“Get up, Lily!” I heard a voice in my dreams. A monster? “Get up, for Christ’s sake. We don’t have much time.”
I pulled myself out of my sleep. The voice belonged to my father. I could see his shape in the half dark but not his face.
“Get Tommy and Dougie up and dressed, and pack up their clothes.
I tried to do what he asked, but Tommy was too big for me to dress, and the baby was too wriggly, and how was I supposed to know what to pack. “I’m only eight years old, for Christ’s sake,” I told him.
He got all stiff and cold when I said that and touched his belt. I knew what that meant. I knew to shut up. And I didn’t even think to ask to bring my crayons.
He lifted the suitcases into the trunk of the 1950 Buick and then seated us in the backseat, with Doug still in his jammies in the middle. “Watch him, Lily,” he told me. “I don’t want him rolling off the seat.”
Then he sat in the front and pressed his fedora onto his big head, lit his pipe and turned on the radio. I drifted off in a purple cloud of smoke to the sound of Doris Day. That was a song Mama sang to us at bedtime. Where was she? Why were we taking a trip without her?
When I woke, the sun was high and the car was stinky. I rubbed away the steam on the window and watched the outside pass by fast. Some of the trees were dark green and pointy. Others were yellow green and round with splotches of pink and purple. If I’d brought my crayons I could have drawn what I saw. The lake was blue and green where it reflected the trees, with bits of black and white and silver. Mama said that drawing and singing and stories were the soul’s playtime. I could draw all day.
Where was my mama? “Where are we going?” I asked my Daddy.
“Vancouver,” he told me. His voice sounded sort of hopeful.
I didn’t know where Vancouver was, but I wanted to keep talking to see if he was still angry. “Will we be there a long time?”
“We won’t miss the spring concert, will we? Two of my paintings are going to be in the art show and I want to…”
“You want to be admired,” he said. “Just like your mother.”
I supposed that was true, but the way he said it made me think it was not a good thing to want. But I had to know. “Well?” I swallowed.
“There’ll be other concerts and other art shows, Lily.”
But those were my best paintings. Would we go back for them … ever? “How long will we stay in Vancouver?”
He said, “Forever.”
Forever was like ever after in fairy tales. Ever after always sounded like it was promising something nice. Two people in love forever. But they never talked about the person left behind. Would she be forever sad?
I leaned forward trying to think how to ask more questions, but he turned to me, and said, “Go back to sleep now. Don’t worry your little head so much. I’ve got it all under control.”
I leaned back…but I didn’t stop worrying.
Tommy woke up, all fierce and wriggly like a wild raccoon. “I need to pee. Can we stop? I gotta go. I’m going to pee on the seat.”
My dad turned fast. “Shut it, Kid. I’ll stop as soon as I can.”
Tommy screwed up his face from the effort of holding in his pee and his anger. After a couple of minutes, my dad pulled over.
Tommy tried to open the door on the side where the traffic was. “Don’t open that door,” my dad yelled. You’ll get yourself killed. Help him, Lily.”
I tried to pull Tommy over Dougie but he was too heavy. Dougie started to wail. Tommy joined in. “Where’s Mama. I want Mama.”
My dad turned fast, his hand in the air. Tommy stopped crying. Dougie didn’t know to stop, but Daddy wouldn’t hit him. You can’t hit a baby for crying.
Tommy climbed out, and fumbled with his buttons, then let out a long stream of yellow. I wished I could do that.
When we’re all back in the car, Tommy asked, “Where is Mama?”
“Gone to see her sister. She’s sick..” Dad said and then paused for a long time and sniffed hard. “At least, that’s what she tells us.”
Tommy didn’t need to ask any more questions. He focused on the toy car I’d brought for him, running it along the seat and then banging against my leg. Over and over. I pushed the toy away. He kept on doing it. I could hit him but then he’d start bawling again and I’d be in trouble. “Stop,” I whispered as loudly as I dared.
He started opening and closing the little plastic door. Pretty soon it broke. His little fists balled and he started kicking the back of the seat.
“Stop it, Tommy!” my dad said, and then, when that didn’t work, “Get control of him Lily. Or I swear, by God, I’ll stop this car and make you both sorry. ”
My Dad got what he wanted. We stayed quiet.
The sun was high in the sky. Tommy whispered that he was hungry.
I pulled Tommy close to me. “Shh. We’ll stop soon,” I told him. “We can’t stop in the middle of nowhere. Take a deep breath.”
When we saw a billboard with a hamburger on it, my dad slowed the car and pulled off the highway and into a parking lot. I opened the door and heard music coming from the restaurant. Trumpets and a Negro woman singing. Jazz, Mama called it. I started to get out of the car.
“Shut that door!” he said in his fierce voice, the same voice he used when Mama listened to jazz. “I don’t want you children getting all stirred up by that jungle music. I’ll get us some food. Lily, take your brothers to the bathroom, and then come back and wait here.”
“Dougie needs a new diaper,” I said.
My dad sighed and shook his head. “Come with me.”
We walked together around back of the shiny black 1950 Buick. He unlocked the trunk and unbuckled the suitcase. Then he pushed aside boots and coats. Boots and coats meant winter, December. I opened my fingers to count off the months. Eight months was a long time. What about my school? What about my friends? What about…
He handed me the white cloth.
“I don’t know how,” I said.
“Just do the best you can.” He made a weird face when he said this. “I’ll find a woman to take care of him when we get there.”
“But…” I protested.
“It’s not that hard, Lily,” he said roughly. “Women have been doing this for thousands of years. Use your woman’s intuition.”
I was supposed to change a baby’s diaper because I was a girl like Mama? Did he think I was like Mama in other ways? Would he leave me behind next time?
I did my best, and then washed my hands for a long time. When we returned we found the car smelling of meat and grease and chocolate. Tommy grabbed a burger and started chomping, and then dropped the wrapper, sighed deeply and settled back into his corner. “Better than hotdogs and beans,” he mumbled.
“You’re right about that, Son,” my dad said, sucking on his pipe. “Your mother doesn’t waste much of her imagination on cooking.”
I fed Dougie little pieces of meat and French fries, taking bites for myself in between.
Dad started the car again and I started back on the thoughts I was having before lunch. The trees and the lake. And the boots and the coats. Eight months was a long time. What about my school? What about my books and crayons? What about …?
We crossed a river. I twisted my head to watch the bald eagles circling overhead looking for fish. I’d use black and silver crayons to draw them. Then there was farmland and more trees, hundreds of trees, thousands of trees and then the sun was dropping over the water making the sky red and orange.
Tommy made a noise and Dougie started wailing. I tried to lift him onto my lap, but he threw himself away and I had to move fast to catch him. I couldn’t let him fall.
“His head is very soft,” Mama said when he was born. She let me rub my finger over the place. “We have to be careful with him, like we are with the Christmas ornaments.” Then she stroked his cheek. “Isn’t he a peach? Touch, Lily. Can’t you feel how perfect he is?”
He didn’t look perfect to me, but I could see the glow in her eyes and I wanted to please her, so I nodded. Where was she now? She went away for a few days to see her sister. That’s what she told us, my father said, in that sort of sneery way you talk when you don’t believe someone.
I wondered if she’d find the Mothers’ day card I was making, a picture of a lady dancing with three children. I had colored their clothes pink and orange, to make us all look loving and happy. Mama said that colors show feelings. But the picture wasn’t quite right. So I left it in a drawer to finish later.
The shadows got longer. Dougie had cried himself out and now sprawled across my lap asleep. Tommy slept leaning against the window, his square head resting on his solid shoulder. People said he favored our dad, strong, and sturdy.
I moved the baby carefully and leaned over the front seat. “It’s getting late, Daddy.” I wanted to ask him if we were going to have supper soon, but I was afraid of making him angry.
His arms were stuck straight like they’d been all day. He turned his head part way. “The boys are quiet, Lily. Did you get them to sleep?”
“Yes,” I said, although I wasn’t sure it was me that did it.
“Come sit beside me,” he said.
I climbed over the seat. I’d always wanted to sit up front. You could see a lot more than in the back seat.
“Will…” I stopped. I had to ask this question the right way. This question was the most important but also the most dangerous. “Will Mama be in Vancouver with us?” I said finally.
He stared at the long, empty road ahead. I wondered whether he hadn’t heard my question, or whether he’d decided that it was such a stupid question he couldn’t waste his time answering it. But then he sighed and looked at me, and I could see that he was thinking hard. “Your mother’s made her own choices, Lily. I’m sorry.”
I tried to put together what he was saying. He must have known what I wanted. So, “I’m sorry,” must have meant that she was not coming, that I would be without her forever after. And when he said that she’d made her own choices, he meant that this was her fault. She had chosen not to see me. I bit my thumb hard so that I didn’t have to think about this. My eyes got wet with the pain. I turned my head to look at the dark trees, and tried to think about which crayons I would use for the shadows.
One of the boys in the back seat started crying. I pulled myself up and looked over the seat. She had chosen to leave them too. Could she do that? I remembered the way she held them against her, and smelled their baby smell and rubbed their backs and wiped their poopy bottoms. Could she really have chosen not to see them again?
Isn’t he perfect, Lily? Like a peach.
She was a liar. I hated her. I wished I could tear up that card.
I didn’t think then to ask my father why he interpreted her leaving with enough clothes for three days and the stated intention to visit her sick sister as a plan to abandon her family forever. I didn’t think to ask why a woman who had given up her nursing career to raise her children, who stayed up all night when they were ill and read the same fairy tale fifty times over and drew pictures with her daughter for hours would choose to leave them forever. I didn’t think to ask him why he didn’t believe her explanation, why he insisted on believing that she had run off with a lover. I didn’t think to ask him why – even if she had a lover – she deserved to be separated from her children for ten years, kept away from us by every legal ruse money could buy. I didn’t think to ask him what we had done to deserve this. I was only eight, for Christ’s sake.
Scott Merrow says
Very, very good story. You really took us inside Lily’s mind. It was easy to feel her 8-year-old confusion and fear. Very sad to see that from the child’s POV.