So, here, on my way home from school, right before our Easter break, I stick out my arms, straight out from my shoulders. Like Christ did on the cross. To humble myself. I just hold out my arms, hold my breath and pray,
“Blessed Virgin Mary, please let Gram out of purgatory, if she’s in there.”
“Baby Jesus, please make Daddy come home on time tonight.”
“Holy Ghost, I’ll be nice to JR if you make Momma and Daddy stop arguing.”
When I stop at the telephone pole to catch my breath, Butch, my arch enemy, starts in,
“Hey, Bucky, close your mouth or you’ll catch a fly. Wire hair! Wire hair!”
I just ignore him and go back to my praying to Mother Mary. I adore Mary. She’s the one I pray to the most. The thing about Mary is she can talk to her nice grown-up son, Jesus, and her mean husband, God. She can make them see your side of things. She’s the kind of momma who is calm, the kind who can see you don’t mean to be a tattletale. She is the kind of momma who always understands.
Sitting in our bathtub, I make up poems for Mary. One poem got me an “A+” this school year. I wrote it out in my best cursive. Momma has it scotch taped to the side of the refrigerator.
Each bead on the rosary
Said by me or you
Sends a rose to heaven
For Mary, dressed in blue.
So we should say the rosary
As often as we can
And Mary will bestow her blessings
On each and every man.
I’ll be able to write lots of poems this week ‘cause school is going on break for Holy Week. We’re wrapping up Lent, “farty” days and “farty” nights, as Father Rattigan says. This last week starts with Palm Sunday and ends with Easter.
Wahoo. The pool opens this week. Double Wahoo. I get all Easter break to practice holding my breath underwater. I am already up to 30 counts, like, the one-one thousand, two- one thousand kind of counting. At 15 counts, I can feel my eyes bulge out behind my eye lids. At 30, I gotta’ push up to the top, gulp some air and sink under, like my pogo stick, over and over again.
I love it down there. Down there, no one tells you how to behave. Nobody talks. Nothing is mixed-up. All there is down there is the bottom, that bottom of the pool, that bluish green watery light, that silvery drain, that wavy pattern the marker line makes. The only sound down there is bubbles blowing up from my kicking feet and swimmy arms. I let the bubbles from my breath leak out a little bit at a time. And count.
* * * *
But things sure aren’t getting off to a great start, this Holy Week. Out here in our front yard, just sand and cactus, fenced in from all the other sand and cactus around it, I’m sitting on my banana seat, looking all the way down to where Washington St. turns off Hwy. 111. It’s the only way in and out of our little town, La Quinta. The sky is getting to be a darker blue but I can still see the highway. I practice holding my breath between cars that pass. I haven’t seen the blue and orange pickup turn off yet, the one with Cavanaugh Electric in big letters on the side. Daddy’s work truck. That’s the one I’m waiting for.
“Donna. Come on in here now. Set the table for dinner, baby girl.”
“Can’t Lolly do it, Momma? I’m pretty busy.”
“Busy doin’ what, for Chrissake? Looks like you are just sitting there puffing. What are you doing, anyway? Get on in here and do as I ask.”
“Donna Lee, I mean it. Now.”
I take a long look down the road as the arch of my foot catches itself under the kickstand of my bike. Daddy just put some WD-40 on it and it lifts a lot easier than it did before. Still no pickup.
H. E. Double hockey-sticks. Now there is gonna’ be some trouble. Momma looks fit to kill when I walk in by myself.
“What is for dinner? Smells like fish sticks in here. Is that it? Fish sticks? Can’t we have some waffles with whipped cream? Or grilled cheese? Anything but fish sticks.”
“It is fish sticks and you should be glad to get them. That’s all I got left in the freezer to eat. Thank god today is payday. But if your Daddy don’t get home soon…”
“He’ll be here, Momma. Probably had to work late …”
“Work? Better be. If he’s at the North End, I will be so goddam mad. Never mind. Set the table, please. Better just make it for us three, you, me and Lolly. Thank Jesus, JR is down early. I hope to hell he sleeps through the night.”
“Momma, I can set a place for Daddy, too.”
“Just do as I say, pul-leez. And hurry it up. These fish sticks are about to dry up and blow away. I’ll make a plate for Daddy when and if he shows up.”
I know he is going to show. I know it. I helped Sister Boniface clean the blackboard and banged out the erasers. Man, that chalk dust choked me and covered me like a ghost, but I offered it up. Plus, on the way home from the bus stop, I held my breath and stuck my arms out. I got this Daddy- comin’ -home thing covered. I hope.
“Donna, close your mouth when you chew. You aren’t listening again. Lolly was asking what happened out by the bus stop today. Why was Butch chasing you?”
“Oh, no reason, Momma. He’s just a pill. You know Butch.”
“Leave him be. When those boys tease, just don’t bite. They’ll get tired of it.”
“May I be excused?”
“Sure , but don’t you want Jello? I put in some baby marshmallows.”
Those marshmallows floating in the green Jello make me think of curdled milk chunks thrown up on that fake grass in our Easter basket. Yuck. I just don’t want it tonight.
“No, thanks, Momma. I’ll just be outside ‘til dark, ‘kay?”
“Go on. You’re the one that set the table. That means Lolly has to do the clean up.”
Outside again, it’s too dark to see the turn-off. I still can make out the outline of the hills that surround us, the ones that block out our T.V. reception half the time. It looks like I could just reach out and draw them, the hills. I could pencil them onto the sky paper.
It’s really, really dark when we hear the metal lunchbox land on the counter. I guess he came in through the back door, the one that goes into the kitchen. The refrigerator door opens and closes. The faucet goes on and off. His work boots drop.
We sit there in the front room, no one looking at each other. We are all holding our breath. Waiting for him to come in to where we are watching T.V.
Daddy is a mess.
Pushing his hair back from his forehead, running his long fingers through the curves and waves of it, he grins sheepishly at Momma. His left hand drops down to brush some imaginary gunk off the front of his plaid short sleeved work shirt, his eyes lowering toward his sock covered feet. The he turns his hand up, like he is pushing her back, and begins his excuses.
“The pick-up ran outta gas jus’ before I got inta’ town, ‘n….”
Momma breaks in. “Just give it up, Cal. That one has been used too many times before.”
“Really, honey. The gauge, y’know, that goddam gauge ish broke, ‘n…”
It’s the “ish” that does it, that, and the fact that he pitches forward onto his toes when he emphasizes the word, ”broke”. That, and the other fact that you can smell the brown booze on him from across the room, clear over here by the T.V. set. All that, and the final fact that Gunsmoke is already over when he usually comes home before the nightly news starts.
“I jus’ stopped for a little minute at the North End to see that guy, y’know, the one with the, the wife’s brother’s freezer for sale, ‘n then he said ta come on down, sit on the bar, so, how could I be so ruuude…” Daddy fiddles with his ear, pulling on it like Perry Como, acting like he’s finding his excuses inside his ear drum.
“Just go to bed. I’ll be there in a minute after I get the girls down. Keep it quiet, please. JR’s not feeling well and I finally got him to sleep.”
Momma is using her quiet voice. The one she uses just before she blows. She adds, kind of hissing like a rattler, “I hope to hell you brought home your paycheck. All of it.”
Daddy stops in his tracks, with a long, breathed-out, “Whoopsi Daisy.” He zigs back toward me instead toward her. He lands hard on his short leg. The right one. Without his boots on, the boots with the heel built up, his limp is worser. That’s ‘cause two inches of that leg got left on Guadalcanal during WWII.
“Good night, baby girl,” he breathes into my face, holding onto the arm of the recliner I’m curled into. Barely balancing. But then he does that thing, the thing he does drunk or sober. He pinches my big toe and tells it good-night too. “Good night, little piggy.”
I hold myself tight, and return, “Night, Daddy. See you in the morning. Don’t forget. There are swim races at the pool tomorrow.”
donnaleeblog on Mixed Blessing matt m on Mixed Blessing Matthias Mengelkoch on A Family Man barbara toboni on Theresa’s Story michelle laymon on Be Prepared