Posts tagged ‘short story’

“The Front Seat”

My school bus was Lord of the Flies on wheels, and I was Piggy. Nighttime tears shed the residue of that day’s humiliations. My parents’ variegated forms of “Children are cruel” landed as corroboration rather than sympathy. Their concern quickly sewed into ennui hemmed with frustration. An inveterate eavesdropper, I monitored their conversations from the other side of the door, which was the auditory equivalent of reading someone’s diary. Often, what I overheard was hurtful.

“Well, she’s turned into quite a heifer, so she’s ripe for the poking—no pun intended,” my father once said to my mother. I remember that specifically because I had to look up “pun” in the dictionary. He added that, were the situation all that dire, it would’ve motivated me to lose weight. And, if anything, I had gained weight, which according to him positioned me as an accomplice to the so-called crime. He told my mother they needed to “help me help myself.” Their offensive began by not signing the bus contract for sixth grade. Instead, a cash-hungry French teacher who had arranged a carpool would drive me to school. There I would be safe from pint-size cruelty’s maul and lash.

“This is going to be a better year. I can just feel it,” my mother exclaimed on my first day of sixth grade. Though self-conscious, insecure, and yes, fat, I glommed onto her optimism. Maybe this year would bridge easier terrain, which given those first few anticlimactic weeks seemed warranted.

The French teacher’s Country Squire station wagon resembled a hearse. To this day, I shiver when I see one of those behemoths hulking curbside, dodging extinction. The olive-green hood and fenders on Monsieur Lenoir’s were cavitied with rusty abscesses. Wood flanks hollowed from abuse. Inside, taped-over gashes on worn leather magnified copious bald spots, evincing a hag who had lived too long and seen too much. It was less ominous, however, than the modern, sleek bus where youths preened their callousness.

Had my mother, who was squalor averse, glimpsed the ochre, crusty, holed upholstery in Monsieur Lenoir’s car, I would have been back on that bus faster than my tormentors could say, “You’re not sitting here, fatty.” Her southern upbringing and twang instilled a devotion to etiquette and a reverence for musical accents. Hence, she glamorized all things French. In that language she drawled words too uncouth to say in English. It was de rigeur to yell “Merde” as opposed to “Shit” in profane circumstances. Given her Francophilia, she would have been dismayed to learn that Monsieur Lenoir was, in fact, a French-speaking Haitian, not a native of France.

My contentment proved short lived. The teacher, despite the name of his car, was no squire. Adept at navigating temper minefields, I made sure I was always waiting for him and not vice versa. Monsieur Lenoir often ran late. And when he did his joviality disintegrated into anger. The man’s blue eyes would lose their endearing sparkle that compensated for a pockmarked, jaundiced pallor masking his true ugliness. Still, nothing about this gnomish little monsieur read predator.

At first, this new transportation warded me from evil like an amulet. As the last child picked up, I sat directly behind Monsieur Lenoir, next to a shy fourth grader. She wouldn’t dare tease me even if it crossed her mind. An unspoken hierarchy existed: elders were feared if not exactly respected. My former bus mates, who had feasted on my weaknesses, no longer hungered for me, save an occasional bite. The two new girls I had befriended vouchsafed a certain protection and mercy—at school. Upon arrival, we bedraggled lot of carpooling misfits scattered to our separate classrooms like cockroaches when a light comes on.

Just as things seemed to be gelling, on the third Friday morning Monsieur Lenoir said that he was rearranging us to accommodate a new addition. I was to sit in the front with him, trading places with a skinny geek. A fifth grader’s younger brother was coming up front, too, but given his size I figured he’d sit the middle, leaving my head to rest against another dirty window. I was loath to change seats. In my young mind, this newfound peacefulness—tentative and raw— depended on the status quo.

“But why can’t we stay in the seats we started in?” I asked.

Mon Dieu! Listen, Abbey, don’t you give me no trouble you hear?” His voice cadenced in a chilling whisper through gritted teeth.

The following Monday morning, our driver pulled up to my building ahead of schedule. I was waiting. He stepped into the melee of oncoming traffic to open the front passenger door. As I wedged between the bumper and fender of two parked cars, horns honked impatiently. He waved them off with invectives.

“Jimmy, come out. Abbey, go in the middle,” he ordered.

“He’s smaller, shouldn’t he move to the middle seat?”

“Ugh,” he screamed, “there is no seat belt in the middle, it’s too dangerous for him. What did I tell you about not giving me no trouble? Maybe you want to take the bus again, eh?”

Embarrassment circulated through me like venom. I jerked over to the middle.

Bookended between the teacher and this morsel of a boy, I was acutely aware of my girth; thighs oozed past the seat margins like blood seeps from a dressing. Unnerved, I shook my leg to release tension. In response, Monsieur Lenoir patted then rested his hand on my knee. When the movement ceased he did not retract it. His crab-like hand with clawed fingers encased in nubby dry shells had attached itself. I recoiled, sliding as far toward Jimmy as I could. The crustacean tightened its grip. Then, it began to scuttle up and down my thigh.

“It feels good, eh?”

My heart started to race; my throat constricted. “Not really,” I squeaked rather than affirmed.

Leaning closer to me he cooed, “Don’t you give me no trouble, you hear.”

His warm cigarette-y morning breath assaulted my nostrils. I sneezed and coughed. Droplets of sputum landed like granules of sand. As though it were acid, Monsieur Lenoir’s claw fled to the wheel.

“Eh, what’s the matter with you? You want to cause an accident?” He asked loudly enough to garner the other passengers’ attention. I imagined all heads behind me raised, their eyes boring into the back of mine in tacit condemnation.

Monsieur Lenoir delivered the question as an admonishment. I had been duly chastised. By exorcizing anxiety through my limb and with my coughing fit, I could have caused him to crash. The quavering had beseeched his attention and distracted him and endangered us. If he called my parents I would get in huge trouble. Or worse. It was either Monsieur’s carpool or the bus. I shouted an apology.

Tres bien.” I understood that meant “very good,” though I suspected it wasn’t good enough.

I had intended to preemptively mention the incident to my mother, but I did not. She had begun to greet me at the door with a smile, enjoying the reprieve from snarls and tears that had greeted her most afternoons in previous years. It was a Friday, and at home with the weekend ahead of me, Monsieur Lenoir’s image unthreaded and faded like an old tapestry.

I suppose I enjoyed my mother’s positive feedback, though I couldn’t have qualified it as such back then.

“Well, it’s such a pleasure to see you in a good mood.”

“School has been going okay.”

“I’m so glad to hear it, ma chérie. Come in the kitchen, I made you a healthy snack.”

Healthy was code for low calorie, which deflated me instantly. On the plate were four sticks of celery with a dollop of mustard on the side, lean materials that would build a thinner me. I had squirreled a bag of Peanut M &M’s in my book bag to insulate me from hunger. I could not tell my mother that having scarfed a chocolate donut before leaving school, I wasn’t hungry for crudité.

“Um, thanks, but I have a lot of homework, so…” As I walked out of the kitchen, her voice trailed after me. “Abbey, you’re not eating a thing, yet you don’t appear to be losing weight. It’s a riddle for your father and me.”

Food, my cure and my affliction: instant temporary gratification that kept me fat. My parents pleaded, cajoled, and bribed me to lose weight. They sent me to a diet doctor, where my weight inched up in half pounds. Though lean and fit, my parents nevertheless dieted with me. My father signed himself and me up for ice skating lessons—exercise and togetherness. My mother aligned shopping sprees with weight loss goals. They filled the cookie jar and pantry with junk food to model discipline, resisting it along with me. But in the middle of the night I would tiptoe to the kitchen and dip into every bag and canister, taking a small amount from each to avoid getting caught.

My room was my refuge. The wall-long window looked out to a courtyard between our building and the abutting townhouses. Alternating between lush and bare with the seasons, it was an apt metaphor for my ever-shifting perspective. I daydreamed about the lives lived in the apartment across from ours, where shadows moved behind opaque curtains. Lithe and graceful, I imbued them with a narrative I wished were my own: that of a gentle, loving family. Torment began to dog me at home. The children who’d lost my scent at school had metamorphosed into my hounding father.

His impatience and hand tremors calibrated in proportion to my weight. It was as though he were Narcissus and my heft a river. I reflected as his failure. He said things such as, “Abbey, it’s not just the fat, it’s what the fat broadcasts: ‘I have no discipline’”; “If you weren’t so pretty I wouldn’t bother—svelte won’t help ugly”; or “I am trying to help you because boys do not have to settle for just a pretty face when there are plenty of pretty, thin girls out there.” Some were compliments, others he intended to be constructive. They all torpedoed my confidence.

On a Monday morning at breakfast, a few weeks after school had started, his right hand began quivering uncontrollably. He dropped his mug. The coffee-splattered wallpaper cried tears of brown liquid. Embarrassed, he left to change his clothes. As my mother sponged around me and my pick-up time and Monsieur Lenoir neared, I announced that my stomach hurt. “You just devoured a scrambled egg and two pieces of toast.” She felt my forehead. No fever. She called my father back to the table for verification. The back of his left hand, its ring finger bulbous with matrimonial gold, landed like a punch. “Ouch!” “Nope, cool as a cucumber. Try eating more slowly, or,” he paused, “less.”

Monsieur Lenoir reached past Jimmy and pushed open passenger door. “Get in the middle.” Situated, I focused on constraining myself within the charred leather demarcations. The teacher’s left hand was on the steering wheel. The right, now a clandestine tarantula, sat poised for action. Furry tentacular fingers grazed the top of his pants. They scampered to his groin. Monsieur Lenoir elbowed me as he fondled himself. The low, guttural noises that accompanied his masturbation seemed audible only to me. I looked over at Jimmy who, leaning against the window, head cradled in his right arm, appeared oblivious. Perhaps the thick oversized Fair Isle sweater I wore to hide my protruding belly blocked his view. The noise stopped. I glanced at Monsieur Lenoir. Both hands were on the steering wheel. Clearing his throat, he instructed us to gather our things; we were almost at school.

I went directly to the nurse’s office. A lie had scaled into the truth. The dissonant groans echoing in my ears had tailed into a vertiginous nausea. When it finally subsided boredom descended. Old yearbooks were stocked on the bookshelves of her makeshift clinic.

I flipped through them, idling on photographs of pretty girls. Blithe, toothy grins stenciled vibrant, pearly crescents onto their thin faces atop thinner bodies. With them, handsome jocks had no physical obstacles to hurdle. My father would have been proud to call any one of those girls his daughter.

The crotchety, past-her-prime nurse telephoned my mother hourly. She never answered. I took the late bus home to avoid Monsieur Lenoir, arriving just before our dinnertime: 6:45 p.m., sharp.

No sooner were we seated than the interrogation began. Meals had devolved to Darwinian experiments, for which I was unfit. Survival resided in short answers and averted eye contact. Most nights I changed into a light blue sweatshirt hoping to fade into our dining room walls, which were painted the same color. And each time I did, I was reminded of the exercise’s futility. We formed a triangle at the table, my father at the head and my mother and I on either side. My chair was tall, high-armed, bow legged and stiff, a wooden marshal with a fugitive in custody. In this autarchic justice system there were no fair trials. My father cross-examined me until I perjured myself.

“Abbey, have you gained weight?”

“I, I, I don’t think so.”

“Well, are your clothes tight?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know if your clothes are tight?”

“I haven’t noticed. I mean, I guess not.”

“You look heavier to me.”

“What?”

“You say ‘excuse me,’ not ‘what.’ We can’t have people thinking you are being

raised in a barn, though you’re starting to resemble a…never mind.”

Pig.

My teeth clenched. Tears pooled. Sweat leaked.

“Jane, what exactly have you been feeding her in the afternoons?”

Through her tightened jaw, slit eyes, blushing skin, my mother’s expression amalgamated fear, indignation, and restraint. “What we discussed, exactly. And she hasn’t been eating it,” she said, quietly.

“Is that true Abbey?”

“Yes, I mean no, I mean I really haven’t been eating a lot so I don’t know how I could’ve gained weight.”

“Staying away from the cookies and candy?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Are you sure?”

He didn’t badger a witness unless he had evidence. I should have interpreted it as a signal to yield, but instead I said, “No.” And, just like an unwitting swine, it was as though I marched into the pen; the barn door locked behind me.

“That’s curious to me. Yesterday there were four stacks of twenty cookies, and today there are four stacks of nineteen.”

The night before, after they went to bed, I took one from each stack—to make sure they remained even.

“I’m sorry, it’s just…” My voice cracked.

“You know the punishment for lying. I don’t want to hear another word.” Then he tagged on, “And I’m going to weigh you, too.”

I watched him wrest meat from his chicken leg and gnaw on cartilage. Lying was the crime, no time discount for entrapment. Doomed, I berated myself for every sugary sin.

I had gained two pounds. This excited the mathematician in him. My father multiplied by twelve months, then those twenty-four pounds by a varying number of years, to estimate my impending obesity. And to formulate how many lashes, he divided the number on the scale by twelve. He told me to take down my pants and lean over his bed. My bare ass goosebumped with anticipation. I put my head down on their rose-colored, satiny bedspread and wept while he whipped. Afterward, with his belt rebuckled, he migrated to the den to pour himself a scotch. I could hear ice cubes jingling from his shaking hand as I wobbled to my room.

I never thought about it before, but I wonder if he steadied his thrashing hand by gripping the wrist above it with his free one. That would have added momentum and strength.

Later, numbed by the alcohol into his version of remorse, he would apologize. He couldn’t stand that I was being humiliated. He was at his wits’ end having tried everything he could think of to get me to lose weight. He didn’t know how else to get through to me.

I think he lacked the introspection to see that he was simply repeating what his father had done to him.

My mother would come in shortly thereafter to ask if I needed anything: a glass of water, a cold compress, a hug.

I can still taste the sour hatred that curdled on my tongue.

Yes: protection, an ally, a mother. Handcuffed by fear, shackled in subservience, he had withered her. Whenever she ventured an opinion, he retaliated with, “You move your mouth and I’ll talk.” I crimsoned with shame for her. Those power plays were an admission of sorts. Though diminutively thin and short in stature, my mother possessed a shimmering intellect that my father was smart enough to reckon dangerous.

At ten-years-old, I understood on a visceral level that I was tougher and more resilient than my mother. She, too, had been an only child, whose idyllic, sheltered upbringing had ill-prepared her for combat. I was weaned on her husband’s frustration and wrath.

By the next morning my welts had fainted to a scribble of red lines like a crossed out mistake. They would remain tender for days. Fresh from the hot seat in my dining room, I edged into the decrepit station wagon’s middle seat. Monsieur Lenoir whistled as he drove, one hand on the steering wheel the other on his thigh closest to me. I yelped when it leapt to mine. He pinched me quiet. I held my breath as his fingers began crawling toward my vagina. I willed myself mummified. Monsieur Lenoir jimmied my legs apart. He rubbed and chafed. The seam of my corduroys dug into my labia. Both rigid, we were two sticks. I wanted to ignite, smolder to ashes, burrow in the crevices, meld with the rest of the grime and trash. Was Jimmy watching? Would he tell people? In my peripheral vision I noted that his ears were covered with one elbow jutting toward me. If it could speak it would have said, “You have cooties.”

Monsieur Lenoir jerked his hand away, flapping it as though I had scorched him.

Did he think I wanted him to do this? I couldn’t be sure if the other passengers were aware of what was happening to me. They tendered neither subtle allusions nor overt acknowledgements.

Certain Monsieur Lenoir would call my parents, distort the situation, and pin the blame on me, I resolved to tell my mother. She met me at the door clothed in a tea length, bell-sleeved floral print dress, her hair pulled back in a chignon, joviality plastered on her face. At first I balked, worried that the conversation would sully her mood and outfit.

“What’s newsie?” (News+New=Newsie.)

“I got an A on my history paper.”

“That’s the best newsie! See, you do much better without me.”

(My mother had helped me with a biography of Julius Caesar. I got a C+. Apparently, she was unfamiliar with new writing and new math, having been taught the old way.)

She brought me a plate with Granny Smith apple slices, a teaspoon of honey, and my courage. “Mom, I have to talk to you about something very important.”

A big exhalation was followed by, “Should I sit down for this?”

“I want to take the bus again.”

This newsie startled her. “Mais pour quoi?”

Her French catalyzed my reticence into ire. “Because I hate Monsieur Lenoir, that’s why.”

“Is he not a good driver? Do you feel unsafe?”

Her questions were banal and appropriate. I faltered. “He’s gross. His car is gross. I just don’t want to go with him anymore.”

My mother’s equanimity wavered. “I’m sorry Abigail, but this makes no sense to me. Out of the blue you want to go back on the bus? Are you being picked on in that car—because I can talk to…”

“That’s not it,” I interrupted her.

“Excuse me!” my lack of politesse affronted her. I apologized. There were a few beats of silence. I figured she was scrolling through possibilities, weighing whether they would require French translations or threaten her emotional balance. I might have chickened out had she not said, “Why don’t you just tell me the problem, and then we can decide if there’s a solution.” Passivity, her reflex, emboldened me.

It gushed like verbal vomit. “It’s Monsieur Lenoir. The first time he just touched his, you know, private part, but then, I mean now, well twice, he rubbed my, you know, vagina.” I whispered vagina and croaked the rest of the story. Her narrowed moss green eyes converged word by word into a swamp of tears. She plopped down next to me on the banquette. With her arms around me, fingers combing my thick brown hair, she kept repeating that she was sorry. It was the first time I remember feeling that her love for me had density and vitality. Perhaps she feared that my father would mistake affection for coddling, an indication of weakness under his regime.

Thinking back, I don’t ever remember seeing them hold hands.

Rocking in my armchair after confessing, I wondered if secrets weighed anything. Free of mine I felt lighter. There was no movement behind the curtained windows of the apartment across the way, nothing to embellish with narrative. Chilly weather had unleaved the courtyard’s trees. An audience of naked branches with long, sinewy arms were adjoined at the tips as though they were clapping, for me. I heard my father bellow, “Hello.” He expected my mother and me, his sheep, to flock. Having beaten me to the door, she motioned me back to my room. Hearing their bedroom door shut I assumed my regular post, ear affixed to the crack in the frame.

“That is exactly what she told me, and yes, I believe her.” My mother had recited my story almost verbatim.

“Jane, take a good look at your daughter. Why would this guy choose her?”

“That’s exactly why he would choose her, Jerry. He’d think she was an easy mark.”

“Listen, we shouldn’t take things like this lightly, but we can’t accuse the man; it’s her word against his—he could sue us for defamation of character or something.”

“Not if he’s guilty. Child molesting is a crime. Our daughter could be seriously scarred by this; it’s the sort of thing that renders adults incapable of having intimate relationships.”

“Whoa—she’s about thirty pounds and a lot of years away from an ‘intimate relationship.’ In terms of Abbey’s sex life, if that’s what you mean, right now I doubt she’s even a candidate for, what’s the game where they spin the bottle and have to kiss the kid it lands on?”

“Spin the Bottle.”

“You get my point. You remember last Valentine’s Day when the kids on the bus threw black paper hearts at her.”

“You are, can be, as cruel and heartless as those kids.”

“If I recall correctly, you put her in this situation. Had you even met this guy? What did you know about Mr. Lenoir when you entrusted our daughter to him? Nothing, that’s what! I’m heartless and cruel but you’re the one who handed her over to some pedophile who molested her.”

“Don’t you think I know that? Don’t you think I feel terrible? I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself!”

“And I’ll tell you something else,” he yelled, “Men like this are not one-time offenders!”

My mouth fell agape. He was almost defending me. But at my mother’s expense. It was always someone else’s fault. He had done his time, scapegoated for his mother’s death, endured my grandfather’s wet-towel whippings as penance.

“I would never intentionally endanger our daughter. I was trying to spare her,” my mother pleaded.

“Well, Jane, you know what they say about the road to hell. You got her into this. You believe her, you handle it.”

The next morning brown sugar and butter accompanied my oatmeal, testaments to parental guilt. No one uttered a word until I broke the silence.

“Um, how am I getting to school today?”

My father said, “Today you go with Mr. Lenoir. But you will not be in the front seat.”

My jaw dropped. Then bravery rocketed through me and out my mouth. “You can’t be serious—you’re making go back in that car?” My nose tingled, a precursor to weeping.

He and my mother locked eyes. My father’s hand went up, his fingers fanned, like a stop sign. “Abigail, we need more than twelve hours to sort this out. I promise you, he will not hurt you anymore.”

It was obvious that a discussion had ensued with Monsieur Lenoir, one that I did not overhear.

I shuffled toward my assailant, a giant marshmallow in my bulky white down jacket. He thumbed in the direction of the backseat. My spongy legs froze in place. Monsieur Lenoir angrily tapped the door. I could not look at him as I tumbled gracelessly into my former seat. The fourth grade girl who wouldn’t dare tease me had replaced me in the front. Staring at the back of her French-braided head I wondered if she would be his next victim. “C’est pas ma problem,” I decided. Morning light glinting through the besmirched window splintered into rainbow prisms that haloed her with dust.

I never forgot what my father said about men like Monsieur Lenoir: they don’t do it just once. I wish I could forget many of the other things he said. I wish his tremors had been guilt instead of Parkinson’s. I wish he had lived long enough to see my thin self. Whether I have a pretty face is subjective, but thinness is a fact with gradations of thinner. While many women gain fifteen pounds during their freshman year of college, I came home one month into mine to bury my father. Weight loss followed.

______________________________________________

V.E. Gottlieb
In 2014, at forty-eight-years-old, I earned my MFA from New York University’s Creative Writing Program. Prior to that I raised my two children and co-created Pam&Vix, a weekly blog that focused on parenting-related issues. I am currently working on my first novel, The Holders.

“First Confession”

“You are at the age of reason,” Sister said, “ready to understand the mystery of transubstantiation.”  She cued them with her ruler.

“Tran-sub-stan-ti-a-tion,” the children repeated. Angie spoke it softly, enjoying the roominess of the word, its multiple, mysterious syllables that would teach her how to be good.

They were in second grade, preparing for their First Communion. They were seven years old.

It was catechism hour, and Sister Patrick Marie swept up and down the aisles of the classroom, impossibly quiet in her heavy black shoes and voluminous black drapes. She called out questions, and Angie mouthed the words inside the murmurings of the other children.

Who made me?

God made me.

Then Father Mulligan, who had the habit of dropping in without warning, stood at the door and the children scrambled to attention beside their desks and greeted him. But they were not in unison. Their voices were low, their syllables staggered, and everything sounded like scuffling feet. Sister Patrick gave a closed-mouth smile to Father with one side of her face and scowled at the children with the other side. They had failed her in front of Father. Sister signaled for them to atone by reciting more of their catechism, which they delivered in the perfect singsong of their playground chants.

Where is God?

God is everywhere.

Father asked them to pray for John F. Kennedy, who was running for President of the United States. They all obeyed fervently, lifting their brown faces heavenward, since everyone knew that if Nixon became president, he would make them go to school on Saturdays, and that was un-American.

Before Father left, he told them to make room on their chair for their guardian angel, who was always at their side. They all scooted to the edge of their narrow wooden seats as they resumed their lesson. Angie’s thigh and shoulder soon ached from scrunching herself up. She didn’t dare move, though. With Sister Patrick patrolling the aisles and Father Mulligan making surprise visits, her guardian angel taking up part of her desk space, and God everywhere, Angie was surrounded and under watch.

It was the same at home, which was not really their home. They were staying with her grandparents. It was the home their mother, Delia, grew up in along with her sister, Nelda. The two of them had shared a bedroom and fought and told each other secrets. Now the three Rubio sisters shared a room with Nelda, who said and did surprising things. Sometimes, after taking off her bra and before slipping on her nightgown, she would hold one of her breasts in her hand and say, “Want some teta?” And she would laugh a wicked, cackling laugh.

Her son was Little Eddie, even though there seemed to be no Big Eddie from whom to distinguish him. Little Eddie slept in the dining room on a cot now that the Rubios had moved in. Angie’s grandparents snored in their twin beds in the bedroom just off the living room. Angie’s parents slept in the living room on the fold-out couch, which creaked when they tossed and turned. Baby Anthony slept between them. They had left his crib behind in Hawaii.

They had left other things behind in Hawaii. Some toys, most of their comic books, their skates, their plastic pool, a box of clothing, and their hula hoops. And Angie felt like she had left something of herself behind. They had crossed the ocean this time not in the three-day seasick journey by ship, but by plane. The close-up view of clouds and the long drop to earth made Angie think of how much space there would be between their life in Hawaii and their life back here in California.

They were bigger now—Eva was nine, Angie seven, and Letty five—and there was the extra fact of Anthony. It was so crowded in her grandparents’ house. They absorbed each other’s sweat during the day and heard each other breathe at night. The bathroom offered no escape, nor did the porch or backyard. There was always someone else there or waiting their turn. Nelda and their mother sat on the front porch until it was dark and the moths flattened themselves around the porch light. Anthony would sit and babble in his playpen in the living room, soothed by their grandfather’s growls as he argued with the TV and their grandmother crocheted. They watched the Spanish language station, which Delia and Nelda understood, but Angie’s father, Henry, didn’t. He would walk around the block over and over until Delia called out to him to come inside.

Angie and her sisters and Little Eddie did their homework on the dining room table, then played cards—Crazy Eights or Old Maid—and then ran their own bath. The sisters were required to take a bath together to save water. Then Eva ran one for Little Eddie, who was four and still sucked his thumb and ate his snots. The Rubio sisters stayed in the bathroom with him, sometimes lathering and scrubbing him as if he were the family dog.

One evening, instead of taking a walk around the block, Henry got in the car and came back with a small portable TV, which he hooked up in the dining room. Now after dinner each evening, he would watch the news and then Perry Mason or Gunsmoke while the TV in the living room jabbered in Spanish and Delia and Nelda shared movie magazines on the porch. The children crowded at the small kitchen table to do their homework, a move they accepted without protest, as it placed them within arm’s reach of their grandfather’s stash of Vanilla Wafers. Sometimes Angie peeked into the dining room from her perch at the kitchen table to watch her father watching TV. One night she went to sit with him while the news was on.

“Daddy,” she asked, her cheek harboring part of a Vanilla Wafer. “Do you know what transubstantiation is?”

“Ask your mother.”

“I know what it is.”

“Then why are you asking me?”

Angie decided to ask her father a question that he could answer.

“Daddy, what’s the cold war?”

“It’s when people aren’t fighting each other, even though they really want to.”

Gunsmoke had come on and her father raised the volume to drown out the

Spanish-dubbed I Spy on her grandparents’ TV in the adjoining room.

Sister Patrick stood at the front of the classroom, grimmer than usual and with the disconcerting appearance of a tear in one eye, its glisten magnified by her glasses.

“Our beloved Sister Paul Anna has taken ill.”

Some of the girls started crying. Angie felt a pang inside her ribcage, as if a rock had lodged there, and felt her face go hot at the thoughts she had had recently about Sister Paul Anna. Since she had seen Nelda’s breasts, Angie had wondered about her mother’s, even her grandmother’s. At school, she had wondered about the nuns. Did they have them?  But really, it was Sister Paul she had been curious about. Sister Paul with her young, movie-star face that Angie’s mother said was the image of Elizabeth Taylor.

“We must all pray for her,” Sister Patrick said.

As preparation for their First Communion, they practiced daily the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Act of Contrition. They kneeled beside their desks and recited these now. Then Sister Patrick ordered them to close their eyes and say a silent prayer from their hearts.

Angie closed her eyes and imagined Sister Paul in her bed beneath the blanket pulled to her chin, her head and body encased in the big black robes of her habit, her face pale and sweaty. Angie concentrated so hard on the image, she could summon no words of prayer. Sister Patrick ended the silence with a loud amen, and Angie held herself rigid, certain that Sister could read her thoughts or know her lack of prayer.

When they were back in their seats, Sister told them to take out a sheet of paper. “You will each write Sister Paul Anna a heartfelt get-well letter.”

Sister Patrick lay her hand over her heart to demonstrate the expected source of their words. Angie was aware of the children around her putting their own hands to their hearts because they knew that was what Sister expected of them and they were afraid to do otherwise. Angie placed her hand at the top of her ribcage, her fingers hanging off the left side of her collarbone. She felt her heart beat into the corner of her palm.

Angie listened to other people’s conversations a lot, and because she lived in a house with so many people and two TVs, she had a lot of conversations to listen to and, therefore, lots of words and sentences hovering in the spaces of her brain. She was a careful writer, both in forming her letters and her thoughts, even if not all of them were exactly her own.

Dear Sister Paul Anna,

During this time of cold war in the world, you have always been a breath of fresh air. You are the favorite of girls and boys and for those who think young. My faith that you will get well soon keeps me going strong.

Angie reread her words. She didn’t think nuns watched TV so was pretty sure that Sister Paul wouldn’t recognize the slogans from the Pepsi, Slinky, and Sugar Crisp commercials. It was a pretty good letter, she thought, but not special. Sister Patrick was telling them to finish up their letters soon, so Angie wrote quickly.

When you come back, you will have a big surprise.

Sincerely,

Angie Rubio

Angie didn’t know what made her write such a thing. As Sister Patrick collected their letters, Angie wondered what exactly she had meant by that. What surprise could she, Angie, possibly invent?  She watched Sister stack the letters on the corner of her desk and told herself that her letter was just one of many. It was nothing special. She forced a sigh of relief.

The next day when she came in from recess, there was a familiar sheet of paper on her desk. It was her own letter to Sister Paul Anna. For some reason she panicked at the sight of her words that were exposed for all to see. She looked up to see Sister Patrick, who was making a gesture at her, turning her open palm to face down, and finally Angie understood she was meant to flip over the letter. On the back was a letter from Sister Paul.

Dear Angie,

Thank you for such a lovely letter. It cheered me up greatly. I look forward to the day when I can return to the classroom.

Yours,

Sister Paul Anna

No one else had received a letter from Sister Paul. But then probably no one else had promised her a big surprise.

She knew Sister Patrick had read her letter and she knew Sister Patrick had read the response from Sister Paul. It was a terrible thing to know.

It was Delia who had insisted they go to the Catholic school, though Henry argued they couldn’t afford it. “I’m on a seaman’s salary.”

“What’s the alternative?” Delia demanded. “The public school all rowdy with bullies and low-income kids?”

“You think there are no bullies in Catholic school?”

“Bullies are everywhere,” Angie said, amending a line from her catechism.

Delia would not budge. The money they might have spent on renting a house went instead to paying Catholic school tuition for three kids. Anyway, Delia reasoned, Catholic school made more sense now that Angie was to make her First Communion.

But when Angie came home with homework to memorize the Ten Commandments, the Seven Sacraments, the names of the Apostles, plus learn all her prayers, there was no one to help her. Henry liked to watch the news and Perry Mason, and Delia was always busy rocking Anthony to ease the fussiness to which he had lately become prone. Although happy to be back in California, Delia was nevertheless worried that the transoceanic trip and their new living arrangements had unsettled Anthony.

Angie followed her mother into the bedroom, where she lay Anthony on the bed to change his diaper. Angie thought her mother might have some ideas about what kind of a big surprise a nun might want. She handed her mother a wet cloth, the baby powder, and a fresh diaper. Her mother cooed to Anthony as she wiped and changed him, and Angie did the same. “You’re a good boy, aren’t you, little Anthony?” they said hopefully.

There were just the plastic pants to slip on, but Nelda was calling Delia to come listen to Doris Day on the radio. “Cantamos con la Doris.”

“I’ll be right back,” her mother told her. “Watch Anthony. Make sure he doesn’t fall off the bed.”

Angie watched her little brother squirm, his arms and legs like fat thrashing worms.

“You’re a good boy, aren’t you, little Anthony?” Angie said again, though this time it didn’t come out as a coo, as sweet encouragement. It sounded mocking, and Anthony started to cry, as if he understood her taunt.

“I’ll be right there, mijo,” her mother called, interrupting for a moment her sing- along to “Que Será, Será.”

Angie decided to deliver Anthony to her mother to save her the trouble of coming back to the bedroom. “Okay, mijo,” she told him as he observed her with wide eyes and a spit bubble at his mouth.

She lifted Anthony off the bed, her arms wrapped around his bottom. She expected his torso to follow the momentum of his butt against her body, but Anthony lurched backward and Angie did a dance with him as she tried to get her balance underneath his arching body. He was trying to launch himself out of her grasp and she knew the only hope she had was to make sure the bed was beneath him when he forced himself out of her arms and became airborne. But she was too late. The thud of his head on the floor stunned him into silence for a long moment during which Angie wondered if she might’ve killed her brother. But then he opened his mouth in a tragic scream. Angie gathered him quickly and practically threw him on the bed, which seemed to mollify him, as his screams petered out to hiccups just as her mother rushed to the bedside. She picked Anthony up and patted his head, his back, his diapered butt, and sent soothing whispers into his neck. She looked at Angie. “Did you let him fall?”

She hesitated. The answer was technically no. She had not let him fall.

“Don’t you lie to me,” her mother warned. “Did you let him fall?”

“No,” Angie said.

Her mother appeared to fume. “I sincerely hope not,” she said, whisking Anthony out of the room.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession.” They were the words Angie had been practicing in catechism class, words she would say to the priest the first time she stepped inside the confessional. They were to be followed by a recitation of her sins. So far, Angie’s list was short, which worried her. She was sure that much was expected of them in terms of sin. Should she lie about her sins? No, that would be a sin. But then at least she would have something to confess. She was undecided about whether dropping Anthony was a sin.

“You’re not afraid of the dark, are you? Aunt Nelda said as Angie kneeled at the bedside practicing her lines. “Because it’s dark in the confessional, you know.”

In fact, Angie was afraid of the dark, though she seldom had to worry about being alone in it at her grandparents’ house. There were so many of them living there under one roof. Anyway, there were lights constantly turned on as one or another of them made their way to the bathroom for a pee or the kitchen for a glass of water in the middle of the night.

Letty was in Nelda’s bed and Eva was next to Angie. Nelda, as usual, was in her underwear as she sat at her dresser, wiping make-up from her face with cotton balls dipped in baby oil from the same bottle used for Anthony’s butt. When she was finished, she shrugged the straps of her bra off her shoulders and reached around the back to undo the clasp, and said what she always said. “Want some teta?”

They had always shaken their heads, not really knowing what they were being offered. Tonight, though, Letty asked, “What’s teta?”

Nelda laughed. “I’m just teasing.”

Then she explained she used to feed Little Eddie with milk from her breasts.

“Our mother uses bottles,” Angie said.

“Not with me,” Eva said. “I was breastfed.”

“You were not,” Angie said, though she had no way of knowing; she just felt it shouldn’t

be true. But Nelda confirmed it.

“What about me?”

Nelda wagged her finger at her as if she had committed a wrong. “It’s just too much to ask of a woman to do it with more than one child. It makes a saggy bust,” she said, cupping her breasts in her hands, lifting them up and then letting them go. “They wouldn’t look this good if I’d had another baby to feed.”

Angie didn’t like having Nelda wag her finger at her. She didn’t like Nelda reminding her that the confessional was dark. She didn’t like when Nelda would tease and ask them to do the hula just because they’d lived in Hawaii.

Before Hawaii, Angie had not thought to question the absence of a father for Little Eddie, a husband for Aunt Nelda. But now, after Hawaii, now that she was seven, these things occurred to her and she formed her own conclusions. That you didn’t have to be married to have children. That somehow just being a grown-up caused you to have a child. Of course, this conclusion was soundly refuted by Eva. It doesn’t just happen automatically, she snorted. There has to be a kiss. And there’s a seed in the kiss. And the woman swallows it and it grows into a baby in her belly.

Who kissed Aunt Nelda, Angie wanted to know. She said it out loud: “Who kissed you and gave you a baby, Aunt Nelda?

Nelda looked stunned, and her lashes batted wildly. It made them all go silent.

“I’m telling Mama,” Letty said, and she slid from the bed and backed out of the room the way policemen do on TV.

Within seconds, their mother stalked into the room with Letty trailing behind. “What’s going on here?”

“Angie wanted to know who kissed Aunt Nelda and gave her a baby,” Eva said.

Their mother pursed her lips and folded her arms. “Nelda had a husband, but he died. Now no more discussion.”  She looked sternly at Angie, as if she might have been responsible for killing him. But Angie knew her mother was lying.

They needed cheering up. Henry was tired of being a sailor and tired of living in someone else’s house. Delia said to him that at least he wasn’t the mother day-in and day-out to all these kids—at least he got to leave the house to go to work. Nelda was still looking tragic after Angie asked who kissed her. And Angie was still worried about the big surprise she had promised Sister Paul Anna. The grown-ups decided a drive to Marine Land to see the dolphins dance and the seals play polo would make them smile. But they would have to get an early start and miss church.

“But I’m not supposed to miss church when I’m studying for my First Communion,” Angie reminded them.

“Do you want to go to Marine Land or not?” her mother asked.

“On Mondays Sister Patrick makes us stand up and say why we didn’t go to church.”

“Ay, chica, just don’t stand up,” Nelda said.

Angie didn’t want to stand up. But she knew she wouldn’t have a choice. At least she could add not going to church to her list of sins to confess, along with asking Nelda who’d kissed her.

All of them squeezed together in the car, the one that had come back with them from Hawaii. The three grown-ups nudged up against each other in the front with baby Anthony on Delia’s lap, and the sisters jostled for space in the back with Little Eddie, from whose neck Nelda had tied a barf bag. There was no room for a guardian angel anywhere. No one complained about the lack of space, because it was better to be crammed in a car with a destination that wasn’t home than it was to be home, which wasn’t really their home.

They were scarcely out of their own neighborhood when a fiercely loud but mostly minor collision sent them home after all. Angie’s father had pulled to a stop behind another car at the traffic light. When the light turned green, and the car ahead failed to move, Angie’s father honked the horn. “We don’t have all day,” he muttered. The car ahead of them had stalled but its engine was doing its best to grind back to life as Angie and her family fumed impatiently in their cramped seats. The engine finally revived with a roar, but before the family could celebrate, their heads were flung against the dashboard, seatbacks, or each other. Angie ended up on the floor, knees at her chin. Little Eddie was splayed over her, his barf bag trapped beneath him. As Nelda screamed for her son, Angie held her hands up to catch the puke from Little Eddie’s mouth. Angie closed her eyes and waited for rescue, listening to her mother’s low wailing of something vague and garbled, which she slowly recognized as prayer.

The car ahead of them had, after revving its newly recharged engine, thundered into reverse and taken out the front grill of the Rubio car. Once they were all extricated from the dented vehicle, and Angie’s hands hosed off at the corner gas station, they sat on the curb as a police officer asked questions, wrote in his notepad, and talked into his two-way radio, after which they were allowed, bruised and scraped, to climb back into their beaten car with its cracked windshield, buckled hood, and empty headlight sockets, and limp home.

On Monday morning, Sister Patrick stood at the front of the room and asked which of them had failed to attend church on Sunday. Those who stood had to explain what had been more important than God. Angie stood bravely to face the humiliation. She stood partly out of her sense that Sister Patrick, Father Mulligan, her guardian angel, and God already knew of her absence from church. But partly because she felt a little heroic, and she was disappointed that the bruise on her forehead that had seemed so robustly purple the previous day was already fading.

“We were in a car accident,” Angie said, and she couldn’t help raising her hand to her forehead where the bump was − or used to be.

Sister Patrick frowned. Though it might have been concern, suspicion was also a possibility.

“My mother had stitches,” Angie said.

“Well,” Sister said, “thank God you are all safe.” It was a command.

Angie bowed her head, wanting to thank God instead for saving her from the wrath of Sister Patrick.

During silent reading time, when thirty sets of lips were moving soundlessly—including Angie’s, even as her mind wandered to the problem of inventing a big surprise for Sister Paul Anna—Sister Patrick called Angie to her desk.

Angie, shaky with guilt about her inattention to her reading, made her way slowly to Sister Patrick sitting large as a monument at the front of the room.

“Yes, Sister Patrick?” she whispered, aware that many of the lips in the room had ceased moving.

“Angie,” Sister Patrick said in a low, deep voice, “what is this big surprise you have in store for Sister Paul?”

Angie could not swallow, could not force words from her throat. She shrugged, not quite meeting Sister Patrick’s small gray eyes behind the rimless glasses.

“Do you mean to say that what you wrote is not quite true?”

Angie coughed to test her vocal chords. “I wanted it to be true. I meant for it to be true.”

“You know that’s not the same thing.”

There was a long pause, during which Angie considered running from the room. Some of the other students had stopped pretending to read and were watching the scene before them.

“What made you write such a thing?” Sister Patrick asked.

Angie heard Sister’s voice trying to be kind, but saw that her eyes were not. Angie’s impulse to flee left her. She stood rooted and faced Sister’s unfriendly gaze. “I wanted to make her happy. Because I love her. We love her.”

Angie knew it was wrong to speak for the class and she expected Sister to say so. But all she said was, “That will do. Please sit down now.”

Sister Patrick stood up. “And now for phonics.”

After their phonics lesson—at which the children did poorly, since no one understood what phonics meant – Sister Patrick instructed them all to put their heads face down on their desks, her chalky jowls quivering with displeasure. They did this whenever they played Heads Up 7-Up on rainy days, but today it wasn’t raining.

“Heads down, no peeking,” Sister Patrick said.

Angie watched little orange blobs float behind her closed eyelids. She could hear the restlessness of the children around her—the chafing of thighs, the skimming of saddle shoes against linoleum, the friction of sweater sleeves against grainy desktops. Angie was about to lift her eyes for a tiny peek when she felt a hand covering her head, guiding it back to its down position, holding it there. Finally, letting go. And the severe whisper of black moving past.

“Heads down, no peeking,” Sister repeated.  Her voice came from the front of the room again, and it hovered over their bowed heads as she gave her next instruction. “If you hate me, raise your hand.”

There was a moment when the restlessness ceased, like the moment after a door slams and smothers everything to a hush when no one breathes. Then the fidgeting began again – the chafing thighs, shuffling shoes, rasping woolly sweaters – but Angie held herself still, her legs, her arms, especially her arms. It was hot with her face pressed upon her desk. It was hard to breathe. Her head pounded with voices. It’s a sin to hate. It’s a sin to lie. Raise your hand if you hate me. It was a single voice and then it was a chorus and though her eyes were closed and her head down and she could see nothing except tiny orange blots, couldn’t they all see her? Sister Patrick, Father Mulligan, her guardian angel, God. Angie needed air. She lifted her face, took a deep breath, and raised both hands high in surrender.

______________________________________________

Donna Miscolta is the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced (Signal 8 Press, 2011). Her short story manuscript has been a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, and Brighthorse prizes in short fiction. “First Confession” is part of her novel-in-progress The Education of Angie Rubio.