The tin Ladybug was now burrowed in the front pocket of my corduroy pants. It created a bulge on my hip, one I was sure would stand out and alert everyone at the party, as well as the authorities. From the moment I plucked the toy up, I was overcome with nerves. And so, it was shocking that no one noticed it at all! I walked gingerly into the dining room at first. just as Melody was being rewarded for eating a single olive (standing ovation! sold out crowd!) with a slice of Nan’s frosted cake, one of the prized pieces with a pink confectionery rose on it. Melody only ate the icing- this news was passed around the table like Secret Service Intel. Evidently, it was not a known fact in the adult world that if they could get away with it-every kid in the world would prefer ‘frosting only!’
I was less than pleased that one of Nanny’s cakes had been targeted by Princess Melody. Nanny’s cakes were special. I knew how my grandmother made those roses, with her cake-decorating set- the piping bags, cardboard cones and metal decorating tips and nozzles. I loved nothing more than ‘helping’ my grandmother with her cakes, standing on a wooden step-stool, wearing one of Nanny’s hand-me-down aprons. I’d watch in awe as she placed a small square of wax paper on a small plastic spindle, twirling it with her fingers while dropping frosting onto it, spinning butter cream frosting in a halting but precise pattern , creating beautiful roses, like magic. I loved her paint brush and little bottles of food coloring, and how she could pipe two or three colors at a time out of the piping bags. I loved how she’d ‘accidentally’ get flour on her cheeks and nose, sending me into fits of laughter. She’d always play surprised -now how did that get there?-and call me a little rascal for not telling her sooner. But the best part of the cake making was when she would open up her ‘special case’ of cake decorations, which she stored high on a shelf in the kitchen. Inside, lay a treasure trove of plastic figures and novelties: pink ballerinas, seals balancing balls on their noses, cowboys, several renditions of Santa Claus, reindeer, jack o’lanterns, witches, bunnies- even a Cinderella Pumpkin coach and an Apollo spaceship. I loved the clatter as they spilled out onto the table, the examining and sorting, all that went into making and presenting the perfect cake. But I’d always pictured this labor of love for just our extended family- not strangers like Melody.
With the lifted item in my pocket, I was acutely aware of everyone in the house and tried to read their every expression, knowing I’d committed a crime. I’d never stolen anything before, and I didn’t like the buzz of adrenaline rushing through my veins that made me feel extra awake, extra focused on my discomfort. Still- no one paid particular attention to me in the dining room, which seemed impossible -couldn’t they see the boulder in my pocket? I made my way around the house, in and out of rooms filled with guests and still, no one paid me much mind. I got a few winks and’ hello, sweeties’ but that’s about it. I considered putting the Ladybug back in the corner of the hallway where I’d found it, no harm, no foul. But what if somebody saw me? I felt stuck with my racy decision.
It was right about then that I heard the shriek. I’m not sure if Melody was crying out ‘Bug!’ or ‘Dad!’ but either way, her tear-filled voice filled the hallway. I stood in the living room, off to the side of the coffee table, to the left of my grandmother, who sat on the couch, chatting with guests. I froze. Though other conversations went on, and much of the company had yet to hear about the bug-snatching, my ears were trained on the distant voices of Melody and her parents, like a dog to a canine whistle. Her parents, and soon, most guests, were helping her look for Lu-Lu. Before long, an ‘official’ announcement was made, and almost everyone joined in, eager to be the hero that returned Melody’s toy to her .My grandmother moved to the side as couch cushions were checked, and lifted her legs for the under-couch inspection. My father and his friends scouted outside, asking the boys if they’d seen the toy, shaking bushes, peering under picnic tables and porches.
While this bustle continued, I noticed that my grandmother remained seated, calmly sipping tea, not joining in with the hunt, and I suddenly craved her company. I wished we could be together at her house, baking, and cleaning, and taking a break to watch a little ‘I Love Lucy’ or ‘Bewitched’, having lunches of cottage cheese, dill pickles, sliced salami or liverwurst and tomato juice. I scooted up on the couch next to her, and leaned against her gently, careful of her teacup and saucer. She smelled heavenly, like baby powder and the coziness
”Hi Honey!” she said “Aren’t you going to help the girl find her toy?”
”No” I said, wondering how sad Nan would be if she knew I was a robber. Tears came to my eyes, so I looked up at the ceiling, hoping they’d plop back in. Melody came through the living room, trailed by her parents, and they all headed to the Blue room.
”She’s got a nice dress” I said to Nan, wishing to deflect the subject of the missing bug altogether. Maybe Nan liked her better, too. Nan put her cup on the end table to her left, and hugged me closer.
”Yeah, well…..bully for her!” my grandmother said, rolling her eyes.”She can’t hold a candle to you!” I couldn’t have loved her more in that moment. Even though I pictured Melody literally burning me with a candle, and was glad to hear it was off limits, my grandmother was choosing me! She reached down and picked up her cream colored pocketbook from the floor where it sat. Unclasping it, she asked “Sour Ball or Sen-Sen?” I went with the Sen-Sen like a self imposed penance. I needed cleansing.
Eventually,the urgency to find the Ladybug passed- after all- a child had lost a toy- not a limb. More people returned to the living room, and my mother announced she was readying the coffee and dessert table. A big silver percolator, perched on the kitchen counter, safely out of the reach of children, began to bubble on top. I knew this because by now, I had wandered into the kitchen to test my mother’s reaction to me and my plight. Surely she would notice the bump in my pocket and save me from myself. But mom was busy, running around, carrying cakes and pies to the dining room, and setting out small pitchers of cream and milk, bowls of sugar, harvest yellow cloth napkins, and fancy, gold-leaf dessert plates. When we made eye contact, she suggested I go outside and play- she’d call me for in for dessert soon.
”Do my pants look good?” I asked, pushing my hip out at a weird angle in an effort to expose Lu-Lu.
”Oh for heaven’s sake, you look fine! Pretty soon you can change into something else, so please- just be a good sport about it!” Earlier in the day I’d scoffed at wearing the corduroy pants, and had wanted to wear my blue jeans instead.
Realizing that if my own mother didn’t sense my guilt or notice my bulging pocket, no one else would either, I decided it was time to take the real litmus test. I passed through the dining room, where I noticed all of the lovely desserts spread out like a picture in a magazine, except for Nanny’s rose cake- which already had a slice removed for Melody. The cake looked like it was missing a tooth. I exited out the back door, walked down the porch stairs and kept to the perimeter of the crowds manning the grill. I heard adult laughter, the clinking of ice, and the whoosh! of lighter fluid being poured onto the flames. I kept on through the backyard, and down the steep hill until I came to the stonewall. I scaled the wall expertly, and walked up to Jenni’s back porch. The screen door opened with a screech, then slammed with a whack once I was inside. I knocked on the inner door, noting that for once, loud music couldn’t be heard from where I stood, which was unusual.
Jenni answered the door I steadily knocked on. I could tell just by looking at her that she going somewhere. She had a bow in her hair (which I knew she didn’t like) and was wearing a pretty flower print dress, white tights, and her Buster Brown Mary Jayne’s. I’d been shopping with her and her Mom at Gimbals when she got them. Afterwards we went to Kiddy-Town and looked at all of the beautiful dolls behind glass-the kind of dolls you weren’t supposed to play with, we were told by Jenni’s mom- which made not a lick of sense to us. This, of coarse, was weeks ago, back when I’d been a good girl, before I’d gone gangster. I’d probably play with those dolls anyway, now. I was lawless.
”Where are you going?” I asked, disappointed that I couldn’t just cocoon myself in Jenni’s room and read books until everyone left my house.
”Old McDonald’s Farm” Jenni answered. Lucky! This was a petting zoo/amusement park/restaurant on the other side of town that Nanny sometimes took me to. They had a train ride, and lots of cute animals. Baby chicks and ducks, little turtles, ponies. Jenni opened up the door halfway, and I slipped inside.
”You can come in till we leave” she said, and I wanted to hug her. We went to Jenni’s room, which was off the kitchen. I walked directly over to her window, glancing up the hill to my house, on the look-out for traces of the police, or any other sign indicating I’d been found out. I could see the smoke rising from the grill, and the boys playing catch with a football. Ah- to be my innocent brothers like I was this morning! Crime free, and happy as larks!
I turned to Jenni, holding my arms out at my sides, like a scarecrow.
”Can you see it?” I asked her.
”See what?” she asked, as she was packing up her Little People Bus for the trip.
”The Ladybug!” I huffed. I was beginning to lose my patience with everyone’s weak powers of observation. Jenni stepped closer and closer, squinting her eyes, scanning my sweater and pants up and down, and across.
”Where is it?” she asked. I realized she was searching for a real ladybug, which was Jenni and my favorite bug, even though, technically, she’d called it first, on the day we played wildlife favorites. I’d settled for a dragonfly for a few minutes, but finally broke down asked her if we could both have the same favorite. Luckily, she had agreed.
I reached down into my pocket and pulled Lu-Lu out. Where once I’d seen an innocent red-and-black Ladybug, I now saw something sinister- like a spider or a ticking time bomb. I quickly put her down onto Jenni’s glossy wooden Mother Goose reading table. Jenni reached over and picked her up. She immediately began revving her up, the wing-ding-ding sound painful to my ears, the sparks signaling the tempers that would flare once I was found out. She eased the spinning wheels onto the table, and once they she had a grip, Lu-Lu raced across the table, flew off the side into the air, and landed right in one of Jenni’s Keds sneakers, sitting over by the radiator. She was face forward, back wheels still spinning. Jenni laughed and pointed, but I couldn’t take it anymore- I had to confess!
It was then that Jenni’s mother opened the bedroom door, purse in hand, all dolled up in a yellow mini-dress with long puffy sleeves. She wore huge sun-glasses and looked quite like Marlo Thomas in ‘That Girl’. She greeted me warmly, then told Jenni they had to leave right away- Jenni’s dad had the car running, and was waiting for them in the driveway. I picked Lu-Lu up, carrying her in plain sight, hoping Jenni’s mom would notice and question me. Then I’d have to spill the beans. But she didn’t. Jenni gathered up her Little People Bus and carried it like a baby towards the front door. Her mom placed a dark blue knit poncho across her shoulders, insisting it was too chilly to go without. Jenni sighed, and we stepped out into the crisp air. The Jag hummed in the driveway, steam rushing from it’s tail-pipe, it’s shiny black-onyx paint gleaming in the sun.I could hear ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ from inside the car. I knew Becky would be squished into the back of the two seater, but her Dad loved that car too much to switch it out for the larger family car. He liked to go fast. I waved good-bye to them and looked back as I heard the familiar crunch of the pebbles on the driveway, as the Jag’s back tires gripped the gravel fiercely. The brake lights went bright red, as they reached the end of the driveway,where the car stopped short to check for traffic, before roaring off onto the main road. I walked around to the side of the house, towards the backyard, to climb back up over the stone wall. I placed my feet on the proper rocks (which I knew by heart), hoisting my right leg up and over, still gripping Lu-Lu in my right hand. The climb was harder than normal to do in dress shoes. I quickly dropped Lu-Lu back into my pocket once I was over the wall. Even though the party crowd was high up on the hill, I wasn’t taking any chances. As much as I’d wanted to be caught (just to get it over with!), I had my preferences on just how I wanted be caught, and by whom. I didn’t want to be caught by Melody, her parents, or my father. That would involve yelling. I didn’t want to be caught by my other grandmother, whom I loved dearly, but who was far more intimidating than Nanny C. I also didn’t want my brothers involved. (They’d be too happy to watch me get punished!) I wanted it to be my Mom, Nanny C or Jenni- and so far, they had all been oblivious. But I couldn’t stand the tension-couldn’t live with it. I decided to try my mom one more time.
I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but the situation had spun out of control- and it no longer had anything to do with Melody. It was about me, and my perceived slights and assumptions about what other people were thinking. I came to find out in later years that, indeed, my father and I had very different senses of humor. Whether much of it was malicious or not is still unclear, but I’d like to think it was not. Through my actions I had let myself become petty. I had crossed a line- and it wasn’t going to change my father or Melody- it would only change me! And not for the better.
I walked up the hill, once again skirting the grill crowd- mostly my Dad and his friends drinking beer and flipping hamburgers, and a few tipsy aunts dancing to the a.m radio as it squawked out a tinny version of ‘Georgy Girl’. My Dad called out to me: “Hey Annie!” but I couldn’t bear for him to be nice to me now, and ignored him. He had no idea the burglar he’d spawned. He’d really be cheering for Team Melody once this caper was exposed. It was also inevitable I would be seeing (and feeling) the Fanny Whacker before sundown.
I climbed up the porch steps, and pressed my face against the screen door. My mother sat at the head of the dining room table, sipping coffee with my grandmothers and various lady friends flouting bouffants , flips, pastel colored dresses, capes, and capris, as they willed spring to arrive via fashion. (The same thing the men did by breaking out the grills) A heavy, gold glass ashtray sat in the middle of the table, filled with lit cigarettes, their smoke intertwining, having a dance, then swirling towards the ceiling, A few dirty plates sat off to the side, remnants of cake slices and pieces of pie put out to pasture. My mother glanced over at me, no doubt seeing my face imprinted against the screen door like a stocking faced robber (most appropriate) and demanded: “Lisa! Stop that!” I pulled my face away, and slowly opened the door, plodding over to where she sat. I leaned against her and fidgeted, hinting for attention, but she was engaged in lively conversation with the ladies.
”Mom?” I asked, full-on moping. I turned and tried to rub my pocket against her leg. Nothing. I was now getting desperate. The bug was beginning to feel like a hot potato or the cooties. I left the table and went to the front door. Once there I opened it, then walked down the cement steps, grasping onto the scrolled iron railing listlessly, then slowly followed the slate path across the front lawn to the second set of cement stairs, which led to the street. From there I walked down the hill, dejectedly kicking a small stone, head down in shame, to the bottom of the Muffin Lane. I stopped when I got to the sewer grate. I peered down into the dark, muddy bottom. I pulled Lu-Lu out of my pocket and looked at her closely- for the first time noting her pretty painted eyelashes and cute smile. I felt awful about what I was going to do. I held her over the sewer, closed my eyes- and let go. I heard a loud ‘ping’ and opened my eyes just as she shot off the grate, then landed on an the iron grate. I had to step over and nudge her into the abyss with the tip of my Mary Jane. I was junior mafia now, a made (wo)man. My heart dropped as she fell. I assumed she would fall endlessly and out of site, but she landed in the mud about four feet down. She stood out like a flower growing up through a sidewalk. She looked so pretty, so innocent- and now she was cold, frightened and dirty! I burst out sobbing. I was the worst person ever in the world. I thought of God, and Mary, and the lambs, and Nan’s ominous church- and knew that I was a sinner from now on. And not just that: Batman, Superman, Courageous Cat- they would all hate me now…I was a villain. I was Dr. Smith! I was on the wrong side! How was I going to live like this? How long did life go anyway? It seemed long…
Still bawling, I ran back towards my house, up the hill, and stairs and into the living room. Melody sat on her mother’s lap in a chair in the living room, red-eyed from all of her crying, sucking her thumb, looking exhausted. I blew by her and made a bee-line to my Mom. Once there, I buried my face in her lap and sobbed even more loudly.
”What happened?” my mother asked, standing up and pulling me towards the kitchen, away from the crowd at the table. Once there, she crouched down and looked me in the eyes. “What’s wrong?” she asked gently, wiping my tears away with her upturned thumbs under both of my eyes.
”Mommy!”…. I said, in between big breaths- “I TOOK IT! I TOOK IT!”
”Took what?!” she asked, holding me by the shoulders, trying to find a lower angle and meet my down-turned eyes. I just couldn’t face her after I admitted what I did. Shame washed over me in waves.
”Melody’s Ladybug” I said, then dissolved into tears once more.
”Where is it?” mom asked, all business.
”Outside!” I moaned.
”Show me!” she said.
I walked to the front door, past the guests, who would witness this walk of shame, even if they had to put two and two together afterwards. A more hang-dog expression you could not find as I dramatically walked by. No one knew what had transpired, but they would soon. The ink was barely dry on the confession, but the wheels of justice were moving swiftly. And so would the fanny whacker. I felt phantom pain on my rear-end as I walked across the front yard, leading my mom to the sewer grate. I pointed down into the sewer, where Lu-Lu still sat with her cute little smile, and fancy lashes. Smiling at her assailant! You couldn’t beat the nice out of this bug!
”Oh, for crying out loud, Lisa Anne!” my mother said tersely, shaking her head “What in the world inspired you to do something like this?”
I shrugged my shoulders, bit my trembling lower lip, and said “It fell” before breaking down yet again. Snot bubbles inflated then popped, from my nose, my turtleneck damp from the succession of tears.
Of coarse, we had to tell my father, who- along with his good time buddies, went to the end of the street, lifted the extremely heavy grate, and fished Lu-Lu out with a metal rake. I ran to my room, and continued to cry, occasionally checking on the progress of the rescue from my second floor window. Lu-Lu was brought into the house, cleaned off in the sink and given back to Melody with much fan-fare and some applause. I overheard my father downstairs alluding to a certain ‘walloping’ that was in my near future. I hid under my blankets, fully dressed, anticipating the punishment. I was unable to resist leaving the door to my room open though, to hear the buzz about myself and my fate. I overheard several well-meaning theories- that maybe I was just trying to roll the Lady-bug down the street, and since it was a hill, it got away from me, landing in the sewer. The truth was much worse, but that was between me and Mary and God and the lambs, for now. And yet- even at the age of six ,though I was in deep, spank- inducing trouble, I also felt something I can only describe as relief…relief that I had confessed, relief that I was no longer carrying the burden of guilt in the form of a toy in my pocket, relief that Melody would be getting her favorite toy back, and that cute-little Lu-Lu was okay, after all. Had I known the word ‘redemption’ I would have also been relieved to know that it existed, and that it would be offered up to me, by my parents, and their friends, and my Nannys, and maybe even Melody, though I never saw her again.
I don’t remember the fanny whacking or the punishment I more than likely got that day, but I’ll never forget the weight of the guilt, and how cumbersome it was to carry. It taught me to weigh the price of doing the wrong thing, against the strength it would take to lift it, and travel with it. Though I remained a very good girl through elementary school, as a teen I didn’t always choose wisely, but at least I knew what I was signing up for, and what the ‘wrong’ thing might cost. And it always exacted its price.