Authors: Cynthia Voigt
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
An imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division
1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York 10020
Text copyright Â© 1983 by Cynthia Voigt
First Atheneum Books for Young Readers eBook edition September 2001.
All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Also available in an Atheneum Books for Young Readers hardcover edition and an Aladdin Paperbacks paperback edition.
Cover design by Daniel Roode
VISIT US ON THE WORLD WIDE WEB
To Gail Paris
HEN JEFF GREENE was in second grade, seven and a half years old, he got home from school one Tuesday afternoon in early March, and found a note from his mother, saying that she had gone away and would not be coming back. He could read the note all by himself:
You know I love you best, better than anything. I love to come into your room when you are in bed, and read
to you, and then kiss you on each big gray eye before you go to sleep. I am going away, but I'm not really going away from you. I will hold you in my heart, and you will hold me in your heart, and we can't ever be very far from each other then, can we?
There are some hot dogs in the refrigerator. If you don't remember how to cook them for bread sandwiches, you will have to ask the Professor for money when he gets home and go get some rolls. But you shouldn't bother him for unimportant things, so try hard to remember. You're my helper, my best assistant, you remember everything. You won't need to ask, will you?
I will think about you tonight, eating hotdog sandwiches, and I will be very sad and missing you. But you are old enough
now, and there are people everywhere who need me, little boys like you who don't get enough to eat and are hungry every night when they go to bed. Imagine that, Jeffie. You know how I feel about that. Or children with no parents at all to take care of them and grownups who can't help themselves and little animals hunted down and wiped out and air and water made dirty. I have to help the people who need me. I have to try to make things better, for you and for all the little children. You are big enough to understand. It is such a big job that I will not be able to come back to see you, so I have to say goodbye. Goodbye, little boy, my own sweet Jeffie, from your sad
M was for Mommy and for her own name, Melody. Jeff read the note twice. He did understand about all the work she did, because she had explained to him about how people had made the whole world sick, all of nature, and it was the last chance to make it better, or little children like Jeff wouldn't have any world when they got big. He knew how sad it made her to think about rivers or the lion in his cage at the zoo or the dirty sidewalks and streets. He knew she couldn't be happy unless she was doing something to make things better â she said so.
But he didn't know why she had to go away to do that. And not come back. A cold, frightened feeling lay all over his body like a wet blanket, and he started to cry. He wrapped his arms around himself and cried.
Jeff knew he shouldn't cry, he knew he had to stop. The Professor, his father, didn't like crying, because he wanted things regular and even. He wanted a boiled egg every day for breakfast and his usual times in his study when nobody disturbed him. He had all of his classes in the afternoons so he could stay home and study in the mornings. After supper, he went back into his study to do more. Melody had explained that and Jeff knew how to keep the kind of quiet house his father wanted, the kind Melody always kept.
When Jeff was too young to go to school, his father took him to a day care center, every morning. Melody picked him up in the afternoon, when she was free. Usually, that was on her way home to get supper. Sometimes, if the weather was nice, she would be free early and they would go to the zoo or to a museum or shopping together. If the day care center was closed, she would take Jeff with her
to her work, and he would color at the table where she was talking. Once he started school, he could spend all day there. He even went to both kindergarten classes, the morning one and the afternoon one.
Melody wasn't free most of the time because she worked to make the world better. As he got older, she explained to Jeff how people were making the world worse. Industries dumped their garbage into the water, into the rivers and into the Chesapeake Bay. Because of the garbage, the water got too dirty to swim in, and the fish couldn't live there, and the animals who ate the fish died. People put dirty smoke into the air. Politicians and countries fought wars and murdered people with bombs and fire and even, if they wanted to, poisons. Not everybody was as lucky as Jeff, not everybody had a mommy and a daddy, not everybody had enough to eat, not everybody had their own rooms or got to go to Ocean City for a week every summer â but Melody could help those unlucky people. It was her job to help make things better because if she didn't, things might get worse.
That was sad and scary. It was that picture of the world getting worse that came to haunt Jeff when he woke up in the middle of the night and tried not to think about it. Sometimes, at night, Jeff wanted to go into Melody's room, just to hear her breathing, just to see her. But she had explained to him that the Professor didn't like to have his sleep disturbed, so he couldn't.
Melody didn't talk to the Professor the way she talked to Jeff; she didn't talk to him very much at all. When she tried to, he asked her questions that she answered unhappily until he finally said, “It's not as simple as that.”
Jeff, still crying, thought about his father now. He wasn't sure what his father liked. He knew what Melody liked, she liked lots of people at her meetings, she liked Jeff to know about what was going on in the world, she liked to hold his hand outside of the lion's cage and tell him about how the lion's life used to be. She didn't mind if he was sad or cried, because she would hug him. She liked new people and new ideas, and sometimes she worried about Jeff because he was too much like the Professor, no matter how hard he tried.
All Jeff knew about the Professor was that he liked things regular and even. He didn't like feelings, and crying. Melody said he wasn't much of a father, and now â Jeff cried quietly, alone â he was all Jeff had. Jeff would have to stop this crying.
* * *
He had stopped before the Professor got home at five. He had stopped with a glass of milk, looking out the window over the sink through a cold, sleety rain to the row of houses behind the row of houses they lived in, looking out to the taller buildings behind them, sticking up into the gray sky like irregular teeth. The rain spattered on the tin roof of the back porch.
When the Professor entered the kitchen and put his worn briefcase down on the table, Jeff turned around, holding the empty cold glass in his cold hand. He watched his father open the envelope she had addressed to him and read the short note once. He watched him throw the note and envelope away, crumpled up, into the yellow plastic wastebasket. His father didn't look surprised, his father didn't look unhappy, his father didn't look worried. His father didn't look anything.
“Did she leave you a note, too?” the Professor said to Jeff.
Jeff nodded. “Do you want to read it?”
The Professor shook his head quickly. “Is there anything for dinner?”
“Can we eat at six-thirty?”
The Professor left the kitchen, but he forgot his briefcase. He didn't come back for it. Jeff heard him go into his study, which used to be a living room, back down the hallway at the front of the house. What used to be the dining room was the living room. They ate all their meals at the Fomica table in the kitchen. Jeff did his homework at that table too, because there was no room for a desk in his tiny bedroom tucked under the eaves at the back of the house.
That evening, after his father had left him alone, Jeff did homework. He did a page of mixed addition and subtraction problems; he copied out sentences into his French notebook, being as neat as he could. He boxed in all the verbs in the ten English sentences and then went back to find the subjects and label them with an S. He wrote a paragraph about lizards for science. He filled in the names of the original thirteen colonies on the social studies map, then memorized it. He worked carefully, because teachers liked neat, careful work. When he was finished, he gathered his books up into a pile and set them on the counter by the refrigerator, for the morning. He looked at the clock: six.
Jeff knew how to set the table and how to get a hot dog dinner for himself and his father, because Melody often could not get home
for dinner, when she had a meeting, or when she had a lot of work to do with a committee, or a demonstration to plan. Jeff and the Professor were pretty used to getting themselves a hot dog dinner. Jeff set the table, then cut up lettuce and tomatoes for a salad. He split the hot dogs and piled the slices of bread up beside the toaster. He put the bottle of salad dressing out on the table and the mustard, catsup, and relish. He kept himself busy except for just a couple of minutes when he had nothing to do but wait; for these minutes he stood at the sink and looked out the window into the darkening rain. Across their little square of cement yard, blocks of yellow light shone from the kitchens of the row of houses a street up. The tall shape of the humanities building of the university was all dark, and in the rain its edges merged fuzzily into the clouds. “But what will I do?” Jeff asked himself, inside his head.
He knew that if he stayed there, looking out, with room for questions to rise up in his head, he might cry again; so he took a warm sponge and washed down the drainboard by the sink, scrubbing it with Comet. He had lost his mother, he didn't want to run any risk of losing his father too.
When supper was on the table, Jeff went down the hall to knock on his father's door and say that everything was ready. Then he went back to sit down. The Professor always came right away and poured himself a glass of wine from the carafe in the icebox before he sat down to eat. After the Professor had tasted the wine, he lifted his fork and took a bite of salad. That was Jeff's signal to begin. When Melody was there, it had been her fork he waited for.
They ate without talking. After he had finished, the Professor put on some water to boil and took out the small Chemex pot. Melody had tried to get him not to drink coffee, she had told him all about caffeine and cancer in it, she had even made him taste some of the herb teas she drank; but he wouldn't change. “Coffee's addictive,” she had warned him.
“Anything in excess tends to be addictive,” the Professor answered. “The point is to avoid excess. Isn't it?”
“I can't talk to you,” Melody said. “You already know all the answers.” Her voice sounded as if she didn't think what she said was true.
“I never said that,” the Professor said.
Melody didn't answer, just sat staring at her cup of tea, but Jeff saw tears come up in her eyes, so he went around to hug her.
* * *
But this night she was gone. Jeff cleared the table, then sat down again, watching his father drink his mug of coffee. The bright white light bulb in the kitchen shone on the straight white hair that lay across the top of the Professor's head and reflected off his big, square glasses. Jeff's father looked like a professor, Jeff thought, even though he knew every professor looked different. Jeff's father was tall and broad-shouldered, and he never put on weight no matter how much he ate. He had pale blue eyes and thin lips. His white eyebrows were almost straight, his nose hooked out where it joined his face. He had taken off his tie and his shirt was unbuttoned at the neck. He looked, in his calm face, in his quiet way of sitting or slow way of moving, as if nothing could upset him. Jeff knew that his father would want to say something about Melody, so he waited.
“She's not coming back,” the Professor said at last.
“We'll rub along all right,” the Professor said. “Although there will be a couple of changes.”
Jeff felt alarmed. His father didn't like changes, his father couldn't change; Melody said that. “What changes?”
“We'll have to get someone to live in, a student, room and board in exchange for housekeeping and babysitting. We can't afford a maid and there has to be someone while you're so young. I'll move my books upstairs, to the bedroom, that'll give us a room for him.” The Professor sipped at his coffee. “I suspect we'll find it doesn't make much difference at all. Most things don't. I'll see if we can't find a boy, they're more reliable.”
Jeff relaxed. The Professor always said things didn't make much difference, wouldn't make much difference. He said that when Melody talked about women's rights and signing anti-war petitions or endangered species. “Don't you
?” Melody would ask him, her voice ringing, her big gray eyes filled with feeling. She was fifteen years younger than her husband and had long, thick dark hair that she let hang loose down her back, all the way below her waist. “What about nuclear war?”
“That would make a difference,” the Professor agreed, without any change of voice or expression. His mild blue eyes looked at his wife.
” she would say, turning away impatiently. Her dark hair rippled down her back. Her patchwork skirt whirled around
her slender legs. When she was unhappy like this, Jeff didn't know how to comfort her.
Jeff went to the University School, where children of professors could attend without paying, but the children from other families had to be rich. There were sixteen children in his second grade class, six boys and ten girls. One of the girls had a mother who taught math at the university. Two of the other boys, Sean and Jason, had fathers there. Sean's father and mother both taught, physics and English. Jason's father taught history too, only Jason's father taught American History and the Professor taught European. The boys weren't friends, because the parents weren't friends. Jason's father wanted to be chairman of the department, but the Professor had that job because he was older. Jason's father wrote articles that got published in history magazines, and he wrote reviews of history books for the Baltimore paper and sometimes the
too: Jason brought them into school for show-and-tell. Jason's father said the department was a shambles and that was why they didn't attract good students. Jason's father said the curriculum hadn't been changed since 1958, and it was out-of-date. Any man who didn't publish in his field, Jason's father said, could offer no leadership to his department. Melody agreed with Jason's father, but the Professor didn't pay any attention. “It wouldn't make any difference,” he said and went back to the work he was doing.