By Kilmeny MacMichael
Margot always ate her vegetables first.
Her dinner plate had four sections – one for vegetables, one for salad, one for protein, and one for bread or rice. Her plates were organized. She had a set of six. They were exactly the same when Papi had first brought them home, but she had dropped one, so it was dented. She liked it better than the perfect ones. The plates had pictures on the bottom inside of each compartment. You couldn’t see the pictures until you ate up the food. The pictures were of animals with big ruffles around their necks, like clowns.
“Would you like different plates?” her mother asked for her birthday. “Maybe different pictures or even no pictures?” You could get plates that were divided without pictures. They were more grown up. But she shook her head no. She only wanted plates from Papi.
He wasn’t going to be home for her birthday but he promised to be back for Thanksgiving.
On Sundays, they went to her grandmother’s house. There, she had to use a big brown plate where everything could squish together. Her cousins and Auntie came for Sunday dinner too. She had to be polite and eat, but she didn’t have to eat more than the vegetables.
She remembered that, on Sunday nights, Papi would take them to a restaurant on the way home. She would get a big slice of pie on its own triangle plate. Her Papi could eat pie just by picking it up in his hand but, when she tried that, the pie spilled all over. Papi laughed and told her she’d have to wait to grow bigger hands like his.
When Margot told her mother she wanted hands like Papi, her mother shook her head. “Why not?” Margot wanted to know.
“Because those hands get into trouble,” her mother said.
“Like what?” Margot wanted to know.
“Like passing things from one person to another,” her mother said, “when it should not be done.”
“Sometimes,” her Papi told her over the phone, “It’s hard to know how to keep things in their proper places. Sometimes it’s hard to prepare, or plan.”
But it was easy for Margot. She had all her socks rolled up in her top dresser drawer and all the clothes in the closet hanging in order by colour. The inside of the closet was like a rainbow.
On the closet door there was a calendar. Margot drew lines across each day when it was done. Each X was a day closer to the one day at the end of each month they would visit Papi. Every month, he would tell her “now one less month before I can come home.”
Margot knew her parents worried about how Papi could convince everyone he had “made positive change” and had “his life sorted out.” If the people in charge decided you were still messy, they didn’t let you go home. Even when they did let you go home, they could check what you were doing any time, and take you back if you were doing things wrong.
One night the telephone rang and her mother told her in the morning that Papi wouldn’t be back for Thanksgiving after all.
Margot got as far as the big park at the edge of town, following the railway track, before her mother found her. She was shivering because it had started to rain and she didn’t have her jacket.
“I’m sorry, I got confused. I forgot what was really important. But I am trying to do better,” Papi said. “You believe me, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Margot said.
“That’s all I need,” Papi said.
Margot’s mother worked at a dentist’s office. She brought home old magazines from the office waiting room. Margot went through them all. She cut articles out and read them to Papi over the phone once a week, or mailed them to him if he couldn’t call. 5 Habits of Highly Efficient People, Always Make Your Bed First Thing, Live Free of Clutter, Organize Your Closet for Success, Unlock your Fate through Your Horoscope. She couldn’t tell which ones were the most important, so she shared them all. If she helped Papi learn all these things, maybe he could come home sooner.
“Magazine tips are not going to help,” her cousins said. “Even if your Papi does come home, he’s just going to go back. Like ours. Forever.”
Her Papi was different from her Uncle. Her Papi was nice.
“They’re going to let me come home soon,” Papi reassured her. Then he leaned down to whisper in her ear, “You know why? I make my bed first thing every day now.”
“And you,” he asked, “are you being a good girl? Not running away anymore? Eating your vegetables?”
“Of course,” Margot said. “We’re both going to be good, remember?”
“That’s right,” her Papi said, as the guards watched over them, “And we’ll go out for pie for Christmas.”
Margot always ate her vegetables first.
Kilmeny MacMichael lives in western Canada’s half of the Okanagan Valley, where she writes flash and short fiction. She has been published online in Watershed Review.