Seven Years Old
Lying sideways on the front porch I study the face of my pumpkin. Dipping my fingers in the blue paint, I stroke the top of its head and the pumpkin grows hair, the stem becoming a ponytail. Dad gave me the pumpkins this morning; he said to save a few to paint with him. Choosing purple next, I paint hearts on my kneecaps. Mom pokes her head out of the screen door to remind Bobby, my older brother by five years, to refrain from smashing my pumpkins in the street. A red, two-door car slides into our driveway.
Sitting on the steps of the porch, Bobby watches as a man gets out of the car. I scatter yellow polka dots up my arm. The man walks towards the porch; he’s balding at the crown of his head. He mumbles hello as he walks up the porch, weaving around Bobby and me to enter the front door. Bobby follows behind. A breeze creeps up my back, forming goosebumps beneath my painted limbs. Leaves circle around the yard, an orange and red whirlwind. I tail Bobby into the house.
Mom sits at the kitchen table with the man, she has introduced him as Sam. I rest on the floor below them. They hold hands. He’s tall; he laughs at my body painting and calls me Little One.
Sam rubs Mom’s shoulder, the other hand still rested into hers. They laugh together. Bobby walks into the living room, turning on the television.
“Bobby, come get to know Sam,” Mom says. The hum of the television continues as Bobby remains on the floor. Sam stands and takes both of my hands in his.
“Step onto the toes of my shoes,” he says. Smearing yellow paint across his shirt, Sam waltzes me around the kitchen. Mom picks up a dishrag and follows into the hallway, wiping the paint from us. Sam takes his shirt off, telling Mom she should wash it. He’s pale with paste.
“It better not stain,” Sam yells. Bobby screams all the time at home but this man, I don’t know him. Tearing up, I run for the landline, dialing Dad’s number as Mom glides down the steps, heading for the laundry room. Dad says he’ll be here in five minutes.
Running past Sam, back into the kitchen, I motion for Bobby to follow me. I feel Sam’s eyes scaling our movements. His head turns as we pass, watching us run back onto the porch. He remains shirtless in the kitchen, waiting for our mother to return with his clean shirt.
The chill passes through Bobby and wraps around me. We shiver in unison on the front porch. The brown van, the one Mom used to drive, moves slowly up the street. Dad scans the houses to his left and right, seeing how the neighbors have kept up their yards. Bobby runs down to the bottom of the driveway, I follow behind with a barefaced pumpkin and two containers of paint. Sam glares from the inside of the house as Mom bursts through the front door.
“Where are you going?” Mom screams. Bobby is settled into the front seat, Dad buckles me in the middle row. He slides the door shut, leaving Bobby and me inside the van and looks towards Mom. Their words are mumbled from inside the van. Mom waves her hands, pointing towards the house; Dad’s hands are in his pockets. Sam is still from behind the windowsill. Shaking her head, Mom waves goodbye to Bobby and me. I watch Dad walk around the van, opening the driver’s door.
“Well Stinky and Bob-o, what do you want to do?” Stinky is Dad’s nickname for me since my days of diapers. He leans over to the glove box, shuffling some things around and handing me a Wet One to wipe off the rest of the paint. Bobby scrolls through the radio stations. Spinning the knob, he lands on a fuzzy song and leans back into his seat. The van moseys back down the street, disappearing out of the neighborhood. Dad hums to the beat of the song. Heat forces itself out of the air vents, creating a buzz in the van.
“Mom has a new guy, eh?” Dad asks. Bobby shrugs his shoulders; he scans the stations one more time, then comes back to the one he was already on. I hold up my pumpkin for Dad to see in the rearview mirror.
“Alright, we’ll head down to my house.”
The frigid air creates a fog on the windows of our house. Sam sits in the living room reading the newspaper. The Christmas tree is naked in the corner; the ornaments are placed neatly in boxes and hidden in the attic. Bobby and I took them off this morning. He sits downstairs playing a videogame, one of his gifts from Dad.
Two large windows are carved into the front of the house. They frame the living room, creating eyes to the outside. Mom stands on the couch with half her body out of the window. She hands me a strand of lights. Walking across the room, I drag the lights into the house. She removes the hooks from the roof as I go. I trip over Sam’s crossed feet.
“Be careful, Little One,” Sam says. He helps me up off the floor by lifting my wrist into the air, pulling me onto my feet. He smiles at me; his brown beard sprinkled with gray. Sam says it’s because his job causes stress. He met Mom at their workplace, US Airways. Mom’s hairline is painted in the same shade of gray.
The crisp, outside air bites through the warmth of our house. I grab a blanket and sit beneath Mom. Sam clears his throat while flipping to the last page of his newspaper, his face hidden behind the pages. The ceiling light creates the reflection of a halo on his balding head. Gunshots and screams come from the basement. Mom crouches in from the window.
“Turn it down Bobby!” Mom yells. Sam crinkles his newspaper and throws it at the carpet.
“Your mom says turn it down!” Sam screams while stomping down the stairs. He forces the basement door open, prying the controller from Bobby’s hands and bringing it with him upstairs. Bobby trails behind, red with anger and screaming at Sam.
“You’re not my Dad!” Bobby screams. Sam takes the controller into Mom’s bedroom, hiding it where Bobby can’t reach. Bobby cries and runs to the phone hanging on the kitchen wall. He dials Dad.
Mom closes the window on the limp string of lights. She meets Bobby at the top of the steps. Setting him on her lap, she tries to calm Bobby down by rubbing his back.
“I hate him,” Bobby cries to Mom. They rest at the kitchen table.
Sam returns from Mom’s bedroom with a furrowed brow. He takes his spot back in the chair with his arms rested on the sides, fists clenched at the end of the limbs. Sam looks towards the kitchen, at the ground, then to me.
He smiles again. I’m curled into a ball in the corner of the couch beneath the window. Looking away from Sam, I cover my face with the blanket. Bobby’s cries are quiet from inside my cocoon. Sam tickles my exposed foot from outside the blanket.
“Do you want a stepfather? Would you like it if I moved in?” Sam asks. I poke my head out of the blanket. Staring at me, Sam pretends not to hear Bobby’s cries in the other room. I see the lights of a car in the driveway. Ignoring Sam’s questions I run out the front door to find Dad. He meets me at the end of the steps, waiting for Bobby to follow. I emerge into the cold, clinging to the blanket wrapped around me.
“Hey Stinky, you need some shoes,” Dad says while picking me up and setting me on his hip.
Bobby walks outside, wiping the tears from his cheeks, Mom follows behind with his controller. She returns to the house in a scurry. Dots of snow drift in the air, slowly falling and melting into the ground. Dad opens the passenger door for Bobby.
Sam stands behind the mesh of the screen door, a blurred figure. Mom patters back down the steps. Sam stops Mom from leaving the house. She shakes her head and pushes him away from the door. Mom comes back out of the house with two bags and some of Bobby’s things.
Dad rewraps the blanket around me; his shirt is soft against my cheeks. Dad talks to Mom about child support while she loads the items into the van. He holds me on his hip while I spike his hair with my fingers. Bobby’s cheeks are swelled, his lips molded into a pout.
“Where are Tarin’s things?” Dad asks while kissing my forehead. I bury my face into the shoulder of Dad’s flannel. Shaking her head, Mom runs her fingers through my hair.
“She’s staying here,” Mom whispers back. Dad doesn’t like Sam living with us, and Mom yells back, “He’s not a stranger. He only lives with us on the weekends.”
Bobby’s clothes are packed in garbage bags, the controller in his lap, the PlayStation on the backseat. Dad sways the hair from my face and kisses my forehead again, leaving a moist stamp. His calloused fingers scrape against my skin. He says working in the steel mill causes his hands to be rough.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Stinky,” Dad sets me back on the stiff ground and returns to his van. He grabs something from the dashboard, a stuffed animal, a puppy.
“He’ll keep you company when I’m not around.” He squeezes the puppy into my arms. Mom grabs my hand, walking me back to Sam and the house.
Bobby doesn’t return the next day. Mom and Sam hold hands at dinner. He hugs her from behind while she cooks. I sit in between them at the kitchen table, they kiss and laugh. After dinner Sam teaches me to play backgammon. He lets me win every time. Sam stays at our house on weekdays now. They go on trips while I stay at Dad’s on the weekends.
“He’s taking me places I’ve never been,” Mom tells me. “He wants you to start coming with us.”
Mom is always smiling with him. She and Dad fought about money and where Bobby and I should go to school. Dad left when I was two. Bobby told me I wouldn’t remember when they were married.
Sam yells at Mom when he thinks I’m asleep. He strains about benefits and courthouses, things I’m not able to understand. She says no, that she’s not ready. He pushes her against walls, hearing her bones smack in the echo of the hallway.
“Everything is fine, Tarin,” she tells me in the morning. “He loves me and he’ll be a great stepfather.”
Bobby visits for a few hours after school. Sam fights with him about videogames and doing well in his classes. When Sam insists on Bobby going to military school, Dad moves Bobby into his house and doesn’t let him visit.
“If you behave like your brother you’ll be sent to military school too,” Sam tells me. He makes me soup while yelling for me to consider behavior and morals. I hug the stuffed dog Dad brought for me the night Bobby left, not listening to what Sam is saying.
Dad picks me up the next morning dressed in his steel-toed work boots. Snow falls, packing into itself in the yard and on the streets. Sam is still asleep in Mom’s bed.
“I love you so much,” Mom says while hugging me tightly around my shoulders. “Do you miss your brother?” she asks. I nod, looking towards the floor.
“So do I, baby,” Mom says while grabbing things from inside my closet. She layers T-shirt, to long-sleeved T-shirt, to sweatshirt, to scarf under my winter jacket. Waddling out the front door, Mom walks me down the steps to meet Dad. He hides the bottom half of his face in the collar of his shirt. Mom gives me a kiss on the nose, the only feature noticeable under my hat, and gives Bobby a wave.
“Hey Stinky, you’re all bundled up,” Dad laughs. He takes my hand, leading me towards the van. Bobby sits inside his snowsuit in the front seat. The van maneuvers slowly across the snowy streets. I’m buckled into the middle row of seats; Dad focuses on the road with his back hunched, chest pressed against the steering wheel. The van slides as Dad turns out of the neighborhood. He drives uptown where the roads have been treated. On the main street Dad relaxes into his chair and pats Bobby on the head.
We turn into The Plaza, the town’s movie theater, and Dad parks in a shoveled spot on the side of the building. He steps out of the van, feeling the ground to see if it’s slippery. Bobby opens his door, jumping onto the pavement. Dad comes around, opening my door and picking me up out of the van. The heavy snow slows our pace. We walk on the hollowed spots of concrete around the white mounds.
Dad purchases three matinee tickets, a large popcorn, and one large drink with three straws. Bobby slides his out, chewing on the end. We sit in the middle of the theater. I’m in between them holding the popcorn. Bobby holds the drink and continues to grind his teeth against the plastic.
Bobby’s feet stick to the floor. He brings his knees up and down as the rubber on his boots holds and lets go of the gummy ground. Dad glances over.
“Stop it, Bobby,” he says. The theater darkens as previews light up the screen. A man walks into the theater from the concession stands. The light of the outside room shines in the dark theater when he opens the door. The man shuffles down the aisles with a wireless telephone. He walks into ours and towards Dad. The man squats and whispers to him, the bright screen reflecting on Dad’s face. The man hands him the phone.
“Stay with your sister,” Dad tells Bobby. He walks out of the theater with the phone to his left ear.
Dad returns, telling us we need to leave. Bobby folds his arms over his chest, leaning back into the seat. Dad picks me up, setting me on his hip. Bobby scrunches his face and stares at the screen. Dad carries me out of the theater, pretending to leave Bobby, who bolts out of the theater doors and follows us out into the snow.
Dad buckles me back into my row in the van. I’m still holding the popcorn. Dad helps Bobby into the front seat and runs to the driver’s door. Bobby slurps on the drink. He’s chugged its entirety. He shakes the cup as the ice cubes fumble from the inside. Dad tells us that Mom slid down the attic steps and fell to the bottom. Sam called the theater.
The snow hasn’t let up. It falls on the windshield, forming itself into bigger flakes. The wipers smear it to the side, throwing it on the street. Dad rushes until we reach the roads of Mom’s neighborhood. The snow is set into the street, a layer atop the pavement. Dad drives slow and is careful not to slide on turns.
The lights of an ambulance flicker, blinking across the houses. Parking in front of Mom’s house, Dad hurries to get Bobby and me out of the car. Sam stands on the porch, holding the front door open. Mom is laid out on a gurney, her right foot white with bandage. The EMTs slowly carry Mom down the steps where the snow has been swept away and slide her into the back of the ambulance. She’s crying with two hands covering her face. A blanket is laid across her torso up to her chin.
“Hey Little One. She’ll be okay,” Sam walks down the steps and kneels to embrace me. He nods to Dad and ignores Bobby.
The four of us stand in the driveway, as Mom is loaded into the vehicle. I begin to cry. Bobby looks confused. The snow slows, falling lightly from the gray sky. Sam tells Dad she was carrying the remaining Christmas decorations up to the attic. She missed a step when trying to come back down, falling to the bottom onto her right foot. Sam called the ambulance, then the theater right after.
Dad picks me up, trying to soothe my sobs. The woman shuts the two doors and walks to the front of the ambulance. She starts the siren, pulling out of the driveway and onto the road.
I rest on Dad’s hip while Sam rubs my back. Bobby watches the ambulance drive down the street. He sighs, creating a white cloud in the air.
“Bob, stay with Tarin and Bobby. I’ll go to the hospital to check on Diane and call you guys when she’s calmed down,” Sam yells while walking towards the porch.
Sam returns into the house, leaving Dad, Bobby, and me standing in the driveway. The garage door opens as Sam starts his car. He backs out, shuts the garage door, and lightly creeps the car down the street. We walk up the steps to the house. Pieces of snow have fallen where the steps were swept.
Bobby opens the door and we each file into the foyer, kicking the snow off our boots. Dad hasn’t been in the house since he left five years earlier. He looks in the living room to see what hasn’t changed. The same furniture remains in the same spots. I take Dad’s hand, leading him to my room upstairs. He helps me pack an overnight bag for his house. We stop in Mom’s room to grab my stuffed puppy. Dad looks at the open closet to see where his things once were and where Sam’s are now. A couple of Sam’s work shirts are hung on one side of the closet, all different shades of brown. His shoes laid neatly next to Mom’s in their walk-in. Dad grabs my puppy off the unmade bed where I left it this morning and walks back into the hallway.
The attic ladder remains in the middle of the hallway where it hangs from the ceiling. Dad pieces it back together, shutting the attic door. He walks around the house, making sure appliances have been turned off. He begins to clean the plates off the table but stops himself. Dad locks the back door.
“Well, you guys ready to go?”
We visit Mom at the hospital after she calls Dad’s house. She’s alone in her room, her leg elevated. I run to the front of her bed and hug her head. Mom rubs my back while Bobby leans in for a hug. She tells Dad she shattered her heel and ankle. She won’t be able to walk without crutches for a few months. Mom’s face is blotched with red, her eyes swollen from crying. Sam walks into the room with a small bag of potato chips. He sits in the chair by the window.
“Hey Little One,” he waves at me, the tips of his fingers shining with grease.
We stay for an hour. Mom says her medication tires her out as her eyes begin to drift into sleep. Dad walks over to Sam, extending his right hand. Sam shakes his hand and says he’ll see Bobby and me soon. The three of us head towards the elevator; Dad holds open the door for us.
“So how serious are they?” Dad asks. Bobby and I shrug our shoulders.
The potency of fresh cut grass is in the neighborhood. The thick pollen air forces my nose into a sneeze. Dad is working on my bike. The blue paint is chipping from the outside of the garage. It’s separate from his house and filled with bikes, soccer balls and baseballs, and tents for camping. The van is parked on the street. His yard is smaller than Mom’s but better kept.
It’s Dad’s designated weekend, three days and two nights. We spend the days outside and sometimes we go to a movie at night. Bobby stays busy with baseball practices; the season officially starts next week.
Dad comes out of the garage, revealing the new tires on my bike. They’re purple around the rims. He put plastic shapes around the wires; they click and clack as the tires spin. I hop onto the bike; Dad walks next to me.
“Stay in the driveway. Don’t go out onto the street,” Dad says. I do a loop in the driveway and pull into the garage. Grabbing a soccer ball, I walk back into the yard. Dad stands against the fence, bending left and right and moving his arms as if he were a goalie.
I shoot the ball to the left; it slams into the fence to Dad’s right. The metal wires cling and jingle from the ball.
“Whoa!” Dad dives to the right, pretending to have missed the ball. I form my fingers into guns, blowing the steam from my indexes.
The flowers around the garage begin to poke through the ground. Dad now has custody of Bobby and he only gets me on the weekends. At Dad’s house, Bobby’s room is lively with clothes and videogames while mine is bare with a few pictures and a bed. Dad says he fought hard for me but Mom fought harder; she knew where Bobby would be happy.
My bag is sitting on Dad’s back porch awaiting Mom’s arrival. He stands from the grass and throws up his hands for a double high-five. I slap his palms and run to grab the ball. Meeting Dad in the garage, I bring the ball back to its spot while he begins to lock up.
Dad asks if Mom and Sam fight. I tell him about the bruises on her wrists and my sleepless nights.
“I never believed his ‘I’m a great potential stepfather’ act,” Dad says. He makes the quotes with his index and middle fingers. He pulls me towards him and hugs me, pressing my face into the hip of his jeans.
Dad says, “I love you.” I mumble it back to him.
Dad walks me back to the yard, locking the garage door behind him. Mom’s silver Acura flies down the street, coming to a halting stop in front of Dad’s house. She’s learned to drive with her left instead of right foot. Sam said he couldn’t drive me to school because he’d be late for work. Mom drove around the neighborhood for days trying to get her footing right. She hit one stop sign. Sam still refused to drive me.
Mom steps out of the car, her black hair curled tightly to her head. Mom gives me her best smile.
“How was your weekend?” she asks. I give her a thumbs-up and grab my bag from the porch. She limps to us. The crutches were put away a couple weeks ago. She’s learning to walk on her foot again. I run to help her. Mom lays her arm against my back, using me for balance. She kisses me on the head.
In the next county, Sam waits for us in a parking lot. Mom says it will be a nontraditional wedding; they’ll be married in a courthouse. In the same courthouse three days earlier, Dad fought for custody. Mom says Sam moves in this week and I need to be on my best behavior.
Mom makes her way through the yard back towards her car, her foot dragging in the grass. She gives a last smile to Dad; I give him another hug, squeezing tightly around his torso.
“Well, I’ll see you next weekend, Stinky,” he says with a smile. I run back to Mom. I lead her to the car with my hand in hers, my backpack strapped around my shoulders.
Sam is leaning against the side of his car when we pull into the parking lot. He’s dressed in a beige button-up and black slacks. His bald head reddens in the sunlight. We park next to him.
“Here Little One,” Sam meets me at the passenger side door with a bag. I unzip the bag to find a white dress on the inside. He holds a small basket filled with pink flower petals. Sam tells me to throw the petals while we’re outside since it’ll be a nuisance in the courtroom.
Sam takes my hand, leading me into the courthouse. Mom dresses me in the courthouse bathroom.
“Are you excited?” Mom asks me. I shrug my shoulders.
There are other couples in the courthouse waiting to be wed. We walk into the room and find Sam in the last row. His hands are folded into his lap, his back perfectly upright in the pew.
The ruffles of my dress scratch against my neck and arms, I pull at its seams. Their names are called. They walk up to the front. There are mumbles and repositioning. I stay in my seat, unable to hear what is being said. There are smiles and laughs, then a kiss. They frolic back down the aisle, keeping their eyes on each other, leaving me to follow.
Fourteen Years Old
The house is quiet. The hum of the air conditioning pulsates the silence. Sam sits on the couch, legs curled underneath him, a hand cupping his unshaven chin. Mom helps me with algebra homework at the kitchen table a few feet away from Sam. He watches 24 with the television nearly muted.
The next morning, Mom wakes me up for school. She sleeps on the couch while Sam sleeps in their bedroom. He makes coffee downstairs before leaving for work.
“See you after work, sweetie,” Mom kisses me on the forehead while I try to wake up.
Walking down the steps, I hear Sam filing through the junk drawer in the kitchen. He gathers the extra house keys and puts them in his briefcase.
“Oh hey Little One,” Sam watches me pass by him, giving his best, fake smile. He grabs the handle of his briefcase and walks out of the garage door towards his car. Sam’s car accelerates up the street; I catch the bus in the cul-de-sac outside our house.
It’s the last days of school before summer. The hallways of my middle school are hot with humidity. I walk outside, standing on the sidewalk so Bobby can see me. He’s always casually late and doesn’t include himself in the line of waiting parents. His high school gets out fifteen minutes earlier. I spot Bobby’s car parked toward the trees. It’s a Jetta, his birthday gift from Dad.
Bobby puts the car into gear before I’m in it. He takes a shortcut through the school’s traffic, heading on a back road towards Mom’s house. The radio is turned off; he’s gripping the steering wheel.
“Mom called me. She said something is going on at the house,” Bobby steps harder on the gas pedal. We turn right at the stop sign heading towards Mom’s house.
We find a moving van in the driveway. Bobby pulls in next to it.
“Piece of shit,” he mutters under his breath. Mom won’t be home from work for another two hours. Bobby gets out of the car, slamming the door behind him. He runs up the steps to the front door, jumping every other one. There’s a packed suitcase in the foyer. Sam is still here. Bobby heads to Mom’s room.
The walls are white where pictures once hung. Sam paces in the living room. His steps are light and smooth on the wood floor. He must have heard us walk in the front door. Sam stands alone in the empty room, his back to me. He doesn’t acknowledge my presence in the kitchen twenty feet away. I hear Bobby upstairs, checking through things in Mom’s room. Sam’s balding head shines with sweat as he jingles the keys to his moving van. Our neighbor is eyeing it from across the street. A breeze moves through each of the open windows.
He’s looking over the house, making sure he remembered everything. I’m behind a counter in the kitchen watching him. My eyes follow his pace, his shadow walking in tune. Sam didn’t expect me home before he left; turning towards me, Sam clears his throat.
“Take care,” he says. Sam walks out, heading towards the foyer, picking up the suitcase. The front door opens then shuts.
The house is empty. Couches, dishes, even the window screens, gone. When Dad left he let Mom keep everything, and she gave him the van. Sam crept through the house today, taking what he wanted. Walking up the steps I notice things are in their rightful place. The bedroom furniture remains.
In my room, I find a folded-in-half piece of printer paper; Little One is written across the front. Bobby walks down the steps. He calls Mom, naming all of the things we think are missing. I told Bobby about the house keys from this morning. I shove the letter in my sock drawer. Last night, Mom cried to me, repeating, I can’t do it anymore, while I repeated, It’ll be okay. Sam sat on the couch downstairs watching television, biting his nails.
I find Bobby downstairs, standing with his hands on his hips, shaking his head at the bare rooms. Walking around, I shut each of the open windows. Bobby and I lean on the kitchen counter, waiting for Mom to come home.
She busts through the front door minutes later. Hands to her mouth, she gasps at the house. Mom meets Bobby and me in the kitchen. Her face is white and formed into a blank expression. Bobby rubs her back. A locksmith he called knocks at the front door. Bobby answers, walking the man through the house, pointing out the doors.
Mom walks back and forth through the kitchen, to the dining room, then the living room. Her hands stay folded to her mouth. I follow behind her, walking in her steps. She stops in the kitchen and sits on the open floor.
Bobby leaves after the man changes the locks. He returns to Dad’s house to pack an overnight bag. Mom talks to my Nana on the kitchen phone. Her voice trembles with each word, her hands shaking. I rub the top of her back, then walk up to my room.
I open the letter. Sam has written that he would like to stay in touch with me, listing his mom’s house number where I assume he’ll be staying. Sam says to call him when I can. I rip the note into four pieces and shove them back into the drawer underneath my socks.
Bobby steps through the front door and walks into the kitchen. Mom is sitting on the kitchen floor with her elbows on her knees, palms to her eyes, fingers through her hair. Sitting next to Mom, I hand her a home furniture catalogue I found in an old pile of mail. Bobby sits on the other side of her. Mom smiles and looks at us. She flips through the pages with one hand, the other folded into mine.
The house vibrates from the buzz of the garage door going up. Nana emerges from the garage with a flushed face. The buzz begins again as the door goes down. Her skin is ageless, as smooth as porcelain but with a splash of freckles. Nana walks lightly on the kitchen floor towards Mom, Bobby, and me. She turns to face us with a puzzled expression.
“Oh get up, Diana,” Nana says. She picks up Mom’s hand, pulling her onto her feet. Mom hands the catalogue back to me.
Nana places her two hands on Mom’s cheeks. She’s nearly five inches shorter than Mom; she stands on her tippy toes.
“You’re going to move past this.” Mom smears tears onto the back of her hand. Nana gives Bobby and me a hug with a kiss on the cheek. Mom walks to the bathroom to splash water on her face. Nana grabs our backpacks from the foyer and tells us to start our homework. She throws the packs on the living room floor.
Nana empties the cleaning products from the cabinet under the sink. She lines them up on the counter. Mom walks out of the bathroom and back into the kitchen. Nana hands her cleaning spray and a scrubbing brush.
“Take it out on the kitchen,” Nana says, smiling at Mom.
Mom changes into a paint-stained T-shirt and sweatpants. They start in the kitchen, rubbing the counters in a counterclockwise circle. Nana stops Mom’s motion and whispers to her. Mom shakes her head, leaning into Nana’s hug. They return to the counter. Bobby empties the inside of his backpack onto the floor, books, junk food wrappers and pencils falling out.
Nana sings while cleaning, a song from Gone with the Wind. A poster of the film hangs in Nana’s basement. Mom moves across the counters, scrubbing all sides and moving to the appliances. Nana is right next to her, picking up the spots Mom leaves behind.
Mom slaps a mop on the tile and smears the soapy water side to side. She scrubs harder, creating suds in the strings. Bobby holds a book on his knees. His cellphone is placed in the crease. Nana takes a washcloth to the walls. She uses a stepstool to reach the top. I lean on the wall next to Bobby. Nana wipes top to bottom around the kitchen and moves into the living room. She stops to take a breath and blot the sweat from her face. Mom is mopping around the foyer. Nana raids the pantry, pulling out whatever is within. She opens a box of cake mix.
“A heart is mended with food’s comfort,” Nana reassures Mom. She cracks eggs into a bowl and stirs in the mix. Mom carries the bucket of mop water in from the foyer. She leans the mop against the wall. Mom empties out the cupboards and wipes their insides. Nana finds a baking dish on the floor next to Mom. She pours the cake mix inside, smoothing the top with a spatula.
Nana takes the refrigerator next. She toasts bread and forms toast, to tomato, to lettuce, to turkey, to toast, and layers again until the sandwich is double stacked. She brings Bobby and me a plate with a mound of sandwiches cut into four triangles. Nana slides the cake pan into the oven. She hands me the leftover cake batter spoon.
Mom organizes the dishes back into their cupboards. She heads for the bathroom, taking the mop and disinfectant wipes with her. Nana finds leftover mashed potatoes and roast beef in the fridge. She microwaves the beef and heats up a skillet. Nana dumps flour onto a paper plate, molds the mashed potatoes into balls and coats them in the flour. She makes six balls. The pan sizzles with oil. She drops the balls into the pan, forming potato pancakes. She calls them patata cakes.
The oven dings. Nana gently takes the cake out and sets it on the counter to cool. Chocolate coats the air of the house. Nana finds a sifter and sprinkles powdered sugar over the cake. She cleans her frying pan in the sink and leaves it on a towel to dry.
By midnight the kitchen is shining with immaculacy, our bellies filled to the brim. Mom tires and returns to her room. Nana kisses Bobby and me on the cheeks one last time. She pulls me to the side.
“Make sure she’s alright,” Nana whispers. I nod my head. Bobby walks up the steps to his bedroom. I walk Nana out to her car. I put the house to sleep, turning off the lights and locking the doors.
The leaves start to fall one by one. Each day the trees become a little barer, naked in their bark. Dad and I watch football in his living room. He says we can skip church today. I smile. He rocks in his overstuffed chair, his feet crossed at the end. Bobby does homework at the kitchen table. Dad claps his hands and cheers at the television; a beer sits on the end table to his right.
Dad runs back and forth between the chair and his computer desk in the next room. He checks his fantasy football team and mumbles to himself. I sit on the couch wrapped in a Steelers blanket. Bobby sits next to me on the couch.
“You want to go soon?” he asks. Dad stands up from the chair and grabs my bag in the kitchen. He hands me a bag of leftover candy and a twenty-dollar bill.
“In case you need to buy lunch this week or something.” He kisses my forehead and hugs me around my shoulders. Bobby says he’ll be back soon.
It’s already dark when Bobby and I walk outside. We file into his car; he turns on the heated seats. We pull out of Dad’s neighborhood and up the hill to Mom’s house. He turns the knob of the radio, watching the numbers go up until he finds the one he wants.
Mom makes a pot of coffee as she looks over a stack of papers. Her foot has gotten better though she occasionally limps when she forgets to take her pain medication. The doctor says it’ll never fully heal. Bobby and I walk through the front door. She gleams and tries to run to me. She leaves a wet kiss on my cheek while wrapping one arm around Bobby.
We walk towards the living room. Mom fingers through the papers her lawyer gave her. She sent Sam the divorce papers less than a week after he left. Bobby looks over them, pretending he knows what they mean. Sam has tried to return to the house during the day when he knows we’re not home. The neighbor calls Mom every time she sees his car in the driveway. Mom never knew what he wanted.
I didn’t call Sam or tell Mom about the note. We sit on the new leather couches. Mom yells at Bobby to use a coaster. The house is decorated in orange and red. A scarecrow hangs on the front door. The oven dings. Mom scurries back into the kitchen, pulling a dip out of the oven. She pours coffee into a to-go cup.
“Let’s go, kids.”
Bobby drives Mom’s car. She holds the covered dip on her lap with a towel in between. I’m smashed into the backseat around coats and junk mail. Bobby pulls out of the driveway. Mom taps around the side of the chair, looking for the seatbelt.
“The divorce will finalize this spring,” Mom says with a white smile. We journey over the bridge to Nana’s house.
Bobby parks at the end of Nana’s long driveway away from the other cars. Nana welcomes us with hugs and kisses. The house is warm with fresh food. Nana jumps around the kitchen, picking up and putting down items on the buffet table. I cut a loaf of bread and place the pieces into a basket.
Nana takes boiling sauce from the stovetop and pours it over angel hair. Bobby helps to set the table. Cousins are scattered around the house. Nana screams for us to come eat. We sit in the dining room, some twenty of us, uncles finger at the appetizers in the middle of the table.
“Not until we say a prayer,” Nana says, smacking their hands away. We say grace, holding hands in a circle. Mom sits next to me, her eyes shut hard. I grab her hand a little tighter and say a few words for her in my head.
Twenty-One Years Old
Mom and I sit at the kitchen table. Her black her is molded into a ponytail, flyaway hairs sticking out from each side. She works on a presentation for her next bid. Mom has recently started her own cleaning business. She travels to suburbs of the Pittsburgh area, trying to convince companies to hire her cleaning services. I work on online homework. The summertime heat has kept us indoors all week. Mom sighs, running her fingers through her hair.
“Want a glass of water?” she asks. I nod without looking away from my computer.
We’ve gotten along less since I’ve gotten older. We argue over doing dishes, over schoolwork, we even argue about arguing. She and Bobby fight as well. Bobby graduated with a degree in Audio Engineering from Full Sail University in Orlando, FL. I envied him for getting out of our town, being brave enough to go out on his own. Bobby moved back home after two years. He landed a job with NASCAR, but Mom convinced him to pass it up and go into the cleaning business with her.
“Here you go, sweetie,” Mom sets a glass in front of me and returns to her laptop.
Dad was furious that Bobby passed up his job opportunity. He’s bitter that Bobby is living at home at 27 years old. He thinks I won’t find a job either.
“I won’t be proud of your degree. I’ll be proud of what you do with it,” Dad always says.
He and Bobby rarely talk now, except for when I visit from college. There’s a tension in my family that can’t be eased. Everyone always seems angry at one another. After Sam left, Mom started dating other guys. She substituted one for another, and then another. I barely remember Sam’s appearance, except for his bald head and plain wardrobe.
When I reached high school I was angry and bitter. Dad was always bitching about Bobby being in Florida and needing money. Mom was constantly leaving town with her new boyfriend. I was angry that no one was there with me.
Friends would stay with me while Mom was away. Once I reached a certain age, sleepovers turned into parties. I threw parties at the house so I wasn’t alone. Holes were punched into walls, some of Mom’s china broken, but it was worth it to not be by myself for the night.
I never figured out what her attraction was to Sam. Maybe it was the comfort of having someone. She’s currently single and it’s for the first time since she and Sam were divorced. Bobby moved back into Mom’s house after Sam left. She said she needed a full house to keep her mind off the divorce. My phone rings on the kitchen table.
“Hello?” I answer.
“Hey Dad, what’s up?”
“Nothing, just laying here with the cat. Want to grab a bite to eat in about an hour?”
“Yeah. I’m just finishing some homework. I’ll come down after.”
“Sounds goody. See you then.” Dad hangs up.
Mom clears her throat and takes a sip from her glass of water. Her fingers tap against the keyboard in a violent fashion. Bobby works on homework in his bedroom upstairs. His second degree will be in Electrical Engineering from a local community college. I decide I’m finished with my homework.
“Bobby, want to go eat with Dad and me?” I scream up the steps.
I grab my keys from the kitchen island and say bye to Mom. Outside neighbors are cutting grass and grabbing their mail. Mom says we live in the most caddy neighborhood in the town. I agree. The woman across the street watches me bend into my car in the driveway. I see her in the rearview mirror.
I start downtown to Dad’s house. I roll down my windows and take in the West Virginia air. It’s always a little thick from the smog of the steel mill. Dad says when he was younger there would be graphite all over the trees and grass. He could wipe it like dust from a nightstand. Dad runs the steel mill; he was promoted because he’s worked there the longest.
We go to lunch at Applebee’s. We order the same meal and drink. Dad talks about Bobby and how he’s wasting his youth. I sip iced tea and pretend to watch something on the television. Dad gets his last word in and huffs; he waits for me to change the subject. We leave the restaurant and return to our homes. When I return, Bobby and Mom are arguing over cutting the grass.
I can’t remember the last time my family was in the same room together and happy. No fights or arguing, just happy to be with one another. Holidays are always a fight between Mom’s and Dad’s families, which house Bobby and I will stay at longer and whose food was better. I’m thankful to have family who’s healthy and loves me. I just wish they could be as thankful and happy with one another.
Tarin Kovalik is an MFA candidate at Old Dominion University. Her poetry has been featured in Anti-Heroin Chic. She enjoys writing pieces about her complicated childhood in a broken family, female sexuality, and the disastrous landscapes of an early twenty-something’s life. Tarin lives with her cat in Norfolk, Virginia.