Rachel, Cassie, and Joey live in the city with their Pop, until Pop's search for work lands the family on a run down farm. Dreamy Rachel loves to read, and doesn't know much about the country. Times are hard there, too—the school and library are closed. When Pop gets work near Canada, he has to leave the children on the farm alone. For two months! But Rachel's the oldest, and she'll make sure they're all right. Somehow.
An Excerpt fromR My Name Is Rachel
I know my neighborhood by heart, so it wouldn’t be hard to walk from our apartment to the stores blindfolded. And that’s what I’m doing. Almost.
My book is up in front of my nose, hiding my face so no one will see the tears in my eyes. I’m almost at the end of the story and I’m sure Lad, the collie, is going to die. No matter that he’s old, he’s such a good dog.
But Lad isn’t the only reason I’m trying not to cry. It’s because of Pop, who right now is sitting in the big green chair in our living room.
Pop home, instead of working, on a winter afternoon! Pop without his job at the bank, and all because of the Depression.
“What does that mean?” I asked. And he said it’s as if someone opened a plug and everyone’s money went down the drain.
I know almost all our money is gone.
After lunch, when I was drying the dishes with him, I asked, “Can’t you ask Uncle Elliot for help with money? Just until President Franklin Roosevelt fixes the Depression?”
“I’d never ask anyone for help,” Pop says. “Not even my brother. Besides, he doesn’t have any more money than I do.”
“I guess I wouldn’t ask for help either,” I say, considering. All the heroes in the books I’ve read do it on their own, too.
Now I wipe my eyes with my sleeve and turn the corner to Charlie the Butcher’s store. I press my nose against his window even though it’s dusty and a leftover fly from last summer is spattered against the glass.
Charlie sees me and raps on the pane. Dum-de-de-dum-dum--
It means he has bologna, and he’s going to give me a slice right off one end. My mouth waters, but I’m nervous. I want to ask him for two slices. I’ve never done that before. But Pop desperately needs cheering up. So this time it’s crucial.
That’s one of our words. Miss Mitzi Madden, of Madden’s Blooms, and I are letter writers. We like to use important words on occasion.
I love that: on occasion.
I’ve thought about asking Charlie for a second slice of bologna all day. “It’s just for this occasion,” I’ll say. And he’ll say--
Who knows what he’ll say?
I open the door, listening to the bell tinkle overhead. The sawdust on the floor crunches under my shoes as I go to the counter.
“Hello, dahling,” Charlie says.
He says that to everyone.
“Is it possible on this occasion,” I ask, “to have two slices of bologna?”
“Ah, good girl,” he says. “You want to treat your sister, Cassie.”
Not in a hundred years, but I don’t say that. Instead, I glance at the pig’s head in the case. Poor pig. His dead eyes stare up at me. The pig is the only thing in the case except for a shiny slab of liver and the bologna.
“It’s because of the Depression,” Pop explained to me the other day.
Everything has to do with the Depression. Pop, rail-thin, sitting in the sagging living room chair all week, his elbows on the windowsill, calls out once in a while: “There goes the mailman. I’m glad for him. Seven kids, he really needs his job,” or “The milkman’s trying to hold on, but no one can afford milk anymore.”
It’s because of the Depression, Pop says, that Mr. Appleby sells apples out of a barrel on Clinton Street; he polishes them with a rag so the buyers won’t notice the brown spots. “Doesn’t that just fit,” my younger sister, Cassie, says. “Appleby selling apples?”
And what about me? All I want is a dog, or a cat, or even a fish in a tank that we can’t afford.
Ridiculous. How much does one goldfish eat?
But Pop shakes his head. “No one has two nickels to rub together anymore.”
Charlie slices the bologna paper-thin. “For such a good girl, Rachel, three slices.” He beams at me, his teeth white under his mustache.
“I will never forget your generosity,” I say. Then I add, “Don’t forget the cat.”
He pushes a fist-sized lump of meat toward me, grinning.
I pick up the lump with two fingers and the slices of bologna in their waxed paper jackets and skedaddle out of there. Outside, I deposit the lump under Clarence’s tree, remembering the letter Miss Mitzi and I wrote to the governor. We told him a thing or two, mostly that we’re very displeased about the Depression. Where did all the money and jobs go, anyway? I wonder if he’s read it yet; I hope he takes it to heart.
Clarence is perched on a tree branch above my head. His red tail whips back and forth; his fierce eyes glare at me. He’s waiting for me to leave so he can have his dinner.
I head for home, passing the schoolyard, and look up at my classroom window. Mrs. Lazarus says I soak up learning like a sponge. I smile to myself, imagining long division, the Civil War, and stories of the prairie schooners seeping right into my bones.
Down on the corner, I see my brother Joey’s friend Paulie. He’s standing over the sewer grate, holding . . .
“Hey!” I start to run. Paulie grips Joey’s pale ankles as Joey hangs upside down in the sewer.
“Pull him up right now,” I say, “or I’ll sock you in the breadbasket.”
“Just a minute,” Joey yells up.
“I’ll give you a punch, too, Joey.”
Paulie’s breath is loud. It’s not easy to hold someone over the sewer, even someone as skinny as Joey.
Joey yells, “Got it,” and Paulie pulls him up until Joey grabs the curb with one filthy hand. With the other he raises a pole. A piece of chewed gum is stuck to the end. And stuck to the gum is--
“A penny,” says Joey. His face is filthy, the dirt almost hiding the freckles that cover his nose.
“One day you’ll fall in there and drown in that filth,” I say.
Paulie bends over laughing, and I sweep past them, trembling, as I picture Joey’s brown hair floating in muck.
He’s only a year younger than I am; wouldn’t you think he’d have more sense! We’re steps and stairs, Pop says. Cassie’s two years younger--she turned ten last month--and the bossiest kid on Colfax Street.
As I dash up the three flights of stairs to our apartment, I take a bite of bologna, because I just can’t wait.
Right now Cassie is sitting at the kitchen table. Pop says we look almost like twins, except that I’m taller, and my hair’s a little darker. Her feet are tucked under her, and a spoon dangles from her mouth. She turns it back and forth for the last taste of poor-man’s rice pudding.
I lay the bologna slices out on the table, two perfect, one missing a small edge, like a jigsaw puzzle piece.
Cassie reaches out, but I yank the bologna away. “Sure, just like you saved some pudding for me. Oink.”
“Oink yourself,” she says.
“Girls, please,” Pop calls from the living room.
I point to the slices. “One for me, one for Pop, and one for Miss Mitzi Madden of Madden’s Blooms.”
Cassie glares at me, but she knows Pop needs the bologna to cheer him up. And who can argue about Miss Mitzi? She’s thin as a mop handle, but when she smiles, Pop says, the world lights up. Cassie and Joey love her as much as I do.
But then I feel guilty. I pass my jigsaw puzzle slice over to Cassie, who pushes it right back. “I don’t need your germs, thank you,” she says as Pop comes into the kitchen. But before I can offer him a slice, I see that his eyes look sad.
“What?” My voice is so low I can hardly hear it myself.
“We have to wait for Joey,” he says.
We sit there, the three of us, the bologna almost forgotten, until Joey comes into the kitchen, whistling “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries.”
Then Pop tells us the news.
That’s the worst word I can think of. But this is the worst news I can think of, too.
“I’ll be back.” My tear-filled voice floats out the door after me.
I have to tell Miss Mitzi Madden the news.
I fly down the stairs and rush along Colfax Street. My breath feels hard in my throat and I hold my hand on my side to cover the pain from running so fast.
It’s almost time for Miss Mitzi to close Madden’s Blooms and go upstairs to her apartment over the store.
Even though I don’t have a moment to spare, I stop and bend over to catch my breath, to swipe at my eyes, to compose myself, as Miss Mitzi herself would say.
And then I’m in her shop, smelling the roses, and sweet peas, and feathery ferns lined up along her counter, and looking at Miss Mitzi, with her shiny dark hair and pink rouge on her cheeks.
“Ah, cupcake,” she says with that light-up-the-world smile.
I go around the counter and reach out to her. She doesn’t ask why. She wraps her arms around me and waits. I can’t picture my own mother, who died too long ago for me to remember, but Miss Mitzi is certainly mother material.
And when I begin to talk, I don’t even get to the heart of it, not yet. “All our plans,” I say instead.
There’s the letter we want to write to Admiral Byrd; we’re both dying to know how it feels to fly over the South Pole with the polar bears lumbering around below. And we still haven’t congratulated Babe Ruth, the baseball player, on hitting so many home runs.
But most of all, what about my secret plan for Pop to marry Miss Mitzi Madden?
After a while, Miss Mitzi walks me to the back of her shop. It’s the best room in the world. The table that runs down the middle is filled with snippets of greens and silky petals, of ribbons and white doilies. There’s always a pink flower, or a purple one, in a clear glass vase.
But not only that, on the small desk in the corner that’s piled high with papers are the books Miss Mitzi and I read together in our spare time, our writing paper, our stamps, and the list of all the people we’re going to write to.
Miss Mitzi goes to the front again to put the closed, but i’d love to see you tomorrow sign in her window. “Sit, Rachel,” she says over her shoulder.
And I do that; I sink into her white rocker with the pale blue pillow. When she comes back, I open my mouth, ready to begin.
But Miss Mitzi holds up her hand. She fills the teakettle at the sink. “We’ll have a cup together,” she says. “Remember, everything feels better when you sip some sweet hot tea.”
A moment later, I hold the cup in my hand, the warmth of it soothing me. Just opposite me, Miss Mitzi is perched on the edge of her table, her legs swinging a little. “Now,” she says. “What could be so terrible?”
“We’re leaving the city,” I say.
I see her face. That’s what’s so terrible. She stands up and goes to the sink again to run water slowly over her hands, then dries her fingers one at a time. “Well,” she says softly. It’s almost a question.
“We’re going to a faraway place called North Lake,” I say. “Pop’s heard of a bank job up there. A decent job. We’ll take the last of our money and rent a small farm.” I shrug. “It’ll be less than our apartment rent.”
“Chickens,” she says absently. “A cow.”
I hadn’t thought about that. But what about Mrs. Lazarus, my teacher? What will she do without me soaking up learning? And what about all the letters Miss Mitzi and I were going to write? What about--
“What about you come with us?” I cross my fingers. I’d give up school, I’d give up everything, if only we had Miss Mitzi.
She turns from the sink and knocks over a pitcher of irises. The pitcher shatters, the flowers drift down and cover the floor like a purple carpet, and water spreads everywhere.
Miss Mitzi bends over and picks up a flower. She holds it to her cheek and I can see that she’s crying.
Crying. Miss Mitzi.
“I’ll ask Pop,” I say. “Don’t worry.”
She lays an iris on the table and shakes her head. “Your father hasn’t asked--” She breaks off and comes close to me. “What would this place do without my flowers? What would my few rich customers say if I deserted them?”
Her hands are wet from the broken vase and there’s a small drop of blood on her finger.
“I don’t care about the rich people,” I say, and she probably doesn’t care, either.
“I’ll tell you what,” she says. “We’ll write back and forth. You’ll tell me about the chickens and the cows. And I’ll tell you about things down here.”
I look up at the green clock on the wall. It’s six-thirty; I’m supposed to be home for dinner.
“When are you leaving?” Miss Mitzi asks.
I raise one shoulder in the air. “Soon.”
She nods. Then I go out through the front of the shop and start for home.
There’s something else on my mind, something terrible, I know. But what it is, I can’t remember.
I walk slowly now, pulling my coat collar up around my neck. It’s cold and maybe it’s going to rain. Or snow. A Model A Ford flashes by on the avenue, and lights dim in the few stores that are left.
I reach the front door of our apartment house, still wondering what I’ve forgotten.
And then I remember.
What will happen to Clarence, the cat, when I’m gone?