“When She Was Smart” By: Kathryn Kulpa

Back when Yvonne was dancing they had a manager who wanted to put pictures of all the girls on the walls. He hired a photographer who talked about image and branding and asked all the girls where they were from, and when Yvonne said outside Kansas City he made her dress as a farmer’s daughter, Daisy Dukes and red-checked shirt tied at the midriff. When Yvonne told people where she was from they would think breadbasket, Dorothy Gale, Little House on the Prairie. They might picture a girl running barefoot through tall grass, through fields of butter-yellow wildflowers. They wouldn’t picture meatpacking plants leaching toxic spew into dead rivers, rows of 1950s housing slowly coming unstrung, yards where grass had dried up into patches of dirt, cars on blocks, broken toys sprawled like tiny murder victims under rusted swing sets, half-empty downtowns where only check cashing businesses and pawn shops showed signs of life. That was the town where Yvonne was born, the first place she remembered living, and the others weren’t much better.

She’s got something to remember most of them by: the burn scar on her heel from when her foster-sister told her she could walk on hot coals and Jesus would protect her, a broken collarbone from when her mother’s boyfriend chased her out behind the chicken coop. She doesn’t have pictures, but she has scars. This was the home where she failed to thrive. This was the home where she failed to connect. This was the home where they failed to warn her about the 17-year-old foster-brother who considered 13-year-old girls fair game.

Yvonne had one good year in her life. Eleven. That was the year her mother went to rehab and Yvonne stayed with Grandma Rosemary in Florida. Grandma Rosie told Yvonne never to say that she lived there, just that she was visiting, because her grandmother lived in a place that only allowed old people. It was a trailer, not a real house, but Yvonne loved its narrow, metallic-walled kitchen, its tiny immaculate bathroom, the miniature golf course in the back, the peacocks that wandered the grounds. She would follow them through the fields, waiting for the butt wiggle that meant they were about to display.

Grandma Rosie didn’t have much money, but still she seemed to have more to spend on Yvonne than her mom ever had. They went to anything cheap or free: craft fairs, a doll museum, the Upside-Down House, penny sales, yard sales. There was always something in Rosie’s orange change purse for Yvonne to get a Popsicle or cotton candy, to buy a painted ceramic house for a quarter or shorts that looked practically new for fifty cents. At night they would watch Grandma’s stories. Grandma Rosie was sweet herself but her heroines were vixens, like Joan Collins on Dynasty or wide-eyed Donna Mills from Knots Landing. She would get day-old newspapers free from the man at the corner store who knew she liked the crosswords, and Yvonne got to be good at helping her.

“What’s a five-letter word for irksome, ending with a Y?” Grandma Rosie would ask, and Yvonne would say “pesky” and Grandma would write it in, shaking her head: “How come your mama never told me you were so smart?”

Smart wasn’t a word Yvonne’s mother had ever used about her, and after that year—after Grandma Rosie died, and she ended up back in the system—no one ever did again.


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