Authors: Barbara O'Connor
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To Frances Foster
Where the Story Begins
Highway 14 stretches on for miles and miles through the South Carolina countryside.
The land is flat.
The dirt is red.
There are mountains to the west. An ocean to the east.
Every few miles there is a gas station. A billboard. A Waffle House.
In the summer, cars whiz up the highway with suitcases strapped on the roofs and bicycles hanging off the backs. Eighteen-wheelers rumble along, hauling lumber and paper and concrete sewer pipes.
The cars and the eighteen-wheelers drive right by a small green sign with an arrow pointing to the left. The sign reads M
Pecan trees line the main street of Meadville, shading the sidewalks and dropping pecans for boys to throw at stop signs.
On summer afternoons, waves of steamy heat hover above the asphalt roads.
Tollie Sanborn sits on the curb in front of the barbershop in his white barber coat with combs in the pocket.
Elwin Dayton changes a flat tire on his beat-up car with flames painted on the hood.
Marlene Roseman skips to swimming lessons, her flip-flops slapping on the sidewalk.
When the sun goes down and the moon comes up, the street is empty. The shops are closed and dark. The streetlights flicker on. A stray cat roams the alleys, sniffing at Dumpsters overflowing with rotten lettuce and soggy cardboard boxes.
Just past the post office is a narrow street called Waxhaw Lane. At the end of Waxhaw Lane is a green house with muddy shoes on the porch and an empty doghouse in the front yard.
On one side of the door of the green house is a window. The window is open. The room inside is dark.
A curly-haired girl named Stella sits in the window and whispers into the night:
Moo goo gai pan
Moo goo gai pan
Moo goo gai pan
The words drift through the screen and float across the street and hover under the streetlights, dancing with the moths.
Stella is supposed to be saying her prayers, but instead she is just whispering words, like
moo goo gai pan
Across the street from the green house is a big white house with blue-striped awnings over the windows and rocking chairs on the porch. A giant hickory-nut tree casts shadows that move in the warm breeze like fingers wiggling over the dandelions on the dry brown lawn. The roots of the tree lift up patches of cement under the sidewalk out front.
The next morning, Stella will race across the street and up the gravel driveway of the big white house. She will climb the wooden ladder to the flat roof of the garage to wait for Gerald Baxter.
Stella and Gerald will sit in lawn chairs on the roof and play cards on an overturned trash can. They will watch Stella's older brother, Levi, and his friends C.J. and Jiggs ride their rickety homemade skateboards up and down the street.
They will eat saltine crackers with peanut butter and toss scraps down to Gerald's gray-faced dog sleeping in the ivy below.
They will listen to the kids on Waxhaw Lane playing in somebody's sprinkler or choosing teams for kickball. Stella will want to join them, but Gerald won't. Stella might go anyway, leaving Gerald pouting on the roof. But most likely she will heave a sigh and stay up there on the roof, playing cards with Gerald.
They will watch the lazy days of summer stretch out before them like the highway out by the Waffle House.
As the sun sinks lower in the sky and disappears behind the shiny white steeple of Rocky Creek Baptist Church, the lightning bugs will come out one by one, twinkling across the yards on Waxhaw Lane.
Gerald's mother will turn on the back-porch light, sending a soft yellow glow across the yard. Stella's mother will holler at Levi for leaving his skateboard in the driveway again.
Stella and Gerald will put the cards inside the little shed at the back of the garage roof and climb down the ladder.
The next day will start the same.
Stella will race across the street to the big white house and climb the wooden ladder to the garage roof to wait for Gerald.
But this time something will be different.
What Stella Saw
Stella raced across the street to the big white house and climbed the wooden ladder to the garage roof to wait for Gerald.
She went back to the shed to get the cards.
She and Gerald had built the shed last summer. It had taken a long time. Searching for scraps of wood in alleys and on the curb on trash day. Hauling the lumber up the ladder to the roof. Figuring out how to fit the pieces together. Sawing. Hammering. Stella having lots of good ideas and Gerald never wanting to try any of them.
But finally they had finished.
The crowning glory of the shed was a roof made of wavy tin they had found in the scrap pile outside Jonas Barkley's house when his flimsy old carport collapsed.
The wavy tin roof was good, but it wasn't perfect. It hung over the edge of the shed and made the door stick. Stella had to yank the door hard to open it. When she did, a startled one-legged bird fluttered wildly on the roof of the shed, its wings flapping and its foot tap, tap, tapping on the tin.
Stella jumped back.
The bird stopped flapping and tapping and looked at her, its head cocked to one side. Its orange eyes blinking.
Stella had never seen a one-legged pigeon in Meadville, South Carolina.
She had never seen a one-legged pigeon
“Hey there,” she said, not moving a muscle.
The pigeon tucked his leg up under him and sat on the edge of the wavy tin roof.
Stella barely breathed.
She wanted to reach out and stroke the pigeon's smooth, silky back. The gray wings with two black stripes. The iridescent green neck, sparkling like jewels in the morning sun.
“I hate Carlene!” Gerald hollered as he stomped onto the roof, his red hair damp with sweat and stuck to his forehead.
The pigeon flew away in a whirl of flapping feathers and disappeared into the branches of the oak tree above the garage.
“Dang it, Gerald!” Stella slapped her hands against her sides.
Gerald just stood there, looking confused.
“There was a one-legged pigeon on top of the shed.” Stella pointed to the wavy tin roof.
Gerald looked up into the tree. “Really?”
“Maybe it'll come back and we can catch it,” Stella said.
Stella waved a hand at Gerald. “You never want to do anything fun.”
“Yes I do.”
Stella rolled her eyes. “You think playing crazy eights the livelong day is fun?” She kicked at the rotten leaves on the garage roof. “Well, I'm sick of it.”
“What do you want to do?”