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I Wish

I Wish

Khirsten Cook

          It was mid-July, the hottest summer anyone living could remember, when daddy first saw her. Every breath was a mouthful of salty Atlantic air and six people had already died of heat stroke. Every store on main street had it’s windows covered in aluminum foil to block out the sun. A few barefoot, sun-burnt kids were eating snow cones under the big orange and white awning in front of Big Jacks. Jack had personally instructed daddy not to let them in the store because they left a sticky blue and red trail behind them wherever they went, and he was the one that had to clean whatever they got their grimy little hands on. Daddy would’ve gladly traded places with them, seeing as it was just as sweltering inside and he had to work. Breathing in the stagnant, musty air had been hard enough, and when mama walked through the revolving doors of Big Jacks, daddy just stopped breathing altogether. He was behind the register, working on his college applications when she’d come in with her cousin for some paint, a rope, and a tarp. They were fixing up an old boat for her brother, Kris. It was his eighteenth birthday, mama informed him. Daddy thought she was the prettiest thing east or west of the Mississippi; all big grey eyes and honey blonde hair. He could tell she wasn’t from the south, but now that she was here, she was trying to soak it all up like a sponge. She radiated sunshine. She was the sand and salt water. Her sundress didn’t try to hide the candy cane pattern on her shoulders; the wide white lines from her swimsuit and the pale scarlet everywhere else. Her nose was freckled and pink, and when she smiled, a little dimple peeked out of her left cheek. Daddy said he could tell she was only down for the summer for two reasons. Number one, he’d never seen her before, and everybody knew everybody in Greensboro. Number two, no one in Greensboro dressed to the nines just to come to the hardware store. He watched her laughing with her cousin as they walked up and down the four or five aisles of nails and hammers and paint rollers. Their eyes met a few times, but she’d look away, embarrassed, and he’d pretend to be writing or doing something with the cash register, but really, he was watching her. She laughed like there was nowhere she’d rather be, like nothing gave her greater pleasure than strolling down the aisles at Big Jacks, but it sounded rehearsed, forced.  When he got to this part in the story, daddy would look away from us, his anxious listeners, his captivated audience. He drifted away, maybe back to Big Jacks or maybe he wondered, like I did, what would’ve happened if they hadn’t met. He’d make us pull the ending out of him. Even though he’d told us a hundred times and we knew word for word what he was gonna say, in that suspended moment, it felt like the walls could come crashing down around us. Daddy’s raspy voice could put us back to sleep after a nightmare or leave us terrified by the fire pit in our backyard or make us roll our eyes when he got to the mushy parts. But out of all the times before, we never asked, what was it dad? Why wasn’t mama happy? Maybe we should have. Bug or Paige would pull on his pant leg and he’d shake his head, erasing whatever he was thinking about, like his brain was an etch-a-sketch. He’d grin crookedly over at mama. She didn’t know it yet, he’d say, but she was going to be my wife. All it took was a little note and a phone number, on the back of her receipt and they saw each other every day for the rest of the summer and every summer after that. Then she got pregnant with me and they don’t talk much about those first few years. I know that mama’s parents didn’t like daddy and that they kicked her out of the house. Daddy had to quit saving up for Princeton and find us a house and pay for diapers. He used to say that he would do it all over again. I haven’t heard him say that in a long time, but I still get chills when I think about how in love they were.

           As I lie here and listen to my own heart beating, I wonder how different their lives would be if it wasn’t. Sometimes I wish that it wasn’t, but then I think about what Uncle Kris says that everything happens for a reason. It’s all part of God’s plan for us. He gives us tests, lessons that we have to go through to get to Heaven. I think that maybe more people would like God if every once in awhile, he’d grade on a curve. I know lots of people who cheat on tests, but then, I guess God knows about them too. I believe in God. I do. I just don’t understand Him. Wouldn’t it be better to never have anything bad happen and have everyone go to Heaven, than give out tests where not everyone knows what to study and millions fail? Uncle Kris says that daddy will go to jail unless he gets his act together. I wish that he would. I wish that I had the power to make everyone believe again. More than anything, I wish that daddy had never been drafted. It’s been five years since he got the call, but it might as well have been yesterday. Mama thinks that the President should have to fight right alongside his soldiers. If he did, I bet there’d be a lot less wars, she’d say. I know that will never happen. Mama was so angry at the President and then at daddy and then everyone. Why John? Why are you doing this to me? She’d ask him over and over. I thought mama had really lost it. It’s not like daddy was jumping up and down saying, I can’t wait to invade Vietnam! He was just a guy with an unlucky number, the shortest straw, and a hell of a lot of courage.

           Mama was torn to pieces when he left. We all were, but I promised daddy that I would take care of the women. He had kneeled down and looked me square in the eye at the airport. He put one hand on my shoulder and I put my hand on his. You’re the man of the house now, Oliver. He’d said. I nodded and I promised to watch out for them, again. I hugged him as tight as I could because I knew he wouldn’t break and I knew he’d come back. Bug and Paige clung to daddy’s leg when he stood up and cried and cried. Sarah, come get the girls. Mama turned away. A few pale, wet lines had stripped the makeup from her face. Sarah, baby. Please? She let out a ragged sigh and grabbed their wrists and jerked them off his legs. Both girls were too shocked to do anything for a moment, then they started bawling even harder. I picked Bug up off the floor and held her her close. I stroked her back and rocked her for a few minutes. Paige was quick to follow Bug. She climbed into the blue, plastic chair next to mine and leaned her head on my shoulder. I told them that daddy would be back before we knew it, I glanced up to see if he was still with mama, but they were both gone. Mama returned an hour later and she seemed to have recovered. She smiled and motioned for me to get up slowly, so I wouldn’t wake the girls. She picked up Paige and I held Bug and we walked back to the car. A plane rocketed over our car and Mama just broke down. She was crying so hard that we had to pull off the interstate three times before she finally turned onto Elvis Ave. and our house came into view. It was a small tan house with six round windows and nine square ones. My favorite part was the big cobblestone chimney that dominated our dining room. In the winter, the smoke poured out in a long, vertical stream and I could see it all the way from my classroom at Falkner Elementary. Sometimes, daddy would pitch a makeshift tent with blankets and pillows and our mismatched dining chairs and we would roast marshmallows. We’d go to sleep to the sound of his voice and the flames licking and crackling against the wood, our hands and mouths covered in fluffy, sticky white marshmallow.

     A few weeks after daddy left, she started forgetting to make dinner and that we had school on the weekdays. She just stopped. I was almost eleven and I knew how to make fried spam and tomato sandwiches and our school was only a mile and a half from the house. I  packed our lunches and walked to the dollar store when we ran out of bread. After a while, Bug and Paige quit crying for her. Even at four and six, they could look at her sunken eyes and hollow cheeks and see that mama was gone. I tucked them in and read them The Berenstain Bears and made sure they had their homework done. Mama only ate what I brought her; I know because I had to watch her, force her to eat. I tried to keep her healthy, but her clothes hung low and loose off of her. She might as well have been dressed in bed sheets. She wasn’t a big woman in the first place and now, I could fit both my hands around her waist. For months and months the only thing she did was curl up in the bed, on daddy’s side, and just lay there, looking out the window. The only thing she could see was our big oak and a crumbling strip of sidewalk. I think she was watching for him, but he didn’t come home for a whole year and six months. When he came back, he was changed too.

          We got a letter that he had been shot in the knee and was being shipped back over to American soil for emergency surgery. I read it to mama real slow, once and then again when she didn’t move, but it didn’t do any good. She was frozen. I had expected soft tears or maybe even a panic attack, but her silence frightened and angered me. If she wouldn’t take us to see daddy, I would find my own way. I asked a neighbor woman, Mrs. Parks, if she could drive me and my sisters over to the hospital. She narrowed her eyes at me and asked, Oliver, I just don’t see why your Mama can’t get off her ass and take y’all over. She pursed her thin lips so that they melted into her face. But I guess I can, she continued. I need to stop by Right Aid anyways. Even though Mrs. Parks was a chain smoking racist with terrible asthma and an oxygen tank, she was, above all things a Christian, and I knew she wouldn’t refuse children in need. I didn’t hear half of what she said on the ten minute car ride over because I was so excited for daddy to be home. I did wish that she wouldn’t curse in front of Bug and Paige, but there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about that so I just looked out the window and said Yes, Ma’am and No, Ma’am when necessary. Mrs. Parks let us out at the emergency entrance and told us that she’d be back in half an hour. I took Paige and Bug by the hand and together, we ran down the hall, looking for the door which had a taped piece of loose leaf paper with Private Hendricks scribbled across it. I knew that he would give us all one of his bear hugs and he’d ruffle my hair and then step back and look us up and down. He’d tell me I had done just great. He would come home and make mama  move and she’d smile again and make our lunch. She wouldn’t have to try to fill up two sides of the bed anymore.

        We finally found it, room 253, and when I put my ear to the door and I could hear him snoring. It sounded like he was inhaling his pillow, dead to the world. But I knew that he was a light sleeper. Snores can be awfully deceiving. Mama doesn’t snore, but it was always daddy that heard Paige’s baby monitor or fixed me a warm glass of milk when I couldn’t sleep.  I held my finger to my lips, indicating to Bug and Paige that they needed to be quiet; this was not the place for yelling or running. I knocked softly before twisting the cold, steel handle. When I opened the door, the room was pitch dark, even though it was only four in the afternoon. Bug closed the door behind her and suddenly daddy stopped snoring. Dad? I whispered. He lurched out of the bed, like a bat out of hell and lunged at us, before dropping to the floor and screaming in pain. We all screamed and Bug and Paige burst into tears. I flicked on the light and Dad was passed out cold on the mint green linoleum, big red splotches began seeping through his freshly changed bandages. He had jerked his IV out of his outstretched left hand and it was now lying only two feet from me and my sisters. His head was wrapped in the same soft white gauze as his knee and his night gown what partly open, leaving his backside half exposed. Three nurses ran in and then there was a lot of running and calling people and then we were whisked out into the lobby and then Mrs. Parks was there. One of the nurses gave us lolly pops and coloring books, while she talked to Mrs. Parks. The mother is good for nothing, Mrs. Parks was saying through her flat lips. She had one hand balled up on her right hip and her brows furrowed together into a ‘U’. You can try calling, but pigs will fly in hell before that woman raises it to her ear. The nurse glanced over at me and smiled kindly, before beckoning Mrs. Parks toward the vending machines, out of ear shot. I decided right then and there that I hated Mrs. Parks. Mama was not useless. She would come if they called. This was what she had been waiting for, daddy was home! I told this to Nurse Amy and she nodded and smiled and she said she would call her for me. Mrs. Parks left her phone number and exchanged a look with the nurse before making her way towards the revolving doors, toward her Lincoln, toward the blue house right next to our tan one.

   I was right. I saw our little white car pull up in front of the same doors Mrs. Parks had just exited. Mama! Bug squealed when she saw her. Mama walked right over to me and slapped me so hard everything went dark for a few minutes. Sometimes when I think about that night, I can feel the sting of her bony fingers against my cheek. The way her wedding ring had slid to the middle of her finger from the force, the sudden swoosh of air, and landed hard on my temple. She was still wearing her nightgown and her grey tinted pink slippers; her hair hung limply to the left side of her head in a messy bun. She was all sweaty, even though it was only forty outside. And the look she gave me, made the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up, like soldiers called to attention. Her eyes were all grey; her pupil nothing but a pen point, a tiny bullseye in the center of a target.  She was livid. I was so confused, what had I done, besides try to help? Nurse Amy called security and two men in all white gave her a shot on her hip, right there in the lobby, and strapped her down on a vertical bed. They took her away and my sisters and I sat with Nurse Amy until Mrs. Parks came back. When we got home, I showed her the list of emergency numbers mama had taped to the fridge. Uncle Kris was number one, so Mrs. Parks called him and she told us that he would be here tomorrow, but until then, we had to stay with her. Her house smelled like bacon and cigarette smoke and a sourness that I never could quite put my finger on. My eye swelled shut and Mrs. Parks made me put a big hunk of rib-eye on it, but not before grumbling that it was a waste of good steak. She sure did walk the line between the wicked witch and fairy godmother. Women, I thought. I’ll never understand them. I didn’t care how much she tried, I still didn’t like her. She wouldn’t even let Bug have an oatmeal cookie from our own cabinet. We hadn’t eaten anything since lunch time at school, so I told Mrs. Parks that if she didn’t let us have a cookie, then I would tell everyone about how Big Jack (yes, the one and only) was visiting her every Thursday afternoon until way up in the night. Her beige Lincoln and his black truck, sitting side by side in the uneven driveway, unchaperoned. Mrs. Parks threw her head back and laughed, a deep throaty laugh, probably from all the cigarettes. I felt all the blood rushing to my cheeks for some reason. She said, you go ahead and run your mouth, honey. Remodeling a bathroom isn’t as exciting and mysterious as you think it is. I frowned and crossed my arms across my chest and marched up stairs, defeated and empty handed. I vowed to take my revenge. I would put my hamster, Joe, in her bed tonight. It wasn’t an hour later that the heavenly smell of butter and savory spices and mashed potatoes called us down to the kitchen. Mrs. Parks had bought us a meal from KFC. I stood there in the kitchen doorway for a few minutes, torn between grudge holding and delicious chicken. I still didn’t like her, but I decided to be the bigger man. I smiled at her, an apology. She rolled her eyes, but I saw her lips twitch at the corners before she turned towards the refrigerator. Mrs. Parks was a rubix cube.

      Kris stayed with us until daddy came home. I loved Uncle Kris best out of all of mama’s family, partly because he was the only one we knew. He was a state trooper up in Pittsburgh and he came down in his squad car. He wouldn’t take us for a ride with the sirens on, but he did let us talk on his radio and play with his badge. Kris may have been mama’s twin brother, but they were nothing alike. He had the same hair as me, thick and dark, like the Atlantic at midnight. We used to go up to his hunting cabin every summer, but we hadn’t been back since Bug was born. Kris’s wife, Ana was the most beautiful women I had ever seen. I couldn’t stand to look her in the eye for more than ten seconds. I counted, once. She didn’t come with him because she taught seventh grade English and couldn’t miss work the week before finals. Although, he did bring his baby, Tilly. Tilly and I were the same age, well, in human years. She was a basset hound; when she walked her joints creaked and groaned. Her face was solid white and her skin hung from her like a loose sweatshirt, baggy and frayed. Ana was pregnant and I know Uncle Kris was excited to finally have a real baby. Kris made our lunches and drove us to school in his squad car. When we went to the supermarket, everyone thought he was our dad. By the time our real daddy was ready to come home, I had begged Uncle Kris to stay half a hundred times with a dozen cherries on top. He had only been here for two weeks, but our lives had felt almost normal. I got to play with my friends after school and we got to eat something other than sandwiches and junk food. The last time we had seen our daddy, he had been lying in his own blood. He wasn’t the brave, strong dad that I remembered and I was so tired. Tired of being brave and slapping on a fake smile for the world so no one would know about anything. I was scared.

   I was fifteen before I saw Uncle Kris again. The screen door shook as daddy blindly shoved keys into the nonexistent lock. They jingled like sleigh bells as he fumbled with them; sweet and sharp and metallic. All he would’ve had to have done was pull, and the rusty door that encased the heavier wooden one would’ve creaked open, painlessly. He started pounding on it with his fist, yelling for mama to open the goddamn door! The fifty year old hinges squealed in protest as he pounded, the bottle in his other hand clanked against the cold steel. I heard mama’s soft footfalls as she dashed down the stairs, knowing the longer she kept him waiting, the angrier he’d be. Please don’t let him in. God, please don’t let her let him in. I wondered how my little sisters were still sleeping. Paige had her arm across Bug, their blonde curls fanning out around their faces. They were both far away in their peaceful dreams. Bug’s mouth was slightly parted, a little stream of drool ran down her chin, threatening to dampen her pillow. Their deep, consistent breathing made me want to crawl in next to them. I couldn’t tell if our whole room was shaking or if my body was playing tricks on me. Even my teeth rattled.

        John, why? Why are you … He didn’t give her the chance to finish. Mama didn’t scream when he hit her, but she was knocked to the floor and her body landed with a sickening thud on the hardwood. I could picture her. Eyes down cast, clutching the front of her robe with trembling, delicate fingers. She was still there, crouched next to the unlit tree, when the first rays of light began to filter through the blinds. Her white robe had a few specks of blood on the front and her left eye was swollen shut. I went to get her a cold washcloth for her eye. She didn’t look up when I tried to hand it to her, so I set it on the coffee table. She caught my hand as I made my way toward the stairs.

    Oliver, get your sisters ready. We promised we’d go to Kris’s for Christmas dinner this year.  Dad’s snores rocked the house. I nodded and a faint smile played on her lips and then disappeared, just as suddenly as if I had imagined it. She let her hand drop back into her lap and I began mechanically walking toward the stairs again. Bug was already up and brushing her teeth when I walked past the bathroom. Paige, on the other hand, had her face covered in two quilts and I wondered how she was able to breathe under there. I shook her gently. Paige, I said. She didn’t budge. I jerked down the covers to find an empty bed. I walked to the bathroom to ask Bug if she’d seen her, and then back downstairs to ask mama, but neither one of them had. We searched all over the house and then panic set in. I threw on some jeans and my coat and my boots and ran out the door. Mama had stayed inside with Bug. I called for her over and over. Paige! Where are you?! Nothing.

   We looked for hours, days, weeks. Uncle Kris had people all over the eastern seaboard searching for her, but it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t want to be found. I can picture exactly what happened because I had dreamed of doing it a thousand times. No one had heard the screen door creak open, as she crept out with her backpack stuffed with clothes and food. The December air hanging limply around her like a well-worn shawl. It had snowed the night before and the ferns on our front porch sagged under a new layer of ice. She had taken a deep breath and one step, then another, until she couldn’t see the stream of smoke oozing from our chimney. There was nothing left of her, but a ghost trail of size five sketchers denting the freshly fallen snow, and eventually, even they were gone.  I wish I had taken both of them and ran away to a place where no one could ever hurt them. But those places don’t exist anywhere on earth, I know that. If only daddy had never come back. He was never the same. Who would be after what he’d seen and done. He had to kill little boys like me. He told me that once, after he’d had several beers. He’d gotten a tattoo on his arm so he’d never forget what he did.  I asked him why he would want to be reminded of those horrible things and he said, so I can do it again if I have to. Sometimes, I wish he’d died somewhere in the dark green jungles of Vietnam, with only a picture of us in his right breast pocket and a prayer on his lips, maybe even our names. He would have died a good man, a brave man. The only permanent mark he’d have left on us was his last name and the sound of his voice as we fell asleep.

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