Authors: Jayne Pupek
I stepped closer to the bed, lay my purse on the blanket, and reached out to touch her bruise. It was an ugly, dark stain on her pale skin. I wanted to wash it away. “Does it hurt, Mama?”
She took my hand between hers and rubbed it the way she did on cold days to make the blood flow. “Only a little.”
I pulled Mama's smooth hands to my lips and kissed them. They had a strange lemon smell, almost like cough drops. I wrinkled my nose.
“I know, it smells awful,” Mama said. “I asked the nurse for hand lotion and she brought this horrible cream.” She turned to my father, and added, “Rupert, do you think you could bring a gown from home, and some Jergens?”
“Of course. I should have thought of that myself, that you'd be more comfortable with some of your own things. I'm sorry.”
“No need to be sorry. It's been a difficult time.”
“I brought something from home,” I whispered to my mother.
“You did?” Mama's eyes widened in surprise.
I unhooked my purse lid and lifted my chick for her to see.
“Let me take a closer look,” she said. Mama patted the mattress, motioning me to sit beside her.
I climbed onto the edge of the bed, careful not to hurt her, and placed my green chick in her hands.
Mama cupped her palms around the fluffy chick and smiled. “Oh, Ellie, he's adorable! What an unusual green color. Did you name him?”
I nodded. “Jellybean.”
“That's an interesting name â¦”
“Tess thought of it. She knows good names.”
“Tess?” My mother's thin eyebrows rose, making small arrows across her forehead.
“Tess is Daddy's tomato girl.” I smacked my hand over my mouth. I wasn't supposed to tell.
“Isn't she Mason Reed's girl, the one who has epilepsy?” she asked my father.
“Well, yes, she has epilepsy, Julia,” Daddy said, shifting in his chair. “But she hasn't had an episode in months. Doctor's got her on some new medicine. She'll be a big help to you, cleaning up around the house, cooking. The doctor said you're not supposed to do any lifting or bending.”
“I know that, Rupert, but I don't think a teenage girl with her own infirmity is what the doctor had in mind.” The muscles along the edge of Mama's jawline stiffened, making the veins in her neck rise. I watched Jellybean in her hands.
“Julia, there's no need to get upset. Just trust me on this. Tess will work out fine.”
Mama didn't answer. Her lips narrowed into a straight line.
Jellybean peeped. Mama's hands were too tight around him.
I nudged my chick's small body from Mama's tight fingers and put him my back inside my purse.
The rest of the visit with Mama felt as heavy and slow as a sermon. No one said another word about Tess, but her presence hung in the air like smoke you couldn't fan away.
Daddy worked the crossword puzzle from the newspaper and talked with Mama about the landscaping company opening up just outside of town. “They placed quite an order last week,” he said, and gave Mama details about the wheelbarrows, levels, spades, and spools of twine he'd sold.
I stood by the bed and combed Mama's long hair. Little flecks of blood had dried on her scalp and peppered her pillow.
We stayed with Mama until her tray came, a bowl of pot roast, mashed potatoes, and oily green beans. We kissed her good-bye, first Daddy, then me. As much as I hated the hospital and wanted
to leave, I would have done anything to stay with Mama. I wanted to sit by her side and spoon smooth mashed potatoes into her mouth. I wanted to hold the milk carton to her lips and urge her to drink it all. And then after her meal, I'd curl beside her and tell stories until we both fell asleep.
Daddy placed his hands on my shoulders and made me step away from Mama's bed. We promised to come back the next day and bring a few things from home.
Mama smiled, then turned toward the window. The corners of her eyes were moist with tears.
ACK ON THE FIRST FLOOR
, Daddy was quiet while we sat in the hospital lobby and waited for the cab. He looked out the door as cars slowed by the entrance. A woman in a wheelchair rolled across the floor, then an elderly man in a gray suit walked in and nodded to Daddy. I'd seen the man in the store, but couldn't remember his name. If we sat there long enough, we'd run into customers who knew us. Daddy didn't say anything, and I didn't feel like talking either.
Something about Tess troubled Mama. Daddy knew it. So did I. Still, neither of us said a word, as if by keeping quiet, we could ignore what we knew.
Kissing Tess now seemed like a bad thing. Somehow, I felt I'd betrayed my mother.
When I got home, I'd wash out my mouth with something awful like dish-washing liquid, and I would never, ever kiss her again.
NSTEAD OF TAKING ME
home or to the store, Daddy dropped me off at Mary Roberts's house. Mary was in school, but her mother was home. When Daddy asked if she'd look after me, she smiled and said, “I'd be delighted, Rupert.” Mrs. Roberts is always delighted to do her Christian duty, which means helping when she can. “How is Julia?” she asked. “I couldn't believe the news when you telephoned. One always worries about the elderly falling, but I guess it can happen to just anyone, now can't it?”
Daddy smiled as Mrs. Roberts babbled on. “Julia's going to be fine. Just fine,” he said and patted my shoulder.
“And you said you found a girl to stay while Julia recovers?”
“Yes, Tess Reed has agreed to stay.”
Mrs. Roberts raised an eyebrow. “I see. Well, you know, Rupert, I would have been delighted to find a girl from the church. The Reeds don't have the best reputation.”
“I appreciate that, I really do, but don't trouble yourself. Tess will work out just fine. She's got a lot of energy and is happy to help. Now, I need to get to work. Expecting a shipment of paint today.”
“I want to go to the store with you,” I begged, tugging at Daddy's arm. I didn't understand why I had to stay with Mrs. Roberts.
“You missed school today, Ellie. You'll need to get your notes and homework from Mary. There will be other days to go to the store.”
I could tell that was a made-up excuse. Daddy didn't want me at the store today. But why?
While I tried to figure things out, Daddy kissed my head and reminded me to be home for supper. We lived only four houses down from Mary Roberts, so I was allowed to walk.
“Thanks again, Charlotte,” Daddy said to Mrs. Roberts before he left in the cab without me.
me lunch, and I ate my tuna sandwich quickly, washing it down with cold milk. I tried hard to answer Mrs. Roberts's questions without telling her too much. As Daddy has said, “Be careful what you say at Mary's house. Mrs. Roberts tells everything she knows and half of what she doesn't.” I watched my words and did not say anything about either Mama's baby or Tess.
“God certainly was looking after your mother, Ellie. Why, plenty of people have broken their neck in falls half that distance.”
“Yes, ma'am,” I agreed, even though I didn't know of a single person with a broken neck. I wasn't so sure God was looking after Mama either. If He was, why did He let her fall in the first place? But not being up to a sermon from Mrs. Roberts, I kept quiet.
After lunch, I played on Mary's swingset, waiting for her to come home. While I twirled on Mary's swing, Mrs. Roberts swept the front porch and carried letters to her mailbox. She smiled and offered to get me more milk or something each time she stepped outside. I wondered what it would be like to have a mother who checked on you. Mama so often needed me that I couldn't imagine it being the other way around. Until I started
spending time at Mary Roberts's house, I never knew how other mothers acted.
Before long, the yellow bus slowed and Mary stepped off. She squealed when she saw me, and we jumped up and down, holding each other's hands. Later, we rested in the warm grass and I let Jellybean walk around between us.
I told Mary about Mama's fall down the basement steps, and how the tomato girl had come to take care of things while Mama got better. When I whispered in her ear about the makeup and the Kotex, Mary squeezed my hands and said, “Oh, you are so lucky,” just like I knew she would.
Some things I left out on purpose, like the kiss and Mama's baby. Keeping secrets is a lot like telling lies, but sometimes you just can't risk everything. I wanted to tell Mary how I worried about Tess being in our house when Mama came home, but I knew she'd tell her mother. And then Daddy would be mad at me for sure if Mrs. Roberts said something about Tess.
Before I left, Mary wrote down my homework assignments, and then I put Jellybean into my purse, and thanked Mrs. Roberts for lunch and tea.
“Why, you are so welcome,” she said, and reminded me to give my mother her best. “We'll all be praying for her.”
I thanked Mrs. Roberts again, but knew Mama wouldn't want to hear about the congregation praying for her. Although she sometimes went to church with Daddy and me, Mama thought most churchgoers were gossips and bores.
Even though I felt sad about Mama, a part of me filled with hope. Mama would get well, and we'd have a new baby in the house. There would be strollers, rattlers, and teddy bears in every room. With a new baby, maybe Mama would be glad Tess was there. She'd help Mama with all the chores and be my make-believe big sister. I'd bring over Mary Roberts and she'd play Avon, too. Maybe I'd be an Avon lady like Tess, instead of a teacher. My
sewing money would pay for lipsticks to get me started. I'd take them to nearby houses and practice the way Tess had told me. “Hello,” I'd say, “My name is Ellen Sanders, please call me Ellie. Would you like to try some Crimson Rose? It would look lovely with your fair complexion.”
At our house, I stepped onto the front porch and set my purse down, freeing my hands to smooth the front of my dress and pull up my socks. I noticed bread crumbs scattered on the porch where Tess had stood this morning. Had she fed the crows that had perched on the railing? Black ants nibbled at the crumbs that were left.
I picked up my purse, careful not to swing it because Jellybean was asleep inside. I wasn't sure if chicks suffered motion sickness like I sometimes did.
I opened the door and walked inside the house. And then I stopped.
Daddy was leaning back on the sofa, beside Tess, his bare feet resting on Mama's coffee table. The dark hairs along his chest showed over the scooped neck of his white undershirt.
Tess held my father's dress shirt in her lap, her thin fingers sewing the missing button back on his sleeve.
When I saw her hand pull the thread tight, I forgot about Jellybean and threw my purse.
“Ellie, what's the matter?” Daddy asked, his face a puzzle.
How could he not know? He'd always understood everything about me.
“I wanted to sew your button back on. I told you in the cab this morning. Sewing on your buttons is my job. Not hers!” I bit my lip and tasted blood.
“Ellie â¦” Daddy moved toward me.
“Jesus Christ!” Tess muttered with a sigh. She rummaged through my mother's sewing basket until she found a pair of shears. Snatching my father's shirt by the sleeve, she singled out the button and gripped it between her forefinger and thumb.
With one quick snip, she cut the threads that held the button she'd sewn on my father's sleeve. “Happy now?” She stared at me with cold eyes.
The button rolled across the living-room floor and landed under my mother's rocking chair.
Daddy looked at Tess and frowned. “It's been a hard couple of days. I'm taking Ellie out for a hamburger and fries.”
“Suit yourself.” Tess pulled the tan afghan from the back of the sofa and wrapped herself in it. Then she curled up on her side and stared at us from inside her knitted cocoon. Her face went blank, like a chalkboard suddenly wiped clean.
“You can come if you want,” my father offered.
“No, you two go ahead. I'm better off alone.”
Daddy knelt beside me, picked up my purse and placed it back in my hands. “Go wash your face, Ellie, and bring me another shirt from the closet,” he said, nudging me forward.
Jellybean to his box. I checked his little wings and legs to make sure he hadn't been hurt in the fall. Relieved that nothing seemed to be swollen or broken, I kissed his tiny head. How could I have risked hurting him that way? Was Daddy right when he said that it was only because so much had happened in the last few days? Or was something the matter with me like with Mama? Mary Roberts said bad moods are like blue eyes: they come in a person's genes. That meant Mama's moods could pass on to me.
In the bathroom, I washed my face, and as I scrubbed, I talked to myself: “You are a bad, stupid girl, Ellie Sanders. It was only a button. Tess didn't know sewing was your job.”
She didn't know, but Daddy knew. I tried not to think about what that meant. I kind of understood letting Tess help with the housework while Mama was sick, but why should she do my jobs?
Maybe I deserved it. All the wrong things I'd done in the last
few days crossed my mind: how I'd refused to get Mama's onion; I'd dropped Jellybean on the floor, twice; I'd told Mama about Tess after Daddy warned me not to; now I'd gotten angry at Tess and Daddy. “You've got to do better, Ellie. You've got to!” I told myself. “Remember Mama's baby and the promises you made to God.”
I stepped into my parents' bedroom to get my father a clean shirt. On the way to the closet, I noticed the quilt shoved to the floor and the sheet wadded on the bed. As I smoothed the wrinkled sheet, my hand touched a moist spot, and I pulled back.
On the floor, curled like a snail, lay Tess's pink nightgown.