It started simply enough: I just wanted my Puppy Surprise, and if the school talent show could be my ticket, then I’d sing my heart out.
As far as ten-year-old me was concerned, Puppy Surprise was the must-have toy of 1992. You got the momma dog in a pink cardboard box with a handle cut out in the shape of a bone, her little plastic face with big, painted-on eyes staring out at you. In her belly was a Velcro pouch, and hidden inside were her puppies, which you’d help her deliver after you brought her home and took her out. There could be three or four or five (or so the theme song promised).
Zelda Nelson got four puppies, and so did Janice Mertelson. Mayra Baumbach got three puppies and everyone’s sympathy for two days. Heidi Christensen’s pink-furred dog gave birth to a litter of five--three pink-collared girls and two blue-collared boys--right in the middle of her birthday party.
I had waited, hands clenched in my lap, squeezing wrinkles into the skirt of my best striped sundress, craving my turn, longing to know my place in the order of things. Would I have three or four or five? I imagined my fingers exploring the velour depths of that canine matrix, emerging triumphant with little plastic head after little plastic head, five beanie bodies piled into a bed of my softest flannel shirt. One puppy would have a winking blue eye; one would have brown ears and a face flecked with freckles. I had seven names picked out (you always wanted to have some to spare, just in case a name didn’t fit, my momma told me, like with my little brother Sam who was supposed to be August.)
Heidi Christensen, who had one pair of tube socks to match each of her brightly-colored and bedazzled scrunchies, would give me a respectful nod, welcoming me into the elite five-puppy circle. Zelda and Janice would murmur to each other, and I imagined tears sparkling in poor Mayra’s eyes, behind her tight, good-sport smile.
“Pretty please can we get her today?” I asked my momma every time we went to the K-Mart. I’d invent new toppings to grace my pretty please--"With peaches and candied pecan crumbles on top? I’ll fold all the laundry for a month!"
“I can’t afford that kind of help this month,” Momma would say, her voice chipper and sparkling like fluorescent light, or, “You put too many calories in that pretty please.”
“Now, we could walk down the toy aisle and just visit,” Grandma offered one day when I tried my prettiest please on her.
My grandma--Grandma Violet--had a voice as dark and soft as violets. I suppose you could call her a realist. She never tried like my momma to convince us kids that everything was just great, and she didn’t rush us through the hard parts of our feelings. She was exactly the type to let a little girl stand in the toy aisle and stare her desire in the soft, vinyl face. I guess she’d seen enough tantrums through her five kids and thirteen grandkids that she didn’t flinch at the prospect of getting me out of that store.
I knew just which aisle my puppy lived in. I skipped in front of the shopping cart straight to Aisle 14, across from all the blond dolls and blue ponies. There they were, stacked in a grid of pink boxes that reached from the floor to my shoulders--white-furred ones with fluffy pink and blue ears, creamy tan with brown freckles, pink with a white face like porcelain…
I knew which one I wanted. I’d already named her Buttercup (no matter what the box said), and she had white fur with black spots, big green eyes, and little pink bows on her perky ears. I knelt down to her level and lifted my finger to the flimsy plastic packaging window that separated us, tracing the spot just above her cute button nose.
“This one’s mine,” I announced to Grandma Violet and then, to Buttercup, whispered, “Don’t worry, girl. I’ll take you home soon. I’ll take good care of you and your babies. I know they must be getting heavy in there. I know there are five. Can you feel them? I’ll be back soon. You’ll see--I’ll do so much for Momma she’ll have to get you.”
Grandma Violet’s chuckle flooded Aisle 14, slow and deep like chocolate sauce. “God bless the child that’s got his own,” she murmured.
It sounded odd enough to break my trance. “Whadya mean?”
“Nothin’, Honey. It’s just a song.”
“Yeah, but what does it mean,” I persisted.
Grandma bit her lower lip for just a second and pushed her glasses up over the bridge of her nose. “I s’pose it means God takes care of folks that take care of themselves.”
“Does that mean God will help me get my Puppy Surprise if I work at it?”
She paused for what seemed like a long time before hissing out a sigh like air escaping a tire. “Like I said--it’s just a song.”
“I wanna hear it.” I don’t know why I was curious. I was just somehow certain it held the key to my wish.
“Now that I can oblige,” Grandma said. Her smile always reminded me of an elephant walking through a jungle, skin folding over muscle--strong, deliberate. I remember it that day as she said, “Let’s get out of here.”
It was enough to pry me from the toy aisle. “Bye, girl,” I whispered, watching my finger prints fade from the plastic.
Grandma Violet and I spent the rest of the afternoon eating peanut butter cookies and doing Billie Holiday impressions. She pulled the squeaky lid back from her old record cabinet and carefully placed a black disk on the turn table, then I heard a voice that captured everything I felt when I looked into the plastic window at those big puppy eyes. Not that I made the connection at the time. I just know I felt something in the notes that hung and trembled-- sad, wistful and angry all at once. And when I opened my mouth and sang along--empty pockets don't ever make the grade--I was surprised to feel those things take shape in my throat.
Grandma raised her eyebrow at me sharply and, for a moment, I was afraid she could see the dark and powerful thing inside me, until she smiled and said, “Not bad, Honey. Dig into it a little deeper. But not too deep, mind you.”
So I closed my eyes and let that feeling sink a little deeper. I didn’t even know what the words meant, but even at ten years old I knew something about what the sounds meant.
“You’re just about a dead ringer,” Grandma pronounced by the time Momma came rolling up in the old Ford station wagon to bring me home.
I didn’t think much more about it for a while, except about what I could do to help myself--what I could do for Momma to show her how much I wanted that Puppy Surprise. I’d hum a little God bless the child that’s got his own as I laid three forks out on the table for dinner, and echo that’s got his own as I circled back around with napkins.
And then I saw the flyer for the school talent show posted in the hall, advertising a first prize of twenty five dollars and I took it as a sign straight from God. Puppy Surprise cost twenty five dollars. I was so sure it was meant to be--the way I could help myself.
I’d seen talent shows in the years before. Kids would tell jokes, perform magic tricks or dance routines. A few sang. But because I never really had a talent that I knew of, I never paid very close attention. This year, things were different. This year, at ten years old, I knew things about myself and about the world.
I went to the lunch recess audition assembly in Mrs. Walker’s second grade classroom. “What are you going to perform?” she asked each of the thirty or so kids with their knees squeezed under the low tables built for little kids.
Some kids from my class were forming a dance troupe; Leigh Carlson one year down could play the piano.
“Heidi, welcome back,” Mrs. Walker said as she moved through the room. “Are you going to sing for us again this year?”
I had almost forgotten.
“Yes,” Heidi Christensen said, flipping a handful of golden curls over her shoulder. “I’m doing Baby Baby by Amy Grant.” A chorus of oohs rippled through the classroom in her wake.
“And Louise!” Mrs. Walkers eyes froze on me and my breath froze inside my chest. “It’s good to see you here. What will you show us?”
I tried to muster some of Heidi Christensen’s confidence as I announced, “I’m going to sing God Bless the Child by Billie Holiday." Only my hair, pulled back in two tight, practical braids, was not available for flipping, and none of the other kids paid much attention anyway. Still, I thought I saw Mrs. Walker smile as she wrote my name down on the clipboard. I took it as another sign and slowly let out my breath.
“You’ll have up to three minutes to perform,” Mrs. Walker told the contestants after she’d taken down all of our names. “If your act includes music, please make sure to bring your own recording on cassette tape. Good luck, everyone.”
Turns out getting an instrumental recording of an old song is no easy task.
“Why don’t you just take your tape recorder to Grandma’s record?” Momma suggested.
I rolled my eyes. “Because then I’d be lip syncing, and that’s lame,” I said. “I can’t win first prize with that.”
“Well what’s everybody else doing?”
I wasn’t sure, except for one thing. “Heidi Christensen’s mom always records her music on the piano,” I said softly.
Then it was Momma’s turn to roll her eyes. “It’s not enough that I go to work and keep the house? Now I’ve got to play the piano! And where am I supposed to get a piano?” She dried the dishes in thoughtful silence and I was about to walk out of the kitchen without another word when mom asked, “You think Heidi’s mom would play it for you?”
“Momma!” I said, my voice high with disgust.
She looked right at me. “You want your puppy or not?”
I wanted that puppy. So much that at recess I asked Heidi, “How are you doing with your talent show performance?”
“Oh, good,” she replied casually. “My vocal coach says I’m doing well. I just haven’t quite nailed down the choreography. How about you? You never told me you sang! We’ll have to try a duet next year.” Heidi smiled a big, warm smile I believed was sincere.
“Actually, I was wondering...do you think your mom could play my song for the cassette?”
“Oh. I guess so. I can ask her about it,” Heidi offered. “Do you have sheet music?”
“No,” I looked down at my shoes. “Where would I get that?”
“Well, your teacher might have it?” she suggested. Registering my blank look, she added, “Or choir director?”
“Never mind,” I said.
I still practiced at Grandma’s house every day. I just about wore out her record until I knew every twist and turn of that song.
“What’s it mean?” I asked Grandma, “Them that's got shall get, them that's not shall lose?”
Grandma bit her lip and pushed her glasses up on the bridge of her nose before she answered, “It’s just a song.”
“But what does it mean?” I insisted, though I suspected I knew. “Does it mean I’m not going to win?” I said into her silence.
“No,” she said slowly. “It don’t. Because you have got something, Honey. You’ve got a bit of talent and a lot of determination. The only way you could lose is if you did nothing with it. Did you ever learn the Parable of the Talents in Sunday School? About the servant who used his money to make more money?”
I nodded. “Yeah, and the other one who buried his money in the ground.”
“That’s right,” Grandma said. “The only way you lose is to bury yourself in the ground.”
“Or to get up there and lip sync with your record,” I grumbled.
It was two days before the show and I was ready to get up there and sing acapella when Grandma handed me a cassette tape.
“Don’t ask me how,” she said. “I called in a favor from an old friend.”
I didn’t care how she got it. I popped that tape in and listened to a melody that climbed and fell on top of soft chords. You could hear cars drive by in the background, and a few things clinking or squeaking, but it was beautiful.
It was also like learning the song all over again. I practiced all afternoon, till I stopped second guessing where each word came on top of the notes.
The morning of the talent show, Momma made me hot tea with ginger and honey. She clipped two of our white roses into my hair. “It’s not a gardenia, but who can tell with you up there on the stage?” she said.
Momma and Grandma sat in the audience. I looked out at them while Mrs. Walker loaded my cassette. They cheered louder than anyone when it was over.
I wish I could say that was enough. I probably never had a shot. Heidi Christensen won the talent show and the twenty-five dollars. I was the second runner up.
“You were licked before you started,” Grandma said as she wrapped her arms around me so tightly I couldn’t breathe. “Young kids don’t want to hear their grandma’s music. But you did it anyway and did it justice.”
“I lost,” I said, biting my cheeks against the tears that stung my eyes.
“This certificate says something else.” Grandma took the third place certificate that hung limp in my hands. “And besides, you got something. You gave something, and you got something.”
“What?” I asked.
“You got your own. That’s all I know.”
I spent the weekend sulking in my room. I didn’t go with Momma to the K-Mart. But the next week at Grandma’s, I pulled out more of her records and sang.
Two months later I had my birthday and I got my Puppy Surprise. I was probably the last person in my class to get one--the other girls had moved on to Kitty Surprise and Littlest Petshops. Some of them had moved on to make-up and nail polish. But it didn’t matter that day.
My puppy had white fur with black spots and big green eyes. I reached into her velcro belly and pulled out two beanie puppies. Two little girls with pink collars stared up at me with big brown eyes. I stuck my hand back in and felt around, but came up empty.
“Two?” Momma declared. “Damn it.”
Grandma sighed. “Them that's got shall get, them that's not shall lose.”
Momma zipped her smile back in place. “Nobody’s lost anything here,” she said with a quick glance at me. “We’ve got two puppies we didn’t have yesterday.”
“Don’t pretend that store doesn’t try to pass off defective merchandise just because customers don’t want to spare the dollars for bus fare across town,” Grandma hissed in a whisper.
“She can always return it,” Momma said.
I stayed quiet, my lips shut in an inscribed line as I looked at my puppies nestled between their mother’s legs. I stroked her fluffy white ears. “You did good, Buttercup,” I told her.
I got my puppies. They were my own.
“No,” I said. “I’m keeping them.”