MAMA'S CRYIN'. SHE'S IN THE KITCHIN BOILIN' CHICKEN AND PEELIN' POTATOES. I ASK WHY SHE SAD AND MAMA SAYS DAT SOMETIMES COOKIN' MAKE YOU SAD. BUT I DON'T BELIEVE HER. Only time I ever see her cryin’ in the kitchen is when she choppin’ onions. But there ain’t no onions now. Just chicken and potatoes.
I think she sad cause a Ricky. He ran away five days ago. Ain’t the first time neither. Ricky’s run so many times Mr. Haggard stays in our room at night. He even sleeps in Ricky’s bed to make sure he don’t go nowhere. They can’t both hardly fit on that bed. Mr. Haggard’s bottom done hangs over the side and Ricky is mushed into his stomach. But that’s not as bad as the sounds Mr. Haggard makes. Not snout sounds like Mama makes she out to the world. These deep breathin’ like a thirsty dog and I don’t know how either of them can sleep.
But a few mornings ago Mama sent Ricky out to chop wood for the furnace and he never come back. Mama was makin’ supper and the house smell like cinnamon like it do now cause Mama was cookin’ a Brown Betty cause they Mr. Haggard’s favorite. Mr. Haggard had brung home some medicine he said would help Ricky walk better. But when Mama sent me out to get him he never answered my shouts and I knew he done run again.
Usually Mr. Totter finds him sleepin’ behind the gas station up the road from the farm and drives him home. One time Mrs. Carville found him sleepin’ in the Nativity scene in fronta the church. She brought him home and told Mama he was laying up gainst two a the wise men snoring up a storm. Mrs. Carville laughed but Mama didn’t find dat funny. Mama thanked Mrs. Carville and when she left she beat Ricky. She beat em good. Then she fed him. Dat’s what she always do. A couple weeks ago when Ricky run away and Mr. Totter found him and brung him home his pants was bleedin’ and he was walking funny. Mama didn’t beat him good dat day. She just sent him downstairs to the basement and brung him a plate of pork chops and fried okra. I asked Mama if I could eat in bed too but she said no. She said only big boys get to eat in bed. After supper I went and asked Ricky what he’d done to his pants. He played like he was sleepin’. I shook em and he cussed at me and told me I better leave him lone if I knew what good for me. I told Mama and she just told me not to tattle and to let Ricky rest.
Ricky ain’t never been gone for more than two days. I think dat’s why Mama cryin’. I think she worried this time he ain’t comin’ back. Don’t tell Mama but I ain’t sad Ricky gone. He always in such a salty mood. In the morning he don’t even like to play with me no more. Mama comes downstairs to wake us every mornin’ and I get up as soon as Mama shakes me but Ricky just lay there like a lump. Mr. Haggard always gone by then and I bet he often tired cause he gotta hold Ricky down. Sometimes the bed creeks and I wanna tell Ricky to simmer down and not cause no trouble. Mr. Haggard only hold Ricky when it dark out. I think he knows Ricky won’t run when it’s light.
But most mornings Ricky just won’t get up. I’ve even heard him tell Mama to leave him lone. I always go over to him and tell him he need to get up so we can go to the pond and skip stones. He used to love doin’ dat. Now he calls me stupid and once I was holdin’ Mr. Wiggles and he done ripped him from my hands and tossed em cross the room and one his eyes fell out and Mama had to sew it back but it don’t fit right and Mr. Wiggles don’t look so much like a bear. Now if I hug em too hard cotton pop outta his head and I gotta push it back in.
Mama says to be nice to Ricky cause he’s at dat age. I don’t know what dat age is cause he only three years older than me. One two three years and I don’t care how old I get if I ever told Mama to leave me lone or dat I do my chores when it suit me she’d beat me for sure.
I have been doin’ Ricky’s chores the past few days. I just got done sweepin’ and puttin’ feedbags on Mr. Haggard’s horses Tremain and Stich. Maybe if I pick up Ricky’s slack Mama won’t be so sad.
Anyway I don’t know why Ricky wanna leave. Mama loves him best. Even with all his sass she give him candy every morning. She give em peppermint suckers or licorice sticks or sometimes even a Hershey bar. I don’t get nothin’ and Mama knows I love licorice. Mama said they Ricky’s candies and they not for me and I better not touch em if I know what’s good for me.
But I don’t think dat’s fair cause Mr. Haggard gets the candy from the soda fountain at his pharmacy and it don’t cost him nothin’. But I don’t question Mama cause she’d just tell me I better pray and thank Jesus for all I got. Dat’s what she tells me every night when she tucks me and Ricky into bed but Ricky don’t pray. I know he don’t. She says I’m lucky I don’t remember when we had nothin’ and slept in Old Man Roach’s barn. She says we slept on bales a hay and they were wet cause the barn roof was leaky and Old Man Roach ain’t care to fix it cause he don’t really work his farm no more and dat’s how we were able to stay there so long. Mama say it smelled like horse manure and there was something nasty coming out from Old Man Roach’s grain silo dat Mama called funky. Ricky remembers it. I asked him once and he say it wasn’t all dat bad and he didn’t mind the smell. He said Mama would have him sneak into Old Man Roach’s house for bread and apples and he said a couple times he was able to scrounge up some dry rub and it wasn’t stealin’ cause we needed it more. Ricky used to tell me all the time dat I owed him cause without him I’d done would’ve starved. But whenever he said dat I told him dat if my ear hadn’t gotten sick and drippin’ pus Mama never would have gone to Mr. Haggard’s pharmacy to get him to give us some medicine. And every time I tell Ricky dat he done mumbles somethin’ under his breath and shoots me a dirty look cause if it weren’t for me we’d never ave met Mr. Haggard and he never ave taken a shine to us and given Mama a job cookin’ and cleanin’ and let us live in his big old house and let me name all his chickens. There are five a em. Dolly Ginger Coco Candy and Jolie. One two three four five. Ricky called me stupid for given’ em all girls names but I think all chickens are girls cause none a em have thingys. I know what they look like too cause I saw Mr. Haggard’s thingy once when he was sleepin’ in Ricky’s bed to make sure he stayed put. It was red and ugly and had a lota hair and was pokin’ straight through the sheets. I told Mama and she slapped my hand and told me dat was a sin and dat God would punish me if I looked there.
Once I asked Ricky if Mr. Haggard could be our daddy and Ricky started huffin’ and made fists and called me names he’s not supposed to say. Names worse than dummy or stupid. I asked him why and he said no white man would wanna be our father. I told on him for dat even though Mama hates tattlin’. She said she thinks Ricky remembers Daddy leavin’ and how we had nothin’ and had to give up our house. She hates talkin’ bout dat. I know cause whenever she does Mama’s eyes well up and she tells me to go off and play with the chickens.
But I don’t think dat why she cryin now. I think it cause a Ricky.
* * *
Mama’s settin’ the table for supper when she tells me to go to the barn and put feedbags on Tremain and Stich. She rubbin’ her palms into her eyes and I can hear her snifflin’ and right when I get to the door she grabs my shoulder and rubs it for a minute and she has bits a potato skin on her fingers and I can smell it when she touches me. She tells me to scoot and I head out to the barn.
Stich looks up soon as I get to the stable and he’s snappin’ his tail round and I think he know I’m there to give em feed. I didn’t get to name em like the chickens. They already had names when we moved in but I like their names. Tremain is big and gray and keeps to himself. Stitch is a little smaller and is dark brown and has a couple white spots on his back and if I come out to the stable at night I can see his spots from far away. I like Stitch better cause he always comes up to me. A couple times he even licked my face.
Mr. Haggard keeps a barrel a oats in a shed right outside the stable and I fill up two feedbags. It’s easy to get the bag on Stitch. He make so I can just slide it over his head. But Tremain is difficult. I try to fit the bag on him but he keeps fidgitin’. Ricky’s good at this. He’s strong and he able to make Tremain stop fussin’. After a few minutes my arms hurt and I put the bag down in a corner so he can go at it as he pleases.
I pet Stitch for a minute and tell em he a good boy and then I go back behind the barn to skip stones at the pond. Mama don’t like it when I stay out here too long specially when it’s so cold but I wanna skip some stones and I don’t think she thinking bout me right now.
Ricky can get a buncha skips. Once he get so many I couldn’t even count em all. He said it went ten. He counts em under his breath as he skips. I think it helps em go further so now I count my skips too. I yell em out.
I look for some smooth stones in the grass cause Ricky said the smooth ones skip better. I find a few and go by the edge a the pond right where I can see little guppies swimin’. Dat where Ricky always stand. First one just skips one two. The second one skips one two three. I count loud but it don’t do nothin’. They skip one two or one two three but no more. I yell louder with each toss but still nothin’. I wouldn’t say this to Mama but a little bit I wish Ricky was here to show me what I’m doin’ wrong. Maybe the stones ain’t smooth enough or I ain’t bendin’ enough. Ricky always told me to keep low and swing wide. I’d ask Mr. Haggard to help me but Mama’s always tellin’ me not to bother him. Says he works hard and he done been so good to us dat we shouldn’t bother him. Maybe dat why she beats Ricky when someone brings em home. Maybe she think he don’t know how good we have it but dat don’t make no sense to me cause Ricky members livin’ in Old Man Roach’s barn and I don’t.
It’s gettin’ cold but I wanna get four skips. Ricky told me you should make a wish right when you the stone leaves your hand but I never member to wish until the stone sinks. Ricky never told me what he wished for. I always asked but he says if you tell it don’t work. I skip some more. One two. One two three. I dip my hand into the water and pick up a handful a stones. One a em is nice and flat. It so flat I think it’ll skip real far and it makes me member to make a wish. I bend real low and snap my wrist and when I throw. It makes long skips. One two three four five. I jump up and down cause I ain’t never made five before.
I hear neighing comin’ from the barn and when I get inside Stitch is at the doora the stable twitchin’ his head and tryin’ to wrestle off his feedbag. Tremain is still in the corner pickin’ at his oats. I take the feedbag off Stitch and pet em and tell em how good he is and he rubs his head gainst my face and it knocks me back some but I know he just thankin’ me. Tremain bucks up and comes over and leans his head over the stable door and just then I hear a car pull up outside the barn. I peak my head out and see Mr. Haggard gettin’ outta his car walkin’ into the house. He a big man and always checks to make sure his shirt is tucked in deep in his pants when his outside. At work he has black curly hair but at home he don’t. On Sundays Mama washes his hair in the basin with all his clothes. A while back I asked Mama how he can take his hair off and she told me to shush. He’s holdin’ a white paper bag like the kind he puts candy in at his pharmacy and I wonder if he’s found Ricky.
I head toward the house and as I get close I can hear Mama blubberin’. The Brown Betty’s still coolin’ on the windowsill and Mama and Mr. Haggard are talkin’ in the kitchen. I stand under the window so they don’t see me cause I wanna know if Mr. Haggard found Ricky. Mama speakin’ and cryin’. She says please no. She says dat’s my baby. She says she’s too young. It don’t sound like she talkin’ bout Ricky but I ain’t sure.
Her voice cracks and she start cryin’ even harder and I know this ain’t the cookin’ sad. I don’t think Mr. Haggard found Ricky. He talkin’ now. He has such a soft voice. Sometimes I sit on his lap and he read to me and he gives a different voice to all the characters in my stories and the bad guys get really low voices and the good guys get high ones. But now I just hear his voice and he tell Mama it’s okay. He says not to worry and he tell her to hush but not like Mama tell me when she want me to shut up. Gentle like. Then I don’t hear nothin’ so I sneak back inside like I wasn’t doin’ nothin’.
Mr. Haggard is rubbin’ Mama’s arm and she coverin’ her face with both hands. Her tears drip onto the floor and Mr. Haggard tells her to shush again. Then he slips a few bills into the pocketa Mama’s apron. He looks happy when he sees me but I don’t take my eyes off Mama but for a second to say hello to Mr. Haggard. He asks if I fed the chickens and I tell him I done dat hours ago. I tell him I was just out feedin’ Stitch and Tremain and he tells me what a good girl I am and dat he always had to tell Ricky to do it twice. I’m lookin’ at Mama. She sniffles and I go give her a hug and she strokes my pigtails. I ask if she need something but she say no. She sniffles again and wipes her eyes.
She bends down so we face to face. I wanna tell her I wished she wasn’t sad no more and I think it’ll come true cause the stone skipped all those times. But I don’t cause if I tell her it won’t work. She touches her forehead gainst mine and says Mr. Haggard brought me home some candy. The white bag is on the kitchen table and Mama reaches for it and opens it right under my nose and I smell the licorice. Mama gives me a stick and it tastes so good. I ask for another one but she says it’ll spoil my supper. Mr. Haggard says one more stick won’t spoil my supper and he bends down to give me another one.
Mr. Haggard starts rubbin’ my back. His hands are sweaty. He tells me what a big girl I am for takin’ care a the chickens and the horses. Says he so prouda me. Gives me a hug and he ain’t never done dat before. Whispers in my ear dat big girls get all the candy they want. Mr. Haggard slides another few sticks in my hand and hugs me tighter. Whispers again in my ear but I can’t understand what he sayin’. I feel his breath on my face. Smells like peppermint. Mama’s behind me still cryin’. I don’t think my wish came true.