While this was going on, I usually took to my room. I’d look up expensive things in catalogs, cut up paper to make holiday cards, and sink into arts and crafts. Soon my fingers became permanently stained with paint and glitter.
I had started making snow globes out of old peanut butter jars when my mom wouldn't buy them for me, had slapped me when I begged five days in a row.
It wasn’t just any cheap ball of glass; I had asked for the special Mary Poppins cathedral. You know, the one where the birds fly through the water. The orbs set on a pedestal with three golden bricks and if you wound the knob on the bottom with long fingernails, it would play, "Feed the Birds" with twinkling bells. The music made the difference, because it convinced you that another world existed inside the snow globe, that the figure playing the piano notes was an actual person.
Some part of me thought that if I shook the snow globe, then things would come together again. Dad would arrive one evening with a bouquet and a ton of apologies for all of us, the way the dad did in Mary Poppins, and we’d go fly a kite in the park and there’d be no more fighting. Not that we had kite-flying weather, but I thought it could happen. That’s what I tried to tell Mom.
"Out of the question," Mom said. She was organizing bills on her desk. She used stiff mascara that turned her eyelashes into brittle lines, and the wrinkles took weight from her face.
"Mom, please, you know I've been doing better in school, it's only the coolest snow globe-”
“Tiffany, I said no,” she said, turning away. I had the catalog in my hands, and I shoved it in her face.
“Please, Mom. Please, please, please, please-”
The swat came. It swept and stung like a bee. A cry escaped my mouth as more slaps rained down, a hail of bees whose hive had just been placed under a steam roller. My cries grew into sobs. The catalog crashed to the floor.
The slaps stopped coming. I leaned against the wall, hands over my red cheeks. The blows never left a mark, and I wouldn't want to call the authorities anyway. Mom had warned me about foster homes, how no one loved you or would tuck you in, and even if someone wanted to adopt you they would never have the paperwork and you'd have to eat food stamps if you wanted to survive.
Mom turned back to her calculator. "I said no," she said, angry at herself and angry with me. "You should be more focused on your grades, you know."
I picked up the catalog and slipped away. My cheeks throbbed with pain.
After that, Mom lectured me when I kept shooting dark looks at her. She said that I ought to be happy all the time, to be thankful. Cassidy told her to stop harping about gratitude, and the terrible fights would start again.
Dad never called.
I took to spending more time outside the house; we lived in suburbs just outside the inner city, and there were lots of empty lots for walking. On the really bad days, I’d even run to this strip mall that was nearby and collect pennies, hoping to save enough to buy my own snowglobe. Some days I’d even fill out job applications for jobs that I’d never be able to do because of school, and because I wasn't old enough yet.
One day, I came home from the mall with a bag in my hand. An employee at the arts and crafts store had taken pity on me and allowed me to buy a lump of clay from the clearance box for only 93 cents, in pennies. It was a funny package, with strange letters on it. The clerk at the store had called it life clay.
“It’s very rare,” he had whispered. “Use it for something special.”
I wasn’t gullible, but he was trying to make me feel better, so I nodded and he wrapped up the “life clay” in a plastic bag. Besides, I was going to use it for something special.
That evening, I washed out peanut butter jars and soaked them in dishwasher detergent. Later, I coated them with acrylic paint., It helped me forget the swatting, and about crying. Little wooden matchsticks glued together became a desk, with a scrap of filched green felt. Duct tape fastened Scotch tape to a plastic white lid for the jar.
I held the lid in my hand, letting the odd, rectangular weight sink. Something was missing.
“Ah-hah!” I told myself. “Someone has to play at the piano.” The desk had become a piano after some thought.
I took the clay and rolled it into a head. A pencil poked two eyes into the head, and rolled yellow braids into hair. Large hands and stumps for legs, pressed against the head and a black body. The feet were large and clumsy, and I taped them to the snow globe’s lid. He sat at the piano, of course, gingerly testing his swollen feet against the white plastic. For sprinkles I added confetti filched from art class.
The real test happened in the bathroom, where the faucet creaked with rust. Some water splashed on the glass jar’s sides.
“Now,” I said and screwed the lid tightly and shaking the jar. “Play.”
Confetti swirled. The soft-footed musician didn’t move. Let me be clear, I wasn't actually expecting anything to happen. Nothing does when you ask for explosions and symphonies.
“Tiffany! Dinner’s ready!”
I sloshed water and closed the bathroom door.
“Coming,” I called. I shoved the jar under my bathroom towel. The musician stood stiffly in the gritty water.
Here’s one thing they never tell you about clay; water makes the clay slimy, and dry air makes it crumbly. I didn’t know because I had never done ceramics. But I found out that night.
The evening had gone on normally; I ate dinner, loaded the glass dishes upside down and bickered with my sister about which one of us had to wipe the table. Mom asked if I had homework; I said no because reading for English didn’t count, and my sister asked if she could go to the mall.
We were eating spaghetti; Mom cut her strands in half and chewed. Cassidy was scratching the plastic curlers in her hair, having already peeled off her glittering nail polish. Mom warned her about the dandruff spilling. I made gagging noises, asked if I could go to bed. Mom said yes.
I didn’t brush my teeth. The purple pajamas were crumpled on the bed. I pulled them on, ran a comb over my tousled hair, and climbed under the covers. Cassidy’s dandruff haunted my fading thoughts.
Low music interrupted my sleep, an itchy, interrupting melody. I opened my dry eyes. Faint melodic notes plinked along an out-of-tune keyboard - if the piano had been wrapped inside a ratty quilt.
I slipped out of bed, mouth dry. The ends of my thick pajama pants dragged on the floor, gathering dust bunnies. Eyes sagged with premature circles. No sound from the rest of the house. Must have been a dream.
The bathroom door creaked open. The plinking got louder. Still groggy, I got up, headed to the bathroom, and reached for the light switch. Brilliant white hit the countertop, making my eyes go watery.
The towel still hid a jar-shaped lump. It vibrated with plinking, now as loud as a car radio has to be over honking traffic. I pulled off the towel.
My musician had slumped over the piano- I thought I had positioned him upright, and I hadn’t glued papers to the stand. His hands moved, and the notes came out.
I shook the jar, still sleep-deprived and disbelieving. His clay head cracked off; he stopped moving his fingers. The music cut off abruptly. His head drifted upwards, leaving a trail of doughy bits. The bits swirled with the confetti.
“No!” I wailed. What had I done? I quickly unscrewed the lid, set it on top of the tangled towel, and emptied the jar. The head nearly rolled down the rusted drain. His braids got caught in the crack. I rescued him. The purple felt frog-slimy. Dead-squashed-frog-slimy. It didn’t dry on the white towel.
That should’ve been the end of it, but Cassidy stormed into my room late the next morning and accused me of using her blow-dryer; she had found clay bits in my bathroom. The snoop! We started arguing in fierce undertones, and then in louder screeches when she found the head. She was waving it above her icky hair like a Nazi flag.
Mom came up. She saw the head, saw what had happened. Her tones became stern and furious: I was stupid to put clay in the water, what was I thinking, had my brain turned to mush? She repeated the word “stupid” like it was a pesky mosquito, smacking it to my forehead.
I lost it. Tears exploded, and I ran for the bathroom, locking the door. Mom slammed against it.
“Tiffany Broadwell, open this door right now! We’re not finished!”
I ran from the door and collapsed against the opposite wall, sobbing with loud, embarrassed gasps. They would unlock the door-- Mom had a screwdriver-- drag me by the ear and swat me until the crying stopped and I wished I were dead. Then the whole thing would repeat itself for several days.
Tinkling hit my ears. My mom stopped rattling the doorknob.
“Tiffany, what’s going on in there? Are you trying to drown me out with the radio?”
I turned my head towards the jar lid. The musicians’ slimy arms moved down the piano, even though the piano was just wood and cloth, and I heard music. It was like a bubble bath rendered in song. It soaked me in steaming notes.
“It’s not the radio, Mom,” I said. “There isn’t a radio in the bathroom.”
She didn’t respond. The notes steamed under the doorway, into the impatient toes stamping like stubborn horses. The stamping stopped.
I unlocked the door. My mom and sister stumbled in. They watched the headless musician finish his piece. Then he slumped at his desk, arms crumbling.
Cassidy slowly picked up the snow globe sans musician. She examined it for a long time.
“You painted it neatly,” she said finally. “Have you thought of selling these?”
The spell broke. I got a calm lecture about studying and sleeping well. I said “yes” and “I’m sorry” at the right times. Mom also apologized.
It didn’t end well later; real life never does. But things got better. I called Dad, to say that I missed him, and after that he sent checks regularly, even took me out to lunch one day. Cassidy passed her first semester, so she was less stressed. She still argued with Mom, but that would never change.
Something had changed with the musician, however. Listening to his music once had made me calmer. The art store clerk asked how I was, the next time I wandered into the store, looking for more of that life clay. He saw that I was good at making snowglobes, and he sold them to customers when his boss wasn’t looking. I got a bit of spending money, and I started saving up for the Mary Poppins snowglobe, maybe even for college tuition. The life clay never reappeared though, and perhaps that’s for the best.
That was two years ago. Mom’s less worried about the bills, though she never speaks to Dad without a lawyer in the room. Cassidy still doesn’t talk to Dad, and she doesn’t have to with her new job now that she’s graduated. I visit him from time to time, more as a diplomat than as his kid.
Now I’m old enough to work part-time now, and the art store needed a new clerk. The backroom is a perfect place to study, with the smell of turpentine and canvas. I’ve been selling snowglobes less, because it’s not as cute when people know the artist is a gangly teenager.
Sometimes when I study, my eyes flutter open and throat goes dry, and then I hear the musician play. No matter what, no matter how loudly Mom had yelled at me during the daylight hours, a soothing, tinkling melody softly closed my eyes.