A Bend In The Willow
I was seven years old the first time I wished him dead. And I remember everything about that cloudless February day. The sky had a dazzling light to it, the kind that bounced off snowdrifts and caught the sparkle in the spider web frost on the school bus windows. It was the kind of light that made dreams seem possible. Even for me.
I scooted closer to the window so Nancy couldn’t see me slip my hand inside my book bag to finger the pink envelope where Wayne Stafford had printed my full name with a heart drawn around it. Robin Lee Carter. As soon as I finished my chores I planned to paint a snowman card with a heart, instead of a carrot, for a nose.
Nancy poked me in the shoulder. “You got a secret in there?”
I shook my head. Nancy Preston and I swore we’d never keep secrets from each other. But this was a new feeling and I didn’t have the words to explain it yet, even to my best friend. The bus smelled like tangerines, wet wool and half-eaten peanut butter sandwiches left in lunchboxes.
When the doors swung open on Bear Hollow Road, a string of yelping kids hopped from the bottom step and raced toward the sleds they’d left at the crest of the hill. I caught up with Wayne and touched his sleeve. “May I ride your sled?” I was careful to use the proper verb.
Wayne grinned, but before he could say yes, Peggy Thompson, in her red coat with black fur cuffs, stuck her prissy face close to my ear and whispered, loud enough for him to hear. “Robin Lee is nothing but dirty junkyard trash.”
Wayne's gaze settled on his galoshes for a moment before he turned and ran toward the hill.
I stood up real straight, lifted my chin like Momma always said, and pretended it didn’t matter. Although my clothes weren’t as new and fancy as Peggy’s, they were always clean and well mended.
I wanted to brag about the card Wayne had given me, but instead I held my nose and glared at Peggy. “You have cooties and your breath smells like dog poop.”
She gasped, stuffed her hands into a fur muff that hung from a braided cord around her neck and marched away; her finger curls bobbing with each step.
Nancy slapped her palm over her mouth to hold in the giggles, but she couldn’t hide the sparkle in her blue eyes. Her mom worked on Tuesdays and Thursdays and paid my momma to babysit after school. I loved those two days better than any other. Even my daddy seemed happier. But today was Wednesday. I waved to Nancy, and then ran toward my house, anxious to get the laundry hung so I could paint the snowman card.
Halfway up the drive, I spotted Daddy’s pickup truck parked at a funny slant, its front tires in the flowerbed Momma had covered with pine needles for the winter. Right away, I figured he’d been drinking. My heart thumped, but not in the good way it had when I found Wayne’s valentine. Daddy’s drinking moods were dangerous, like someone sprayed poison into the air. I knew my life was different and sometimes knowing that was like skin pinched inside the teeth of a zipper.
I ran toward the salvage yard and looked through the window into my father’s empty office. I had to do something to stop him. I stepped inside and turned on the light, a bare bulb that dangled from the ceiling by a thick yellow wire. I picked up the telephone and dialed the number Momma kept beside the kitchen phone. I’d memorized it, just in case. When the nice lady at the VA hospital answered I said, “he's drinking again. You have to come get him before something bad happens.” In the background, I could hear other phones ringing. She told me to hold on. And when she came back, I gave her my father’s name and our address.
“Are you mad at your daddy, honey?”
"Yes," I said, but that was only one part of it. I loved my father. I hated my father. I felt sorry for him. I was afraid of him when he drank. And yes, sometimes I was madder than a hornet.
“Did he punish you for something?”
“Not yet,” I answered.
The woman let out a burst of air as if she had been holding her breath. “What did you do?”
She laughed. “Kids. You’re all the same. Have your mother call us if there is a real problem. Now be a good girl and let me get back to my work.”
“Please,” I said. “Momma won’t call you until after—” But it was too late, the VA lady had already hung up.
My stomach tightened with each step closer to my house. When I got up even with his truck, I climbed on the running board and peeked inside. An empty bourbon bottle wedged in the seat crack confirmed my fear. Confirmed was one of the words on my vocabulary list. Momma said that using words in a sentence proved that I understood them. But I couldn’t understand Daddy’s reasons for getting drunk. Sometimes a shadow of something scary passed over his face and I thought he might tell us what he’d seen behind the dark place, but he never did. Momma said he had something called Battle Fatigue and needed to rest.
“Laundry’s ready, Robin Lee.”
At the sound of Momma’s voice, I leaped off the running board. The skirt of my dress billowed like a green parachute. I ran across the backyard, watching my brother’s, perfectly good, outgrown saddle shoes break holes in the snow with each of my steps. The wind picked up, rustling the sheets and towels Momma had hung earlier. The whole backyard filled with flapping colors as bright as a new box of Crayolas.
My hair blew across my face and I looped it behind my ears. Momma said I could let it grow, as long as I kept it neat. Inside my head, I kept hearing Peggy call me junkyard trash. It must have been something real bad if Wayne wouldn’t even look at me.
I stopped at the foot of the concrete steps leading up to our kitchen and listened. Relieved there were no angry sounds coming from inside, I picked up the wicker basket Momma had left for me. A steamy mist rose from the warm laundry. And I could smell the lemon peels she tied up in cheesecloth and added to the rinse water.
When I passed by the mimosa tree, the branches were covered with lines of snow. But that didn’t keep me from thinking about the spring Daddy had planted it—of damp, turned earth, the color of his eyes. Once so soft, Momma claimed, that a woman could tumble into them and disappear.
As I hung the Logans’ laundry on a rope stretched between willow trees, I kept wishing I could have known that man. Sometimes, deep inside a pocket in my chest, I hurt for everything Momma had lost.
A thick crust of snow crunched beneath my feet and I rolled my toes against the cold. I shifted the wooden apple crate I used for a stool, pinned a row of socks, and then pulled the box further down the line.
The diapers I’d fastened only minutes before had stopped steaming and were frozen, stiff as kites flapping in the wind. I could hear the swooshing of the sleds on the hillside, the laughing high-pitched voices of the other kids, but somehow it didn’t matter so much now. I picked up the empty basket, crossed the yard and climbed the steps, careful not to let the storm door slam behind me.
In the bright yellow kitchen, Momma bent over the washtub, her hands moving in and out of the soapy water. Her hair was damp and clung to the sides of her face and forehead in darkened waves. She hummed and had that concentrating look that made me know she was doing more than just washing dirt out. Something passed from her hands to the clothes and that’s why her customers loved the way their laundry felt and smelled when Lora Carter delivered it. Momma said you should always be proud of what you do, as long as it's honest work.
I looked around the room. None of the chairs were overturned. No broken dishes littered the linoleum floor. Everything was in its place. Maybe I’d been wrong. Maybe that was an old bourbon bottle in his truck. “Has he been–?”
Momma turned and put a quieting finger to her lips. I wasn’t supposed to talk about his drinking. The small gold-colored cross Momma always wore caught the slanted light from the window and winked. She smiled. Though Momma never complained about her work, I understood how much she wanted a different life for me. That’s why she took a dollar a day from Daddy’s cash register and saved what she could from the babysitting, laundry and sewing she took in.
We hid the money in a coffee can behind a row of mason jars in the root cellar–a dark place my daddy never entered because ever since the war he’d been afraid of loud noises and dark places. Momma had painted the can a pale shade of green with some brown-centered yellow daisies tied in a blue bow. Underneath the flowers she added the words, Robin Lee’s Dream, in a real pretty cursive. Momma was a good painter. Three times a year she and I gathered up the small bills and loose coins and exchanged them at the bank for a crisp hundred-dollar bill. This college plan was a secret between Momma and me.
I dropped the empty laundry basket onto the floor beside the washtub. The kitchen smelled like detergent, lemons and freshly baked cornbread. My stomach growled. I dearly loved cornbread.
Kyle, my ten-year-old brother, sat at the blue Formica table, speckled with white-and-gold flecks. Momma was real proud of that table with its shiny chrome legs and silver edges with ridges where crumbs and grease collected. Each week, she cleaned the ridges with a toothpick. She believed that cleanliness really was up there next to Godliness.
Kyle wore a black mask over his eyes and the once-white cowboy hat he’d found in the backseat of a wrecked Cadillac. He pushed his multiplication homework aside and looked at me through the holes in the mask. “You wanna be Tonto? I’ll let you inside my fort.” My brother had dark hair and eyes with lashes Momma said should belong to a girl. His skin was tan, even in winter. He didn’t have freckles across his nose like I did. I thought he looked like a book hero and most of the girls in our school had crushes on him. He didn’t like girls much, except for me when his friends weren’t around.
I grinned and bowed from the waist, pretending to be honored.
In the woods behind our house, Kyle and his best friend Buddy had built a fort with old car doors. Kyle painted a No Girl’s Aloud sign on one of them. I never let on that he’d spelled allowed wrong.
“Two more loads, Kemosabi,” I said. “You could help.”
He shook his head and grinned. “Squaw’s work.”
I didn’t mind his not helping me. Kyle had a much more dangerous chore working with Daddy––changing oil and sorting car parts in the salvage yard. Besides I had a valentine card to make. I adjusted my chair beside the washtub so I could watch the hallway entrance to the kitchen, and then picked up a book I’d checked out of the bookmobile. It had a picture of a rearing black stallion on the cover. My thawing hands tingled as I opened it. Black Beauty.
In all the world, I believed there was no place quite so magical as that moving library, all its inside walls lined with stories. I was the best reader in my second-grade class. Dog-poop-breath Peggy had to keep her pointing finger under each word as she struggled to pronounce it. Maybe that was why she hated me so much.
Momma looked up from filling the laundry basket, studied my face for a moment and then cocked her head.
“Will you help me paint a snowman card?” I asked.
“Right after supper,” she said, her gaze still locked on my face. “What’s wrong?”
She always knew when something bothered me so there was no use pretending. I told her about Peggy and Wayne.
Momma opened her arms. “How much do I love you?”
I stepped into them. “More than the stars love the sky,” I said. “More than the night loves a full moon.”
Momma hugged me hard, and then lifted my chin with a fingertip that felt warm against my skin. “Peggy is jealous because you won the spelling bee. And maybe because Wayne likes you.”
“I won because I studied hard. And I take a bath every night. Why does that make me dirty junkyard trash?”
Before Momma could respond, Clifford Carter stumbled into the kitchen. Whenever I saw him drunk, I tried to think of him as Clifford Carter and not my daddy. He stopped beside the table for a moment and everything in the room got still.
Momma returned to the laundry, but her long-fingered hands moved more slowly in and out of the suds as she kneaded a dishtowel against the metal washboard.
Kyle’s thick yellow pencil suspended an inch above the sheet of lined paper with his multiplication tables printed in neat columns.
My hands shook a little as I opened my book and pretended to read.
No one spoke.
No one dared look at him until he ripped the cowboy hat from Kyle’s head, taking the mask with it. “Where are your manners, boy?”
Kyle rubbed the side of his face where the rubber band that held his mask in place had stung him as it snapped.
I carefully set my book on the floor, scared to take my gaze away from Clifford Carter now.
His eyes were red and sticky-looking in the corners. Not soft. He pulled a small glass from the cabinet, slammed it onto the table beside Kyle’s homework. He yanked a pint bottle of bourbon from the pocket of his coveralls and filled the glass until it spilled over the rim. He drank it all at once, and then fitted that glass into the wet circle it had left on the table and poured another. He glared at me.
Everything I feared was in his eyes. His rage was held there, tied back with a single thread––one I knew I’d broken with my question about junkyard trash. I clamped my eyes shut, flattened my hands against my thighs and waited for the blow. But it didn’t come.
Outside a car backfired as loud as a bomb exploding.
I opened my eyes.
My baby brother, Mikey, started to cry, real hard.
A little vein on the side of Clifford Carter’s head jumped up and down. His fingers wrapped around the small glass. He got bug-eyed and started to shake. An instant later, the glass fell and shattered on the floor.
Momma dried her hands on her apron.
He lunged for me.
She leaped forward and tried to stop him.
He moved her aside, real gentle-like. Even when he had one of his spells, he would never hurt Momma.
Mikey’s screams grew louder.
“Don’t you dare lay a finger on either of them,” she said to Clifford Carter, and then hurried down the hallway toward the baby’s room.
I got up to run, but my legs felt like tree trunks and wouldn’t move.
He grabbed the collar of my jacket and lifted me into the air.
I tucked my chin into my chest to keep the zippered-up jacket from choking me.
He charged out the back door and down the steps. I dangled like a puppet from his right hand. Above me, daggers of ice hung from the rain gutters.
With his other hand, he jerked the metal lid from the galvanized garbage can and dropped me inside. “I’ll show you trash.” He slammed the lid, twisted it into place.
The can smelled like rotting cabbage and sour buttermilk. I heard him grunting. Something heavy fell onto the lid. I pressed my fingers over my ears until the ringing metal stopped. The darkness was sudden and complete, but I knew that to scream or knock over the can would only make him punish me more. Momma believed prayer changed things and so I prayed until the stench gagged me. I kept hearing Peggy’s words inside my head. Junkyard trash. Dirty Junkyard trash.
I clamped my hand over my mouth and nose, breathed in the faint smell of laundry soap that clung to my fingers. I kept telling myself that the tiny white maggots I’d seen lining the can’s bottom were God’s creatures, too.
From the house, I heard the crash of a body thumping against the wall, Kyle’s scream. And then the high wail of my infant brother, followed by Momma’s thin comforting voice.
I balled my fists, raised them to the sides of my head and clamped my eyes shut. Inside the darkness, I imagined myself polished and brave, a perfect girl, overflowing with stories about a happy family, like Nancy. After school, I’d push the door open and find my new father smiling. He wore his blue sheriff uniform with the gold patch on the sleeve. Jewels of sunlight sparkled everywhere as he lifted me onto his shoes and danced me around the kitchen.
And in my dream, I raced head on into a future life where no one would ever call me junkyard trash again. I’d live in a big brick house surrounded by flowers, bookshelves lining every wall. I’d take art lessons and paint the best greeting cards in the world.
As the remains of last night’s dinner brushed against the bare skin above my anklets, my lip trembled. I steadied it with the back of my hand.
Above the baby’s cries, I heard the storm door slam, the sound of Momma‘s voice, both sad and angry. “How dare you,” she said. “These are our children you’re terrorizing. They’re not your enemy. Don’t even think about coming back until you’re sober.”
I waited as the truck’s engine cranked and ground, finally turning over into motion. Waited for his pickup to bounce and sputter past the junkyard and down our rutted drive. With my eyes clamped shut, I imagined the trail of black smoke rising in the thin air behind him. I threw myself against the walls of the garbage can, trying to tip it over. I dove again and again. The can wobbled, but remained upright.
Finally someone nudged the cinder block aside and loosened the metal lid. When Kyle lifted me into the light, I blinked against the brightness. His hand felt as soft as snowflakes in my hair. “Don’t worry, Tonto,” he whispered. “Lone Ranger always gets the bad guy.”
A moment later, the baby had stopped crying and Momma stood beside us with a warm cloth. She washed my face, hands, arms and legs. “I’m so sorry, honey.”
“I wish he’d died in that war, Momma.”
Her smile that day was the saddest thing I’d ever seen. “He did, honey," she’d whispered. “He did.”