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Kring / A LIFE OF BRIGHT IDEAS
Bright Idea #62: If you want to go to Detroit because you think it might be a fun place to live, but you end up in Gary, Indiana, instead and your sister says, “Well that’s life,” then you might as well just accept that you are where you are for now.
I was upstairs in Grandma Mae’s old house, in the room wallpapered with army-green ivy and a window seat, a stack of shirts on hangers bending my wrist, when Aunt Verdella shouted my name. She didn’t call out “Evy”—short for Evelyn, which is what most people called me—but “Button,” the nickname Uncle Rudy gave me when I was little. My stomach tightened from the fear in Aunt Verdella’s voice, and I tossed the shirts on the bed and jumped over a row of cardboard boxes. I raced across the hall to the window in the pink flower-papered room facing my aunt and uncle’s house, and butted my nose against the rusty screen. Aunt Verdella, shaped like a snowman made wrong for as long as I could remember, with only one big ball for her body, instead of two, and normal-sized limbs that looked stick-skinny in comparison, was almost to the dirt road separating her house from Grandma Mae’s. “Aunt Verdella?” I called.
Her arms were going like two twigs caught in a windstorm as she gestured back toward her house, pointing high. “Boohoo!”
I looked straight ahead and saw my six-year-old brother, Boohoo (Robert Reece until Uncle Rudy dubbed him Boohoo, because of his ability to use a pout to get his way), walking along the peak of her roof, a red towel faded to pink draped over his shoulders—he thought Spider-Man wore a cape like Superman. Boohoo held a skein of pumpkin-orange yarn above his head. “My God!” I cried, then flew down the stairs like I was on fire.
I tore across the yard and into theirs and veered around Aunt Verdella, shouting at Boohoo to stand still and to get down—as if he could do both at the same time. He was twirling the yarn, sending long strands floating down over the gray shingles. My skin dampened with scared.
“He must have crawled out the attic window while I was on the phone,” Aunt Verdella wailed, holding her pillowy, freckled chest. She pressed her hands to her flushed cheeks. “Boohoo, you’re gonna fall and break your neck!”
“I’m not Boohoo,” he said, “I’m Spideyman. And I’m making a web.”
Boohoo walked with one sneaker “suctioned” on one side of the peak and one on the other, twirling the wad of yarn as he went. “Oh Lord, he’s gonna fall!” Aunt Verdella cried, ducking, like each step he made was a boxer’s jab.
“I’ll go up after him,” I said, because it was the only solution I could think of, even though I got woozy if I was more than a few feet off the ground. “Oh dear, oh dear,” Aunt Verdella said. “Don’t chase him or he’ll run. Oh Lord. You’re both gonna be landing on your heads!”
I’d just reached the front door when Aunt Verdella stopped me with a loud squawk. She pointed down the gravel road at Uncle Rudy’s beat-up pickup lazily moving toward us in a haze of dust. I looked back up at Boohoo, who glanced down the road, too, then went back to his web-making. It was one of those moments when I just wanted to go back. Back to when our family worked as smoothly as the gears on the clock that Ma kept oiled.
Aunt Verdella ran to the truck, jogging alongside it before it could stop, huffing as she chattered, her finger jabbing at the roof. Relief pushed me to the truck, too. “Yeah, I see him . . . I see him,” Uncle Rudy said as he opened the truck door, speaking in his usual still-as-a-lake-on-a-sunny-day voice.
“Hurry,” Aunt Verdella said. “Do something before he breaks his neck.”
I wasn’t exactly sure what Aunt Verdella expected Uncle Rudy to do, since he was even older than she—him sixty-nine, her sixty-eight—and with a back that had him stiff and curled like the letter S. Uncle Rudy grabbed a hardware store bag off the front seat and waited for his half-blind, all-deaf lab, Knucklehead, to climb down from the seat. My uncle didn’t look up. Not once. He just shuffled toward the house.
“Hi, Uncle Rudy!” Boohoo shouted. Uncle Rudy gave him a slow wave, still without looking up, while Aunt Verdella buzzed around Uncle Rudy like a housefly, verbalizing what I was thinking. “Where you goin’, Rudy? You gotta do something! How’s he gonna get down by himself?”
“Same way he got up, I suppose,” Uncle Rudy said as he pulled the screen door wide open to let Knucklehead in. We followed them into the kitchen, where Uncle Rudy set his bag down on the cluttered counter, patted Knucklehead once he flopped down on his hair-matted rag rug, then went back outside.
Uncle Rudy was the only one who could make Boohoo do anything. And Boohoo (when he was on the ground anyway) tagged after Uncle Rudy like Knucklehead used to. So when Uncle Rudy headed for the shed, Boohoo called down to ask him what he was doing. Uncle Rudy didn’t answer. He just scraped open the wood-slatted door and slipped inside. And when he came out, he had his fishing pole and creel. “Rudy!” Aunt Verdella cried, flabbergasted. “You’re not goin’ off fishing and leave us in this predicament, are you?” Uncle Rudy just kept walking, his work boots crunching gravel as he made his way down the driveway, whistling as he went.
Aunt Verdella stopped, propped her freckly fists about where her waist should be, and watched him, her eyes stretched wide, her jaw dangling.
“Hey, Uncle Rudy?” Boohoo called, his voice thin and anxious. “You going down to the creek?” I glanced back at the roof. Boohoo was staring down the drive, the wad of yarn hanging limp alongside his knee. Uncle Rudy didn’t even turn around. “Evy? He going down to the creek?”
Boohoo didn’t wait for me to answer. He crouched down, and while Aunt Verdella and I held our breaths and pinched each other’s arms, Boohoo shuffled his way down the sloped roof, his makeshift cape fanning the shingles at his back. He curled his leg into the opened attic window, tossed the skein in, grabbed on to the sill, and slipped inside.
Boohoo was out the front door in a flash. I gripped his forearm and jerked him to a stop before he could jump off the porch. I didn’t know whether to spank him or hug him. Not that I had the chance to do either, because Aunt Verdella grabbed him and squished him against her belly. “Oh, Boohoo. You scared the dickens out of us! Don’t you go on that roof again, you hear me? You could have broken your neck and been killed, or paralyzed, or—”
Boohoo squirmed as Aunt Verdella smothered his sweaty dark hair with kisses dropped like commas, in between a long list of near-fatal injuries he could have sustained had he fallen. He wormed his face free. “Hey, Aunt Verdella, Aunt Verdella,” Boohoo said, patting her arm to get her attention. “Did you know that when you run, you don’t go any faster, just higher? You do. Like this,” he said. Boohoo demonstrated, his dirty sneakers scissoring baby-sized bunny hops, his head bobbing on a neck not much bigger than a wrist. Aunt Verdella looked at Boohoo, then at me, “I don’t run like that, do I?” Boohoo assured her that she did, then headed for the shed, calling to Uncle Rudy to wait up.
Aunt Verdella mopped the fear off her brow as Boohoo raced to catch up to Uncle Rudy, then skipped down the drive alongside of him, his fish pole in one hand, his other hooked on the back of Uncle Rudy’s suspenders. Aunt Verdella shook her head. “That boy’s gonna give me gray hair yet,” she said, as though she’d forgotten the duct-tape-width strip of silver that ran down the part of her Shocking Strawberry colored hair. “I swear, watching every child I ever babysat in one room, at one time, would still be less work than that one. He’s a handful!” It didn’t matter how upset Aunt Verdella was, her words always sounded like one long string of ha-has.
Aunt Verdella’s eyes lifted then, and she said, “Sorry, Jewel, honey. Button and I are doing our best, but that boy is a handful!” Aunt Verdella did that often, talking to Ma as though she was standing right next to her.
“Did I tell you what he did when I dozed off watching TV last night?” Aunt Verdella asked. “He wrapped me up like a mummy in a good three, four skeins of yarn—my two new avocados, to boot! I woke up because I had to tinkle, and almost peed my pants trying to get my ankles free so I could get to the bathroom. My bladder isn’t what it used to be, you know. That boy had the yarn so tangled that Rudy had to get the scissors and cut me loose. Course, all that little stinker did was laugh.”
“That’s what you get for telling him that bite on his leg this spring was a spider bite,” I teased. Aunt Verdella chuckled and lifted her palms as if to say, Well, what you gonna do about it now?
“While they’re fishing, how about I give you a hand unpacking?” Aunt Verdella didn’t wait for me to answer. She just linked her arm with mine and headed me across the road.
“My little Button,” she said, pulling me so close that our sides bumped. “All grown up and moving out of her childhood home . . . living right across the road from me.” She got quiet suddenly, and stared down at her feet as we headed up my drive. No doubt, because she was thinking of how my move meant Dad would be living alone, with no one to make sure he ate, and to keep him from feeling lonely—as if I had the power to do either.
Aunt Verdella reminded me of a baby, the way her moods could go from sad or scared and circle back to happy again as quickly as a head turn. And that’s exactly what happened when we stepped inside Grandma Mae’s house.
“You know,” she said, her whole body smiling, “after your grandma Mae passed, I couldn’t come in here without getting all tensed up, remembering her with that frown pickled on her face. But when I brought over Rudy’s tomato starter plants—I hope you don’t mind. I don’t have the window space at home—I just smiled, thinking of Freeda and Winnalee and the life they brought to this house. I was sorry, when after they left, your ma said she didn’t want any more renters in here. I always thought having a young family across the street again would be nice. But now you’ll be here.” She wrapped her arms around her fat middle and shimmied gently.
Aunt Verdella followed me upstairs and took the shirts I’d flung on the bed, heading for the closet. “I’ll bet every piece of clothing you own is something you sewed!” she called, her voice so loud that I swear I could see the windows vibrating. “Your ma would be so proud of you, Button.”
Would Ma be proud of me? I wore that question at the back of my head like a ponytail. It was there when I’d packed Dad’s lunches with store-bought bread instead of homemade because my crust always chewed like taffy (not that Ma was a good cook. She wasn’t. But I knew she wanted me to be), and the question was there on nights Aunt Verdella and I tucked Boohoo into bed with sand in his hair and streaks on his legs, because time had gotten away from us and we were too tired to wrestle him to the tub. Sometimes, like when my English teacher complimented me on my latest essay, or when someone said what a sweet girl I was, I knew Ma was smiling down on me with pride. But other times, I knew better.
Like the night my friend Penny convinced me to lie to Dad that I was going to her house to help her paint her bedroom, and she told her mom the reverse. Instead we slipped off with a twenty-year-old guy Penny had the hots for, and his friend, even though both of us had a few weeks to go before we turned sixteen and neither of us was allowed to date until then. And certainly not guys that old.
That night, Penny talked me into rolling the waistband of my skirt like hers, making them minis that barely covered our butts. I didn’t want to because of my skinny legs, with knees lumpy and big as cauliflowers, but she lifted a copy of her Teen Beat magazine to show me a picture of Twiggy, the model whose doe-eyed face and string-bean body was plastered everywhere. “She only weighs ninety-eight pounds,” Penny said. “Girls are starving themselves to get as skinny as her—be glad you don’t have to!” I could almost feel Ma’s eyes burning two holes into the top of my head as I cuddled in the backseat with Trevor, who was cuter than I had ever imagined one of my dates could be, and drank the bottle of Pabst he shoved into my hand. He thought I was just chilly when I asked to wear his sweatshirt, pulling the hood up over my head so that it drooped down over my eyes, before letting him run his hand up my shirt and stroke my breasts a couple of times before I pushed him away.
No. I didn’t think Ma was all that proud of me.