In which Thanksgiving is no baloney, we return to the scene of the flaming pies, and Mr. Beeler has a surprise.
All my brothers straggled down the hill, Georgie riding high on Dad’s shoulders. “Did you guys tell him our plan?” I shouted. “Can we go home?”
“Yeah, we did,” Jimmy hollered.
Clark cupped his hands around his mouth. “He said okay!”
“Seems to me,” Dad called out, “the real question’s what the heck are you doin’ out in this cold with that baby girl?” As he came closer, I could see he wasn’t mad, just real tired-looking. “Now don’t just be standin’ there, Carmie, gawkin’ at me that way. Let’s go on in the house, then yeah, sure, I reckon we’d better get on home.” We took hold of each other’s hands. “Lemme grab a bite to eat first,” he said, as he followed Velvet and me into the house. “That okay?”
I smiled at him. “Sure, Dad.”
He wolfed down a pair of sandwiches. “Jimmy,” he said, with his mouth full, “you and Clark be gettin’ stuff together. Harry, you and your brother help’em load up the car.” He pushed his ballcap to the back of his head, then dug his thumbnails into the peel of an orange as he smiled a tired smile at Georgie. “Did you think of this here babysitting plan all by yourself?”
Georgie nodded, looking real serious. He tore at his floppy baloney with his tiny teeth.
“Well.” Dad shared out orange sections. “Well,” he said again, shaking his head. “We’ll figure things out.”
“As long as, well, you know,” I said, with a shrug of my shoulders, “we’re all still together.”
Dad turned up one side of his mouth. “You’re a philosopher, Buddy.” He got to his feet, kissed and ruffled the top of my head, and messed up my hair even worse than it was. “Well, come on then. Let’s hit the road before that wildcat Culpepper dame sends the coppers out after us.”
“Oh, Dad,” I started to tell him, “she wouldn’t –”
“Hey, wait --!” said Clark and I heard it too: the sound of an engine. Then tires on gravel.
“Daddy,” Harry called to us from the porch, “I think there’s somebody coming!”
“Carmen,” said Jimmy. “Look!”
Another shocker! “What’s she doing here?” I cried.
The second her dust-covered Volkwagen ground to a stop, Aunt Bevy jumped out and began hugging everybody.
“How’d you find us?” I asked.
“Oh, feminine intuition,” said Aunt Bevy. I knew your old man had a soft spot for this place, heaven only knows why!” She shot a worried smile at my dad.
He lifted his ball cap and one of his eyebrows at her. “Happy Thanksgiving to you, Beverly. It ain’t much warmer inside, but let’s get in out of this wind and tell us what you’re doing here.”
“What am I doing here!” Aunt Bevy marched herself up the porch steps and put one of her gloved hands on Dad’s cheek. On the other side of his face, she made an orange smooch-print. “Now, Gene, what’s the deal?”
Dad held the door open. “Come on in, Bev.”
She kept talking as we all trooped indoors after her. “Frank and I lugged a big bird and all the trimmings over to your house this morning and you could have knocked all three of us over with a turkey feather when we saw your smoky old house stinking like burnt pie and nobody home!”
“Where’s Mr. Beeler?” I asked. “How come he didn’t come with you?”
“Honey, he and the turkey are at my place. He’s cooking so everything’ll be done by the time I get you home! Did I tell you he’s a whizbang in the kitchen?”
Dad and I widened our eyes at each other as Jimmy exclaimed, “We were just now going back home!”
Aunt Bevy frowned at our surroundings. “I’ll say you are!”
“Where’s your dog?” Georgie asked.
“Oh, Trixie’s home reading the funnies.” NowAunt Bevy’s hoarse voice shifted into goo-goo gear: “Carmen, you hand me that little girl baby! And then,” she said, taking hold of Velvet, “tell me what the heck happened? I want the whole story!”
“Carmen was next door.” Jimmy spilled out the full report, clear down to his burnt finger and Mrs. Culpepper’s blowing her stack. “She said Dad couldn’t take care of us.”
Aunt Bevy looked shocked.
“And Darren’s mom said we should be in an orphanage,” Clark supplied the big finish. “Or something like that.”
“Eu-gene Cathcart!” Aunt Bevy exclaimed. “That hussy did not say that, did she?”
Daddy twitched his shoulders in a sad sort of shrug.
“Well, I’ll be a beefsteak tomato! Robin told me there’d been a fire and a terrible ruckus then you all took off like scalded cats, but her mom called her inside before I heard the whole lowdown.”
“It was my fault, really,” I said.
Aunt Bevy looked at me real concerned and kind and she wrapped her gloved fingers around my hand. “I should have been there to help you. I’m sorry, Carmen.”
“It was just that dumb pie,” I said. “I made it and turned the oven down to 375° like the recipe said.”
A small voice said, “Oh oh.”
“Clark?” Dad said. “Do you know something about something?”
Clark looked like a rabbit whose name had just been called at the dentist. “I only wanted the pie to get done,” he said, in a voice we could hardly hear.
“Did you turn up the heat on the oven?” Jimmy asked. “You did, didn’t you?”
“Just a little bit,” Clark mumbled.
“How much of a little bit?” I demanded.
Clark looked away from me and held up five fingers.
“Five? Five hundred degrees!”
Yep. That‘d get it done in a hurry. That’d be a story for his grandchildren. ‘Hooboy, that Grandpa Clark! Now he was a corker!’
“Still,” said Dad, gripping my shoulder, “you are much to blame, Carmen, for going off and leaving those kids on their own.”
“Let’s call it a lesson and leave it at that,” he went on. “I reckon there’s been enough punishment to go around.”
“Well,” said Aunt Bevy, “from the looks of things, your house isn’t in that bad of shape. You’ll want some paint and --” She screamed.
“You never had a goat look at you through a window before,” Clark asked, “huh, Aunt Bevy?”
“It’s only Gertie,” said Jimmy. “She’s a Toggenburg goat, just for you to know.”
It wasn’t long after that that Aunt Bevy and Clark, who begged to ride with her, were churning up the gravel road behind us as we left Blue Top for the last time. Through our comet-tails of dust, I saw the lonely farmhouse shrinking away. Was that how it was, I wondered. My imagination made one more way to think about Mama: Us moving on, Mama left behind, always mild and smiling, never older and always right there in the past where we left her, but fading and shrinking because we were going on into the future. We couldn’t help it. That’s what you do if you’re alive.
I turned to look out the dusty windshield. In my lap, Velvet was happily kicking her legs. “I always thought I was so tough,” Daddy murmured.
“You are, Dad.”
He sighed. “You kids are the ones,” he said.
After the long drive and sharing Thanksgiving supper with Aunt Bevy, Mr. Beeler, and Trixie, it was dark when we got back. So we didn’t really see our house until the Friday morning sun climbed over the edge of the world. Poor, old Cathcart Castle. “Jeepers,” I said, “it’s sure gonna need a bunch of scrubbing and painting, huh, Dad?”
“Oh yeah, but shoot,” he said, “I figure it needed that anyway.”
“I’m glad it didn’t burn down,” said Jimmy. “Aren’t you, Dad?”
“Yup, we can be thankful for that, son. We’ll air it out, fix’er up.”
Aunt Bevy had filled her VW with lots of leftovers to eat. Mr. Beeler got buckets and paint brushes out of the back of his Chevy, but the Culpeppers and their Buick weren’t home. I sure hoped they were all okay. Even if a house was clean and tidy, that didn’t mean that everything was dandy with the people who lived in it. I guess Robin’s mom taught me that.
“Well, now!” said Miss Lillian. She and Miss Effie welcomed us home with plenty of smiles, hugs, and head-pats. Nodding Mr. Herman pumped Dad’s hand in a hard shake and passed out a handful of peppermints. “Now, let’s see if we can’t help you straighten up this mess.”
It was hard to drop Mama’s ruined straw castle into the trash, but it’d be stupid, of course, to just look at a wastebasket and feel bad. I opened the windows to let some cold, clean air into our house. I stuffed smoky clothes into the washing machine and real quick, before I went back up to help, it was nice to listen to everyone talking and thumping around up over my head.
By the time the sun went down, our spic-and-span downstairs smelled so much like Ajax and fresh paint, Mrs. Culpepper would probably want to move in with us. Mr. Beeler had gone to do some undertaker business. His bald head turned pink when Clark and me caught him kissing
Aunt Bevy and saying, “Be back later, Sweetie.” The Monroe ladies went home, telling Dad, “Have faith, Mr. Cathcart. Things are lookin’ up around here.” Velvet, in her baby seat, waved her arms and supervised while I helped Aunt Bevy fix food for everybody.
“Carmen? I was wondering, well...what do you think of Frank?”
“Mr. Beeler? You mean how he smooches you and laughs at all your jokes? You wanna know if I think he’s stuck on you?
“Okay, yes, Miss Smarty.”
“I was kind of wondering if you guys were in love or something.” When Aunt Bevy smiled, sort of happy and mysterious, I asked her, “Is he as nice as Bill?”
Aunt Bevy pursed her lips. My asking about her long ago first husband made her look at me for a minute, kind of wistful and tender-like. “He is,” she said, turning back to her sandwich making.
“Do you think he’s gonna ask you to marry him?”
“Well... “ She carried a platter of turkey sandwiches into the dining room, her loud voice louder as she went on. “He might be a bit younger than I am. On the other hand, I’m afraid I am just an old nut who’s fallen for Frank the Undertaker. He’s just the sweetest, funniest, cutest freckle-headed man,” she said, coming back into the kitchen. “Oh, what if he heard me talking all this mushy talk -- wouldn’t it be terrible? I think I’d faint!”
I smothered a smile at the sight of Aunt Bevy looking frozen and popeyed at the sight of Mr. Beeler who’d just come in our back door. “Where’d you come from?” she cried. “How long have you been standing there?”
“I just walked in,” he said, smiling real innocent. “What do you mean? Did I miss something?” When she looked away, he winked at me. For someone who’d told such a big lie, he looked awfully happy. I liked Mr. Beeler even better.
On Monday morning, Robin’s long black braids danced like twin whips as she hurried down the steps. Mrs. Culpepper came out on the porch, her lips pressed tight
together. “How are you and your family?” she asked, looking troubled, and cold without a coat on. “Are you all okay, Carmen?
“Yes, ma’am. I guess so.” I didn’t mind so much, now, being asked that.
“I’m glad,” said Robin’s mom. “Truly, Carmen, I’m glad you’re all safe and I am... ” she called after us. We were hurrying to get to school, but I stopped and turned to face her.
“I was worried about you and your brothers,” she said, “and the baby. And the fire -- I see you’re getting your house fixed right up. I shouldn’t have gotten so upset.” She looked so flustered I almost was sorry for her. “Accept my apology, Carmen,” she said. “Please.”
“It’s okay. It was pretty terrible.” Things weren’t truly okay, but I knew Mom’d want me to let Mrs. Culpepper off the hook.
Robin and I walked fast and all that had happened to each of us since the fire tumbled out of our mouths on clouds of breath-smoke.
“My folks, they’ve been having lots of fights about different stuff,” Robin said. “Anyway, they made up enough, for now, so they’re not going to get a divorce or anything. Not yet, anyway.” She shot me a lopsided frown, that meant who’d ever understand grownups? “And Mom’s been real nice to me. She even cried and said she was sorry for taking out her bad feelings on me. She said I was perfect and she really loved me like she meant it even.” Robin rolled her eyes at me, but I could pretty much tell that her heart was more peaceful about her mom.
It got me wondering how my mom and I would be getting along now and how she wouldn’t get to see how we were gonna turn out. Robin’s voice broke into these sad thoughts. “I just think Mom’s not a happy person and it’s not about her having me for a daughter.”
“But your mom’s so lucky to have you, I mean, you’re the best!”
We walked fast against the cold, hugging our books to our chests, Robin looking pleased, me feeling kind of wistful about Mom, hearing Robin trying to figure out her own. “So could you?” I asked. “Did you forgive her?”
“Maybe. I told her I did. And she said she wouldn’t really call the cops on your family. She just gets so mad sometimes. ” Robin shrugged and shook her head.
We turned the corner onto Maple, almost to school. I felt kind of mad too, in fact I felt pretty furious at Old Yeller Culpepper, getting my poor dad so upset. “She’s pretty old to be having tantrums.”
“Don’t I know it,” Robin said.
Then I told her the important news: about Aunt Bevy and Mr. Beeler.
“Jeepers!” Robin grinned. “If they got married, maybe we could be bridesmaids, huh?”
It was kind of a big fat relief to go back to normal life, to school with kids scrambling out of the yellow busses, milling around the door of the school, like it was an ant hill. When I got to my locker, Jenny Moffat smiled at me for the first time. “Man oh man, you Cathcarts sure have yourself some luck. I heard about that fire over at your place. You all okay? You need anything?”
“Naah.” I said, feeling kind of famous. “But that’s nice of you to ask.”
Greg Tuck passed me a note in Health class. He’d drawn a fire engine on it.
Some kids said your house caught on fire. Did all your stuff get burned up? I bet you could draw a neat picture with all the flames and smoke and everything.
I showed it to Robin on the way home. She snorted. “Boys are so immature.” Later, when we could hear Velvet bawling before we even got to my house, Robin made a face. “Boy, she doesn’t sound very happy.”
“Talk about immature!” I said, hurrying across our yard and up the steps.
“I think she’s got a tummy ache going,” said Dad, pulling on his coat. “Carmie, that wild woman next door brought over a chocolate cake this morning before she left for the grade school. She told me she was sorry so I told her I was just as spun up as she was, leaving you kids alone all the time and we were all going to do our best. Now I gotta get to work. Keep the doors locked and keep that pyromaniac Clark away from the stove! Get it? Pie-romaniac?” Dad winked at me and grabbed up his lunchbox.
“Did you call up your boss?” I jiggled fussy, wriggling Velvet.
“Oh, that’s another thing,” said Dad. “Mr. Herman will look in on you tonight -- what a sweet old guy he is.”
I raised my voice. “Didja?”
It had been a long time since Dad had been so silly and annoying.
“Get her blanket and walk me to the car. Doesn’t she want her pacifier? She wouldn’t take it for me either.”
“Dad, you’re being impossible.”
“Come on, Georgie, give me a kiss. Daddy’s gotta go to work.
Velvet quieted down when Dad gave her a goodbye hug. Not until he was in the car and reaching out to squeeze my hand did he answer me. “Yeah, yeah, I personally talked to the supervisor on the phone and he said he might have an opening on the dayshift after the first of the year. So how’s that? And I called the Monroe sisters and lemme tell you, those ladies had lots of babysitting advice. Step back now. Be careful this evening, honey. Love you.”
“Love you, too.”
Dad backed down the driveway then he stopped.
“Oh yeah, I almost forgot. Frank Beeler’s going to call you later. Wants to ask you something.”
Did he want Miss Lillian’s recipe for Hungarian Meatballs? Christmas gift advice for Aunt Bevy? Maybe Mr. Beeler could give me advice on something special a totally broke kid like me could give a father for Christmas? I wondered what Mr. Beeler wanted to ask me all through supper, then, when the phone rang, every single one of the boys had to say ‘hey’ to him before my turn came.
“May I invite myself and your Aunt Beverly over to your house on Saturday night?” he asked. “We’ll bring the supper.”
“I don’t want to put you all to any trouble. I’ve had -- I mean to say, there’s someone I want you all to meet and... uhm.... well, anyway, would it be alright?”
“Sure. Who’s coming?”
“That’s a surprise,” Mr. Beeler chuckled. “Shall you expect us?”
Well, sure. We said our goodbye-for-nows and I hung up the phone, mystified.
In which I make discoveries.
“Hey! This is the seventh of December,” said Jimmy, looking at Robin and me over the top of the Saturday morning newspaper. “Do you guys know what that day is?”
“Eighteen days till Christmas?” Robin guessed. Jimmy shook his head and I could tell that we’d given him a lot of satisfaction, not knowing something he knew.
“It’s the day that’ll live in infamy, when we got attacked at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. In World War Two. Just for you to know.”
I told him thanks for the good information.
“You know what else? That kid I told you about -- Wally Williams? He’s coming over here to see me.” Jimmy looked proud.
“Neato. What are you guys going to do?”
“Wally’s got a chess set and I got a book from the library. We’re gonna teach each other how to play chess.”
That’s what they were doing too, when I met the kid, a little guy with big ears and real good manners. He jumped up when I went into Jimmy’s room, and about toppled the chessboard. He even stuck out his hand, so I shook it as Jimmy said, “This is Wally and this is Carmen, my sister. She draws real good.”
Wow, he’d never said that before.
“Can you draw me?” Wally asked, sitting back down, lifting his chin so I could size up his face.
Huh? If I didn’t count doodling in Math, I hadn’t drawn anything since I was in Mrs. Montisano’s class. And I’d sure as heck never drawn a real live human being sitting right in front of me.
“Sure she could!” Jimmy sounded like a movie-guy saying how fast his horse can run, so it’d be mean to let him down in front of the first kid he ever got to come visit him.
Wally Williams sat as still as an owl on a tree branch. It was hard – and fun, I discovered, to draw a curve then a circle with a black dot in it and try to make them look like his left eye. Then you have to make the other eye match. I drew his pug nose, his pursed-up lips, tried not to make his ears look like two jug handles, tore out the page, and showed it to the kid. All the laughing he’d been holding in popped out all over the place. “Neat! Can I keep it? I’m gonna give it to my mom for Christmas.”
“Hey, it looks like him!” Jimmy exclaimed. “Draw me now!”
“Car - men!” Dad hollered up the stairs. “Come help Georgie, will ya? I got my hands full with the baby!”
“Maybe later, okay?” I told Jimmy. “Good luck with the chess. Nice to meecha.”
Jimmy and that Wally-kid gave me an idea. All the time I was helping Dad, clear up to when Mr. Beeler’s car came around our corner, I thought about it. It gave me the shivers.
The boys blasted out of the house to greet Mr. Beeler.
“What’s that on top of your car?” Larry asked.
“It’s a Christmas tree, dummy!” Clark shouted as Harry wondered, “Who’s that in the back seat?”
“You’ll see!” said Mr. Beeler, hurrying to open doors for Aunt Bevy and a lady with short, sticking-up hair. At all of our puzzled, bashful faces, she beamed a toothy smile.
Jimmy nudged me. “Who’s that?”
She looked kind of familiar. “Beats me,” I said.
“I want you all to meet Frances here!” said Mr. Beeler.
Aunt Bevy’s smile was as bright as her cherry red hat and coat. “I’ll bet you didn’t know that Frank here had a twin sister.”
Both Mr. Beeler and his sister grinned, crinkling their identical brown eyes at us Cathcarts. Frances took three big steps, her right hand outstretched, up to Dad coming down the porch steps to meet her.
“Frances Beeler. Mighty pleased to meet you.”
Unlike Aunt Bevy’s, Miss Beeler’s dark eyes had no makeup, only lots of laugh wrinkles. She reminded me of the girls at school who actually liked P. E. class.
“Gene Cathcart,” Dad said. “Pleasure’s mine, Miss Beeler.”
“And this must be Velvet.” Her voice went higher. “What a pretty girl! Who’s a pretty girl?” Miss Beeler jiggled Velvet’s bootied foot.
When her brother opened the trunk of his car, barbecue smell spilled out. The boys helped unload cartons of Pepsi, strawberry pop, and greasy brown paper sacks. “Let’s everybody come inside,” Dad called out. “Bev, do I have you to thank for that Christmas tree?”
“No, that was Frank’s idea. Wasn’t that sweet of him?”
“Yup,” Dad agreed. “That was mighty sweet, Frank, no foolin’!”
“Mr. Beeler, that lady’s really your twin?” Jimmy asked.
“How come we never met her before?”
Mr Beeler looked real delighted that I’d asked him that. “Because she’s been in Africa for the past two years!”
“Wow!” Jimmy looked amazed. “Where in Africa?”
“Go on in and ask her,” said Mr. Beeler. “She’ll tell you all about it.”
“Wow,” said Jimmy, softer this time. He hurried into the house, but not me and Mr. Beeler. We lollygagged behind, out on the front porch.
“Is your sister your big surprise?”
“Well, sure!” said Mr. Beeler. Curiosity sent his eyebrows clear up to the brim of his black fedora. “What’d you think it was?”
I tilted my head up at him. Like they do sometimes, words bubbled up out of nowhere and… okay, they came from my hoping, right up and out of my mouth. “I kind of wondered, after you heard what Aunt Bevy said the other day, if you might ask her to marry you.”
“How did –? I was going to – I mean, I am. Do you think she really wants me to?” He turned his face toward the bright indoors where Aunt Bevy was laughing. “Well, I did want to talk to you, Carmen, you and your father, and the rest of you, because...well, so little time has gone by since your mother passed away...”
“It’s okay, Mr. Beeler.” I put my hand on his woolen sleeve to stop him. “It really is. Honest.”
“Carmen!” Dad called from inside, “What in the Sam Hill are you two doin’ out there? Come in and get some supper before we eat it all!”
I pulled Mr. Beeler’s sleeve for him to lower his head. I said what I knew was true into his ear, “My mom would really like you, if she’d met you. I know she would. And well....” I frowned, trying to think how just to say what I meant. “I think our family would be a lot less busted if you were part of it.”
His smile sort of melted at the edges. His dark eyes glittered as he draped an arm around my shoulder.
“Ask her tonight, why doncha?”
“No. Christmas!” he whispered, as he opened the door for me. “You know: More romantic! Don’t tell her!”
I was glad I didn’t have to say I wouldn’t tell Robin about this. I hugged the exciting secret to myself as Mr. Beeler smooched Aunt Bevy’s rouged cheek. My eyes were full of the sight of my family, Miss Beeler steadying Velvet’s bottle with one hand, waving a drumstick with the other. My nose was full of supper smells, my mind was buzzing with the idea I got from drawing Wally. My heart was stuffed full of – oh, I don’t know. What’s really happy? Fizzy bluebirds?
“I’d been a nurse for years,” Miss Beeler was saying, “but when President Kennedy, God rest him, started the Peace Corps, I knew I had my marching orders! I worked with the Pygmy women and their babies over in Gabon, on Africa’s west coast. That’s where Dr. Schweitzer built his hospital, you know.”
“Who’s that?” Clark asked.
“He’s a famous musician-doctor-writer fella,” said Dad. “He won that big prize.”
Miss Beeler nodded. “The Nobel Peace Prize.” “Did you see monkeys?” Harry asked.
“Hundreds of them!”
“Did you get to meet President Kennedy?” Jimmy asked.
“Shook hands with him,” said Miss Beeler and Jimmy gazed respectfully at her calloused right hand.
When everybody was full and licking their fingers, Dad helped bring in the tree from the top of Mr. Beeler’s Chevy. It – the tree, I mean, smelled green and wintery, like Christmas.
Larry turned to me. “Where are all our ornaments?”
“And our lights?” Harry added.
“They must be upstairs in your room,” I said, “right, Dad?”
Dad nodded. “I think your mama stuck ’em in the closet.”
As I went upstairs, I thought about my idea for a really special present for Dad. It’d be the best, hardest picture ever, if I had time. “If I could really do it,” I muttered to myself as I felt for the light switch in my folks’ room. Click: There was their big, empty bed. There in the closet were Mama’s dresses. My face brushed against them as I searched through old boxes and bulging brown paper sacks for the decorations. I breathed in Mama’s scents of baby powder and graham crackers and cried for her a little bit.
Inside a squashed sack I found a bundle of old Christmas cards and our electric window candles.
Underneath were all of our ornaments. Some were store-bought, but mostly we made them: Tinfoil stars, pipe-cleaner candy canes. What would we make this year? Snowflakes? I imagined Mama’s spirit watching us glue glitter on construction paper angels, her being up there with real ones, her first Christmas in heaven. Then, under a tangle of tinsel, I saw something blue.
It was a package, wrapped in blue tissue paper. Bending closer, hardly breathing, I read the writing on it.
Happy Birthday Carmen, love from Mama
I remembered when I stayed up late with Mama, that hot night before I turned thirteen, that last night. I could almost hear her telling me “I saved an extra present, one your Daddy doesn’t know about yet, for Saturday when we have your cake and candles.’
Tears stung my nose, pushed against the backs of my eyes, and I let them come on out and roll down my cheeks. I heard Jimmy’s far away voice calling me.
“Whatcha doin’? Didja find the ornaments?”
My tears dripped on my hands tearing at the paper, careful to save the part with Mama’s writing. I ripped the paper and you know what was inside?
A paintbox. A wooden box with two brushes and a set of watercolors.
I heard Dad on the stairs. “Carmen? You okay up there?”
The paints were in little tubes. Like real artists use.
It was like she was giving me permission to have my castle in the air, the way Mr. Herman talked about it: A dream of what I could be. It was almost like Mama was counting on me to be a real artist someday.
Boy, I really started bawling. I still was when Daddy came up and found me. I showed him the paints and, between sobs, I told him what they meant.
“She was proud of me.”
“We both were!” he said, pretty weepy himself. “My gosh, Buddy, I never was so proud of anybody as I am of you.”
The very next day, I drew a picture of Jimmy, remembering how Mrs. Montisano told us to measure what we were trying to draw, getting both sides of his glasses to match, all the while his eyes staring right at me. I told him my big idea for Dad’s Christmas present.
Jimmy smiled really big and I had to stop drawing. A smile squinches up the eyes and teeth are too hard to draw. “Wow! Carmen, that’s so excellent. Dad will like that better than anything! But will he be in it?”
Wow, that was a neat idea except for one problem. “He can’t sit and be looking at me while I draw him. It’d wreck the surprise.”
“What if you looked at a picture of him in the photo album,” Jimmy suggested.
Now I was smiling. “You really are a genius.”
Beside him, on the same piece of paper, I drew Clark.
“Don’t make me look stupid,” he said.
“If I do, I promise it won’t be on purpose.”
I had to look at myself in the mirror seemed like forever to draw my own picture. After school on Monday, I drew Georgie and about erased a hole in the paper, he moved around so much. Being busy made me wait before I could draw Harry, then Larry, then, when she was asleep,
baby Velvet. I drew her in front of Dad with his arms holding her. Last of all, I made Mama’s face, calm and mild, the way she looked in the picture of her in my billfold, from when we were at Blue Top, the way she always looked in my imagination. With a brush and a teeny bit from the tube labeled Cerulean Blue, (mixed with lots of water, of course), I carefully, carefully, painted blue sky behind us Cathcarts and around Mama. She rested her elbows on a puffy cloud above us all. I gave her wings.
I’d imagine all of the passed-on people. President Kennedy and his baby boy, the Alabama Sunday School girls, Cracker, too, that poor little Fourth-of-July dog: all of the flowing robed angels and those piggy-looking, fairy-winged baby angels, the old gods and goddesses. God and Jesus and Mama, all watching from their blue cloud kingdoms or green pastures or golden city, all gazing down on the world of Christmas Eve, 1963.
If they looked into our town, would they see and hear Mr. Scudder sitting by himself, holding a bent postcard from some Army base where his son was making a new life for himself as best he could while his old man sat and stared, unseeing, at his television? Miss Effie and Miss Lucille and Mr. Herman sharing cocoa and a Christmas cake? Wondering what’s inside the presents they got from those Cathcarts? Robin’s dad playing Silent Night on his piano and singing at the deep end of his family quartet? My slick-haired brothers with red bowties clipped to their collars and giggles twitching the corners of their mouths?
They’d for sure see Dad admiring Velvet’s foofy baby dress from Aunt Bevy’s department store. Jolly Miss Beeler spraying crumbs, talking around bites of Christmas cookie. Nervous Mr. Beeler looking at Aunt Bevy and checking, when he doesn’t think anybody sees, if he still has the tiny ring box in his pocket. Aunt Bevy crying “Ta da!” and shaking out a brand new dream castle in the air for our Sputnik chandelier.
“Carmie,” Clark whispered, “when you gonna give him the present?”
“Now.” He helped me pull it out from behind our old couch. It was big and heavy too, because Aunt Bevy got a real picture frame for it, with glass.
“This is for you, Dad,” I said.
He looked at me real hard and bright and tore off the tissue paper. Dad looked at my picture the way he looked at Velvet sometimes. Tears came in his eyes and in almost everybody else’s when they clustered around Dad looking at the drawing I did.
“There we all are,” he said softly.
“I made Mama our guardian angel,” I told him. I made her like in my imagination, smiling down from heaven at us Cathcarts, all festive and bittersweet.
Nineteen And then…
After the turn of the year, Dad’s job did change. In the evenings, there he would be, with us. And in the daytime, when Georgie and baby Velvet needed looking after, our friends, their friends, plus the nursery school Robin’s mom helped us find, all helped us to live our momless life.
At last, at last, the Last Day of School came at last and did I survive eighth grade? Well, sure. My mom didn’t raise any stupid kids.
On the last weekend in May, in the very back of our old stationwagon, Larry was teaching Georgie how to play Old Maid. In the middle seat, Harry and Clark each held canning jars, wrapped in old Examiners, full of pink and white peonies. They craned their necks, trying to count the cows in the fields we passed on our way to the graveyard.
In the front seat, Dad drove with one hand on the wheel, the other out the window so the highway wind could blow across his tattooed Irish harp. I held the baby. Velvet’s toes pressed into my lap as she stood on her sturdy, rubbery legs. She swiveled her head to smile slobbery smiles at whichever boy called her name.
“She’s wanting to be walking,” said Dad. “And her only ten months old.”
As soon as Dad parked the station wagon near the cars of the other Decoration Day visitors, the little boys bubbled out the doors. Jimmy followed more slowly, his finger marking the place in his book. Velvet struggled in my arms so I set her down in the bright, thick grass. Around the old cemetery, people turned their heads at the sound of her happy shrieks. The twins balanced the peony jars on the grass beside the stones that marked Mama’s and her long-gone folks’ resting places.
I pulled the elastic that held my ponytail so my red hair could blow free. The wind smelled like rain. Boiling ivory, pearly cloud-mountains floated in the deepest blue of the sky over us, the graveyard, the sleepers
under the stones, the trees, and the river. For a moment, I let myself imagine floaty-gowned, long-haired goddesses and angels up there, like in the paintings of the mythological lands, in the art books in the library. Then I asked Dad something I’d been wondering.
“Do you forget sometimes how Mom’s voice sounded?”
“Naah, Buddy” said Dad and he kissed the top of my head. “I remember it okay. I just listen to you.” Velvet’s fat baby fingers gripped the edge of Mama’s tombstone and pulled herself up. She let go, stood balancing in the springy grass.
“Look Daddy!” Larry called. “Velvet’s walking!”
the end, of the book that always will be the darling of my heart. C.H.