(c) copywright 2011 al rights reserved
(Fort Worth, Texas, July, 1963)
The doors of the bus knuckle inward as it rumbles to a stop at the curb in front of the children’s home. With quick jerky movements Matt scrambles up, drops in two dimes and takes a transfer as the bus spews a burst of air and pulls into the hot Sunday afternoon traffic. The wiry eighteen year-old sits directly behind the driver, takes out a slip of paper and studies the address as the orphanage pecan trees glide past in the windows. He leans forward, “’Scuse me, sir, can you tell me if there’s a bus that goes down Mc Cart?”
“You can transfer to number six at Hemphill Street, downtown,” the driver says, smiling into the mirror. “Six’ll take you all the way out to Seminary Drive on Mc Cart.”
“Thank you,” Matt says, wiping the sweat from his forehead with a carefully folded handkerchief. He stuffs it way, then sits pedaling a knee up and down to some frantic inner rhythm. His mouth waters as he pictures the chocolate cake Mommy mentioned on the phone. His mother is more of an idea than a real person. It was the first time he’d heard her voice on the telephone. During the few times he’d lived with Mildred she’d rarely spoken to him, choosing instead to relay messages through his older sister, Anne. The concept of father is even more abstract—a word scrawled on the back of a sepia photograph of an Army officer standing with one foot on a chair.
As Matt stares unfocused at the landscape flowing past, the question gnaws at him: Why now?
Why, after all this time, does Mildred want to see her invisible son?
Her call had come on the wall phone in the stairwell outside the Big Boys’ dormitory.
“Tell Matt he’s got a phone call!” Mrs. Crow had yelled through the dormitory entrance. Thinking it was Maria, his girlfriend, Matt ran the entire length of the long green room to grab the dangling handset.
“Hello?” he said.
Mildred’s giddy high-pitched voice greeted him. “Hello, Mr. High School Graduate! You’re going to be eighteen next Monday. I want to make you a birthday cake!”
Matt froze at the sound of his mother’s voice. She was actually talking to him! He pictured her face from the last time he saw her, two years ago on visitation Sunday.
“Uh…, h-hi. A birthday cake?”
She sounded happy. She looked so beautiful when she smiled. He wondered what she looked like now. He didn’t even have a picture of her. And Janet, his half sister—she was nursing from a bottle the last time he saw her the year he came to the Home. That would make her almost eight. And Lisa he’s never even seen. She must be—what, five?
“What kind would you like?” Mildred said. “Chocolate used to be your favorite.”
Matt didn’t know what to say. Choices had been rare at the Home.
“Yeah, sure, chocolate’s fine,” he said in a halting voice. “It’s great,” he said louder, not wanting to seem ungrateful.
“Or I could make you a pie. Banana cream or chocolate? It’s your birthday; you get to choose whichever you want!”
So many choices. Cake, pie, banana cream, chocolate. It made him dizzy. “Uh… Cake. Chocolate. Sure, that’s great.”
After hanging up, he stood looking at the phone, wondering if he should have told her about the scholarship.
Across town, Mildred clicks on the closet light and stands in bra and panties looking over her options. She knows that all that will fit is another print house dress, yet she moves the hangers back and forth, remembering when she could wear those other things in back. She glances at the alarm clock, and her pulse quickens as she tries to picture Matt’s face from visitation day two years ago when she gave him the driving lesson.
“Mommy! Janet hit me!” Lisa calls from the living room where cartoons are on television.
“Th-ee bit me!” Janet says.
Mildred notices Janet’s lisp. She’ll grow out of it, she thinks, as she tosses the dress onto the bed. Shoes. The half-empty canvas shoe caddy flops against the closet door as she opens it wide. There used to be more—the brown and white pumps and those patent leather high heels that made her feel good just looking at them. She stoops to fish among the floor clutter and pauses to knock the dust off the tasseled white majorette boots from high school. She picks the gold slippers with elastic around the tops.
“Mommy!” Lisa yells.
“I did not hit her!”
Mildred steps into the thin flowered dress, pulls it up and buttons in front of the cracked full-length mirror. She frowns at the thick layer of flesh that obscures her hips and holds the history of her multiple miscarriages. Her husband Troy calls them fist abortions. Why does he laugh when he says that, she wonders. What could possibly be funny? Closing her eyes, she shudders, remembering the pain as he pounded her belly. And the bloody mess afterward. How could everything have gone so wrong? “Spunky’s big now,” she murmurs. “He’ll help me.”
Sitting at the dresser, Mildred leans close to the mirror and applies bright red lipstick, then begins brushing her hair. Lisa comes in wearing nothing but panties and stands next to her with a battered naked doll clamped upside-down under her elbow. As the thin five-year-old blinks back from the mirror, Mildred notices Lisa’s delicate turned-up nose and is reminded of Anne, her big half-sister. Where is Anne, anyway, she wonders. Trance-like, she begins brushing Lisa’s fine brown hair in slow, careless strokes. In a practiced ritual, Lisa tilts and turns her head under the brush, directing the energy where it is needed. In the next room, Mickey Mouse is rescuing Minnie.
Lulled by the rocking of the bus, Matt drifts back in time to another chocolate cake. He was six years old, and what family he had called him Spunky. He and Anne were playing outside in Aunty’s garden, and the tantalizing cake aroma drew them indoors where it filled the house. He remembers the rush of hot air as the oven door opened, and Mommy up there with a spatula, mortaring the fluffy brown disks with chocolate icing, stabbing them with toothpicks to keep them from sliding. He got to lick the back of the spoon while Anne licked the other side, giggling at the chocolate smudge on his nose.
The tires of the bus whine a high-pitched chord as it cruises past familiar places—the Mexican Inn, the 312 Club, a yellow brick house on Bomar Street where they had lived during one of the few times he and Anne were with Mildred. In those days, it was Anne who taught him how to tie his shoes, Anne who had made cinnamon toast in the morning. Home was wherever Matt fell asleep—often the back seat of a car with street lights gliding past, lying head-to-toe hugging Anne’s legs as the fatherless family drifted among the motels and taverns along the six-lane stretch of Highway 180 called East Lancaster Avenue. Two weeks here. Four weeks there. With Mommy, home was a shifting concept.
Unsupervised and oblivious to danger, the sibling pair had been drawn to anything curious or exciting and have the scars to show for it. They took turns locking each other inside a rusty abandoned refrigerator. A giant wooden cable spool was an alien spaceship that begged to be levered upright and rolled down a hill into the street. They climbed inside the giant silver screen of the drive-in theater behind the Park Plaza Motel and used the framework for monkey bars.
A cloud of diesel fumes catches up to the bus at the Beach street intersection, and the engine idles as Matt strains to picture Mommy the last time he saw her. Great-aunt Carrie had usually come alone on visitation Sundays; so he was surprised when his mother drove up in a blue ’58 Chevy with Aunty riding shotgun. Mildred gave him a driving lesson. She seemed happy, almost carefree, showing him how to use the hood ornament to aim the car. It was hands-down the best time he’d ever spent with Mommy. Her husband Troy wasn’t there to spoil everything.
The light changes, and the bus lumbers into the heat. Matt opens his window all the way and unbuttons his shirt. He’s proud of the new Madras shirt and Levis he bought with his earnings from driving the Book Nook delivery truck. He’s proud of the scholarship and that he’ll be starting college next month. What will she say? His heart beats faster. He won’t be invisible anymore. He sits up, lifts his chin and straightens his shoulders the way Aunty taught him.
He remembers the first time Mildred came for visitation one hot spring day the month after he and Anne arrived at the Home. The curbside doors of Troy’s two-toned ’52 Buick were flung open to welcome any breeze that might be stirring. Matt and Anne were in the back with Aunty, who kept fanning her large lavender-scented presence with a church pamphlet. Troy leaned over the seat to read aloud from their marriage license, proving to everyone that he and Mildred—now four months pregnant with Janet—had finally married. Months later they returned, and again just now comes an echo of the jolt he felt at the sight of baby Janet snuggled in Mommy’s arms.
“We’ll come get y’all in just a couple more weeks,” Mommy said, not looking up.
The next month Aunt Carrie came alone with a message: “They’ve gone to live in Colorado. Troy said he didn’t want to raise someone else’s kids. The ornery cuss is running from child support. He’s got five kids from another marriage. Five!”
It was like Aunty had heaved a bag of sand onto his shoulders. “But Mommy said a couple of weeks!”
Time. Behind the red brick walls the days and weeks piled up into months and melted into a river of yesterdays. Time kept swallowing Mildred and spitting her back. During Matt’s nearly nine years at the Home, she came for visitation maybe four times. Not even a card for his birthday or Christmas. And now she wants to make him a birthday cake? Matt sighs and shakes his head. These things don’t matter. There’s an urgent need to see her. After all, she had called.
After changing buses the trip south on Mc Cart is brief. Matt covers the final three blocks on foot, unconsciously avoiding cracks in the sidewalk. He stops and studies the white numbers painted on the steps below the porch of a small white wood-framed corner house next to a railroad crossing. The front yard is weeds and hard-packed earth. Tall shoots of Johnson grass nod gently behind a scraggly rose bush.
Cicadas take turns drumming the air as Matt gazes at the house and wipes his brow. It’s like being in a heat vise, sandwiched between the sun and the concrete cooking through the soles of his shoes. It’s just a few more steps to the porch, but his feet seem riveted in place. He thinks something is wrong with him for hesitating. He knows he’s supposed to want to see his mother, yet something’s holding him back. What should he call her? His friends at school call their mothers Mom. He mouths the words, “Mom, Mother,” and they feel clumsy on his tongue.
The screen door opens, and a small arm and matching leg wrap around the black door frame. A child’s face appears. Matt starts forward, and the little girl’s limbs fold away like a spider disappearing into a hole.
The aroma of the cake greets him at the door. As he knocks he sees a woman’s dim silhouette through the screen, backlit by the kitchen window.
“That you, Spunky?” Pots and pans rattle, and Mildred comes. Matt hasn’t been called by his nickname in years. It makes him feel small. He clears his throat. “Um… Hi!”
“Hi-i-i!” she says, pushing open the door. “You found us!” She looks up at him, smiling. “Come in! Your cake’s almost ready!”
“Hi, it was easy.” He shrugs. “The buses were on time.” He grabs the door, surprised at how small she seems.
Mildred releases the door and steps back. “Look how tall you are. Your father was six feet. You’ll be six feet too.” She pats his shoulder as he moves through into the front room, hands in pockets, blinking to adjust to the light.
“Come over here and let’s look at you.” Mildred motions toward the kitchen. “Janet! Lisa! Come see your big brother!”
Janet, brown-eyed and plump, beams a shy smile from a doorway, pulling at her stringy shoulder-length sand-colored hair. Lisa is the spider girl, her tousled curls and blue eyes appearing over the top of a chrome-legged kitchen table. Both girls are barefoot and wear worn and faded everyday dresses.
“Hi.” Matt smiles and waves at the girls, then turns toward the woman who brought him into the world. He glances at her, looks away, then back again, struggling to reconcile this image with the shapely form in his head.
Mildred’s shoulder-length wavy brown hair is fluffed and combed back on the sides, held in place with plastic barrettes. She wears thick makeup and lipstick, her chipped nails a matching bright red. A yellow apron with limp ruffles covers her dress. Her face looks puffy, but despite everything she seems prettier than most of the mothers of his friends at school.
“Girls, don’t be shy. He won’t bite,” Mildred says, glancing back and forth between the girls and Matt. “Come sit while I finish your cake.” She motions toward the kitchen table.
Matt pulls out a chair and sits. Lisa giggles and climbs a stool near the sink, where she perches, gumming her lips to hide her cavities and ultimately failing as a smile betrays her feelings.
Mildred notices Matt’s reaction. “Oh, it’s okay,” she says, returning to the cake. “They’re just baby teeth. I’ll just make some finishing touches here.”
Janet marches to the table and sits across from Matt, repeatedly drawing a strand of hair through her mouth. She cocks her head, looking directly at him. He smiles and turns to watch Mildred scoop chocolate icing from a bowl with a long rectangular knife and apply it with utmost care.
“Janet, pour some milk for you and Lisa,” she says.
Janet jumps up and goes to the refrigerator.
“You want milk or iced tea?” Mildred looks at Matt. “I made some fresh.”
“Milk please,” he says without hesitating, then, “No… tea.” He’d wanted milk, but changed because she said she’d made tea.
The girls look at each other and giggle. Matt blushes and looks around the room. It feels like their eyes have been on him since his arrival. There’s a faint odor of dirty clothes, cigarettes, beer and whiskey. The kitchen sink is full of unwashed dishes. The counter is cluttered with cooking utensils and an overflowing ashtray. Through the kitchen window comes the distant sound of a locomotive’s air horn.
The cake Mildred sets on the table is a gleaming promise of good things to come.
“I made it from scratch,” she says. “I always make my cakes from scratch.” She removes the apron and brings out the candles.
Matt chuckles. “I remember Aunty used to say, ‘No box cakes at my house.’”
Mildred says, “Lisa, get down from there and go sit at the table.”
Lisa climbs down and parks in front of a glass printed with underwater scenes of shells, fish and seaweed, the colors vivid against the white background of milk.
“Eighteen candles,” Mildred says, throwing Matt an approving smile.
Matt watches as child fingers slip a decorative ring of hard white sugar around each pastel spiraled candle and puncture the glistening chocolate mound, one after another, until a miniature forest of eighteen candles flickers there. During half those years he was at the children’s home. Most of the other years he lived with Aunty. And yet, sitting here feels almost like being in a family. The pleasant faces of Mildred and the girls glow in the warmth of the flames, and a long forgotten yearning wells up inside him. But in rapid succession he flushes and looks away, cracks his knuckles and starts to rise, then sits and crosses and re-crosses his legs. The girls giggle and trade looks.
“Okay, let’s sing ‘Happy Birthday,’” Mildred says.
As their lips trace the song’s familiar words into the air, Matt’s mind travels to the orphanage dining hall throbbing with seventy a cappella voices. There’s never birthday cake at the Home, but it seems every week they’re singing for someone’s birthday. Next week the songs will be for Matt and Roy Ingstrom.
The girls clap and yell, “Make a wish! Make a wish!”
Struggling for something to wish for, Matt closes his eyes and inhales. Wishing is a concept as foreign to him as mom or mother. Again the surge of longing wells up in his chest, but he shoves it down, then purses his lips and blows, pushing air until after the candles are out, purging his lungs.
Mildred’s three children watch as she slices a large piece and hands it to Matt. She cuts smaller pieces for herself and the girls. Matt and the girls trade glances over grinning mouthfuls. The girls giggle at their milk moustaches. Matt takes his time, cutting small bites, chewing slowly, prolonging that wonderful sweet taste he remembers so well.
Mildred pulls a cigarette from a pack of Salems and lights up. “Oh, crap!” She chuckles. “I forgot the tea!” She goes to the counter and begins filling glasses. Tea spills. “Goddammit! Shit!” she says, stamping a foot. “Janet, go get the mop. Quick!”
“Th-it!” Janet mutters and jumps up and rushes out, then returns with a damp mop reeking of mildew.
Mildred puts a glass of tea down hard on the table in front of Matt, cleans up the spill, then leans the mop against the wall. The girls exchange looks and wrinkle their noses at the smell. The train horn sounds again, louder than before.
“How’s Troy?” Matt says, studying Mildred’s face.
Her smile turns into a grimace. “He’s at work,” she says, puffing on the cigarette. “He manages two Fina stations over on Hemphill. He’s hardly ever home—works days and most nights.” She lifts her head, gazing blankly out the kitchen window, revealing a bruise on her neck partially covered by makeup.
“How’s Anne?” Mildred says.
Matt sighs. “I don’t know. Last I heard, some lady sent her to modeling school, and she was staying with her over by TCU.” He sighs again, wondering how to get in touch with her.
From his seat at the table Matt has a view of the living room past the stove and over the arm of a patched fake leather chair. Curtains partially drawn over broken Venetian blinds darken the room. On the coffee table another bulging ashtray is overlapped by a newspaper. Weathered magazines and comic books are carelessly stacked and strewn. Dirty clothes are piled on a vinyl-covered couch. Mildred hums along with Dean Martin’s “Volare!” on the kitchen radio: Just like birds of a feather, a rainbow together we’ll find. It’s all so familiar, and Matt suddenly feels tired.
He wants to go, but he doesn’t want to be rude and leave too soon. As he searches for something to say, scenes from their past rush in, telescoping light-speed through time: Mildred being attacked by a chow and Uncle Roy threatening to cut off its head with a butcher knife—Mildred pinching Matt and her whiskey breath words, “Cry yourself to sleep!” “You kids are not going to ruin my young life. I’m going to live high, love hard, and die young!” —shattering terror as the glowing red coil of a cigarette lighter comes at him in the night. Unconscious of doing so, he rubs the scar.
At that moment their eyes meet, and for the first time in her life Mildred sees her son. This time he doesn’t look away. She opens her mouth, but words don’t come, and she knows she cannot ask anything of him. Not now. Not ever. The cigarette burns her fingers and falls into the ashtray.
“It’s hot,” Matt says, trying to fill the silence. He wipes his forehead on his arm and gulps tea. “There’s mint. It’s been forever since I had mint in my tea.” Two more swallows and the ice rattles. Mildred refills the glass.
“It grows right outside the back door,” she says. “Is it sweet enough?” She nudges the sugar bowl closer.
Lisa gets down from her chair. “I have to go to the bathroom,” she says, and trots through a doorway, tripping on a rug.
“Godammit,” she whispers.
Janet smothers a giggle. Mildred doesn’t notice. She takes a long drag from the cigarette and exhales, watching the plume drift out the kitchen window. Again the train horn sounds.
“Janet, how old are you now?” Matt says, looking at her.
“I’m eight in December. Is that Aqua Velva you’re wearing? I like your th-irt.”
“What grade will you be in when school starts?” he says.
Janet holds up four fingers, tonguing a decayed tooth. “I like your th-irt.”
Matt glances down at the buttons. “Thanks. It came from India. What’s your favorite subject?”
“I hate th-cool,” she says. “Th-cool’s yucky!”
Mildred smiles, gazing dreamily out the window. “I went to your school,” she says, glancing at Matt. “Poly High, Class of ’38. Ours was the first graduating class in the new building.” She chuckles. “I was a majorette.” She sits up, shakes her hair and blows another plume.
By the time he finishes his cake, Matt is squirming in his chair. He needs to pee, but he wants out of there. “Thanks for the cake,” he says, rising. “It was really super. I gotta be back by five.” He’s not due back at the Home until six, when the orphanage bus leaves for church.
Mildred comes out of her reverie and looks at Matt. “What are you going to do, now that you’re out of school?”
Matt gets to his feet. “I got a scholarship to Arlington State. I’m leaving in a couple of weeks.” He glances at her, then stares out the door.
“Oh! …Congratulations! I’m so happy for you! Girls, Spu…, uh, Matty’s going to college!” The girls exchange puzzled looks.
Matt blushes. “Yeah, I didn’t even know about it until the last day of school. Some sort of benevolent fund.”
Mildred rises to join him as Matt sidles toward the door, wondering how to fill the emptiness with words. At the door, she touches his arm and looks up at him. “Come see me before you leave, will you? Come say goodbye.”
“Yeah, sure thing.” He nods, glancing at her as he moves past. “See y’all later.” He waves over his shoulder at the girls.
Outside, he turns and waves again, forcing a smile. Mildred holds the screen door open. At the street he turns and waves once more. Mildred waves. The girls wave, yelling, “Bye-bye!” Everyone smiles.
The bus groans away from the curb, listing to the right from the weight of passengers avoiding the sun-baked seats on the left-hand side. It will be an uncomfortable ride with a full bladder, but Matt had to get away. He slouches into a seat on the cool side and turns his face into the window. A blast from the horn of a southbound freight train drops a half-tone as the engine rumbles past. Matt looks at the shrinking white house glowing in the afternoon sun and sighs, glad to be returning to the sanity of Mrs. Crow and the dormitory.
He’d thought it would feel good to tell Mommy about the scholarship. He’d wanted her to be proud of him. It should have been a big deal, but it was emptiness that followed the words out of him. He turns away from the window and studies the vacant seats, then closes his eyes and swallows the tightness in his throat, hoping she won’t call again.
The clanging of the railroad crossing bell fades until the sound is smothered by the hum of the bus tires. Matt takes a deep breath, and as the wind lifts and turns his hair a good feeling washes over him. He feels almost weightless, like he could fly if he wanted. He lifts his chin, straightens his shoulders and watches the road ahead. He thinks of Maria and aches to hear the musical softness of her voice. He will call her when he gets home.
# # #
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