I could feel the heat from the hardware store’s stove warming my feet as I sat on the couch in our second floor apartment. My toes nearly glowed with happiness. In such heat a body could nearly forget the cardboard covered holes in her shoes and the snow outside the window.
A body could nearly forget everything. I touched the corner of wool blankets next to me and brushed lint off the red box on top. Well, nearly.
Mama always said, “Lucille, honey, we’re lucky to have the store.”
She’d brush my wild curls into submission and tell me that other folks would love this here place even with the oily smell. Or some days, she’d say they’d like it even with the chipped walls or with all the men hanging around outside looking for work from any fortunate builder or handyman with a job big enough to hire extra hands.
I don’t know who she was trying to convince. Maybe herself or my older brother, George. I don’t think either of them liked their jobs in the family business.
But I certainly didn’t need telling. I loved Miles Hardware. Three stories of rising red brick between the white clapboard buildings.
The butter yellow walls inside the shop were so close Grandpa could probably lie down and touch one with his tippy toes and the other with his fingernails. And the red wall in the back was so far away from the glass storefront, a body couldn’t see who was coming in the door, unless you stood on our private stairs at the back of the store. That way you’d be able to see above all the shelves. Shelves with little bins of nails, bolts, screws all neat in a row. Hammers, screwdrivers, wrenches in a line clinging to hooks in the pegboard.
That’d been my job for half my life, ever since I was five. Making a place for everything and puttin’ everything in its place.
Mama did all the figuring for the store. She used to like the figuring. Mama’d sit at her desk and smile at folks passing by. Her smile was so pretty, it’d make a body happy just to see it.
But the only smile I’d seen in a long time was one that wasn’t really happy. She’d sit in the back, dark curls pulled tight, plastered down with water to get them into a knot by her neck. People’d walk by tsking and saying Mama was too beautiful for Daddy to be carrying on so.
I didn’t know why Mama being pretty should stop Daddy working at the distillery. The “beer business” Mama called it with a frown. It’d been legal again for awhile, I guess. But in small town Michigan, making the “devil’s drink” didn’t exactly give you bragging rights.
But that didn’t explain why everybody was clucking at Mama. Wasn’t her fault. Least not that I could see.
Ignoring the broken couch spring poking my backside, I pulled my knees and ankles together as best as my knock-kneed legs could manage. Ladies sit up straight with their knees and ankles together.
I didn’t want Mama to have to worry about tsking at me today. I’d be as lady-like as Mama. No rolling down hills, not even wishing to play like George.
I surely do miss Mama smiling though.
I looked at the huge brown suitcase leaning hangdog against the doorframe and I slumped back into the cushions, thinking hard.
Daddy didn’t often come home weaving like the neighbor men, and I’d never seen him using the stoop as a bed or toilet. And Papa made enough money to buy us indoor plumbing and he gave George the nicest set of marbles Wawasee High School had ever seen.
I sat rubbing the red velveteen jewelry box Papa had given me. There was nothing but dried flower chains in it, but Daddy’d said a pretty girl needed a pretty box to keep her treasures in.
No, it wasn’t the beer business.
I guess it don’t matter what it was. Fact is, it ate Mama up.
She came home yesterday looking sick like. I was worried even after she’d looked at me with that smile that wasn’t a smile and told me everything was just fine.
I knew eavesdropping was a sin, but so was keeping secrets. So instead of going back down to the hardware, I listened at the door to Gramma whispering to Mama.
“He’s just a bad ‘un sweetheart. Tain’t your fault.” Gramma was stroking Mama’s hair just like I remember Mama used to do for me when I bumped my knee or one of the other girls called me roly poly. Back when Mama’s smile really meant something.
“It was one thing pretending it wasn’t there when I couldn’t see it. But now every time I close my eyes, that’s what I’ll see. That woman draped all over, doing, . . . Lord, they were in at the pictures, Ma. In broad daylight. What if the children were with me? I cannot abide it anymore. What am I going to do?”
Mama’s long fingers twisted in her kerchief. It was the starched white one I’d given her for Christmas all stitched with red and her initials in the corner. Only now it was all dark from her tears and wrinkled up tight.
Something happened at the penny show last night for sure because when I woke up this morning, Mama had told me to fold up the blanket we all shared and put it in the case with our nightgowns.
I heard Mama’s steps heavy on the stairs come down from Gramma’s room and sat up straight.
“Where are we going?” My voice sounded whiny even in my own ears and Mama looked at me sharply.
“Sorry, Mama.” I jumped up, grabbed her brown mug from the counter, and filled it with the black coffee resting on the back of the stove. A curl of steam lifted to my face, warming me for a heartbeat before I handed Mama her drink.
“We’re going to my Aunt Mable’s for a spell.” She held up a hand to stop my objection. “I need you to be strong for me, Lucille. You’re the one the others will look to.”
Me? George wouldn’t be looking at me for nothin’.
Noth-ing. I corrected myself. Young ladies enunciate, speaking words clearly and properly. I lifted my chin, pulling my spine longer until I thought I might split in two.
“Your daddy always liked you best.” She said it like that wasn’t a good thing.
“Yes, ma’am.” I smoothed my hands down my immaculate brown skirt, pressing out an imaginary wrinkle with the heat of my hand. “I tried to pack the blankets, but they wouldn’t fit.”
Mama wasn’t listening though. Instead, she was leaning over the counter, head hanging like she maybe was going to be sick.
“I’ll just get some string from Grandpa and tie ‘em up so they’ll be easier to carry.” I waited a heartbeat, hoping for what, I don’t rightly know.
Trotting down the stairs to our shop, I heard Grandpa’s voice in a deadly controlled rage that made my knees shake. It was a voice Mama often used, but never Grandpa, even when one of the customers failed to pay for his supplies.
I couldn’t see who he was talking to, but I turned right back around. One thing I knew for sure was I didn’t want any part of that talking.
There wasn’t nuthin’ right about this morning.
I’d nearly reached the door to our apartment when I heard my Daddy’s voice. “Look here, Bob. There’s no cause to talk to me like that. They’re my family and they aren’t just up and leaving without my say so.”
I stumbled on the step, barking my shin on the wood stair.
Everything went quiet below and I held my breath. I didn’t want to get caught listening even though it’d been an accident.
“Lucille, honey?” Daddy’s voice was as sweet as the maple sugar candies by Grandpa’s register.
Tears squeezed out of my eyes as I rubbed my leg. But it wasn’t my leg that was bothering me.
“Come talk to your Mama with me.” My tummy hurt like I’d ate too many of Grandpa’s candies and I scooted up another stair.
“It’ll be alright, darlin’.” Daddy reached out a hand and touched my leg. I thought it should feel cold like the garter snake George and I’d found last summer. But it was just Daddy’s hand, smooth, warm, comfortable. I smiled and laced my fingers into his, marveling again how long and elegant his hands were.
At the top of the stairs, Daddy started to open our door. But it crashed shut, nearly on our noses. I jumped back and Daddy’s hand holding me tight was the only thing that stopped me from toppling down the stairs.
“Listen, Esther. We have to talk sometime.” There was an edge in Daddy’s sugar voice, vinegar like.
“No, John. I have nothing to say to you.”
Daddy squeezed my hand nodding toward the door. I knew he was asking for help. Folks were looking to me, Mama’d said. Blinking at the door—dark and solid—I thought of Mama’s tears, the tsking ladies, and my red velveteen box.
“Mama?” My voice high and thin. Ladies are confident and speak clearly. I cleared my throat. “Mama, just listen to what he has to say.”
“You keep her out of this.” The hardness of Mama’s voice was muffled by the door and I would’ve stepped back had Daddy’s hand not tightened on my arm.
“Esther, honey. You know I love you.”
Daddy took a step backward away from the anger in Mama’s voice. And another, out of my reach. I scrambled for the red walls to hold me upright.
My feet thudding, heels skipping.
A rectangle of light opened at the top of the stairs.
Daddy too far.
Fear thundered through me.
Hands flung out, searching.
Pain cracked through my fingers and I latched down. The railing.
I hauled my body toward the slim stretch of wood. And stood, panting, shaking.
Mama at the top of the stairs.
Daddy, turning now and walking down the stairs, through the store. His brown coat stretched hard against his shoulders. Dark hair smooth, unruffled. Through the glass door, the tinkle of the bell announcing, “He’s left. He’s gone.”
The apartment door closed quietly behind me and I sat on the step, bent, alone, and refusing to cry.
Above me, the bare bulb flicked on, a halo pouring into the dark.
“Come on, darlin’,” Grandpa’s deep voice called out from the light. “You come out here with me.” His measured steps reached me and he bent, gathering me in his arms like a little girl and carried me down where he settled me safe on the hardware’s floor. Cradled between the yellow walls, standing firm next to Grandpa. Together we sorted, a place for everything and every thing in its place.