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Blackbird: A Childhood Lost and Foundby Jennifer Lauck
The only house I'll ever call home is the one on Mary Street.
Mary Street is in Carson City, Nevada, and Carson City is flat valley to soft hills. Past the hills are the Sierra Nevada Mountains. When you look up, the sky is deep blue, forever blue, and there are almost never any clouds up there. The clouds that do come gather on top of the Sierras and they look like wadded-up tissue paper. Every now and then, a piece of cloud will tear away and float across the forever-blue sky.
There's one main street right down the middle of the city and it's called Carson Street. The state capital building is on Carson Street and the dome of the capital is painted silver since Nevada is the silver state. Over the silver dome, two flags kick the wind, one blue for Nevada, one red, white, and blue for America.
The Golden Nugget is on Carson Street too, but everyone just calls it the Nugget.
From the Nugget, you go a couple blocks and you can see the house where Auntie Carol and Uncle Bob live with the pack of my wild cousins. There's Steven, Bobbie Lou, Andy, Mark, Tracy, and Faith Ann. Auntie Carol is Daddy's oldest sister, and the only time I go to that house is for holidays or if Momma has to see a special doctor.
West of Auntie Carol's house, you go Iris Street, Angus Street, and then it's Mary Street and our house is the one with the white fence and the big willow tree.
When you come in the front door, there's three ways you can go. Straight ahead is the living room, right is the kitchen, and left is a long hallway to bedrooms and bathrooms. The first bedroom is B.J.'s, then it's the bathroom, and then it's my room. Momma and Daddy's room is at the end of the hall, and out their window you can see the big willow tree. If the sun is just right, the shadow of the tree comes into their room and lies right over the middle of the California King. Momma says the bed is called that because it's not as wide as a regular king, and just a little longer, like the state.
Next to the California King is a pair of silver crutches, the kind you adjust tall or short by pushing in a little silver bead. Momma can stand up without the crutches and can even take a couple of steps. She still has to use the crutches when she walks to the bathroom or when she goes to any other part of our house.
There was a time when Momma walked just like everyone else, when she was only in bed at night, when she drove her car and talked on the telephone and had lots of ladies over for card games and coffee and thick slices of banana nut bread. I remember when Momma was strong enough to lift me off my feet, toss me in the air, and catch me again.
There's never been a time when I haven't been home with Momma. Daddy works, B.J. goes to school, and it's just Momma and me all day, everyday.
In the morning, I sit outside her door and listen.
That's the rule.
Moshe and Diana wait too. Moshe is one of those fast-moving crazy cats. Diana is all liquid and wait. I pet Diana's soft, sand-colored tummy and lay my head against the wall. Moshe sits apart from us, his brown head held high, blue eyes half closed.
The rule is, no cats, no kids, not until the toilet flushes.
When the toilet finally flushes, Moshe runs to the door, Diana rolls away from my hand, and I get off the floor and walk to the kitchen.
The kitchen is eighteen steps from Momma's bedroom door.
I drag a chair from the kitchen table to the counter, climb up, and lift the coffeepot with both hands so I don't spill. Daddy makes the coffee before he leaves for work and he sets out Momma's special cup so I can fill it. The cup is white and the lightest color of yellow, garlands of tiny purple and red flowers painted around the outside, a line of gold around the inside. The cup and saucer are part of our china kept in the hutch for special occasions. Momma says she likes coffee in special china, says it makes her feel pampered.
Four slices of bread in the toaster and I press the toast button down.
I cut off four squares of real butter, put them on the side of the plate.
The toast hops up and I stack the four slices, cut diagonal with a butter knife, and put the toast next to the butter.
Momma says presentation is everything.
I spoon into a jar of marmalade, thin orange slices swimming in the jam, one, two, three spoons next to the toast and butter. Momma says the marmalade is from Carmel, California, which is her most favorite place in the whole world.
I put the plate on a tray with the cup of coffee in the special china.
One foot in front of the other, I walk extra slow so I don't spill.
When I get to her room, Moshe and Diana are up on the California King, cat bodies around and around and Momma pets with both hands.
"Good morning, Sunshine," Momma says.
The best part of seeing Momma is how she always calls me Sunshine and how there's that look in her dark brown eyes. It's one of those special looks for special people. Momma has that special look for Daddy too, but I mostly see it when she looks at me, and when she looks at me that way, I know I can do just about anything.
After toast and coffee, Momma lets me brush her dark curly hair and it's fine and soft between my fingers.
One time she showed me a photo of Mrs. Kennedy in Life magazine. Momma calls her Jackie, says the former First Lady is bursting with style. She wants her hair just like in the magazine and I make the part on the side, brush all her curls into one curl just under her chin.
"Does Mrs. Kennedy have curly hair too?" I say.
"That's a very good question," Momma says. "I don't think so."
Momma holds the mirror and watches me pat the last curl in place.
"Ready?" Momma says.
I cover my eyes and hold my breath.
"Ready," I say.
Momma sprays a cloud of Aqua Net and it's the smell of hairspray and that sticky mist on my hands and legs. The hairspray makes Moshe shake his head and that's when he jumps off the bed and disappears until tomorrow morning. Diana doesn't care about hairspray, rolls over on her back, and takes up the sunbeam Moshe left behind.
"Getting put together is more than hair," Momma says.
She always says "getting put together," like she fell apart overnight. Momma leans over, opens the top drawer of the nightstand, and she takes out the black and white zip-up cosmetic bag.
Momma dumps her makeup out on her lap and lines the cosmetics in order: compact powder, a tube of rouge, eyeliner, and lipstick. She picks up the powder compact, snaps open the lid, and inside is a soft round pad. Momma rubs the pad over the pressed powder and moves the pad under her eyes, over her nose, up her cheeks, and down her chin. Momma touches her face so light, it's almost like she doesn't touch at all.
"Just a whisper of powder does the trick," Momma says. "Too much and you look like a clown."
Momma taps the pad of powder to my nose and that always makes me laugh. When I laugh, Momma laughs too, and the sound is better than music.
After the powder, Momma taps rouge high on her cheekbones and rubs the color until it's the lightest shade of pink.
"Rouge is like a trick on Mother Nature," Momma says, "it gives that flushed fresh look, even when you're not."
The best part of getting put together is when she does her eyes. Momma has the kind of eyes that are so dark they take in light and make it dark too. Momma says eyes never lie and if you know how to look just right, you can always find the truth in another person by watching their eyes. When I look at Momma, I mostly see that special look like she's happy I'm here. I know there are other things going on inside that she doesn't say, but I'm still learning how to look just right.
Momma takes the tube of eyeliner, shakes it like a thermometer, and pulls out the long wand. Her hand is steady and she makes a thin line to the outside of one eye and then the other. After the eyeliner is dry, Momma looks me dead on and her eyes are even darker, which doesn't seem possible.
"Nice?" Momma says.
"Perfect," I say.
The finishing touch is lipstick and I always get to put it on. Momma gives me the tube of lipstick and I take a deep breath, hold my hand steady, and fill in her lips with the red color.
When I'm done, I let out my breath again and hand back the tube of lipstick. Momma pulls two tissues from the box on the nightstand, folds the tissues in half and then half again. She presses her mouth around the tissues and some of the red comes off in the shape of her mouth.
"Nice?" Momma says.
"Perfect," I say.
If it's a bad day, Momma puts her cosmetics away and stays in bed.
If it's a good day, she pushes her covers back and puts her feet on the floor.
Today is a good day.
"Can you get my robe, Sunshine?" Momma says.
Momma wears matching nightgowns and robes called peignoir sets and they are all different colors of yellow, pink, and peach. Today it's a creamy yellow lemon meringue and I hold her robe in my hands, the silk like water in my fingers.
One arm, the other arm, twist, shrug, and then Momma stands up so she can pull the robe around her legs. Momma shimmies a little under her own weight and I move close, help tug the silk so the robe falls right around her feet. She sits down heavy on the end of the bed and takes a deep breath.
When something's wrong, really wrong, my skin knows first. It's a prickly feeling at the back of my neck, over the top of my head, down my forehead, and into my nose. Feels like a nosebleed coming on.
"You okay?" I say.
Momma sits up tall, shoulders straight, chin tucked. She calls sitting that way the posture of a lady.
"I'm fine," she says, "just a little dizzy."
I look past her words and into her truth and I know it's not such a good day after all.
Momma clears her throat and blinks the truth away. She crosses her legs at the knee, adjusts her robe.
"Okay now," Momma says, "take a few steps back and see the big picture."
Momma sits on the edge of the California King and she's silky lemon meringue, Mrs. Kennedy, dark eyes wide open, with that special look she gets when I'm around.
"Good?" Momma says.
"You're bursting with style."
Momma laughs when I say "bursting with style" and it's music in her room.
There is no special time for taking pills, Momma opens and closes bottles all day. Mostly aspirin, but there are others too, yellow pills, red pills. Her pills are in brown bottles with white lids and there are labels on the front. Momma lifts the bottles and reads the labels, squinting and moving her lips without speaking out loud.
Next to her pills is a water glass and it's my job to keep her glass rinsed and full of fresh water.
Momma opens bottles, tips out pills, closes bottles. She holds all the pills in her palm, makes a fist around them, but I make her open her hand so I can see. I point to the five matching pills, each one with a red A in the middle of white.
"What are those pills for?" I say.
"For the pain in my back," she says.
"What kind of pain?"
"An aching kind of pain."
"What's the pain from?"
"The operation for B.J.?" I say, "the one for him being born?"
"The one after," she says, "for the cancer that's not a cancer. You know, I told you before."
"The operation for the tumor as long as my arm?"
"That was operation number two."
"The operation for the tumor that grew back because stupid doctors didn't get it right the first time?"
She smiles when I say "stupid doctors." She holds up her empty hand, holds up three fingers.
"Operation number three," she says, "that's right, honey."
"If the tumor is really all gone now," I say, "how come you have pain?"
She takes a deep breath, lips together, air back out through her nose.
"You always ask the same questions."
"I know," I say, "but how come?"
"The pain is from nerve damage," she says, "from the operation where they took out the tumor but cut some nerves to my legs and my tummy. That's why it's hard to walk. Okay?"
Momma's hand tries to close on the pills, but I keep her fingers open, point to the purple pill with the white line around the middle.
"What's purple for?" I say.
"For the infection where I pee."
"Will the pill make you better?"
"We'll see," she says, "I hope so."
Momma always says that, says she hopes she's going to get better.
"What are those ones for?" I point to the red pills, smaller than all the others.
She takes a deep breath and closes her hand around her pills. I let go of her fingers.
"They are a laxative."
"What's a laxative?"
"Your questions are making me tired," she says. "Go get dressed in your play clothes now and we'll go out to the living room."
Momma takes all of the pills in one swallow, wrinkles her nose, and closes her eyes, like closing her eyes will make the pills go down easier.
You have to step down into the living room and Momma says a step down means the room is sunken. In the sunken living room is a new color television and Daddy's brown leather chair positioned right in front. His chair leans back, opens up, and lets him sit with his feet off the carpet. When Daddy's not here, I climb up on his chair and lift the headrest cushion up over my face. The smell is fabric and leather and Daddy and I love how it's always the same.
Across from the chair is a long green sofa and a wood coffee table. On top of the coffee table is a big bunch of fake grapes made from hard plastic and next to the grapes is a bowl of rock candy, where each piece looks like a rock you would find outside.
The only other furniture is a round sofa that Momma calls a lounger. I call it the big purple grape since it's a perfect round shape and the color of purple grape juice. The big purple grape is arranged near the sliding glass doors that lead to the backyard, and from there, it's the best view of the swing set on the grass, our big trees, and the roses and mint plants that grow near the patio.
After getting put together and morning pills, Momma uses her crutches to come into the living room and sit for a while on the big purple grape.
I run out back and swing on the swing set, pick dandelions, rub the soft part of the mint leaves so I can smell mint on my fingers. All I have to do is take one step to see Momma on the big purple grape, where she flips through a fashion magazine. She smiles when I do that, when I come to make sure she's still there. Momma smiles and squints, her hand up over her eyes like I'm a long ways off even though I'm right there in the backyard.
No one comes to visit until after ten in the morning.
That's the rule.
Momma says visitors before ten is uncivilized.
Most days, Momma's not up to visitors anyway, but that morning, just after ten, it's Aunt Georgia, Carrie Sue, and Jeff. Both Carrie Sue and Jeff are blond kids, white blond, and it's okay to play with them, except Carrie Sue is a tattletale.
I don't like to be too far from Momma when there are visitors since she gets tired and might need something. I come in from the backyard, stand next to the big purple grape, and wave at my cousins, at Aunt Georgia.
Aunt Georgia is thin, thin, bird thin, and she wears navy blue shorts and a blue and white striped tank top. Momma says Aunt Georgia dresses sportswear mix-and-match.
"I need more than a wave, little girl," Aunt Georgia says. "Come give me a big hug."
Momma laughs and Aunt Georgia puts her tanned arms wide. Aunt Georgia always gives me a hug when she comes to visit and I like that about her, like how she smells like soap and toothpaste and the same kind of almond lotion that Momma uses.
She sets me back from her then and looks at my face, really looks.
"That's better," Aunt Georgia says.
Aunt Georgia gets a cup of coffee for herself and sits on the long green sofa. I get out my crayons and color books and sit on the floor with Carrie Sue. Jeff crawls up on Aunt Georgia's lap the way little kids do and puts his thumb in his mouth.
Carrie Sue lies on her stomach, takes a brown crayon out of my crayon box, and colors inside the lines of a horse. I don't feel like coloring, just sit on the floor with my back against the big purple grape, where I can watch Carrie Sue, watch Momma, watch Aunt Georgia.
"You look thin, Janet," Aunt Georgia says.
Aunt Georgia snaps open her cigarette case, pulls out a cigarette, and offers it to Momma.
Momma takes the cigarette. "You think so?" Momma says.
Aunt Georgia takes out another cigarette, puts it between her lips, and nods.
"You've lost more weight," Aunt Georgia says.
Aunt Georgia lights her cigarette with one hand and then passes the lighter to Momma. Momma uses both hands to light her cigarette and then she passes the lighter back.
"Maybe, I don't know," Momma says, "I don't think so."
Jeff climbs off Aunt Georgia's lap, gets on the floor with Carrie Sue, takes a blue crayon, and breaks it in half.
"Yes, you do look thin," Aunt Georgia says. "Maybe a little too thin."
Momma smokes and her cheeks suck in and in and then she blows the smoke up to the ceiling. She clears her throat and smiles.
"Can you be too thin?" Momma says.
Aunt Georgia smiles too and then the two of them laugh at some joke only they understand.
Aunt Georgia is married to Uncle Charles, except she calls him Chuck and he calls her George. Uncle Charles is Momma's favorite brother and out of all my uncles, he's probably my favorite too. He talks in a deep, loud voice and his eyes are the best color of blue and they look like they have a light shining from the inside out.
Momma and Aunt Georgia talk grown-up. Aunt Georgia asks if Momma and Daddy are going to take any trips to Carmel and Momma says no, not right now. Momma says she'd like to take a day and go up to Lake Tahoe and Aunt Georgia says she's been too busy for the lake and doesn't want to spend the money since they want to save up and get a house.
After a while, Aunt Georgia does all the talking and Momma is quiet like something might be wrong. Momma smiles and nods like everything is fine, but her eyes are tired.
Carrie Sue drops the brown crayon, just half a crayon now, and Jeff takes it, makes zigzags over his page.
"Let's go play in your room," Carrie Sue says.
"I want to stay here," I say.
"Momma," Carrie Sue says.
"I don't want to play in my room," I say.
Aunt Georgia clears her throat, snuffs out her cigarette in the ashtray.
Momma's cigarette is a long ash and it's burned almost all the way down. I slide the ashtray closer and Momma jumps a little. The long ash falls off in the ashtray and Momma looks at me, smiles a tired smile.
Aunt Georgia clears her throat again and I know she finally sees what I see.
"Are you all right, Janet?" Aunt Georgia says.
Momma coughs a little cough, shakes her head, and smiles.
"Just a little tired," Momma says.
It's quiet, quiet in the living room. Carrie Sue bites her fingernail and watches Jeff tear the paper off the brown crayon. Aunt Georgia looks at me, at Momma, at me again.
Aunt Georgia has eyes that know about things I don't understand yet. Her eyes move fast, but they have a quiet deep inside, like something in her hurts and it's from a long, long time ago.
Aunt Georgia squints and reaches her hand to Momma.
"It's none of my business, Janet," Aunt Georgia says, "but do you think you might need to see a different doctor? Have you thought about going to see those doctors in Palo Alto?"
Momma clears her throat, tilts her head, and cuts me a quick look. That look means this is grown-up talk and kids shouldn't be around, that look means I might get sent out of the room, that look means I should go outside and play.
Carrie Sue, Jeff, and me go out the sliding glass doors. Carrie Sue and Jeff run to the swings and laugh and yell.
I stop at the edge of the patio where the cement meets the grass, stand between the house and the swing set.
I can't hear them talk, but Momma shakes her head and Aunt Georgia goes over and sits close, puts an arm around Momma's shoulders. The two of them that close and I see how Momma is thin and small even compared to Aunt Georgia. Too thin, too small.
Carrie Sue pushes Jeff's swing and Jeff says "underdog, underdog," and then Carrie Sue runs under Jeff's swing so he goes even higher.
Overhead, the sky is forever blue, not a cloud in sight, and the only sound is Jeff's happy laugh.
After Aunt Georgia, Carrie Sue, and Jeff leave, Momma takes a nap and I watch the shadows come through the windows. I like how the shapes move around, how in the morning they're mostly along the front of the house, how by noon they shrink away and almost disappear, how when Dora comes the shadows are back again, long and lazy through the back of the house.
Dora cooks and cleans, wears a pink dress with a white apron tied tight around her middle. Dora is a brown woman from the reservation. Momma says she is Paiute and I learn how to say "Paiute" by breaking it up into two words, pie and flute.
The thing about Dora is how she moves quiet and talks quiet. Dora is so quiet, it's almost like she's not there at all. Another thing about Dora is how her eyes are like black still water. No matter how hard I look at Dora, I can't see what's in her eyes, can't see her truth.
If it's a good day, Momma cooks both lunch and dinner. Dora cleans.
If it's a bad day, Momma tells Dora what to cook for dinner.
Nowadays most days are bad days, so when Momma goes to her room and closes the door, I stay with Dora.
When it's just Dora and me, the house stays quiet until B.J. comes home.
Momma says B.J. is an All-American boy and that must mean boys are noisy. When B.J. walks home from school, you can hear him from Angus Street. B.J. yells and whistles and when he gets to our house, he stomps his feet on the floor mat and shoves the back door open with his shoulder.
"I'm home," B.J. yells, even though Dora and me are right there in the kitchen.
B.J.'s arms are full of stuff: books and papers and his Mario Andretti lunch box. B.J. throws everything on the kitchen table.
B.J. is crew cut hair so you can see his whole forehead and in the middle of his face are his dark brown eyes. The other thing about B.J. is this little black dot over his top lip. Momma says it's a beauty mark. Daddy says it's a birthmark. B.J. calls it a mole.
"Ssh," Dora says, "Momma sleep."
When Dora says to be quiet, B.J.'s face gets bright red the way it does when he's mad. He slams the door hard and tilts his chin like he can hide his angry even though there's no way to hide when your face is all red like that.
B.J. shoves himself into a chair and nods at me, just a nod, and then he puts his arm over the back of the chair. The red on his face slips away and that's when you know the angry has gone somewhere else, at least for now. D ora takes out a box of graham crackers, tears open the brown paper, sets a pile on a plate.
"No cookies?" B.J. says.
"No," Dora says, "crackers."
"Mom always has cookies," he says.
Dora shakes her head on something she won't say, looks at me, and nods a sit-down nod. I pull out one of the chairs opposite B.J.
Dora sets the plate down between us and I take a cracker off the top of the pile and lay it on the table. I push the tip of my finger up and down until the cracker is all broken in tiny pieces and then I put one piece into my mouth.
B.J. half sits, half stands, his hand around the glass of milk. He takes two graham crackers off the pile, breaks them in half, chews on a corner, and looks around the kitchen.
B.J. is eight years old, three years older than me, and he knows everything since he's in third grade. Momma always asks B.J. about school, what he learned, did he eat all his lunch, stuff like that. Clearing my throat, I push my hands under my legs again.
"What'd you learn today?" I say.
B.J.'s face is still, no kind of expression, and he looks at me for a long time. Just like that, B.J. blinks his dark eyes and shrugs his shoulders.
"Not much," B.J. says, "stuff about astronauts and outer space."
"Outer space?" I say.
"You know, the moon," B.J. says, "flying in a spaceship."
B.J. moves his graham cracker around like an airplane, crashes it into his milk. He's a dipper. Graham crackers, Oreos, chocolate chip cookies, it doesn't matter, and when he dips, his milk ends up full of crumbs. I hate stuff floating in my milk. I never dip.
B.J. pushes the rest of his cracker into his milk, his fingers dip too, milk over the side and down in a puddle on the table. I don't think B.J. likes me very much since he acts like I'm not here, even though I'm right here.
Dora makes a click sound and wipes up B.J.'s mess. She taps her finger on B.J.'s glass of milk and he drinks, one, two, three swallows, a bunch of mashed-up graham cracker stuck in the bottom.
He puts the glass down with a bang and pushes away from the kitchen table.
"I'm going out to play," B.J. says.
Dora's quiet dark eyes stop on me and she tilts her head.
"Outside too?" Dora says. "Outside play?"
When it's just B.J. and me, it's trouble. B.J.'s always looking for a dare. Dares you to drink a lid full of red stuff he says is catsup but turns out to be hot sauce. Dares you to jump off the carport to see if you can fly like a bird. Dares you to pet that big black dog next door even though that dog bit you in the face and you had to go to the hospital to get stitches. I've had enough of being alone with B.J.
I eat another piece of my graham cracker real slow and shake my head side to side so my ponytail slaps at my face.
"See ya," B.J. says. He slams the door, the hard sound through the walls of the kitchen, into the quiet of the house.
Dora's face moves like the sound of the door slam is in her body too, and she wipes up the rest of B.J.'s milk mess.
I finish my cracker and drink half the milk, no good now since it's warm. Off my chair, I take the glass to the sink, pour it out. Dora comes to the sink, rinses her dishcloth off under the faucet. I rinse out the glass and she takes it, washes it out with the washcloth. I wipe my hands on my shirt.
"I'm going into the dining room," I say.
"Play quiet," Dora says.
"I will," I say.
Dora nods and her face moves again, maybe a smile, maybe not. I can't tell.
Through the kitchen is the dining room, and after Momma's room, the dining room is the best place.
Our table is wood and the ends are the kind you can slide in or out so the table gets smaller or bigger. Momma says the ends are called "leaves," which seems just right since the leaves of the table have leaves painted on. The painted leaves wind up around tulips painted red and vines painted brown. The same painting is on the back of each chair, six chairs, and there is more painting on the buffet and the hutch, all the leaves and the tulips and the vines making our dining room a garden.
Under the table, I lie long, look at the underbelly, see how our table is held together. There are wood pegs and flat bands of iron hammered in with iron nails, everything together like roots.
Another thing about under the table is the smell. Dora uses lemon furniture polish so there is the smell of lemons and wood.
Diana walks to where I sit and rubs against my leg, lies her cat body in a triangle of sunshine. Under the table, I pet Diana between her ears, over her soft creamy-colored tummy, and watch afternoon shadows spread wide over the carpet.
When the shadows are almost gone, when you can see dust float in the low angle of the sun, when Diana pushes under the drapes to catch the last bit of warm light, that's when I know everything in the house on Mary Street is going to change from shadows and quiet to light and sound.
First is the sound of a car in the driveway, the engine all sputter and spit. Then there is B.J., who yells out "Dad," and the sound of Daddy, who yells for B.J. to come in the house. Last is the kitchen door, a squeak on the hinge, and the sound of Daddy's voice when he says hello to Dora.
I crawl from under the table, run into the kitchen, and jump. Daddy always catches me, swings me up in a circle, and my stomach is full of caught butterflies.
Daddy settles me against his chest and I fit just right in the crook of his arm. This close he smells like tobacco and coffee and That Man cologne and I can see how his eyes are lots of different colors of brown, like spices all ground up.
"Did you miss me?" Daddy says.
"I did," I say. "I missed you a lot."
Momma says Daddy is the best kind of good-looking, boy next door mixed with drop-dead handsome. My favorite thing about Daddy is his smile, a big happy smile that makes you feel good about everything.
B.J. pushes into the door and his face is red around the cheeks from being outside.
"Dad!" B.J. says.
"Hey, buddy," Daddy says.
Daddy puts his hand on B.J.'s crew cut hair and B.J. smiles the kind of smile that's all the way into his eyes.
The kitchen is full of thick dinner smells and Dora says it's dinnertime in thirty minutes.
"Why don't you get cleaned up for dinner, son," Daddy says.
"Okay," B.J. says, out of breath.
B.J. slams the door and runs down the hall to the bathroom.
Daddy carries me into the dining room and turns on the light.
"How is your Mom today?" Daddy says.
Daddy carries me into the sunken living room and turns on another light.
"It's a good day and a bad day," I say.
Daddy reaches his hand to the lamp next to his big leather chair, turns the switch from off to on, and now the room is all light, no shadows.
"What's that mean?" Daddy says.
I bite my bottom lip and hold my arms around his neck, the warm from his body against my hands.
"She got up for a while," I say, "but then she was tired."
Daddy has the kind of eyes that tell you exactly what he thinks even when he won't say it. Most of the time, he thinks about work and money and important things I don't know about. The way he looks now, I know bad days make him nervous and restless, make him look like a trapped animal.
Daddy coughs a little cough, rubs his hand over his five o'clock shadow, and makes his face smile.
"Well, let's go see for ourselves," Daddy says. "Maybe she is all rested and ready to go."
In their room, Momma sits up in the California King and she has her pillows behind her back. When she sees Daddy, her dark eyes are full of that special look and Daddy leans down, kisses her on the lips. They talk to each other, voices low, hi's and how are you's and stuff like that. I hear Daddy ask how she feels and Momma says she's just fine.
When Daddy is home and all of us are in their bedroom, that's when I know something is wrong. It's the sound of Momma's voice, high like a hostess who says one thing but means another. It's the way Daddy holds his breath back and gets that pinched-up skin between his eyes when he thinks too hard. It's how B.J. hits his fist into his open hand, over and over and over. I don't know what's wrong, but all over my arms and legs, I get a bad feeling.
Daddy takes his wallet, keys, and extra change out of his pants pocket, winds his watch, loosens his tie, and the whole time he talks about work and being busy and investments he wants to make, says how he is either going to be broke or rich by tomorrow.
Momma watches him move around and she just listens.
B.J. sits on the end of the bed, pushes his finger into Diana's side, and he talks about school and astronauts and what kind of bug he caught outside.
Momma smiles a hostess kind of smile and listens.
Daddy takes out a pack of Marlboros, lights his cigarette with a match, lights a cigarette for Momma, and then he and B.J. talk to each other about homework and tests and grades.
Momma smokes her cigarette and listens.
Maybe it's being tired, maybe it's not feeling so good, maybe it's how she's hungry for dinner. All you have to do is really look to know something else is going on inside Momma's head. When she looks that way, I sit as close to her side as I can and she smiles a real smile and blinks her secret thoughts away.
Momma says dinner in the dining room makes it special and that's where we always eat, at least when we are all together.
B.J. does the plates and glasses. Milk glasses for us, wineglasses for Momma and Daddy. I do napkins and silverware, fold the paper napkins in triangles and then set the fork on top, knife and spoon on the other side.
Presentation is everything.
Dora puts the food on the table and there's mashed potatoes, meat loaf, a bowl of green beans, and a bowl of applesauce. She puts them on one side of the table, closest to where Momma sits. Dora pours B.J. and me a glass of milk, fills Daddy's wineglass just halfway, and then makes a pot of coffee for after dinner.
After everything is ready, Dora puts on her coat and leaves out the back door, so quiet you don't even know she has left.
Daddy helps Momma out of their room, her arm on his arm, and she's all dressed like it's a good day. Momma wears a pair of light pink pants and a pink and green sweater set, the top button of the sweater done up. Daddy pulls out her chair, the one right next to him at the head of the table, and she sits down slow and careful, her face with that smile like everything is just fine. Daddy helps her scoot her chair in and she takes her napkin, unfolds it, and lays it in her lap.
B.J. sits across from Momma and I sit next to her. B.J. and me unfold our napkins, lay them on our laps. That's the rule.
Daddy sits down in the big chair at the end of the table, unfolds his napkin too.
"Hand me your plate, son," Momma says.
B.J. lifts his plate with both hands and Momma puts B.J.'s plate on her plate. " Are you hungry?" she says.
"I'm starved," B.J. says.
Momma cuts two pieces of meat loaf, lays them on B.J.'s plate, three big spoons of mashed potatoes with a cut of butter pushed in the middle.
"Not too many beans," B.J. says.
B.J. never eats vegetables and Momma laughs when he says that. She puts one spoon of beans and three big spoons of applesauce on his plate, lifts the whole thing up, and reaches the plate to B.J. The plate wavers a little up there between them and Daddy reaches, steadies the plate to B.J. M omma takes a deep breath and sits up tall in her chair, the posture of a lady. She looks at me, smiles, and puts her hand out for my plate.
"Are you hungry?" she says.
"I am," I say.
Momma cuts me one slice of meat loaf, puts one spoon of potatoes on, a little butter in the middle, two spoons of beans, and two spoons of applesauce.
"Enough?" she says.
Nodding my head, I stand up, reach with both hands so she doesn't have to lift.
Daddy hands over his plate and she doesn't have to ask if he's hungry. B.J. and Daddy are always hungry. She loads up his plate, lots of everything on, and he takes it from her hands.
Momma serves herself last, and even on the best days, she never takes much. Tonight it's half a slice of meat loaf, a spoon of potatoes, a few beans, and a spoon of applesauce. She pushes the applesauce bowl away and smiles at all of us, her hands in her lap.
The dining room is dinner smells, butter, and meat loaf, and I'm so hungry there's water in my mouth.
Daddy closes his eyes and puts his head on his hands.
Daddy says we're Catholics, except we never go to church, not unless it's Christmas or Easter, and that's why I don't understand about praying like we do every night. Daddy says it's not really prayer, it's just taking time to be thankful.
After prayers, Daddy tells a story about a man in his office and Momma tells about Aunt Georgia's visit. Daddy says the weather feels like fall and Momma says we should take a trip up to Lake Tahoe before the weather gets too cool.
When Momma says we should go to the lake, B.J. looks up from his dinner, looks at Daddy, at Momma. Daddy is quiet and he looks at Momma.
"Do you think you're up to it?" Daddy says.
"Up to it?" Momma says.
"What I mean is," Daddy says, "do you think this is the time?"
Momma sits up tall, posture of a lady.
"I'm not an invalid, Bud," Momma says.
The sound of Momma's voice is sharp in the dining room.
Daddy clears his throat and sets his fork down in the middle of his plate.
"I know you're not an invalid," Daddy says, "I just thought we would discuss going to Palo Alto before planning any other trips."
B.J. looks at me and I look at B.J.
Momma takes a sharp breath and sets her fork down next to her plate.
"This is not the time, Bud," Momma says.
Daddy looks at B.J., at me, and he rolls his lips together.
"All right," Daddy says.
Daddy picks up his fork again, takes a bite of mashed potatoes. Momma lets a breath out her nose, her shoulders down a little. She smiles at me and touches her hand to my head.
I wish kids could be heard instead of just seen, wish I could ask about Palo Alto and the special doctors, but I just sit still.
"So?" B.J. says. "Are we going to the lake?"
It's quiet in the dining room, the smell of food all around. Daddy looks at B.J. for a long time and then he shrugs his wide shoulders.
"Why don't we wait and see," Daddy says.
Bedtime is eight o'clock, eight-thirty on weekends, that's the rule.
Every night, I go into the living room to say my prayers out loud for Momma. I kneel on the floor, put my elbows on the big purple grape, and press my hands together. Closing my eyes, I say the same prayer every night, how I'm giving my soul to God and how I hope I'll wake up in the morning. It's a creepy prayer, but that's the way it goes.
After the creepy prayer, I open my eyes and thank God for all the good things, from the beginning to the end, and after being thankful, I get to wish for what I want most in the world. Every night it's the same thing. I wish tomorrow will be a good day. Momma smiles when I say that, her hand on the side of my face.
After prayers, she kisses me good night and gives me a hug. It's the best kind of hug with our faces cheek to cheek and the smell of her almond lotion.
"And I'm most thankful for you," she whispers, "you're my extra special gift."
There's something about how she says she's most thankful for me, like I did something just by being born. It's the best thing being someone's extra special gift.
I hug her back as hard as I can without hurting and that's when Daddy carries me to bed.
Copyright © 2000 by Jennifer Lauck
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