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Momma's lesson.

Moma tried to prepare me as best she could, shuffling between the stove and refrigerator, her slippers whispering on the linoleum; wearing that pink quilted housecoat with the stuffing poking out the elbows.

In whispered monologue, her breathing keeping irregular tempo, she clutched the edge of a kitchen chair and, coughing out her lungs into a wad of tissue, delivered instructions.

"We have $9,000 in equity in this house. That's to use only for school."

"Don't let anyone use that rose china for anything except your wedding. If I leave it to your Daddy, he'll be drinking beer out of the teacups."

"Don't forget to use ice water with those yeast biscuits or they'll never be flaky."

"Never leave the house wearing sandals without a good pedicure."

Shuffle, cough; her voice gradually became background noise to whatever I was doing. Sometimes I nodded my head, but usually I just kept washing the dishes or doing my homework. Momma whispered on, desperately trying to imprint onto my soul all her rules of life in the evaporating weeks.

When she died, I started smelling smoke... in the church, at the cemetery, in the basement pantry. I sprayed Glade and opened windows over and over again, but the smell stayed, a solid thing, attached to nothing, that followed me everywhere.

It sleeted every day that October and icy water blew onto the furniture and carpeting, but no one dared close the windows or say anything about it to me. No one else smelled smoke, but I wandered the house day and night, looking for a forgotten cigarette or burning pot. At night I couldn't sleep, afraid that the wires behind the walls were smoldering; afraid they would explode and engulf me in an inferno, killing me while I slept. Then the smell disappeared . . . mostly.

Daddy stopped speaking to me the day after we buried Momma. He had never been a big talker but he used to sneak up behind me and plant wet, sloppy kisses on the back of my neck and leave surprises... violets in the winter, chocolates, the kind wrapped in delicate gold foil, on my pillow at night. He'd grin at me over his coffee and wink when I came down for school the next morning. I'd nuzzle his neck. He smelled like Old Spice and Royal Bergamot.

After Momma died, he mostly sat at the kitchen table in the dark, running his finger back and forth across the table, making those squeaky noises on the Formica. That would be the only sound in the kitchen, Daddy's finger, dragging back and forth on the table. I tried to talk to him a few times then, but he flinched, became agitated, his big hands fluttering around his face, waving aside the distraction of me.

He started disappearing. I'd get up in the middle of the night and he'd be gone. He'd come home at 3 a.m. or noon, silently putting a bag on the table, then going into his room. Sometimes there was pizza in the bag, sometimes bologna ends or overripe peaches. Weird stuff.

I knew he wasn't going to work. I wasn't going to school.

I got into his habit of not talking, carried along in the eddy of unsound as it swirled about the house. Every now and then I'd try to fix something for us to eat, but I hadn't learned that lesson very well from Momma and the meatloaf was usually a gray blob; the carrots, orange mush. Daddy just pushed it around and around his plate until it coalesced in the middle and then ignored it . . . and me. It was easier to simply wait to see what was in the bags he brought home and eat that, or to drink strong black coffee loaded with sugar.

On Christmas Eve when Momma had been dead ten weeks, Daddy brought home a Christmas tree. It stood, propped against the side of the back porch, tight and naked, gathering snow dust in its arms. He never said anything about it and neither did I. He never brought it in. It stood there, bare; unadorned and then a week later it was gone.

Christmas without Momma and Daddy kept disappearing ...

Crystal days. That's what Momma used to call them, those days when the air is so thin that just walking through it shatters the sky around you. You try to stay in on crystal days because each breath slices your throat and the glare from the street turns everything white. There are crystal nights, too. The air is just as fragile but the darkness absorbs the light.

In that dead time between Christmas and the new year, I watched crystal days turn into crystal nights; then back again, over and over. It was too cold to snow and nothing moved on the brittle streets. Sometimes I heard Daddy moving around in the kitchen or bumping out of the back door, but mostly it was deathly quiet, except for the wind breaking on the window.

I sat huddled in a corner wing chair, wearing Momma's favorite sweater. It was green and fuzzy and horrendously ugly, but it smelled like Momma. Like Chanel No. 5. Daddy hated that sweater. He bought her new ones all the time ... for Christmas, her birthday, whenever Dayton's had a sale. But she wore this one, always, except the hottest days of summer. She said it looked like a green poodle. Daddy said it looked like it had mange.

Scrunched down in her sweater, smelling her Momma smell, was like being wrapped in her arms. Except for the quiet.

Daddy didn't know I was wearing her sweater. He never came into the living room, or any other part of the house. Just the kitchen, his room and then out to wherever it was he went. I don't know what he thought had happened to me. Maybe he thought I had died, too.

Curled in the chair, I watched days turn to night and into day again. I slept, went to the bathroom, made trips to the kitchen for more cold coffee. After it got a coat of slime, I drank it anyway.

Then something moved outside. I'd been sitting for three? ... five? days staring out of that window. Everything so still and frozen, like watching a painting, like being a painting. Then there was movement. A boy on a bike. Ferret, the kid from next door, with the pointy face and the little eyes. Riding up and down the street with a red snow shovel balanced over one shoulder.

It rarely snowed on crystal days and the streets were clear, grass stubble sticking out of the mud. No snow, and Ferret riding up and down the street with a shovel. But then, Ferret wasn't very bright.

He saw me through the big window and waved, and before I realized it, I had waved back. There were birds clustered near the feeder at the edge of our side yard. None very pretty or interesting-looking, just gray, bedraggled city birds, but it had been so long since anything had moved at all that they were beautiful. Mrs. Molina, three doors down, was sweeping imaginary dirt from her sidewalk; every now and then a car rattled by. And that night, I waited in the shadows by the toolshed. Wearing two pairs of socks and thick sweats under Momma's sweater, I shivered as the bitter wind crept down my neck and up my sleeves. Around ten, Daddy came out of the backporch door and headed for the street. I followed him.

I didn't care if he saw me. I wanted him to see me, to acknowledge me. But he was focused on the ground, not seeing anything.

It wasn't hard keeping up. Daddy was a slow walker. In our life before, when we walked together, he was like a puppy, stopping at store windows and flower boxes, looking at everything, talking to everyone. It took hours to walk around the block. This night, Daddy didn't stop to look at anything, but he moved so slowly. I followed close behind, outside the shadows cast by the moon.

Finally, just as I was losing feeling in my feet, he stopped, head bowed, at the comer. Held in the yellow light that streamed from Ted's Tea Room, steam coming from his mouth with each breath, he stood, unmoving. Barely 15 feet away, I was invisible to him.

When he finally opened the door and went in, the yellow light expanded and whooshed, beating back the cold night for a moment.

There was no Ted and there was no tea. There were old men with thick accents and tattered cardigans, drinking espresso and playing dominoes. Ted was really Matteo and he was always open, day or night. Daddy was the only young man ever in there; he and Matteo traded used paperbacks and argued politics. Momma hated that he took me there sometimes. Matteo said I was the only girl allowed. He fed me chocolates and licorice tea while the old men pinched my cheeks and gave me pennies. I did my homework on an iron table in the corner.

I crouched at the edge of the door to watch. I did not want to get caught in that yellow light, because, while I was invisible to Daddy, I would not be to Matteo.

Daddy sat at the old wooden bar, his coat still on, even though I knew Matteo kept the Tea Room like an oven. He rubbed his hands along the edge of the bar, smoothing out the splintered wood. Matteo, his huge belly straining his apron, did not slap Daddy on the back, did not wave a fat finger in his face, did not even speak to him. He simply pushed a small cup of espresso in front of him and then a rumpled paper bag, leaving him alone then with his thoughts.

While I watched, no one spoke to him. He didn't stay long. He sat motionless for a few minutes and then in a blur of movement, gulped his coffee, grabbed his paper bag from the bar and spun back toward the door.

It was so unexpected that I staggered backwards, falling into a frozen puddle as the door to Ted's flew open with another whoosh.

Moving much faster, he crossed the street, into a tiny park. Stunned for a moment, I watched Daddy disappear into a tunnel of leafless trees before I could regain my feet. Toes still frozen, back end now wet, I hobbled after him as fast as I could.

I'd never been in that park in the winter and only rarely at night. Everything looked weird, unfamiliar. Walking along the path that edged the park, I didn't see him. I crisscrossed that park three times; the duck pond, the swings, the hotdog stand. It was a small place but he wasn't anywhere.

A bubble in my chest, a scream, struggled to get out. I couldn't bear to go back to that house, sit in that silence. I wanted my Daddy but I was cold and wet; there was nowhere else to look.

Smoke. I smelled smoke. Turning back toward the blackened trees, I followed it, a metallic trail I could feel on the tip of my tongue. Like the smoke from the house, without a source, it floated on the wind.

Pushing through scratchy, unlit bushes, I slipped; fell again, this time to my knees, Momma's sweater grabbed, then released something in the dark. I walked, then waited, walked, then waited, trying to keep my bearings and hold onto the smell.

Pushing along the edge of a lone evergreen I fell again, tripped up by the handle of a child's teetertotter. I struggled to sit and looked up into the face of my father.

He sat, cross-legged, in front of a broken-down wooden bench, a few feet away, lighting matches. "Daddy?"

He didn't answer. He had fashioned a tiny hill of mud and as he lit each match, he tossed it on top of the hill, where it died with a kkss sound sending acrid smoke into the air. He sat on the muddy ground, surrounded by lifeless matches and sour smoke. "Daddy?"

"She sat on that bench and I sat at her feet."

After so many months of disuse, his voice sounded foreign, rusted. I could barely hear him. He kept lighting matches.

"Who, Daddy?"

"There was no moon and I lit candles. She was so beautiful."

I grabbed his jacket and shook him, hard, screaming into his face, "Talk to me! Who was beautiful? What are you talking about? Look at me, Daddy!"

And he did, dazedly squinting and then, slowly, focusing, tears frozen on his face. He looked around at his pile of matches, frowning, sniffed the air.

"I asked your mother to marry me here," he said, glancing at the bench. "I lit candles in the snow and asked her to stay with me forever."

I had never heard that, didn't know if it was true but I was silent, afraid that if I spoke, he'd stop. I clutched his sleeve.

It was quiet for so long. The wind blew and the branches cracked and the little mud hill whispered but we said nothing. Daddy stared into space and I clung to him.

I'd almost forgotten where I was, hypnotized by stillness and cold, when I felt his arm pull away under my hand. I looked into his face and he was smiling slightly at me.

There were shadows and new creases, the eyes so sad, but it was something like his old Daddy face, the front teeth gapped and one dimple riding high on his cheek.

"Damn, girl," he said. "What you doin' wearin' that butt ugly sweater?"

I smiled back, feeling warmer, feeling stronger. "Let's go home, Daddy."
COPYRIGHT 1996 Claretian Publications
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Woods, Rita
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Oct 1, 1996
Words:2311
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