In which Dad brings home the baby, Aunt Bevy
loses her sense of style, we have company,
Velvet and I make our acquaintance.
It was late, after nine o’clock the next morning, when I went downstairs. I figured she’d be there, but it was still a shocker, seeing Aunt Bevy in Mom’s kitchen, cracking eggs into a bowl and stuffing slabs of Wonderbread into our toaster. Trixie was wolfing down poodle food. “That all you’re gonna have?” Aunt Bevy asked Clark. “Those Sugar Pops?”
I crept away from the kitchen door as a wave of lonesomeness swept over me. Momsickness. I went to sit in her rocking chair. All of the things that Jimmy said last night about Mama, what she’d said, everything that had happened, and all of my worries were still boiling around in my mind. How could everything be so wonderful, like it was on my birthday, then be so hopeless?
I sighed. My head was stuffed with troubles, but, I was realizing, my stomach was empty. I walked back into the kitchen. Breakfast, at least, was a problem I could solve. I’d just have to be like one of Mama’s junky closets. I’d sort myself out later.
“Morning, Aunt Bevy,” I said. “Where’s Dad? And Georgie and the twins?”
She turned around, leaned up against her sinkful of rubber nipples and baby bottles and squinted her naked eyes at me like she had a headache. She dug into the pocket of her pink bathrobe for a cigarette. She poked it into her unpainted lips and fired it up just as Jimmy walked into the kitchen.
“Hey, the car’s gone. Where’s Dad?” Then he frowned at her cigarette. “You’re not going to smoke those things around the baby are you?”
If she’d had her eyebrows drawn on yet, we’d have seen them frowning at us through her smoke. Aunt Bevy pursed her lips, gave a ladylike snort, and poked her cigarette into the dishwater to hiss and die.
“Good morning to you too,” she said. “The little boys had their Cheerios and went to play in the backyard.” She turned to look out the window then rap on it with her knuckles. “Where Larry appears to be pinning a dead squirrel up on the clothesline by its tail.
“The factory gave your old man a few days off, you know. I sent him to get powder and formula for the baby, some groceries for the rest of us. The doctor called and said we needed the baby worse than they did so maybe your dad would like to stop by the hospital and give Velvet a ride home.” She stopped to sip some coffee and blow her nose. “Now judging by the skunk eye you all are giving me, I reckon you all miss your poor mother and to make things worse, you have to see me without my warpaint, huh?”
“You look real nice,” Clark said, around a big mouthful of Pops.
She patted Clark on the head, smiled at Jimmy and me. “Sit down. I’ll feed you. What do you want?”
“Scrambled eggs?” I suggested, buttering myself a piece of toast.
Aunt Bevy set about fixing eggs, sipping coffee, and talking. “Now we have lots to do to get ready for the baby. Keeping busy will keep our minds off our troubles. Only the calendar can fix them.”
“What’s that mean?” Jimmy asked, looking up from his Cheerios.
“It just means you’ll feel better and things’ll work out as days go by.”
I sure hoped so.
Aunt Bevy started outlining a chore campaign like she was a general and our house was a battlefield. “All of us are going to give this place a good going-over,“ she went on. “We don’t want your mother looking down from heaven and seeing us all going to hell-in-a-hand-basket and not giving that baby a good start. Clark, you head on up and get to picking up toys. I want to see the floor of that bedroom of yours.”
“They’re Harry and Larry’s toys too,“ Clark grumbled.
“I’ll send ’em up,” Aunt Bevy agreed. “I don’t want those little knuckleheads setting fire to the neighborhood, messing around the incinerator. I’ll get it going, then it’ll be your job, Jimmy, to take care of these piles of papers and magazines packratted all over this place. I’m sure your dear, sweet mother always meant to set a match to them as soon as she got around to it.”
Jimmy and I traded astonished glances as Aunt Bevy wrinkled her nose at a cardboard box full of musty, mousy-smelling diapers, baby clothes, and blankets. “Carmie, you know how to work that washing machine in the cellar?”
“Sure.” With the toe of my tennis shoe, I nudged the box down the cellar steps. I was shaking out tiny duds and poking them into the machine when I heard a bunch of stomping and voices.
“Carmie, Daddy’s home!”
Our old washer was thumping and spinning so I couldn’t really hear Clark hollering at me. It was one thing to meet a baby at a hospital when she was so cute and I was so emotional -- and I could hand her over to Nurse Marjorie and leave. Sure, I could tell myself it wasn’t the baby’s fault that my mom was dead. It was a whole ‘nother thing to have it here in the house.
“Look at that red hair!” Aunt Bevy’s loud, hoarse voice came through the ceiling beams. “Why, she’s just how Dee looked when she was a baby!”
“How old were you then?” Larry asked. I found out I could hear better if I stood close to the furnace vent.
“Six going on seven.”
“That’s our age!”
“Carmie!” Harry called from the top of the steps. “Come up and see the baby! She’s so cute!”
“In a minute!” I waited a while, then I sneaked upstairs and out the back door without anybody seeing me. I pinned a bunch of teeny, wet nightgowns, diapers, and things to the clothesline, then, as quiet as I could, came back in and hid behind the kitchen door.
I could see and hear Dad telling Larry, “Support her little head now. Don’t let it wobble. And be careful about that spot where her head bones aren’t glued together yet.” Georgie stroked her fuzzy hair.
Okay, I knew it wasn’t her fault that she’d ruined everything. Still, I found lots of other things to do besides go look at her. I cleaned my room and stayed up there, reading Babies: Care and Feeding in the B encyclopedia while everybody else took turns admiring the baby as it took turns sleeping, crying, eating, peeing, and you can guess what else. Later that afternoon, it was this last thing that helped me to feel a little better about the baby. It was when the Culpeppers came over. I thought it’d look too suspicious if I stayed invisible when Robin was visiting, so I came downstairs, feeling pretty bashful and uncomfortable in my very own house. Dad shot me sort of a worried look as Robin bent over him to exclaim over the baby in his lap.
“Ooh, look at her little fingers!”
So he wouldn’t worry about me being too sad or mean, I gave Dad a lopsided smile as Robin went on sweet-talking. “She’s so pretty! Oh, look at her pink booties!”
“Her aunt bought ’em over at her store,” said Dad. “Did they have a sale, Bevy? I swear, this baby’s got booties in every color there is!”
Smiling Aunt Bevy shooed Dad’s question away as she accepted a bulging pillowcase from Mr. Culpepper.
“Here are some things of Robin’s,” he said.
“Why thank you!” Aunt Bevy crowed. “Aren’t you so thoughtful!”
“We weren’t sure you’d have much for baby girls,” said Robin’s mom, eyeing all my brothers. “And Robin outgrew these things years ago.”
Robin and I rolled our eyes at each other as Dad told Old Yeller Culpepper how kind she was.
“Now tell me again,” she asked me, “what’s the baby’s name?”
“How unusual! May I hold her?”
Three seconds after she was in Mrs. Culpepper’s arms, Velvet made a pretty unmistakable sound. The boys smothered giggles with their hands.
“Her face is all red!” Darren marveled.
“She’s pooping!” Harry cried.
We all laughed or smiled, a little, for about the first time in three hundred years. Even Robin’s cranky mom chuckled as she held her out to me. “Here, Carmen, you’d better take her.”
I froze. Mrs. Culpepper didn’t know this was a big fat surprise for me. She didn’t know I’d never held this baby before.
I had to reach my arms out.
She felt soft and sort of solid in my arms. Warm, too, like a cat, except she was a person. I bit my lips and my face felt hot, with everybody looking at me, even Velvet. Her faint eyebrows puckered into a frown. She was my sister all right, my only one. I choked out the only thing I could think of. “She’s heavier than I thought she’d be.”
“Eight pounds, two ounces,” said shaky-voiced Dad. “Nineteen inches, stem to stern. You want me to take her, Buddy?”
“No, I got her.”
Aunt Bevy blew her nose and Mrs. Culpepper said, “Well, we’d best be going,”
“That’s a swell baby you got there,” said her husband. “Robin, you and your brother stay if you like. Pay attention to that diaper business; it’ll be educational!”
All the time I was changing her, Velvet stared at me. Her serious expression didn’t match her rubbery kicking legs. Just like her soft skin and perfect, teeny fingernails didn’t seem to go with the icky stuff in her diaper. The boys giggled and Dad handed me the diaper pins when I got to that part. “Don’t stick her.”
“I won’t.” The minute I got her baby-powdered and pinned up snug into her diaper, Velvet shrieked and flapped her arms. I couldn’t help smiling.
Robin grinned. “I guess it feels pretty good to be clean when you’ve been all poopy in the pants.”
From the look on his face, you’d have thought I was handing Clark a radioactive horsepie when I gave him her diaper. “Go rinse this out and put it in the diaper pail, pretty please.”
With his thumb and exactly one finger, he held the dirty diaper as far away from him as his arm would reach. “We want to see that baby,”said Mr. Herman and the Monroe ladies through our front door screen. Miss Effie squinted her eyes at Georgie’s wall-scribbles then at the soda straw castle hanging from the Sputnik chandelier.
She breathed a soft, “Hoo-eee!” to herself.
“You got a right homey house here,” said Miss Lillian. She picked Velvet up and cradled her. “I can’t think when I last held me a baby. You’re just the prettiest little peach I ever saw! Yes, you are!” All goo-goo-boo-boo, the way people talk to babies.
Mr. Herman touched the baby’s hand with one of his long trembling fingers. He peered at us through his spectacles, inclined his head in Velvet’s direction and announced “This little child is come to teach you all about life.”
“That’s the Lord’s truth,” said Miss Lillian, and Miss Effie nodded as she reached over to give Harry’s hand the lightest little touch. “Honey, a big boy like you doesn’t need to be be doing that,” and darned if he never sucked that thumb ever any more.
We were in terrible trouble, but, as Robin and Jimmy and I watched Miss Lillian cup the rosy palm of her old hand around Velvet’s head, I thought maybe we weren’t completely doomed.
“Are you guys enrolled yet?”
Robin was helping me hang diapers on the clothesline. “My mom and dad said to ask you and if you weren’t, they’d help you do that.”
“Would they really?” I looked over a row of towels at her. With everything there was to do and get used to, I was glad that our first days at school were still more than a month away. Still, it was like knowing trolls were waiting for us to come down the road.
”Maybe,” I said, “I’ll be so nervous I’ll have a heart attack on the first day of school and not have to go.”
Robin giggled. “Is your aunt still going home next week?”
“Uh huh. I knew she couldn’t stay very long, but I’m still kind of scared about her leaving. She said she’s out of vacation, plus all the fall hats were coming in at her store. I mimicked Aunt Bevy’s foghorn voice: ‘Don’t think I won’t be checking in on you, honey. You’ll all just take it one day at a time. If I don’t go back to work, they’ll fire me then Trixie and me would be in fix!’”
Robin and I traded glances over a row of jeans, not even having to say out loud how weird grownups were. “I gotta go practice my piano,” she said. “See ya later,” we promised each other.
For a long minute after she disappeared into her tidy house I stood out in the yard. The bedsheets on the clothesline: the way they moved gave me a good idea for a picture: a lady in a long white gown, running in the wind...
“Carmen!” Aunt Bevy poked her head out the back door. “You wanna come in and get Georgie out of my hair and down for his nap while I give the baby a bath? She spit up all over both of us!” So I didn’t draw the lady in the white dress right then because I didn’t have time and I didn’t later on because life without Mama to take care of things made me too tired.
I wasn’t the only one.
Our momless life had pretty well messed up our stylish aunt. After a week and a half with glum, messy Cathcarts plus an insomniac baby, her clothes didn’t match any more. She’d taught Jimmy and Clark to how to iron their own shirts and me how to make spaghetti plus other foods that wouldn’t poison everybody, but it was a whole, new, frazzled Aunt Bevy who stomped over to see who
had the nerve to ring our doorbell. Yapping, barking Trixie went too, along with some of the boys, plus me holding fussy Velvet. We all were surprised to see Mr. Beeler, the undertaker, standing on the other side of our front door, whipping his brown hat off of his speckled head.
At first he looked worried, then like he was smothering a smile. “I’m sorry, uhm, Miss Gillespie? Have I come at a bad time? I’m Frank Beeler -- from the funeral home? We spoke when you made the arrangements for your sister. I know I should have called first.”
Aunt Bevy’s hand followed Mr. Beeler’s eyes up past her unpainted face, up to her hair curlers. For a second there, she looked like her very worst school picture got printed in the newspaper.
“No, you’re fine,” she said, recovering. “Come on in, won’t you?” We all made way for Mr. Beeler as Aunt Bevy grabbed Velvet, who’d stopped crying, out of my arms. “Carmen, let me take that baby. I’ll run get her -- something...” she said, hurrying into the kitchen.
“Uh, Mr. Beeler,” I said, “you want me to take your hat? You wanna sit down?”
Before he could say anything, our aunt reappeared with her curlers hidden under a scarf and pink lipstick on her mouth. Velvet’s had a pink pacifier.
“Is there a problem, Mr. Beeler?” Aunt Bevy asked. “May I get you a glass of tea?”
“Uh, no! I mean, no, thanks, there’s no problem. I apologize for, uhm, barging in on you all like this. You all were on my mind, your tragic circumstances -- I was concerned about you and...your family.” He glanced down at his shoes. “I – I just thought I’d stop by.”
Aunt Bevy smiled at him. “Why, that’s very kind of you, Mr. Beeler.”
Some radar in my head told me that this wouldn’t be the last time he’d be checking up on us. Sure enough, he called the very next day and asked Dad if he might stop by, maybe bring us kids a treat. When he did, Aunt Bevy made sure all her makeup was on and that her hairdo was perfectly perfect.
Late that night, I was out on the porch with Velvet. Both of us were trying not to sleep and waiting for Dad to come home from work. “Don’t you think it’s weird,” I asked the baby, “that Mama’s undertaker came to see us and brought us popsicles? And aren’t you worried about Daddy? So tired and gloomy? And crying sometimes, by himself in his bedroom, Clark says, and not even trying to laugh at his goofy jokes. Dad didn’t used to be like that, trust me.”
Only that morning, Jimmy and I caught Dad slamming cupboard doors in the kitchen, muttering to himself, ‘Damn this hard-luck house’ and how he’d ‘never shoulda come here.’ It made me even more worried about us Cathcarts. Velvet spit out her pacifier.
“And I’ll tell you what else, Baby: I didn’t used to be all sad and nervous and sleepy all the time either, not until you came along.” I stifled a yawn as I plugged her pacifier back into her mouth, “It’s just that I can’t sit and draw or read or anything...no offense. I know it’s not your fault.”
You can say anything to a baby. No cussing, nothing ugly that might seriously warp it, of course, but babies (1) make good listeners, (2) they won’t tell anybody what you said. And (3), it’s a good way, Jimmy said, to teach them how to talk your language. Whether it was Spanish or Swahili, it’d still be Earth-talk and foreign to babies since they’re all new immigrants from heaven.
“You were up there just a little while ago,” I went on while she gnawed on the knuckle of my index finger with her little pink gums. “I wish you could talk while you still remember what it’s like and say if the angels warned you that you weren’t gonna to have a mom.” Darned if Velvet didn’t start whimpering: first sign of a storm of baby-bawling.
“You know what I’m saying?”
I think she was starting to understand English and lifeforms on our planet. She squawled like the dickens when it came time for Aunt Bevy and Trixie to go back to their city life. “She must know you’re leavin’ us, Bevy” said Dad. “Find her a clean pacifier, will ya, Harry?”
I folded my arms across my chestful of worries. They scurried around inside of me like lizards while weeping Aunt Bevy hugged the teary boys goodbye. “It’s not as if I’m going to Mars, for heaven’s sake! You know I’ll be calling everyday and be here every Thursday on my day off. You’ll be sick of me!” She kissed the top of my head. “You’ll do fine,” she said into my ear. “You’re a brave girl.” Not true. We waved until her car disappeared around the corner, then Dad, holding crybaby Velvet, turned to look at us. “Now, you kids, quit your cryin’. Velvet’s doin’ enough for the whole town. Jimmy, tell me, do we have a roof over our heads?”
“Yeah.” Jimmy sniffed.
“Carmen, look at me. Do we have food to eat?”
I nodded my head. So did Georgie.
“Clark, do you kids have a dad who’s gonna take care of you?”
“Uh huh,” said Clark and Velvet’s crying settled into ordinary fussing.
“Yes, Daddy,” said Larry.
Dad’s eyes were real bright. They looked like blue sparks were going to shoot out of them any minute. “Fine then, let’s all show a little backbone,” he said, as he walked past us. “Come on in the house, now. Supper’s on the stove.”