Rust, Van, Lilacs, Selfish:
Four Fragments from The Junk Drawer
By Linda Winterbottom
The runners were wonderfully rusty. Otis crouched beside the old sled that leaned against the wall of the utility shed and wiped at the rust, first with a leaf, and then when the leaf crumpled, with the bottom of his shirt. Looking at his orange-stained palms, Otis brightened, rubbed them together, and stood up. Next, he studied the padlocked wooden cabinet that contained paint thinner and canisters of other toxic things. He knew there was an old tarnished mirror on the cabinet door. The cabinet was tall, like a locker, and made of wood, now very old, almost black, and very splintery. There were big cracks between the planks in the locker, allowing light to enter the cabinet in slits, reflect off the dusty mirror, and create hairlines of brightness inside the dark core of the cabinet. Otis peeked through a crack between two planks to study the fissures of light across the shadowy cans.
There were footsteps nearby. From the shed door, Otis observed the old woman wearing an apron over her coat and slowly walking by, her ancient dog creeping along beside her. She was singing softly about the Brooklyn Bridge. Sometimes she talked to the dog, but today she sang. The arthritic dog and woman walked by every day. As slow as the woman was, the old dog was always slower. Otis noticed that the fur and flesh of the dog was swollen near his neck. A big round bulge hung both sideways and downward from the dog’s neck. A frown crossed Otis’s mouth. He looked down and noticed his blood-stained hands. He began to feel dizzy.
“Ma!” he bawled, staring at his hands in horror. “Mom!”
He could see the open kitchen door from the shed doorway. Maybe there was steam curling out of the doorframe. Something clouded his vision. Grey shapes like spaghetti, like passages for worms, passed before his eyes.
And then, the oval face, looking down at him. The moon-soft face, framed by the smooth brown hair. Her look was concerned and calm. She lifted him, rubbed his back, and carried him inside. He closed his eyes and smelled the goodness of her hair, of her neck. Like soap and bread. Bread and soap.
It was a Saturday, and Mom put a finger to her lips. Not a shushing finger, but the thoughtful kind. Behind her was a window, and on the other side of that, the road. It was going to rain, I knew, just from the color of the sky. She was in her blue bathrobe and Otis was eating cereal. The sleeves of the bathrobe had fluff for trim, but the cuffs were shabby when she lifted her hand. My father’s old tan car was parked on the street, visible through the window behind my mother. Otis was in his pajama bottoms, eating cereal, and watching kids taking turns singing into a microphone on TV. The washing machine hummed in the background. The man on television wore a suit and, holding the microphone, welcomed another kid singer. All these things were happening, and their noises, when I heard a moment of nothing, like pulling the roots of a feeling, like winter when the gray sky sits heavy on top of the snow. My eyes met my mother’s eyes. She heard it too. She was looking up, listening, when the van came screeching down the road and bounced into the yard. A terrific slam. In one motion, my mother whisked Otis up, his bowl of cereal flying. The spoon bounced off the television, splashing the screen with milk. Shirtless in my mother’s arms, Otis had a tough look in his eyes, but his lower lip went in and out. He was breathing fast.
“Was that the washing machine again?” my father asked, walking in from another room. We were all at the window looking out.
“Holy shit. That guy destroyed my car.”
Mom didn’t say anything. I felt her hand on my hair. I was holding myself away, but when she touched me I leaned against her.
The blue van had smashed into the back of Dad’s car, and both were now halfway across the yard and into the shrubs. Broken milk bottles trailed across the yard.
Otis clung to my mother, his thumb in his mouth. When he saw me look at him, he made a little growling noise and turned his head away.
There were two shadowy forms inside the van. When the doors opened, two men climbed out awkwardly, watching us watching them through the window. They called to each other and began running.
“Whoa. Hold up,” my father called, banging on the window. The men ran, and then were gone. Dad rushed to the door to try to catch them. We watched Dad run after them but out in the street he stopped and put his hands on top of his head, watching down the road for a minute.
From under the lilacs, I twirled a blade of grass between two fingers. I was on my stomach, letting the toes of my shoes drop to the ground, first the left, then the right, then the left again. Feeling warm tears flood my eyes again, I pressed the heels of my hands to my face.
I heard the porch door open. Through gaps in the lilacs I saw Mom’s stained jeans walk out onto the porch. The green watering can hung from her hand as she stood on the porch, watering her geraniums and spider plants. I watched her stop at the place where the clay pot was missing. Her body was still. With her clog, she pushed at the clumps of clay and dirt on the floor. I had not done a good job cleaning up. Her clogs and jean-legs went back into the house, and came back a minute later with a broom.
I twisted a lilac stem, starting to feel sick. I crawled out and walked toward my mother who didn’t look surprised at all to see me come out from under the lilacs. When I sat down on the porch steps, more tears came. Mom put the broom down and sat next to me.
“I’m sorry, Mom,” I cried. “I broke it.”
“Who are you?” Mom asked, laughing softly and wrapping her arm around me. “No one tells the truth when they break things around here. Don’t you know that?”
I shook my head. She wasn’t angry, but I wasn’t ready to stop crying yet.
“Sure. Your father breaks something, he tells me ‘I don’t know what happened.’ Your brother? Forget it. He’s out the door too quick. Well, at least you’re honest.”
Even though I knew I wasn’t in trouble anymore, I couldn’t stop crying. The cries kept tumbling out from somewhere in my throat.
Mom smoothed the hair around my forehead and tucked it behind my ears. “You’re my girl. A little dramatic. But you’re my girl.” She kissed the top of my head. Then she leaned forward to look at me. “Are you sure you don’t want to blame someone else? It’s not too late.”
I smiled and hugged her. She wiped my face with the loose part of her shirt.
“Mom, what happened to your arm?” There was a purple bruise on the inside of her arm.
“Oh, that’s nothing.” Mom rested her arm on her thigh again.
I moved away a little and looked right in her eyes.
“Alright, nosy. I had some blood taken the other day. At the doctor’s office.”
She kept looking into my eyes, not smiling, not anything, but thinking about something, somewhere else, even though she was looking right at me. We looked at each other for a long time like that, both of us just breathing. The edge of Mom’s blouse near her neck went up and down, just a little, as she breathed.
“You stopped humming,” I said.
“You used to hum all the time. But you don’t anymore,” I said.
I shook my head.
“Some things are different.”
“Yeah? Like what?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Little things.”
She nodded. “Well, I haven’t been feeling well.”
I looked at the ground, at the pieces of broken clay.
“Mom, what’s wrong with you?”
I felt her squeeze my neck a little with her hand. “I’m tired.”
“I know. But why?” I pressed a curved piece of clay with my foot. As I tapped one side, it rocked back and forth.
“I don’t know. We’re working on it.”
As I looked at her, I felt my face get tight. I felt angry. I hated that important things were going on and she wasn’t telling me.
“Did they give you medicine? Are you going to get better now?” My voice was low and scratchy. It didn’t sound caring, but mean. I remembered the pill bottles I had seen her putting in the long white paper bags.
“Yes, they gave me medicine. I don’t know if I’m getting better yet. I hope so. We’ll see.”
I leaned against her and let her wrap her arms around me.
“I don’t like it when you keep secrets.”
She didn’t say anything. I pulled away and gave her a fierce look. One side of her smile came up, but she also had that look in her eyes that made her look fierce too. She wrapped her arms around me again, tighter this time.
It was early September and the keys of the piano were bright and scented with lemon oil. It was early September and we had settled down on the couch with a story. It was early September and we still felt excitement slipping our feet into new shoes smelling of leather, a store, a perfectly shaped box lined with crinkly paper. We sang a song about boats, a song about meatballs, a song about rain barrels. It was September and it could have been later. It could have been October or November in fact. It was September, and my mother was well, and I couldn’t bring myself to leave September. If it were true that it were not September at all, but November, and my mother had not polished the piano keys, could not read me a story, then it made me feel ashamed to know it. The children were safe and comfortable. I was one of the children. I was once safe and comfortable. It was September and I had not woken up at the bottom of something deep made of sadness, made of questions, made of dark. We would make up stories, and walk through the woods together, me and Otis, and Mom was there, and Dad was there, and Freddy and Frank, and we walked across the pine needles, the soft, quiet pine needles in the middle of the woods where it was cool and silent and I could hear the ferns uncurling, and the pine needles falling. And no one could ever imagine what a soft pillow was made by the earth in the middle of the woods. And the woods were a song about the wind, about trees, about families. No. It wasn’t November, and I did not feel alone and selfish there. Selfish because my mother was sick and all I could think of was myself. And wanting my mother, wanting her to get better not for her, but for me, because I had turned into someone very selfish. It was September and I was a good girl. My mother loved me and I loved her. We all loved each other so much that we didn’t have to say it or even think about it.
© Sagebrush Review II Spring 2007