Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 Sunny Side Up

 

 

The day my family moved from an apartment on Robert E. Lee Street to a house on Canal Boulevard, it was boiling out. It was the fall of 1970. I was six and my mother was eight months pregnant. While my father got ready for work, my mother lugged a box of shoes to the door, and by the look on her face, I knew something was wrong. She pushed back her thick, yellow headband and wiped her forehead. “It’s unbearable,” she said. She stood and lifted her arms, exposing her belly under her maternity blouse, held her long black hair with one hand, and fanned the back of her neck with the other. “You could fry an egg on the sidewalk in this city.”

My father reached for his watch and fastened it around his wrist. “You mean it’s hot. Can’t you just say it’s hot?”

“You can say it’s hot.” She bent and taped the box shut. “I want to say, you can fry an egg on the sidewalk.” My mother hated New Orleans and wanted desperately to move back to New York and I could feel her nerves.

“After all,” she said, standing, “to each his own.”

“What do you want from me, Sharon? I don’t control the weather.”

“I didn’t say you did.” 

Sometimes when I close my eyes, I see myself small and alone at the window watching my father walk away that day. I remember vividly wanting to go with him.

His leaving triggered something in my mother. She seemed distracted and teary-eyed. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

She inhaled deeply and transformed herself from a 24-year-old into a full-fledged adult. “Nothing,” she said, wiping her eyes. “What could be wrong? Daddy went to work and we get to move into our beautiful new house.” She busied herself immediately packing away her feelings along with her belongings. She placed her jewelry in a black velvet pouch, secured the pouch in her bra, and slammed the door to the apartment shut.

We followed the moving truck to our new house in our black Cadillac, the seats the color of red licorice. My mother thought black seats were classier, but my father got the red anyway.

“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” my mother mumbled. She turned a corner and there was dead silence.

Our new house was an orange brick ranch. There was a pool in the backyard and a magnolia tree in the front. Unwilling to accommodate itself to the grass, the tree’s roots radiated in all directions, sprawling to the concrete, strong enough to lift a slab of the driveway. My father had taken me to see the tree the week before we moved. “This is the most special tree in all of New Orleans,” he’d said. He hoisted me up and I sat on his shoulders with my head amongst the leaves imagining a broad leaf as a magic carpet.

My mother didn’t care about the tree the way my father did. She paraded right past it, unlocked the front door, marched through the living room, and stomped straight to the hallway. She flicked a switch, and we heard a humming sound. “It’ll cool off in here in no time,” she said.

I stood against the living room wall as she’d instructed and watched as two moving men fumbled like mismatched dance partners with our yellow velvet couch. It wasn’t long before the wall-to-wall green carpet was littered with boxes piled three high, and I pretended to be trapped by the barricade.

My mother bent to lift a box, but as she stood she let out a groan and cradled her pregnant stomach.

“Hold on,” one of the movers said. “Let me do that.” He looped his bare arm around her and led her to the couch. “You shouldn’t be carrying those heavy boxes.”

In spite of herself, my mother sighed as she sat. It wasn’t like her to show vulnerability, especially to a man.

Sweat dripped from the mover’s cap. He wiped his face with his shirt, and I studied his flexed arm, noticing that he was bigger than my father. He headed for his truck and returned with a thermos and two Dixie cups. He poured water from the thermos into the two cups and handed one to my mother. “Here. Drink this,” he said. He handed me a cup too. His fingers were rough, as if covered with dried glue.

“I’m fine,” my mother insisted. “Thank you for your concern.” She stood and began to unpack. “Look at this mess,” she said. “We’ll never get this place organized.”

My mother insisted it was a virtue to be methodical, and she extended this belief to every aspect of her life. In her desk drawer she kept a stapler, a pad of paper, and a pen. These items were always in the same place. My mother paid bills at that desk the way men serve in the army with honor and pride. She never paid late and she called this her work. “How do you think soap gets into this house? It doesn’t just fly into the cabinet alongside the toothpaste and deodorant. And,” she continued, “did you ever, ever go to get toilet paper and there wasn’t any? Never,” she answered herself.

She opened the box I had drawn a smiley face on. “We’ll start unpacking in your room,” she said. The room had three windows, which allowed the sun great access, and the bed was queen-size. “For a queen,” my mother said. I stood on one side, she on the other, and we pulled the sheet tightly over the mattress.

Alphabetically, my mother lined up items in her medicine cabinet: Bayer, Colgate, Ponds, Right Guard, Q-tips, Tylenol.

“We shouldn’t have to do this alone,” she said. “Your father should be here. Can’t count on Aunt Susie, she’s busy with her own life. Ultimately,” she continued, “you have to depend on yourself. Can’t count on anybody else.”

My mother tried to mask her desperation, but sometimes her loneliness got the best of her. Swept up by my father’s charm, she married him at 17 and was surprised to learn six months into the marriage that he wanted to move to New Orleans and open up an antiques store in the French Quarter more than he wanted to stay in New York and work with her father in his wholesale business as originally planned. Nine months later I came along.

“You’re a good girl, Candy,” she said. “And don’t think I don’t appreciate it because I do.” She handed me a box of Saltines and a couple of Oreos. “You’re the only thing keeping me sane.”

Recently, my mother confessed she didn’t have the slightest idea what to do with me when I was born. So she hired a nurse. An old black woman named Jenny. My mother claimed Jenny took care of me better than she could, like a mother who gives up a child for adoption, insisting that the adoptive mother could do a better job. Jenny fed me, changed me, and sang to me for the first month of my life. And then, on the thirtieth day, because she had another job, she packed her bags and left.

“Your father warned me,” my mother chuckled. “He told me to practice taking care of you while Jenny was still there. But I couldn’t. When Jenny left, I wanted to walk out with her. I took a good look at you. ‘It’s you and me, kid,’ I said. I pulled you in close and I cried.”

I imagined that moment—me pressed against her, our bodies resting on one another moving like a river—and felt sad knowing those moments didn’t come often. It was as if my mother had missed hearing the rules to a game and then was forced to play.

Morning dragged on. I wished my father would come home. I wanted him to laugh with my mother and me like he did the last time the three of us played Monkey in the Middle. When my father was in the middle, he jumped up and down like a gorilla and scratched under his arms. When it was my mother’s turn to be in the middle, my father instructed me to throw the ball high. “She hasn’t got a shot,” he snickered. “She can’t jump with that belly.” My mother lasted five minutes in the middle before she excused herself, saying that this was no game for a big, fat pregnant lady.

“Okay, you can quit if you want to,” my father said. “But then I win.” He strutted between her and me like a dancer on Soul Train. My mother laughed and my father winked at her. “Would you like to dance?” he asked her in a contrived English accent.

“I’d be delighted,” she said. And they danced like couples do on their wedding night. For years, every time I thought of my childhood, I retrieved scenes like this one, memories playing out like a fairy tale, one contrived scene after another. Because I so desperately wanted my parents to be happy, I developed a knack, an uncanny ability to deny, and shut out any evidence that was contrary.

By late afternoon I was going crazy with boredom watching my mother unpack everything from our crystal candlesticks to my father’s underwear, but I knew better than to complain. I reached inside a box and fished out a teacup and saucer painted with red roses, and then I sat down for some imaginary tea. I extended my pinky and took a sip.

My mother came up behind me. “Candy!” she yelled. “Don’t touch that.” I jumped and the teacup fell from my hand. It clanked on the saucer and the handle broke off. “Now look what you’ve done,” she screamed, and even though my mother was only 5'1", she towered over me, full of rage, gigantic. I stayed out of her way for the rest of the day.

           

It was six o'clock when we heard my father sing, “I’m home.”

My mother crammed the last few albums into her Louis XIV armoire and mumbled, “It’s about time.”

I ran to my father and jumped into his arms, hooking my legs behind him. He spun around.

“I’m getting dizzy, Daddy. Stop it,” I squealed. This was the most fun I’d had all day. My mother carried in an empty box. “Oh, you decided to join us.”

“Yep,” he said. He kissed her on the cheek, looked over her shoulder, and asked, “What’s for dinner?”

“Very funny.”

“What do you mean?”

“How could I possibly make dinner? Look at this place.”

“Sharon, I had a hard day. I’m hungry.”

My father put me down, and I sat on the floor in between them, still dizzy from the spinning.

“I’ve only got two hands, Steven. I’ve been here all day by myself. I’m pregnant and tired.”

I wished I could disappear. My father was easygoing about most things. He even was going to let my mother decorate their new bedroom pink. But food wasn’t something he was easygoing about. “Damn it, Sharon.” He slammed his hand on the Formica counter. “Do I ever tell you I can’t give you money? I do my part; why can’t you do yours?” He charged out. The screen door slammed behind him.

I followed him outside. He unlatched the gate to the pool, and we stood near the edge of it. Our reflections trembled above the water. The sun slanted down on us, and the air was thick. Neither one of us said a word. A mosquito buzzed between us and then landed on my father’s cheek. He swatted at it and it flew away. Across the pool there was a blue light. The mosquito landed on it and with a loud zap, fell to a pile of dead bugs.

“That’s so mean,” I said.

“Would you rather they bite you?”

I was struck by the question. My father knew how to take care of himself but I was already learning to accommodate, and the answer was not clear.

My father was upset and I took it upon myself to make him happy again. Sometimes if I climbed on his lap and hugged him, he’d momentarily snap out of his sadness appreciating my love but he’d often return from these moments as forlorn as he’d started.

I reached for his hand. “Come on,” he said. Let’s go pick up some Chicken Delight.”

At the restaurant there was a hand-painted rooster on the wall behind the counter. Each feather was carefully delineated, and it made the chicken look real. I’ve always hated thinking about food as the animal it once was, but it seemed that people wanted to be reminded that the food they ate was not artificial, canned or frozen.

“People want it fresh and they want it fast,” my father said.

“Yuck.”

“That’s why people go to Manales. They get to pick the exact lobster they want from the tank. Then it’s boiled right on the spot.”

“That’s disgusting.”

He made his hands into a gun and aimed at the chicken behind the counter. “You’re right,” he said, laughing. “It’s murder with intent.”

“What can I get you?” the girl behind the counter asked. She wore a chef’s hat with a chicken on the front.

My father smirked. “You really want to know?”

She put her pad down. “Excuse me?”

My father turned his back to me, leaning into her. “I like your shirt,” he said, pointing to the bow.

A boy plunged a bin of fries into hot oil. 

My father was handsome, and he liked that women found him attractive. He did what he could to maintain his good looks. He bought fancy shirts and wore them with two or three buttons undone. Every Saturday for years, I sat on his feet while he did 100 sit-ups. Then he’d stand in his bikini underwear, pat his stomach while sucking it in, and say, “Not bad, huh?” After, he’d hit the floor again and do 50 push-ups.

Steam billowed behind the girl. He ordered a bucket of fried chicken, coleslaw, and potato salad.

“This is for you.” The girl behind the counter handed me a chicken hat like the one she wore and a plastic egg with a chick inside. She shrugged. “It’s free when you buy a bucket.”

We drove home with the windows down. The air outside was warm, the sun low on the horizon. My father turned on the radio and sang “Satisfaction.” He poked at my ribs with one finger and then lifted his arms. “Look, no hands.” The car swerved and I grabbed hold of the handle on the door.

“Daddy, you’re crazy.”

He veered back and forth over the painted white line on the road, making our ride home like the roller coaster at Pontchartrain Beach. “Look, I can do this with my eyes closed.”

“Daddy, open your eyes.”

“Don’t you trust me?” he asked. “You think you could do a better job? Come on, let’s see.” He patted his thighs.

I climbed on his lap, thrilled to be part of the excitement. I took hold of the steering wheel, and he rested his hands on mine. He let me come unreasonably close to hitting a tree before he took control of the wheel.

“Watch where you’re going.” He laughed.

When he’d had enough, he told me to go back to my seat. He stared straight ahead and seemed to be in his own world, far away from me. That’s how it was with my father. Sometimes he was right there next to you, and then, poof, he was gone.

Then he looked at me and said as if this was the most important advice he could ever give, “You only live once.” He stepped on the gas, and I fell back against the seat.

“You’re going too fast, Daddy.”

A dog darted into the road. He slammed on the brakes, and I hit the dashboard with a thud. Blood streamed from my mouth. I touched my lips and found my fingers red. As I cried, my father rocked me in his arms. He leaned to open the glove compartment, which no longer was ordered the way my mother usually left it: tissues on the left and car manuals evenly lined up on the right. He grabbed a handful of tissues and blotted my lips. “Hold this,” he said. He glanced at the bucket of toppled chicken and picked up the pieces. “Your mother’s going to kill me,” he said, sweeping up the crumbs. He reorganized the glove compartment. “You okay?”

I took a deep breath. “I just want to go home,” I said.

My mother gave my father a chilling look when she saw my bloody mouth.

“What?” my father threw his arms up in disbelief. “What are you looking at?”

“Nothing,” my mother said, turning from him.

“It was an accident, Sharon.” 

She grabbed a dishtowel and scrubbed at the bloodstain on my white dress. Then she plucked carpet hairs from the chicken and arranged the pieces on a platter as if she’d cooked it herself.

While we ate, my father tried once or twice to engage my mother in conversation, but she stayed slumped in her chair and refused to look at him. The quiet was killing me.

I reached for my Coke but drank from the straw too fast and I choked.

My father leaned in.

I coughed louder.

“Lift your arms,” my mother said.

I raised my arms above my head but kept coughing. She reached over and patted my back, but I couldn’t catch my breath. “She’s really choking, Steven.”

My father shot out of his chair and stood next to me. “Is it a bone? What is it?”

Just as I began to catch my breath, I saw my parents standing side by side, positioned like a team in front of me. Instead of telling them I was fine, I held my breath and threw my hands around my neck. My mother panicked, full of fear, and her eyes linked with my father’s.

“She’s blue, Steven. Do something.”

“Get water,” he ordered, and he yanked me from my chair. He held my hands over my head with one hand and smacked my back with his other. My mother returned with the water, and my father held the glass for me while I drank. I took a breath.

“Thank God,” my mother said.

My father hugged me and insisted I sit on his lap for the rest of dinner. I asked if he would play Airplane and, overjoyed, he circled his spoon above my head, made airplane noises, and landed every bite safely in my mouth. My mother was too nervous to sit still, so she stacked plates and cleared the table. “Never a dull moment,” she said.

After dinner she gave me a bath, and I waited on her bed for her to fix my hair. She carried in a stack of pillowcases and stuffed pillows, fluffy as clouds, inside them. My father carried in a box, put it down, turned from side to side showing off his muscles like a weight-lifting champion, and said, “Who’s the man?”

“You are, darling,” my mother said, as if he’d been home helping her unpack all day.

My father lay down next to me bare-chested and pulled the sheets to his waist.

“I want to comb your hair,” I said, pointing to his chest.” I raked the comb through his black curls. “See, no knots.”

With sweet eyes my father looked at my mother, and then he smiled at me. “You’re right, my love. No knots at all.”

I ran to my room and got my free chicken hat and the plastic egg with the chick inside. I climbed back into bed between my parents and because of all I’d been through they let me stay. In the dark, I smiled. I wore my chicken hat and cradled the egg.

 

 

Corie Sutton Adjmi received her undergraduate degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education from NYU. She attended graduate school at the Bank Street College for Teachers. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Crucible, The Distillery, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Evansville Review, Indiana Review, Licking River Review, The North American Review, Out Of Line, Pangolin Papers, RE:AL, Red Rock Review, Red Wheelbarrow, RiverSedge, South Dakota Review, The TalonMag, Verdad, and Whetstone. Her story “The Devil Makes Three” received the 2004 first place prize for excellence in prose by Whetstone. Her short story, “Dinner Conversation” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She worked as an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine (2007-2008) and has compiled a short story collection of previously published stories. She lives in New York City with her husband and children and is currently working on a novel.