Sheepwagon In a Morning Storm by Patricia Mae Young

Call It Caring

Susan Weston

When Jenny Adair got a small part in the fourth grade play, she attended every rehearsal and quickly memorized the entire script. While the other students horsed around, she sat quietly, cringing when they blew their lines and pressing the script against her chest. During the awkward silences on stage, the teacher sometimes heard Jenny's voice, her flat diffident little girl's voice, whispering the right phrase, the missing line. Finally the teacher gave Jenny's small part to another little girl so that Jenny could be official prompter. She was to spend the entire performance on center stage, stationed under a flounced bed.

"What's the play about?" her mother's latest friend asked her. Jenny was astounded to discover that she couldn't tell him. There were these characters, and they said these lines. She knew every one of the lines. She had never thought what the play was about. In the same way, she had never wondered why her father had left, or why she and her mother moved so often. There were these lines, and they were said by these characters, whom she watched very carefully.

When she was younger, Jenny had watched from the landing in the big house. The wide stairs went up, looped, and went up some more. Jenny's landing was right in the middle, neither up nor down, a place that she had learned from Christopher Robin was nowhere at all. Precisely there she crouched to listen and watch. From the hallway below, she received the occasional upward glance of a parent: her mother, who moved across the hall with quick tiny steps, as if she were hurrying somewhere with her feet loosely tied together; her father, her variable, unpredictable father, who one night looked up at her as if he knew in advance he'd see her there, a spectator at the slow collapse of her world -- whose entire world was that steady slow collapse -- looked up at her with his blue eyes winking with tears, and waved her a kiss. Goodbye.

Now there was no landing to give her a balcony-view, so she watched from her bedroom. It was like standing in the wings. There were these lines, said by these characters, whom she watched very carefully. . .

There was the auburn-haired fat man who somehow should have looked jolly instead of nervous. He drank all the sweet-smelling cocktails prepared by Jenny's mother, and when he took his pants off, he was wearing loose-fitting boxer shorts printed with red hearts. A handsome fat man wearing heart-printed boxer shorts! Later, he was noisily sick in the bathroom.

The short square-cut man with the dull brown clothes, like a uniform -- hardware store, gas station, factory? "I'm a plumber's friend!" her mother shrieked. Not to Jenny -- to the short square-cut.

The fussy-mannered one whose long hair was combed and pasted down over his bald crown. He drank coffee and left early. Jenny only saw him that once.

And the beak-nosed one who plonked a black revolver on the side table, then sat grinning as he unbuttoned his shirt. "Anh-anh-annnh," he said when Jenny's mother stretched her arm across his chest to touch the revolver.

"I don't want that thing in my house," she said. "It might go off."

"I'll tell you what's goin' off, honey, and it ain't that piece," he said.

Jenny watched him, as she watched all the others, from her own dark room. Her door was slightly ajar, and she knelt on the floor, trying to stay out of the long thin wedge of light. She watched and waited -- night after night -- waited for something to happen. When she saw the revolver sitting on the side table, she thought that perhaps that was it: she was waiting for a gun to go off. For something to end. But that night, just as on every other night, there were only ordinary sounds. Ice wrenched from its tray and dumped breaking like glass into the bucket. Ffffft, gas escaping from a newly opened can of beer. The click of a cigarette lighter. The thump of the bed at the other end of the apartment. The usual sounds. Nothing else. Not yet.

The habit of listening sometimes troubled Jenny's sleep. The regular ticking of the clock became irritating, then intolerable, and she would have to get up and put the clock in the kitchen. When she pressed her head against her pillow, sometimes even her own pulse bothered her, thumping in her temples with maddening regularity. She could put the clock outside her room, but what could she do to still the sound of her blood? Her very own blood betraying the silence that she was supposed to be -- inside, outside, all around, silent. She just wanted to live quietly enough for her mother to have her own life. "I have to have a life of my own, don't I, Jenny?" her mother often asked, pausing on her way out the front door.

"Of course you do, Mother," Jenny would automatically reply. She wasn't sure what the question meant, though it always made her feel obscurely guilty.

One of the men left a magazine on the coffee table. In the center, on a page specially folded so it had no staples in it, was a picture of a woman whose body looked like her mother's. The same huge bobbly breasts, small hips, slender legs. But her mother's breasts had a network of blue veins, and stretch marks that glistened like inlays of mother-of-pearl. And her stomach wasn't all sucked in like that, either, but gently curved, a big hemisphere above the small curve of her pubic bone. Her mother was beautiful. Except sometimes when she fell asleep on the bathroom floor, or twisted her mouth up to say nasty things. But mostly she was beautiful enough to be in a magazine.

Jenny didn't tell her mother when she started menstruating. It didn't mean anything. She didn't have big breasts. Not yet.

She stood still in the wings, watching. There were these characters, and they said these lines. Sometimes they made mysterious comments, or did surprising things, or wore odd clothing. Oh, not just pasted-down hair, or boxer shorts printed with hearts. There was a beeper that went off in the middle of the night, once, and the man it belonged to came naked into the kitchen to use the phone. As he talked, he noticed Jenny looking at him from her bedroom. Without missing a beat, he grabbed a dishtowel and held it in front of him. Half a breech-cloth, no string.

After he hung up the phone, he came toward her room. Jenny held her breath, but he only clicked her door shut. She was almost asleep when he came back, tapping his fingers on her door even as he entered her room. "Hey, kid," he said, leaning against the doorjamb. He was fully dressed now, and obliquely illuminated by the kitchen light. He worked his mouth as if he had a toothpick, though Jenny didn't see one. He looked like a movie actor; they were in a movie: she lying there wide-eyed with the covers pulled up to her chin, and he leaning jauntily against her doorjamb with his hands in his pockets, his jacket pushed back to reveal the revolver holstered under his arm. Sidearm, thought Jenny. That's why it's called a sidearm.

"What?" she said, her mouth dry.

"Take better care of your mother."

"Yes, sir," said Jenny. "I will. I'll try."

She taped a poster of the four basic food groups to the refrigerator door. It was a pie-chart, but only the buttery color of the dairy group was at all accurate and appealing. Jenny made her mother nutritious eggnogs and milkshakes. "Oh, I couldn't!" her mother said gaily. Jenny drank most of them herself. Otherwise they sat in the refrigerator separating into layers.

All those milkshakes put weight on Jenny's hips and brought out her breasts. The poster began to curl at the top, tearing away from the taped corners in order to hang its head from the refrigerator door. The refrigerator was a Hotpoint. At her high school, Jenny was known among the locker-room set as Miss Fridge-Adair. She walked speechlessly from class to class with her books clutched against her chest.

One spring, her mother brought home an ornithologist. He visited them at odd hours -- early Saturday and Sunday mornings, late afternoons, occasionally in the middle of the night.

"Horny-thologist," her mother said. Not to the ornithologist -- to Jenny.

He often herded Jenny's mother home from this or that bar, bringing plastic trays full of carry-out foods. When he couldn't find Jenny's mother, he'd hang around with Jenny. He took her for drives. He asked her questions, then waited to hear what she said. He wanted to know about her homework. Her teachers. Her hobbies. "Hobbies?" said Jenny.

He was forever pointing out birds that Jenny couldn't see. "You can't always be looking at your feet," he complained. "You'll never see anything but insects."

"Well," she said, "they're interesting, too."

"Well, yes," he conceded, "I suppose they are." Whereupon he turned over a rock and squatted with a stick to poke at the pale larval creatures contracting in the unaccustomed light.

"Not those," Jenny said with a smile.

"Which?" he challenged.

So she found them. Insects with shells like bright lacquered crescents. Insects camouflaged like green stems upon green leaves. Insects like pieces of fuzzy moss sidling down a branch or bits of luminous lavender drifting on the wind. So many ways to be hidden!

He taught her about protective coloration and about metamorphosis, and he talked endlessly about ecosystems. . . that the birds and the bugs were part of a coherent whole. "Everything," he said, "everything is relevant to everything else."

One afternoon, he looked her right in the eye and said, "What are we going to do about your mother's drinking problem?"

Jenny felt an avalanche of small rocks hit the bottom of her stomach. Her mother's drinking problem! She had known about that all along, hadn't she, yes, and lived quite nicely in her own quiet way without ever mentioning it. What a rude man! And what did he mean, we? What business was it of his? She pretended she hadn't heard him.

"Have you ever asked her to stop drinking?" he persisted. "For your sake? She'd stop for your sake, I bet she would," he said.

"For my sake!" Jenny shook her head at him, pretending to be exasperated. No one had ever asked her such questions.

"Well, you don't eat right. Either of you."

Jenny's laugh made a strange sound.

Perhaps he meant what he said, about leaving his wife. "I'd divorce her like that," he said to Jenny with a snap of his fingers, "except for your mother's drinking."

Your mother's drinking. Your mother's drinking. He talked about it so much that Jenny almost got used to the shock of it, the secret spoken out loud.

Jenny worried to her mother that he seemed unhappy, he got upset about things.

"Jenny, he's the kind who likes to suck lemons. If he were really unhappy, he'd be back with that dishrag of a wife in two seconds."

"Wouldn't you mind, Mother? Wouldn't you miss him?"

"Not as much as he'd miss me," she replied with a contemptuous sniff.

"Your mother is driving me crazy," he complained. He and Jenny stood in a meadow squinting against the dazzle of the white overcast sky.

"All I ever see is sparrows," Jenny said.

"That's a dickcissel."

"Looks like a sparrow."

"It doesn't look at all like a sparrow. Pay attention to its details." He handed her the binoculars. "Did you know that your mother used to teach history, Jenny?"

"That was before I was born! That's pretty ancient history she's dredging up to impress you." Oh, but it made her writhe to think of her mother teaching. Imagine her standing in Mrs. Goodenow's place, spilling her martini over her breasts and coming on to all the boys. . . Jenny focused hard on the dickcissel perched on a thin swaying branch. It had a black bib, just like a sparrow.

"She's such a bright woman, she has such a bright beautiful daughter, so much to live for, and -- oh, God, why won't she listen to me? I'm sure -- oh, Jenny, if we could just figure out some way to talk to her, I'm sure we could put her life together again, I know we could."

And a lovely yellow chest, which did make it quite different from the sparrow after all. "Listen," said Jenny -- quite insistently for her -- "if you talk to her when she's drunk, she forgets you had a conversation. If you talk to her when she's sober, she denies she's got a problem. You got some other options to offer? Cause otherwise--" Jenny paused, stifling her last remark. She'd been about to tell him to toughen up or ship out, but she didn't like to think that he'd do either.

One night when he came by and found Jenny home alone, he said, "You don't let her drive when she's been drinking, do you?"

"What am I supposed to do? I'm not the parent, I'm the kid, remember? I'm the goddamn kid."

"God, you're right, you're right. . ." He took off his glasses and rubbed his face. "I'm sorry, Jenny. I'll just -- I'll be back later."

He'd drive around looking for her, Jenny knew, looking for her blue Saab parked outside of bars, roadhouses, taverns, lounges, all-night bowling alleys. Though Jenny had been waiting all her life for something to happen, she had never before so clearly pictured what she was waiting for: the little blue car all pleated up, the blood dripping from the crazed windshield.

But there was no accident. Nothing happened. Not that night. Not yet.

The next day, Jenny asked her mother if they had any kind of insurance.

"We've got a group plan through the office. You needing some kind of medical attention you haven't told me about?"

"That's medical insurance," Jenny said. She put a slice of cheese onto a cracker and held it up to her mother's mouth, opening her own mouth to set a good example. Her mother grimaced, but opened. Jenny popped in the cracker. "Isn't there some other kind of insurance that pays for, like, accidents and stuff?"

Her mother gagged slightly, then sipped her drink to wash down the cracker. "Car insurance," she said, breathing out the dry spice of juniper berries. "We've got medical insurance and liability insurance and collision insurance and every other goddamn kind of -- ugh! No more!" she said, pushing Jenny' s hand away.

Life insurance, Jenny thought, but she couldn't say the words out loud. All the forbidden words, like insects curled under a rock. The word dead. Drunk. Dead drunk.

Jenny got a job working after school in a stationery store, where mostly she counted out change to little boys who came in for candy. She swept the floor and featherdusted the gift wrap and the greeting cards. Happy Birthday, Grandpa! To my Dad on Father's Day! Uncles, aunts, cousins; anniversaries, weddings, showers. Special occasion cards, holiday cards, and cards just to say hello, I've moved, I'm sorry you're sick. She and her mother didn't live the way other people lived.

One night, the ornithologist woke her by sitting on her bed. "Jenny," he said. "Jenny." She sat bolt upright, nervy with alarm.

"Geez," she said. "You trying to scare me to death?"

"Why isn't the front door locked? Your mother's off with her drinking buddies, and you're here sleeping alone in an unlocked apartment?" His voice became tearful, a whispery whine as he leaned toward her. "Jesus, I can hardly stand it. What are we going to do, Jenny?"

He stood up suddenly, and his voice changed. "Hurry up and get dressed," he said. "I need your help." He slammed out of her bedroom.

In the car, he apologized. "I'm getting like a lunatic. Spying on her, and calling it caring, and . . . Oh, it's bad, this is bad. . . "

Jenny said nothing. She knew all about it.

He began to talk to her as if she were a grown-up, explaining the behavior of a person he kept referring to as your mother. "Your mother's got a reputation would knock the socks off an alley cat, and she's got plenty of them prowling around. I think she associates with that scum so she can feel superior. . ." The streetlights passed over his body at a slow steady pace that made Jenny start a little percussion section inside her head. Bl-eeeee-kkk, was the sound that she gave the bar of magnesium light as it passed over the soft fur of his forearms, up his white shirted chest, and over his worn face. It glared briefly over his glasses, then was gone just as another bar of light manacled his wrists.

". . . But you, you're getting to be a grown woman now, and you've got to be more careful. Jenny, I worry about you sleeping alone there. . .."

Jenny was not a grown woman. She planned never to be a grown woman. Like a child, she chanted nonsense syllables inside her head, blocking out what he said.

"Lock the doors at night," he told her. "Okay?"

"Okay." He was right, he was wrong; it didn't matter. What was important was that nothing matter. Nothing. She leaned her head against the window on her side, pressing her skin against the cool glass. She closed her eyes and carefully swallowed. Something was mattering, like a clot of oatmeal in her throat.

He pulled into the parking lot of the All-Night All-Stars Bowling Alley. "Lane seven," he said. "Tell her you need her to come home. Tell her you feel sick."

She did feel sick. She slid out of the car, her breath pluming in the cold air. She bent over to look at the man sitting behind the wheel. This man who was always saying her secrets out loud. Who worried about her while she slept. This finely tuned ornithologist who could warble bird songs. Who had insisted on naming the things hidden under her feet. Who had taught her to raise her eyes to the dazzling sky and watch for birds.

He mattered.

"Listen, bird man," said Jenny scathingly, "go home. You're screwing everything up. Everything! Including me, including yourself." He leaned toward her, ready to argue his love and his need, and she had to stop him with more words. They came into her mouth thick and difficult as lava, bitter as bile. "You call yourself a professor? You're a sick joke! A sick and obsessed old man chasing around in the middle of the night after a drunk who'll sleep with anybody willing to buy her another drink. Go home. I don't want to see you around our place anymore." She slammed the car-door on him, and stalked across the parking lot, swallowing hard, swallowing and swallowing.

Without looking back, she stepped from the cool quiet of the parking lot into the hot roar of the bowling alley. Inside the door, she hesitated, deafened by the thunder and clap of the place: bowling balls hurled onto hardwood floors and sent rumbling down the lanes to detonate against the pins, which flew against the side-walls, then clattered to the floor. Set-up racks rattled down to sweep the fallen pins into a pit, and the heavy balls rumbled along subterranean channels that belched them out at their starting points. The air was blue with smoke. At the far end of each lane, tiny red lights flickered to show how many pins were standing.

Jenny walked past stacks of black bowling balls and clumps of raucous bowlers, peering through the turbid air. As she passed the group at the fourth lane, one man clutched his heart and twirled around, pretending to collapse in ecstasy over her.

"Got your hand over the right spot, Ace?" one of his bowling partners asked him.

"Hey, sweetheart, wanna hold my ball?"

"Bite it, you guys, she's just a kid."

Jenny looked past them toward her mother, who sat spotlighted at a scoring table, sound asleep. Her head was on her arms, her mouth was open, and beer cans encircled her curly hair like a spiky crown. Standing around her were three middle-aged men, a little drunk, a little worn out, but still laughing, still bowling.

"Hey, here's Vivi's girl, here's what's her name--"

"Jenny--" Jenny and the second man said her name simultaneously, and the two of them laughed together over their brief perfect chorus.

He was a big bear of a man, overweight in a muscular way, and he put his broad fleshy arm around Jenny. "Hey, buy you a drink?"

"Great," she said.

Suddenly Jenny felt everything fall into place. She knew just where she was, and who she was with. She knew the words to say and the gestures to make. She knew her entrance cues and her exit lines. She even knew how to save the people who loved her, by sending them away. She didn't need to be hidden anymore.

She leaned into her mother's friend, adjusting her gait to his as they walked together to the vending machine. Jenny bent over her soft drink as she opened it, fffft, letting the brief burst of sweet moist air freshen her face.

"You smoke yet?" he asked, offering her a cigarette from a mangled pack of Marlboros he pulled out of his pocket.

"No," said Jenny. "Not yet."

"Call It Caring" was originally published in Changes (May/June 1988), and has been accepted for Long Baptisms, a forthcoming anthology.

Susan Weston has published fiction and essays in a variety of journals, including Iowa Review, Changes, Other Voices, Kansas Quarterly, and, most recently, Press and Exposures, an anthology of essays by Missouri women. She has work forthcoming in two anthologies, and is the author of two books: Wallace Stevens, An Introduction to the Poetry (Columbia University Press) and Children of the Light, a novel published by St. Martins Press in 1985.

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