That year I had buried my parakeet, Blue; our lame dog, Lucy; a kitten that never had a chance; and my own mother, so I wasn’t about to lose my brothers. I told the social services lady I could manage but she was doubtful. At sixteen, I knew more than they realized. I didn’t talk so much, not to strangers, which was the majority of people. And not about things that were irrelevant, like what meals I could cook, if our tiny, dingy bathroom was disinfected with regularity, how I managed to do laundry. If I could really manage the boys and even pay bills. Like all that was of primary importance to them. The boys, yeah, I got that one. The bills? We had a few of those. I worked after school. And mom had saved some. That was a shock.
Who do they think did all the work? My mother was sick for years, right after Willy was born. No father, ever, okay? In fifteen minutes I wanted to usher that social services woman straight out to the road. But, you know, the game. I nodded, gave her a grin that seemed grateful. Gave her descriptions of three cheese and beef goulash, our favorite, and how I scrubbed walls and toilet with vinegar and water. How I hung wet clothes on the line all year long after using Aunt Sally’s ancient washer. She lived across the road. Not my blood aunt and not the best humored woman but I’d fight for her if she was cornered by a badger or even a bad person. She sat with my mother near the end, then made us all stay in school.
Willy was nine then, Luke twelve. I had turned sixteen the week before Mom passed. There wasn’t anything to that but a cake Aunt Sally baked and ice cream Vern brought from his trailer and his daughter, my closest friend that spring. Mom sat propped in bed though she kept slumping over. Luke would set her upright, fix the pillows again. We all gathered around her, licking chocolate ice cream and icing off our chins, talking about a thunderstorm the night before, and Sally, to my embarrassment, said how much I looked like mom. I had never seen that; I avoided the mirror most days.
“You do, Jessie, more and more,” Sally said. “I wasn’t sure how you’d turn out when you was born but finally you got good-looking.”
Vern grunted. “She had a much better chance than you.”
“Hush. They must have got some hill genes, that’s why, although those ones usually go bad in the end. Not tough enough or honest enough to hold up under much pressure. Poor things.”
I thought, Oh, no, not this again, sorry old whiner that she is. She meant the folks who lived up the hill, the ones with education or money or both. We lived in the valley, where land and housing were cheap. Aunt Sally hated money, what it meant to the world. How she couldn’t keep it long enough to get out of her little brown house with moss eating up the roof and mice aggravating her all night as they scrambled inside the walls. Mildred, her fat cat, couldn’t even keep up with them.
Mom opened her eyes. “Hill people, good and bad like anywhere. My kids got the better part of love, that’s all. Good kids. ”
Vern and Sally were silenced. I wasn’t sure what she meant. We got her care and attention as she could give it, yes. But did she mean something else? I put that aside. She reached for us. I was overcome and looked away when her eyelids shuttered. I knew that was how she saw us–her excellent offspring–but she never quite said it. Just encouraged us, made us study hard and taught us manners, washed our faces with a worn wash cloth. Said we were good, not bad like some parents told their kids. We just made mistakes, she said. Stuck our drawings and report cards and a few class awards on the frig. The usual hopefulness of a mother who never had much more than two sticks to rub together but got by. Who imagined a far finer future for each of us.
She wasn’t a saint. She had three kids and never told anyone who the father or fathers were when pressed for paternity information. I got the idea she was real pretty as a girl, as well as smart–not that much had changed–and had a great liking for men. Unlike some women, like Aunt Sally who thought they were poison. Such traits in my mother weren’t bad things, like criminal leanings or something. No one said terrible things about her that I heard. She worked at the mill, long hours, and most often came right home.
But I understood by my teens that her choices could have been better. Life might have been easier for her and us. Once I overheard her tell Aunt Sally she didn’t want to marry, anyway, after her only husband left. I wasn’t around when she knew that one. He was born lazy, Vern agreed said; the guy skipped out a year later. Mom was way too young, Aunt Sally informed me, as if I couldn’t figure that out. I was born when she was twenty.
“Maybe she does. Hill genes.” Mom whispered as if in a dream. As she did more and more.
Aunt Sally leaned over her bed, bright eyes fixed on her face. “Who’s got ’em? Jessie, then? ”
Our mother managed only a frown as her head slipped off the pillow. I helped her lie down and tucked in the sheets and blanket. Tried to not dwell on why she groaned so, biting her lower lip hard when she had to move.
Still, I thought she’d stay with us until summer, at least. I wanted so much more than was left to have.
After mom passed, the social services woman came and went with documents and her one hundred questions. After the mess of court, it was determined I could continue caring for Willy and Luke. People stuck up for me, teachers and Pastor Dave and family friends. But I had to keep my part-time job at Miller’s Drug and “seek secondary support” from Aunt Sally, plus deal with random visits from the social services lady. Which was ridiculous when you considered that she said she’d never had kids. And Sally swore too much, was sarcastic and a collector of random animal figurines and ancient magazines. But she cared about us. A lifelong worker at the mill lkke mom; volunteered every Saturday at the thrift shop. (This was good for us; she snagged us clothes for next to nothing.) Plus, she didn’t drink except a couple of beers Friday night when she played canasta.
I was surprised I didn’t have to fight harder to keep Willy and Luke and stay in our house. Our roof threatened to cave in near the back porch. I had to grow up even faster and make sure they made it through their teens okay. That meant I’d be like a mother day after day for another ten years, they reminded me. I said nothing to that but “Right, got it.” The authorities were probably relieved to not have to find us new places to land. Or mom fixed it somehow.
Life went on. That’s what people say when things settle down after hard times happen. The boys were subdued a few months. I woke up dazed, was never in the mood for anything to rock the boat. I liked my job as a cashier and was liked back. My grades remained good enough. Willy was a wild child who had turned sullen the least couple years as mom got sicker.
Now he helped out more often. He’d clean up behind me in the kitchen as I cooked, no chatter, just us two getting things done. Sometimes I’d quiz him on vocabulary or math. Luke was out more and more biking with friends or practicing on his homemade skateboard. I felt those two things saved him from trouble. He had to check in with me every day after school at the drug store and be in by dark. Willy went to Pastor Dave’s or a friend’s house until I got off.
It didn’t seem like anything more bad could happen for a long while.
One night Willy plunked his tennis shoes down and told me he had to have new–or at least newer–ones. I agreed. There were holes in the fabric. They were worn down at heels and toes. He had an old jacket on that mom said had been left by a friend way back, no more explanation than that. I thought it looked military. It had moth-chewed holes. I had nearly tossed it recently but Willy liked it and sometimes had to do things differently. I let it be.
I studied the frig contents for inspiration.
“I think we’d be better off if there weren’t so many of us,” he said.
“What? We’re not a big family, never were.” I counted the eggs to see if there were enough and got out the last of the mozzarella cheese. Egg sandwiches would do.
“I meant if you didn’t have to worry so much about how to take care of us. I know you do, don’t lie!”
I turned around and looked at him. He glowered back.
“What else is new, Willy? Worry is a way of life in the valley. Everyone has to stretch their energy and dollars.”
“But you’re sixteen and now you have to start working every week-end and I have to stay at other places. Luke is gone a lot and you have too much to do. And mom isn’t here, remember?”
I heard his voice break into tears before I saw them so put down the iron frying pan beside the bowl of eggs.
“No, Jessie. I’m telling you it stinks….” his voice shattered, then was muffled by more tears.
“We’re okay. We’ll be okay at some point, anyway. Just have to be patient. Sure it’s hard, what’s easy about much of anything? But you have to stop fearing the worst. That won’t help. Mom’s gone, that’s already the worst of it… the rest I can handle fine! We don’t have too many in this family, you hear me?” But my voice had edged into a register that wound up to a small shriek and it scared us both.
He looked up, red nose streaming, and yelled back, “When will that lady come and tell us we can’t stay together? When will she take me away? That’s what Henry said today, that this is stupid because everyone knows it can’t work for long!”
I placed each hand on the table either side of him, leaned close, face-to-face.
“Henry O’Toole is an idiot. He knows nothing of what I can and will do to take care of you and Luke. He doesn’t know I have been doing it for years. He says wrong things because he’s totally ignorant of the truth, he lives on the hill and hasn’t suffered through much at all–not yet! Henry is just wrong, okay?”
Willy stopped crying and wiped his nose on a sleeve. I grabbed a tea towel and he rubbed his face with it.
“His darned iguana died last year, he said.”
I threw up my hands. “Well, then! A dang crying shame!”
Willy started to laugh.
I thought that was the end of it. He went out on the porch as I got the eggs ready. I called Luke at his friend’s house and told him to get home. The table was set so I called to Willy to help with the apple juice or milk. No answer. I leaned my head out the screen door.
“Willy? Egg sandwiches coming up. Come in now.”
But he wasn’t there. I walked around back calling his name, then crossed the road to Aunt Sally’s.
She was making coffee and a savory pot of soup. “Not seen anybody–got home late. All okay?”
“I think so. I’ll let you know.”
Luke skidded to a stop in front of the porch as I returned.
“Willy took off. He was very upset earlier, said he worried I might not be able to take care of us. You hear that from him?”
He looked away, then back at the house. “He gets…you know…low, sad. We miss mom. But you’re here for us. I don’t worry much.”
Luke took off his baseball cap, scratched his sweaty head. “Yeah, well, we owe for bills and you can’t drop out of school. I was thinking maybe I could do something on week-ends. Yard work or walk dogs. On the hill. But Willy’s too young.”
His eyes held mine a moment–his clear and blue and fearless, mine, grey and anxious and squinty in the waning light. “Grey like the color of pearly twilight,” mom used to say. I felt a wave of longing.
“But he’s gone, you said?”
Luke and I took off down the road.
Spring peepers, crickets and birds sang us into the first veil of darkness. Soon more layers would settle over earth and leave us blind with night. The creatures barely reassured me as we walked, calling out Willy’s name. After few minutes my heart rapped against my ribs and my breath came faster. The woods beckoned but I knew we wouldn’t get too far without a flashlight, which I hadn’t bought new batteries for yet. There were so many things I should have done, and one was paying more attention to how Willy felt.
“He’s got to be nearby, it wasn’t that long before I called him for dinner.”
“He’s hiding out, that’s all.”
The night sky turned from coral and pink to a luminous dusky purple. The trees were already dark and dense.
“Willy Van Buren come out!” I yelled as loud as I could. “It’s too scary out here without both you boys! Come out now!”
Then a car was coming fast, its headlights thrown about like searchlights into the blurry countryside. Luke and I waved our arms so the driver wouldn’t plow us down. It came to a soft stop across from us. I grabbed Luke’s hand and we stepped back.
“You kids alright?”
A man with a shirt and tie poked his head out the open window. He looked familiar but Luke tightened his grip. We turned away and kept walking with purpose.
“Hey, I know you two–you’re the Van Buren children. Lillian’s kids!”
The car door opened and shut. Luke and I sped up more. We were a few hundred yards from Vern’s.
“Who is that?” I hissed as we half-ran.
“I think he works at that big law office downtown, Parks and Taylor. Why would he be here? Maybe we’re in trouble!”
“Yeah, I’ve seen him around.”
The stranger called into dark that obscured landscape and each other even more. “Wait, please! I knew your mom! I’m so sorry she passed….too young.”
I stopped then and turned to face the man, Luke pulling at my hand.
“Well, who are you to care about our mother? You need to move on. We’re going to our friend’s right there.” I indicated with my head where it was and stilled my voice as best I could and planted my feet on the road. “I don’t know you, mister.”
“I’m sorry; this must seem odd. Of course you don’t. I’m Phillip Parks, an attorney in town.”
He strode toward us as we backed up, then held out his hand. It remained suspended there. His face looked softer and older in the headlights. Mr. Parks did look concerned.
“I was driving around after meeting with a client, just thinking, rememembering things. Because I knew Lillian pretty well. She and I went to school together long ago. I was…quite fond of her. I actually wanted to stop by and see you kids sometime, offer help. I know things are rough. It’s serendipity that I found you right now.”
“That right?” Luke’s voice held an edge. “Why would you want to see us, Mr. Parks? Are you going to inspect our house and take notes on what my sister isn’t doing perfectly? Or worse?”
He yanked my hand so the ligaments in my wrist burned.
“We have business of our own so nice to meet you but good-bye.” I stated to run with Luke. We could see the yellow lights of Vern’s place. But then the car seemed to be following us.
Willy stepped out of the shrubbery and threw his arms around me.
“Where on earth–?”
“I took off for Vern’s, I’m sorry!”
“Don’t do that again!”
“Willy, don’t be stupid–making a fuss for Jessie!” Luke gave his head a soft smack.
We watched Vern wave at us and close his door. I almost ran and banged on his door so he would walk us home. But Phillip Parks’ car had stopped, lights flooding the road and our faces. The driver’s door opened. H strode to us.
“Here.” He handed me an envelope, the sort that has a store-bought card in it. “You can open it now or later. I was going to mail it. I wanted to express my sympathy. I had to offer my help but thought it better to see you in person. That’s all.”
I turned it over in my hands and looked at the front. He, in fcat, had to be Mr. Phillip Parks. There it was, addressed to me with a “Miss” in front of my name.
I ripped it open, wanting the whole thing to be done with. I scanned the flowery scene, read the inside without registering the canned words. Because into my hands fell his business card and two crisp one hundred-dollar bills.
I held it all out to him. “Why this? We don’t know you at all.”
He put his head in his hands. I was scared he was going to start crying and the world was going to stop turning and nothing would ever be righted again. I tried to call mom close to help us.
But he was okay when he looked up. “I hope you all can come to my office tomorrow. The main thing is, I told Lillian I’d help you if anything happened to her. And I’m good for my word. But I can explain more then.”
Luke swore, out of disbelief or amazement, but I almost took him to task right there for rudeness. Willy just stared, having missed the earlier encounter with the stranger. But I offered my hand and shook his, just like mom had taught me to do.
I didn’t want to know more. I did want to consider so much cash in hand and tomorrow I’d decide what was best to do. Likely meet Mr. Parks at his office and clear things up. I had an idea what he’d say to us and thought it might fill me with both relief and more heartache. He turned and started to walk.
I had dinner to reheat or remake. I had homework to complete. I was tired out and it had just been one more day. Still, I saw his shoulders sag worse.
“Mr. Parks, we haven’t met in good circumstances. But I want to say thanks for the money and I appreciate your remembrance of our mother. I’ll call your office tomorrow.”
He hesitated, then put his hand in the air and waved.
I wove my fingers through Luke’s and Willy’s as they chattered. We took our time getting home. Crickets sounded like choristers and an owl said something good. Willy whistled in response. Luke shook off my grip to pick up a stick, help lead the way. Whatever came, I already knew I had the better parts of love on either side of me and in heaven above.