Just For You to Know: Chapter Two
In which we move into our new, crummy, old house and we have company.
Jimmy has his own room. I have worries.
I folded my arms and hated the sting in my nose: first sign of the tears that come when I’m mad. Yes, Daddy, I told him in my head, as a matter of fact, I do find our family pretty embarrassing.
He didn’t slap me hard. It hurt my feelings mostly. A bad surprise on top of a bad surprise plus strangers and my brothers staring at me -- except for Jimmy who bit his lower lip and looked at his lap.
“You made Mama cry,” Larry whispered, frowning at me. Dad tossed an “Everybody just settle down now” over the back seat and peeled out of the lot. At least everyone was quiet for a change as he drove through the dark streets. Georgie fell asleep on Mama’s lap and Clark read street signs.
“Noland Road. River Bou-le-vard. Cottage – hey!
Is this our street, Daddy?”
I covered my eyes with my hands and it wasn’t long before I felt us slow down, surge up a little hill, and roll to a stop on crunchy gravel.
“Please, please, please,” I prayed into the stillness when the engine stopped. “Just don’t let it be too horrible.” I looked to see where the latest chapter of our same old life was going to be. Dad got out, stood up, and whooshed out a big breath of air. He pressed his hands into the small of his back and said, “Well, now!” to everybody but me, seemed like.
“Wow,” Clark breathed.
“It looks like a haunted house,” Jimmy said.
We kids climbed out, me hugging my sketchbook to my chest. We all stood in the rutted driveway that ran alongside the house, which did look pretty spooky. Leafy shadows cast from the streetlight flickered across the dark windows. Even darker, inky-black treetops swayed high over the pointy roof of our tall, rickety, ratty-looking house. What would be a good name for this house? Deep in the dark front porch, chains clinked on the swaying swing. Creepy Crappy Crummy Cathcart Castle? Across the street, a light came on and in the moment before he closed it, an old man shape darkened a front door.
In my memory, I saw our old neighborhood: a field across the road where Farmer Scott raised soybeans. Here there were sidewalks, big old houses with porches, and a streetlight on the corner. Its glow lit up a brick grade school in the next block. Clark pointed at it. “That’s where us boys are going to go, except not Georgie.”
“I wanna go!” Georgie whined.
Probably our house had been built and painted about the time the last wagon train rolled out of town. ‘A fixer-upper,’ Dad called it. Meaning it was either us or the wrecking ball. The spooks that lived here would probably be upstairs packing right about now and heading out to the highway to scare innocent motorists, or bunking with their relatives at the graveyard until they found a new, more peaceful place to haunt.
The air smelled like mowed lawns and purple irises.
It sounded like crickets plus someone somewhere listening to a ballgame. Somebody next door was playing a piano, real good too, with both hands. Would the folks around here be glad we moved into their neighborhood? Was there anybody in these houses who might be friends with me?
“Come on, Carmie,” Dad said, as he turned the key in the lock of the back door. He wasn’t going to let a tight-faced twelve-year-old mess up his fresh start. Besides, once his temper flashed out a few thunderbolts, he calmed right back down again and liked everyone else to do the same.
Sorry. Not me. Too bad.
I shrunk away from Mama’s hand on my shoulder then followed everyone following Dad into the house.
The place had electricity anyway. Light from a dim, dangling bulb shone down on our tired selves and a yellowish kitchen full of the boxes and sacks which Mom and Dad had been moving up here while I babysat everybody back at Blue Top. They were stacked here and there on the icky-looking linoleum. A mouse, probably the smartest one in her family, took one look at us and ran for her life into a crack under the cupboards.
Mama sank down on a kitchen chair and closed her hand around my wrist as I started past her. “Carmie,” she said, “you and Jimmy have the two rooms up on the top floor, okay?”
“Really?” Jimmy grinned at this good surprise. It was a first for him. One good thing about being the only girl: You just about always get a room to yourself.
“Not fair!” Clark cried. He gave Jimmy an arm-punch, then they scrambled for the stairs. I leaned down and pressed my cheek onto the top of Mama’s head. You can be mad about having a really bad day and people not telling you things and still try to make things a little bit nice anyway.
“I’m sorry,” I said, but I walked away from her before Mama could say anything back to me.
At the top of two sets of stairs I found a tiny room. It was pretty smelly, like hardly anybody but mice had been in here in a long, long time. As soon as my fingers found the switch I saw a frosted square of light fixture. The bulb in it that worked shined out as best it could through a whole bunch of moth corpses onto a slanting-down ceiling, one window, cardboard boxes, my bookcase, my bed and dresser, and brownish wallpaper all polka-dotted with clumps of oatmeal-colored lilacs.
I breathed in deep, and treated myself to THE most satisfactory sound: the slam of a door shut tight between yourself and the whole entire, crummy rest of the world. I flopped down on the bed and, after a moment, comforted myself by looking at my drawing of Sarah Somebody, erasing every mark that wasn’t perfect. I scrubbed my pencil back and forth, sharpening it on the cardboard back of the sketchbook, and drew curving lines around her face. Press softly, then harder: thin then thick then thin again, my pencil gave her graceful curls and made me feel calm until – tap, tap, tap.
Jimmy’s voice followed the taps through the wall: “I’ve never had my own room before. This is so neat! Carmen, how come you’re so mean about the new baby?”
Before I could answer which I wasn’t going to, the far-downstairs sounds of a noisy kid-chorus announced company at the front door. A foghorn voice cried out, “I can only stay a minute!”
“Aunt Bevy’s here!” Jimmy cried. He and I got downstairs just as Mom was coming out of the kitchen and saying to herself, “Oh, for crying out loud.” She loved her big sister, but did she like unexpected company? Not at all.
“Say Bev, comin’ to see us on a Friday night?” Dad teased. “Seems like you’d be out on a date.”
Aunt Bevy’s bright lips tightened before she replied, “So I am – with you guys!” So I figured she must’ve gotten her heart busted again. Our only aunt lived over in Kansas City with a poodle named Trixie and no husband, “but not for want of trying,” said Daddy. Aunt Bevy told me once about her long ago husband, Bill. “He got shot in the big war by some Nazi son-of-a-gun.” She’d been on lots of dates. “But nobody was ever as nice as Bill.” Aunt Bevy worked in the hat department at a big store downtown where people called her Miss Gillespie. She was what Dad called a “career gal.”
Tonight Aunt Bevy swept into our front room in her turquoise pedal pusher outfit. She’d stabbed chopsticks into the top of her dark brown, ratted-up, swept-up hairdo. As she hugged Mama to her perfumed smoky-smelling self, I couldn’t help thinking that my mom sure was the opposite of her skinny, stylish sister. In her homemade pastel dresses, Mama was like a candy-colored cloud. She was quiet like a cloud too, big and puffy-soft with thunder hidden inside.
“Might I offer you ladies a swig of Kool-Ade?” Dad asked them.
When everyone took him up on his offer, I got up to help. “No, now, Buddy,” Dad told me, “I can manage.” Buddy’s my nickname. It meant Dad was sorry for popping me in public.
Mama smiled at him and plopped in her rocking chair by the bay window. Aunt Bevy gave us kids hugs of our own, saying, “Be an angel, Jimmy-pie, and bring me an ashtray, will ya, please? Now which one of you twins is Larry? Say there, Georgie-boy! You been takin’ cute pills? Clark, knock knock!”
A big grin split Clark’s skinny face. “Who’s there?”
“Boo,” Aunt Bevy replied, firing up one of her stinky Lucky Strikes. She smiled when Clark answered back, “Boo who – oh man, everybody knows that one!”
“Whatcha cryin’ for!” Harry shouted, really happy to supply the punch line. Aunt Bevy gave me the usual, ‘Carmen, look how tall you’ve gotten!’ But she made up for it, digging a sack out of her huge straw purse and handing it to me.
“Hey, thanks,” I said, pulling out a fresh pad of drawing paper, “I really needed this!”
“Good goin’ Bev,” Dad drawled. “That’s the first smile anyone’s gotten out of Carmen all day.” I ignored him and followed Aunt Bevy’s gaze around our jumbled front room. She frowned up at our chandelier. “It looks just the tiniest bit like a flying saucer, wouldn’t you say?”
“I think it looks more like that Russian satellite,” said Jimmy. “You know: Sputnik.” To me, it was more like a garbage can lid fitted out with light bulbs, but I wasn’t going to say so. Its puny glow lit up the ceiling’s water stains. I searched them for shapes and faces, like you would in clouds.
Aunt Bevy, who’d gone back to searching through her big purse, cried, “Ta da!” and whipped out a – well, it looked like a wad of soda straws. Then she jumped to her feet and sort of let go of the straws, but they didn’t spill all over the place like you’d think because they were all tied together with thread in a way that turned the straws into corners, angles, and towers.
“A straw castle!” she exclaimed, ignoring Georgie playing piano on her Calypso Coral toenails. She didn’t seem to notice Larry tugging her shirt as she hung her present from the bottom of our Sputnik chandelier. She grinned down at Mama. “Remember how Pop used to always have one of these in the diner?”
“Auntie Bevy?” said Larry.
“He called it his dream castle in the air,” Mama said. I repeated the words to myself: dream castle in the air. Neat.
Larry spoke louder. “Aunt Be-VY!”
“Honey, your mother and I were --”
“Guess what?” Blabbermouth Harry interrupted Aunt Bevy and spilled all the beans. “Mommy’s gonna have another baby, didja know that?”
“Hey!” Larry shouted. “I was gonna tell her!”
“Ha ha, I beat you!”
“You two pipe down!” Dad said, picking his way across the room, pitcher in one hand, sack of Dixie cups in the other. He shot me a sharp look, like he was double-dog-daring me to say something about the baby.
“A baby?” Aunt Bevy’s skinny drawn-on eyebrows frowned low in Dad’s direction. They shot right back up again as she tilted her head and flashed her eyes over at my mom.
So. I wasn’t the only one who didn’t think a new baby was such hot news.
Aunt Bevy bent down to kiss my mom’s cherry-colored cheek. Mom’s hands rested on her big stomach, sort of like she was protecting it and her eyes seemed to be telling her big sister to mind her own business. If Aunt Bevy had any worries or questions, she hid them away. She squeezed my mom’s hand and lied like she was supposed to.
“I think it’s just wonderful, Dee-Dee. ‘Bout time for a little girl, don’t you expect? I think I know someone who could use a sister ‘round here.” Aunt Bevy smiled at me. “Help you out with all these brothers, huh, Carmenita?”
A sister? Helping me?
“Sometime in the fall, right?” Aunt Bevy asked, fiddling with her silver cigarette box.
Mama flickered a smile in Dad’s direction before saying, ”Probably sooner.”
Aunt Bevy was getting ready to set fire to another one of her Lucky Strikes, then she glanced at Mama and decided to take a tiny sip of orange Kool-Ade instead. She wrinkled her powdered nose.
Clark pointed at Mom’s midsection. “Is it moving around in there?”
“What?” the twins demanded. “The new baby! Scooch over!” Clark told Georgie. Soon all four of the
little boys were crowding in to mash their heads up against Mama’s belly like bandits listening to railroad tracks to hear if a train was coming. I went over and gave Aunt Bevy a goodnight-and-goodbye hug. “Thank you again for the sketchbook.”
I made my escape upstairs and put a closed door between me and my family. I leaned against it, listening to their distant voices. As my eyes got used to the dark, as the storm clouds inside of me smoothed out, I walked over to the window. Way up here on the third floor made me feel like I was in a tower room in a fairytale castle, like in the story of Rapunzel, except my hair wasn’t long enough for anyone to come up and get me.
I beat on the window frame until it opened, looked past and through the dark treetop to the yards and street way down below. Dad and some of the boys were walking Aunt Bevy to her Volkswagen Beetle. I could just barely hear Dad telling her, “you be safe now.” It wasn’t hard to hear Aunt Bevy’s loud voice: “It’ll be mighty nice to have you all close by. Is Carmen okay? She seemed kind of grumpy and out of sorts.”
I tried to hear what Dad said to her, but all I got was a bunch of ‘nighty-nights’ before my aunt’s car rumbled away. The sounds of doors closing, kid-voices and stair-stomping sifted through the house.
“’Grumpy and out of sorts,’” I muttered. I folded my arms on the windowsill and rested my chin on them.
Another baby. Seven children. Maybe a big family would be all right if you were rich and famous like President Kennedy and all of his brothers and sisters. I couldn’t help thinking about those gas-station jerks and people staring at us like weren’t they lucky not to be like us messy, ugly, poor, noisy, stupid Cathcarts.
Oh, sometimes I hated every single feeling in my head! They all came running out like roaches when you turned on the light in the kitchen. I should have a can of thought spray.
I sat down on a box full of books, smoothed my hand across my new drawing pad, and thought about my parents. They loved babies. I just had to face it. For them, babies were like a clean sheet of paper or a new address: a fresh start, everything possible, and nothing ruined yet.
Sort of like a first day of school, which was another terrible thing to be gloomy and nervous about: a new school, probably a thousand times bigger than our school in back in Vista. And this wasn’t even going to be plain old elementary -- this would be junior high!
Oh, put a sock in it, I told myself. Don’t be a crabby pouty-baby over things you can’t stop from happening. Then some woman shouting in the distance interrupted the mean lecture I was giving myself.
“Raw-BIN,” she called, “for heaven’s sake come down out of there. It’s past your bedtime!”
A chubby-looking girl emerged out of the pool of shadow at the bottom of the big tree in the neighbors’ yard! She looked right up at my window and waved at me! Then she stomped up her front steps and went inside without even looking to see if I waved back.