Authors: Chris Lynch
My sister Joanne has a
baby and sometimes after school I go over there and I help her with it and she lets me have a glass of wine and then I start to think of things.
Things like that I'm really good with babies even though I'm only twelve and I can think of no reason why I should be after all good with babies since I don't have any of my own but I sure would like to. Better than my sister is with her own baby that's for sure though I don't actually mean to be mean because she's nice to me some of the time and it's hard for her and I fully understand that. She's only seventeen herself but her old man she calls him is thirty which is why there's always a glass of wine around although from what I can see the old man himself ain't. Around that is.
Sometimes my sister goes out right away when I come
over and comes back hours later when me and the baby Dennis are asleep. She says that Dennis is crazy because he's loud and he's active and he doesn't listen but then he stops still and stares for almost ever and he makes a lot of sounds that are nothing at all like words and he moves funny sometimes more like a praying mantis than like a big baby boy and that all this is why little Dennis and me get along so good is what she says because we're both screwed she says. And that's why she has to leave sometimes.
But I don't see the problem so much to be honest and I tell my sister so. She says I can't see it because I'm a retard myself is what she says when she's not feeling so nice or just that Davey you don't understand things very well is what she says when she's better.
But I can do things. I can change Dennis's diaper when he needs it, and I know when he needs it. I even like it doing the changing doing the feeding like it when my sister leaves us alone because I like being the one in charge for a change. I am really responsible and I don't think my sister changes Dennis often enough because of what I see sometimes on his little bum. Like boils. I can't tell my sister something like that because I told her once told her after she came home from a long long time when she was out of the house. And she said how dare you to me and she hit me slapped me real hard. Then she stared at me and thought about it and just
said how dare you again and hit me real hard on the same part of my face again even though I'm bigger than she is by a lot. But I couldn't do nothing about it of course because I couldn't. Except cry. I could cry and I did just with the water part and no sound coming out of me. And I turned so little Dennis couldn't see because he looks up to me admires me and he's real curious and kept stretching his neck to try to see me. So now I just wipe the cream on him all the time and I blow lightly on the red parts of his bottom to cool him because it looks hot.
My sister says so what to all this because she did it all for me when I was little like our brother Gary who doesn't live around here anymore did for her because she says Mom had two kids too many than she could handle. And so I owe somebody.
Joanne was seven years old
when she became, in effect, mother by default for Davey, who was two. That was the year Lois, their mother, started packing Joanne off to school in the morning with her lunch of a hot dog wrapped in a piece of bread, a bag of Cheetos, and a two-pack of Suzy Q's. Following breakfast of one Pop-Tart, which the girl could either eat or not, Joanne would take a last look over her shoulder as Lois plunked Davey down in front of the TV.
Which was where Joanne would find her brother when she came back in in the afternoon.
“Take the long route home?” Lois said as she snatched her wet-look leather jacket off the coat tree. “Make sure Davey has something to eat at some point. He won't eat for me today.” And she was gone.
“You didn't eat
?” Joanne said as Davey finally looked away from the screen and noticed her. He let out a squeal and held his hands straight up in the air as she ran over and lifted him up. They played their game, where she let go of him and he hung on by holding tight around her neck, as they headed right for the kitchen. Davey laughed “like a madman,” Joanne said, even though it took all his strength to hold on, and even though he fell to the floor hard more than once.
The ritual. It became the one reliable good time of the day, when Joanne made orange macaroni and cheese out of the box. He ate his share, at least half a box, every time, no matter how his mother said he'd eaten all day. Joanne ate with him, out of boredom, out of comradeship, out of whatever need still gnawed at her belly every afternoon after she finished her lunch. It started to show on both of them, the daily macs, as Joanne got more and more chunky while Davey grew like a sunflower, tall and taller and ragged and unsteady.
“Can't you do something else, Davey? Don't you want to?” she first asked him when she was ten and his TV watching schedule was interrupted each day only by two and a half hours of kindergarten.
“Ya,” he answered enthusiastically, but shrugged while doing it. It was becoming common, the mixed communication,
like when he'd say “yes” to something while shaking his head, or “I don't know” while nodding.
“Well then come with me,” Joanne said as he jumped on her back, the new daily ritual since he'd become too big for her to carry. They ate their macaroni, then she dressed him in his winter jacket, ski mask, and mittens.
Finally, she took him by the hand to the places she always went. To get away from the place she would teach him to get away from. She took him to the library, where she read him picture books until he got bored and started wandering, pulling books down. Where Joanne's friend Isobel, the librarian, came over and corralled Davey back into the chair, loosened his heavy clothes in the stuffy library air, immediately relaxing him. Isobel read to them from
The Wind in the Willows
, and both children sat still until things got too busy and she had to get back to work.
She took him to the cobbler's shop, where
ever seemed to go anymore even though Vadala the shoe guy was completely surrounded, up one wall and down the other, with old black shoes. Joanne and Davey had a ball clomping up and down the old dry floorboards wearing fifty different people's shoes. “They need a walk. Take 'em for a walk,” Vadala would say. He loved it and tugged away at a full white mustache growing down over his lips, pushing biscotti and hard candies on the two kids as they paraded by his bench.
Joanne could go on the whole day walking the shoes, and many days she did. But for Davey the big thrill came with the workbench. Vadala set him up with tacks, a hammer, and a rubber sole, and that was the last they saw of Davey's face. Hammering away like old John Henry, Davey was motivated. He pounded, harder and harder, faster and faster, louder and louder, letting out the occasional grunt of effort, the occasional giggle of delight. He worked so long at that hammering that even Joanne stopped her marching to join Vadala in just staring at Davey. When she finally had to pull him away to leave, there were droplets of sweat rolling off the tip of his nose.
Davey was so supercharged by that time, he couldn't even stay in his seat during most of the bus ride Joanne took him on. It was the long straight ride up Washington Street, her favorite of the many regular routes she rode just for the riding. For the
that had become so important to her, the perpetual, numbing hum of motion. She would let her temple loll against the window as she looked over at whatever passed by. The vibration in her head such a nice soundtrack.
She would let him roam since, as usual in the afternoon, there were only a couple of old people on the bus who didn't want any trouble. But Joanne would break her own peace whenever Davey was too close, and too hard, on the driver's ear.
“Sit down, Davey, I want you to look at this,” she said, jamming him into her prized window seat. “There.” She pointed to a brown triple-decker with the porches about to drop to the sidewalk. “There is where we lived when you were born.” Davey stared silently at that house and at all the other rotting triplets that floated by. “And there,” she said one minute later, “is where we lived when I was born. And that one there is where we moved to right after, and that empty lot there used to be the house we lived in just two years ago.”
Davey listened but didn't react much except to say “uh-huh,” and “oh.” He was nevertheless spellbound. By the same thing that brought Joanne back to the buses to nowhere day after day. The houses flying by, the neighborhoods melting away, popping up, one blending into another, the wheezy growl of the bus engine that sounded like it was just sitting right there in the rear seat of the bus instead of outside, and didn't sound like any other sound. Davey leaned his temple against the glass, and she knew she'd done something for him. Joanne got up out of the inside seat, swung around to the window seat right behind her brother's, and assumed the identical position. They didn't move when the bus pulled into the station, waited fifteen minutes, then headed back up Washington Street to where they came from.
Joanne had to shake Davey, then pull him, when it was time to get off the bus. Then all the way up the street toward
home he was excited, agitated, like an animal needing to run. Joanne hadn't seen much of this in Davey before, but she liked it, saw it somehow as a good thing even if she wasn't sure why. She wanted to take him out some more, to let him run, to simply stand and watch him do it, but it was starting to get dark and they had to get home. One time she grabbed him in a bear hug, his arms flattened to his sides, to play at restraining him. He kicked and twisted until finally he exploded out of her arms and sprinted, Joanne laughing and pursuing him.
“Get your little ass in here,” Lois growled as she threw the front door open.
“What, Ma? What?” Joanne pleaded, already trembling as she followed her mother's backward steps. When they'd all gotten inside, Davey, bringing up the rear, turned and shut the door.
have you been?” Lois screamed, smashing Joanne on the side of the head with the heel of her hand. “Who the
do you think you are, Joanne? The boss? Are you the boss around here now? I was worried
.” Every time she said “hell,” or “sick,” or “boss,” or “child,” she slapped Joanne in the same spot, the patch of the cheek that was already pink from the outside air. “You think you can just take this child, and whisk him away when you feel like it, like a toy?”
Joanne stood frozen, still in her knee-length navy-blue coat. Her nose ran almost as fast as her tears, over her lips, her chin. “I thought he might like to go out,” she whimpered. Davey stood behind her, clutching the coarse wool of her coat like a bat.
Lois leaned right down into Joanne's face. “You mean you thought
might like to go out.” Joanne turned her face half away, not all the way away because she was afraid of offending her mother. But she had to turn, not so much from the words as from the odor, of men's cologne, of something bitter, of onions and sweat and smoke. The scent that followed her mother home on the worst days.
, little girl.” Lois breathed at her as she squeezed her face. “Those days of come and go, and do what you like and la-di-da, are
. Do you hear me? You've got a lot of responsibility now, and it's time for you to start growing the hell up.”