Authors: Jayne Pupek
Mama's shoulders slump. She holds her elbows too far from her body. Her knuckles are white knots clutching a dirty handkerchief.
The skin of her fingers is red and cracked because she has stopped buying bottles of Jergens. “Only the things we need,” she reminds me, rubbing her hands with spit.
But all this is about more than doing with less. Mama has stopped combing her hair. She wears dresses that need hemming and stockings with holes. She doesn't bathe, sing, or pay the bills anymore. At night, she paces the floor with Baby Tom in her arms and tries to nurse him at her breast.
Mama lifts a yellow squash, then tosses it aside. “Too ripe,” she snaps. She picks up another, presses her thumb into its pale skin, then drops it on the floor. Its narrow neck splits open to show raw, seedy insides.
I squeeze my eyes shut. These are pictures I don't want to see: the yellow squash broken on the floor; Mama's thin, bitten lips spilling dirty words; the other shoppers staring with wide eyes and open mouths.
I want to tell them that Mama won't always be this way, but I say nothing. Gradually, the other shoppers turn away. They can't keep staring; that would be rude. They return to their own shopping; they move to other aisles, carefully stepping around the smashed squash, choosing plums or cucumbers to avoid the bins near us.
For a moment, I think maybe someone will walk over and guide Mama to a quiet corner. Maybe someone will lead me to the red bench in front of the market where the newspaper is sold and the metal horse lets children ride his back. Maybe that same somebody will bring me a vanilla ice cream and tell me not to worry, that Mama will be back to her old self in the blink of an eye.
Wishing doesn't make a thing so. No one comes forward to comfort Mama. No one asks her what's the matter.
I nudge my mother. “Let's leave, Mama.” I want to go home. I don't want Mama to act this way in front of other people. It's bad enough when there is no one but me to see. I don't want everyone
else to know. What if she mentions the baby in the jar? I can't explain him away.
Mama motions me aside.
I follow her over to the dairy products where she frowns at the cartons of milk and the small blocks of cheese. She asks for half a pound of cheddar, thinly sliced, then demands the sheets of paper separating the slices be removed. “I can hardly afford the cheese,” she complains. “I won't pay for your stinking wax paper.”
We go back to the produce section, where Mama squabbles with the vendor over the price of his tomatoes. “Look at these bruised skins! These soft spots gone to rot!”
I stand beside Mama and look down at my saddle shoes, the once white toes now scuffed and dirty. I'm embarrassed by Mama's shrill voice. “Mister, your damn tomatoes are no good!”
I feel sorry for the vendor. His dark eyes narrow as he defends his prices. “There are no finer tomatoes in this town,” he cries. “And no fairer prices!”
It's not your tomatoes,
I want to tell him, but I can't take his side. I remember the fight in the kitchen, and the girl with tomato lips who waited in Daddy's car.
OD DOESN'T LIKE
selfish girls. Mrs. Roberts says so. And if anyone knows God's likes and dislikes, it's Mrs. Roberts. She sings in the choir, directs the Christmas pageant, and teaches Vacation Bible School the third week of every July. Her name tops the prayer chain, which means she is the first to know when trouble hits somebody's life.
The pastor calls Mrs. Roberts a virtuous woman. I don't know what that means, but she works hard to earn his praise. She reads through the entire Bible each year, following a schedule she keeps taped to her refrigerator. When I visit Mary, I check the schedule to see which chapter Mrs. Roberts is reading. Sure enough, if you look inside her Bible, the red ribbon bookmark is always on the right page. Even when she has the flu, or the electricity goes out in a storm, a virtuous woman does not neglect reading the Scriptures.
Mrs. Roberts passes on what she knows to anyone who will listen. I've learned a heap of things about God in the time I've spent at the Roberts's house. For instance, when you disobey God,
He sends bad things like plagues, locusts, and floods. “That's to get your attention,” Mrs. Roberts says, “and to make you think twice.”
If you don't take heed, the next time God might kill your baby. The only way to stop Him is to paint blood on your doors.
If you are a selfish and stubborn girl, God might send away your daddy, the way He did mine.
There is no end to what God can take from you.
I try not to be mad at God. I know I'm to blame. It's my fault Mama twisted her back and the tomato girl came to stay. I didn't help Mama like she asked. I'd only wanted to be left alone so I could hurry to the store to pick out my new chick.
My selfish ways turned God against me. Mrs. Roberts would say so.
, my teacher, sits at her desk and reads aloud, mostly stories about orphaned deer or shipwrecked families. These stories are sometimes sad, but hold my attention. I can imagine being right in them.
Fridays are different. On Fridays, we write our own stories. “Every story,” Miss Wilder explains, “is like a circle. Every story has a beginning and an end. The secret is to close your eyes, see a picture, then open your eyes and write what you see. Find the beginning and the rest of the story will follow.”
When I close my eyes, I see Mama standing at the stove, a clean white apron tied around her waist. This is where my story begins, with Mama making beef stew for Sunday's supper.
HILE THE RADIO
announcer shouted out unbeatable deals at Emory's Buick, the beef bone boiled in the big black pot. Mama chopped carrots, potatoes, and celery stalks. The knife made a tapping sound on the cutting board, but Mama wasn't in one of her too-fast moods, so I didn't have to worry that she
might cut her finger. There are days when Mama shouldn't handle knives, and Daddy used to sometimes wrap them in newspapers or towels and hide them. There hadn't been any days like that in quite some time.
“Ellie, can you run downstairs and fetch me an onion?”
I stood at the back door, pulling my sweater over my head. “Mama! The new chicks are coming today! I'll miss the truck if I don't get down there.”
Mama turned down the radio and smiled. “Oh, all right! Such a tomboy I've raised. What kind of wife will you make, Ellie?”
“I'm never getting married, Mama!” I hated boys. They smelled bad and liked to spit in the bushes behind Daddy's store. I could hardly believe my father had once been a boy, but Mama showed me a picture of him at age twelve. He had too many freckles, short greased hair, and large teeth shaped like border stones.
“Oh, I see. You say that now, but you wait â¦”
“Go on, then.” She swatted my behind with her dishrag. “I'll get the onion myself. And tell your father not to be late for supper.” She opened the top cabinet above the stove and handed me an empty oatmeal box.
Mama saved every kind of box, jar, and can. She used these as hiding places for her special things. Sometimes Daddy found her treasures and took them back to the store because she hadn't paid for them. Mostly she kept ink pens, stockings, and sewing goods. He ignored those because they cost so little, but the jewelry, perfume, and fur stole had to be returned. Sometimes she'd cry hard enough that Daddy would work out an agreement with the shop owner to pay for it, but usually, Mama just pouted, or said she hadn't really wanted the thing anyway.
“Have Daddy saw this in half,” Mama explained, “and poke holes in the lid. Put some brown paper in the bottom. It should do nicely for your chick.”
I kissed Mama's soft, warm cheek and ran out the door.
Overhead, dove-gray clouds hung in the sky. A few cool raindrops hit my face.
If I ran as fast as I could, I'd make it to the store before the Easter chicks arrived.
ADDY WAS STACKING
cans of paint in a pyramid along the wall when I plowed through the front door. “There's my girl,” he said and smiled at me.
Back then nobody else in the world was his girl. Only me.
I locked my arms around Daddy's thick neck and kissed his rough, salty face. “I haven't missed the truck, have I, Daddy?”
“No, should pull up any minute. Here, you help me sort the new brushes until Mr. Nelson comes.” He pointed to the cardboard box on the floor. An open flap showed a box full of red- and black-handled brushes, their fine white bristles wrapped in clear plastic.
I loved Daddy's store. He didn't really own it, Mr. Morgan did, but Mr. Morgan hardly stopped by anymore because of his arthritis. Daddy ran it for him, and I thought of the store as ours. I spent hours after school sweeping the narrow aisles, sorting shiny nails and bolts into their bins, hanging new paint brushes on hooks. Sometimes I closed my eyes and wandered the aisles like I was blind, naming things just by touch and smell. This was a world where I felt safe, like being wrapped in a favorite blanket. Here everything had its own special place, and no one broke into tears for no reason or hurt themselves on purpose. This was a place like school, where things happened the way you expected, and the day at hand was much like the day before it. Each spring I watered seedlings and pulled dead buds. I arranged snapdragons in rows near the counter where we sold seed packets. We carried green hoses that hung on the wall like vines, and shiny watering cans with thick gray spouts. As soon as the frosts passed, we stocked more gardening supplies, and right after that the first produce came. Daddy bought from local people: flowers from the colored
women on Gratton Street, corn from the sheriff's brother, and fancy mushrooms from the minister's wife.
Most everything else came from the tomato girl. She kept Daddy's store stocked in fresh vegetables all spring and summer. In the fall and winter, she brought in jars of sweet pickles, corn relish, and tomato preserves. Whenever she showed up with more produce, I placed it in the baskets so the nicest vegetables were on top, throwing away any with worm holes or bruises. In the front window, the sun ripened her tomatoes, turning them a deep red.
Everyone in town loved her tomatoes. Rumor was she spread blood and coffee grounds on her garden every full moon to make her tomatoes ripe and extra sweet. Other folks said it was her tears that gave them their unusual taste. She was rumored to be orphaned and infirm, but nothing people said about her made much sense to me. I listened to what people said, but wasn't sure which parts to believe.
Sometimes when the store wasn't too busy, Daddy let me work the cash register. I remembered to thank folks for shopping at Morgan's General, but often made mistakes giving them change. Most of the customers helped me when I lost count, but I still almost gave up. “There's too many ways to make a dollar,” I complained. Daddy made me keep at it though. “You can't quit when things get a little tough, Ellie. You must keep at them until you get them right.”
A job he never had to tell me to do twice was tending the Easter chicks.
They usually arrived one week before Easter. One hundred of them. Most were dyed blue or pink, because people like things to make sense that way, blue for boys and pink for girls. But some of the chicks were purple, orange, and green, and those were my favorites. Daddy called them the Life Savers chicks because they matched the candies.
My father had built a special glass display case at the front of the store, tall enough for small children to see into, but not reach inside.
The display case stayed there all year, but we changed it each season. During the summer, Daddy filled the case with white play sand and added toy buckets and bright beach balls. In the fall, we placed pumpkins and leaves inside. When December came, we set up a village snow scene with a train and painted houses, some with tiny wreaths pinned to their front doors. Daddy always said I had Mama's knack for making things look pretty.
In April, Daddy cleaned the display case and lined the bottom with newspapers and pine shavings for the Easter chicks. My job was to feed and water the chicks, then change their dirty newspapers and bedding. Each chick had to be cleaned with a soft cloth or brush if it got dried corn mash or poop on its down feathers. Their tiny nostrils had to be kept perfectly clear, so they could breathe, which was sometimes a hard job because chicks are messy when they eat, dipping their little heads too far into the bowl.
I loved the way the chicks smelled, like corn and baking soda, and how they stood on pipe-cleaner legs while they pecked at my hands with their little orange beaks. Whenever I came near them, they chirped, fluffing up their soft down. Within a few days, they took me for their mother, peeping when they heard my voice or footsteps.
As Easter neared and mothers and fathers scooped up chicks to fill baskets, my brood became smaller. Any that were left, Daddy bartered away. Sometimes he traded them for birdhouses made by the blind carpenter on Gale Street. Once or twice he'd given them to shopkeepers who overlooked Mama's borrowing without asking. Most often, my unsold chicks went to the tomato girl, a trade for her spring produce.
This year, Daddy said if I kept his secret, I could keep a chick for my own.
HE BIG BLUE
farm truck pulled up in front of the store. “They're here,” Daddy called to me as he walked outside. I left my paintbrushes in their cardboard box and followed him.
He and Mr. Nelson stood on the stoop and talked about the weather for what seemed like forever. Mr. Nelson explained that on his way there he'd had to stop to wrap tarp around his flatbed to keep his turkeys from drowning. “They turn their heads right up in the rain,” he said, tilting his head to show us. “The only thing dumber than a bird in rain is a man in love,” Mr. Nelson joked.