Elizabeth's new baby sister came with bad blood. It made the baby yellow, her father said. Like the underripe summer squash that Elizabeth had picked nearly four weeks before to save from the frost that could kill it. She'd wanted to take the vegetable to third grade science, to show her
classmates that some things could grow with just sun. But when she lifted
it off the kitchen windowsill to rinse and put in a bag, she discovered a
furry grey slash covering the bottom like a rotting smile. Maybe she should
have turned it, she thought. Or rinsed it. Or anything that would have kept
the underside as perfect as the top. But she hadn't. And so she dropped the
decaying vegetable in the trash bag under the sink and emptied a box of
Cheerios on top of it.
"Wake up, sweet pea," her father had said when he returned from the
hospital and pulled Elizabeth out of another Kennedy dream. Caroline had
just asked Elizabeth to be her big sister, and come live with her in the
White House. "You have a new baby sister. Mara."
Elizabeth squeezed her eyes together as her father smoothed her
blonde bangs from her forehead. "Daddy?" she mumbled. "Can I sleep at
He pinched one of her freckled cheeks, stroked the birthmark near
her mouth and kissed her lightly on the lips.
Elizabeth squinted. The skin around her father's blue-grey eyes
crinkled back. "Daddy?" When she opened her eyes, she saw the light brown
curls that belonged to him, too. And the smile. With all those teeth.
"Your new baby sister is here. Mara." Then he lifted Elizabeth's
sheet, wrapped his arms around her, and pulled her close to his chest. Her
bare feet dangled against him; the toenails her mother had painted Rose Red
grazed the tops of his knees. "Mazel tov, big sister." With one hand placed
on the middle of her back and the other firmly on her bottom, he waltzed
her down to the kitchen, where he planted her on one of the chairs that
matched the blue gingham curtains covering the windows. "We need a
celebratory meal. Hot chocolate. Cereal. And some sugar."
Elizabeth folded her arms on the table in front of her and rested
her head against them. Long, blonde waves fell across her placemat; she
twisted a few around her finger. When she blinked, her lashes brushed the
pink flowers on the sleeve of her nightgown, the favorite one that she'd
put on after her bath and before her mother's baby water had spilled all
over the living room couch. "When's Mommy coming home?" She glanced at the
clock on the wall next to the refrigerator. It was almost three. "Is Mrs.
Bernstein still here?"
"I sent her home to Tommy and Linda, sugar plum. Mothers who love
their kids want to get back to them as soon as they can."
Elizabeth lifted her head and craned her neck toward the
cross-paned glass on the kitchen door. The Bernstein's living room light
was already out. She leaned back onto her arm.
"Ready for some hot chocolate?"
Her father took a mug from the shelf near the stove, filled it with
steaming milk and reached in the pantry for the Nestle's. After mixing in
two spoonfuls of the glittery brown powder, he put the drink on the
placemat in front of Elizabeth. "A sweet treat for my sweet treat." Then he
whistled a few notes of the prince song from Sleeping Beauty. They'd seen
the movie downtown last week, at the Palm Theatre, with its red velvet
ropes and swirled marble floor near the popcorn counter. Just the two of
"Now, about the bad blood," her father said.
Elizabeth looked up.
"The bad blood. In your new sister, Mara. It turned her yellow."
Elizabeth shook her head.
Her father rummaged through the cupboard and pulled out a box of
Cheerios. "Not this yellow," he said, nodding at the bright box. He glanced
toward the bunch of bananas sitting next to the sink. "Or like those
Chiquitas, either. More washed out. Dull."
He went to Elizabeth, slid his fingers a short way down her back.
He rubbed her shoulder; goosebumps popped up at the bottom of her neck.
"Not like your peaches and cream." He fingered the lace that trimmed the
gown's neckline and eased the fabric away from her throat. When he bent to
kiss the place where her Star of David fit, his curls tickled her chin.
"So tasty." He smiled.
Elizabeth stuck the nail of her right thumb between her front teeth
and, for a moment, flicked it back and forth.
"She looks a little like you, you know, with that soft, thick
hair." He gathered a bundle of the waves that brushed the middle of her
back, lifted them and blew on the nape of her neck. "But it's not that long
yet, of course."
Elizabeth nibbled on her thumbnail.
"And you don't look Chinese." With his index fingers, he pulled his
eyes into slits. The blue in them seemed to disappear.
Elizabeth blinked a few times. She giggled."That's not nice,
Her father chuckled and shook his head.
As Elizabeth sipped her hot chocolate, her father stirred more
Nestle's into the steaming milk in front of him. He removed the spoon and,
while he licked a shiny glob of sweetness from its tip, stared at her. "No
way to know yet when either of them will come home."
"But I want to hug Mommy. And the new baby, too."
"Mara. Your sister's name is Mara."
Elizabeth thought of their Passover dinner last spring, with the
lamb's burned neckbone next to the horseradish -- the maror -- on the Seder
plate. She had dipped her fingertip into the chunky grey mound, then
touched it to her tongue. Even now her eyes watered. "Like the bitter
herbs?" She wrinkled her nose.
Her father smiled. "Mar-a."
She rubbed her eyes with closed fists and the lace edging on her
sleeve brushed against one of her cheeks. She squinted. "Can we call Mommy?
"No one up at this hour but the bogeyman, sweet pea." He reached
across the table, clasped her hand and started stroking her thumb with his
"In the morning, Daddy? And can I see her, too? To give her a
"Plenty of time for kisses." He raised one eyebrow and the bushy
line of hair broke into two bristly clumps. "The doctor has to check out
her sewed up parts first. Make sure she won't fall apart the minute she
walks in the door." The bristles stretched out. "And then there's the bad
Elizabeth pulled her hand from her father's and put her pinky in
"Your mother gave it to your sister. With her blood being so
negative, of course." He got up and took a bowl from the shelf over the
dish drainer, picked up the Cheerios and started to pour.
As she dragged her fingernail back and forth against her teeth,
Elizabeth watched the puffy little "o's" pile up. They looked like open
mouths, she thought. Scared maybe, but quiet.
Her father sliced a banana into the cereal, then took the milk
bottle from the cutting board. "Negative means `nothing,' you know. Her
Elizabeth pulled a few strands of hair from behind her shoulder and
started to chew on them.
As her father poured milk over the cereal, it splashed into the
bowl, spattered on the counter. He dabbed at the drops and, with his
tongue, lapped them slowly off his finger. "It's not like you can tell from
the outside about your mother. She looks like a regular person."
Elizabeth thought of the dark hair her mother teased and sprayed
every afternoon into a perfect flip, like Mrs. Kennedy's. And the puffy
lips she painted shiny Rose Red before she'd go help the guests at the
Statler, or the Sheraton. The high heels, too, with the sparkly straps
around her ankles and the pearls that dangled into the place where her
breasts met and lifted like round, pink balloons. She sighed.
Elizabeth's father sat down at the table across from her and began
eating."They're afraid she might be poison." He shook his head.
The only kinds of poisons Elizabeth could think of were the
ant-killing meals stuck inside little tin cans with holes on the sides like
doorways, so the tricked ants could think they were going out to eat
instead of coming in to die. Her mother put them on the kitchen floor, in
the corners. Maybe some of the poison leaked out.
"The way she gave Mara that bad blood and everything. They're going
to check by taking out some of her milk. With a needle." He chewed for a
moment and swallowed. "It'll probably hurt, but your mother can take it.
She's a tough broad."
Elizabeth thought how, just two nights before, her mother had stood
in the kitchen, smashing her round belly into the counter and smacking that
special meat hammer onto the steak. Banging out all the toughness so they
could slice into it easy, like butter. Then she'd put the steak into the
oven and left little puddles of blood soaking into the cutting board until
after dinner. "But what about the new baby?"
"Mara?" He raised his eyebrows and three lines dug ditches across
his forehead. "The doctor knows how to fix her. He'll poke a hole in her
heel, maybe hold her up by her armpits, let all the bad blood drip out."
Elizabeth stared at him.
"Then he'll stick a needle in her bellybutton to get her ready to
fill up with the good stuff. Don't you think so?"
Grandma Kate used to poke a needle into her leg every morning to
wash out the sugar that made her too sweet. Sometimes Elizabeth would watch
her open her blue housecoat and roll her beige stocking -- her snuggies,
Grandma called them -- down around her ankle like a bagel. Then the
needle, shiny and silver and sharp. She shivered.
Elizabeth thought her father might be wrong. Her mother was too
beautiful to be poison. And all of the babies Elizabeth had seen were pink
or even a little red, bunched and baggy and wrinkled. Besides, she knew
that blood from your guts wasn't red-red; it was brownish. She had learned
that last year when she'd unwrapped one of those wadded-up balls of toilet
paper her mother stuffs into the bathroom wastebasket, and found a big
strip of cottonlike gauze with a sticky-looking brown glob smeared across
it. She'd been trying to wrap it back up when her father had walked in.
"Body blood," he'd said. "From the guts between your legs. The
worst kind." He raised an eyebrow and stared at Elizabeth."You'll get it,
too, when your babies try to crawl out."
She'd asked Grandma Kate about the blood, about babies crawling
"Body blood? Your father's talking about ladies' business when he
can't even make it as a man." She'd shaken her head, wrapped her arms
around Elizabeth and pulled her close to her chest. A lacy white
handkerchief peeked out between the two top buttons on her grandmother's
dress. "Making up stories just to scare my sweet pea."
"Do babies crawl out?" Elizabeth had asked.
"Hush! He flunked out of doctor school for a good reason." When she
bent to kiss Elizabeth's forehead, the soft, floppy skin around her neck
stacked into folds under her chin. "Bleeding guts and crawling babies."
She'd shaken her head. "Now, come help Grandma clean her sugar."
Elizabeth's father reached across the table and slipped his hand
under her sleeveband. He stroked her forearm; she felt the light fuzz
covering it stand on end.
"How about some Cheerios, big sister?" he said. "With an extra
spoon of sugar?"
Elizabeth shook her head and her hair slapped against her cheeks
and her neck. She shut her eyes and saw her grandma sitting on the bed in
the spare room, brown bobby pin crosses trapping her white curls, circling
her head like a fence. Her father stood at the door. "Shot time," he said.
Legs dangling and thigh exposed, Grandma Kate plunged the needle into
"When can I shoot my own sweet mama?" Her father laughed.
Grandma Kate pulled the needle out. "My son, Dr. Fake."
Elizabeth opened her eyes and shuddered.
Her father kept stroking her arm. "How about some sweets for the
sweet?" he said. "Two spoons of sugar. It's a celebration. "
Elizabeth pulled her arm away. She remembered the yellow and white
crepe paper twists that stretched across the dining room ceiling at her
birthday party last month. She'd helped her mother tape bunches of pale
green balloons to the crinkly streamers, and to the walls, and even got to
scatter spearmint leaves, her favorite candy, on the "Happy Birthday"
tablecloth before her guests came. They covered her birthday cake, too,
stuck into the sticky swirls of frosting like clumps of shimmering bushes.
"My stomach hurts."
"Here. Let Daddy rub it."
Elizabeth nibbled at a fingernail."When's Mommy coming home?"
"Not until the doctor puts the good blood in your sister."
Nurses could give the new baby good blood, too, Elizabeth knew. One
had come to help Grandma Kate die last year. She'd washed her grandma's
face, wiped her bottom and fed her - first with spoons and then with a
needle. It was bigger than the sugar needle, long and thick and shiny. With
a transparent tube attached to it, like a tail, sneaking out from
underneath the yellowed skin on her arm to an upside-down jar that hung
from a rack near her bed.
"Why does she have that kind of needle in her?" Elizabeth had asked
"She wouldn't eat her green beans so she has to have food shots
"Like sugar shots?"
"Like sour shots," her father had said.
Elizabeth had thought then of the pickles her grandma liked to dunk
into tea."Sweet and sour. Keeps my sugar down," her grandma said. She
remembered how, as Grandma Kate chewed, brown beads of liquid dripped from
the pickle like dirty tears. Elizabeth's lips puckered.
"Do sour shots hurt?" she had asked her father.
He had chuckled. "Only when she laughs."
The new baby would get blood shots. Elizabeth imagined a length of
tubing stretching across the nursery from the baby's bassinet to a shiny
machine that hummed softly while it cleaned the blood. She wondered if the
other babies cried when they heard it.
She looked up and watched her father spoon the milk-drenched
Cheerios into his mouth. "I want to talk to Mommy."
Her father leaned forward. "Your mother's all doped up. Shot full
of drugs so she wouldn't feel the doctor sewing up her split ass." He
picked up his spoon again. "It hurts to have a baby, honeybunch. Real bad."
Elizabeth shifted in her seat. A row of sharp, short needles with
almost invisible eyes had poked into the ribbon under the lid of Grandma
Kate's sewing box. They pointed down, always, to keep bubbles of blood off
of her grandma's fingertips. "When will Mommy come home?"
"Your mother doesn't need to come home yet."
Elizabeth thought of the small suitcase her mother had packed the
week before. In it were a nightgown, two pairs of underpants, terrycloth
slippers, her purple makeup bag and a zippered plastic case holding a
toothbrush, toothpaste and a comb. "But what if she needs some clothes?"
"She's got plenty of hospital gowns. All slit up the back, too, so
those doctors can goose her and check out her stitches at the same time."
Elizabeth closed her eyes for a moment and saw Grandma Kate glare
at her father. She opened them.
"Carry me back to bed, Daddy. Okay?"
Her father smiled and stood up.
Elizabeth's curtains were still closed when the telephone woke her.
She and Caroline were riding Macaroni bareback, in the White House back
yard. The President was inside at work; Mrs. Kennedy was shopping.
"Hello?" Elizabeth's father said from the kitchen. A streak of
sunlight sliced through the lined organdy panels covering her windows. "Ah,
Dottie. The love of my loins.
"Mommy!" Elizabeth jumped from bed and ran down the hall. She
stopped at the kitchen door.
Her father looked up."You being a good girl and letting that doctor
sew everything back up tight?"
"Is it Mommy?" Elizabeth said.
"Taking your medicine to clean out the poison?"
"I want to talk."
Her father nodded and held up a finger.
Elizabeth flicked her thumbnail against her front teeth.
"Elizabeth? Elizabeth who?" He laughed.
"Hi, Mommy!" Elizabeth shouted.
Her father turned from her and, receiver to ear, started walking
toward the sink.
"Oh." As he neared the counter, the telephone cord followed, its
dangle of black coils stretching into a thick line. "So the doctor wants
Elizabeth's blood drained out, too." He squinted. "Hmmm." He looked at her
and shrugged his shoulders. "Sure, I can do it. In fact, I think there's
still some of my mother's needles in the medicine cabinet."
Elizabeth clamped her teeth against her thumbnail and tore it off.
She ran from the kitchen to her bedroom, closed her door and locked it.
Then she climbed into bed. With her blanket over her head, she tucked her
knees and legs in toward her chest, squeezed her eyes together and began to
rock. She looked in her mind for Caroline, but only saw the gate leading to
Macaroni's barn. It was closed.
When Elizabeth opened her eyes, her clock said it was almost dinner
time. She disentangled herself from the blanket and stretched out on her
bed. For a moment, she listened to the quiet. Then she got up and put her
ear against the door. When she twisted the lock open, it clicked.
Her father's door was closed, so she tiptoed past it to the living
room. A pink and blue afghan trimmed with long white fringe was draped over
the arm of the rocking chair. She nudged one of the rockers with her foot.
"Rock-a-bye Baby" tinkled out. She tapped the chair again and it rocked
some more. The fringes swayed. The music ground out in short, tight
"Rock-a-bye baby," her father said.
Elizabeth drew a tight breath in through her nose, then turned. Her
father stood in the hallway. He was wearing a sleeveless white undershirt
and green boxer shorts. His arms popped out like fat, hairy peanuts in
"I just wanted to see how it works," she said.
Her father chuckled and walked into the room. "I'll show you how it
works." He sat down on the chair, legs slightly open. The hole in front of
his boxers gaped. Elizabeth looked away and stepped back. Her father patted
his lap. "Come to Daddy." He smiled. The music sighed.
"I need to pee." Elizabeth turned, then walked quickly toward the
"Watch out for bad blood," her father said as she shut the door.
Elizabeth twisted the lock. She sat on the toilet, lifted her
nightgown and felt the warm liquid escape from between her legs. A drop
splashed the inside of her thigh and, after she dabbed it away, she looked
at her finger. The liquid was colorless.
Legs dangling, she stared at the glass blocks covering the window
like thick chunks of ice. A few more drops trickled out of her body. She
tore a length of toilet paper from its holder, dabbed between her legs and
dropped the tissue into the toilet.
After she washed her hands, Elizabeth went to the kitchen. Her
father sat at the table reading the Post and eating a roast beef sandwich.
Red juice from the meat soaked the bread. When Elizabeth walked in, he
looked up and peered at her from over his reading glasses. Hair poked
through the armholes of his tee-shirt.
"When's Mommy coming home?" She got the Cheerios, filled a bowl,
then poured milk over the cereal. "And her baby?"
He put the paper down.
"Her baby? It belongs to me, Elizabeth."
She looked at him, then back down. The baby belonged to her mother.
It had stretched her stomach to the size of a kickball and drawn inky blue
lines across her breasts. Grandma Kate had even told her once about the
special baby-growing spot, and the tube connected to it that changed the
mother's just-swallowed food into something the baby could eat and grow
Elizabeth angled her spoon carefully into the bowl, then backed it
out. After eating a few of the "o's", she held the spoon in front of her
and looked at it. "But she grew the baby in her."
"Ah, yes. But I planted the seed." He bit into his sandwich. "That
puts me in charge, you know."
With the back of her spoon, Elizabeth pressed the cereal into the
"Of course, when we put your good blood in Mara, that'll make her
your baby, too."
Elizabeth smacked the spoon against the oats. Milk sloshed onto the
"Your baby and my baby. Your mother won't mind. She'll just go make
another one. Hell, maybe even give one of her regulars a deal." He winked.
"Want some orange juice?"
Elizabeth shook her head. She stared at her bowl, at the circles
floating on milk.
Her father reached across the table and cupped her chin in his
palm. "Or maybe we'll let your mother keep Mara, and we'll get our own new
baby, instead. Your belly shouldn't stretch out too far -- not much skin
there to stretch in the first place. And you're a big girl; you probably
won't even feel the stitches." He pinched her cheeks together. "Easier
than having your blood drained out for Mara, you know." He released his
grip and pushed his chair away. "How about a banana?" He took the last one
from the counter, then sat down close to Elizabeth. "The doctor wants me to
do it, by the way."
As she reached for the cereal box, her father grabbed her arm. She
jerked back; he tightened his grip.
"Mommy likes Cheerios," Elizabeth said. "It's got lots of vitamins,
she says. And minerals."
"Don't worry. It won't hurt." He pushed Elizabeth's sleeve up and,
with his thumb, rubbed a quarter-sized circle into the flesh below her
shoulder. "This will be a good place." He bent and kissed the spot, looked
up at her, then nibbled her earlobe. "Or here."
Elizabeth snapped her shoulders back and her father let go of her
arm. "It'll be a new hole, of course, so it'll hurt more than having a
baby. But with a big needle like the one in Grandma's food tube, it'll go
faster." He smiled and blew her a kiss. Then he relaxed into his chair.
"Mommy's baby likes Cheerios, too. Like me. Both of us got them
from Mommy's food tube." Elizabeth turned the cereal box on its side and
began tearing ragged slices into the boxtop. She pulled off a piece of
grainy cardboard. After rolling it like a pea, she dropped it into the
bowl, where it floated for a moment, flattened out and sank. "The minerals
are the most important. They keep the baby strong forever." She tossed
another cardboard pebble in and, as it unfurled, a chip of yellow appeared
on its edge. Like a frog on a lily pad, Elizabeth thought, in a pond.