice a live ox, so Tracy’s playing it. Robin is a runaway girl they meet and a man driving another wagon. After the ox dies, Tracy will also be a friendly Indian who lives in the mountains and a friendly fur trapper. She doesn’t want to play anyone mean or say any mean lines, and she really, really wants the ox to live, but that’s one of my most dramatic moments, so we agree that its friendly ghost can appear in the last scene when everyone arrives in Oregon.
There’s a lot for me to think about.
Robin figures out how to make a good-enough pretend covered wagon. We’ll stack two tables onto each other and drape a white sheet over the top table. Then Lisa and I will sit on a piano bench from the music room, like a real wagon. The janitor who’s friends with the weird kids agrees to stack the tables safely for the assembly.
I wish the art teacher didn’t hate me because she could paint us some trees and mountains on big paper, but Tracy gets her sister who’s good at drawing to do that for us, and the Scotch tape holding together all the little sheets of paper barely shows.
Robin brings in dolls so we can decide which should play the baby who dramatically dies during the most terrible part of the journey in the mountains. This happens in all the pioneer books. I’m surprised Robin has this many dolls, but we don’t make fun of her. I don’t say my mother made me throw away all my dolls in February. She watched me drop them into the garbage can Monday morning, and we stood and watched until the garbage truck rolled up and a guy dumped our family’s garbage—and every single doll I ever owned—in with everyone else’s garbage. I thought about hiding maybe one, but my mother would find it when she cleaned my room because she finds anything secret I try to have.
The doll we agree on looks the most real, with a bald head and floppy baby arms and legs. There’s a long dress, and a little hat from another doll fits perfectly.
Because I’m the mother, I get to hold it the most. We name her Charlotte because that’s a good pioneer name.
Being a director is amazing so far!
On the weekend, my dad takes me on a drive, just us. “Bye!” we call to my mother behind the locked bedroom door. She’s resting this weekend, which means I do things with my dad. Sometimes I go to his office at the university and curl into his comfy chair and read while he grades papers. He asks, “B plus or A minus?” I always say, “A minus,” and he tells me I have a big heart. Of course I do. The biggest.
Today we’re driving, looking out the window at farms outside Iowa City. Probably there’ll be ice cream double dips somewhere or Dairy Queen because we like secret ice cream when my mother can’t complain about calories.
My father’s hand loops loose around the top of the wheel, and he asks how the play’s going, and I say, “Amazing!” I explain our props, and the covered wagon, and how Lisa memorized her lines and everyone else’s overnight, and how I’m good at being in charge, and how I heard Miss Willson tell another teacher I’m justification for the necessity of self-directed creativity in the classroom.
All he says is “uh-huh, uh-huh,” so I talk more, hoping to say something he’ll hear. Finally I do: “Parents are invited.”
“Uh-huh.” A second later: “Wait. When’s this?”
“Friday afternoon,” I say.
“Friday.” There’s that rocking in my stomach like I’m going to be sick because I know he’s going to say:
“We’ll let your mother go.”
“No,” I say, without thinking. “She wrecks everything. I don’t want her there.”
“Calm down,” he says.
I think my calm thoughts, like I’m supposed to: lake, butterfly, tree. Out the car window are empty fields of dark dirt. My brain’s shaking. I’m not calm.
“Why don’t you want her there?” he asks. “She’ll be proud of you.”
“She hates me,” I say.
I didn’t know I’d say that until I said it. Suddenly I’m calm.
There’s so much silence where he should say, “Of course she doesn’t,” or, “Don’t be silly,” or, “She loves you.” He revs the car fast and slips over to the wrong side of the highway to pass some slowpoke, which is usually both exciting and scary though I know my father’s never had even one car accident. We’re going 75, 80, 85, and the car’s rattling, and we’re way past the pickup but still on the wrong half of the road, and I can’t scream or move. Everything’s frozen inside me. All I want is to wake up from this horrible dream and be tucked into my own bed smelling morning bacon frying. The empty cornfields blur, and I shout, “Daddy!” because a gigantic tractor towing a planter is coming at us slow as a turtle and bigger than a barn, and my dad flings the car to the right lane, and it’s like we balance on the edge of the ditch for a second. Then we jolt and slow, and I breathe, and his hands go loose on the wheel, and he says, “Some adventure, huh?” I guess I nod because he says, “Let’s not tell your mother any of this,” and we’re both nodding.
But my feelings are so big, too big, and on Monday, when everyone else is at recess, I stay in, thinking I’ll tell Miss Willson. But I don’t know what happened or what my father meant exactly when he said don’t tell her about this. Which this? Instead, I say, “My father took me for ice cream in the country. Just us two. There were cows because it’s a real dairy.”
“You should be out with the other kids,” she says.
I say, “I found out my mother doesn’t love me.”
She snaps shut her gradebook and says the right words: “Of course she does, Krista. She loves you very much. All mothers love their children.”
I say, “I guess I’ll go outside now,” and she reaches over and grabs my hand.
“Why would you think such a thing?” she says. “You’re a wonderful, lively girl. Anyone would be proud you were their daughter. I would be.”
My face prickles, and I don’t want to cry. I shouldn’t have said anything. Creative expression is where big feelings belong.
I say, “I was kidding,” and I wrench free and run out to watch the kickball game. I don’t know if I do or don’t want Miss Willson to send a note home to my parents.
No note. But maybe a phone call because the next day my mother drives me to school instead of me walking, and on the way, she says, “I’m excited to see your play on Friday.”
I say, “It’s really good.”
She says, “Don’t brag.”
I think, It is good, and you’ll see. I think, Maybe I don’t love you either. Instantly my skin glows hot like I’m the devil.
Today, Miss Willson and the other sixth grade teachers are walking around the stage and the auditorium, checking on our progress before the school assembly in two days. We’re busy working in our groups. Miss Willson’s in charge because she has a clipboard holding a stack of papers, and there’s a pen behind one ear and a second pen in her hand. She’s doing most of the talking to the three teachers—and the principal!—using fancy words like “modality” and “cognitive.” Her cheeks are flushed pink, and she’s the only teacher wearing high heels. I know exactly how hard she wants everything to be perfect, how it feels to show off to people maybe you don’t like, how it feels when you need someone to think you’re important. I have to do the best job of my life, and so does Miss Willson. I love us being alike. She says, “No favorites,” whenever I ask, but I must be.
The principal, Mr. Yoder, taps one foot as they all stare at the ugly mural of an Iowa farm. It’s only half-done and needs lots more work. Everyone knows the art teacher drew the hard shapes and kids painted colors where she told them to, like creative expression is just a paint-by-number kit.
Finally, the principal does a half-clap without noise, and we’re up.
Lisa and I jump onto the piano bench, and Tracy hunches over, ox-like, mooing (I hope no one thinks she’s a cow). Lisa and I start our lines loudly, with our big enthusiasm, and Miss Willson’s smiling, and the principal too.
I interrupt myself to say, “Wait’ll you see us in costumes with our cool props! And this is a covered wagon!”
Miss Willson says, “This brief sneak peek is wonderful, thank you, girls,” and she’s leading away the teachers when I call, “Hang on! I want to show you the best dramatic moment when the baby dies,” and Lisa glares because she thinks the best dramatic moment is when she drops to the ground, crying actress tears, and exclaims, “I never knew dirt in Oregon could feel so good!”
The principal halts and turns his whole body to look straight at me. I jump to that scene, giving my line: “I am so worried about Baby Charlotte!,” and the principal lifts one hand to stop me and says, “Miss Willson. A baby dies? These students are killing a baby?”
She says, “Um,” and taps her clipboard. “That is . . .” She flips over a piece of paper, and then another.
I’m happy to be helpful, so I say, “We’re not killing a baby, Mr. Yoder. Baby Charlotte’s dying naturally of a horrible disease, cholera”—which I remember from pioneer books—and he keeps fish-eyeing me, so I say, “Also, it’s a doll, not a real baby,” and I lift Baby Charlotte to show the cooing smile painted on her now-suffering face.
The principal says, “Miss Willson. Surely you know this is inappropriate.”
She says, “The models suggest an assumed latitude for—”
“Enough gobbledygook.” The principal’s voice is so loud now the art kids spin and stare, paintbrushes dripping onto an old bedsheet. The tiny herd of teachers turns alert the way antelope do when a lion pops up in the movies Miss Willson shows about Africa.
“There will be no dead babies in this school. Am I clear?” He looks around the room. “That goes for everyone.” Then he walks away, his black shoes squeaking because he’s moving so fast.
The other teachers rustle and cluck and soothe, but they seem happy—it’s the way they’re secretly glancing at each other behind Miss Willson’s back. My mother grins like that at my father when I talk too long. Once my mother gave me that exact look when my father couldn’t get the charcoal to light in the grill when it was salad for dinner. Sort of thrilling, my mother’s eyes stabbing into me as he dropped matches galore onto the charcoal with nothing happening. “Who didn’t close the bag last time we grilled?” he yelled, and she snorted. Mostly I felt guilty, which is how I feel now, seeing Miss Willson all alone inside that nest of sixth-grade teachers.
I’m still sitting next to Lisa on the wagon/piano bench. “She’s crying,” Lisa whispers. She means Miss Willson, but it’s confusing because she tugs Baby Charlotte away from me and wraps her in a blanket, holds her like she’s a real baby in a dangerous situation.
Tracy stands up from being the ox and says, “Told you not to be mean.”
My feelings are too big right now. I know having live animals in our play was maybe not a great idea, but for real, babies died on the Oregon Trail and so did moms and dads and kids. I read all those books. I’m telling the truth. And you can’t stop me, I think.
Miss Willson’s clipboard clatters to the floor, and she throws her pen at the giant mural, hitting the side of a wet-paint pig. That’s startling. Then she grabs the other pen out from behind her ear and heaves it over my way, so it hits me hard in the chest. Immediately the herd of teachers pulls her fast out of the auditorium. The art teacher shuffles us all back to our classrooms, and after a minute of us staring and whispering, the principal shows up with freshly mimeographed vocabulary worksheets that look like stuff we did back in third grade. “Answer every single question,” the principal says. “It’s a test.”
I took the pen Miss Willson threw at me, and now it’s in my desk. The cap is chewed up. It’s one of those clear pens where you can see how much ink is left. I don’t know why I took it. It feels like something secret trapped in my desk.
I ignore the worksheets and rewrite my play. I want to use Miss Willson’s pen, but it scares me. Because my feelings are so big, the words flow, and when I’m done, I’m crying, but I don’t know why. The bell rings and Mr. Yoder’s rushing us out so fast, half the kids forget their hats. It feels like a minute later, that I’m at my front door, jiggling the handle because the door’s locked.
I walk over to Tracy’s and straight out ask her mom to call mine right now, telling her I can’t get in because my mom’s passed-out drunk again (my father’s favorite words to yell at her) and forgot I’m coming home from school.
Tracy’s mom starts to say something, but I lift one hand exactly like the principal did. I use his great big voice to say, “Am I clear?”
There’s a moment of quiet where maybe anything could happen. But what happens is that Tracy’s mom presses her lips together, looks at me like she knows something she’s not saying, and goes to dial the phone. I stare at the cheerful flowered wallpaper in Tracy’s kitchen until I hate it more than I’ve ever hated anything.
Friday. My father drives me to school because I’m bringing last-minute props: a mixing bowl, an old toy guitar that I hope looks like a fiddle, a bag of Pillsbury flour, a blanket with fake quilt patches from JCPenney, and other little stuff. He parks and carries everything inside to the auditorium. He says, “We’re both so proud of you, Krista.”
I say, “The show starts at one o’clock. We’re first.”
He says, “I’ll be there in spirit.”
I like the first part of that sentence and ignore the second. Lots of fathers—like Tracy’s—are at work at one o’clock. We’re all used to fathers missing things, even exciting things like a daughter’s first time to write and direct and star in a play. He missed Romeo and Juliet, so maybe he hates plays, and maybe if I helped paint the mural, he’d come. Anyway, my mother’s going to see me be a big star. And Miss Willson and I both know my feelings are too big for a dumb mural.
She’s back today for the first time, and everyone’s happy to see her, but also nervous. I’m embarrassed she’ll probably apologize in front of everyone for throwing that pen at me. She announces that she heard from the substitute that we were very well behaved, and she’s soooo excited to witness the culmination of our creative expression, and she’s soooo proud of us. Everyone nods, but mostly we wish she’d stop talking. There’s more. And more. The fancy words sound “soooo” fake. And when she doesn’t apologize in front of everyone, I start not liking her quite as much. What if the pen poked out my eye? Or stabbed my jugular? Why’s she mad at me? Is she jealous of my play?
But I can’t think about all that because we’re all walking to the auditorium, and Robin’s nervous, and Tracy all of a sudden wants to play a horse instead of an ox, and there’s lots to do before showtime.
I buckle down to do everything because everything depends on me. Robin found a long black crow feather in the grass when she was walking to school and thinks it should be a prop quill pen, so I scribble a quick scene where Lisa writes in a diary. Normally I’d want that scene for myself, but Lisa’s the best at memorizing lines, so it’s smarter to give it to her. That’s how I know I’m a good director.
Tracy’s sister Suzanne dabs on last-minute paint, and her corn stalks look ten times better than the ones on the art teacher’s mural. We go into the bathroom and change into long skirts. Lisa makes us close our eyes and breathe deeply, and with my eyes closed, I think about an auditorium of people applauding me and someone shouting, “Bravo!” We’re going first because our covered wagon of stacked tables requires advance setup, which the janitor does for us. “Break a leg,” he says, and I’m horrified at how mean he is, but Lisa explains that’s saying “good luck” because theater people are superstitious. I worry she made that up, but there’s no time to ask Miss Willson, who I don’t like right now anyway.
I peek out a crack between the two halves of the velvet curtain. The principal’s onstage, welcoming parents and the little kids from other grades who sit perfectly still because they’re afraid of Mr. Yoder, wrapped in that gleaming circle of light, afraid of their teachers warning them to be good or else. I used to be afraid of those things too. I used to worry about my big, big feelings and how they might explode if they didn’t get out.
I hurry back to my place next to Lisa on the covered wagon piano bench, and she whispers, “Break a leg.”
“Are you sure that’s good luck?” I ask.
“One hundred percent,” she says.
The principal’s still blabbing, so Tracy peeks through the curtains, and there’s a burst of laughter, and I’m hoping that’s because the principal told a joke, but no, it’s because Tracy yanks apart the curtains so wide everyone sees her face. Then she waves! More laughter. I hiss, “Tracy!” She runs back.
She says, “My mom’s sitting front row.”
“Shhh,” I say.
Then she says, “Your mom, too,” and my stomach flip-flops, and there’s applause and the curtain starts rising, and before it’s all the way up, Lisa speaks her first line, and I’m officially a director for real, and this is the best day of my life.
The story goes like this: We’re on a covered wagon, arriving in town to buy supplies for the trip West, and Robin sells us a bag of flour and a big frying pan and warns us about the dangers ahead. The covered wagon has to cross a wide river, and Tracy as the ox rolls on the floor as Lisa screams and I shout, “Steady, girl!” I don’t think that’s very funny, but I guess some people do, because there’s laughing. The wagon is parked for the night, and we build a (pretend) campfire with sticks. I gaze at imaginary stars and talk to sleepy Baby Charlotte about how our family will “thrive” (a Miss Willson word!) in the Oregon Territory. Lisa talks to Tracy, who plays a friendly Indian who gives us some corn before we reach the big mountains. Robin couldn’t find corn on the cob so we’re using frozen Green Giant corn, unfortunately still in a frozen-solid square, so I have to say several times, “Thanks for the corn,” so everyone gets it, and that’s another thing the audience finds funny.
I try not to think of my mother sitting in the front row maybe being one of those people laughing. She didn’t laugh at Romeo and Juliet until after I screamed.
Lisa forgets about the quill, so I have to say, “Daughter, time to write in your diary!,” and she grabs the quill out of Tracy’s Indian costume. More laughing, lots and lots.
Finally, we’re at my favorite part, the most dramatic scene, when the wagon goes through the enormous Rocky Mountains, covered in snow even in the summer. We looked at pictures in the encyclopedia in the school library. They’re scary, all jagged points like a monster’s fortress. We all touched each other’s arms to feel chills, right there in the library. In all the Oregon Trail books, this is when pioneers throw things off the wagon to lighten the load. This is where the oxen die (which Tracy is still mad about; she agreed only to be sick). This is where pioneer babies get cholera and are buried in a lonely grave marked by a stick cross and everyone sobs.
Lisa tosses our fake butter churn and says, “The wagon is too heavy, Mother! We must say goodbye to our butter churn!” I hope the audience is using their imagination on this ice cream maker shaped like a barrel. But I don’t know, because there are some chuckles.
“Oh no!” I say. “We will miss fresh butter on our cornbread!”
Lisa says, “How long to Fort Hall? I despair of reaching it, Mother!”
And I’m supposed to tell her four more days. Then she’ll throw off the frying pan and the guitar that’s a fiddle, and Tracy starts panting as the sick ox. After that we rest at the Fort and there’s a fur trader and Robin is a kid from another wagon and then we get to Oregon and that’s the end of the play. The kids doing the interpretive dance get the spotlight next.
The problem is, I love the spotlight. The problem is, I’m hearing more laughing because Tracy’s panting already, too early, before the cue. I’m so angry that everyone’s going to miss the biggest dramatic moment I wrote, the whole reason why the Oregon Trail is the only story big enough for all my feelings. I want the world and my mother to see who I really am, to see me and my great big feelings. To love me. For real. Miss Willson told us true artistic expression begets miracles.
I’m as brave as those pioneers.
I say, “I am worried about Baby Charlotte!” I rock the baby, clutch her to my heart.
Lisa is a real actress, and she rests one hand on the doll’s forehead. “Mother! Her skin is burning hot!” She snatches away her hand as if Baby Charlotte’s head is on fire. It’s all exactly how I imagined this scene!
“Baby Charlotte is dying!” I say.
“No! My dearest sister!” Lisa says. “Oh, Mother!” Actual tears shine in Lisa’s eyes, and I’m jealous of that, so I think about sad things, the trick Lisa told me. It’s funny that I think about my mother making me throw away all my dolls that one day, every last one, and their clothes and bottles and every single thing, even the crib and highchair my grandfather handmade for me from real wood. “I can’t have these damn things in the house,” she said. “I don’t want to see these things another minute.” I pretended I didn’t care, because I didn’t much play with dolls anymore, but I always sort of thought they were mine. Some dolls were on my bed because they were on my bed practically since I was born. Sometimes when I was sad, I might secretly still talk to one of them and hold her in my arms. I never told anyone what happened. When Tracy or anyone came over to play, I pretended I moved the dolls myself.
I’m crying real tears now, and Lisa’s sobbing, and so’s Tracy though she’s an ox, and I say, “Poor Baby Charlotte!,” and Lisa says, “My poor dear sister!,” and Tracy howls, “Noooo!”
There’s too much laughing, like all of this is a JOKE, as if the Oregon Trail is something hilarious. From somewhere Miss Willson calls, “Girls, Krista”—but the spotlight’s bright, and these people need to see me, so I wail, “Baby Charlotte is dead!” Lisa howls, “Oh, Mother! No!” Tracy’s hunched over bawling. And I remember we already used our prop sticks in the fake campfire and Robin took them offstage so how can I build a stick cross for a grave?
I’m overflowing with feelings, so angry that Baby Charlotte is dead, and I say, “My poor baby, poor Baby Charlotte!” and I don’t quite mean to throw her, but I’m so worked up that I do kind of throw her to the floor like she’s a frying pan, and she slides away from our covered wagon, and Tracy runs off the stage, and Lisa moans, “Noooo!” over and over, and the spotlight slides to focus right on that dead baby, and the whole auditorium is purely silent, impressed by the drama I’ve created. Lisa and I hold each other, in awe of our artistic miracle, and someone in the audience screams, “Noooo!”
It’s my mother. She runs up the aisle in her high heels, and the spotlight follows her as far as it can, then cuts out as the auditorium door opens and slams shut and we’re all left in the dark. Mr. Yoder shouts, “For god’s sake, drop the goddamn curtain,” and—finally—there’s applause. There’s so much applause drowning out anything else.
At home, the front door’s wide open, meaning anyone can stroll inside. I close it carefully for safety and turn the lock. I know my mother’s in her room, so I don’t see her. I sit at the table and play War against myself with two decks of cards and wait for my father.
It’s not too long before he comes home, with lots of McDonald’s. A gigantic greasy bag. Two French fry bags for each of us!
He eats two Big Macs, which I’ve never seen him do. I eat a cheeseburger and all my fries and then most of his. When we’re busy eating, there’s no talking.
I can’t believe he got us apple pies for dessert. Those are never allowed, and they’re as amazing as I thought they would be. We each get two. The crust! That’s the last of the food, one final tasty bite of apple pie and licking all my fingers once more.
He says, “Krista, there are adult things going on that you don’t understand.”
Miss Willson said every question is valuable. “Like what?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “You’re too young.”
We do that back and forth, until I see he’s not going to tell me what I deserve to know, what these adult things are. I wonder if I’ll ever know.
Finally he says, “But I want you to understand, your mother loves you. We both love you. Irregardless of what happened and what may happen.” The empty bag’s just there on the table, and he abruptly grabs it and crushes it hard with both hands, mashing it down into a crinkly ball that he holds. “Do you see what I’m saying?”
I say, “Yes, Daddy. You both love me.”
Hearing his words bouncing back like a line in a play makes him happy. Relieved. Not me. I understand exactly what he’s saying: There’s a darkness in this house I can’t fight, hard feelings too big even for creative expression. I thought mine were the biggest feelings—they had to be!—but what if they aren’t? Right now, it’s like he and I and my mother are rolling through endless, scary mountains, each of us alone, and what my dad’s telling me is that pretending two tables are a covered wagon maybe is the best we can do, but it’s not going to be enough.