Of course I’d known her, slightly. She was kin, but lived in town, a world away. I vaguely remember a Fourth of July barbeque when her mother brought red, white and blue sunsuits for all the girl cousins. We posed for a picture in them. But this time they’d stay for three days. They would have the front room, all scrubbed and dusted in my grandmother’s part of the house. We were to “play nicely” with her. Nicely? Let her win at hopscotch? Let her go first on the swing? Could we ask her to tap dance? (We’d heard she took lessons.) “Umm, maybe not this time, we’ll see.”
We sat on the front porch to wait for the car which in time was called “a vintage car” and was sold to a collector. Three suitcases were handed down: one for her mother, one for her, and one for her food and toys. She didn’t eat our food or sit at table with us, but was fed on her mother’s lap in my grandmother’s kitchen. Somehow it was arranged for me to keep her company at lunch time, but we didn’t talk. All I did was stand barefoot just inside the screen door in my too-short-for-school dress and watch her being fed. She was given three drops of cod liver oil on her tongue, then white meat of tuna, straight from the can, preventing contamination by our farmhouse germs. Milk there was, but it had been brought to a boil and put aside to cool since the morning milking.
There were books for nap time reading when she’d been bathed and powdered. When she woke up and was ready for play, she was dressed in a play suit, navy blue with white dots, white socks and patent leather sandals. “No no,” I was told, “not for tap dancing.” (Since the last day of school, my shoes were buckled into my book satchel and hung in the hall closet.) It was dawning on me that hopscotch, fresh-drawn in the back yard, wouldn’t be on the afternoon’s agenda. But her suitcase held paper dolls and coloring books with crayons in colors new to me like Lavender Blue and Lemon Yellow. And something else, so “from town”, and so astonishing, I eased out of the tuna lunch ritual in favor of… the magic of Etch-a-Sketch!
All it was, except for the magic, was a square, half the size of a school tablet with a see-through “scrim” attached to the top. When demonstrated to me, when I’d written my name and watched it disappear by lifting the scrim, I was ‘blown away’! With a little stick ‘pencil’, you could write or draw, even scribble on it, then lift the scrim, and have a fresh, blank page for your next creation, and the next and the next and the next! You could even draw straight lines across the scrim, just like on a real tablet, then fill in your name, your age, and the grade you were in! No eraser dust fell in your lap if you made a mistake, and not a scrap of paper was wasted!
She and my sister-of-the-closest age settled happily, nicely, into afternoons of paper dolls and coloring books, never once asking for a turn with Etch-a-Sketch. I, however, sat with it behind the trunk of the pin oak tree, writing, drawing and lifting the scrim, then drawing and writing and lifting the scrim as words and numbers, or birds and flowers, appeared in formal or free-style arrangements, only to disappear when I lifted the scrim! When sweat got in my eyes, I went to the well to splash cold water on my face, devising, as I went…an auto-immunity to… Theft.
The night before the vintage car came to take them away, stray toys, crayons, or coloring books were collected and returned to the food and toys suitcase, except that is, for Etch-a-Sketch. It lay, out of sight, atop the tall chest of drawers in my parents’ bedroom. The way I worked it out, I’d plead guilty to Covetousness, an inside-your-heart sin that I could learn to live with, but Theft was discoverable, and harder to broker. I solved it by applying the law of ‘the letter of the law’, since nowhere on the Ten Commandments page was there a single word to suggest “Thou shall not “Misplace.” The vintage car was way down the road to town when that which had been “misplaced” was found.
Decades passed. She married well and moved on. I moved to New York and became a teacher… with a summer vacation, but without a summer job, I was decidedly “at loose ends.” Then, mid morning, walking home from the dentist, I watched idly as a smartly dressed woman in pearls and high heels came toward me till she turned into a doorway, “Tiffany & Co. Personnel.”
At eleven o’clock? Just now coming to work? Was she “part-time”? Was hers a summer job? Apply? Apply!
The interview went well, I thought, and yes, I was willing to submit to a lie detector test, a new experience to write home about. However, the deal I’d made with the Commander of the Ten Commandments wasn’t air-tight. Immunity to the sin of Theft had gone swimmingly since that summer, but coverage for “Guilt for Misplacement” lay lurking in the sneaky ‘fine print. I was caught, not “hand in the cookie jar,” but by the behavior of the lie detector’s needle when a question pertaining to theft was posed.
In a post-test interview, when asked if I’d ever stolen anything, there appeared before me, in Technicolor and 3-D clarity, the image of my right hand edging Etch-a-Sketch out of sight high on top of the chest of drawers. I blinked, and blinked again, but unlike in lifting the Etch-a-Sketch scrim, the damning image remained.
And so it was there, not at my mother’s urging, not before God in penitent prayer, but before Tiffany’s somewhat taken-aback Security Officer, that I proceeded to confess, to tell of my summer love affair with Etch-a-Sketch and how, the night before the vintage car came to take it away, it was “misplaced” atop the chest of drawers in my parents’ room, not to be found until the dust had settled on the road that led to town.
I got the job. Summer positions were filled, however, but come Christmas, I’d work in Sales in Tiffany’s second floor Silver Department.
Snow! Boots! With high heels in a plastic bag, I sloshed past the subway and on to the entrance for Tiffany’s Personnel. A Security Officer glanced at my ID card, smiled “Good Morning, Miss, That’s on the Second Floor,” and waved me in. (If he’d heard of the Etch-a-Sketch Affair, he was “Tiffany discrete.”)
Marion Whitley lives in Manhattan where she reads, writes and remembers. Her email address is Whijmar8@aol.com.