By Karen Stolz
Published by Hyperion
March 2003; 0786886056; 256 pages
It was a grand day in August, sunny and iced with cloud wisps. But Sue had a problem. She was sure she'd had a penny in the pocket of her dress. It was one of those teeny-weeny decorative pockets stitched onto the chest of her dress. When Aunt Millie made the girls' clothes, she always sewed on these little extra pockets. So far, in hers, Sue had stored, at different times: five lima beans she was hiding from Mom, a chewed piece of gumball it was awful hard to get off once placed there, a pop pearl from Mom's beads that escaped when Baby Bob got hold of them, and a tic-tac-toe game Sue and Fanny had done on a candy wrapper in church with the tiny donation envelope pencil. Sue's worry about the penny was that Fanny had made off with it. She could just picture her now at Beedleman's Grocery buying anything she liked with her five cents, but given Fanny's sweet tooth, most likely a whole bunch of candies. I will kill her, Sue vowed.
Just then, Uncle Donald, Aunt Millie, and cousins Myra and Randall arrived at the door with fudge candy. Please, God, let there be no nuts, Sue breathed. She knew Fanny would be praying for the opposite. And just like that, Fanny materialized. She could sense candy from a mile away. She strolled through the door looking exactly like Sue to most, but worlds opposite to Sue herself. Sue thought this identical twins business was a sad mistake. Mom insisted on dressing them exactly alike each and every minute of their fool lives. And darn it all, Fanny had pulled a switch on the red dresses they wore today, and gotten the loot. Sue marched up to Fanny and then fell upon her, clutching at the little breast pocket to find her penny. Nothing. Pop reached into the flurry knees and flying hair and righted the two girls lickety-split. "Twins!" he bellowed.
Sue secretly suspected he couldn't tell one from the other. Rarely did he specify names, and he'd had six years to get them straight. "She's got my penny," Sue wept.
Uncle Donald pulled out two pennies and handed them to Sue and Fanny. And then Fanny and Sue's brother, Baby Bob, got one (which Pop pocketed so Bob wouldn't swallow it), and then Uncle Donald and Aunt Millie's own children, Randall and Myra, got a penny each. Now everyone had pennies. The whole world had pennies. But I will still kill Fanny, Sue dreamed.
As punishment for their poor behavior while relatives visited, Fanny and Sue had to help their mother with the afternoon wash. Mom gave Fanny a small scrub brush and made her work at the dirty hem stains of her dress while Sue was set to sorting clothes into piles on a wooden table. The twins stood in the basement in their cotton undershirts and panties, since Mom had made them take off their dresses to wash on the spot. There was a cool feel to the basement, leastways, a relief from the warmth of the day, but the basement was an extremely shadowy place. Fanny was scared of spiders and kept feeling little squishy legs brushing across her feet; however, when she looked down, it was just dust bunnies. She wanted to tell Mom this was really Sue's dress, not her own, so why did she have to work at the stains, but what good would that do? Then Sue would know she had that penny, and Mom would be more emphatic then ever that Fanny clean off the dirt. Fanny hit her own baby finger with the scrub brush. "Owwie," she whimpered.
Sue was preparing the bluing, an ink blue fluid that turned the dull clothes to bright white. This was a job that had only recently been entrusted to her, because it stained like crazy. The first time Sue mixed it, her fingers were blue for days after and she had to wear her white, lacy church gloves around all the time. In truth, however, she loved doing that, though she complained about it for good measure. She liked wearing those little gloves till they got glued together with pancake syrup. Cripes!
"Pour it in, doll-baby," Mom cried out.
It was time! Sue poured in the goo-ishy blue stuff and watched it ribbon into the clothes. Once mixed in, the bluing turned everything stark white. What a mystery.
They were not old enough yet to operate the wringer. They wondered when they ever would be. Mom had caught her apron string in the wringer once, and when she spun around the handle, unaware, the wringer pulled her sideways like she was a ball of cotton fluff and whacked her behind hard. It like to have dragged in the whole apron and Mom with it, had Pop not been down in the basement at the time tinkering in his wood shop. He dashed over like a hero, and with a pair of rose-pruning sheers he cut the apron from Mom, and she fell sideways crying. The twins thought the tears were for her near brush with death, but she really loved that apron; it was pink with small yellow daisies at the borders. Later she cut and sewed the apron scraps into little hankies, edging them in green thread, and the two girls took them to church in their pocketbooks. They were sweet but Sue was nervous that the little yellow daisies looked like tiny bits of snot so she never used hers.
Sue was the more nervous twin in general though. In just two weeks Fanny and Sue would be off to start school, and their whole lives would change, Sue believed, not for the better. Their older cousin Randall had warned them about school. All day long you had to sit up, pay attention, learn letters, learn words, he said. It was work, work, work, all the livelong day he said.
Well, that sounded like what Pop did. He had to work all day long every day except Saturday and Sunday. He worked for the Public Service Company, driving streetcars. He wore a crisp, gray uniform that Mom ironed like the dickens every day, freshening it up between washings. Pop had a reputation as the friendliest motorman in north St. Louis and knew all the regular riders by name. The twins rode with him sometimes and saw he was sweet as pie to the old ladies especially. They loved him and sometimes tried to kiss on him or attempted to slip nickels into his pocket. But Pop always told them he did not work for tips! Pop loved the sound the coin collector made when he pushed the wand down, and all the coins went clittery clattery down the chute. Fanny and Sue loved it too; it was a kind of musical sound, and money sounded grand when it joined together.
Pop's working all day wasn't so bad, Sue guessed, but Fanny and Sue couldn't picture themselves working that hard, and as the last days of August ticked by, they were filled with dread for school. Meanwhile, Mom assembled matching outfits for the girls to wear. For the brand-new-school clothes, Mom had stitched a little yellow flower on the neck of Sue's outfits, and a little blue flower at Fanny's neck. They wore the same size and didn't know the reason was for marking the clothes. Would Mom inspect their clothes after school and cast blame if something wasn't right?
September rolled around crisp as a paper kite and full of the good smell of leaves burning. In the air there were speckles of red and yellow from the almost ashes. School had begun. Mom walked the girls there, wearing her good Sunday clothes, as if she might run into the Revered Bickle all of a sudden, or some such person. She even put on stockings and nice shoes. Sue and Fanny loved the way their Mom looked, like a movie star, similar to Clara Bow, with a laughing look in her dark eyes. And sweet whorls of hair at her cheeks. She even put on lipstick first thing when she got up, just like a movie star would.
Fanny and Sue were united on this school thing. Whatever do we want to learn to count for, what is the earthly purpose, they asked. Okay, it might be good to add nickels and pennies sometimes so that Mom would trust them to go to the bakery and buy a loaf of bread. Though they liked it better when Mom baked the bread herself and they got to help, slicking up their palms in lard to get the pans glistening greasy for Mom. Sometimes they got to whack at the dough, though Mom called it kneading. Anyway, counting out money might be helpful.
The teacher would want to teach the twins how to read, and Mom said, pretend along, even though she'd already taught them. Fanny and Sue could already read real chapter books, and they thought that Dick and Jane were silly. Dick and Jane never tricked their friends with pepper candy, like Fanny and Sue had. Dick and Jane were never nude and they never used the bathroom, like regular people. Sue and Fanny had seen many things. They saw their Pop kiss their Mom one time in a way that made Mom squirmy. They had seen Grandpa Logan sneak cigars into the house behind their grandma's back. They had helped him even, creating a distraction with some gum and their own hair. Oh how they'd paid for that, ouch; their hair had stuck out like wild bits of milkweed on a stalk. Mom had had to crop their hair short.
Fanny and Sue sat together in one seat in the classroom. Sue had to fight back the urge to suck on Fanny's collar like she'd done when she was a baby. The teacher, Miss Smoodler, had never had identical twins, so she didn't know what to make of them. "Must you sit in the same chair, girls?" Some of the kids laughed. We'll find ways to get them later, Fanny thought.
"Yes, identical twins sit together," Fanny said, like this was a part of the Bible or something. The teacher didn't know what to do, so she just let the girls sit together. Sue smelled on Fanny's sleeves and felt better. She liked the way Fanny smelled, like her own smell. Like homemade paste, but sweeter.
Miss Smoodler scraped the chalk suddenly across the board, and the sound made Sue jump up into Fanny's lap. How embarrassing. The girls held on to each other all day. When they were supposed to color trees brown and green, Sue colored the trunk and Fanny the leaves. Miss Smoodler frowned. "Girls, you must do your own work!" she screeched.
"We are," Fanny retorted. "I am coloring my very own leaves, and doing it swell, too. Sue is coloring her very own tree trunk."
Miss Smoodler continued to frown as she passed out Animal Crackers. The other kids, they got six Animal Crackers each. Fanny and Sue got six to share. The world looked to be a very hard place, the girls feared.
The girls in their own home were often sworn enemies, but out in the world, they clung together like new kittens to a teat. Teat, a word the girls had learned from Randall the last time he was over. Since he was older, he claimed to remember what the twins had looked like at their mom's teats. He had told the twins they looked like question marks faced backward to each other. They never! Fanny hollered, then punched Randall in the arm. Randall made a face. He had been taught by their uncle, his daddy, that you can never hit a girl, but the twins tested him on this every time. That time he'd pinched Fanny so hard at her wrist that there was a half moon on it for a day.
It was true the girls had seen Mom holding Baby Bob up to her breasts, but they thought she was showing them to him like you might show anything. An ear. Or anything. Milk spurting out of there? Fanny and Sue did not believe that this was a true story.
The Saturday after their first week of school, the whole family went to a church carnival. Pop was setting up picnic tables in the parish hall for everyone to each pie and cake. Mom had made great-smelling chocolate cake that morning. Fanny had sneaked a swipe of the icing and it was grand. So while the men moved tables, Fanny and Sue waited in their pretty dresses. The other children hadn't arrived yet; there were only people setting things up, and the old folks playing their weekly bingo.
"Pop said, 'Stay right here, twins.' So we better stay here," Sue whispered loudly. She held her box of Animal Crackers close to her chest and listened to herself breathe in and out. She had a cold and her chest sounded like there were little animals in it chattering. Little tiny cookie animals on her chest, little wheezy animals inside.
Fanny looked over to the spot where the old ladies were playing Bingo. That looked like fun to her. Why not go join them? Old ladies liked to ride her and Sue on their knees even though they were too old, but sometimes it paid off in pennies.
"B five!" Mr. Gee hollered. He jumped up and tugged on his beard, then sat down again suddenly.
Fanny smoothed her hand down her dress. Today Mom had let them wear different dresses! Fanny's dress was prettier by far, she felt. Her puffed sleeves stood up like clouds at her shoulders, while Sue's lace pinafore sagged a bit. Mom had run out of starch halfway through her ironing. Fanny's hair had curled up a bit too, but poor Sue's had flipped under instead. Fanny was used to being the prettiest, not to mention the best at everything.
"I wish we could eat these," Sue sighed, clutching at her Animal Cracker box.
"Why shouldn't we?" Fanny asked. She knew why. The would be eating pie and cake soon, and these Animal Crackers were to be saved for later. Misses Caroline and Yvette had given them to the girls for being so good while waiting for Pop to finish setting up the tables and Mom to make coffee and heat up food in the church kitchen. The Misses C and Y, as Pop called them, were prone to spoiling the twins a bit.
Baby Bob was too young for the crackers. He would just goo them up and let them run down his little knob of a chin if he got one. For once, they didn't have to worry about it. They didn't have to watch him today. Baby Bob slept in the nursery at the back of the parish hall. A teenage girl named Rosemary watched the babies and got a small bit of change for doing it. Fanny and Sue thought they might like that job when they were older.
"Let's just open one of the boxes and have two or three of them apiece. No one will know." Fanny flipped the flap up - on Sue's box! - with her thumb. She had two in her mouth before Sue could say boo.
At the same time as Mr. Gee hollered out "Bingo!" Pop appeared and saw the open box in Sue's hands, and he swatted her on the behind right there in church in front of God, the old ladies, and of course Fanny, who swallowed down the sweet vanilla-flavored elephant and tiger in her mouth with a delicate, undetected gulp.Copyright © 2003 Karen Stolz
Reprinted with permission.
A charming portrait of the American heartland as told through the intertwined lives of twin sisters.
When Karen Stolz's World of Pies was published two years ago, readers and critics alike savored every delicious word. Now Stolz returns to themes of childhood and coming of age in a poignant novel about twin sisters.
In beautifully rendered detail, Stolz reveals the pleasure of freshly laundered dresses and homemade fudge, the terror of childhood illness and quarrels, and the magical connection that only twins possess.
Set against the backdrop of St. Louis during the Great Depression, twins Fanny and Sue tell their charming story in alternating voices. Infused with humor and warmth, Stolz's latest novel is certain to charm readers eager to experience life the way it used to be.(back to top)
Karen Stolz was raised in a small town in Kansas. She received a MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1982 and has taught creative writing at Austin Community College and currently teaches at St. Edwards University New College and at the Writers League of Texas. She has had short stories and essays published nationally. Her first novel, World of Pies, was a June 2000 Booksense Selection and was listed by the School Library Journal as one of the Best Adult Books for Young Adults in 2000. Stolz lives in Austin with her son.