Jenny's Secret

by Mimi Rosen
I like feeling the sun on my face.  A breeze carries the smell of lilacs across the yard and I tilt my head, so it floats into my nose.  Momma and me sit on the front porch, looking across the field at the weathered barn. Daddy’s rusty tractor sits crippled near the pig pen with patches of tall weeds swaying around it.  The cows and pigs were sold some time ago.  

Daddy lets the screen door slam.

“You startled her, Ezra,” Mamma says.

“Ah well,” he says, the Jessup County Gazette folded under one arm. “I went ahead and made that call.”
  
The wooden floor boards rattle and creek under Daddy’s heavy boots.  Beads of sweat, from his forehead, drip down his face.  “Move over, now,” he says to Mamma and shoves in beside her on the porch swing.  

A ladybug lands on Mamma’s thick arm.  Maybe, it’s drawn to the flower print on her dress. She brushes it away, then rests her hand just below the fleshy part of her moist neck.  Her eyes are bluish-gray.  They look past me, like Mamma is picking out her thoughts from the Cherry trees up the road.

“It doesn’t seem like the right thing,” she says.

“You leave things to me, Anna.  I always know what’s best.”

Daddy unfolds his newspaper.  I can read the big print on some of the pages.  Roosevelt Signs New Deal, it says.  

“Brighter days are coming to us, Anna.”

Daddy glances over at me, and then turns back to his paper.

I learned to read when Billy was little.  I was ten years older than him, but I didn’t go to school like Billy.  I was born with afflictions, so Mamma and Daddy kept me home, mostly. Watching Billy do his lessons was the most joyful part of my day.  He would read those stories about Dick and Jane.  I used to laugh, ‘cause he would get tangled on words I knew.  I would laugh, ‘cause I knew all of those words.

“You be quiet now, Jenny,” Mamma would say.

“Billy,” I’d say, laughing.  

Billy would stick out his tongue at me and giggle.

“You and your brother can play later, Missy.”

Mamma had sternness in her voice, but I could tell by her eyes that she didn’t mean it.

Two chipmunks scurry atop the fence, like they’re playing. I think about playing sometimes.   It used to tickle me, watching Billy and his friends run across the meadow towards the train tracks.  Watching those kids had me dreaming about how my legs would carry me, if I could run.   Last night, I dreamed that we were playing Hide-n-Go-Seek in the corn fields. We dodged in and out through the tall stalks. Billy tackled me.  I fell to the ground laughing.  But that was just a dream.

Billy died almost a year ago, when he was just 16 years-old.  Mamma aged a hundred years that day.   He was her hope, she said.  She lost her smile after that.

She keeps Billy’s picture between her favorite psalms in Aunt Edna’s Bible.  She turns to those delicate pages whenever Daddy goes off places.  That’s when the kitchen feels most like a church, with Billy’s black and white propped on the table, and Mamma’s face melting in reverence.  I never could tell her about what happened to Billy. Although, sometimes I think she knows.  

It was hot on the day Billy died.  I sat out on the porch most of the morning. The sun steamed my skin, until I blistered.  Mamma put a cool towel over my face, but it didn’t help the stinging much.

“I’m sorry, Jenny,” she said. “I should have minded you better.”

Mamma was riled on account of what Daddy done.  Our little Collie dog, Merle, had her puppies under the front porch the day before.  Daddy crawled under there early and stuffed those pups in a sac.  

“We can barely feed ourselves, Anna,” he said and took those yelping puppies away in his old truck.

I cried for those puppies, and for Merle.  I knew how sad she felt.  A thing can feel a loss, even if it can’t tell of it.

I suppose the heat had dizzied me some, because I couldn’t stop crying over those puppies.  All day long, stinging tears rolled down my face.  Daddy’s eyes burned me too.  I knew how he gets, but I couldn’t keep from crying.

“Stop her squawking!”  Daddy said, tracking mud across Mamma’s scrubbed floor.  

“She’s ailing, Ezra.”

Mamma piled mashed potatoes onto his plate.  
  
“I’ll walk Jenny around a bit, Mamma,” Billy said.  “I was fixen to get some air anyway.”

“But you haven’t finished your meat loaf.”
  
“That’s okay, Mamma. I don’t mind.”

Daddy grabbed his arm.  “Set her in the other room and come back to the table.”
  
“Why, Daddy? She’s upset.”

“Do as I say!”

Daddy slammed his fist on the table, causing the dishes to pop-up, and Mamma, Billy and me to shudder.

Now, Billy was born with Mamma’s kindness, but he had Daddy’s stubbornness in him, too.  He turned and wheeled me into the parlor, out the door, and into the cool evening air.   He pushed my chair along the country road for a short time, and then turned me around.

We were heading back home when Daddy’s old truck come puttering, bringing up road-dust behind it.  It squealed and stopped alongside us.  He got out, his chest puffed-out in his crusty overalls.  He didn’t say anything.  Daddy just walked over to Billy, grabbed his shoulders, shook him around some, and then tossed him to the side, like a sac of grain.

“You need to mind me, Boy,” Daddy said, rolling up his sleeves.

Billy stumbled and rolled down the hill, into the ditch, where the train tracks lay.  He slammed his head on a rusty, metal box that was a part of the tracks.  He just lay there, with his neck twisted, and his head tilted over one of the steel rails.

“Get up,” Daddy said, but Billy didn’t move. “Get up, now, Boy.”  

Daddy stepped into the ditch and nudged Billy with his boot.  He kneeled, holding his hand out in front of Billy’s mouth and nose for a time. “Oh Lord,” he finally whispered, looking like a balloon with the air seeping out of it.

He looked around, then stood and looked up and down the road.  He grasped his mouth with his leathery hand, and squeezed out a sort of whimper.  Then he looked at me.  He spent time looking at me.  It felt like an hour.  His face turned the color of pig’s blood and his eyes made me think of Merle, pining over her pups.

Daddy huffed.  His eyes settled on Billy.  He stepped over the tracks and grabbed Billy’s shirt, on each side of the shoulders.  He grunted and dragged my brother onto the tracks.  Then he grunted and huffed his way back up the hill.  His old truck was still rumbling, when he wheeled me back to the house.  Daddy left it to idle on the road.

“Where’s Billy?”  Mamma asked, coming from tending her garden.

“Don’t know,” Daddy said.  “Just found the girl sitting up on the road by herself.”

“Oh my, I hope nothing happened to him.”

“I’m sure he’s fine, Anna.”

“It’s not like him to just run off and leave her.”

“Now, don’t go worrying yourself,” he said. “You take the girl on in, now.  I’ll go look for him.”

But Mamma still worried about Billy.  She kept pacing the floor and looking out  the window.  She stayed up all night pacing.  I couldn’t sleep either.

“Billy,” I kept saying.
  
One time, Mamma looked me straight in the eye. “Did something happen to your brother, Child?”

When the sheriff come by, the next morning, Mamma crumbled, before he even opened his mouth.  Somehow, she knew. Someone had found Billy by the rail road tracks.   “Killed by train,” the sheriff said.  

The loss of Billy has me crying at times, but I’m angry, mostly.  Sometimes, when Daddy comes in sight of me, I shout about what I seen, but my words come out garbled.  Maybe, Daddy understands them, because the look of a troubled soul shows on his face.

Daddy lights a cigarette.  Clouds of smoke float around him.  He inhales and sinks in a little more beside Mamma. He watches me, but his eyes aren’t kind.  I turn my head, so I can’t see his face.

“I just think it should be on us,” she says. “She’s ours to care for.”

Mamma’s hand seems small when she sets it on Daddy’s chipped fingers.  “Please, Ezra.  Let’s think on it some more.”

“You let me do the thinking,” Daddy says, swiping his hand from under hers. “I know what’s right.”

I wish I could tell Mamma what I know.  Maybe, Daddy worries that I’ll find the words and tell my secret, or maybe, I bring something to mind that he’d just as soon forget.  Either way, he’s guilty.
  
The buzzing of bees fades in and out from around the lilac bushes.  A warm breeze keeps the sweet smell of those purple flowers flowing under my nose.  I turn my head and smile.  Mamma takes a wash cloth, leans over, and wipes my mouth.

“She’ll be alright,” Daddy says.  He removes his cap and rubs the speckled skin on top of his head.

“I just wish…”  Mamma says, looking at my eyes.

“Don’t fret over it, Anna. She’ll have a bed and there are doctors and nurses to tend to her.”

“But she’s ours to care for.  She doesn’t belong in the state home.”  

Daddy leans in closer to her.  “I don’t wanna hear another word about it, ya hear.” He sits back and sets his eyes on me.  “Besides, do you really think she’ll know any different?”

“I think this is on account of Billy,” Mamma says, as if she were holding back a flood.

The two of them stay eye-locked, for a time.  The knot in Daddy’s throat slides up and down.  Then his eyes sink toward his newspaper again.  He adjusts his hold of it, so it’s in the way of Mamma’s sight of him.

A tear runs along side her nose and hangs from the tip of it.  She pushes herself up from the swing and grasps the handles of my wheel chair.

“I best get her ready,” she says and wheels me inside.
Mimi Rosen is a Teacher of the Handicapped and author who is currently living on a quiet mountain-lake in Upstate New York.  She enjoys writing, reading, walking, working with children and spending time with her husband, daughter and 2 dogs.  Her work has also appeared in The Battered Suitcase.

© 2009, Mimi Rosen