I suddenly needed to get up and have a smoke. “Where’s Mama?” I asked abruptly. “She used to help me with my book reports.”
“She’s still working.”
“At the shop?”
Miller looked back at me with puzzlement. “The shop?” he asked incredulously. “She closed the shop years ago.”
I stared back, stunned. “Closed it? Why didn’t she tell me?”
“She probably didn’t want you to know. She never wants anything to upset you.”
I didn’t miss the dig. “So, what’s she doing now?”
“She cleans houses.”
I remembered seeing the new lines on her face and noticing how she’d lost weight. Yet she never complained.
“When does she get home?” I looked at the lady’s clock on the sideboard. It had always been important to my mother to be home when I returned from school. Miller was only ten and he’d returned to an empty house. Or, nearly empty. I was suddenly ashamed of sleeping all day.
“She’s usually home by now. I guess she got busy,” Miller said without blame. “She’s been working extra hard lately, taking on more houses.”
“She had to. With the boat and all.”
My attention sharpened. “What about the boat?”
Miller looked at me as if I were the ten-year-old. “It’s docked. Sheesh, Taylor, don’t you know anything?”
I stared back at him, stunned by the news. “Apparently not. Tell me.”
Miller leaned back in his chair and shrugged. “Dad couldn’t afford to keep the boat on the water anymore. So he docked it.”
“Dad’s not shrimping?” I asked, shocked.
Miller shook his head. “Nope.” His tone held no small measure of the superiority he felt knowing the family business while I, obviously, was in the dark.
I rubbed my hand across my scalp and exhaled. How little I’d kept up on family news, the extent of my estrangement hit home like the blast of a boxer’s blow. I was speechless and felt sure my face showed it because Miller spoke up.
“We’re poor now,” he said matter-of-factly.
I snorted with disbelief. “What?”
“We’re poor,” he repeated without a smile.
His simple acceptance of that fact shamed me. I paused, collecting my thoughts. “Why didn’t anyone tell me what was going on here?”
“Why didn’t you ask?”
I laughed at my own hubris. I was worse than Scrooge, oblivious of anyone’s needs but my own, as stingy, barren, cold, and empty as they were.
“This is quite a Christmas,” I mumbled, looking around at the cheery decorations and thinking of all the pain and scarcity they masked.
“Yeah. And you’re supposed to be my Christmas present,” Miller said, clearly not thrilled with the gift.
“What?” I asked, clueless.
Miller sat up in his chair, his eyes shining with emotion. “See, there’s this dog, this puppy really, that I really want. I mean, really bad. I watched it grow up since it was born, and he’s six weeks old now. I asked Mama and Dad if I could have him for Christmas. I even offered to give them all my money. Seventy-five dollars! But they said no. Daddy said no,” Miller amended. “And you know Mama. She won’t go against what Daddy says.”
“Why did Daddy say no?”
“He says we can’t afford a dog.”
That seemed miserly. “How much is it?”
“Three hundred dollars, but Mrs. Davidson said I could have him for two hundred dollars because she could see how much Sandy . . . that’s the puppy . . . loves me. She says Mama has to say yes, though, or she can’t let me have him. And Daddy says we can’t afford a dog. That’s what I mean when I say we’re poor. And I hate it.” Miller pushed the papers away from him in an angry shove and buried his face in his arms on the table.
“Mrs. Davidson is Dill’s mom? I remember Dill. You two were inseparable,” I said, remembering. “Mutt and Jeff.” I looked over at Miller; his head still in his arms.
“So his dog had the puppies?”
Miller lifted his head to nod. His eyes were shining with tears. “His mama’s dog, Daisy. Dill is getting to keep one of the puppies for himself,” Miller added reproachfully.
“What kind of dog are we talking about?”
Miller sniffed and wiped his eyes, eager to talk to someone about his dog. “A Labrador. Daisy is brown and she had six brown puppies and one yellow. That’s the one I like. He’s the biggest, too. I call him Sandy Claws because of his color and it being Christmas and all.”
I saw Miller’s love for the dog shining in his eyes and thought, How can Daddy not buy Miller this dog? “Maybe Mama doesn’t think you’re old enough to take care of a dog. She’s already working hard. I’m sure she doesn’t want to add picking up puppy poop to her list of chores.”
Miller snorted with feigned disgust. “She wouldn’t have to lift a finger. She knows that.” His face hardened. “It’s Daddy. He says we can’t afford to take care of it. He says that about everything now.”
I watched his face harden and felt regret. Miller used to idolize Daddy. My brother loved working on the boat with him and always claimed he wanted to be a shrimp boat captain, just like our daddy. I was sorry to see his disillusionment.
I rose and reached for the cigarettes in my pocket. “You never know.” I patted his shoulder. “Santa might surprise you.”
Miller’s face fell. “If you mean Daddy, don’t count on it.”
“Finish this here homework assignment.” I tapped the paper with the tip of my finger. “I’ll take a look at it when I come back in.” I lifted my cigarettes. “I’m going out for a smoke.”
“Yeah, whatever.” Miller reached out to slide the homework paper to his side of the table.
Before I left the room, I cast a final glance at Miller. He sat in the same slump-shouldered position over his paper as before, but at least now he was writing.
Out on the porch I lit up and felt the comforting burn in my lungs. I stood in the chilly afternoon air looking out at Jeremy Creek. But all I could see was the hope bubbling in Miller’s eyes when he told me about Sandy. I exhaled a plume of white smoke in the frigid air. I wanted to be his hero again.