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Winter 1997
Monopoly
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"Wait," Mrs. Polk said. I spun back around and froze at attention. I thought she might reprimand me for talking out of place. Either that or she would tell me not to take food off the counter that wasn't mine. But I was surprised. "It's OK. That is a good idea," she said to me. Then she turned to Mother. "I mean, if it's OK with you, Elba. They can do their homework together. They are in the same class, after all."

You'd think she was trying to persuade Mother, but of course she was talking for the benefit of Mr. Polk. He was inscrutable. Mrs. Polk looked from him to Mother and back again.

"Yes, that's fine," said Mother. What else could she say? Her eyes found mine as I stood next to the kitchen door and then she turned back to her chopping. I knew I'd have hell to pay. But just then Mary Beth, who had been still and quiet as the copper-bottomed pots hanging on the wall behind her, rushed toward me and, in one clean sweep, we were out the door.

A month is an eternity in a child's life, and yet in that time, the time I'd lived at four-zero-five, I didn't know Mary Beth. We rode together to and from school every day; Mother took us in the Polks' old Ford, the extra car. We were in the same class, sat one in front of the other. But what was tacitly understood -- who I was and who she was, what our parents each in their own way told us -- followed us to school and kept an invisible line between us. And it was the same line, like a rolling fence, that was circling tighter and tighter around my world on Macdonald Avenue.

But Mary Beth wasn't a free bird herself: big, plastic blue-rimmed glasses; hair the color of pale egg yolks that frizzed even from the braids her mother or my mother took pains to tie tight each morning; and allergies, forever a stuffy nose, so that when she talked, and she always talked facing the ground, she sounded as if she were speaking from the inside of a tin pail. There was plenty to keep her cut off from the world, too. In fact, I was playing volleyball with the other girls while Mary Beth was still relegated to the bench with her books and daffodil-painted lunch box. Despite the glances and occasional whispering I'd catch from huddled schoolmates looking in my direction, I might have done OK. That is, if Allison Witherow, the tall girl at the very top of the pecking order, hadn't said out loud what everyone else only whispered.

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