A Glass of Orange Juice

I had never been to Ty’s house before, so I waited for Mrs. Winterbotham to answer the doorbell and usher me to her bedroom.  The room was paneled with dark wood; heavy drapes let in a sliver of afternoon light.  Ty was propped up in bed midst a tangle of bedcovers and sheets, her thin frizzy hair creating a delicate halo.   She had been absent from school for a number of weeks with mono or a back problem or both and I was stopping by for a visit.

I really didn’t know Ty that well; she had the misfortune to join our seventh grade class at the absolute peak of preteen cliques.  I had been in the same small private school since junior kindergarten with few additions or subtractions along the way.  There was Eddie Friedlander who skipped ahead a grade, rumored to be so smart that his rather large head housed not one, but two fully functioning brains.  Brian Gefvert showed up in our class as one of the poor souls who suffered the snickering indignity of repeating a grade.  But these disruptions had been assimilated years ago.  Ty was the first newcomer in a quite a while.

My world was the epitome of waspy homogeneity.  Most of the classmates’ parents in my school knew each other; many had gone to the same grade school and many were the third or fourth generation to live in this affluent suburb.  Almost everyone belonged to the same country clubs.  All the mothers were full time housewives, and most of the men took the eight AM express train to Chicago for work, returning on the five PM.  The schedules were so predictable that the men formed a club and arranged for their own private car on the train line.  Their wives would be waiting to pick them up as the train pulled in, idling in brightly colored station wagons with faux-wood paneling, cigarettes hanging out of their mouths, butts smeared with bright red lipstick.

I have a complete set of my yearbooks from those grade school years.  In the third grade picture, my classmates are arranged in neat rows with the exception of the newly-arrived Peter McGrath whose shared orbit did not extend beyond school to the country clubs.  His outsider status is clear as he leans against a brick wall away from the rest of us.


I shudder when I look at this picture now, convinced that collectively as a class we were casually dismissive of new classmates, not for any malicious reason but only because the concept of inclusiveness had not yet pierced our comfortable bubble.  The 1960s were well before the era of community-wide sports that crossed school lines, so we all moved in the same tight social circles as our parents.  We might see students like Peter, Jennifer, Peggy or Panny during school, but never after school or on the weekends.  It was as if they just evaporated after the last bell of the day.

As a newcomer Ty Winterbotham had the advantage that her parents belonged to the same clubs, but she had to overcome the physical disadvantage of her wispy hair and pale translucent skin, a real difference maker in those clique-riddled years.  Ty was also very smart, routinely listed on the high honor roll, but in the 1960’s intelligence in a woman did not yet carry any social cachet.  Sports provided the easiest pathway to social success among the girls, but Ty was singularly unathletic.  Occasionally I was the appointed captain of a PE softball game and thus had the uncomfortable assignment of stigmatizing a classmate as the “last one picked.”  It was usually Ty, but even so she would thank me profusely for “selecting” her and then enthusiastically run out to her position in right field, seemingly unaware that this was nothing more than a damage control strategy on my part.

I don’t know whether Ty was oblivious to her outsider status or deliberately refused to accept it.  Regardless, it was a brilliant strategy that left my clique totally frustrated.  In seventh grade, my friend Susan secretly taped a kick-me sign to her skirt, and we collapsed in laughter as we saw the note swaying along as she walked down the hall.  She showed no embarrassment when she discovered the note, but instead rushed up to us saying, “Look what I found.  Oh you guys are so funny.  What a great joke.  You really got me.”

I was overcome with guilt.  Picking sides for a softball team was one thing – someone was always going to be the last.  But the proactive kick-me sign approached the spectrum of bullying. Even though I was only an observer, I had done nothing to stop the prank; my remorse deepened when I realized Ty had misinterpreted our attention as acceptance.  I wanted to make amends, so when I realized that she had been absent from school for a while, I decided to try and be a true friend.  I hopped on my Schwinn bike and pedaled over for a visit.

The streets in my home town were not laid out in a grid, but meandered with gentle curves beneath an archway of shady trees.  Landscaping trucks rattled past, often with whole squads of swarthy Hispanic men precariously standing in an attached trailer amidst the rakes, edgers and other equipment.  At some houses, landscapers arranged sprinklers that gracefully swept back and forth across the well-tended lawns with a familiar pfft, pfft, pfft noise.  At other houses, the workers might be on break, sitting on top of overturned buckets and eating chicken legs cooked in a little electric frying pan attached to a portable battery.  As I cycled by, the unfamiliar sounds of Spanish drifted past.

Most houses had expansive front yards with back yards hidden behind attached garages.  The driveways were vacant, the front doors closed and the only visible sign of activity was the subculture of the landscapers.  I had no curiosity about all these closed doors.  I just had no reason to believe that any family was that different from mine – a harmonious household with stable, prosperous and supportive parents.  Ty’s house appeared no different, a solid-looking turreted brick house set back on a sloping lawn.

Mrs. Winterbotham left us alone in Ty’s room.  As I sat down in a bedside chair, a little puff of dust erupted from the cushion, creating a veil of falling motes highlighted by the slanting rays of the afternoon sun.  This was the first clue that this household was somehow different.  My house was not pristine by any means.  We had two poorly-trained dogs that tracked in mud and debris.  During the spring, they could transfer their ticks to humans when they lounged on the couches.  However, I felt that the impact of dogs was unavoidable, but the accumulated dust seemed to be a purely human issue, one smacking of inattention and sloppiness.

I spotted a glass of orange juice at Ty’s bedside.  It was just a small fluted glass, perhaps half-filled, but covered with an enticing thick layer of foam.  I wondered if Ty’s mother had whipped up some sort of delicious smoothie made from melted Dreamsicles.  As I picked it up, I realized that the foam was really a thick layer of mold inching its way up the side of the glass and also sending tendrils down into the remaining orange juice.  I set the glass down in horror, trying to replace it on the exact same imprint so that the dust on the bedside table would not become immediately apparent.

Ty must have sensed my horror.  “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, “I haven’t been able to get down to the kitchen to put it in the sink.”

Ty’s bed was surrounded by textbooks and I noticed some were cut up into pieces.  “Oh, that’s because my back hurts when I try to sit up with a heavy book,” she said, “so I just cut them up chapter by chapter so they’re not so heavy.  “My back is okay if I lay on my side and prop myself up with my elbow, but then I rubbed my elbows raw, so now I use hockey guards.”  Ty put on bulky leather pads for a demo.

This home environment was a revelation.  The dust was the first clue, but the bigger issue was why her mother wasn’t bustling in with fresh orange juice on a daily basis?  Why wasn’t she freshening her sheets, plumping her pillows, or opening the windows to get some fresh air?  Why wasn’t her mother a comforting presence?  It looked like Ty was totally on her own, devising her own work-around for her bed-ridden weeks.  My mother had very sharp antennae for feigned claims of illness to get out of school, but if I was truly sick, she was the picture of attentiveness, replenishing drinks, supplying cold compresses for fevers, repeatedly going to the drug store to stockpile a whole arsenal of cold remedies.

I was no microbiology expert, but I knew that Ty’s juice must have been languishing there for at least a week.  This matted tangle of exuberant mold was a sharp blow puncturing the taut veneer of my sheltered childhood.  I now knew that closed doors hid secrets.

The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like spot, post, stop) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters.  Your job is to solve the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem.  Scroll down for answers.

The perfect lawns with tidy house that were typical of my home town

******* to my delusion that life was simple until one event turned

everything upside-down

It was nothing more than a moldy glass of orange juice that *******

A disturbing new reality that rankled and grated.

I ******* with shock because now I could no longer ignore

That something less than perfect could lurk behind a closed door.









Answers:  catered, created, reacted

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