“You stay here,” my mother tells me.
I look out the window at our huge elm tree and each twig and branch, is glazed with ice—so are the fire hydrant, the parking meters and the sidewalks—and the sky is steel. I’ve never seen Brooklyn look like this before. Usually I would go with them, but my mother worries that it will be too slippery for all of us to make it the five blocks to my brother and sister’s elementary school.
“Stay with your father,” she says to me.
I have to wait till next year to go to school. This year I pretend I am a school girl, insisting on carrying my brother and sister’s books when we pick them up, and I already can read some long words. My mother told me don’t be afraid of the long words—just find the little words in the big word. My father sits on the couch in his blue work clothes staring out quiet, thinking, smoking a Pall Mall.
I watch my mother, sister and brother from the window as they make slow progress up the block. My mother takes tight steps and my sister almost falls, but my mother holds her up by her hand like she does when we are in the waves.
I open the window and a frozen gust surprises me and whips into the room down my nightgown.
“HOW DO YOU SPELL TWINKLES?” I yell to my mother. I am writing a story about our cat becoming a detective like Scooby Doo.
I’m ready with my crayon to write it on the window ledge, but she can’t hear me. I pull down the window, and the cold seeps through even still. I spell T-W-I-N-K-A-L-S the best I can in green crayon on the ledge, something that my mother will later yell at me for doing. I will try to say I didn’t do it, but she will line up Jamie, Kim and me and tell us to stick out our tongue because that will let her know who is lying. I will run from the lineup, confessing as I go, and my punishment will be to scrub it off with Windex. I never can get T-W-I-N-K-A-L-S off though, and it stays a ghost word on the windowsill.
The radiator behind the couch is churning up steam. I climb up and lie between the wall and the couch with my cat and get warm, steaming my face, my belly, my feet. My father doesn’t mind; I can see him blowing plumes of smoke out in front of him. I overheard my mother telling my father, when they were watching Johnny Carson, that the son-of-a-bitch-bastard Horing turns the heat way down low in the middle of the day when the kids are at school, turns it back up for dinnertime and morning, and off at night. I savor the heat and the steam before the pipes get cold.
The Flintstones is on. I go to the kitchen, get a bowl, and pour in the tinkly sounds of Lucky Charms, milk, and sprinkle in two tablespoons of sugar. My sister left a TV tray set up in front of the television from breakfast, and I pull a chair close to the set to watch and eat. My feet are cold and are already a little dirty. I should get socks, but I don’t.
I sit close so that I imagine myself in the world of Bedrock, where the cars run on footsteps and the ribs are so big they tilt the cars. I think Betty is prettier, but I would be Wilma because she’s so funny.
“Audrey, come here,” my father says from behind me where he is sitting on the couch. I hear the tssst of him crushing his Pall Mall in the ashtray beside him.
I turn to him.
“What?” I ask.
“Come here,” he says. He doesn’t seem mad. He pats his lap for me to come sit with him. Highly unusual.
I sit in my mother’s lap. I lie all over her at the end of the day when I’m tired and there is Johnny Carson and her bum leg is up on the chair and I’m supposed to go to bed, but instead I rest my head in her lap and I watch with her, even though I don’t get the jokes. Sometimes she puts her hand on my back, and it feels good.
I get out of my chair to go near him.
I watch and wonder about my father a lot—try to picture him at work and try to imagine if he talks and laughs with my uncles when they are fixing TVs at my Uncle Angel’s shop.
Yesterday, Kim, Jamie and I rolled the edge of three blankets, curved them into donut shapes and made them into rafts on the red linoleum of the living room floor pretending the red was lava. When my father got home, I braved the lava flow and ran to him, hugged his legs and said, “Hi Daddy.” He smiled and put his hand on my head. Kim and Jamie came to hug him too and we jockeyed among each other to get close to him.
My mother came from the kitchen and there was spaghetti sauce on the stove making the apartment smell like tomatoes, onions and butter. They didn’t kiss. That would be weird.
“Hey, Joe.” She smiled a satisfied smile over our heads for him, her big stirring spoon in one hand and another over her round belly. I noticed she put on lipstick. He has dark, curly hair on the sides of his head, but is bald on top. He has thick hands and a wide chest with strong arms. His feet are so big that I can stand on them while he walks.
“Hey, JJ,” he smiled. He’s the only one who calls her that.
“YOU’RE IN THE LAVA! YOU’RE IN THE LAVA!” I screamed. Kim, Jamie and I hop-ran back to our rafts, back to our game. My father just walked across the red linoleum and sat down on the couch and my mother went back to the kitchen.
He wears dark blue pants, and a dark blue shirt with his name on it when he works at my uncle’s shop. On the weekend, he wears the dark blue pants with a white tee shirt. His hands have grease on them and, even after he washes them, the grease stays. I wondered what he would look like if he wore yellow or green or red shirts and jeans sometimes instead of the same blue clothes, but I can’t picture it.
This morning, he calls me over. Truth is I really don’t like being interrupted. I like to imagine I’m in Bedrock. I’m waiting for my mom, and usually my father would already have taken the bus to work. I watch television and work on my story while my mother does housework in the backrooms. If I need to spell a word, I can go find her.
He picks me up and puts me on his lap, and part of me worries that I am too old for this. I am wearing my red, flannel granny gown that I got from Santa at Christmas. I pull it over my bare knees and try to include my feet because they are pretty cold. I try to pay attention to my father and to Fred Flintstone at the same time. I can feel my father’s belt buckle on my back.
His hands are thick and rough I think from handling all the insides of the televisions. I used to wonder what was inside. Were The Flintstones in there? My father showed me the inside of the television one day when he was fixing it, and I felt disappointed to see that it was just dusty tubes and wires.
At first, my father’s runs his hands over my shins, but then they find the hem of my nightgown and start to slip up my cold legs. Then like spiders they creep into my underwear. How can this be happening? My father’s hands are touching me, and I can’t breathe. I can’t see his face and I’m afraid to. It feels like a siren in my head so Fred Flintstone is talking, but I can’t hear what he is saying. I stare dead ahead watching the TV screen. My mother was walking so slow, and I know my she will be extra careful because she doesn’t want to fall on account of the baby in her tummy.
His hands are rough against my most private parts. My sister and I take a bath together and we poke our fingers up there and we pee in the tub just so we can watch the bathtub fill with yellow and then go clear. Now my father’s hands are down there. I might die. He is rubbing between my legs, and there a sensation I never felt before. It is warm between my legs and my father asks, “Does it feel good?”
I say, “Yes.”
He says, “Come.”
I don’t want to go. I want to stay with Fred Flintstone and my Lucky Charms and the cat near the radiator, and the marshmallows in my cereal are going to be just right now, mushy and sugary and beautiful colors, sea green, pink and yellow. The yellow is my favorite because it tastes like bananas.
My father stands me up, and I try to root my feet to the cold linoleum. The pipes are rattling as they shut down, and the cat looks at us coolly. He holds my hand and leads me back through the railroad apartment. I don’t know where he is taking me.
He stops at the big double bed that he shares with my mother, still rumpled from their night’s sleep, and he lies down in his clothes with his shoes on, and he sits me on top of him below his belt buckle. He closes his eyes and he starts to make noises that I have never heard before—moans almost like he is hurt, but when I dare to look his eyes are closed and he seems far away. I try to move up to his stomach, try to get away from that nasty part that makes my father go away, but he picks me up and puts me back below his belt and holds me there so he can push against me. Tears stream down my cheeks, but I don’t make any noise. I am shivering because the pipes are cold now.
My nightgown from Santa is up around my underwear, and my underwear is showing again and this is part that makes me feel the worst. How long before I can cover myself?
I wonder who is this man and where has my father gone. Where is the father who takes me to hunt for frogs in the lake with my brother and sister in Prospect Park or who taught me how to ride my bike and let me go and I kept going straight even when I was so sure that I would fall over, but he knew before I did that I would keep going? Where is my father who pushes me so high on the swings that my mother gets that squeaky voice and tells him, “Not so high, Joe”?
That father is gone and in his place is this groaning man. And then he groans one more time, not like a person, but like a bear in the forest—so loud that he shudders. He never looks at my eyes, but he picks me up and sets me back down beside the bed. My nightgown covers me now, but it almost doesn’t matter.
My father walks me back to the living room, holding my hand through the rooms that my mother will straighten all morning. She will straighten the wrinkled covers and smooth over the pillows and wax the floors so when the kids come home, even though the paint is old and the house is not fancy, the floors shine and everything feels ordered and calm until the night when we use all the dishes in the house and take the baths and sleep in all the beds and she has to do it all over again.
She will finally take a break at night after she cooks to put her feet up and watch the news and then Johnny Carson. Some nights, I will sneak out of bed and slip beside her on the couch and put my head in her lap. She calls me her night owl, and if I am very quiet, she won’t send me back to bed.
I don’t remember if he tells me not to tell my mother, but I know I can’t. I have a secret now, and I know that if my mother knows what happened that nothing would ever be the same. The walk to school and the made-up beds and the spaghetti sauce on the stove and playing lava rafts with my brother and sister would be gone. This secret would blast the roof off of the house; lava would flow down the stairs out the door to scorch the icy streets; the walls would collapse crashing upon each other until the whole house exploded. What remained of us, the people, would blast us so far away—each of us cast out on a sea of molten red. No. I must never get angry. Never let it out this secret I have.
He sits me back at the table and The Munsters has started. I know Bewitched is next, and I love them all, know all their rooms and all their friends, have been in all their houses. The Lucky Charms are soggier than they ever have been before, but it’s okay because I don’t want them anyway.
I know my mother is on her way home to me and that she will find me this icy morning.
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