JFYTK: Chapter Six
In which we learn something horrible about Richie the Creep.
Mama and I stay up late on the night of the last day I’ll ever be
twelve;she and I get better acquainted.
“What’d she mean?” Jimmy asked. “Are you and Robin going to the movies?”
“Maybe. Aunt Bevy said she’d take us for my birthday.”
“I wanna go.”
“I don’t think so.”
Wasn’t it bad enough that Old Yeller might not let Robin go with me and Aunt Bevy? Did I want to share my birthday with a little brother? Not exactly.
Jimmy stomped up the steps behind me and let the screen door slam. “Robin’s my friend too!”
“Hush up!” Dad said. He jerked his thumb at Mom sleeping on the couch. “Jimmy, you clear the junk
off the table and Carmen can peel some taters while I open up some cans and rustle up supper. Your mama’s not feelin’ good.”
When I was up high enough to look over the edge of the boards in the tree, an eerie moonface floating in the branches spoke to me: “It is eight minutes after midnight.” Then Robin switched off the flashlight under her chin and helped me up into her office.
“You are so weird,” I panted. “Did Aunt Bevy call your mom? I called and asked her to. Did your mom say you could go?”
“Your aunt called and mom said that she and Dad would think about it.”
“Well anyway, I’m glad you’re here and not in Minnesota.”
There didn’t seem like much else to say. We lay on our backs, feet propped in the branches, eating our strawberry cake. Our street was dark and quiet until a sound like a creaky screen door broke the stillness.
“What was that?” I whispered.
“I didn’t hear anything.” But she couldn’t help hearing what came next: an angry rumble of voices from the Scudder house. Yelling, too far away to hear all the words, close enough to hear the meanness.
“It’s Richie’s dad,” Robin said under her breath.
“Huh? You think we ought to go see what’s happening?”
“I know what’s happening. Ever since Mrs. Scudder died, he gets real noisy sometimes.”
“When did she?”
“Two or three years ago. Richie was in ninth grade, I think.”
We heard a twig snap, then footsteps down below! Robin grabbed her flashlight, but she didn’t need it. The streetlamp and a couple of porchlights were enough for us to see who it was.
“Hey, Jimmy! Stop!” We shouted as loud as we could and still be whispering, but he just kept walking in the direction of Richie Scudder’s house. Boy, I’d never gone down that stupid rope ladder so fast! Robin and I hurried over to the blackest shadows, by Mr. Scudder’s pickup truck. Only the sound of breathing and a glint of light on his glasses told us that Jimmy was there, too. Now the three of us jumped at the sound of a man’s voice, ugly and angry.
“I’m glad your mother’s not around to see what a bum you turned out to be!”
“This is dangerous,” I hissed, but still, we kept inching through the dark, like trouble was a magnet.
“Listen, old man, I got a job,” we heard Richie say.
“Don’t you sass me, boy!” Mr. Scudder thundered. I felt more than saw Jimmy’s shoulders cringe when we heard a thump and hitting-sounds.
“Stop it, man, you’re hurtin’ me!”
“You’re gol-durn right I’m hurtin’ ya, you lazy worthless --”
“Come on,” I hissed. “We shouldn’t be here.”
“His dad is so mean,” Jimmy whispered when we were back in our yard. “Still...Richie was rotten to do what he did to Cracker. She was just a poor little dog.”
“Yeah, well, maybe his horrible dad is why Richie’s so creepy,” said Robin.
The night was quiet again, like Richie’s crummy dad had settled down for the night. I wished ours had when he caught Jimmy and me sneaking in.
“Don’t even tell me what you’re doing up at this hour,” said Dad. “I don’t want to know. It’s too danged late.”
“Why were you out there, James?” I asked, when it was just us. “You were spying on Robin and me, weren’t you?”
You wouldn’t think a person could yawn and push his slippy glasses up and still look sly, but Jimmy could. “I just wanted to see if Robin can go to the movies with us,” he said.
Almost all of the night before I turned thirteen, I couldn’t sleep. Maybe, if I weren’t so excited about Robin’s mom giving in and saying she could go to the movies, I could’ve slept, if it weren’t so hot and sticky. My eyes kept opening and seeing pale rectangles. All around me, thumbtacked to the walls and ceiling were all of my lady drawings. They were so beautiful. It was nice, knowing they were there, and fun, imagining them talking among themselves when I was away. Their gowns fluttered in the warm breeze from the worthless window fan, which couldn’t cool one single inch of my bed. My pillow felt like a hot water bottle and besides, I heard voices downstairs.
Avoiding the creaky places on the stairs, I tiptoed down and past my parents’ empty bedroom and the boys’ room, and on down until I could tell where the voices were coming from the television. It had been turned so it could shine out of the open front window. Beyond it was the only-slightly-cooler outdoors, the porch swing, and Mom, watching the late movie.
I slipped out of the front door as quietly as I could, but the spring on the screen door squeaked to let her know I was there. Mom patted the swing beside her and, with a glance at her belly, whispered, “This child can’t sleep either.” She breathed in a couple of shallow sips of air. “It’s probably as warm and humid in there as it is out here, poor thing. Well, we can watch the movie together and tell
Daddy hello when he comes home from work.”
I returned Mom’s smile in the dark. “He’ll like that,” I whispered. We almost never got to be just us two, Mama and me. The chains squeaked and protested as I sat down next to her.
“Goodness,” Mama said, stroking my hair, “look how long this has gotten. We’ll want to trim those bangs before Bevy comes tomorrow. Maybe you’ll let me French braid it like I did when you were little.”
Her hand felt nice, but I had my private doubts about bang-trimming and braids. Moms can do some weird damage when they start messing with your hair.
“It’s your Birthday Eve!” she went on. “There should be a custom for that, don’t you think? Like hanging up a stocking?”
“We could leave cookies and milk for the Birthday Fairy.”
“Or,” I suggested hopefully, “I could open my presents after midnight.”
“In the morning,” she told me, “like a proper birthday. And I saved an extra present, for Saturday when we have your cake and candles.”
“What is it?”
“A surprise that’s what. Shush, now. You’ll want to hear this movie. It’s National Velvet.”
We’d been whispering like I imagined girls did when they stayed all night at their friends’ houses. Moths and June bugs were fluttering, hurling themselves at the window screen, crazy to get at the glowing pictures of a dark-haired girl (“That’s Elizabeth Taylor,” said Mama.) and a running horse. The night was dark and sweet-smelling, like the inside of a lady’s black velvet purse. A cool breeze ruffled through the trees. When the movie gave way to a commercial, Mama began whispering again.
“I’m glad they’re showing this. My mom – your grandma – took Bevy and me to see National Velvet when I wasn’t much older than you are now. It was my favorite.” According to Mom, this old movie was about more than Velvet Brown and Pi, her horse, and their winning a big race. “It’s about Velvet’s mother there, and how she and her daughter shared their dreams. They both had high hopes.”
“What were your high hopes?” I asked.
“Did you have a dream?”
“Oh.” Mama paused. “Well you know, your father and I… when he got home from the war and we got married...well, we wanted you children. I guess you could say that was our dream, a nice big family.”
It sounded like a nightmare to me. “Why?” I interrupted.
Even in the darkness I could see she looked surprised. “Babies are a gift from God!” she said, a lot more firmly than she usually talked.
Not much of a present was the thought that popped out of the bratty part of my brain. Another crybaby thought tumbled right out after it: Each new kid only pushed her further away from me, from the time I was her only one.
“Why did we have to have such a big family?
I mean, we could have just been Jimmy for Daddy and –” I was ashamed to say the babyish rest of it: And me for her. I had some pride.
Mama pressed her cool hand to the side of my face. “Oh Carmen,” she said, ignoring the movie that had started again. “How can I tell you how it was for your dad and me? The war and the Depression years before that, when we were kids, they’d been so hard. So when I first found out that I was....“ Mama’s hand rose to fiddle with her hair. “When I was going to have a baby, we were so happy, but then something happened and…” Her voice faltered. “And, well, I lost the baby.”
“Lost it?” My own voice was small. Of course I knew she hadn’t misplaced the baby or left it somewhere. I couldn’t stand to think of her being sick or in trouble.
“It was a medical thing,” she went on. “Things… pregnancies, I mean, sometimes go wrong. We were both so sad, and then, when it happened again –”
“Again? That happened to you two times? That there wasn’t going to be a baby after all?” I squeezed her rough hand.
“It was almost worse for your poor dad,“ said Mama. She looked out into the night, as if she could see him out there, with his head in his hands out in some long ago, far-off yard. “Then you came along.” She smiled. “You were so cuddly and happy. You were a dream-come-true.”
Her words made my throat tight and tears sting my nose. Okay, I was pretty desperate for her to say something mushy like that.
“And even on your worst day, you still are.” She put her arms around me and hugged me to her big softness. Mama smelled like face powder, baby powder and graham crackers. “This baby will be a dream-come-true, too. You’ll see.”
Dad’s headlights swooped around the corner as the movie ended and back inside the house, our clock chimed midnight. Mama hugged me even tighter and told me, “Happy birthday, Carmie.”