Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Deal

I am standing in the kitchen with my mother, the cool linoleum sticking to my bare, 12-year-old, feet.  My mom’s back is to me, bent over dishes in the deep sink.  Her S.O.S. pad scrapes against a copper-bottomed pan, intensifying my queasiness.  I am beyond sick to my stomach, most certainly, I am about to die.  She doesn’t know I am behind her, wrapped in devastation, hands squished into balls.  My fingers burn.  They sting like only freshly chewed skin can sting.  They’re red and raw and hurt all the way to my heart.

See, tomorrow is my birthday.  I’m going to be 13.  A teen-ager.  I was supposed to have a big birthday party, a special sleep over, with girlfriends and giggles and popcorn.  But my older sister blew it for me last month on her birthday, drinking beer in the garage with by brother’s friends.  Trina’s birthday is exactly a month before mine.  And a month isn’t long enough for parents to forget.  So now, no big birthday for me.  Even though I’ve never tasted alcohol.  Even though my sister offered me a sip of her wine cooler at the beach last week and I said NO WAY JOSE.  I’m the good one.

So, tomorrow, instead of girlfriends and giggles, the cousins are coming over, and the aunts and uncles.  My brothers and sisters are required to attend which ticks them off, because on a Sunday night, right before the school week starts, the last place they want to be is sitting on folding chairs in our living room listening to the aunts and uncles talk about Grandma’s arthritis and the weather.  Because my brothers and sisters have girlfriends and boyfriends – girlfriends who crack their gum and wear tight jeans and boyfriends with combs in their back pockets and hair on their upper lips.

My mom shakes off her hands before reaching for the yellow and white dishtowel.  I imagine water droplets hitting the little window above the sink, the window that offers a perfectly framed view of Mt. Hood on clear days, which are few and far between in Laurel, Oregon.

I should say something soon.  Before she whips around on her way to the next task and trips over me.  Which will make her mad.  Even though she’s the one who’s running into me.  I slide my thumbs across my cuticles.  They are throbbing.  How am I going to explain this?

See, my mom and I made A DEAL.  Because I drive her crazy sometimes.  Like when I talk too loud and she’s on the phone.  Or laugh too loud at things she doesn’t think are that funny.  Or when I sit beside her at church and wiggle my leg.  You know how you can sit and kind of balance on the ball of one foot and your knee will percussively pop up and down, almost like it’s having a spasm?  Well, I love doing that.  But it drives her crazy.  Makes her nuts.  Makes her sigh the most disappointed sigh and Karate chop her hand above my knee, not actually touching me, more like slicing an invisible string, cutting down a dancing puppet.

But the thing that drives my mom the craziest is when I bite my nails.  There’s no mid-air Karate chop to stop me then.  Nail biting gets contact, she’ll slap my hand away from my mouth.  Which is so surprising because I honestly don’t know I’m doing it.  It just happens.  My fingers wander there, without notice.  Until I’ve gone too far and I taste blood, or SMACK, my hand is batted away from my mouth mid-chew.  Once, my mom missed and hit my nose, scratching me with her fingernail.  I could tell she felt bad but she didn’t apologize.  So as soon as I was alone I squeezed the spot until a thin line of blood eked out.  The scratch suck around for nearly a week and my brothers teased me, saying I stuck my nose in somebody else’s business. But still there was no apology.

My mom is a homemaker, that’s her job.  “Raising five kids is a career,” she says.  But she also cleans houses.  Big mansions up on the hill with horses and four car garages and more than one TV.  I go on jobs with her sometimes, sit inside these massive homes with white carpets and whole rooms dedicated to one hobby or another.  She works hard and fast.   My mom uses her cleaning money to pay for things like, my ballet lessons, Kerry’s glasses, Trina’s braces.  And birthday presents.

So THE DEAL.  If I can grow my nails to the tips of my fingers for my birthday party, my mom will buy me a ring, a real 14-Karat gold ring with my birthstone, which is Topaz.  I don’t really love the dirty yellow of Topaz but my mom loved the idea and got so excited I instantly agreed and we laughed out loud (and I was careful not too laugh too loud).  So THE DEAL.  Nails to the tips of my fingers, for my birthday party.  DONE.

What’s funny to me though, is that when my Mom stands in line at the bank or waits to get sliced turkey at the deli counter, she picks.  At her fingers.  She has long nails she files to unnatural points and paints a frosty pink.  And I have watched her take her right thumbnail and scratch at the skin around her left thumbnail.  She goes down the line, finger to finger, then switches hands.  I know she doesn’t realize she’s doing it either.

Earlier this evening, when I was standing in the shower, my fingers shriveled up.  The skin got all soft and bumpy and I couldn’t drag my eyes away.  My nails were so beautiful.  I had never seen that much nail before.  I poked both pinkies in my mouth to feel the round edges.  “I love you all so much.” I whispered.

I closed my eyes and dreamed of the yellow stone my mom went ahead and bought even though we agreed to wait until after my party, after THE DEAL was sealed. I envisioned myself in the center of the circle at my birthday party, cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters all around.  I would pull out the lovely golden ring, and it would fit perfectly on my finger.  I knew exactly what it looked like because, right before I got in the shower, I found the little blue velvety box in the back of my mom’s make-up drawer.  It was the first place I looked.  Obviously it wanted to be found. See, I overheard my mom on the phone talking to one of the aunts, saying she was afraid the ring wouldn’t fit, that she might need to take it back and get it sized.  So I had to look for it.  Had to make sure it would slide on easily in front of everyone.  And it would.  It had fit perfectly.  I stood there in the shower, practiced my best surprised response and imagined the special look she and I would share, the one that said, “We did it!”

And then I tasted blood.  I looked down to see what I had done.  Seven nails were nibbled down to nubs.  SEVEN.

“Mom?”  I say turning toward the fridge.  I yank on the door handle so quickly I hear the lid on the butter dish slide off inside the little compartment that’s just for butter.  It’s already getting hard to breathe, my hand-me-down Shawn Cassidy nightshirt all itchy in my arm pits.

“Get out of there, I’m making popcorn.  We’ll have a snack during Love Boat,” she says.

Oh.  Love Boat AND popcorn.  This would have been the perfect pre-birthday night.

“Mom?”  I say again, my stomach twisting and turning like it does when I get carsick.  “What?” she says and turns toward me.  I slowly extend my hands.  She gasps and I watch, horrified, as she takes in the damage.

“…but you saw them, you saw them, you saw them at dinner,” I blurt out, “they were all the way to the tips, you saw them...”

For a moment I see her consider, weighing her options.  She folds the yellow and white towel and the kitchen shrinks around me.  My scalp is hot.  But then comes the disappointed sigh.  And I know, even though she already has the ring, all is lost.

 “Kimberlee, you know I can’t do that.  Your birthday is tomorrow.  That was THE DEAL.”

I’m crying and I know I’m on my way to those gasping-shuddering-sobs that make it impossible to speak or breathe or even think.

“You have to learn,” she continues.  “What kind of kind of example would I be if I didn’t follow through on my word?  What kind of Mother would I be then?”

I want to say, “You’d be the kind of mother who doesn’t punish me because my sister drinks with boys, the kind of mother who isn’t driven crazy by the things I love to do!”  But most of all I want to say, “The kind of mother who stands in line at the bank and AND PICKS HER FINGERS!”

But I can’t say anything because snot is dribbling from my nose and my chest is convulsing with each jagged breath.

She sighs again and says, “Don’t you think this disappoints me too?”

And I know I won’t say any of it even if I could get it out.  Because I love her.  I see her cleaning someone’s bathroom floor, kneeling on a folded towel, on her hands and knees for me.  I think, maybe next year we’ll make the deal again and I’ll do it, I’ll make it happen.  For both of us.  Even if I have to take masking tape and bind each finger so tightly they turn purple.

We stand there.  Both of us slumped.  And I think, this is what they call tough love.

I lean back against the fridge, my sobs finally settling into a random hick-up or two.  Something in me knows this is just the beginning.  Of letting love for her, silence me.  I think about the next day’s party and how tonight before bed, I will practice a new look for us to share.  One that says, “I understand.”

My mom starts picking at her thumb.  She doesn’t even realize it.  At least not right now.  And I wonder if, tonight when my mom takes her shower, her fingers will hurt all the way to her heart.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Across the Hall

I’m on my hands and knees in my dad’s little office, which is right across the hall from my bedroom.  My light is off so no one can tell I’m not in bed under those blue and white Smurf sheets, which I’ve totally outgrown now that I’m TEN, in FIFTH grade, but my mom insists are in perfectly good condition.  I’ve crept across the hall so I can do it. Again. Sin. I’m a sinner. The hallway light spills in as I kneel at one of my usual crime scenes. If I get caught, it’ll be my third offense. “Three strikes you’re out,” I imagine my dad singing off key at a Portland Beaver’s baseball game.

My dad’s office is small and painted mint green.  Even I seem too big for that little room. There’s a desk crammed into one corner with a floor to ceiling cabinet pinning it in.  Not one of those metal cabinets, but cheap pressboard which means the doors bow out, so it’s hard to slide them open. Unless you’re an expert, like me, at sneaking and stealing.  Burgling they call it on TV. The loot inside? My dad’s favorite thing ever, which is also my favorite thing ever. M&M’s. Peanut M&M’s. The real kind, even though my dad doesn’t keep them in the big yellow bag he gets at Safeway (whether they are “BUY one, GET one free” or not).  Nope, he pours his M&M’s in a brown paper lunch sack and rolls the top down. We agree that they’re much better than the generic ones my Grandma puts in a fake crystal dish on her coffee table each Christmas Eve. They are the only thing my dad will pay full price for, even on NON-payday weeks and he says the splurge is worth it because it makes me smile my silly Hobbit smile.

My dad started calling me “Hobbit” or “Hob” earlier this school year when I got the lead in the school play.  Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. Yep. He came to the play all three nights, even though he slept through most of it.  My mom promised to wake him up when I killed the dragon. And each night, during the car ride home, he went on and on about my sword and how I took out the dragon.  He’d say, “You did it, didn’t you Hob?” And I’d say ”Yep, Big Dad, I did it!” I don’t know when I started calling him Big Dad because he really is the tiniest man ever.

My dad’s laugh is the one big thing about him.  It’s so big it almost sounds fake, like he’s trying on a Santa suit and borrowing the bellow.  I can always get him to laugh. It’s another one of my favorite things (even though it annoys my mom).  The best time is at the dinner table right after someone has taken their turn saying the prayer. I sit across from my dad, now that the oldest three kids are out of the house, my brother Kerry sits across from my mom.  Which means I have to hold Kerry’s hand when we pray, and he always squeezes too hard. But if I say anything I’m the one who gets in trouble. And if I’m in trouble I can’t do my silly smile which gets my dad to laugh, and always seems to make him a little less tired.  My dad’s strong, even though he’s tiny, and he works harder than anyone I’ve ever met. I’m pretty sure we’re pretty poor because he worries about money even harder than he works.

Each year, for his birthday, when I pick out his card, I try to find something particularly funny, because he’ll take extra time during his special birthday meal.  He’ll open the envelope slowly, notice my artwork on the outside, comment on how creative I am, say, “Hobbit, you sure can draw can’t you?” He’ll slide the card out carefully and read the start of the joke on the front and get the goofiest grin on his face, which tells me to get my silly smile ready.  And then, when he reads the punch line, he’ll say “You got me, Hob!” and I’ll give him my silly smile and he’ll Santa laugh. Then he’ll read the front again and the punch line again and we’ll crack up again, together! And it’s almost as good as my own birthday. Almost.

I think I hear someone in the hall so I sit back, the carpet scratchy on my bare knees.  I hold my breath and try to listen, try to hear something beyond the pounding in my chest.  But the rest of the house is quiet. It’s just my dad, noisy in the lazy boy, snoring. I imagine his mouth tipped open, the stubble darkening his chin, the strain of his workday leaving him limp in his lazy boy.

I’m already in the doghouse with my dad.  Royally. I’m in the doghouse because of last week and a couple things that happened.  See, first, I broke the little doorstopper for my bedroom door. I really like the sound it makes when you flick it, when you hold it all the way to one side and then let go.  “Thwooooing”. I love that sound. But my Dad caught me doing it and hit the roof, blew a gasket, and for him, that’s pretty odd because he’s usually off somewhere in his head, not noticing anything at all.

But even worse, is what happened with my dad’s Bearcat Emergency scanner.  There I was, sneaking into his office after school to get my M&M fix and I started fiddling with the mysterious black box because it’s just so cool with gleaming dials and a lovely extendable antenna.  That’s the part I broke, the antenna. (Which just doesn’t make sense to me because it’s supposed to extend. Really, they should make those things more durable. In my opinion.) But that time, he got so mad he barked at me.  “That’s. Not. A. Toy. Hobbit!” I tried to act sorry, even worked at making myself cry when he called me by my favorite name, Hobbit. Of the two of us, I think he was closer to crying than me.

Now, my dad’s not a fireman/medic/policeman, he doesn’t need the emergency scanner for his job, he delivers propane for a propane company.  But he loves that thing. And I love that thing. Whenever a siren sounds he’ll flip it on to discover what disaster has occurred, where the fire truck/ambulance/police car is headed.  And then he’ll sit there in his little office and listen. And I’ll listen from my bedroom across the hall. I’ve often wondered if you could see the images in our heads, how closely would they would compare?  So many times I’ve wished he’d pop his head into my room and say, “Hey Hobbit! Lets go!” And then we’d race through the kitchen to the garage (ignoring my mom’s ambush of questions) jump into his red Chevy truck and take off.  We’d chase those sirens with the windows down.

But he never does.  He just sits. Even when I linger by his door and try to catch his eye.  Sometimes, when he does notice me, he’ll swivel around in his chair, reach down and slide the cabinet door open.  His fist will disappear into the crinkled bag and emerge with a handful of Peanut M&M’s. Two at a time, he’ll drop them into my outstretched palm and say, “Sounds like fire, Hob. Sounds like a big one.”

I bought him a new antenna with some of my strawberry picking money that I’d been saving for one of those curling irons that’s also a brush.  When I gave it to him, he thanked me and said, ‘I know what this cost you Hob,’ which made me feel even more guilty because my mom helped me find the antenna on-sale at Waremart and I still got the curling iron.

Yeah, I KNOW what I do is awful sinful.  Stealing candy from my tiny tired dad. And I always try to hold out, try to be good, but I can’t help but do it again, I am just that BAD.  And I know it’s no excuse, but there’s something about having a fist full of those Peanut M&M’s that makes me feel like WE’RE GOING TO BE OKAY.  Because no matter when I sneak some, the bag seems full, like we’re doing just fine, like, there’s plenty for all of us kids, even me, the last of five.  And, there will be enough for my dad and mom if I ever make it to college and have to leave them.  See, when I reach down deep into the mass of M&M’s I think, maybe my dad’s got treats and treasures hidden all over and they’re not gonna end up sitting on the steps of the ‘Poor House’ like he likes to says.  (I’m pretty sure the Poor House is just an expression and not an actual place. Although my dad seems as afraid of going there as my mom is afraid of going to the loony bin, which I know is a an actual place because my mom said a distant cousin went there and never came back.)

I start to slide the cabinet door closed, the chocolate is coating my teeth and tongue. I really should dart back to my room but I want a second scoop so I stay.  I leave the cabinet door cracked open, just wide enough, so I can slip my hand back inside. I usually eat the green ones first and make a list of all the candy I love that is green (watermelon nerds, lime now & laters, apple blow-pops) and imagine having a Tupperware container of each stashed under my bed.  I make sure and save the red ones for last and get my list to cherry starbursts before diving my hand back into the paper sack.

And then suddenly the light goes out behind me.  Not completely. Not like someone flipped off the hallway light - that would have made my dad’s office go dark, concealing me completely.  More like… an eclipse, like the one I looked at with the shoebox I made at school. The light dims, it is diffused. I turn around to see my dad’s tiny figure silhouetted in the doorway, insignificant compared to the massive shadow he is casting down on me.

My mouth is packed with peanuts.  I can’t swallow, let alone speak. And my heart does that thing I’ve read about in Sweet Valley High romance novels, when one of the twins gets her heart broken.

“Night, Hob.”

That’s all he says, standing there, between me and the light.  An eclipse. I have been eclipsed. My sin covered.

He continues on down the hall to the bathroom.  I hear the water running in the sink as he brushes his teeth and then I hear the water stop, hear him come back into the hall.

“Make sure and brush your teeth, Hobbit.”  The light goes out, all the way this time and I hear his bedroom door open and close.  The walk back across the hall feels like desert miles. I sit there on my Smurf sheets trying to swallow.

'Big Dad' Kenneth L. Felton
9/22/42 - 3/21/16