When I was little, it wasn’t so bad. Or maybe it was and I just didn’t notice. It didn’t occur to me to wonder why she woke Celia and me up in the middle of the night to make strawberry sundaes. Or why we were the only kids I knew who didn’t have a bedtime. Or why we were allowed to eat whatever we wanted whenever we wanted. I could have sour cream and onion chips for dinner and Mama wouldn’t bat an eyelash.
That’s probably why I like vegetables so much. The other kids used to be so jealous when I’d pull a bag of chips and a box of cookies out of my lunchbox, but what I wouldn’t do for a Ziploc bag of cut celery or baby carrots. I used to trade Mark my chips for his fruit. Most times it was sliced apples or a banana, but on lucky days there was a kiwi or a tangerine.
When you’re little, lots of things slip past you. Not anymore. I’m old enough to know that not everybody’s mama drinks and not everybody’s daddy is never home. Some daddys are home for dinner every night, like Mr. Findley. Not my daddy, though.
They haven’t had a fight this bad in a while. I wonder if I should go down and comfort her. The thing is, I’m sick of it. I’m sick of the fighting and the crying and the drinking, and I wish I didn’t have to be a part of any of it. But I am.
When I walk into the kitchen, Mama’s standing by the sink wiping her eyes with a paper towel.
I say, “Is everything okay?”
She looks plenty sober now. Her eyeliner is smudged, and her face is red, but she’s still the most beautiful woman I know. Painting a bright smile on her face, she says, “’Course, Shug. Daddy and I just had a little fight. Go on to bed; everything’s fine now.”
“You sure?” Pretending to believe her is easier than not.
“’Course I’m sure. Git on now; scoot.”
I walk back up the stairs, but instead of returning to my room, I go to Celia’s instead. She’s asleep in her bed, and I push her over and crawl in.
My feet are cold, so I warm them up on the backs of her legs. “Annemarie,” she growls.
“Get your feet off of me before I cut them off.”
“Sheesh. Sor-ee.” She’s falling back to sleep again, and I whisper, “Celia …”
Silence. “Celia …”
“Do you think Mama and Daddy are gonna get divorced?”
“Do you think they should?”
“Go to sleep, Shug.”
“I’m not sleepy.”
“Well, I am. So shut up or get out.”
I shut up.
Daddy called this morning. I picked up the phone as usual. He told me he wasn’t coming home today the way he was supposed to. Something came up at work, something real important. With Daddy, it’s always something “real important.” I asked him if he wanted to talk to Mama; he said no, he’d call back later. I used to be disappointed when he didn’t come home. Now I’m not even surprised. I’m even a little relieved. But what does surprise me is the way Mama still gets upset. You’d think she’d be used to it. But every time he does it, her face crumples for a second, like she’s breaking into little pieces. Pretty soon there’ll be nothing left of her.
This afternoon Jack left a note in my locker. It said, “Can’t tutor at my house today, I’ll be at your house at 7:30.” It’s just like him to change things up on me like that with no notice. Luckily Mama’s working tonight, and Celia’s hardly ever around anyway, so we’ll have the house to ourselves.
As soon as I get home from school, I start cleaning up the house like a madwoman. I wash the dishes that have piled up, I put away coats in the closet, I wipe down the counter, I even dust the TV. I don’t know that the TV has ever been dusted.
For dinner I fix myself two boiled hot dogs and cold baked beans. With ketchup. Plus root beer. It’s a feast fit for a king.
After I eat, I set up a workstation in the dining room. I lay out paper and mechanical pencils, and at 7:30 on the dot, the doorbell rings.
I run over to the front door, and it’s Jack. On time. I can tell that he’s just had a shower because his hair’s still wet. His hair looks so dark it’s almost black. He just stands there, shifting his weight from foot to foot. “Hey.”
“Uh, hey, come on in.”
Leading him through the kitchen, it hits me how weird it is to have a boy that’s not Mark in my house. It’s like on those standardized tests you take at school—which of these things does not belong? Jack Connelly, that’s what.
“You want somethin’ to drink?”
“Well, let’s get to work then.”
Jack grins and salutes me. “Sir, yes sir.”
I make a face, but I’m not really mad. We sit down at the dining room table, and the two of us get straight to work.
I’m explaining what a split infinitive is when Mama waltzes into the room. She’s wearing her silky emerald green nightgown, and I already know something’s wrong. Her eyes look glassy and unfocused, and my heart almost stops when I realize she’s been drinking. Not a little, but a lot. “Mama, I thought you were at work.” My voice comes out sounding highpitched and worried.
“I wasn’t feelin’ so hot this mornin’. Can’t a girl take a sick day?” When she’s been drinking a lot, she talks extra slow. That’s how you know she’s in a bad way: She sounds like the South.
Mama zeroes in on Jack. “Hi, there. Who’s your little friend, Shug?”
“Mama, this is Jack Connelly. You’ve met him before. We go to school together.”
“Hello, Mrs. Wilcox.”
“Jack Connelly … Hi, darlin’. Your mama works at that steak restaurant over on Clinton Boulevard, right?” She beams at him.
“Yes, ma’am.” I’ve never seen Jack so polite. He’s acting as if everything is normal. He’s acting like he’s come to pick me up for the prom and he’s tryin’ to make a good impression on my folks.
“Your mama and I go wayyy back. She had her eye on my Billy, you know. So did just about every girl at Clementon High School.” Mama giggles. “But I got him, yes siree. And your mama, well, she was just fit to be tied … Trish, whatever happened to her? She took up with that no-account fool Glen after graduation. And then he up and left her, didn’t he?”