Unc sends us to the movies sometimes on Saturdays too. He’ll hand Kathy enough money to get us inside and buy soda and candy too, and tell us to just take off. We’ll usually be in the middle of something like pulling dandelions and crabgrass out of the lawn by the roots with these long skinny fork-like weed-pulling things. It takes hours to scour the lawn, even with all three of us working. Plus dandelions and crab grass are always growing back. It’s one of those jobs that never ends. Mommy loves those. Then, if she runs out of ideas for things that really need to be done, she has us move the living room furniture around. After maybe an hour or so, it ends up right back where it started. Sometimes we even just move boxes around on the planks that serve as a floor in the attic.
The first time Unc sent us to the movies we just stood there for a while looking at the heap of quarters and nickels Unc had put in Kathy’s hand. Mommy only likes us going to movies when she decides it’s a good idea, and it’s always at the theater in Downers Grove. I’d only been to the Hinsdale Theater once in my life before. That was to see Bambi. We went as a family all together when Daddy was alive. I cried silently, tears just running down my face when Bambi’s mother died. I looked on each side of me, and Kathy and Mary Ruth were crying too. Now Unc was sending us to Hinsdale Theater on our own.
We were afraid to put down our weed pullers and just walk off to the movie.
“What about Mommy?” Kathy asked.
Unc replied, “Don’t worry, girls. Go have a good time. I’ll be here when you get back.”
It was hard not to worry, but I didn’t think Unc would ever tell us something he didn’t mean. So we set off and watched The Blob and got ourselves so scared that now we imagine that red gooey slippery shiny sludge stuff coming through the heat vents in our house. First it’s just a drop or two, then a trickle, then it comes pouring through all the vents so fast that the vents finally break off the wall, and the Blob floods in and slurps each of us up. That’s what we think is about to happen any minute. But still, it was worth it, going off on our own to see a movie in town on a Saturday. I saw lots of kids from school there. I don’t know what Unc said to Mommy, but she didn’t complain one little bit when we got home, not even after he left. Her resentment of our choice in music comes out loud and strong though.
Sometimes we turn on our stereo so we can play our records, and nothing happens. The first time we ran to Mommy and asked her what to do. She said, “Oh, there’s nothing you can do. If it won’t turn on, I guess it’s broken.” We didn’t want to give up that fast. We couldn’t believe Unc would make something that would break, especially since it had worked fine just the day before. We all poked around, and Kathy happened to look behind the stereo and see that it was unplugged from the wall socket. She plugged it in, and it was just fine. Mommy didn’t seem at all happy that we’d gotten it working again. About a week later, we came home from school and found that some of our records had been scratched. Kathy asked Mommy, “Do you know what happened to our records?”
“What do you mean?” Mommy asked.
Kathy held the scratched 45s in front of Mommy’s nose.
“Look,” she said.
“I don’t know what happened.”
“Somebody must have scratched them,” Kathy said. “You probably did it yourself,” Mommy accused.
“No, we didn’t scratch our own records. They were fine yesterday,” Kathy said.
“Then some strangers must have come into the house when I was out in the backyard earlier. That’s all I can think of. That means I’ll have to start locking the door even when I’m home,” Mommy said.
“Strangers? What strangers?“ Kathy asked.
“I don’t know. I saw some suspicious looking people standing across the street this morning.”
“Suspicious looking people? What did they look like?” Kathy probed.
“Oh, for Christ’s sakes. I don’t have to explain anything to you. Now leave me be. You probably scratched the records yourself. You know how careless you all are. Honestly getting so worked up about a few records. You do carry on, Katherine.”
We were sure Mommy had unplugged the stereo and scratched our records, but we had no proof. Then we found out she was messing with our transistor radios too. We like to put them under our pillows and listen to WLS long after bedtime. I loved especially hearing Shelly Fabares singing Johnny Angel when I was falling asleep last year. That’s when that song was really popular. Her voice is so smooth, like ice cream, only not cold. Songs like that make me think about the boys at school. I don’t have a crush on anybody, and nobody has a crush on me. But I wonder what it would be like. Some kids started having real boyfriend/girlfriend relationships back in sixth grade. I can’t imagine how to go about something like that, but I hope someday I’ll have a Johnny Angel of my own to love.
When Kathy, Mary Ruth and I go to school, we leave our radios under our pillows. It wasn’t too long after our records got scratched up that Mary Ruth and I both noticed that our radios were on real low when we got home from school. I thought maybe we forgot to turn them off, but Mary Ruth thought it was odd that both of us would forget on the same day. We checked with Kathy, and she’d found her radio on too. We decided the next morning to check all of our radios to make sure they were off before we left for school. When we got home, each of us found our radios turned on.
We found Mommy in her reclining chair. She sat on the couch when Daddy was alive, but now his old recliner is hers. It’s getting so I can’t even picture him in it anymore. We stood in the hallway right near her chair, and perilously close to one of our heat vents. We held our transistor radios in our open palms, slightly away from our bodies, as though we were each carrying a crown on a pillow or something. Mommy looked up from her Family Circle magazine and said, “All right, what do you want now?”
“It’s about our radios. We’ve been finding them turned on when we get home from school,” Kathy said.
“I don’t know a thing bout your damn radios, girls,” she said.
“Yes, you do,” Kathy said, “You’ve been turning them on during the day to use up our batteries.”
“Yeah, you know we don’t have the money to keep replacing the batteries,” Mary Ruth added.
“Don’t be ridiculous, girls,” she sneered, “If your radios are on, you did it yourselves. Don’t blame me.”
“We know you did it,” Kathy said. “Are you calling me a liar?”
“Yes,” Kathy said, “Yes, we are. All three of us are.” “Oh, I doubt that, Katherine. You probably put your sisters up to this. You’re always trying to manipulate them so you can be in charge of everything here. I know you and your ways. Mary Ruth, you’re not calling me a liar, are you?”
“Yes, yes I am,” she said.
“Oh, I should have known you would, big fat smarty pants, you great big know-it-all. You more than anybody, looking down your big fat honker at me. Well, surely Laura, you won’t turn against me, the only mother who stuck around to wipe your smelly behind when you were little, you won’t turn against me. I know I can count on you, can’t I?”
I really didn’t want things to be going the way they were, to have to make this choice, to declare myself, to either be with her and against my sisters and me, or against her and for my sisters and me. I thought about some of the nice things she’s done. Like in sixth grade, out of the blue in early March she asked me if I wanted to have a St. Patrick’s Day party. I said yes. She got little shamrock favors, and green paper plates, muffins with green frosting, green napkins, green chocolate mints. I invited six girls from class, and they all came on a Saturday afternoon. It was a good day for Mommy too. She sat at the table with us, and said sweet things to everybody, even me, calling me honey and peanut and sweetie. When I was saying good-bye to Tricia, who has probably the most beautiful mommy in the world—long wavy blond hair like a shampoo model and clothes that look like they’re straight from a commercial for Ivory soap—Tricia leaned close to me and said, “Laura, your mother is nice.” And it’s true, on that day she was. But most of the time, it’s like walking across the desert with everything nice about her in some oasis, always far-off on the horizon.
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