Teri McDowell

My name is Erin and I don't talk. Everyone says I've got problems. I'm ten. I can talk, I just don't because it's too hard. I get around people and they ask me questions and I start to sweat - first my hands and then from the top of my head. Hot. I get very hot. So I don't answer questions and I don't talk.

My first grade teacher called home and told my mom that I had problems. She told my mom I should go see a man called a psychologist. He was skinny and had a long neck. He spoke in a soft voice and wore a stiff shirt under his argyle sweater. Black socks. He had me play with dolls and draw pictures because I wouldn't answer his questions. Are you sad, Erin? Are you angry, Erin? How do you feel, Erin? I went there a couple of times and then I heard argyle man whisper to my mom that I've got problems.

Maybe I do have problems. I'm different than the other girls at school. Their moms dress them in pretty dresses and bows. I wear blue jeans and T-shirts that my brother gave me when he was done with them. My mom says "clothes don't make the person." But I'm not so sure. Once I wore my blue jean cutoffs with my red and white tube socks to school. The girls snickered and pointed. They whispered, "She's got problems."

So mostly I stay by myself. I read a lot. My favorite place to read is in my bed. I curl in a quilt that is old and tattery-but soft, really soft. That's where I read my books. My mom brings me cookies when I read. They are warm and gooey from the oven. It's hard to be neat with gooey cookies. There is chocolate in my quilt. Mom doesn't get mad about messes. She says, "It'll all come out in the wash." Sometimes chocolate doesn't come out. But that's okay in my house.

If I talked, it would be to my mom. She worries about me. She needs me to talk, needs to know I'm okay. That makes it hard to talk.

When I'm not reading, I'm in my backyard. I have a great backyard. It's big enough to kick a ball in or hit a softball as hard as you can. I have lots of big trees to climb. Especially the big oak tree. It has thick, heavy branches so I can climb real high. I'll sit for hours high up in that oak tree. I talk in that oak tree.

Next door to us lives the Perfect family. They have the Perfect house with Perfect flowers and Perfect window shades. It is the Perfect white. Mr. Perfect paints the shutters and the doors so they don't look dirty. Mrs. Perfect works on her Perfect flowers every day. She wears Perfect white-flower-print garden gloves. Mr. and Mrs. Perfect have the Perfect daughter. She is a year older than me and has long blond hair. She wears Perfect bows in her hair with white dresses and Perfect white sandals. I watch the Perfects from my oak tree and wonder what it's like to be Perfect.

One day Mrs. Perfect caught me watching her. She smiled the Perfect smile and waved. "You-Hoo! I see you, Erin!" She thinks I've got problems. My mom and Mrs. Perfect talk between the yards. They talk about flowers and give each other compliments. They talk about me. They talk about me like I'm not there, like I'm not listening. Mom told her about the psychologist and my first grade teacher. Mrs. Perfect told my mom that I ought to spend time with her Perfect daughter. It might be "good for me," "bring me out of my shell." I looked for my shell and they made plans for me.

Mom packed me a small backpack with a change of clothes, my toothbrush, comb, and towel. I was going to the Perfect's to spend the night. I was sweating.

Mrs. Perfect opened the door before we pressed the bell. She smiled her Perfect smile and said, "Welcome, Erin!" I noticed her Perfect white pants and pastel T-shirt buckled into her Perfect waist. She shushed me inside with my backpack and waved goodbye to my mom. Her Perfect daughter, Gabrielle, was sitting at the kitchen table with three of her Perfect girlfriends.

"Say hello to Erin, girls!" Mrs. Perfect chimed.

"Hello, Erin" they droned. It was a slumber party. My clothes were sticking to me I was sweating so bad.

Mrs. Perfect took my backpack to Gabrielle's room and led me to a seat at the kitchen table. She served us the Perfect meal of mini-pizzas and tall glasses of milk. I chewed quietly and listened to the girls chatter. Why do girls chatter? I noticed the Perfect's kitchen. It had shiny white linoleum and white countertops. The white-flower-print wallpaper matched Mrs. Perfect's gardening gloves. We ate on Perfect white plates and drank our milk from tall glasses. There were no coffee stains on the counters or dirt crumbs on the floor. I wondered how Mrs. Perfect kept the dirty fingerprints off the clean white walls. After we finished our pizzas and milk the girls wanted to go to Gabrielle's room to play and chatter. Mrs. Perfect had a better idea.

"Wouldn't it be fun to do makeovers! We can start with Erin!" The hair rose on the back of my neck. A drop of sweat fell from my hair into my eyelashes. The girls looked bored.

Gabrielle whined, "Aw, Mom, do we..."

"Gabrielle," Mrs. Perfect clenched her smile and said, "Remember what we talked about."

Gabrielle rolled her eyeballs and said, "Yes, ma'am."

"Now, Erin!" Mrs. Perfect said, smiling sweetly again. She scooted my chair across the shiny white linoleum so I faced her. She moved behind me and stroked my hair from the top of my head to the bottoms of my ears. "Have you ever considered growing your hair out?"

My mom has always cut my hair short - she didn't want to mess with fixing long hair. It was bone-straight, red, and thick, cut into a large bowl that just covered my ears. My eyes followed Mrs. Perfect as she circled my chair. "Gabrielle!"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Take Erin to your room and have her put on your dress for Auntie's birthday party."

Gabrielle slid heavily off her chair, grabbed my hand and said slowly and sing-songy, "C'mon, Erin. You want to go try on a pretty dress?"

I followed Gabrielle into her room while the other girls snickered and chattered. The dress for Auntie's birthday party was white with a tiny blue sparrow print. I looked at the blue sparrows and thought about my oak tree. "Here, Erin, try this on." I took off my T-shirt, sneakers, and blue jeans and slipped the dress over my head. It had puffy capped sleeves and an elastic ruffle around the neck. It dropped to just below my knees. My blue-striped tube socks were beginning to fall down. "Take off those socks too," Gabrielle commanded. I took off the socks and she paraded me out to see her mother.

"Ooooo" Mrs. Perfect shrieked. "You look lovely, Erin. Now let's do something with that hair." She led me to her bathroom and sat me on a cushioned stool in front of the mirror.

Mrs. Perfect busily pulled curlers, combs, brushes, and hairpins out of drawers. She plugged the big box of curlers into the wall and took a big wooden flat brush to the tangles and knots in my hair. I winced as she tortured the skin on my head. Mrs. Perfect was determined to make me pretty.

"I know you don't understand this now, Erin, but someday you will realize that your appearance is important. You need to look 'together' - that means maintaining a fresh face, taking care of your teeth, and, of course, having a hairstyle that compliments the shape of your head."

I wondered if this kind of hair would stay out of my eyes when I hit a softball.

She grabbed the hot curlers one-by-one and rolled them tight so I could feel their heat on my scalp.

"There will be times in your life, Erin, when people expect too much of you - times when you say to yourself, 'I can't handle it any more' - but don't you ever let anyone know. That will only make it worse. Always look like you've got it 'together', Erin. That's how you make it through. It's what people see that counts."

She removed the hot curlers and I looked at my head in the mirror. It looked bumpy. When Mrs. Perfect said, "It's what people see that counts," I wondered how much bumpy hair and a blue sparrow dress were worth.

My eyes roamed the bathroom as Mrs. Perfect fussed. No spots. No spots on the wall-to-wall folding mirrors or the thick white counters or the shaggy white carpet. I've never seen a bathroom with shaggy white carpet. All of Mrs. Perfect's perfumes were displayed neatly in a corner of the counter next to a vase of pretty fresh flowers and her colorful bottles of pills. Pills of every color and size separated neatly in their plastic orange containers. Mrs. Perfect really was perfect.

She finished my hair with a "Wa-La!" after placing a butterfly barrette above my ear. I looked at my new hair and wondered...wondered when I could go back to my oak tree.

I peeled my sweaty bottom off the stool's plastic seat cushion. Mrs. Perfect led me out to the living room where the other girls were watching a movie.

Look, girls! Doesn't Erin look pretty?"

"Uhhhh huhhh," the girls grunted, not taking their eyes off the television set.

Mrs. Perfect led me to a large overstuffed sofa chair. I sat down worrying about all my sweat in Gabrielle's pretty dress.

The girls watched movies late then fell asleep with blankets and pillows on the floor. I stayed in the sofa chair and sweated. They didn't see me.

My mom came to get me early. I ran straight to my oak tree. It was great to be back in my oak tree. I didn't have to worry about sweating. I didn't have to think about bumpy hair or looking "together." It was good to be in my oak tree.

I didn't sleep much that night. Thinking too much about snickering girls and white shaggy carpet. Thinking too much about what people see. Flashing lights came into my window late - red and white. I rolled out of my tattery quilt and peeked out. The lights were at the Perfects. Why would the Perfects have flashing lights?

In the morning mom was talking in a hush on the phone. She said Mrs. Perfect had taken what she thought was the perfect number of pills. She tried to end her life perfectly. But she made a mistake.

Everyone says the Perfects have problems. Mom's going to give them the name of my psychologist.

© Teri McDowell

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