When Can I Go Home?

I stood at the chipped green laminate counter spreading peanut butter on two slices of soft white bread, attempting to make lunch the only way a 6 year old can.  Linda, the wicked witch of the living room, came in, her nose crinkled like she smelled something bad. I couldn’t tell if that was a special look just for me or if she always looked that way.

“Don’t leave a mess on the counter when you’re done,” she said.  “And make sure to empty the dishwasher and clean the dishes in the sink.  You were supposed to do that last night.”

I nodded as I dipped the knife into the purple ooze of grape jelly, peanut butter melting into the sticky goodness.

“Did you hear me?”  Her voice rose to a screech.

“Yes, ma’am.”  I replied.

“Answer me when I speak to you!”

I nodded again and she smacked the back of my head hard enough my chin hit my chest.  Tears stung my eyes but I wouldn’t let them fall.

“Yes, ma’am,” I repeated as she stomped out of the room.

I topped each gooey slice with another slice, then put the sandwiches on two plastic plates from the dishwasher.  Setting them on the kitchen counter I called, “Jack, lunch!”

Daddy popped his head in through the kitchen door.  “Not so loud, pumpkin. Linda has a headache.” I turned so he wouldn’t see me roll my eyes.  I had learned early on not to let him catch me being disrespectful.

I trudged into the living room where Jack was playing with a Transformer I had brought from Mama’s.  He was cross-legged on the foldout couch where we slept, the sheets tangled at the end of the bed. I never understood why Daddy couldn’t get a place big enough for us to have a bedroom.  Between him and Linda they had three cars and a fishing boat. Seemed to me he could have arranged something for us.

“Come eat so I can get the kitchen cleaned up before Cruella comes back,” I said.

Jack continued to play with the Transformer.  I grabbed for the doll – he hated when I called it that – and he pulled it away just before I could get it from him.  “Go eat your lunch,” i repeated.

He went back to twisting the Transformer into a car.  I reached for it again and he hit me with it hard on the back of my head, right where my skull meets my neck.  “Dad,” he called. “Katie hit me!”

He scooted off the bed right before I could make his accusation true.

I took off after Jack right as Daddy walked in.  He grabbed my shoulder and pulled me to a stop. “Leave your brother alone.  I told you Linda isn’t feeling well. Why can’t you just be quiet for once?”

I wanted to tell him it was all Jack’s fault.  He was the one who hit me.  But I knew he wouldn’t believe me.  Jack was everyone’s favorite and I was Cinderella – there to do chores but not really part of the family.  I dropped my head and mumbled, “Sorry,” before heading back to the kitchen.

Jack was sitting at the small glass-topped table, a wide grin splitting his face.  I snatched the plate off the counter, almost sending his sandwich to the floor in my haste.  As I put it in front of him I leaned in close and whispered, “I otta let you starve.” I wouldn’t have thought he’d be able to smile any more than he already was, but I was wrong.  He started swinging his leg as he took a bite of his sandwich.

“Try it,” he said around a mouthful of bread.

I sighed.  Even a 4-year-old knew I was bluffing.  How is it even my stupid brother is smarter than me?

I turned to start emptying the dishwasher.  I didn’t feel like eating anymore.

Linda waddled in as I was stretching up to put a couple of glasses into a cabinet just beyond my reach.  Her shriek almost caused me to drop them. I pushed them up on the shelf just before they toppled to the counter.

“Your Mama might let you live like pigs but here you’re expected to clean up after yourself Katherine.”  I cringed at the use of my name. No one but Linda called me that. I hated it, and I hated her for using it.

“I’m cleaning it up now,” I said.

She leaned in real close like I’d done to Jack.  “Don’t talk back to me little girl or I’ll have your Daddy wash that mouth out with soap.”

Oh how I wanted to spit in her face.  It was right there, begging for it. But I knew I’d pay if I did.  Instead I looked at the ground and said, “Yes, Ma’am.” As I turned to wipe the offending crumbs from the counter I glanced at the clock on the microwave.  When is Mama going to come take me home?

A Visit with Daddy

A knock on the door raised the hair on my arms.  We never had visitors. I looked at Mama who was smoothing her floral dress – the one she normally saved for church – as she headed to the door.  Pausing, she fluffed her hair before opening it. What’s up with her? I wondered.

Standing in the hallway was a bull of a man.  His bulky frame filled the doorway and made Mama look tiny and frail.  Aside from his pale skin, he reminded me of Mr. T from the A-Team. Except that I never imagined being afraid of Mr. T.  He was a hero, a protector. This man wore a black t-shirt spread tight across his solid chest, and jeans were pulled down over pointed cowboy boots.  His head was shaved almost bald and his angular chin was covered in black stubble. Tattoos covered both arms.

I sank deeper into the scratchy couch cushions, trying to make myself invisible.

“Let me get my purse,” Mama said as he stepped into the room.  Her voice sounded funny. Higher than normal. My heart raced and the sound of the ocean filled my ears.  I could barely breathe. I looked around for Jack, feeling protective of the little monster. He was nowhere in sight.

“Doug will be comin’ round here sometime.  Can’t never count on him but he said he was comin’ to get ‘em before bed,” Mama said to Granny.

Tears stung my eyes.  Not Daddy’s!  I put my hands over my ears, not that it would do any good.  Why hadn’t she told me we were going? I hated staying with my father and his wife.  I refused to call that witch Linda my stepmother.

Mama went backto the man without ever looking in my direction.  Maybe I really was invisible. She leaned up and kissed him on the cheek before saying, “Ready.”  As she shut the door he put his arm around her shoulders.

Granny didn’t leave me time to dwell on who this new person might be or why he was touching Mama.  She pushed herself from her chair at the kitchen table and shuffled into the living room. “You heard your Mama.  Your Daddy’ll be here before long. You better go pack a bag for your brother ‘n you. He’ll be mad as a hound dog if you ain’t ready when he gets here.”

I scrambled off the couch and into the bedroom where Jack was playing with his cars.  I stepped on a tiny truck and let out a cry of pain. It felt good to have a reason to scream.  I wanted to throw myself on the bed and sob until the hurt inside went away, but it probably never would.  I’d be crying til I was old as Granny.

“We’re going to Daddy’s,” I told Jack.  He kept playing like I wasn’t even there.  Maybe I’m still invisible, I thought. I pulled a bag from under the bed and threw clothes in it for both of us.  I also threw in a few toys for Jack and a book for me. I had no idea how long we’d be gone. Usually it was just a night or two but sometimes it was longer.

There was another knock on the door and I practically jumped out of my skin.  Granny opened the door and I heard Daddy’s low voice. I zipped the bag closed and it stuck on one of my shirts.  I pulled at it furiously, trying to get it unstuck. Daddy didn’t like waiting. My hands shook making it harder to get the fabric free.  I yanked hard and it ripped loose. I zipped the bag closed the turned to Jack.

“Clean up the toys.  Daddy’s here and we need to go.”

He ignored me and pushed two cars into each other, crashing them together over and over.  Boys!  Why are they so dumb? I wondered.  I scooped up the cars that were scattered around and threw them in the bin.

“Hey!” Jack yelled, then threw a tiny police car at me.  It hit me in the middle of my forehead with a thud.

That little….”Kids!”  Granny called.  “Yer Daddy’s here!”

“We gotta go,” I told Jack, pulling on his arm.

He moved with the speed of a sloth, but eventually got to his feet and followed me to the door.  I looked back over my shoulder and realized the police car and the red convertible he’d been crashing into it were still on the floor.  Mama would be furious if we left the room a mess so I ran back and threw them in bin. Taking one last look around I was content that the room was tidy.

“Kids!”  This time it was Daddy.  He didn’t sound happy. I scampered down the hall and into the living room.

“Sorry,” I said as I entered, my eyes on the floor.

“It’s about time,” he said.  “Linda’s waiting in the car.”  Without a word he stepped out into the hallway with Jack and me following behind.  Jack was moving so slowly I kept pushing his back to get him to keep up. As we reached the top of the stairs he glared back at me and stomped on my foot.

I swallowed a yelp then narrowed my eyes at him.  For just a minute I thought about pushing him down the stairs.  Looking back years later, there were times I wish I had.

There Is No God

“Don’t go gettin’ yer church clothes dirty,” Mama said.  My brother Jack and I scooted into the tiny two bedroom apartment just before she kicked the door shut behind her.

As she headed into the kitchen I grabbed Jack’s hand and led him into the bedroom the three of us shared.  Jack struggled against me as I tried to pull off his shirt. I almost let go as his teeth came down on my bare arm.  Even though I was nearly two years older than he was, I wasn’t much bigger, and he fought dirty. I didn’t really care about his clothes, but I knew he would need to wear them when we went to church again in a few days and there would be hell to pay if he got them dirty.  It wouldn’t be his fault though. Oh no, it would be mine. That was enough to keep me going.

I yanked hard on his pants and he kicked me.  I cried out in pain and indignation.

“Quit yer squawkin’!” Mama yelled from the kitchen.  A cupboard door banged shut and a glass clanged down on the laminate counter.

I glared at Jack.  He grinned. He liked to fight, especially against me.

“You’ll get us both in trouble if you don’t get outta those clothes,” I whispered to him.

“Can’t make me,” he sang as he swung his hips.

I lunged for him and missed, falling flat on my belly on the floor.  I kicked the rough pine floor in frustration, scuffing my nice black shoes.  Tears threatened to fall but I swallowed them.

Jack ran out of the room screaming, “Ma!  Katie hit me!” He leaned back into the doorway and stuck his tongue out at me.

I lay face down, defeated.  Heavy footsteps stomped down the hall.  I knew what was coming.

“Git yer sorry ass up or I’ll give ya somethin’ to cry about!”  She came into the room and yanked on my upper arm until I was standing.  I kept my eyes down. I could smell the whiskey already on her breath. “Why are ya always causin’ trouble?  Stop fightin’ with yer brother. He’s just a baby.”

I nodded but stayed silent.  As far as Mama was concerned Jack could do no wrong.

Jack wiped his cheeks, clearing away nonexistent tears.  He sniffled loudly and Mama patted his shoulder. “There now.  She won’ be mean to ya no more.” She headed out the door, leaving me to finish getting Jack out of his church clothes.

Jack stood in the doorway and I pushed past him into the hallway.  “Get them dirty. I don’t care anymore.” I was bluffing but hoped he couldn’t tell.

“Baby,” he called after me.

I ignored him and kept walking.

In the living room I turned on the cabinet-style television, a relic Grandma had held onto for 15 years.  It was tuned to one of the three stations available. I sat on the threadbare rug, the pattern so worn and stained you could barely make out where the swirls of color used to be.  It, like everything else in the apartment had been drained of color. It was like living in a sepia-toned photograph.

I looked at the dusty clock on the bookshelf.  It was Grandma’s and had a little girl on a swing, counting the seconds.  I loved that clock. It was time for the Cosby Show. My favorite part about Thursday  nights. How I wished I could be Rudy Huxtable. I watched as her dad – the doctor – tried to take care of little Rudy when she was sick.  It was so different from what happened when I had a cold!

I felt a stab of pain as something hit me in the back of my head.  Jack stood grinning evilly by the hallway leading to the bedrooms. Even at the age of three there was something wrong with that boy.  Tears stung my eyes but I wouldn’t let him see me cry.

Looking behind me I found the truck Jack had thrown.  I picked it up and threatened to throw it back at him, but he knew I wouldn’t.  He was still shirtless and in his slacks from church. One sock was missing. Mama was going to be some mad at me!

I turned back to the television but the show had gone to commercial.  A Feed the Children advertisement drew me in, my heart breaking for those kids who didn’t have food.  Somewhere deep inside I felt something stir. I wasn’t sure how I knew, but suddenly I was sure that some day I would be going to Africa to help these children.  I leaned in closer, looking deep into their sad eyes. I felt something warm growing in me as I listened to the story of the little girl who didn’t get to go to school.

Then Jack stood in front of the TV.  Without thinking I hurled the truck that was still in my hand at him.  He ducked and the truck bounced off the screen. Mama came storming in like a tornado.  All the air was sucked out of the room.

“That’s it!  I’ve had enough, ya lil shit!”

I scurried to my feet, not waiting for her to get close to me.  “Get outta my face and git to bed!” she screamed. It seemed to me the walls shook with the violence in her voice.  I ducked my head and ran from the room, not daring to look back.

In the bedroom I lay on the twin bed I shared with Jack, staring up at the dark ceiling.

The preacher at church spoke of love and kindness.  There was no love in Mama’s words. There was no kindness in her shrill tone.  These lessons from church were as fake as the Cosby show, as likely to happen in real life as a father was to take care of his sick child.

“There is no God,” I whispered into the empty room.  “God wouldn’t let children in Africa starve, and he wouldn’t let a Mama hate her daughter so much.”

 

Bravely Living an Amazing Life!