“Sweet Rolls,” Friend, Nov. 1990, 36
When she paused between arithmetic problems to look out the schoolhouse window, Julia thought about how Billy Johnson would have sweet rolls in his lunch again. Resting her pencil eraser on the unfinished problem, she pictured the package of rolls as he always produced it from his jacket pocket at noon. He would lay it on his desk and look around at everyone else to make sure he had their full attention before unwrapping the wax paper and revealing two rolls in all their splendor, filled with apricot jam and crowned with white frosting.
Julia’s stomach rumbled. Although her family had not really been wanting for food since they’d moved five months ago, she seemed always to be hungry. Most of it was a hunger that the boiled navy beans in her pail wouldn’t satisfy.
Her brother flashed her a grin when she looked his way. “I’m hungry,” he mouthed.
She raised her eyebrows and looked toward the clock. Twenty more minutes.
The teacher was hearing third graders recite the multiplication tables: “Four times five is twenty.” “Four times six is twenty-four.” “Four times seven is twenty-eight. …”
Julia bit the end of her eraser and stared at her own problem: What is the simple interest on a loan for eighty-five dollars for eighteen months with an annual rate of eleven percent?
There’s no sense thinking about rolls, she told herself. But she couldn’t get the thought of them out of her mind. Had she ever eaten sweet rolls? She wondered. She couldn’t remember the taste—only the smell, buttery rich and fruity rising out of Billy’s wax paper every day.
Get back to the problem, she scolded herself. Multiply first. What next? She worked out the first part of the problem:
Loans! That’s why they had had to move and didn’t have much money for food. When the drought had come, there had been loans against the farm to buy seed. Loans against the cattle and then the horses, until they had had to be sold. Loans for more seed and for a hospital bill. Everything had finally been forfeited to the bank—as had almost all the other farms in the area. What would a bank do with all those farms and all those thin cattle and hungry horses?
Next, eighteen months is a year and a half, so multiply nine dollars and thirty-five cents by one-point-five.
Seven years of crop failures and loans. The last time Dad made a wheat crop, I was five years old, Julia thought. No wonder I can’t remember the taste of sweet rolls.
The schoolhouse door and the windows were open to the filtered light that made the month of April so hopeful. Snow still filled the ditches beside the road, but at recess Julia had heard water running under the snow and had seen it through holes her brother made by poking a stick through the crusty snow. Perhaps this year there wouldn’t be a drought. Last year they had lived on wheat that Dad had scraped out of the granary of an abandoned farm. This year there were navy beans. Maybe next year her mother could make her sweet rolls to bring to school.
Julia’s stomach rumbled again as she pictured Billy Johnson licking the frosting from his fingers the way he did every day.
Two more arithmetic problems.
Julia touched the eraser to her lips, considering. A merchant makes fifteen percent profit on clothing he sells in his store. He sells $5,082 in clothing one year and $4,237 the next. What are his total profits for the two years?
Who makes profits? Billy Johnson’s dad. He must be a rich merchant to buy all those sweet rolls.
And all she had were beans. Cold beans. All cooked from the huge sacks of beans brought with them last November when Uncle Fred had moved them the six hundred sleety, wind-whipped miles to his home in Michigan.
Uncle Fred had been cutting and hauling cedar fence posts, expecting to trade them for wild horses to sell at a profit. But none of the ranchers were building fences. Why put up fences for dying cattle? None of them had horses to trade, either. If he had gotten horses, Julia and her family would still be in Dakota.
A Crookston garage owner had let them stay all night in his shop. It had a wood fire, so Uncle Fred stoked it with some fence posts and said that if he couldn’t use them for barter, he might as well burn them.
Since November Dad and Uncle Fred had been cutting more fence posts in the cedar swamp. Their whole family was cramped into one room at Uncle Fred’s—along with their three beat-up mattresses and Mom’s cookstove. Every day Mom cooked up a pot of beans and sent it and three bowls and three spoons to school with the children.
Julia was writing down the merchant’s two-year profit, $1397.85, when the teacher announced the lunch hour.
Julia stood in line with the other girls to wash her hands in the wash pan in the entryway. She watched Billy Johnson pull the package of sweet rolls from his jacket pocket and head back to the classroom. Her mouth watered as she saw the sweet jam oozing from the coils of golden bread. “Those look good,” she said to the girl next to her.
“They’re stale,” the girl said. “His dad buys them by the bushel to feed his hogs. He gets them really cheap from a bakery in Grand Rapids.”
Julia thought a bushel of sweet rolls, even stale ones, sounded pretty good. “How do you know?”
“My mother got a bushel there once,” the girl replied, rocking on her heels. “Some of them were moldy. Most of them were just powder-dry. But it’s easier for Billy to grab up a package of rolls than to make a sandwich. Besides, I doubt if they even have stuff for sandwiches. They’re having a hard time getting by.”
“If Mom only had the things to make some rolls, …” Julia began.
“It wouldn’t matter if Billy’s family did have the stuff to make rolls,” the other girl said. “His ma’s dead.”
Julia thought about that. She thought, too, about her mom, who loved her and who cooked beans for them. Today the beans would taste better than ever. Even better than a sweet roll.