I'm sorry I missed a week here, but here's poor Carmen again and the rest of the Cathcarts. If you have read this far, you know that the worst has happened. It will get better - not completely mended, but better. I promise. CH
In which some of us Cathcarts cry in front of the neighbors after all.
They bring us food and the Culpeppers come inside our house.
Don’t even get out of the car, Daddy. Just sit in there like you’re doing and don’t even say what you’re going to say.
But the car door swung open. Daddy climbed out and leaned his back against the side of the old stationwagon and rubbed the angel harp on his arm. My tough-guy, sort of jolly dad had been replaced by the saddest man in the world. He lifted up his head to Aunt Bevy and me, “The doctors were in there forever trying everything ...”
I went over and put my arms around him and he crushed me into his warm sweaty chest. “Your mama’s gone. She’s – she’s really gone and what the hell am I ever gonna do without her?” his voice smashed into sobs.
I’d never seen my dad cry or Aunt Bevy. She moaned long and sorrowful as her legs gave way, sinking down on the grass and crying – no, wailing, “Dee! Oh, Dee!”
One by one, thoughts came into my mind, like stones plunking into water, like actors walking out on an empty black stage carrying cards: Your Mother Is Gone. Not Coming Back. Never to see her? Not hear her voice ever again? ‘Babies are gifts,’ she said. Was this some kind of a God-joke? Like this baby was some cosmic birthday present? Like God was saying, Okay Carmen, I’ll take your mother and here, you can have a baby sister. Don’t ask me why because I won’t even try to tell you. And if every kid had pushed Mama further away from me, this last baby had pushed her clear out to heaven, to where none of us could follow till only God knew when.
If only there hadn’t BEEN a stupid baby in the first place! I pulled away from dad and went to sit on the front porch steps. I pressed my face into the private nest my arms made when I hugged them around my knees. I tried to shut out Aunt Bevy’s loud crying, the sounds of doors, boys shouting, running footsteps. Someone’s hand was petting my hair, soft arms trying to hug me. Robin saying You’re kidding! and What? and NO! and “Carmen, don’t cry.”
I wasn’t. Not like Clark, bawling somewhere inside the dark house.
“Leave me alone.” I struggled to my feet and ran into the house, not letting myself even look at Robin. I made my way upstairs, keeping my face turned away from my folks’s room, trying not to hear Jimmy sobbing on the other side of my bedroom wall.
Me, I just felt too surprised and mad to cry. I lay on my bed, in the dark, my fingers wrapped around the tip of the braid Mama had done for me this morning.
When the sun was barely up Saturday morning, everybody else was asleep. The air was so cool, the light was so soft, a person could almost believe that she dreamt last night. But Mama wasn’t in the basement or anywhere and I missed her so bad. I was wishing so much that she’d come out on the porch and say ‘Good morning. You’re up early.” I jumped when I heard the screen door open.
Daddy came to sit close beside me on the porch steps and we tried to smile at each other. He took a sip from his coffee cup. “ I’d have brought you a bowl of cornflakes or something if I’d known you were out here, honey. You okay?”
One corner of his mouth turned up. “Me either.” His face was stubbly and his eyes looked like he’d been crying instead of sleeping, but he had a clean blue shirt on and his red hair looked wet and combed.
“Are you going somewhere?”
“I gotta go sign some papers at the hospital. And see the baby.”
“Will you bring her home?”
“No, she’s had a hard time too. The nurses said it’d be Tuesday or Wednesday, most likely, but I could bring you kids to see her before then.”
I was scared. Our old crib was in a corner of Mom and Dad’s room. Mama had a big box full of baby things somewhere, but were we ready? “Dad, will we know how to take care of her?”
He bowed his head and seemed to cave in on himself. A muscle moved in his jaw. I leaned my shoulder up against his. “I guess we’ll figure it out, huh?”
He nodded his head and, for a long while, seemed to be thinking how to say something. When he did, he surprised me. “Carmie, they’re gonna wanna name for the baby. You got any ideas?”
All kinds of feelings came into me along with my idea for the best name this baby ought to have. I told Dad and told him why it was so perfect. He rested his head on the top of mine. “That’s a beautiful name. It’s as good as Carmen Louise. Your mom’d think so too, I bet.”
Later that morning, when Dad got back from visiting the baby, our neighbors started visiting us. A hundred years from now when I’m a ghost or an angel with all of the other dead people, I bet I’ll still remember everybody crying and everybody being nice to us.
Mr. Herman brought a store-bought lemon pie. “Oh, Mr. Cathcart,” he said, taking hold of Dad’s hand in both of his. “I couldn’t be more sorry. I lost my bride of forty years and I still miss her...”
Was Mama somewhere watching the tidy Culpeppers come inside our messy house after all? Robin’s mom brought a casserole. Tuna-noodle. And there wasn’t any meanness in her pale eyes. Plenty of curiosity though,
as she and Mr. Culpepper took in our jumble of books, toys and bewildered boys everywhere. Our too-sad-to-shave, sleepwalker-zombie-dad. Tight-faced me heading for the stairs after too much looking at Robin’s family looking at all of us.
Robin followed me up a couple of steps. “Carmen?”
She was all pale except for red splotches on her cheeks. “Can I come up with you?” When I was all set to be by myself before I started bawling in front of everybody? To see my crummy room?
Oh, so what. Who cared. “Sure,” I said. “If you want to.”
Her footsteps followed mine up, up, up.
I leaned against the door to my room and folded my arms as her blue eyes swept across my rumpled sheets, my clothes scattered and draped over stacks of books and the magazines I’d been copying pictures out of. She smiled, kind of, at my old Tiny Tears doll sitting next to Clark’s stegosaurus on top of the green bookcase scribbled over with lipstick, thanks to baby Harry. I saw her notice
my curtainless window, then Robin put her fingertips to her parted lips and looked kind of amazed at all of my pictures on the walls. She leaned forward to study each one, tilting her head this way and that, her black ponytail swishing down her back. “Did you draw all of these?”
She looked hard at my picture of Venus. I’d copied her out of the Botticelli book. It wasn’t very good. The goddess’s face was sort of gray where I had to do a lot of erasing.
“Wow, Carmen, these are so neat.”
Did she really think so? She could just be cheering me up, but she kept looking at my pictures. Then Robin plopped down on my bed. “I didn’t know you were such an artist.”
Her saying that and being so nice made my throat tight. She frowned down at her hands in her lap. “I’ll bet your mom was proud of you, huh?”
“Maybe.” I bit my lip. I didn’t think Mama was ever very interested in my artwork. Maybe when I was little. “She used to tape my pictures to the refrigerator,” I mumbled, tipping books off of the chair by the window so I could sit and look out at the tree. “It’s stuck all over with pages from the twins’ coloring books now.”
Robin and I didn’t speak for the longest time, as if being so seriously sad had shocked us into shyness. “I just can’t believe what happened to your mom,” she said. “It’s so horrible!”
I stared at two squirrels in the branches.
“And did Richie really take her to the hospital in his car?”
The squirrels ran down the tree trunk and out of sight before I got the lump in my throat swallowed so I could answer. “It was Jimmy’s idea. Dad and anybody else who could drive were gone. Jimmy went and begged him to come and he did.” I could see Richie’s house through the leaves, enough to tell that only his old man’s pickup was in the driveway.
“Wow.” Robin’s voice was soft. “Who would think that Richie Scudder would do such a good deed?” When I didn’t answer, when I just kept my back to her so she wouldn’t see me trying not to cry, Robin came and put her hand on my back. “You okay?”
I knew that she wanted me to talk and talk and tell her about Mama and everything that happened and what it was like, but I couldn’t.
“You wanna be by yourself for a little bit, huh?”
I nodded my head, not trusting my voice.
“Everything will work out,” she said. “I mean, it has to, doesn’t it?”
“Maybe.” But I didn’t see how.
Almost all of our first momless day, when neighbors weren’t visiting us, Daddy was in the boys’ room, talking to them or crying along with them in Larry’s under-the-bed hiding place. Sometimes Georgie bounced on the balls of his feet, screaming and flapping his arms as if his body couldn’t hold how mad he was, and he didn’t want anybody but Mom to touch him.
Jimmy and Clark helped me scrub the kitchen some more.
“Why can’t we go to the hospital and see the baby?” Clark asked me.
“Dad said maybe tomorrow.”
“Well anyway,” Clark went on, “who’s going to take care of us now?”
Good question. I looked up to see my brothers staring at me, like they expected a good answer. Jimmy’s lower lip wobbled. “God’ll take care of us,” I told them, “and so will Daddy.”
I tried to remember the Bible word for horrible sadness. Woe. They hoped I was right, I could tell, but still, we all were full of woe. It was kind of a relief, right then, to hear someone at the door. Miss Lillian and her sister were looking in though the front door screen. “Knock, knock!” she called. “May we come in?”
“Yeah,” Clark answered. “You can!”
Sad-faced Miss Effie handed him a bowl covered with aluminum foil. She put her hand on his head. “Poor little fella.”
Clark frowned up at her. “Thanks, ma’am. What’s in here?”
“Potato salad, youngster. Made special just for you.”
Miss Lillian turned to me. “Honey, Oscar told us about your loss and we feel so terrible.”
“Your mama was a mighty sweet woman,” Miss Effie added.
“Now these are my Hungarian Meatballs,” said Miss Lillian, “for your daddy and you children. Just warm these up.” She set a heavy blue bowl in my hands. “Serve ’em up with some noodles or rice and open up a can of green beans to have alongside. You can take your time getting this bowl back to me. Now I’ll write you the recipe if you like.”
“Thank you, ma’am. You’re both real nice.” I gave her and her sister each a small smile. “I’ll bet this is good.”
I put the bowls in the icebox and went back to my scrubbing. It took my mind off needing to know how to make food besides Jell-O and melted cheese sandwiches, which just scared me all over again. And it was better than being upstairs helping Aunt Bevy choose which of Mama’s dresses to take to the funeral parlor.
“You all need to be with yourselves a while,” she said. “And I’ve got to check on Trixie and get us organized if we’re to stay over here with you all.”
Aunt Bevy was going to be here? Relief must have showed on my face. She winked at me.
Jimmy sat up straight. “You’re going to bring your dog over here?”
“Yup, you’ll have me and Trixie to contend with for the next couple of weeks. I’ve got some vacation time and I already fixed it up with my boss. Think you Cathcarts can stand us?”
“I guess so,” said Clark, wrapping his arms around her waist.
Dad walked Aunt Bevy out to her Volkswagen. “Thanks, Bev,” I heard him say.
We had the Monroe ladies’ food for dinner. It was good. “Except,” said Harry, “we’re not very hungry, Daddy.”
“Just eat what you can, son.”
We had Mr. Herman’s pie instead of the birthday cake and candles we’d planned on.
“So Carmen and the new baby have the same birthday?” Clark asked. Oh man.
I shuddered at the thought of sharing my birthday with the person who ruined it. The twelfth of July would be – oh my gosh. I lay down my fork and pursed my lips tight. It’d always be Mama’s deathday, too, from now on til forever, thanks to this baby.
Dad reached over and squeezed my hand. With his other hand he covered his eyes for a moment. “Listen, you kids. For one thing, we’ll need to get our Sunday clothes all pressed and ready for your Mama’s funeral...uhm...” He cleared his throat. “Well, let’s say ceremony.”
Jimmy leaned his head on Dad’s shoulder. “That’s a better word.”
“It’s set up for day after tomorrow.” Dad blew his nose in a big blue hankie before he went on. “And two is that you all have a baby sister over at the hospital. ” One by one, he looked at blubbery Georgie and the teary twins, tight-faced Clark, the top of Jimmy’s bowed head, and, for the longest time, seemed like, at me. “You all might be tempted to hold what happened to your Mama against that little girl when it’s not her fault.”
My eyes met Jimmy’s when I felt his staring at me.
“It’s going to be all our jobs to raise up this little child.,” Dad went on, looking at each of us. “We’ll need to give her an extra dose of love because --”
“Because she won’t have Mama,” I finished Dad’s sentence for him. I couldn’t look at him though. It’d be too sad.
“She’s a Cathcart, just like the rest of us. We... well, we just gotta make sure she knows what a sweet gentle mom she had.“ A sob forced its way into Dad’s words and two tears of my own slipped out and slid down my cheeks before I could stop them. We were just a bunch of quiet sniffling until Dad said, “Enough of this!”
He smacked the table with his hand and made us all jump.
“Come on you kids. Let’s go get in the car.”
“Where we goin’?” Clark asked.
Harry and Larry echoed, wiping their eyes and noses with the backs of their hands, “Yeah, Daddy, where we goin’?”
I looked over at Jimmy and Clark exchanging glances, looking awful anxious.
“To see the baby!” Dad sort of tossed these words over his shoulder as he snatched his keys off the nail and stomped out the door.
Jimmy kind of sleep-walked while the others scrambled into the stationwagon. I hung back. “I’ll just stay here in case more company comes.”
“No, this is important, Carmie. Hop in.” Dad held the door open and motioned me to sit in the front seat where Mama always sat. My insides got even jumpier. Dad shut the door. I looked at my fists in my lap.
“But Dad,” Jimmy asked, “will the hospital people let us see the baby?”
He tapped at his wristwatch. “It’s only seven. It ain’t like visiting hours are over.”
“Yeah, but Daddy,” Clark asked, “will they let all us little kids visit?”
“I’d like to see them stop us.”
I hoped they would.
In which one goes out and another comes in through
the hole in the world Mama made when she left it.
The hospital people didn’t exactly want to let Dad take all of us kids up to where they kept the babies, but I guess we all looked so pitiful they had to give in. They pointed us down a couple of hallways. Georgie cried because Dad wouldn’t let him press all of the buttons in the elevator. The ride turned the bats flapping around in me into little dragons. A broad-faced nurse named Marjorie walked up to Daddy and had him sit in a green plastic chair. She put a pink-wrapped bundle about the size of a ten-pound sack of C&H sugar into his arms.
“She’s just been fed,” said Nurse Marjorie. Because she knew what a sad family we were, tears glittered in her eyes. Daddy’s pale, weary face opened like a flower when he looked down at the bundle. The boys clustered in to look at this little pink it that had caused all the trouble. I sat down far enough away to avoid looking at the baby but close enough so people wouldn’t think I didn’t want to.
“Can I hold her?” Jimmy asked.
“Sure.” Carefully, gingerly, Dad handed the baby to him. “Support her head, now, see?” As soon as Jimmy got his hands on it, he stood up quickly enough to startle Nurse Marjorie, and came to sit right next to me.
Okay, she was pretty. Like one of those baby, flying-piglet angels from the Botticelli book. Her violet-petal eyelids popped open and she looked right at me. The color the cornflowers took on at dusk, down at Blue Top: that’s what her eyes were like. She pursed her lips, poked out her tongue. A spit bubble sparkled on the tip of it.
Did she have any memories of Mama? Or of heaven? Did she know she’d ended up in Missouri and was going to have to live with us Cathcarts now? Poor baby. My hand reached itself over to her.
Her cheek was soft. Jimmy put his head on my shoulder. She wrapped her fingers aroung my pinkie and instead of her bawling, like babies do all the time, I was the one. Even though I was on guard against being a crybaby in front of everybody and strangers like Nurse Marjorie, I couldn’t help it. My head bowed until I felt soft, pink blanket against my forehead. The baby stuck her tiny, slobbery fingers in my hair and I about drowned her probably with hot, quiet tears. Jimmy put his hand on my back.
On the way home from the hospital, Dad stopped and bought a newspaper. He showed us where all our names were printed in it.
Independence EXAMINER Saturday, July 13, 1963 Obituaries Dorothy Louise Cathcart, 37, Independence, died Friday, July 12, at the Independence Sanitarium. She was born February 25, 1926, in Lexington, Mo., to Hubert M. and Ruth E. (Smith) Brown, and was a lifelong resident of Missouri. She was a homemaker. Her survivors include husband, Eugene Carthcart, daughters Carmen and Velvet Elizabeth, sons James, Clark, Harold, Laurence, and George, of the home, and sister, Beverly Gillespie of Kansas City, Missouri. Visitation will be held from 2 to 3 p.m. Monday at Speaks Chapel.
Graveside services will be held at 5 p.m. Monday at Sibley Cemetery.
Sibley Cemetery was the graveyard by the river, the one where we’d left the flowers for Mama’s folks. Would Grandma and Grandpa be glad to see her? Maybe they’d want to know how Life had been since they left it and thank her for the peonies every year? I wish we didn’t have to go out there, but going to the funeral home was going to be even worse.
“I am not too little,” Clark growled at Aunt Bevy. He pressed his lips tight over his big front teeth.
“Okay then,” she said, giving in. “Fine with me if it’s alright with your dad.” Clark could go to the funeral parlor with Dad, Jimmy, and me, “but Georgie and the twins are much too young, Gene, to see -- well, too young to...”
Aunt Bevy was the one who wasn’t up to seeing her little sister laid out in a casket over at the funeral parlor. I could tell from the way her hands shook getting her Lucky Strike lit. “I’ve arranged everything with the undertaker,” she said, “so if it’s all the same to you, Gene, I won’t come to the visitation.”
“It’s fine, Bev.”
Aunt Bevy gave Dad a grateful look. “I’ve...well, I’ve said my goodbyes to Dee-Dee. I’ll just meet you all out at the cemetery.” Then she turned her face away from us.
I wish I could get out of going either place. In spite of Harry’s howling to come with us, Dad agreed with Aunt Bevy. She’d find dry pants for Georgie, drag Larry out from under his bed, and meet us at the graveyard. Daddy parted and slicked down the boys’ hair and his own while I searched for socks that matched. As I ironed my navy blue dress with the white polka-dots, Clark and Jimmy tucked in their chins, watching Dad’s big fingers tie their neckties.
The funeral chapel was lined with rose-colored curtains. Behind them somewhere, a record player was playing the slowest, gloomiest hymns in the book. Dad gripped my hand hard the minute we saw the casket. My eyes fled from the sight of the polished Box and its open lid, but seeing a muscle twitching in Daddy’s lean jaw, seeing where he’d cut himself shaving, seeing him bite his lip and square his shoulders before he went over to where Mama was: These were almost worse.
Some dressed-up strangers, a pastor and his wife from the church nearby, walked up to us. They shook Daddy’s hand and mine. “We stopped by to pay our respects, Mr. Cathcart. We read about your loss, yours and your children’s, in the paper and wanted to, if you don’t have a church home, invite you to ours next Sunday.” Dad’s chin trembled as he nodded his thanks to them. They bowed their heads over Mama for a minute and went away.
The undertaker’s nametag said Frank Beeler. He had some light hair around the edges of his head, but the rest of it was like a tanned, freckled egg. His black suit was rumpled and his eyes, magnified by his glasses, were brown and kind, like dogs’ eyes. Mr. Beeler shook hands with all of us but Clark, who’d gone right up to the Box.
Me, I studied the flowers. I sniffed at a green glass vaseful of red and yellow zinnias with a couple of white carnations and a card. Under the silver printed Sympathy, Mr. Herman and each of the Monroe ladies had signed their names. There was a bouquet of roses too, from Aunt Bevy. Just when I was thinking it was nice for Robin’s
family to send a big bunch of foofy, rocketing gladiolus, Clark’s high voice sort of sliced right through me.
“Her hands are cold!” he said, standing on tiptoe, reaching inside Mama’s coffin.
Jimmy wanted me to go up there with him, to be beside Clark and Dad – and Mama. I didn’t want to, but I had to admit it was true, what Jimmy’d whispered: ‘It’ll be our last chance to see her, won’t it?’
It felt like a million miles, but it was only a little bit of carpeted floor between me and my mom. I chewed the inside of my cheek. Seeing her there, the way she was -- it’d mean believing that she was really dead, wouldn’t it? I took a step, then another and another, then there she was in front of me – and yet, not there at all.
She had on a sky-blue dress, the color of her home now. She lay in a bed of pink satin. You could tell that her eyes had been glued shut and that her freckles had been powdered over. There was a kind of pressure in my head and heart, pushing hard against the dam holding back my tears. But falling apart in front of everybody was – no, I did not plan on doing that. Not when I saw tears fogging
up Jimmy’s glasses or when Daddy bent down to press his wet face against Mama’s powdered cheek. Then Mr. Beeler walked up to the Box and, without a sound, he closed its lid down over Mama’s cold, calm face. I hurried away from everybody and out the door.
Outside, for everybody else in the world, it was a regular old summer afternoon. I wiped my face with the palms of my hands and breathed in big gulps of air. I had to be calm, had to make my heart quit banging, before everybody started coming out of the funeral parlor for our cemetery ride.
“Oh man!” I gasped, squeezing Robin’s hand and swallowing hard at the tears in my throat.
“Mom said I could walk over here if I came right back home and not bother you guys on such a, you know, such a family occasion.” Robin glanced at the big glass doors. “Should I come in and -- see her? You know, say goodbye, sort of, to your mom?”
I shook my head. I couldn’t say it out loud, but no, she was too late. I pursed my lips. No one could see
my mom, not ever again. The lid was shut.
We heard an engine start up and Dad saying, “You boys get in the car. Now, where’s Carmie?”
Robin hurried with me for a few steps until the sight of the hearse stopped her. “You better go,” she said, and gave me a quick hug. “See you later.”
She stood watching, holding her hand up, waving her fingers up and down at us, as we began following after Mama in the big, black hearse, off to the graveyard.
When we got there, my eyes went back and forth from Mama’s coffin to the boys’ and my Dad’s faces. I looked at the marker on Grandma’s and Grandpas’ graves. I saw Sarah Somebody’s angel stone, the one I’d made the rubbing of. A redbird swooped from tree to tree in the late afternoon sun. Mr. Beeler, the undertaker, shook hands with each one of us. Aunt Bevy bobbed her head at him and the black polka-dotted veil of her funeral hat floated around her sorrowful face.
Was Mama’s spirit looking down from the sky? Was she invisible beside us? “Look, Carmie,” Harry whispered, pointing at a very long earthworm squiggling out of the freshly dug hole in the face of the world. Then Clark nudged me and looked off to the trees by the rusty old gate at the edge of the graveyard, where, not even two months ago, we’d left a jar of peonies for Grandma and Grandpa. Richie Scudder lifted his hand to us. Then he and his old Cadillac left a dust-bomb trail up the gravel road. We didn’t see him again for a long, long time.
I wished I could drive. I’d go where no one could find me, like to the ocean. It wouldn’t matter where as long as I could go, all by myself, away.
When it was getting dark, our folks let Robin and me go up in her tree. It was too sad in our house. We lay on our backs up there and looked at the leaves over our heads. We could hear the grownups visiting over on our porch. We could smell Mr. Herman’s pipe, Aunt Bevy’s cigarettes, and something unfamiliar.
“My dad smokes cigars sometimes,” said Robin. “Not in the house though. Mom won’t let him.”
Our eyes widened at the clinks of bottle caps being skipped into the street and at the sound of soft singing.
Old churchy-sounding songs about flying away and the “sweet by and by.” Mr. Culpepper’s voice was very low, deeper than Daddy’s. They sang “hard times, come again no more.”
“You okay, Carmen?”
“I guess so. Well... not really.” How I really felt was rotten. Maybe when I die and go to heaven, the guardian angels will toss their pretty hair, rustle the clouds with their wings, and explain why they didn’t keep this crappy, train-wreck-of-a-deal from happening to Mama, but meanwhile, I had to figure out how to live and not be mad for the rest of my life.
“At least you still got your dad,” Robin said.
Well. Sort of. Except he seemed like people you see on the news sometimes, who are in a war or just had their houses burned down or turned into splinters by an earthquake. “And you got your aunt,” Robin went on. “She’s so neat. She’ll be a good help, won’t she?”
“I guess so,” I replied, but I figured that she and I both knew that even a really good dad or aunt didn’t make up for a mom, not when you’ve always had one.
If only I could point Robin’s flashlight through the leaves and shine it on Mama, sitting on the porch swing. If only we’d come into the kitchen tomorrow morning and there she’d be...
“Did she say anything to you?” There was just enough light to see Robin’s anxious face. “I mean, your mom -- you know, at the end?”
My fingers fumbled with the wrapper on my Three Musketeers, remembering Mama’s words. “She said for me to look after the little ones.”
“Wow.” Robin shook her head and mumbled, “My mom would probably say keep your bed made and don’t get too fat.” She bit into a Hostess Cupcake. Off down below, Dad and the others were singing about Jeannie and her Light Brown Hair.
I missed Mama, but there was something else. Something too embarrassing to say even to myself. She was up on the other side of the stars, counting on me to help Dad take care of all of my little brothers and the new, helpless baby. She was up in heaven, but I was stuck down here, without my mother. It made me want to howl and holler and bawl worse than even Georgie ever could.
I put my hands over my face. Wouldn’t I be ashamed -- wouldn’t I be such a pantywaist to worry who was going to take care of me? Just when everyone was going to expect me to be so responsible? What, was I some big baby who wanted her mommy? That’s just what I was. And stupid, too, I told myself, stupid not to think all of these thoughts until now. I sat up and whispered it a few more times: “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
“Carmen?” Robin touched me. “What’s the matter?”
Maybe it was like what Jimmy said once, about Dad sticking his arm out the window while we were driving. ‘I read in this science book that if another car knocked your arm off, you wouldn’t feel it at first,’ and Dad said, ‘That so?’ That’s what happened to me: my mom got torn away and now the real bad feelings were coming. I scrambled to the edge of the platform, too jangled to even be scared of the rope ladder.
“Where’re you going? Be careful, you nut! Don’t fall!”
“Oh Robin,” I said, sounding like someone who just realized she left the bathtub running, “I just thought of some stuff. I’m alright, honest.” Liar. Scaredy-cat, big baby, liar. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow, okay?”
Robin’s worried face looked over the edge of her treehouse. “Okay.” Her mom poked her head out her door. “Oh good, Carmen, I was just about to call you girls down out of there. What a terrible time for you, dear. You’re in our prayers.”
I told her ‘thank you’ and hurried through the black shadows cast by the Culpeppers’ porchlight, across the yards and driveway, past the sad grownups on the porch. “You okay there, Carmie?”
“Yeah, Dad,” I lied.
From her place on the porch swing, Aunt Bevy called out, “You goin’ to bed, honey?” She flung her arms out at me. “Well, give us a kiss!”
I had to get through all of the hugging, the nighty-nights, the sweet dreams and say your prayers before I could get inside the house. Maybe I’d dream about my poor mom in a kitchen full of blood. My eyes fastened on Mama’s rocking chair in the dark front room. I could say a million
prayers, but still the chair would be empty in the morning. Up I went, two stairs at a time, my thoughts spinning faster, now that I was alone to think them.
At least Aunt Bevy was going to be here for a while. I knew she wasn’t cut out to look after a houseful of kids but still, how were we going to manage after she and her poodle went back to the city? And who was a million jillion times less cut out to be a substitute-mom than my aunt? Me. Carmen Cathcart, who never, ever got asked if she wanted to be a big sister much less a motherless girl left holding a bagful of kids to take care of! And what made it even worse was that if people knew I how I really felt, they’d say I was mean and rotten and selfish and – oh man, I could feel it way back inside of me: a runaway river of tears. And no matter how hard I tried to stop it, it was going to sweep me over the cliff into a forever of babysitting, into my permanently momless life.
I was almost to the top floor when the sounds of voices stopped me.
In Jimmy’s room, Clark was saying, “... what Darren’s mom told Mr. Culpepper about us when she
didn’t think I was listening? She said how our poor dad could ever look after that bunch of rowdy kids all by himself she didn’t know. We’re not rowdy! And besides, wasn’t that rotten for her to say that, about us not getting looked after?”
I moved closer. “Yeah, well,” said Jimmy, “I’m not so sure myself just how we’ll get along.“
“Carmen will help take care of us.” Clark sounded hopeful and I sank down onto the steps.
“She’ll try,” I heard Jimmy say, “but she’s just a kid too. Plus she’s not very interested in us.”
I bowed my head and put my hands over my ears for a couple of seconds before I made myself get up and stomp the rest of the way up the stairs, wiping my nose with the back of my hand. “Hey, you guys,” I said, faking normal. “It’s after ten o’clock, for crying out loud. Go to bed.”
I grabbed Tiny Tears off my bookcase and curled up with my old doll. The window fan and my pillow kept anyone from hearing me cry. I had to, a little bit, or I’d bust. How could we live without Mama? What were we going to do? Not even a week ago I was just worrying about going to the movies on my stupid birthday. Jimmy was right: I was just a kid. How was I going to survive eighth grade in a new school AND help take care of a bunch of little brothers and a helpless, tiny, bawly, baby sister?
“G’night, Jimmy,” said Clark, then he gave my door a thump. “G’night in there.”
I didn’t -- couldn’t -- say anything, just got my crying under control, just listened to Clark’s footsteps on the stairs. Old house creaking. Water rumbling in the pipes. Away downstairs, Dad and Aunt Bevy telling our neighbors good night. Mice skittered through the walls behind all my angels, princesses, goddesses, and my made-up Sarah Somebody. They all stared down at me, Carmen Cathcart, who was going to be a real artist someday. “Stupid,” I whispered to myself. I heard a door close downstairs and and our house was quiet -- except for the sound of somebody else crying besides me.
I found my flashlight under my bed and padded into Jimmy’s room, shining my light on crumpled cor-duroys and stacks of books. It was like a messy owl’s nest. I didn’t want to cheer him up by tripping over an encyclopedia or a pile of National Geographic magazines. He’d cut animal pictures out of them and stuck them on his walls. My light lit up the face of a lion, lots of dogs and monkeys. I sat on the edge of his bed and put my hand on Jimmy’s back.
“You’re not the boss of me,” I said softly, but he didn’t answer me. “We’ll be okay. We’ve still got Daddy. And Aunt Bevy will stay with us a little while.”
“I’m not crying about that,” Jimmy’s muffled voice said.
“Well, what then?”
“You don’t even know.”
“I would if you told me,” I said.
He turned over. With tear streaks and without his glasses, Jimmy looked kind of soft and young, like a little boy. “You know what she said?”
“Mom, stupid!” He wiped at his eyes. “In Richie’s car. At the hospital.” He sniffed and used a corner of his sheet to wipe his nose. “She held my hand really, really tight and I could tell she was scared so I told her that she’d be okay and I yelled for Richie to drive faster. Then Mama said in case she wasn’t okay, if something happened and if she…“ Jimmy inhaled a big breath. “She said it’d be extra hard for you ‘cause you’re the oldest plus being a girl.
“She hurt really bad, so it was hard for her to talk but she...it was like she knew things were going wrong and she had to say everything really fast just in case -- in case she couldn’t ever talk to us again.”
A fresh wave of misery swelled up inside me.
“She said ‘Carmen loves us really,’ but you like to be in your own imaginary kind of world, away from everybody, just drawing pictures and stuff, like maybe you’re kind of selfish sometimes.”
“She said that? You’re making that up!” Or the little goon just didn’t hear right. Mama couldn’t have said that.
Jimmy sniffed. “Oh, I don’t know; it was just so horrible, that’s all. And Mama said it’d be hard for me too, because real life was harder than books and we’d both have to help Daddy because it’d be the worst for him. She kind of whispered for all of us to be nice to each other, then it was like she fainted and I was so scared.”
I hugged him like Mom would as he cried and talked about how, at the hospital, “they took her and put her on one of those rolling things? And she woke up a little bit, just when they, the nurses, were taking her away. Mom said, ‘ be a big boy and take care of the baby,’” Jimmy sobbed. “But how can we?”
Like I knew. I felt pretty hopeless and my head hurt, but at least I wasn’t the only one who was scared to death. I felt sorry for him and tried to think of something cheerful. “Abraham Lincoln was only about your age when his mom died,” I said, stroking Jimmy’s hair. “That’s just for you to know.”
“He looks pretty sad in all of his pictures,” Jimmy said sleepily.
“We’d better get some shut-eye, huh?”
I smoothed his sheet up over him and went back downstairs. I found me an aspirin in the medicine chest and Dad in the little boys’ room, gentling Harry out of a nightmare. “Shush now. There now. It’s alright now,” he whispered.
Dad looked like he’d walked a thousand miles and he smelled like Budweiser. He settled Larry and his stuffed rabbit into his bed. I led Georgie to the bathroom and back to his bottom bunkbed, a soft little cave with Clark and Aunt Bevy’s poodle both snoring up on Georgie’s roof. Dad was arranging the noisy window fans to blow on the boys so maybe he didn’t hear Georgie call me ‘Mommy’ which, I’ll bet, would have upset him pretty awful. It did me. I didn’t let myself go all boo-hooey or anything though, in case Mom was watching over us. I wasn’t going to act like some ivory tower crybaby and make Daddy feel even worse than he already did.
When he hugged me and asked again if I was okay, I nodded. He cupped the back of my head with his big hand. I did like he did for me when I was little: petted his back and said that things were going to be all right, to make him feel better. It didn’t have to be true.
I began to understand that when it comes to comforting, it’s better to give than to receive. That way you can stay in charge.
As I flopped onto my bed, our clock chimed way off downstairs. Before it got to the twelfth ding, everybody in sad, crummy old Cathcart Castle was asleep.