The child stared into the ashtray. She wondered what she should do. She could not continue her methodical cleaning of the sparsely furnished dilapidated room until her dilemma was solved.
The room contained an oval hand braided rag rug over a shiny painted brown floor. Both had to be well swept with the electric vacuum sweeper regardless if there was or if there wasn't any evidence of dirt. Afterwards the girl would carefully spray the raggedy head of the dust mop with the nice smelling dust magnet liquid. She would then dust with a mop, at least twice, the part of the painted floor left exposed around the edges of the room and a few inches under the large rug.
Each week she would tug and pull or do whatever it would take to clean behind and under the davenport. The one time she had forgotten, her mother tried to convince her father into beating her for leaving dust balls in the living room. Even though the little girl had immediately returned to the room and cleaned it as soon as her mother accused her of laziness and lots of other nasty things. Even though all she'd done is forget or overlook a few dust balls in a place no one except herself and her mother ever looked.
Her father hesitated when the mother demanded he punish their child. Luckily as the mother became more strident in her demands with each word that shot from her mouth, the father sank belligerently further down into the wooden kitchen chair.
He chewed his food with his mouth open. Like a man starving he shoved it in faster than his teeth could gnash it in proper preparation for the trip to his stomach. He had been sitting silently and contentedly eating his supper when the mother started her harangue. As the noise of the condemnations of their daughter rose, his eyes started darting back and forth from the elder female to the younger.
The girl was small for her age, a tiny wisp of a girl, rarely even noticeable. It looked like she was sitting on the edge of the chair but the fear and tension in her body had sprung her body into a standing position.
Finally she saw a chance for a safe way out. It all depended on how drunk or hung over the father was. It was a momentary solution but better than physical attack.
He barked at her causing pieces of partially chewed chicken to spew out of his mouth.
"No, there aren't any dust balls there! I'm sure. It's clean. I cleaned it."
There was no chance for further explanation as her mother became explosive in her accusations.
"I'm sure," the girl's voice was calm due to her surety that the area was clean. "Please come and look. I can show you. Can't you come and look?"
Something about her voice struck her father as containing unattractive self-confidence which caused him to glare at her menacingly. The mother regained his attention a second later before the man could see his daughter gasp.
There was no place to run or to hide. Again she thought of her dilemma when staring into the ashtray. Inside it was the stub of a cigarette. That wasn't so startling. Her father smoked cigarettes. It was the pretty dark pink lipstick encircling the filter that panicked her. Her mother didn't smoke.
If she threw the butt into the wastebasket, her mother might see it. Instinctively the child felt that would lead to a very bad situation in the house. When there was a bad situation it often turned out to be a dangerous one for herself and her brother. It was important to avoid such a thing if at all possible.
Even though her father was rarely at home he insisted the house always be mess and dust free. Her mother had started working in town and although she tried, she couldn't keep up with his stringent instructions.
The mother picked up after the father like a servant would, if they could afford one, so there was no time to dust, to sweep floors along with the shopping, cooking and the job.
The father often mentioned the embarrassment and chagrin clearly remembered from the time the minister had come to call. The minister had refused all offers to take his hat; he didn't want to be a bother. He simply tucked it on top of the refrigerator. That unfortunately was probably the dustiest spot in the house. Upon leaving he had brushed off the dust and the apologies. It didn't seem to bother the minister. But the father could hardly bear to think of it due to the shame the memory caused.
The girl remembered the incident but was it because she had witnessed it or because she had heard the story so many times? Was it from that time that the father had insisted all nooks and crannies be dusted? She was only ten years old. She had no way of being sure.
She did know that there were never visitors to the house. Not as far as she knew. They didn't have company in the evenings or on the weekends. The only time the pink lipsticked cigarette could have arrived at that spot would have been when she and her brother were at school and her mom at work. Maybe a friend had stopped by, finding the door unlocked, had sat and had a cigarette in the living room waiting for someone to show up. But wouldn't a friend know there wouldn't be anyone home that time of day?
The child checked all the ashtrays in the house except for in her parent's bedroom which was around the corner from the living room. She didn't know if the room even contained an ashtray.
The two children slept in the cold upstairs of the wooden farmhouse with its four bedrooms. They were forbidden from entering the parent's room. Ever. She never even considered looking in there. Even to think about it might be enough to bring about a punishment.
She heard a noise outside in the driveway. Unbelievably her father was home. He was changing a tire on the car. If she showed the ashtray to her father, well, his reaction was impossible to predict. But that was her only option. Having made the decision she grabbed the ashtray with its puzzling contents and raced outside.
"Look what I found," she pushed the ashtray with its stinky leftover towards his face.
He looked at it, than into her eyes with rage. He was holding a big wrench. He growled at her.
"But where should I throw it?" her question reminded him that he needed to give this some thought.
He growled another answer at her and she raced off to follow his orders. The next thing she heard was howling and swearing.
The wrench had slipped when he was trying to loosen the bolt holding the tire to the car. He had knocked out his two front teeth. Blood was forming in his mouth.
"Should I call an ambulance?" she had rushed out of the house again to help him.
"Get out of here! Get out of here!" She ran upstairs to her room while he danced a dance of pain and used God's name in vain. She covered her head tightly with a pillow and waited for sleep to take her away.
She only ventured out of her room at suppertime. By then there had been a trip to a dentist. Her mother was back from work. Somehow with all there was to talk about, the girl and the no longer existent dust balls were what her mother wanted to discuss.
Finally her father revolted, "I'm not going to get up to look at dust balls!" He bawled out his decision then hunched over his plate to shut out his surroundings and get back to daydreaming.
The little girl had saved herself from this battle but the war would continue. If she could figure out the rules maybe the next battles wouldn't be so exhausting. She crept off to bed to try to figure it all out.