Mama knew how to sweet-talk people. Her magic had served her well in McAllen, Texas. And it seemed to be working in our new home in south Louisiana, where her opportunities as a switchboard operator were plentiful.
“You have to be fast and have a sharp memory, ” she bragged on the phone to her friend Marilyn, who’d also moved here with her family from the Rio Grande Valley. “And it doesn’t hurt if you can charm the pants off the meanest customers, ” she added with a laugh. But the image of an adult without pants made me chuckle, and I exposed my hiding place under the kitchen table.
At age seven, I had taken to spying.
“Out!” Mama’s right hand held the phone’s receiver and a burning cigarette, so she signaled me with her left trigger finger.
Close observation was how I discovered most things regarding the adults around me. On that day I learned about Mama’s new job at Oilfield Exchange, a twenty-four-hour answering service that offered oodles of overtime. She could clock sixteen-hour shifts, six—sometimes seven—days a week.
Which meant a mound of bills would be paid, but it doomed my two older sisters and me. We’d be stuck at home with our unemployed stepfather. So I devised a plan to find my real father, an always-traveling encyclopedia salesman, and send him a message to save us.
It’s why I had taken to spying. How else could I gather information about Daddy’s whereabouts? Mama never offered any news, even when outright asked.
“Was that Daddy on the phone?”
“But you said Darrell.”
“How do you know what I said? You weren’t in the room.”
“No, but . . .”
“But what? Listen. Who I talk to is my business.”
I didn’t agree. So I found a better hidey-hole in a lower kitchen cabinet next to the pots and pans. I had to be extra quiet in my secret refuge because it was near the phone, which made it a valuable place for eavesdropping. It helped to be a small second-grader.
My sisters weren’t so lucky at twelve and thirteen. They were too long-limbed to squirrel away with me. Instead, during Mama and Roger’s hollering matches, Jeanne and Jane would flee to the bedroom we shared. Then they’d blast the radio and lose themselves in Top 40 countdowns.
I’d always freeze when my stepfather’s eyelids drooped and his voice amplified.
“I ought a smack you, ” Roger would slur to my mother, who’d stand toe-to-toe with him and push her face right up to his chest and say, “I dare you.”
And smack! He’d slap her, and I’d unfreeze and scuttle to my safe haven in the kitchen cabinet. I’d try to listen to the rest of their argument to make sure my mother was okay, but something always happened to me when their voices were raised. A constant buzz would fill my ears as though dozens of winged angels were fluttering about in the heavy air around me. I’d rest my head on the tops of my knees and fade away.
What saved me from disappearing completely was winter turning to spring, and my second-grade schoolteacher, a woman whose name I don’t even remember. Her efforts gave my family the only bright spot in our season of troubles when she put together a staged Easter Parade and made me a star.
Every night for two weeks my sisters took turns brushing my yellow hair a hundred strokes to make it shine. Then Jeanne would hand me a Britannica Book of the Year to balance on my head while she and Janie sang: In your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it, you’ll be the grandest lady in the Easter Parade . . .
Even Mama found time to take me shopping for a ruffled dress, a spring hat, ankle socks, and white patent-leather shoes. The clothes didn’t interest me in the least, but Jeanne and Jane unloaded the packages and delighted in my modeling for them back home.
“Twirl around, ” said Janie.
“Hold up your shoulders like this, ” said Jeanne. She demonstrated perfect posture and a walking grace I never learned. Even in the dull light that leaked through closed window shades, she looked beautiful, like the models in magazines she studied as if the ink would transport her onto its pages.
I followed my big sister and tried to imitate her every move. Then Janie stood behind me and adjusted my big, flowery hat with a wide, silk ribbon that tied under my chin. My middle sister put her hands on my waist, so I held onto Jeanne, and we pretended to be a chain. Then Janie started singing in her best Little Eva voice: Everybody’s doing a brand-new dance now. And Jeanne and I chimed in with Come on baby, do the Locomotion. We belted out “The Locomotion” as we circled the couch and swung our hips. Into the kitchen we danced past my stepfather and his dog. Gertrude perked up her ears and barked, and even Roger slapped his knee and whooped.
I would’ve sworn on a Bible if there’d been one in our house that I saw a flicker of light in my stepfather’s eyes. If so, it was a true Easter miracle. Not a full-blown resurrection of the dead, but a tiny glimmer of light. Its power wasn’t strong enough to ascend Roger to heaven. Or out of his favorite chair by a window. Or even to my school.
But Mama managed to change shifts with another operator, and she and my sisters were in the audience when I paraded around the stage in my Easter bonnet. I held up my shoulders and lifted the hem of my dress when I stepped off a small staircase to begin my stroll down the aisle. And that’s when Janie stood up and yelled, “That’s my little sister!” And everyone roared with laughter.
We rode the happiness of that night for three days. Then Roger guzzled too much Budweiser, and every ugly thing inside him rose to the surface. He all but grew a coat of fur and sprouted fangs when Mama’s sweet-talk turned sour and she called him a “lazy-ass drunk.”
They were in the kitchen.
I was in there, too, stretched out on the linoleum floor with the dog. I couldn’t slip into my hiding spot unnoticed, so I just sat up. And I watched Roger raise his right arm. But this time, his open hand curled into a fist, and he busted Mama’s bottom lip.
After that, I began hiding again. I’d fold up, close my eyes, and conjure Daddy. His broad shoulders. The way he’d swim with me on his bronzed back. Or throw me in the air with the sun behind me, pungent chlorinated water below, and his outstretched arms ready to catch me. My father would never miss. Or hit Mama. With him, I felt safe.
By the time my mother’s fat lip healed, my powers of concentration worked.
I was tucked away in the kitchen cabinet near the phone.
And Mama was talking to Daddy.
I listened to her explain that the school year was about to end. “I’m working sixteen-hour shifts, ” she said. “Can the girls stay with you for the summer?”
I held my breath.
Then Mama said, “I’ll see you in a few weeks.”
Still holding my breath, I heard my mother replace the receiver onto the base of the phone. She then flung open the cabinet door and said, “You can come out now!”
I ran right past her and straight to my sisters to blab the good news.
Photo by Annabel Farley, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Darrelyn Saloom, co-author of My Call to the Ring: A Memoir of a Girl Who Yearns to Box.
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