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MR. FOAM
by Diane Payne


[Editor's note: This is an excerpt from Payne's new novel titled Burning Tulips, recently released by Red Hen Press. More information follows this story.]

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My friend Karen walks with Mom and me to the A&P, our local grocery store two blocks away. Karen's mother shops at the supermarket because she knows how to drive. We always walk, pulling our wagon behind us. Four bags is our limit, both financially and physically.

It's 1963, I'm five, have lived most of my life on this block, and could walk to the A&P blindfolded. Most of the homes are painted white, and almost everyone is Dutch. Just a few blocks away is the Netherlands Museum but not much goes on there until the Tulip Festival. It's just a reminder that Holland, Michigan, is a city surrounded by Dutch people, but most anyone could figure that out by noticing the windmills in the yards and the wooden shoes hanging by the doorways.

My family is Reformed, but the kids who go to the Christian school are Christian Reformed. Just because we're Dutch and each partially Reformed doesn't mean we're the same. The Christian Reformed families have newer cars that they put aside until Sunday to drive to church. Everyone in the family goes to church. The fathers in the Reformed families like to sleep in on Sunday and the kids walk to church with their mothers. If it's Easter or something special, Dad usually comes to church, but he doesn't like to walk to church, so he drives our beat-up old car there. It's a Cadillac, something Dad has wanted for a long time; but, it's at least fifteen years old, and last Sunday I fell out when Dad turned the corner. Dad says he's going to fix that door when he has some time, but he doesn’t have much free time because he likes to go to the bar after leaving the factory. The Christian Reformed fathers like to come home for dinner, but the other fathers enjoy eating at the taverns. The main difference between us occurs on Sunday. On Sundays, the Christian Reformed kids can't go outside or watch TV. The kids look sad watching us running through the sprinklers, and their parents look disgusted watching us lighting up the grill while our fathers drink beer on the lawn.

"Why don't they just close their curtains on Sunday? Save them from having a heart attack," Dad says when he sees them peering through their windows.

"God didn't give us Sundays to sit in our hot houses roasting to death. Hell, this is my day away from the factory and I'm going to enjoy it."

It's Tuesday, and we're walking down the street. Mrs. Vandenburg calls out her front door, "You going to the store?" Everyone knows we're going to the store when we're hauling an empty wagon behind us.

Oh, no," Mom whispers to me. But to the neighbor, she yells back, "You need something?"

"Hang on a minute. I'll get the money." She hands us a list of five items. "Thanks, Lizzy."

"It's nothing. We're going there anyways."

The Vandenburgs are old, like so many people on the block. Mr. Vandenburg gets up at four each morning and whistles while watering his lawn. I think he whistles louder than the birds to confuse them. He's always laughing out there early in the morning, so he's got to be up to something. Mom speaks Dutch to him while he's sweeping their walkway. There's never dirt on anyone's front steps or walkway.

When Mom's around, I don't get to say much because she wants to look like a good mother and always says, "Children are to be seen and not heard." But on my own, I talk to every neighbor. If I stay just long enough, they usually give me something to eat and don't bother trying to get rid of me. Once I'm fed, I'm usually ready to go anyway. Mom is Dutch like the neighbors but she doesn't cook like the old ladies on the block. She likes cakes and jello made out of mixes. But I like fancy desserts, the kind that don't come out of boxes, the kind the old ladies make.

As we continue walking to the store, Grandma sees us and yells, "You going to the store? I'm baking some pies today. Need a few more things."

This is the year my grandparents started renting the apartment five houses down the street. Feels good having them so close. On our block, we're the only family with our grandparents living on the same street. I run across the street and get her list and money.

"What kind of pie you making, Grandma?"

"Peach."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. You can come by and take one home after they've baked."

"Thanks, Grandma,” She knows Mom doesn't bake much.

Across the street from my grandparent's home is the shoe repair shop. This is an old dark building on the corner. It smells like leather and Mr. Vanderkolk seems like a magician the way he fixes worn-out shoes and makes them usable again. He likes it when I watch him fix shoes, tells me I should become his assistant when I get older. But today watching isn't the reason Karen and I are whispering to each other. We're trying to figure out a way to make a quick stop there without Mom noticing. When Mom's not around, he pays us a penny a kiss. We slow down with the wagon, hoping Mom won't notice- she's usually got enough things on her mind to overlook our absence- then we slip inside.

"Hi, Mr. Vanderkolk," we say.

"Where did your ma go?"

"She went on ahead."

Then we look at him, hoping he'll ask for a kiss quick.

"She leave you behind?"

"We only got a minute."

"I suppose you want to stop off at the drug store today."

We walk behind his counter, feeling bold and impatient. Mr. Vanderkolk glances toward the window and we give him a quick kiss and he gives us our pennies. If we had more time, we'd each give him a nickel worth of kisses. We exchange our kisses for money in a nick of time.

"I wondered where you girls went. Were they bothering you?"

"Nah, they're good girls. They just stop by to say hello."

In between the shoe repair shop and Smittie's Drug Store are a few houses. All of them look a little fancier than the ones on Seventeenth Street. It's funny how turning a corner can change the look of an entire neighborhood. Smittie's is the oldest drug store in Holland. The soda bar is made out of heavy oak wood and the swivel chairs have leather seats. Throughout the day, Mr. Smittie sweeps the dust off his floors. Says you got to keep a place clean if you want to have customers.

"This ain't a feed shop for pigs," he always says. "It's a drug store for families."

"Ma, can we stop off at Smittie's?"

"You got some money?"

"We each got a penny."

"Wheredja get a penny?"

"Karen had them."

Mom looks at us suspiciously. "Oh, all right."

We sit by the counter while Mom looks at greeting cards and aspirin.

"How much ice cream can we have for a penny?" I ask.

"Not much."

We look at each other disappointed. He's in a bad mood today.

"Why don't you ask your ma for a nickel?" he whispers.

"Can't," I whisper back so Mom won't hear. "We're on the way to the grocery store. Sometimes we don't have enough money at the store and have to put things back on the shelf after the bill has been rung up."

This makes him feel bad and he fills our cones with ice cream. Mr. Smittie and Mom talk about the weather and the old folks who have died. After our cones are finished, we walk the final stretch to the A&P. From Smittie's, we can see the store, but in between these stores is a bakery, carpet shop, and Zwiep's nursery. Mom wants to pick up some vegetable seeds. Mr. Zwiep has two large talking parrots and a monkey. He doesn't want to waste any space so there are seeds, plants, and garden tools piled everywhere. Even when there aren't any customers, the store is noisy because the parrots and monkey are always chattering.

"I wish we walked to the store," Karen tells my mother.

"Not if you had to do it every week. Your ma's lucky she knows how to drive."

After buying seeds, we go to the A&P. Karen's not familiar with this store since her family has just moved to Seventeenth Street. She sees all the bubble gum machines at the entrance and gets excited.

"Wow! I wish my mom came here. But she likes the bigger store because it has more food."

I don't want to hear about the big markets with all their fancy food. I haven't even been in a supermarket.

"Have you ever heard of Mr. Foam?" I ask her.

"Mr. who?"

This is great. Something new to show Karen. I drag her down to the soap aisle and show her the cans of Mr. Foam.

"What is it?"

I'm not really sure, but I tell her it's like shaving cream except used for baths.

"Really?"

"Yeah. Everyone uses it," I say, hoping she'll think I have cans of it next to our bathtub.

I shake up the Mr. Foam and show her how it works. I feel like a pro and can tell Karen's impressed.

"You shake it like this and then press this button."

My plan is to just squeeze out a small amount, like they do with perfume samples, but the valve sticks and the foam shoots everywhere. I had my hand all ready to catch the sample but now it's all over my face like shaving cream. There are inches of white, foamy goop all over everything. Karen’s laughs because I can't figure out how to stop Mr. Foam from foaming. For all she knows, this is how it's supposed to work. How a can that size can carry so much foam is beyond me. I throw the can in Karen's hands, hoping Mom will blame her, knowing she won't ever get mad at someone else's kid. The foam squirts over the shampoo bottles and bars of soap. No one's going to buy those messy things. Mr. Foam has gone crazy on us, and Karen's too fascinated by the foam to know we're about to get in serious trouble. My mother runs down the aisle, ordering us to put the shooting foam can back on the shelf, as if we had nothing to do with it and no one will notice the foam spewing out of Mr. Foam's head, but I see the store manager coming and put the can in Mom's hands, grab Karen and run out of the store.

We leave Mom with Mr. Foam in her hands and the store a foamy mess. I can only wonder what she's telling the manager, but am glad I don't hear what's coming out of her mouth.

"Where are we going?" Karen yells as I yank her.

"We gotta get away from her. She's gonna whip me."

"She's gonna whip you more if we leave her here."

"You think so?"

"Mine would."

I think about this in the alley. By the time we return to the store, the clerks know what has happened, and except for the one bagger who is laughing, the rest give us dirty looks.

"Now you've done it," Karen groans.

Mom is still talking to the manager, and a boy is wiping up the Mr. Foam. "You rotten kid!" she yells across the aisle. "Get over here!"

Slowly I walk over. The adults stop talking, waiting for me to say something. "She didn't know what it was. Karen was just looking at it, and the foam came out."

Mom hits me across the butt and Karen pinches me. "Okay, I'm sorry. I was just trying to squirt out a little to see if we wanted to buy some and all of it came out. Is he gonna make us buy the can, Ma?"

"Of course we gotta buy the can now."

"Can't we at least take a full one?"

"Oh, shut-up!" Mom never says that in public but she's mad now.

"No, that's all right. I think she's learned her lesson," the manager says.

"I doubt it, but thanks. I can afford it."

"It's all right."

Our walk home is quiet. It feels like everyone already knows about the Mr. Foam incident. Neither Mr. Zwiep, Mr. Smittie,nor Mr. Vanderkolk wave. They just shake their heads the way adults do when kids have done something wrong. Fortunately Mom's too embarrassed to tell Grandma or Mrs. Vandenburg what I did. She just gives them their groceries, and a dark silence follows us down Seventeenth Street.

When we get home, Karen thanks my mom for letting her walk along.

"Going to the store with you is fun, Mrs. Jones."

"Ahh, go on home," Mom mutters, and Karen crosses the street snickering, knowing my punishment is just about to begin.

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Diane teaches writing courses at University of Arkansas-Monticello, where she's faculty advisor of the literary magazine, Foliate Oak. Diane reports they're always looking for submissions.

Want to know more about Diane Payne's new book? Read on:

"This is a remarkable memoir. As American as apple pie and incest, it is a vivid reminder of how startling is the actuality of childhood in this country. Burning Tulips is strong, moving, and direct." —VIVIAN GORNICK

"Here is the story of a childhood that probably won’t become a Disney movie. In brief, unblinking scenes we see a child encounter what a child shouldn’t have to. The young woman who emerges is not unscathed, but she is unbroken and, amazingly, she can laugh." —LYNNE RAE PERKINS


ISBN 1-888996-89-7 • Novel • 160 pp. • Tradepaper • $15.95

Red Hen Press
P.O. Box 3537
Granada Hills, CA 91394
(818) 831-0649 Voice
(818) 831-6659 fax
Red Hen website


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