Her mother's dishes were a hodgepodge, but Melody didn't notice until Clover began to complain. Dishes, to Melody, were something you ate from, and then tried to get out of washing when it was your turn. At least, you tried to put off doing them, if you couldn't actually shirk the job. She had her favorites, the ones she liked to eat and drink from: she liked the plate with the pears painted on it, and the biggest jelly jar. But Clover hated them all. There were tin plates from India, and mismatched old china, coffee mugs and jelly jars and anodized aluminum drinking glasses that sweated when they held cold liquids. Most of the serving dishes were Tupperware. There was even a Kool-Aid pitcher with the proto-smiley-face on it. The utensils were all sizes and shapes and thicknesses. Melody had learned to choose a spoon carefully when she ate ice cream, so it wouldn't bend.
Clover hated them all, because Clover loved beautiful things, and believed that dishes should match. It didn't matter whether they were usable, it mattered how they looked. Their mother spent money on things like books, but not on dishes, and not on her clothes. Not on the things she called "functional". The argument ran for a year, Clover complaining with increasing frequency, until one evening she screamed:
"Don't you know how embarrassing this is? I can't even have my friends over for dinner!"
It wasn't a phase that Clover hit when she went through the teen years; she'd been that way as long as Melody could remember, but it seemed to get worse each year when she returned from spending the summer with her father in New York, where he'd moved when she was three. As a brag, Clover had showed Melody pictures of the apartment on the Upper East Side once. Her stepmother had perfect furnishings and dishes, and perfect everything else, right down to the view of Central Park across the street from their thirtieth-story windows. Melody wasn't impressed, although she knew she was supposed to be. The pictures explained a lot. Unlike her brother, Melody found the fights between Clover and their mother entertaining, and liked to watch them. Clover was the only one who could make their mom angry. Their father often stayed out of the fights; though he handled Melody and Gabriel, he left Clover to her mother. He seemed less sure with her than with the younger children. But then, everyone was less sure with Clover.
"It's embarrassing," Clover yelled. "You'd think we lived in a trailer."
"If that's the sort of thing you're learning, I'll have to talk to Owen. Those are false values."
"You're crazy! Why does everything have to be ugly? It's all -- " she looked around, as if to point, but there was too much to point to, "It's all tacky. It hurts to see. It's like living in Alabama." Melody knew the state her sister had picked was a reference to her mother's childhood.
The signal that her mother was about to get angry, the two red marks, showed on her cheeks.
"Please go to your room," she said. "We'll talk when you calm down."
Clover stormed upstairs and Melody heard her door slam. Clover was probably glad to be alone. Showing emotion always embarrassed her.
Her mother was at the table with Melody and Melody's daddy, dinner just over. Gabriel had left when Clover first started to shout. He always did.
"What do you think?" Melody's mom asked.
"I think you two should settle your own problems," her father said, "and leave me out of it."
She turned to Melody. "Am I being unfair?"
What was Melody supposed to know? She was eleven years old. She cared about dancing, and sports, and horses, and her daddy. She looked at him. He shrugged his eyebrows.
"I don't know," she said.
Her mother thought it over, and decided that if Clover cared that much, she'd give in. She told her she could have nice plates and utensils, but Clover would have to pay for half, and the spending limit was a thousand dollars. Clover was fifteen, and she didn't have any money. She spent most of her allowance on clothes: black ankle-length cardigans, slacks and matching blouses; elegant things. The next few days she gave her mother the silent treatment. Then she started calculating how to get the money. Melody saw the wheels turning in her sister's head. Clover was always the shrewd one. Before three more days had passed she was all sweetness. She was even nice to Melody, for a change.
Melody's mom wasn't fond of Christmas -- she called it "a feast of commerce" -- but she accepted the holiday for the sake of the children. "It's so commercial," Melody heard her complain, every year. But their mother stayed tuned to the family frequency, noting the things the children admired or mentioned, so she would be able to buy them gifts they liked. That year she noticed that Owen hadn't sent Clover an extravagant gift.
A few days before Christmas she spoke to Clover. They were in the upstairs hall, and Melody listened from behind the door of her bedroom.
"I'm sorry," Ada said. "I called your father the other day, and he said he mailed your gift. It's a busy time of year for the Post Office -- "
"I already got it," Clover said.
"But there hasn't been any package."
"I'll show you later."
Melody wondered about this, but the season always excited her, and she promptly forgot about it. She loved everything about Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's, but most of all Christmas. She liked the people hurrying on the streets, and the special music you didn't hear at other times of the year, and the beautiful gift wrappings, and the foods, and the creche in the park. She liked shopping for gifts, and she saved her allowance for months beforehand, and spent every evening looking at catalogs, and wandering through stores whenever she could. She always tried to find exactly the right gifts for everyone. She liked the family trip to the city the day after Christmas break started, to see the Plaza Christmas lights, and shop there, and then go ice skating at Crown Center. She liked the fires in the fireplace. She liked visiting Muddy in her house, and eating the special dinner she made them, the last week of the year. Most of all, she liked Christmas trees, and going with her father and brother to Buzz's land, where there were a dozen acres of trees. Every year, Buzz let them choose any tree they wanted. The first time she was big enough to be allowed to help, she got lost, and it seemed forever before her father found her, though he assured her it was only a few minutes. Then he told her the story of her sister seeming to be lost, but hiding behind a leaf in the rainforest, and Melody laughed. The next year, he gave her a whistle to blow, in case she wandered away, and he took an air horn for himself to sound, but she was more careful to stay near. He always let her and Gabriel choose the tree, except once when they wanted one that was too crooked. When they'd made their choice, he would cut the tree, and together they would carry it back to his pickup truck, and bring it home, and set it up. Then he would help her and Gabriel decorate the tree. Every December her daddy gave her a new ornament for it: a glass bauble, or a fabric unicorn, or a brass angel. When they took down the tree, she put them all in a box in her room.
The year of the dishes was like any other for Melody. All the traditions she loved happened in their customary fashion, they were kept without a flaw, except one: she knew that Clover would have no elaborate, expensive gift from her father. Melody always looked forward to seeing what it would be, and was invariably envious. It was the dissonant note in her own Christmas, but part of the ritual.
Christmas day Clover waited until everyone had opened their gifts, and took a check from her pocket and gave it to her mother.
"Five hundred dollars?" Ada said. "Owen's being very generous. What are you planning to do with this?"
"Spend it on the place settings," Clover said. She had to explain, because her mother had forgotten about the plates and silver. Almost four months had gone by. Their mother looked at Wyatt.
"I remember that," he said. "I guess you're committed."
She frowned. "Is that the appropriate word?" She turned to Clover. "All right. If you'll endorse this over to me, I'll deposit it tomorrow and we can start looking. It's certainly the right time. Everything will be marked down."
Melody went along to watch. First they drove into the city, to a store Clover loved on the Plaza. She wanted her stepmother's Wedgwood pattern, but the price was too high. She did the math in her head. "I can't get everything," she complained. "There won't be any money for silver and crystal."
"I'm sorry, but you may have to give up on the silver and crystal."
"Maybe if we waited until my birthday?" Clover asked. "I could ask for money again."
"Remember, we agreed. A thousand is the limit. You'll get better values now, anyway. It's the after-Christmas sale."
Melody felt sorry for her sister. Clover looked like she'd been cheated.
"If you want to spend more money, it can't come from Owen," Ada said. "You'll have to earn it."
"How? I can't get a job. I'm only fifteen."
"You'll think of something. Maybe you can tutor other students in math."
"That would take... " She appeared to do some calculations in her head for a moment, as she often did. "I'll be in college by then." Melody knew Clover was exaggerating.
"What about this?" Their mother held up a plate that was plain white except for a blue ring around the edge.
"Too simple," Clover said. The store had nothing affordable she liked, and neither did the other nice stores, at any rate nothing that would come in at the right price for six settings and leave money for silver and glasses, and gravy boats and all the other things, many of which even Melody, who knew nothing about this, knew they would rarely or never use. Melody grew restless, trooping from store to store. Shopping was a waste of time, and now her mother and sister were spending an entire day looking at dishes, of all things. There hadn't been any fireworks from Clover, and without that for amusement, Melody was bored. She regretted not accepting her friend Pilar's invitation to spend the day, because Pilar had a television, and her mother, who was from Spain, made special wonderful snacks this time of year, and Melody and Pilar gorged on them. They were made of honey and almonds and sugar and cinammon, and marzipan (a word Melody loved). And there were leftovers from the Noche Buena feast, including turkey with truffles; they always saved some for Melody, the day after Christmas, and now Melody was in a store, instead of with her friend, where she could have been stuffing herself with delicious once-a-year foods. They always had an imported Spanish gift for her, too.
Melody stayed home the next day: she'd tricked her mother into leaving her, but before she went to Pilar's she heard Ada telling Clover that the offer expired when the stores closed that evening: "I can't spend any more time on this. I have too many other things to do."
The two of them went to the factory outlet north of the river, in Lawrence. Clover got half a dozen place settings, including salad plates and that sort of thing, and a gravy boat and some of the rest of what she wanted, but they weren't Wedgwood. She managed an inexpensive crystal, too, but had to settle for stainless steel utensils instead of silver. There was even a bit of money left over, which her mother and Clover split. When they sat down to eat that evening, Clover sighed. Some of the food was still being served in Tupperware because she hadn't bought enough serving dishes. Melody expected her sister to start complaining, trying to wear her mother down and go shopping again, but she didn't. That was the end of the matter.
Clover hated living in east Lawrence, among run-down houses and people without money. She wanted to live in the city with Muddy. Muddy was the children's name for Nina. Gabriel had given her the name when he was too small to pronounce "Grandmother". She'd taken him and Melody as her grandchildren, just like Clover, giving them presents at Christmas, and treating them like her own blood. She gave the children birthday parties, every year, and the birthday child was allowed to bring four friends. There were party favors for everyone, and always a magician to put on a show.
"Your mother's too busy," she said to Melody once. "This makes it easy for her." Then she leaned down and whispered, "The real reason is, I'm bored, and you children are fun."
Clover's birthday was in early June, just before she left for New York, and she loved going to Muddy's for her party, because it was a huge house in a part of town where all the houses were equally huge, and the lawns and gardens were gorgeous, and the owners kept their perfect expensive cars inside their garages instead of their rusty heaps on the street. She loved going there for Melody's and Gabe's parties, too, and for the dinner the last week of December. Clover liked the big house, and the furniture, and she would walk through, running her hand over the old mahogany sideboard and the walnut mantlepiece and the oak panelling. She would look at the paintings, and admire the prisms from the leaded-glass windows. Her favorite place was the rose garden in the back yard. She and her mother always walked through the garden together before the party started. Melody liked to watch through the kitchen window, watch them pointing out to each other the colors and shapes of the blooms, bending to sniff the scents, feeling the petals, slowly walking the rows. They shared those roses the way the family shared evening meals. They looked very different from each other: her mother short and haphazardly dressed, her sister tall and with her slacks perfectly pressed. Mother with her punk-rocker hair, short and spiky and red; Clover with her beautiful auburn hair, thick and smooth and never a strand out of place, that fell below her shoulder blades. Mother pale, Clover dark. But they were the same degree of thinness. Melody would remember this, when she had left the family, how thin and flat-chested they both were, so different from her own robust body.
Coming home from those trips to Muddy's, the mother and daughter talked to each other again,
their disputes forgotten. Then, a day or two later, Clover
would go silent and retreat to her collection of antique dolls and her calligraphy
and her ironing board and her math and chess books. Mother would look wistfully after her when
Clover came home and drifted up the stairs with a "hello", and she'd ask her to
help in the kitchen. But Clover would claim homework -- a winner with their mother,
who loved to see the children study. Clover was the lost child.
Melody knew that her mother felt closer to Gabriel, and even to Melody herself,
though Melody was the one who was always in trouble.