I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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We are supposed to be asleep in the van. Instead we are sitting up in the bed our mother has fashioned on the floor and peering out between the paisley curtains at three people splitting a joint. It’s Friday night, and the community-center parking lot is full. Inside, a band from Sebastopol is playing Country Joe and the Fish covers. My mother comes out every half hour to check on us, and we pretend to be asleep. She is due in another ten minutes.
My brother is scanning the parking lot for people making out. Once, a couple banged right up against the side of our blue van and started humping. Benny laughed so hard he peed the bed a little. I am watching the open doors of the community center for our mother and timing her on the new digital watch our dad gave me. It’s 11:22. Eight more minutes.
The band is playing a song I recognize from one of our mother’s records. My brother is on his knees in his tiny white underwear playing air guitar and cracking himself up. He’s tired of watching for couples making out. He pulls down his underpants and shakes his penis at me and then falls backward against the pillows, laughing. I hate it when he gets like this, all crazy and bored. The best thing to do is just try to ignore him. I pull my blanket out from under him and turn back to the window. He sings “Angie” to me, the way our mom sometimes does, but I keep ignoring him. She is already two minutes late. Our mother is wearing brown cords and a flowered peasant top pulled down off her shoulders. When I see her framed in the light of the community-center doors, I whisper, “Coming!”
Benny and I dive under the covers and close our eyes. He is laughing through his nose and I know he will give us away.
Our mother slides the van door open as quietly as she can, but it clangs and grinds anyway. My brother sits up and says, “Hi,” all soft and sleepy, like he just woke up.
“Hi, Benny baby,” she says, climbing in and lying down next to us.
I say hi too, because I can’t stand pretending to be asleep anymore.
“Angie, too. Both my babies are awake.” She smells like smoke and wine and sweat. I try to roll over Benny so that I can lie next to her, but he does that thing where he makes his whole body hard, nothing but edges, and I can’t budge him.
“It’s loud,” I whisper.
“Is it?” our mother asks. She is distracted and doesn’t notice the way the bass thumps against the sides of the van. She reaches over and smooths my bangs. “Try to go back to sleep. I’ll stay here until you do, and then when you wake up, it will be morning and we’ll be home.” She sits up and peers out the window toward the community-center doors. Her hair is wet around her face and stuck to the back of her neck. I want her to lie down and go to sleep with us, but I know she is looking for her boyfriend, Carl. I peek at my digital watch in the light coming through the window. It is not even midnight yet. The dance doesn’t end until two. I close my eyes and feel sleep pressing down on me against my will.
My brother sweats so much in his sleep that when I wake up I think he’s peed the bed again. I kick the covers off. The band is playing another song I know from my mother’s parties. Carl’s band plays it sometimes. I press my cheek against the window and blow the curtain to watch it flutter. There is a cluster of people around the community-center doors. I recognize Billy from the place where my mom buys hay for the horses. Clouds of smoke hang above them like thunderheads, and when one of them laughs, they all laugh, bending back and forth and screeching like birds. My brother says, “Ahhhh,” in his sleep and rolls over. Then the van door slides open.
Carl’s shoulder-length hair is almost completely wet. He recently shaved off his mustache, and he looks weird to me.
“You still up?” he says.
“Should I tell your mom you’re up?” He is standing outside with the van door open. Cool night air and the crashing sound of the music rush in.
“Nah,” I say. I just want him to go back to the dance; it wasn’t so bad being awake by myself. But he climbs in and sits on the edge of our mattress.
“That’s a good girl. She’s having too good a time to be bothered right now, anyway.” He takes a pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket and shakes one out. He lights it and then touches the end of the match to his tongue to put it out. It makes a tiny sizzling sound. “Man,” he says, exhaling, “your mom sure can dance. She just about kills me the way she can dance. I think half the men in Sonoma County have the hots for her.”
I put my palm flat against the window to feel its coolness. My brother groans a little and turns his face into the pillow. My mom says he’s more sensitive than me, and I wonder why he’s still asleep and I’m awake.
Carl holds his cigarette between his first and second fingers and uses his thumb to pick something out from under a fingernail on his other hand. “Your mom,” he says. Then he stops and takes a drag of his cigarette. “Lay down,” he says. “You’re never gonna fall back asleep sitting up like that. What time is it anyway?”
I look at my digital watch. “Seven minutes after one.”
He lies down so that Benny is between us and smokes, staring up at the ceiling of the van. I lie down too and look where he looks. Tiny spots of rust bloom like flowers on the roof.
“Do you like me?” Carl asks. He blows smoke in a column to the ceiling, where it spreads like a mushroom cloud.
“Uh-huh,” I say. I close my eyes, hoping that sleep will come.
“Your mom isn’t sure whether you and Benny like me. She doesn’t want me to move in because she’s not sure if you guys would like it.”
I don’t say anything. I am trying to feel my eyelids getting heavy.
“I guess,” I say.
“You guess? Either you would or you wouldn’t.”
“I don’t know,” I say. I wonder if my mom is going to come out and check on us, or if she’s sent Carl instead.
“That means you wouldn’t.” He smokes for a while and then says, “I can understand that. You want your mommy all to yourself. Yeah, I can understand it.”
It doesn’t seem like he is talking to me, so I don’t say anything. My eyes are still closed, but I can feel Carl moving. I hear him kiss my brother’s cheek. Then I feel his big head lowering itself toward my face. I can see him, even though my eyes are closed. When his lips touch the corner of my mouth, leaving a tiny spot of wetness, I hold my breath. His breath feels hot and gritty and smells like smoke. He keeps his face close to mine and says, “Sweet dreams.” Then he leaves. When the van door slides shut behind him, I open my eyes. Benny looks right at me and says, “I don’t want Carl to live with us.”
We lie awake quietly until the dance ends. My old red sleeping bag is unzipped and covers us like a blanket, and we both have Big Bird pillowcases left over from when I was little. Benny is playing with his fingers, holding them above his face and doing “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” without singing.
The way everyone comes streaming out of the community-center doors in long columns reminds me of blood moving through veins. I’ve seen it on TV; it rushes and stops, rushes and stops.
Our mother yanks open the sliding van door and throws her purse in the back with us. I can tell she’s mad because she doesn’t even care that it hits my brother in the shoulder.
“I thought I told you to go back to sleep,” she says to us without looking.
We don’t say anything, just keep lying on our backs and looking at her sideways. She slams the door shut and gets in the driver’s seat. There is nowhere to go yet. A long line of cars is blocking the exit. She sighs, and I can see her jaw throbbing.
When Carl taps on the window, she gasps and says, “Jesus fucking Christ!” But she rolls it down anyway.
“Sandy,” he says in a tired voice, “come on.”
“ ‘Come on’ what, Carl?”
“Just calm down for a second. There’s nothing to get mad about.”
My mother points her finger at Carl, almost touching his nose. “Leave them out of this, Carl. Just leave them the fuck out of it.”
Carl deflates and takes his hands off the car. “Jesus, Sandy —” he starts, but my mom puts the van in gear, and it lurches forward. The wheels screech under us, and I roll against my brother like a barrel.
My best friend Jill’s parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses. I go to their house after school to drink Kool-Aid and play Lite-Brite. Jill’s room is all yellow ruffles. Her mother made the curtains herself. My mother calls Jill’s mother the “great white hope” behind her back. Maybe because she’s so fat.
Once, when my mom came to pick me up, Jill’s mom invited her in for lemonade and then started talking about God. She had all these little comic books with pictures of heaven on the covers that she wanted my mom to take home with her. My mom gathered them up into a neat little pile and pushed them back at Jill’s mom. “Sorry, Nancy. I’m just a heathen, born and bred,” she said. Later, when I asked her what a heathen was, she said someone who is going to hell and likes it that way.
When I stay for dinner at Jill’s house, we say grace, and we always pray for my mom. In my mind I plead with God to save her from hell. She won’t let me go to church with Jill’s family on Sundays because she says they’ll brainwash me and I’ll grow up to be a housewife, but Jill’s mom taught me how to pray so I can do it by myself, quietly.
On the Saturday after the dance, Benny and I are up hours before our mom, and we watch cartoons in the living room. When she wakes up she will make us go outside and urge us to climb trees and catch snakes and be more daring. “Jesus, I thought I was going to get country kids,” she’ll say.
Most Saturday mornings, Carl is here, but not today. When he’s here, he sits on the couch smoking cigarettes and watching cartoons with us while our mom makes coffee and reads the paper at the kitchen table. Carl buys Froot Loops and keeps them in our cupboard. Benny and I are not allowed to eat them because they are Carl’s and because they are too sugary. When Benny and I sneak some, we eat only five loops at a time so no one will notice they are missing.
By the time our mom gets up, we are already bored with cartoons and sitting numbly through the ones about robots.
“You guys should be outside,” she says. She is in her bathrobe, and her hair is matted on one side. When she sits down on the couch, she groans a little. Benny and I look at her, waiting for something. She pats the couch on either side of her, and we jump up and snuggle into her like puppies.
“Want to do something fun today?” she asks.
Benny yells, “Chuck-E-Cheese!” and my mother laughs. That would never happen.
“Angie?” she says. “What about you? It’s hot. Should we go swimming?”
“OK,” I say, but I doubt it will be very fun. Our mom will just lie on her back reading a book, only pretending to watch when we beg her to. At least Carl plays with us when we go to the river. We climb up his big, slick back, and he lets us jump off his shoulders.
“OK, swimming it is. But now you go outside and play while I read the paper. We’ll go in the afternoon. Up,” she says, patting our bottoms.
Benny and I end up at Ernie and Tajali’s. They rent the cottage beside the barn. My mom says their rent is cheap because of the smell from the goats. Today they are visiting Tajali’s sister in San Francisco, so the cottage is empty.
Benny and I are not supposed to go in there when they aren’t home, but the rest of the ranch bores us, and they never lock their door. Their walls are wood, and pots and pans hang from nails in the corner that serves as a kitchen. They keep old mayonnaise and mustard jars filled with beans and rice and powders of all different colors. It smells like dirt and tea, a little moldy. Sometimes Benny and I make mixtures from the stuff in the jars, but today we just look around, sniffing the mugs Ernie makes and looking at the photographs we have looked at a million times before. There is a picture of Benny and me in the Bicentennial parade on their fridge.
© Jan Stürmann
Their biggest piece of furniture is an armchair carved out of a redwood trunk. It is smooth and old and polished to a deep, glowing red. Tajali made the seat cushions out of fabric from India. Benny calls it the hobbit chair, and when he sees me about to sit in it, he races toward me and slams his butt in the chair first so that I have to sit on his lap. I press down on him, making myself heavy, and he giggles until I do it too hard, and then he whines and starts to fake-cry. I press harder, and he screams at me to stop, but I know he’s just being a baby and I’m not really hurting him.
It’s past noon and I’m hungry. There is nothing good in Ernie and Tajali’s refrigerator: plain yogurt, miso paste, some wilted vegetables on the bottom shelf. I open a box of Ak-Mak crackers and eat them absentmindedly, watching the dust float like stars in the shaft of light coming through the skylight. It is so hot the room almost buzzes.
I look out the window at our crumbly old yellow house. Last month, Carl nailed up new screens on the sun porch, so it looks a little better. I want my mom to come out and take us swimming, and I think maybe if I stare hard enough, she will read my mind and come find us. My mouth is full of cracker paste, but I stuff in another Ak-Mak.
Carl’s car tires make a crackling sound as he drives up the dirt road that leads to our house. As soon as I see him, I am not hungry anymore. He pulls up in front. I take the box of Ak-Maks to the window and sit down on the floor. Carl knocks on our door, which he never does. He squints over his shoulder at Ernie and Tajali’s cottage, but he can’t see me through the window. As I watch him, I understand that we will not be going swimming.
Benny slides off the redwood chair and comes to the window. He is chewing the inside of his cheek, like he does. He still looks like a baby sometimes.
When our mom answers the door, she braces her hands against the doorjamb and fills the doorway with her body. She is wearing shorts and a tank top, and I can see her bra straps. Her feet are bare. Benny breathes loudly through his mouth.
After our mom lets Carl in, she pokes her head outside and looks both ways. I know she is looking for Benny and me, but I don’t move. A fly buzzes and smashes itself against the window, and my heart jumps at the sound.
Carl is in there so long, we get bored watching the door of our house. Benny is hungry, but the Ak-Maks are almost gone, so I don’t give him any. Instead we go to the orchard to see if there are any good apples on the ground. The trees are old and uncared for, with knotted, gnarled trunks that look diseased. The weeds come up to our chests. Last Halloween, our mom had a party and made apple cider, but it tasted awful, so Carl made a beer run instead. Our house was full of witches and fairies and a man wearing nothing but a tiny piece of leather. Benny and I sat on the couch and watched the grown-ups dance and ate from our big, lumpy bags of candy.
We find some small hard apples on the ground and shine them on our shirts. Benny spits on his because he thinks it makes them look extra good. We are sitting on the back steps of our house, the ones no one ever uses, when we hear something crash. I feel the vibration in my chest at the same time I hear it. It ends as quickly as it began, with a thud.
We run around the front of the house and see Carl getting into his car. He looks at us for a moment, and we freeze, wondering what he’s going to do. Carl has never even yelled at us. I clutch the front of Benny’s shirt to keep him from running any farther. “Apparently,” Carl says, “I am not allowed to talk to you little fuckers,” and then he gets into his car. He drives so fast out of our long driveway that rocks shoot up behind his wheels like bullets.
I drop my apple in the driveway. I’m still holding Benny’s T-shirt, and he twists to get away from me and runs toward the house. I run after him, because I think he should not go into the house alone.
We reach our mother at the same time. She is sitting on the linoleum in the kitchen with her legs splayed out in front of her like a child. Our old black phone has been ripped off the wall and lies beside her, the receiver stretched away from the base. I start to cry.
“Oh, my babies. It’s OK,” our mom says. She holds out her arms to us, and we go to her and sit down between her legs. Benny and I cry into her soft chest. She smells like dust and coffee.
I lift my head. “Carl,” I choke out.
“He got mad at me, honey,” she says. “But it’s OK now.” She strokes the tops of our heads. “Don’t worry,” she says. “I’m OK.”
On Sunday, my mom finally lets me go to church with Jill and her mom. As I ride with them to Sebastopol, I feel excitement rising in me like bubbles. I love Sebastopol. I love the A&W and the drugstore where we go bathing-suit shopping. I love the teenagers who gather in clumps on the street, laughing and flipping their hair. After church, Jill’s mom is going to take us to the International House of Pancakes, and I am thinking she will let me order the chocolate-chip kind with whipped cream.
Outside the church, ladies in flowered dresses and white sandals mill around, smiling at each other. They all wear pantyhose and look so beautiful, like real moms. When I go shopping with my mom, I try to sneak the egg-shaped packages of nylons into our cart, but it never works.
The church is made of gray bricks, and one corner of its roof juts into the sky like a wing. Inside it is cool and quiet, and tinted light from the stained glass falls against my lap. I am wearing a pair of Jill’s sandals, and I love the way my feet look against all the polished wood of the church.
Jill’s mom sits between us and keeps looking down at me and smiling. The minister is dressed in a long white robe, and he talks and talks about things I can’t follow. He says Jesus’ name over and over. At the end there is singing, and I stand up and watch the beautiful faces of the ladies. They sing with their eyes closed, their mouths open wide. Jill sings too, and I ache to know the words.
When it is time to pray, I bow my head and think about my mom. Jill’s mom holds my hand. “Please, God,” I say under my breath. But I can’t think of what to ask for. “Please help her to know the truth,” I say, because this is how Jill’s mom has taught me to pray. My throat closes up, and my eyes start to sting. I feel my mouth stretch wide, and all of a sudden I am crying. I am wailing. I squeeze my eyes shut, but it doesn’t help; the sound coming from my mouth is like screaming, and I can feel all the pretty church ladies turning to look at me. I am staring at my feet in Jill’s sandals, and they blur and swim. I can’t stop; I start to say, “Please, please, please,” over and over until Jill’s mom picks me up against her huge, soft belly and carries me outside, where the sunshine blinds me.
I stop crying in the car and beg Jill’s mom to take me home. I don’t want to go to the International House of Pancakes. I want to go home and see my own mom in her cutoffs and tank top. I want to play in my own room, without yellow ruffles and cookies on trays.
When Jill’s mom drops me off in front of our house, I refuse to get out of the car until she agrees to let me go in alone. The house is quiet and dry, pierced by squares of light from the windows. My mom is in the kitchen, reading the paper and drinking coffee. Benny is at his friend Shane’s house, and I am glad he is not home.
When she looks up at me, I start to cry again — not as hard as before, but I cannot stop the hot tears rolling from my eyes. The corners of my mouth turn down. My mother’s hair is still not combed, and her smooth, tanned skin is blotchy and red. For the first time in my life, I think she looks ugly.
“I don’t want to go to the dances anymore,” I say. “I hate sleeping in the van.” I am about to tell her that I hate Carl, but I stop. I know enough to understand that it’s not his fault.
My mother looks at me for a minute as if I am a stranger. Then she pats her thigh, and I go to her. I bend from the waist and bury my face in her lap, but I cannot bring myself to hug her. She strokes my hair and rubs circles on my back.
“Baby,” she says, “I’m not going to the dances for a while.” She laughs a little and then adds, “I’m all danced out for now.”
I stand there, bent at the waist, until I stop crying. My mom hooks her foot around another chair and drags it over for me. I sit down, and she asks, “How was church?”
“OK,” I say. My eyes feel puffy and dried out.
“Did you get to meet Jesus?”
I think for a moment about the colored windows and the beautiful ladies and the singing. “Not really,” I say.
“Too bad,” she says, with her lips against my hair. “I thought you might.”