Margaret dangled her legs over the edge of the fire escape and flipped to a clean page in her diary.
"I haven’t written in a long time," she began, "but now with this Blue Hill thing and all, I feel like I should. Maizon took a test in April. If she passes, she’s going to go to this big private school in Connecticut.
"Every night I pray she doesn’t get accepted."
She heard a rumble and looked out toward the bridge. The train was a long shadow in the twilight, creeping slowly across water she couldn’t see. She watched it for a moment, then stood up and searched the block for Maizon. Lights flickered on and off in the brownstones across from her. A hot summer breeze blew out of the darkness.
Margaret sat down again and continued writing.
"I don’t know why Maizon has to go to some dumb boarding school anyway. The schools in Brooklyn are fine. And when I say Blue Hill out loud, it makes me think of someplace sad and cold all the time. Maizon said it probably isn’t so cold in Connecticut. She doesn’t know about the sad part though. She said without a best friend, it’ll probably get a little lonely. Ms. Dell said we shouldn’t go counting our chickens because we’re not even sure if Maizon’s going to get accepted or not. Every day, we wait for a letter. I feel like I’m on one of those balance beams we have in gym class—balancing between today and tomorrow."
Margaret closed the book and climbed back inside just as her father came into the living room. She looked at the small blue suitcase he was carrying and frowned.
"Just some tests," he said softly, sitting down beside her on the window ledge. Another train rumbled and somewhere in the distance a baby was crying.
"How long will the hospital keep you this time?"
Margaret asked. She remembered her last visit and started to tremble.
Her father rested his chin on the top of her head. "Until they find out what’s making this old ticker act the way it’s acting. Could be a week. Could be a day." His voice trailed off. Margaret put her arms around him.
"Don’t let them take the life out of you, Daddy," she whispered. She remembered her father’s dark, handsome face looking shriveled and old beneath the hospital covers.
"What makes you think your daddy’s gonna let something like that happen?" He sat up straight and Margaret felt a cold spot where his chin had been.
"Listen here, Margaret . . ." he began, taking her chin in his hands and gently pulling her face toward him.
Behind the slow smile he gave her he looked tired and worried. The wrinkles between his thick eyebrows cut deeply into his forehead.
"You gonna have to hold this family together while I’m gone, take care of your mama and Li’l Jay."
A shadow crossed her father’s face. "It might take a little while for me to get back on my feet after all these silly tests they gonna run. But don’t worry your pretty little head about that. It would take a lot for one of them skinny plastic tubes to bring this six-footer down."
Her father brushed a stray hair out of her eyes. "Why does your mama think she needs to hide all of this pretty hair?"
Margaret smiled and shrugged, then turned a little so her father could undo her braid. His hands felt strong and sure.
"There now. Pretty head of hair like that needs to hang free." He kissed her on the forehead.
Margaret ran her fingers through her hair. It hung to her shoulders in thick waves.
"Where’s that crazy Maizon?" he asked, leaning back out of the window and taking a quick look down the block.
"Maybe she’ll even get here before tomorrow." Her father laughed.
Her mother came out of the bedroom, with Li’l Jay following behind her. At fourteen months, walking was
still new to him and he was constantly following whoever let him.
"Margaret, what’d I tell you about messing with your hair?"
Margaret started to speak but her father caught her eye and winked.
"I was just telling her to look after you two while I’m gone," he said.
"And who’s going to look after Margaret?" her mother teased.
"Jay!" Li’l Jay shouted, throwing his bottle across the floor.
"Daddy, will you be home for the block party?"
Her father scooped her up the way he had done when she was young and swung her toward the ceiling.
Margaret laughed and punched his shoulders.
"Block party! Hah!" He sat her down gently and hugged her. "We’re going to have a Tory family reunion!"
"Yay!" Li’l Jay said, spinning in a circle and hurling himself onto the floor. He giggled and sat up.
She watched from the window as her mother helped her father into a cab, then climbed in beside him. The car crawled slowly down the empty street, signaled once, then turned the corner.
"Daddy . . ." she said, realizing he hadn’t answered her question. "Good-bye, Daddy." Margaret hated the way the words sounded in the now quiet apartment.
"Li’l Jay!" she yelled.
"Jay," he repeated, toddling into the living room with a pan in his hand. The feet of his baggy pajamas dragged behind him.
"When Maizon gets here, you’re going to bed," Margaret warned. "No crying, either."
"Maizon!" Jay repeated, banging the pot against the hardwood floor.
"Bed," Margaret said, turning back to the window and pressing her hands to her ears. A hot breeze blew in over his noise.
"Man, it’s hot tonight!" She pulled her shirt away from her chest and blew down onto her skin. Where was Maizon, anyway? "Li’l Jay, stop that noise!"
The room fell silent. Margaret turned to Li’l Jay. His bottom lip quivered.
"Oh, Jay," she said, lifting him into her arms. "I’m sorry." She carried him over to the window. The pot clattered to the floor.
They sat on the radiator and stared out past the brownstones at the bridge. Past the lights, Manhattan loomed up dark and shadowy in the distance. The train rumbled by slowly and Li’l Jay began to whine.
"Sounds like it’s in pain, doesn’t it?" Margaret whispered. Li’l Jay pressed his head against her shoulder. "Probably creeping across that bridge for the millionth time."
"Twain," Li’l Jay said, drifting off to sleep.
Margaret stared out into the growing night for a long time.
"You look like Mary and Baby Jesus," Maizon yelled up. Li’l Jay started but didn’t wake up.
"It’s about time!" Margaret yelled back. In the near-darkness she could only make out Maizon’s Afro and dark dress. She carried Li’l Jay to his crib, then ran to hide her diary.
"What’d you do to your hair? It’s scary," Maizon said when Margaret opened the door.
"Me?! Your grandmother’s going to skin you alive when she finds out you left the house looking like that," Margaret said. "And with her makeup and earrings too? Maizon, I know you’ve lost your mind!"
Maizon smiled and sauntered past her. She wore a red and black dress with a black and a red pocket on either side and a red tie at the collar. Her messy Afro looked strange against the two red circles she had blushed onto her cheeks. Huge gold-hoop earrings dragged down her earlobes and her black eyeliner was crooked.
She turned to give Margaret a better look and smiled, showing off.
"Margaret . . . Margaret . . . Margaret . . ." Maizon said, dragging out the name in a phony, grown-up tone. "Are you so corny that you don’t know this is what everybody’s wearing in the city? Everybody! I’m retro." She twirled again and pulled out a magazine she had tucked underneath her dress.
"Look!" she said, opening to a page and pointing to a picture of a black woman modeling an outfit identical to her own. "This is where I saw the dress first. My grandmother made this one exactly like it, and now I’m the first girl in Brooklyn to have it! You want me to ask her to make you one?"
"Nah, I don’t really like it." Margaret stared longingly at the black sleeves gathered around Maizon’s wrists.
"You just don’t like it ’cause I got it first!" Maizon declared. She went over to the refrigerator and looked into the fruit bin. "I hate pears," she said, sucking her teeth and reaching for one.
"I don’t like red and black together—especially in the summer when it’s so hot outside," Margaret said.
Maizon looked the pear over carefully. "This pear is all bruised up," she said, taking a bite. "You should tell your mother to buy her pears at Ocasio’s. They have the freshest ones. Jefferson Avenue Market has good apples, but their pears aren’t so great."
"My mother doesn’t have time to shop, between working and worrying about my father and everything. Not everyone can sit around like your grandma and make dresses!"
Maizon took another bite and frowned. Margaret turned away from her and flipped angrily through the magazine.
"Well then, ask your mother to give us money and we’ll do the shopping," Maizon suggested.
"I don’t like to ask her a lot of things because it seems like she’s always crying. That makes me cry. And Li’l Jay’s always crying!" Margaret yelled.
Maizon sucked her teeth again. "God, sorry I asked!" She stared at her pear. "Isn’t your daddy getting any
"They’ve gone to the hospital for tests. He’s going to have to stay there. He looks skinnier too." Margaret sat down and put her elbows on the table. Didn’t Maizon understand anything?
"You gonna go visit him?"
"They said maybe I shouldn’t go anymore because I get too upset. I always start crying. I hate the way those white sheets swallow him up. It scares me."
"You want me to go to the hospital with you?"
Margaret nodded. "I do, but only family can visit him. If you could go, maybe I wouldn’t start crying."
"I wish the stupid hospital people didn’t know your family. Then I could make believe I was your sister or something."
Margaret got up again, took a pear from the refrigerator, and began cutting away the peel.
"Hey! That’s the best part!" Maizon said, grabbing the peel. She tossed her core into the garbage can.
"I hate that part." Margaret pushed the small green pile across the counter to her, glad Maizon wasn’t mad at her for yelling.
"Where’s Junior?" Maizon asked with her mouth full.
"One of these days my mother’s gonna hear you call him that and kick you out of the house."
"I know, but Li’l Jay sounds dumb. No one calls your dad ‘Big Jay.’"
"Yeah, I know." She handed the rest of her peel to Maizon. "Li’l Jay’s asleep."
"Can you go outside?"
"Only if Ms. Dell and Hattie are there. Did you see them when you were coming upstairs?"
"No, but they’re probably just waiting until it gets a little cooler out. Anyway, it’s only eight-thirty."
"Maizon, can you show me how to do that dance where we turn and go down and—"
"That dance?!" Maizon screeched. "Where have you been, Margaret? Under a rock? That dance has been dead for ages!"
"Oh, you ain’t so smart, Maizon Singh!" she shouted. "You think you know everything, but you don’t! You don’t know anything!" Margaret screamed, running into the living room. She buried her face in one of the couch pillows and cried. After a moment, Maizon tiptoed in and sat beside her.
Copyright © 2002 by Jacqueline Woodson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.