I landed on the floor before I knew what happened. My cheek burned, my jaw ached, and my ear buzzed like a hornet’s nest. My hands smarted from smacking the wooden floor when I fell.
“Don’t you ever call your mama a dummy,” TJ said. He leaned over me from his chair at the head of the table like he might slap me again. Mom walked into the dining room with her hands in baking mitts, holding the tin of muffins she’d dropped on the kitchen floor. I’d called her a dummy when I heard the tin hit the linoleum. Soon as she saw me sprawled on the floor holding my hand to my cheek, she stopped and stared.
“What happened to you?”
“I slapped her for calling you a dummy,” TJ said. “She has to learn to respect you.”
Mom set the muffin tin on the table and walked around TJ like he was a piece of furniture. She squatted in front of me, looked at me carefully, and gently stroked my head. “Are you all right?” I looked up at her and nodded yes, but I felt my chest swelling up as if I were about to cry. I’d never let him see he’d hurt me. Mom helped me up, turned my head to examine my cheek and hugged me tightly. Then she turned to TJ. She hardly ever got angry, but she looked more annoyed than I’d ever seen her.
“That wasn’t called for,” she said. “We’ve always teased each other like that, and there’s nothing wrong with it. She didn’t mean anything by it. You have to understand that we’ve known each other long before you came along.”
“Well, she’s sure not teasing you anymore,” he said, and turned back to me. “Do you understand?” Nodding yes, I felt my pigtails swing up and down.
“Now sit down and eat,” he said. I pulled myself up to the table and put my hands in my lap. Mom set the muffin tin on the table, pried one out with a table knife and put it on TJ’s plate.
“They’re not so bad after all,” she said of the muffins. “I bet they taste fine.” She pried out another for me, put it on my plate, cut it in half, and reached to slice some butter for it.
“She’s old enough to do that herself. For god’s sake, Laura, she’s nine years old,” TJ said. He buttered his muffin, and I buttered mine. They looked like volcanos that blew their peaks off.
After breakfast, as TJ was going out the door, I picked up my plate and stopped long enough to watch Mom kiss him goodbye on the lips. He wore a hat pulled down over his face to keep the sun out of his eyes on his walk to work. She said it made him look like a movie star, like Clark Gable, with a little smile under his thin mustache. I wondered how could she kiss him after he hurt me. I turned around, walked into the kitchen and threw the muffin in the garbage. He couldn’t make me eat it. You can bet on that.
Once TJ left, Mom finished packing my metal cowgirl lunchbox with a pint box of frozen orange juice to keep it cool. I stood next to her and watched as she put in a tuna sandwich, a bag of Fritos, carrot slices, and a miniature box of raisins before she snapped it shut.
“I’m sorry he hurt you, honey. I won’t let him do that ever again, okay?” Nobody had hit me before, not Mom, not Gramp or Grandma. Nobody. Mom was right about our joking with each other, too. We called each other names like sissy, silly, dummy, coo-coo, funny bunny, slowpoke, and lazybones. Even Grandma did that, and we all thought it was funny. TJ didn’t get it. He didn’t get us.
“I’ll walk out to the garage with you to get your bike,” she said, putting her arm around me. “ Or do you want me to drive you to school today?”
“I’ll ride my bike,” I said. My chest ached like the time I fell out of a tree and couldn’t breathe. I pushed off and coasted down the driveway onto Mockingbird Hill. Since I started the new school in September, I’d ridden my green Schwinn to Caldwell Elementary, two miles from our white brick house in the new development, a tic-tac-toe of small houses on a hill. I pedaled down the tarred road and turned right onto Noonday, an unsurfaced red dirt road. The only houses still standing on Noonday were three unpainted shanties coated in red dust. On the ground around them were other collapsed shanties with weeds and tangled vines laced through the splintered porches and crumpled tin roofs.
I turned left for a half-mile ride downhill and pedaled fast to gather speed, then sat back and coasted past an old development with small, shoddy houses, dirt streets and bare yards where people pulled their cars and trucks next to their houses.
When I reached the school, I pushed down the kickstand and parked my bike with a dozen others in the bike rack. Once inside I heard teachers’ and students’ voices blend with the screech of desks dragged across the floors and the echoes of slamming metal lockers lining the hallways. The smells of pine oil, Jean Nate bath oil, lunchroom food, bathrooms and sweat melded together. After the bell rang, we all stood, hands over hearts, pledging allegiance to an American flag hanging on a pole in one corner at the front of the classroom; a Texas flag hung from an identical pole in the other corner. Our teacher, Miss Rogers, stood behind her brown wooden desk at the front, where a blackboard extended across the wall.
All twenty-eight of us stood by our desks facing the flag and holding our hands over our hearts. On our right was a cork board with construction paper cutouts: November 1950; a list of student monitors; colored pictures of Puritans and Indians; and orange pumpkins, brown turkeys and red leaves on which we’d written our names in glitter paint. A bank of windows on the left overlooked the playground and beneath the windows were bookshelves topped with a globe, an aquarium of goldfish, and potted avocado plants.
Every morning we’d sing, “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my father died, land of the pilgrims’ pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
Mom had said, “Your daddy would have been so mad he didn’t get to shoot down all those German pilots.” He crashed in May, a month before I was born. I visited the family cemetery with Mom, Gramp, and Grandma, but that’s all I knew about him: his grave. I could read what Mom had written on his headstone, though. I knew it by heart: “What we keep in memory is ours, unchanged forever.” I wished I had even a single memory of him.
Miss Rogers started class the way she always did: “Let’s begin with show-and-tell this morning, children. If you’ve brought something to show and tell us about, please raise your hand.”
Shirley York brought a record. “It’s a comedy record,” she said smiling shyly. “My dad likes it a lot. It’s hilarious.” Miss Rogers dropped the needle onto the record. We listened to a hillbilly drawling about drinking poteen, looking at ladies’ panties and sharing new swear words with the class. Some children sucked in their breath and clapped their hands over their mouths in wide-eyed surprise. Others snorted trying not to laugh out loud.
Rising from her desk and raising the needle off the record, Miss Rogers said sharply, “We’ll stop this right now. Shirley, tell your daddy this is not a suitable record for children.” Shirley took the record from Miss Rogers and clutching it to her chest, rushed back to her desk. She put the record on the shelf beneath her desk and sat with her head down.
“Who has something more appropriate for show-and-tell?” Miss Rogers asked.
Jeff raised his hand and said, “I have a nature show-and-tell.”
“Then come to the front of the room.” He walked up to the front, put his paper lunch bag down on her desk, and reached in to take out a two-foot-long snake he’d caught that morning on the way to school.
“It’s a puff adder,” he said. The snake hissed and twisted, wrapping itself around his arm as he held the snake behind the head. “See how it puffs up to look poisonous?” The snake raised its head above Jeff’s grip and flicked its tongue at the children, who jumped up yelling, “Wow!” and “Holy cow!” Miss Rogers called the janitor to dispose of the snake. Then she made Jeff throw out his lunch and go to the school nurse to learn about reptile diseases.
“Does anyone else want to volunteer for show-and-tell today?” Miss Rogers asked. I rested my cheek against my hand and winced when it ached. I decided to raise my hand and tell the class about it.
“Do you have something educational to share with us today, Stella?” Miss Rogers asked.
“Then come up and tell us what it is.”
I walked to the front of the class and turned to face the students. With everybody looking at me and Miss Rogers sitting at her chunky wooden desk right next to me, I couldn’t remember what I wanted to say. I heard myself saying, “I have a stepfather.” Everybody stared at me and waited.
“His name is TJ Bearden. He works at the Texas Republic Bank.”
“Does anyone have any questions for Stella?” Miss Rogers asked. Four kids raised their hands.
“Do you have a real father?” Jerry asked.
“Yes, I did, but he died when his plane crashed,” I said.
“Ohhhh,” the kids said.
“When did you get a stepfather?” Peggy asked.
“He and my mom got married in March,” I answered.
“Did you go to the wedding?” Mary Joe asked.
“You went to your own mother’s wedding? That’s so weird!” Beth said.
Diana asked, “Did you get to be the flower girl and wear a long dress and carry the flowers?”
“Oh, so lucky!” the girls said.
Miss Rogers said, “Thank you, Stella. I’ve known TJ Bearden for many years. He’s a well-regarded man in our community, and you are indeed a lucky girl to have him as your stepfather. Now, that will be all for show-and-tell today, children. Get out your blue arithmetic books and pass around this worksheet.”
I hadn’t said what I wanted to: that he smacked me across the face and knocked me to the floor. No matter what Miss Rogers thought about him, she didn’t know him like I did. I wasn’t lucky at all.
On the wall above the blackboard, between the two flags, hung a big clock framed in black. In the afternoons during social studies and history, I stared at it often to make sure it was moving. The thin red hand dragged itself over each of the twelve black numbers. Sitting at my desk for all that time made my insides scream and my brain melt. I daydreamed.
I remembered when Grandmother told me I was going to live with Mother and TJ. She’d said, “Gramp and I have loved having you with us, darling. After all our children grew up and left, you’ve been our last bite of chocolate.”
“I don’t want to leave,” I said.
“I know, Honey. We’re heartbroken, too. But your mom wants to give you a home now with a father and family of your own.”
“You’re my family,” I told her. When we drove away the next week to go to Mom’s, I looked out the car window and kept in my heart the memory of a little girl running across the pastures back into the center where home was.
The next day was Saturday, and TJ left early to play golf. Once he’d gone, I walked barefooted across the slick wooden floor down the hall and saw Mom wearing a pink bathrobe and packing a suitcase on their bed. She smelled of White Shoulders, and her dark hair was twisted up in a white towel on top of her head. She’d laid out some underwear, her navy-blue slacks, and a white blouse with a blue scarf. I saw a stack of her slacks and blouses, two nightgowns, a pair of black flats and her cosmetics bag.
“Good morning, lazybones,” Mom said. “You slept late today. Are you hungry for breakfast?”
“Not yet,” I answered and went to sit in the rocking chair by the bed and watch her.
“Well, I thought that since it’s such a beautiful day, we’d take a drive down to the ranch and surprise Gramp and Grandma. What do you think of that?” She looked up at me from her packing.
I sat up and smacked my feet on the hardwood floor, bringing the back of the rocking chair up straight. “Really?” I gripped the arms of the chair and stood up, leaving the chair rocking on its own while I ran to Mom and hugged her.
“Do you mean it?”
Mom said, “Yes. I’m in the mood for some of Grandma’s homemade grape juice and sand tarts. You know how I love them.”
“Oh, me, too!” I said. I felt so happy we were leaving, I wanted to yell.
“Then go get some pants and tops, some underwear and your sneakers to pack in here.” I ran to my room, pulled out the dresser drawers, and grabbed some clothes. I added two books about horses to the pile before pulling on my jeans, a yellow t-shirt, and brown sandals. I’d never felt happier.
Mom leaned in at the doorway. When I looked up at her, her face looked tired and sad in a way I’d never seen before. When she used to come home to Gramp and Grandma’s on the weekends, we always had fun swimming, fishing, playing Scrabble and dominoes. We hadn’t done that for quite a while. I thought then maybe things weren’t working out for her either.
“Are we going to stay?” I asked her.
“I don’t know yet, darling,” she said.
The breeze whipped loud and crisp through the car windows. I recognized familiar milestones along the way: the white brick house set back under a grove of live oaks, the red horse trailer in a long driveway leading up to a stable, a lake with a sagging diving board. When we got closer to the coast, the roads would stretch out flat and straight like the raised rows of rice plants in black soil alternating with rows of water. I’d smell the fertilizers and manure on the corn and maize growing in rows zipping past the open window like flipping pages of a book. The evergreens would grow squat with their crowns pointed like weather vanes in the endless coastal breeze. The air would smell of saltwater, seaweed and fish. I imagined when I’d finally see the white wooden gate in front of Gramp and Grandma’s house, where we belonged.
We were playing I spy when Mom said, “Oh, no,” slowed the car down and pulled off at a rest stop on the side of the road. Her face looked chalky, her body tensed up and her hands tightly gripped the steering wheel.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I think I’m going to be sick.” As soon as she stopped the car, she opened the car door, leaned out and retched until she panted like a dog. She wiped her mouth with a tissue from her purse and rested her head against the steering wheel.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She took some deep breaths and exhaled loudly with her eyes closed. “I’ll be okay,” she said. “It may not last long.”
“I’ll get the thermos of coffee for you.” I was climbing over the front seat for the thermos when she said, “Oh, not coffee! Don’t even mention coffee,” and she leaned out the car door again. When she pulled herself back into the car, her eyes were tearing. She reached for my hand, squeezed it and rested hers on mine. Closing her eyes, she took another deep breath.
“Are you going to take a nap?” I whispered.
Without opening her eyes, she said, “Yes, I’ll take a little one. I should feel better then.” She closed her eyes and rested her head back against the seat. I studied her flushed face, and our hands clasped together on the black seat cover where the sunlight burned down through the windshield.
For a few minutes, I listened to her, then looked around the rest stop. A mockingbird perched on a barbed wire fence, where the sand and gravel radiated the heat. A brown hermit bird warbled, and crickets chirped in the tall grass. Cars and trucks floated through the heat waves on the highway.
I knew we weren’t at the halfway point yet. The halfway point was a motel with a cement Indian teepee in front and a herd of buffalo grazing on the other side of the highway. Once we reached the teepee, it would only be two hours until we’d turn down the road covered with crushed white shells. Gramp and Grandma would be sitting on the porch trying to figure out whose car was coming to their house. I already knew what they’d be saying.
Not believing her own eyes, Grandma would say, “Oh, that’s Laura’s car. And she’s got Stella with her, too. I’ll bet they’re coming back.”
Gramp would say, “Well, maybe Laura’s changed her mind.” When we got there, I’d run in before they could even get out the door, and I’d shout, “We’re home again!”
Beads of sweat dripped down Mom’s face. She opened her eyes and used the steering wheel to pull herself up straight.
“Well, surprise, I did fall asleep. I have no idea what time it is now.” She opened her purse to take out her wristwatch with the broken strap. “Why it’s only ten-fifteen.”
“We can be there in time for lunch!” I said.
Mom rested back against the seat and looked sad. “Honey, I’m sorry. I just can’t make it today.”
I panicked. “Why not?”
“I’m still feeling so sick; I have to turn around and go back.”
“Please don’t, Mom. Please, we’re almost there,” I begged. “You can rest at Grandma and Gramp’s. We’ll be there real soon. Grandma will take care of you, and you’ll feel better in no time. Let’s keep going. Please!”
“I wish we could, Stella, but there’s no way I can drive the rest of the way. I know you don’t understand and you’re disappointed, but I have to go back.” She was right, I sure didn’t understand, but I could tell she wasn’t going to change her mind. I climbed over to the back seat, curled up, and cried from the time she turned around until I fell asleep. I only woke up when we pulled into the driveway at her and TJ’s house.
Later, in the afternoon, the three of us sat together around the picnic table on the patio. They were making it a Saturday night routine: TJ grilling hamburgers on the grill on Saturday night. As TJ scraped each hamburger patty off the grill onto a paper plate, he put corn chips, a pickle, a lettuce leaf, a slice of tomato and a jalapeño pepper on the side. A radio played, “When the moon hits your eyes like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.” Next door, half a dozen kids played basketball, bouncing it against the garage door and the driveway.
“You drinking the usual, ma’am?” he asked me. I nodded. He poured a Dr Pepper into a red plastic cup of ice for me and handed Mom a glass of beer.
“I think I’ll stick with my iced tea tonight,” she said, gently touching her stomach. He popped the top off a beer bottle and sat down next to her at the picnic table. He put his arm around her, squeezed her and kissed her behind the ear. She picked up a few corn chips and nibbled at them.
“And what did you ladies do while I was making a fool of myself out on the golf course today?” he asked. He threw a piece of hamburger to his hunting dog, Pete, who was out of his pen for his daily run and begging for scraps. His tail wagged so hard and fast, it almost lifted his hindquarters off the ground.
“Oh, let’s see,” Mom said. “We drove out to the country market for corn, tomatoes, and cantaloupes. I caught up on some of the laundry this afternoon. See all those sheets hanging up? Stella rode her bike around the neighborhood with Mickey. It must have been a beautiful day for you out on the golf course.” She didn’t say a word about packing her suitcase, driving almost halfway to Gramp and Grandma’s house, getting sick and coming back. Me neither.
After supper, TJ went inside to watch a football game. Sitting on the back porch, Mom and I ate chocolate chip ice cream in the dark and watched the fireflies blinking around us. At the far end of the backyard, the white sheets on the clothesline twisted and popped in the breeze. With the moon streaming over them, they looked like dancing ghosts.
In the distance we heard the calls of geese flying south for the winter. Their honking got so loud I set my bowl on the porch step and walked out in the yard to look up. Against the moon, I traced the outlines of the flock flying low as they glided over the roof. I even heard the birr of their wings.
“Here they come! They’re landing!” I yelled. The lead goose flew directly into a sheet, slid down it and somersaulted headfirst to the ground. The geese gliding behind stuck out their feet, thudded into the sheets and tumbled into a heap of flopping feathers, webbed feet and tangled bodies. They pedaled wildly to get up.
“My lord, what’s the matter with them?” Mom asked. We watched them struggle up from the ground and stagger around under the sheets. They bumped into each other, honking and jostling, fluttering and wobbling, paddling and dragging their wings over the grass. Once they regained their footing, they checked out their wings by jumping up and down and fanning them in the air. They circled round and round to regroup. They slowly formed a line and spread their wings. All at once they sprang up flapping, their feet barely clearing the fence. They lifted noisily over the tops of the pine trees beyond the yard, gained altitude, resumed formation and vanished.
“That was crazy!” I yelled.
“I’ve never seen anything like that!” Mom said. TJ came out the back door about then and asked what happened. Mom told him, while I stood looking in the direction where the geese had disappeared.
TJ chuckled, “Well, you know what happened, don’t you?”
“No,” Mom said.
“They’re looking for a pond or a lake to land where they can eat and rest up for the night. From up high, where they were flying, the sheets looked like a pond reflecting the moonlight. They made a big mistake trying to land there,” he laughed.
“Oh, that explains it,” Mom said.
“They were stupid, weren’t they, girl?” he asked me.
“Yeah, they were,” I said. “But they know how to get home. They’ll find it. You can bet on that.”
by Anne Botsford
Anne Botsford lives in Poughkeepsie, NY, with her husband, Donald Puretz. For over forty years she worked in hospitals and non-profit organizations as a social worker. In 2011, she retired from Marist College’s School of Social and Behavioral Sciences as a professor emerita and returned to writing fiction as she’d always wanted. She previously published a memoir piece, “The Pickles,” in the April 2018 issue of The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.