It’s my birthday.
For my birthday, I’m putting up this writing session which makes me sad, but at the same time, it makes me happy. I look back at the little me at five and think, you’re amazing. GO! I also look back and think, THAT HAIR! And a pink shirt!?
I am pretty certain that my Mom must have cut my hair for this photo and for some reason it looks orange. My sister always argued with me about this photo and one other saying it was her, but I know this was me. So there. Regardless, it could have been any of us.
We’re human, we’re amazing, it’s what we do with it that matters.
~ July 1976 ~
“Momma, I can sing real good if you want me to.” I said. She looked down and said “No girl, singing’s not going to get you anywhere. Learning is what you need.”
“But Momma, I’m big when I sing.” I stand up tall. She shakes her head back and forth, short curls swaying close to her head. ”No girl, singing’s not for you.”
“I’ll be right back, don’t come looking for me either.”
I know she is not coming back, the little feeling that I’m choking comes up in my throat.
“How long Momma, how long will you be gone?”
Looking down at me she lifts a hand, the back of it brown from sun, she slaps her leg and laughs a little. Her mouth is empty, only a few teeth left, those are black and brown and broken on the edges, she has one gold one in the back. We aren’t that bad off if she hasn’t had to sell that tooth yet.
“I can’t find peace with you Gaaddamn kids”. She mostly smiles with her lips pursed straight across, so that she doesn’t have to show her teeth.
I need to know how long she will be gone.
“How long will you be gone Momma?”
Her serious sad face, her saggy skin hanging down “Just a few minutes.” Turning to the door
“Is a few more than a couple?” I ask. “A couple means two right Momma?” “Yes a few is more than two.” she says “Like five?” “Yes, three, four or five is a few.” “No more than five, right Momma, that would mean many and you said a few. Do you promise Momma? Do you promise it will only be a few?”
“Yes, only a few minutes.”
I throw my arms around her leg and take hold.
When she lies, I feel all tingly on the inside, I can tell so I ask more questions to see if I can figure out the truth.
“How long, how long, how long, don’t leave, don’t leave.” the rhythm of the words choking back tears. Please just tell me “5 minutes, 10, an hour.”
“Now let go of my leg and behave” her polyester pants scratching me as she moves her leg, her hands pushing me down and away. My hands turn cold and as she gets close to the door; I run to it pressing my hands against it as it closes.
I run back to the couch and sit stiff like a board.
“Three, four, five, she’ll be back in three, four or five.” I sing, “3, 4 or 5. 3, 4 or 5 is a few, means more than a couple, that means 2.” I watch the clock. I always watch the clock when she is gone. “Sit still, very still or you might cry. Watch the clock. Watch the clock.”
“3, 4, 5.” I sing, in a small and quiet way.
At three minutes I am hopeful. I can move a little now because I know she’ll be back soon. Four feels good, hopeful. Five is very long but by six she’ll be home, she said so. Five comes and goes and I am not sure what to do. My head says she is not coming back. Five, five, five, she’s not home. I rock back and forth, running my hand along the seam of my pants. They are my favorite pants, purple pants. What if she doesn’t come back?
I punch my leg hard. Maybe I won’t think about her never coming back if I do something else. I hit the place where the bruise is deep, black and lumpy.
The bruise is from Peggy and a game she plays with me to see how much I can stand before I cry. Peggy hits me over and over. I don’t even feel it anymore. It’s just about being strong enough to not cry.
Last week when Momma was in the kitchen making noodles, I was on the couch, watching the black and white TV. Peggy sat beside me and hit the soft fleshy part of my thigh. I winced, but no crying. Pausing, in between the balling up of her fist, she pinched. I looked straight ahead, no crying. My face hot, not saying a word. It could have been worse she could have been kicking me or hitting me with the brush or broom handle, or threatening to stab me with a knife, which is much more scary than this.
“Ready to cry yet?”
Smack. Sucking in air, holding my breath
“How about now”
Smack, smack, smack.
No longer able to hold back the breath, chest rising and falling, the tears came, giving away the pain. I couldn’t stop them once the bruise was deep enough.
I didn’t want her to be able to make me cry.
She turned away happy, smiling, her wavy brown hair flying behind her bee-bop walk into the other room. I got myself back together and just as she was about to leave the room, I laughed and I couldn’t even stop myself from doing it. I laughed and laughed, which brought her back and the hitting and asking started again.
Today, when I hit myself, it doesn’t hurt much. The tears are already welling up because Momma is never coming back. The punching makes me wince, but I’m not afraid of that hurt. Only afraid she is not coming back. It’s 8 now. I want to go looking for her. She said not to, but I have to.
I know when I go looking for her I don’t like what I find.
I can’t wait any longer. Ten minutes is too long for me, I will check with Granny to see if she knows where Momma is. She’s not really my Granny, but that is what everyone calls her. She is smaller than Momma and bent at the shoulders, her blue and pink flowery housedress is always pressed and clean, small glasses shade her eyes, her thick panty hose sag at the ankle. I don’t know her real name. She lives next door and I like that she only has a basin and a toilet, no bathtub or sink in the bathroom. I would like it if I did not have to take a bath. There is a sink in the kitchen, but none in the bathroom. If Momma is not there Granny will give me a cookie, she always does, the kind with jam in the middle from the store, not the kind we have at home.
I peek out the front door though the plexiglass window. It used to be glass-glass but has been broken too many times from angry slams. Every time it broke Momma started crying, someone cleaned it up and put cardboard in the window. Whoever broke it was always long gone and the rest of the day we’d all try to be quiet to not make Momma cry anymore.
After checking the front door, to make sure no one is lying in wait, I open the door, the handle jiggles because it is loose. The smells of summer, grass, lilac, rough wood siding, slip through me. I run down the stairs and across the cement that was replaced earlier in the summer, but has already shown wear because one of my brothers didn’t know how to mix cement. There’s always something half way finished around here.
Running fast across the two driveways, ours and Granny’s, touching the big maple tree that stands in-between them. Hand hitting bark, rough, it’s not smooth like a birch. The gravel is hard on my bare feet, but I am a fast runner and I don’t care.
I hear them after me already, my brother Bobby and his friends, Phil, Joel and Pat, like a wild pack of heathens. Momma calls them that. I am not sure what a heathen is, I imagine it as some sort of monster, gray like a rat with yellow teeth and the legs of a lamb, where you aren’t quite sure what you are going to get the good side or the bad.
Yelling, they chase me.
“Yeah, get her, we’re going to pound you AmyBeth.” They say my name as if it is one word all strung together. Stomach lurching, eyes darting back and forth searching for an exit, I run faster.
At Granny’s door, I know I should knock and wait for her to come but if I knock they’ll be here before I get in. And today they might wring my neck good. I reach and grab the doorknob, lungs pumping, hands slippery wet with sweat, open the door shove myself through and quickly but gently close it behind me. I slide my back down against it, breathing out fear.
I hear Momma laughing in the other room, a laugh that comes from the belly, the kind like you really mean it.
“Who’s there?” Granny calls, she sounds like the voice on an old record.
“Probably one of those gaaddamn kids looking for me.”
I walk through the kitchen, the dining room, and into the sitting room. Passing the cookie jar, which seems to smile at me as I walk past. Standing up tall and proud, a fake smile across my face, maybe they’ll think I’m pretty.
“I found you Momma.” I say as sweet as I can.
She looks angry and rolls her eyes. My shoulders fall forward, head down.
“I told you not to come looking for me.”
She nods to Granny “I can’t stay away for not one minute.”
Granny who smells like liniment, laughs and smiles at me as if to say you’ll be ok.
“Now gaaddamn it I told you I’d be home soon now get the hell out of here, I’m having a quiet time with Granny.”
It hurts me in my heart, more than punching my bruise, when she says things like that. I turn around and run but know I can’t go back outside, I don’t want to get beat up just yet.
I’ll wait until I hear Momma leaving.
I pretend to leave, opening and closing the door and then shuffle into Granny’s bathroom, lifting the lid of the white wicker hamper, I hike one leg up and pull using my back to push forward, I slip down into the hamper and close the lid. The rubber rim around the lid does not make a sound when it closes. I sink down into the dirty clothes. It is musty here, but it feels safe. The smell is like the hair from Granny’s trash that we burn on the burn pile. She wears her hair in a bun, when she lets it down it’s down to her waist. When she brushes it hair gets trapped in the brush, she pulls it out in little bundles and throws it into the trash that we collect, because we are always helpful to Granny. I like to watch the long gray hairs burn, bright red at the ends, winding around through paper. The smell of it is nice and bad all at the same time and I like it.
In the hamper, I get nervous that if I don’t go home Momma will hit me with the paddle for coming to look for her, I wait for a while longer, which is probably only a minute or two and scramble out of the hamper, head first, hands out, the whole thing tilting behind me. I make the few steps from the hamper to the door silently. I stand on tip-toes looking out the glass-glass in Granny’s window. No one is around. Bobby, Phil, Joel and Pat are in the backfield. I grab the handle and turn it as quiet as I can. Sliding out the door, this time not running at all. They may not hear me if I walk soft. I pass through gravel, tree, dirt, broken cement, uneven stairs that creak which reminds me. Momma says they’ll need to be fixed by winter and where the hell is she going to get that money?
I’m not tall enough to see in the door window from the outside. Most times no one is home during the day but me and Momma, so I don’t feel too much worry going back into the house.
It’s quiet inside and smells of dust and plaster.
Maybe if I can sleep, I will wake up and she will be here. That’s what I’ll do, I’ll sleep, close my eyes.
To be safe, I move the couch out just a little using my hip and leg to push with force. I grab a wadded up blanket from the chair and slide behind and under the couch. The heathens can’t find me here. Momma will know to look for me if she comes home though. She knows all my hiding places. Lying there, I stare at the wall. She might be gone forever. Sleep, sleep, sleep. Sing your song. Sometimes singing makes me sleepy. Go on sing. I know that singing makes me feel better especially if I get all the words right. Where is thumbkin, where is thumbkin? I sing quietly, the words rock me back and forth. I use one finger from each hand to talk to the other.
It takes a long time to fall asleep during the day, especially if when Momma is gone forever and I don’t know where I’ll get any food. But, if I am behind the couch with a blanket it seems like a cocoon and that is good. I know I can’t get up and look at the clock because she is still not home and it makes the lie seem bigger the longer she stays away.
I pick at the plaster and at the peeling off wallpaper. No one can see it here, it’s ok if I peel it off. I won’t get yelled at. The paper is brown on the edges. It used to be tan, now its ugly and torn like someone peed on it. I am sure someone probably did or spilled some slop on it. The carpet behind the couch smells like dirt and old things. It’s red and yellow with a wavy curly design in it. It has been worn thin, even here behind the couch. Yellow fibers show through where there should be red. Sometimes the dusty smell makes me sneeze. I know how to sneeze real quiet so no one will hear me or find me back here. As long as I am hiding, no one can see me, they can’t bother me.
The creak of the door scares me, hot air streams in.