Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Volume 7, Number 1
Copyright © 2012
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to
in the Apple Valley
Review are retained by
the individual authors
Essay by Gail Peck
When her real father leaves the child tries to run after him, but her mother
pulls her inside the house. Then the child runs to the window and tries to
open it only to be carried from it, too. She can hear the car backing over
gravel, and that sound will linger. “When will he come back?” she asks
over and over, but her mother won’t answer. The child hears the word
divorce, and when she asks her grandmother what it means she is told her
parents will live apart. Surely her father will come home, especially at
Christmas when it’s her birthday. She wants a doll just like her friend’s,
one that opens and shuts its eyes.
The child asks if she can call him daddy, and the man answers, “Yes.” Like
her real father in a photograph, he wears a uniform and tall, laced boots. A
patch on his upper arm displays the profile of an eagle’s head—one eye and
a yellow curve of beak. When she next sees the new father, he’s sitting in a
washtub while her mother trickles water down his back. The door is barely
cracked, and the child is motionless. After the new father is dressed, he sits
on the front steps and tells the child he’ll give her a wooden nickel if she
stands still as a mouse. But she refuses. She’s seen mice darting into holes,
and once enticed one out with bread which he held between his tiny paws.
When she grew bored and stomped her foot, the mouse ran off.
Her mother is pulling the drawstring of a skirt with a hole in it where her
stomach pokes through. “Three more months to go,” she says. The
bassinet casts shadows on the floor of the child’s room. Pink is for girls,
blue for boys, but the blanket inside is light green, and will cover the baby
who will be born in a hot summer month. The child will have to walk softly
in and out, leaving the door open so her mother can check for the sounds
of the new sister breathing.
They are going over the ocean without her, because she isn’t legally
adopted and the army won’t let her go. Her new father is already in Japan,
and her mother and sister will soon join him. They’ll leave on a train, and
later fly on an airplane. Her mother says little except that the child must
stay with her grandparents. Each day she watches her mother going and
coming, how she keeps brushing the new perm, picks up the scissors and
starts cutting. How she brings home clothes and stands in front of the
round mirror attached to the dresser, and turns from side to side.
Her sister keeps crying and gets whatever she wants. Already she’s
marked in the child’s coloring book, and broken her crayons. Tired of
giving in, the child reaches out and hits her on the head. At that moment
she’s forgotten the switch, how it once brought welts on her legs and,
embarrassed, she’d tugged at the hem of her dress as if she could pull it
all the way down.
Who could be more beautiful than her mother? Or the curly-haired sister
who looks like her mother, leaving also on the train. Her sister’s name
lifts off the tongue while her own falls heavy as a plank. The minute hand
on the large clock jerks forward. The child stares at shiny shoes she’s kept
clean, and at her grandfather who sits nearby. When it’s time, her mother
picks up her sister and walks beyond the glass door. The train has stopped
and soon moves forward again, wheels turning, saying good-bye, good-bye,
until the caboose is out of sight. Then the grandfather takes the child’s hand.
In the parking lot when she sees the car she starts to skip, thinking, Don’t
cry. Oh, shoo, shoo. Skip-to-my-Lou my-darlin’.
LETTERS TO AND FROM JAPAN
Houses are called pagodas, and a mama san cooks on a habachi; there’s
rice at every meal. One envelope contains two black and white photographs.
Her mother and sister are in a rickshaw, then on top of an elephant whose
trunk is cut off by the paper’s edge.
During December a crate arrives and once pried loose reveals a doll glued
to a stand. There’s a butterfly in her tight black hair. The dress is sashed
red to the waist, the limbs won’t move, and the eyes won’t close. Who
wants a doll that can’t be cuddled? Still, the child is forced to write her
mother and, until I love and miss you, every word is what she’s been
warned against, a lie.
Wind swirls down the chimney with the dark. The cuckoo pops again and
again through the little door. Weights of pine cones steady the long chains.
The odor of frying fatback drifts towards the bed. Light fills the windows
and reveals the Bible on the dresser: alpha and omega. There are twelve
long months in a year. In spring the dogwood’s scars. Fall, when leaves
come down and cover the earth, some caught on roofs until a gust—rising
Haircut $2.00. Shave $1.00. That’s what the sign says. There’s a chair
in the middle of the room. Since there’s no running water, the child goes
to the bathroom at the end of a long hallway, and carries back a pail she
tries not to spill. She takes the Old Spice mug, dips the wet brush in and
swirls it around. “Poppie, come sit down . . . How are you today, mister?”
A towel is draped over her grandfather’s shoulders. His bald head lathers
quickly. “Looks like rain.” “Yes, we sure need it.”
Outside the window, lettuce is up in the garden. Curtains that should be
inside are flowing outward with the breeze, then back over the bed where
the grandfather spreads cards to play solitaire. He turns over deuces, treys,
covering aces, and loves this as much as the child loves playing barbershop,
and that’s how the hours pass in the two rooms where the grandparents live,
and the child now lives.
“This is how you spell Mississippi: M I S S I S S I P P I.” While ironing,
she teaches words to the child. When all the clothes are done they sit on
the porch where a trellis of morning glories blocks traffic. Her grandmother
plays the harmonica and makes it chug like a train. The dog howls and
stands on hind legs. The child loves her grandmother and knows not to
sass, but ran from her once and hid outside until it was dark. “Spare the
rod and spoil the child,” her grandmother would say when she pulled down
the child’s panties and spanked her. Punished for talking back, for not
wanting to go to church, for saying her mother never went. Then her
grandmother would turn on the stove and put milk, sugar, and bitter cocoa
into a pan. When all the ingredients were blended she’d pour the mixture
into a mug and sit it before the child. Never again would she say she likes
the devil. He might hide in a closet, tuck his long tail under the bed. Satan,
who once lived in heaven, now on earth.
On the wall is a picture of Jesus with nails in his palms and feet, blood
dripping from his side, his head bent forward. Still, her grandmother
says, he prayed while on the cross for those who hurt him.
Ten more days, counted forward and backward. The child feels like she
does when she holds her breath so long she thinks she’ll pass out. Her
mother, her new father, her sister will fly over the ocean with its big waves.
Then there’s only tomorrow, but the call comes saying an engine went out
in the plane, they were forced to land in Hawaii, and they’d bought
bathing suits and were about to go out under the palms.
Now, the child crawls inside a closet and strikes matches just to see them
flare up, to see how long she can hold the slender sticks, letting the flame
Finally they are standing there, and the child falls against her mother.
Her sister is twirling under a parasol saying Japanese words. And him.
He carries the luggage in, accepts a cup of coffee, and sits saying little,
shaking his knee.
When the new father wakes up, he’ll put on his uniform, lace the boots,
and thread the belt with the brass buckle through his pant loops. How
he’s polished the boots and brass. The child doesn’t touch the buckle
when it lies on the dresser, though she sometimes peers so close she can
see one big, distorted eye.
She sleeps with her sister who tosses and turns in the bed, crowded with
dreams of flying, falling in water, running from a big bear with claws.
Once the child called out, and her mother came to see what was wrong.
“I’m cold,” she said, and her mother warmed a towel on the radiator and
wrapped it around her feet. Soon light will bring back the shapes of
things, the dolls on the floor, the open door that leads to the hallway to
her parents’ room where sometimes, when they’ve all stayed up late,
she’ll hear, “Wait until the kids are asleep.”
WHAT THE CHILD ALSO HEARS
Her new father saying to her mother, “Why don’t you shut your trap?”
The sound of the car starting each morning, taking him dressed in his
sergeant’s uniform to work.
Her mother, who’s pregnant again, talking with friends who are laughing
while holding their coffee cups in the afternoon, sometimes all of them
talking at once until time for the husbands to arrive, then the front door
opening and closing.
Rattle of pans in the kitchen, being called to set four places at the table.
Moving the chairs across the wood floor. Fork and knife scraping
against plate. Anything can happen so don’t turn over the glass, or
complain. His arms are long and quick, but it’s his voice she fears—his
words like rocks, hurled this way and that.
WHAT THE CHILD SEES
The new father is choking her mother because she’s yelled back. Finally
he takes his hands from her throat, goes into the bedroom, packs his
clothes, and leaves.
Her sister and the baby are crying so the child comforts them. Her mother
lies on the sofa, not talking. It’s almost Thanksgiving, and they’ll eat only
sandwiches since they can’t get to the store without a car and, even if there
was one, her mother can’t drive.
Outside leaves lie damp on the ground. A bright pumpkin rests whole on a
neighbor’s doorstep. All her life the child will love the shapes of pumpkins,
how at Halloween after you’ve pulled out the wet clinging seeds, you can
cut happy or sad faces.
INSIDE THE DOLLHOUSE
A clock is painted on the wall so time never changes, only the way light
enters the room. A brown sofa is next to the chair where the father sits.
The mother’s too busy to sit for long, and cooks and cleans while children
play in a bedroom scattering paper dolls over the floor. “It’s mine,” one
says. “No, it’s mine,” says the other, and they tear the man in two. Her
mother comes running with threats. They must be quiet or the father
will be angry and cursing again. She returns to the kitchen to make
potatoes and roast. When everyone comes to dinner they sit not talking,
consumed with hunger.
At another time they are at their places at the table. One of the children
blows out candles on a birthday cake, and nobody’s unhappy, and a
present waits with its bright bow and inside is a wish.
THE REAL FATHER
It’s as if he’s vanished, no letters or cards. Then one day he arrives,
and stands inside the new father’s house asking her mother for a kiss.
The child watches the two figures close together, her real father reaching
out his hand, lifting her mother’s hair, and for a moment her mother
leans toward him there on the blue linoleum, the sun shining on the
windowsill where a china cup from Japan is held in place by its saucer.
If you turn the cup over and hold it to the light, a woman’s face appears
in the translucent glass.
First there are just a few flakes that melt, then more, making patches of
white, an outline of trees, a frosting on pines. Soon everything is covered.
The child stands at the window where moisture has gathered, and takes
her finger and writes a “G,” the first letter of her name. “G” is for good,
for ghost, for goose. For go. Go outside to gather snow in a bowl, bring
it in and mix with sugar, let it disappear on your tongue.
Then she writes a small “a,” followed by an “i” and an “l,” then watches
her name drip down the pane.
Gail Peck’s essays have been published in Brevity, Kestrel, Connotation
Press, and others.
On “Child Waiting”:
I am primarily a poet, although I also enjoy writing creative
nonfiction which gives me the opportunity to “go the distance” as in
“Child Waiting.” I wanted some remove from the first person, so
settled on third. Thus, the child in this piece could be any child, though
of course this was my own experience. The subtitles became a way of
ordering the material, of suspending time, what my friend refers to as
the “segmented essay.” During the time-frame of this essay, my own
life felt suspended: my parents had divorced, and my mother left with
my stepfather and half-sister for an army tour in Japan. I was left to
live with my grandparents. A child has only so much insight into the
elements of time, and it seemed forever that my mother was gone,
although the tour of duty my stepfather had signed up for was cut
short by six months.
Throughout my life this seeming desertion was an unspoken
source of frustration to both myself and my mother. We both felt guilty,
and weren’t able to talk about it for years. One day, like so many
things, it irrupted. That gave us a chance for healing, understanding,
and forgiveness that has lasted.
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