The spring after her miscarriage, Eva Whitman was diagnosed with such severe anemia, that her doctor recommended a new vitamin-enriched cereal that provided high levels of iron and folic acid. It was called Kellogg’s Concentrate and came in a box the size of a small book, wrapped in gold foil with a large red C on the front and a metal pull-out spout on its side.
The nine Whitman children were huge consumers of breakfast cereal—flakes, puffs, pops, the occasional box of Captain Crunch—the older boys burned through a box of sugary cereal in an afternoon. Leo, always trying to save money, began buying cereal by crates of twenty-four from a local supermarket. This saved a considerable sum, but meant everyone had to eat the same flavors for weeks on end. If it was unsweetened, like Cheerios or Wheaties, they all complained about it, whining and grousing like starved children, until they came to the last box.
The sudden arrival of a golden container of cereal with special powers brought great excitement to the household. Eva informed her older children that, according to an ad in McCall’s Magazine, the cereal contained “the greatest concentration of nutrients ever offered in a single all-purpose food.”
The box was light enough to seem almost empty, but inside were millions of tiny round discs of a cereal resembling aquarium food and tasting of malt and wheat and something else indescribable—the tang of health. A half cup serving was all that was needed, with sugar and just enough milk to congeal the flakes.
Eva allowed each of her nine children to taste the new cereal, but made it clear that it was off limits because of its price. This of course made the cereal irresistible to Rita, her eldest, who’d begun to fear inheriting her mother’s lethargy, and her fertility. She began to secretly pilfer Concentrate, sometimes stealing a quarter cup in the early mornings before school, sometimes gulping down a few tablespoons after school, sometimes hiding on the basement stairs with a small serving before bed.
When Eva noticed that someone was eating her cereal, unwilling to embark on an investigation, she moved the small box to a tall kitchen cupboard, where she also stored Grandma Ruth’s Czechoslovakian glassware. Rita knew the kitchen cupboards like the back of her hand—this from the days when it was her job every night to do the after-dinner dishes, including putting everything away. She found the cereal during one of Eva’s many naps, but realized that her mother must know someone was taking it. She stood on a kitchen stool with the box in her hand, deciding whether or not to strike.
Instead, she put the box back into the high cupboard, threw on a raincoat and walked in a light spring rain to the nearest grocery store, four blocks away. Kellogg’s Concentrate was indeed expensive—the cost of several after-school hamburgers—but it was worth it. Once home, she poured the equivalent of two servings into a bowl, added milk and sugar and quietly took it up to her room—bringing food upstairs was not allowed. Rita sat cross-legged on the floor of her bedroom and ate the cereal quickly, in sugary gulps, feeling a pleasant surge starting in her belly and radiating to her chest and arms—power and control.
Rita was often confused about what to eat in her own house. She despised her mother’s cooking—stews and goulashes and heavy meat sauces—dinners meant to spread little food among many. Some nights her father made a salad, always the same ingredients—iceberg lettuce, pale tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes and a slosh of Wish Bone Italian dressing, which blocked the taste of the raw vegetables with its salty, garlicky aftertaste. Sometimes Eva would deep fry a two-pound frozen bag of fries to fill up the big boys, who doused them with ketchup and ate them in handfuls until they were gone.
Eva knew that Rita was contemptuous of her cooking, as well as unsympathetic about the daily burden of feeding so many—it was another sore spot between them. Eva often asked both Rita and Marty, her next youngest sister, to help with chopping and mixing and can opening; both girls performed these kitchen tasks with expressions of disgust at whatever was being prepared for them to eat.
Friday nights were the exception—pizza night. They all loved pizza, although by her senior year Rita had spent enough time having pizza at friends’ houses to know that it was ridiculous to be limited to two slices per child—at Nancy’s she had once eaten a whole pizza by herself, with double pepperoni. Still, there was a certain joy amongst them all when Leo carried the pizza boxes into the kitchen and they watched him peel the greasy waxed covering back from the pies. For Eva, it was a special treat and a precious reprieve—no cooking, no complaining, no clean-up.
Before she’d started dating seriously, pizza night had been Rita’s only culinary thrill. But she quickly learned to appreciate the miracle of having boys drive her in their cars to cafes and diners and drive-ins, just so that she could eat. It was another thing that kept her saying yes to all requests. She quickly developed her favorite dishes at the local restaurants—lasagna at Mickey’s, cheeseburgers from the Roxy, and hot beef sandwiches at Driftwood Diner. Sometimes her dates remarked about how hungry she seemed to always be, making jokes about it, pointing out the irony of a girl her size having such a big appetite. Rita was only slightly embarrassed by this; nothing discouraged her from eating in restaurants as often as possible.
She had also noticed there was endless food at the homes of her friends and boyfriends, households in which there seemed to be infinite snacks and treats and sodas, no hoarding, no fighting, no one caring if you took seconds or thirds. Nancy often fed her, but didn’t hide her resentment of Rita’s incredible metabolism. Rita had actually grown thinner during senior year, while Nancy’s breasts had ballooned and her waist had thickened from the birth control pills she’d begun to take. She’d been trying to convince Rita to take them, but Rita had a better plan: no sex ever, but lots of almost-sex. This in exchange for endless cheeseburgers and milk shakes and shallow relationships. Thus, she dealt with both her hunger and her fear of pregnancy.
Marty was also becoming less and less willing to eat the food Eva served, but for a different reason. She was leaning vegetarian, having read criticism of the American tendency to eat too much meat. “In Japan, they eat a diet of fish and vegetable and they live longer and have healthier hearts,” she told Rita.
“I don’t care,” Rita said. “I hate fish and no one can make me eat it ever again.” She was referring to days when they’d been forced to eat fish sticks on Friday nights, another down side of their Catholicism, before the magic of meatless pizza had come into their lives.
On the Saturday morning that she had signed up to take the SATs, Rita secretly ate not one, but two servings of Kellogg’s Concentrate in order to get through the impending four-hour exam. Marty, up early and fresh from a shower in the upstairs bathroom, caught her sister exiting the bedroom with her empty cereal bowl. Through the scent of the Herbal Essence shampoo in her hair, she smelled the distinctive malty aroma of Kellogg’s Concentrate.
Marty gasped. “Are you stealing Mom’s cereal?”
“I don’t need to steal it. I bought my own box.”
“Oh God. Your own box? Can I have a little?”
“I finished it,” Rita lied. “I need to be really alert for my SATs today.”
Marty was already studying for the SATs herself; she had her mind set on early admission to Michigan Tech in the upper peninsula, a move as close to relocating in a different country as she could possibly arrange.
“I’m so bad at tests, Marty,” Rita admitted. “I don’t even know why I’m doing this.”
“Rita, everybody who goes to college does this.”
“What college is going to accept me? My grades went down this year. Nancy says they look for that—the grades going down— and then they don’t want you.”
Marty had heard this too, from her advisor—it kept her up at night studying and inventing extra credit projects so that her GPA wouldn’t slip from a 4.5 to a 4.0
“I’ll blow it,” Rita went on. “I get so nervous taking tests and then all the answers seem the same. They jumble together on the page. I give up and start guessing.”
“Oh, don’t do that,” Marty instructed. “Don’t guess, Rita. Use logic. If you don’t know the answer, take a deep breath and say, one of these answers is right—and I alone will find it.”
“You alone? Why you alone?”
“It’s a mantra. It helps you regain focus. And remember to breathe. Deep, centering breaths. Keep stretching out your legs under the table. Don’t tense up, it affects your brain.”
“How do you know all this?”
“I read it in Seventeen. They had a special article about how to get higher scores on tests. It works, I swear it works. Oh, and one biggest tips is to eat a nutritious breakfast. So you’re set with that.” She winked at her sister. “You can do this, Rita. You’re smarter than you think.”
Rita went back to the kitchen with her empty bowl, feeling fortified. It mattered that Marty believed in her. It made her feel ready to try harder. She took her bowl to the sink and rinsed it out so no one else would know she’d been eating Concentrate. At the sink, she closed her eyes and tried to feel focused. “You alone can do it,” she whispered.
By some miracle of numerology, deep breathing and concentration, Rita’s SAT scores were respectable—better than average. Mr. Flock, the resident college admissions advisor, handed the scores back in homeroom; they came in a cardboard sleeve with only her name at the top. She stared at the numbers for a long time, digesting the miracle they represented—decent scores.
The next day, she made an appointment with Mr. Flock and met with him in his office after school. She needed to be sure that there hadn’t been some mistake about her scores. He confirmed her hope that now there were several colleges that were likely to accept her.
“Are you sure?” she pressed. “My grades aren’t the greatest, you know.”
He looked at her transcript and said, “Not bad, really. Quite a few B’s. An A in World Religion, that’s good. Ouch, those Algebra grades won’t help. But we can work with this, Rose. You could apply to Central. Or Grand Valley. Or maybe even Michigan State.”
Rita insisted, “Michigan State. That’s the one. That’s the one. Will you help me?” It was rare for her to ask an adult to help her, but she was filled with determination, now that she had her scores.
Mr. Flock, perhaps seeing her as college material for the first time, this suddenly more ambitious, bright-eyed, leaning forward teenager. He knew her father—nice man—knew she was from a large family, knew she would qualify for massive financial aid, knew also that she might otherwise soon be in some kind of trouble—a pregnancy, an early marriage— if she didn’t go to college. Her sister, by contrast, was a remarkable student, but perhaps the older sister—what was her name again?—Rose? Rhoda? had less obvious, more hidden and unformed intelligence—a late bloomer.
“I’ll help you,” he promised. “I’ll write you a letter of recommendation. I have the application forms right here. But you might want to consider applying to some other schools too.”
“No other schools,” Rita insisted, shaking her head. “I need to concentrate on just the one.”
Mr. Flock shrugged and said, “Your choice, Rose.”
“Rita. It says right there on my test score. I’m Rita Whitman. Let’s do the application right now.”
The acceptance packet came three weeks later and she hadn’t expected to hear anything so soon. It was the first piece of professional mail that she’d ever received. She picked it up off the kitchen table, saw her name on the envelope, saw that it was from Michigan State University, felt its weight and touched its glossy logo. Even more astounding, upon opening the packet, the impossible first sentence of the letter: “It is with great pleasure…”
Rita’s knees buckled. She sat down, holding the letter to her breasts. She felt an unprecedented rush of energy—burdens lifting, clouds parting, doors opening, and something else—something raw and completely unfamiliar—pride. It was pride. She’d been accepted. She’d been invited. In that moment, sitting at the kitchen table with the acceptance letter pressed to her body, all her guilt and pessimism and resentment, all were replaced with pride.
It was when Rita asked her parents to fill out the financial aid forms that her plans to leave home became real to them. Before that, they heard Rita’s comments about applying to Michigan State through the fog of other, more pressing concerns in the household. Even when the acceptance letter came, it still seemed a remote possibility than she’d actually go off to continue her education. It had already been settled in their minds that Marty would be the first of the Whitman clan to attend college, on a full scholarship of course; Marty who studied constantly and attained perfect scores and had a photographic memory for history and geography.
But now their eldest daughter was presenting them with a long and tedious form, requiring detailed information about their finances. They both reacted with consternation; money was never talked about openly in the family; it was as forbidden a topic for discussion as sex. After glancing at the form, Leo pushed it away from himself at the table, sending it closer to where Eva sat. “Your mother will do it,” he said. “She knows more about our actual budget.”
This was a lie; Leo paid the bills, he was the source of all monies for the household, but since matters of the children’s education were firmly in Eva’s realm, he backed away from helping with the financial aid form, to Rita’s dismay. She knew that Eva was the one who would most resent the intrusive questions—family income, family debt, family budget, financial projections. It was like giving her mother a list of all the things she resented most about their situation. The financial aid form would be an excruciating task for her.
For an entire week, Rita brought it up daily as calmly as she could manage, given what was at stake for her and the looming deadline for the application. Every time she mentioned the form, Eva’s expression collapsed into aggravation. She would exclaim, “I told you, I’m working on it,” or “Do I look like I’m doing nothing?” Three nights in a row she said she’d get to it after dinner. But dinner came and went and the form was still centered on the desk where her father calculated the monthly bills, and it was still blank—not even the names had been filled in.
Two days before the mailing deadline, Eva sat down at the desk and lowered her head to the pages while Rita hovered nearby, wringing her hands anxiously. A series of questions about household budget costs—food and medical expenses—caused Eva to toss the pages into the air in a rage; they wafted to the floor where Rita scrambled to retrieve them. “How dare they ask me these things?”
Behind her, Rita had begun to softly cry, keeping her head tucked to hide her tears. But when she spoke, her dismay was obvious, her voice clogged with emotion. “Please, Mom,” she begged. “Please, just do it. Put down anything. It doesn’t have to be true. Please, please, fill out the form. I need this. I really need this.”
Eva turned around at the desk, astonished to see that Rita was crying, her daughter who never cried. Rita was holding out the pages, her hands shaking, mascara smeared.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake.” Eva snatched back the forms. It was perhaps her first awareness of how urgently her daughter wanted to leave. Enough to beg. Eva said quietly, “Watch Marie for me. She needs a diaper change. I’ll be in the bedroom. Give me an hour.”
“Right. Okay.” Rita was deeply embarrassed to have broken down in front of her mother.
Before Eva left the kitchen, she put the forms on the counter and reached to the topmost cupboard, standing on tiptoes in her terry slippers. She pulled out her box of Concentrate and shook it, frowning because it was nearly empty. She finished it, pouring out a bowl, adding a splash of milk. Then she disappeared with the cereal and the financial aid form into her bedroom.
In the living room, Rita pulled Marie out of the playpen; her diaper was so soggy that it squished urine onto Rita’s arms. Marie fussed while Rita changed her, squirming and arching her back. Rita, usually annoyed with Marie, experienced a rare moment of compassion for her youngest sister. “I know,” she said. “I know, I’m stuck here too.” She turned it into a song: We’re both stuck, we’re both stuck, we are the Whitmans, our lives suck.
Marie, amused that Rita was singing, began to clap her chubby hands in approval and then asked in her baby voice, “Outside?”
So Rita took her outside and pushed her in the stroller. Marie sang to herself as Rita propelled her, something atonal and incomprehensible. She had always been a fussy, inconsolable baby, and was now a cranky toddler; she’d been born into the unluckiest days of the Whitman family, when all hope for order and serenity were past. Rita had always felt vaguely sorry for Marie, but not enough to attend to her. She was too uninterested in babies by the time Marie was born and she often felt, on the rare occasions when Marie was in her care, that she herself would never have children, never, ever, not even one.
Eva emerged from the bedroom in a mere half hour with an empty bowl and the finished and signed forms. “Thanks, Mom,” Rita called from the living room, where she was holding Marie on her lap, reading When We Were Very Young. When Leo came home from the shoe store, he also signed the forms and asked Rita if she wanted him to take the return envelope to the post office the next morning on his way downtown Rita said “I’ll do it.”
She was afraid to trust anyone else with mailing them on the last day before the deadline.
Mother and daughter never spoke of the financial aid meltdown—Eva’s rage, Rita’s tears, the way that they’d stared into each other’s eyes for a moment, seeing each other’s raw emotions. Rita was plagued with a lingering sense of guilt and shame about it. She had not wanted her mother to know how desperately she needed to leave. Although of course, Eva knew. Or did she? If Mom knows, does she care? Rita wondered. This question troubled her for days after the forms were sent in.
One night, long past everyone else’s bedtimes, Rita climbed down from her top bunk and wandered to the kitchen, thinking she might make a sandwich out of white bread with oleo and sugar and cinnamon—a recent nightly indulgence. Before she reached the kitchen, she heard a rustling sound—someone was already there, opening and closing cupboards. Rita stood in the doorway, letting her eyes adjust to the semi-darkness. It was her mother, leaning against the kitchen sink in her bathrobe. She ate from a small bowl held close to her mouth.
“Rita,” Eva called softly. “What is it? Are you having trouble sleeping?”
“No,” Rita said. “Maybe a little.”
“Would you like some cereal?” Eva picked up the box and shook it. “Your dad bought me a new box.”
“That’s okay.” The cereal no longer appealed to Rita. “I was just going to eat some bread to help me sleep.”
“Are you worried about college?”
Rita was surprised to be asked. She wasn’t used to her mother showing curiosity about her life. She repeated, “Maybe a little.”
“You’ll do fine. You’re a smart girl.”
Rita pulled a piece of bread out of the metal bread box. The compliment confused her. “Are you worried about me leaving, Mom?”
Eva had finished her cereal. She put her bowl into the sink and ran water into it. “I’ll manage fine. I’ll be back to my old self in a few months.”
Rita wanted to ask: What is your old self, Mom? She wanted to entreat: Please don’t get pregnant after I leave.
“Please, Mom,” she said aloud.
Leaving the kitchen, Eva turned slightly. “Did you need something?”
“I’m good,” Rita said. “I’m finished here.” She put her plate in the sink and wiped the sugar and cinnamon from the counter. On her way back to bed, she came face to face with her middle brother Paul in his pajamas. He passed her without speaking and after a moment Rita followed him back to the kitchen, where he was now standing on a chair in front of the cupboard where Eva kept her cereal. Rita was about to sneak up behind him and scold him for stealing, but something stopped her. Hadn’t the cereal helped her? Maybe it would help Paul. She surrendered to this rare moment of empathy and left him to his foraging, hoping he might find something in the tiny golden box to relieve his hunger, give him strength, ease his longing.
Margaret Willey has published work in many genres—shorts stories, novels for teenagers, poetry, essays, and folktales for children. She has received many awards for her books, most recently from The Society of Midland Authors in the category of Children’s Fiction for her Young Adult novel, Beetle Boy. Her current work is fiction and non-fiction for adults. “Concentrate” is from an in-progress short story collection set in the 1960s. She lives in Michigan. Her website is: www.margaretwilley.com