By Karen Brode
In the aftermath of my father’s death, I spent a good deal of time trying to blend into the wallpaper, especially whenever big conversations happened between the adults. The rug had been pulled out from under me when he died. Nothing felt safe or real. Being unseen gave me the advantage of hearing things most eight-year-olds wouldn’t get to hear. If the adults didn’t notice me, I could learn what was really going on.
“Momma, all you would have to do is sign the papers!” My brother John had been ranting all through dinner about papers he wanted our mother to sign so he could be released from the Army. “I don’t think I can stand it anymore and now I have a real shot of getting out, thanks to Daddy dying. If you sign these papers, I’m free!”
I felt cold hearing my brother talk about Daddy that way. It was like he was happy our father had died. I couldn’t risk moving, though, to feel the actual shudder that crept into my shoulders. They might see me and send me out of the room.
I looked over at Mother. She was at the kitchen sink working away on the cast iron skillet she had used to make fried potatoes for dinner. Her shoulders slumped at the same time mine felt frozen.
John leaned back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest. He was only 18 but he was like a bull in every way – broad chest, stubborn nature. He was also full of mischief and if there was one thing he bucked against the hardest it was rule and regulations. Even I knew the army was full of those.
It was like watching a tennis match in a way. John sitting there waiting for Mother to cave, Mother leaning her body further over the sink, as if she might crawl into that greasy, soapy water and get lost in it. Who would crack first?
John brought his heavy fist down on the table so hard it made the spoons jump. Momma and I jumped too. She dropped the skillet into the sink. I held my breath.
“So I guess you’re not even going to look at these papers, then?” John asked. His voice was irritated but I saw a little curl on one side of his mouth. He saw me watching him and his face changed completely.
I heard Momma sniff before she lifted the corner of her apron to her eyes. My stomach hurt wondering why she was crying. Was it because of John? Or because Daddy wasn’t here to help her deal with John anymore?
I looked back at my brother and imagined what it would be like if Daddy had been here. There would be no talk of leaving the army, that’s for sure. I might have been Daddy’s Little Girl, but I knew things were different for John. He had felt the harsh side of our father’s moods more than anyone and it always seemed my Mother was there to try to make up for those moods.
Right after Daddy had died, I had overheard Momma tell my Aunt Opal it was the tumor that made my father so angry at John. My aunt nearly choked on the blueberry pie she had been eating, but she tried to cover it up by taking a swig of sweet tea.
“Well, he loved him once,” Momma said sounding defensive. “It was only as John got older that it got harder.”
My aunt nodded. It was her patronizing nod, the one that was meant to be comforting but it always came off insincere.
“Albert wasn’t himself,” Opal said. “He had that…that….” She made a motion with her hand over her head.
“The neurosurgeon said the tumor almost sprouted through his skull.” Mother sobbed into a handkerchief.
That’s when I had started crying too and the two women shooed me out of the room so I wouldn’t hear any more of the horrible details about my father’s illness and death. But I was left on my own to imagine the pain my father had been through, and a child’s imagination can be worse than listening to the conversation of adults.
Back in the kitchen with Mother and John, I felt myself blinking back tears. I didn’t want to be discovered and sent out of the room by myself again. I pretended to be a statue and forced myself not to cry.
By now, Mother had fished the skillet out of the sink and she was drying it off. I caught her looking at John from the mirror above the sink. I could see in her eyes she was weighing what was best and I could tell from the way John sat up in his chair that he thought he was making headway with his case.
He looked back at Momma in the reflection of the mirror and his mouth made a smirk so quickly I’m pretty sure I was the only one to see it.
“Momma, did I tell you about the poor guy I had to sit with out in the desert?” John lit up another cigarette and took a deep drag. His fingers fiddled with the papers in front of him. “He was only one year older than me. We were doing maneuvers out in the desert. The sand blew in our faces every minute and it felt like needles piercing our skin.”
John looked back at Momma’s reflection. She wasn’t looking at him anymore. She was wiping down the countertops. Her brow was furrowed with forced concentration.
“The kid had a fever I think,” John continued. “He was just so out of it those last few days. Maybe he had a heat stroke. I tried to contact the sergeant with my walkie-talkie, but I couldn’t reach him.”
John looked over at me then. He flashed a grinchy grin and then he went on with his story. I jumped because I didn’t think he knew I was there.
“And then some knucklehead cut him right in half with a tank! Can you imagine? His intestines were sprawled out everywhere! All I could do was light a cigarette for him and help him smoke his last one. He died right out there in the sand.”
Without meaning to, I squeaked. It was all too gruesome to imagine. There was a look in John’s eyes that told me he was making up the whole thing, but the way he told the story made me believe him.
“John!” My mother spun around and stared at him for the first time since the conversation started. “Your sister is eight years old. Don’t you think she has seen enough horror for awhile?”
John’s eyes glittered with mischief and I knew his story wasn’t over yet. I wanted so badly to close my ears, but if I did that I’d prove I wasn’t ready to be in the room with the adults and I’d be sent away again. I sat stock still and looked at my brother with pleading eyes.
“Just imagine,” John said, his voice low and conniving, “I was asleep just a few feet away when it happened. It could just as easily have been me cut in half and bleeding to death in the desert.”
I looked away from John then. I couldn’t take it anymore but I knew better than to jump up and run to Mother. I couldn’t risk being sent to my room now.
Mother closed her eyes. Big tears rolled out of her eyes.
“That poor boy,” she said. She turned back to the sink and wiped her eyes. “Somewhere his mother is crying. So senseless.”
John smiled. I couldn’t believe he could smile after telling such a terrible story. And poor Momma. It upset her so much. John had a way of doing that whenever he was around.
“Momma, look,” John said. His voice was calm now and easy, like someone soothing a wild horse. “None of this army stuff is going to help me. How can making my bed perfectly and shining my shoes until my face shines in them make any difference to anybody?”
Momma shook her head and sighed. It looked like she wanted to say something, but she didn’t. She seemed so tired.
John stood up. He stubbed out his cigarette and shoved his hands in his pockets.
“I’m going out for awhile,” he said. He slid the papers he wanted Momma to sign over to her side of the table. Without another word, he walked out the door and into the night to who knows where.
The quiet that followed was almost too loud. John’s large presence—and his horrible stories—still rang in my ears. I was relieved when Mother took notice of me.
“Go get your bath, Karen,” she said. “It’s time for you to get ready for bed.”
Karen Brode is a senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.