A biannual journal of poetry, fiction, art, reviews, and interviews seeking to bring the arts into dialogue on psychological and cultural issues.
A KNOCK AT THE DOOR
A Short Story
By Mary Anderson Parks
Catherine’s cough is beginning to worry me. It sounds like her insides are coming out. Are my cigarettes on the table? I’m too tired to look and see. I’m getting old all right, wake up tired every morning, that’s a sure sign. It’s funny how I started lying in the middle, spreading out and taking up the whole bed, right after Paul left. I didn’t know a small person like me could take up a whole bed.
Staying under the blankets, I ease over and swing my feet out onto the freezing floor and real quick pull on the robe I’ve got over me as an extra cover. The bed’s pushed all the way to the wall, but I still feel cold air coming through the window. The damn frames are rotted is why.
My own coughing drowns out the baby’s for a while. I light a cigarette, and after a few drags I feel better and ready for some coffee. I step into my slippers, go to the kitchen, and turn on the gas under the teakettle. Now the baby quiets down and I head for the bathroom.
Cassandra comes in while I’m on the toilet and starts washing her face.
“Where’s your brother, is he up?” I ask her.
“Nope.” She stands with her little bare feet planted square on the cold tiles.
“You’re gonna wear out that face of yours you know, scrubbin’ it like that.”
“Oh Mama,” she says.
I love to see her smile. She’s the sweetest little girl you ever saw. It’s funny how I feel almost like a grandmother to her, though I was only twenty-six when she was born. I had my first kids before I was twenty, before I met Paul. I try not to think about them. I didn’t know what I was doing, just a crazy kid. But by the time Cassandra and the others came along I was ready. Good thing too, ‘cause I’m all they’ve got.
“Give Mama a hug,” I say. Her face smells of soap and feels soft as silk.
“Mama, can we have eggs?” she says.
“They’re all gone, Cassandra. We’ll have eggs next week after the check comes. Today we’ve got oatmeal.”
“Yuck,” she says.
“It sticks to your ribs,” I tell her.
Then little Billy comes in talking that deep voice he likes to use. “I don’t want any oatmeal sticking to my ribs!”
“Want me to tickle those ribs for you?” I tease, and he squirms away, giggling without even being tickled. Cassandra and I go out and leave him to his privacy in the bathroom.
“Catherine’s cough is worse, Mama,” she says.
“I know. I heard her. If Marge’s car’s working, I’ll take her to the doctor.” It damned well better be working, I’m thinking, because I don’t have bus fare. I go and pick up the baby and hold her, all wet and soppy, against my shoulder.
“You’re just soaking,” I tell her. “At least you sleep through the night though, don’t you, and leave your mama alone.
I lay her on Cassandra’s bed and she smiles a kind of forlorn little smile at me when I smooth her gold hair back from her forehead. Her color isn’t good at all. She starts coughing again and fear takes hold of me. Thank God for the medical coupons. There’s no money in the house. We’ve got food, that’s what matters. The first two weeks of the month I always stock up.
“Bring me a diaper,” I tell Cassandra. “Do you want to change her?”
She hangs back. “I don’t like to, Mama, when she’s coughing.”
“I know. Turn that kettle off, will you? The whistling’s driving me crazy.”
The baby isn’t her usual self. Her energy just isn’t there. I put her in a clean sleeper so she’ll be ready if we go to the doctor. She’s not very big for nine months and she feels like a younger baby when I pick her up. I carry her on my shoulder while I get the oatmeal going, and heat up a bottle for her and make a pot of coffee. Then I take her and the bottle and my coffee to the living room.
“Don’t you jump or anything,” I tell her, “cause if you do it’s me that’s gonna have hot coffee all over me.”
Billy has cartoons on and he’s perched like he always is on the radiator. That’s how he gets started in the morning. There’s no use trying to hurry him, though I do. Catherine seems all right while she’s taking her bottle, and pretty soon Cassandra comes to join us. She gives Billy his bowl of oatmeal to eat on the radiator and sits down with hers next to me on the couch. She’s already dressed in her school clothes.
I like that time together when we all kind of get warmed up for the day. Sometimes I wish we could just go on watching cartoons all day and that they wouldn’t have to go to school at all and leave me and Catherine. When they come home from school, they’re different. It’s like something has changed them, maybe even hurt them while they’ve been away from me, and it takes awhile for us all to have that safe feeling again. I know I never liked school and didn’t mind at all when Mama made me stay home to help her. There were fifteen of us kids. But that was way back in Kentucky. I don’t know what it’s like here in the city I try to get them to talk to me, tell me things. They know how to watch out for the dope dealers. Cassandra’s just in third grade and Billy’s in second, but it’s never too early to teach ‘em to watch out. Sometimes we see these educational shows on drugs or prostitution and afterward I always ask them do they have any questions, anything they don’t understand. Of course I don’t always have the answers, but we talk about it anyway. And when we go downtown and see the drunks passed out on the sidewalk I tell ‘em, that’s how you’ll end up too if you don’t listen to your mama.
I’m not really paying attention to the cartoons, just thinking how nice it is to have a place all to myself. We were so crowded in when we were kids. Dad used to tell folks he stacked us up at night. Billy has his own little room and the girls have theirs and I have mine, all cozy and close together so we don’t get lonesome.
Cassandra gets up and takes the bowls to the kitchen and pretty soon I hear her yelling from the bathroom, “Mama, the water’s hardly coming out at all.”
“Well brush your teeth the best you can,” I tell her. “Maybe the whole building’s brushing their teeth at the same time, maybe that’s why.”
I’m sitting there trying to remember if I paid the water bill, and out comes Cassandra looking just so woebegone, holding up her new red coat for me to see.
“It’s all wet, Mama. I can’t wear it.”
I go out and look at the hall closet and there’s water coming through the ceiling and all over the floor, running out into the living room even, and everything in the closet just soaked and ruined.
“The goddamn pipe broke,” I yell. It feels like a pipe burst in me too. I run to turn off the main valve, the baby on my shoulder. Cassandra comes up and hugs me.
“Don’t cry, Mama,” she says. “It’s okay.”
“Your new coat too, Billy. I just can’t stand it.”
He shrugs his shoulders. “I’ll wear a sweater,” he says, and goes off to his room with that little shuffle of his.
“Me too,” Cassandra says. “It’s okay, Mama, they’ll dry.”
“Oh, Cassandra, you don’t know, honey. They’re wool, they’ll all be shrunk.”
Her lower lip starts to quiver and she says, “what can we do, Mama?”
“The goddamned landlord better pay us for them,” I say. Then Catherine sets out on another coughing fit, her whole body jerking and heaving, and by the time she quiets down they’re on their way out the door, wearing sweaters. Billy got himself ready without me saying anything for once, and that makes me feel better. It doesn’t take him but a minute really. It’s ust the nagging at him to do it that takes up the time. They look cute as bright little buttons. I check to see they have their homework. I make them do it first thing when they get home, after their snack, so it’s out of the way and we can all enjoy the evening. They’re real smart kids, both of them. They always get satisfactories and sometimes even a very good.
On her way out the door Cassandra turns, and I know she’s forgotten something.
“Do we have any money at all, Mama?” she asks me.
“No honey, not till the check comes next week. You know that. Why?”
“Our class is going to a museum and we’re supposed to bring a dollar fifty.”
“Well you just tell the teacher you’ll bring yours next week,” I tell her. “Now you be good, both of you.”
When they’re at the bottom of the stairs I call out, “Button up your sweaters.” Kids forget things like that if you don’t tell them. It’s funny, they can be freezing their buns and not think to button up.
I get on the phone and tell the landlord he better send somebody over right away to fix the pipes. Then, after feeding Catherine her cereal and putting on jeans and a shirt, I drag everything out of the closet and mop up the floor. I set things out to dry on chairs by the radiators. And all this time Catherine hacks away, worrying me to death. Finally I sit down to call Marge and tell her about my morning.
Marge is welfare too, but she’s a better manager than I am. I don’t know what I’d do without her. Not only does she have a car, she has gas in it! I can’t believe it, the last four days of the month, but Marge is like that. She’s quite a bit overweight, heavy she calls it, and real good-natured. She teases me about being so skinny and nervous. Marge says if I could stop smoking I’d be able to save enough in two years to make a down payment on a car. That’s the way she thinks.
I light a cigarette, then remember I haven’t had anything to eat. Marge is already clomping down the stairs. Her kids are all in school, so it doesn’t take her long to get ready. She comes in and goes right over to check out the closet. Then she looks around at the stuff spread out all over.
“We ought to take pictures,” she says, “in case this ends up in court.”
“Well, neither of us has a camera, do we?” I say. I feel like laughing. Marge makes me feel that way a lot.
“I’ve got one somewhere,” she says. “No film, though. We’d need film. Don’t worry, Susan, I’ll be your witness. That’s why I’m taking such a good look at everything.”
“Here, Marge, hold Catherine,” I tell her. “I’ll get us some coffee.”
We’re drinking our coffee when there comes this funny little knock at the door.
“Who could that be?” Marge says.
“The repairman?” I ask. “Funny little knock for a repairman.” The lock on the outside door doesn’t work and anybody can come right up from the street. We’ve been after the landlord to fix it.
I go and open the door, feeling kind of strange. And there she is, standing there with her bare face hanging out, reminding me of every mistake I ever made.
“Linda. How did you find me?”
“The phone book,” she says, her big eyes watching me. “Dad said once this is where you came to.”
I go on staring at her. She hasn’t changed that much. “You’re as skinny as me, aren’t you?” I say. “All skin and bones.”
She pulls this big old coat she’s wearing tighter around her.
“Well, what are you doing here?” I ask her.
“Mom, I’ve got nowhere to go,” she says, and darned if her lip doesn’t start quivering just like Cassandra’s.
“You better come in and sit down for a minute,” I say. Marge’s eyes are bugging out of her head. “This is Linda,” I tell her.
“Hello, Linda,” Marge says, real polite. “I’m glad to meet you. I’m your mom’s best friend.”
“Well, sit down,” I tell Linda. She sits way over at one end of the couch, all huddled up in that coat, with Marge holding Catherine at the other end. But then Marge stands up.
“What do you know, Susan,” she says “This little baby’s sound asleep. I’ll just go put her down and then I have to leave, give you two a chance to catch up.”
“Marge, we were going to the doctor.”
“Oh, we can go there later,” she says. “Just give me a ring when you’re ready. I sure would have known you’re your mama’s daughter,” she tells Linda, “same eyes and that red hair and everything,” and before I can think straight she has Catherine in her crib and is out the door.
For a while we just sit. Linda doesn’t seem to know what to say either. After a bit I ask her, “Does your dad know where you are?” All the time I’m wondering why she’s here. I’ve spent so many years trying not to think about her and her brother. I never expected to see them again after I ran off with Paul. I was so crazy in love I would have done anything for him. He said we were birds of a feather, meant to fly away together. Fool that I was I believed him.
“Dad hasn’t known where I am for over a year,” she says, and then, kind of devil-may-care. “I’m like you, I guess. I just run off.”
That digs into me, the way she says that, and I almost start yelling at her. “Oh no, you’re not like me,” I say. “What are you, seventeen? I had you when I was seventeen. Then your brother came along and your dad got laid off and I had to go to work at the plant. I came home so tired all I could do was sleep. You don’t know anything about any of that.”
“Is that where you met him, at the plant?”
“Of course that’s where I met him,” I say.
She’s looking at me, her eyes so full of questions it makes me tired thinking of all the answers she wants from me. I feel kind of dizzy and weak. I’m wondering what to tell Cassandra and Billy if she stays till they get home. They know they had a dad who ran off all the time and got drunk and who finally decided three kids were more than he bargained for and ran off for good. And they know it’s okay because they have a mama who who’ll never run off and leave them. And that’s all they know.
“I haven’t had anything to eat.” I say. “It’s been a bad morning. The water pipe broke.” Linda looks around at the stuff drying everywhere and nods her head. “My god, it’s one o’clock,” I say, as “All My Children” comes on. “I’ve got to get some crackers or something..”
I come back from the kitchen eating crackers out of the box and sit down on the other side of the couch, next to my cigarettes. When I light one it occurs to me that maybe Linda smokes now, and I hold out the pack to her.
“Thanks,” she says, shaking her head. “I’m trying to quit.”
“Well, have a cracker then.” I set the box down between us and Linda reaches in and pulls out a big handful and starts eating. I can tell by the way she eats how hungry she is. I get up and bring her some cheese.
“Over a year, huh?” I say. “So what have you been doing?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she mumbles, with her mouth full of cheese.
“Great!” I say. “I don’t see you for ten years and then you show up on my doorstep and come in and sit on my couch, and you don’t want to talk about it.”
I turn the sound down on the TV. “Just in case you decide to talk to me,” I say.
She finishes the crackers and I light another cigarette and take a shot in the dark. “What is it? Drugs? Are you on drugs?”
“What would you care?” she asks me. It’s funny, she says it hard-like, but I can tell just as plain as day that it is a real question and she wants to know. I think about how it would change my life, and Cassandra’s and Billy’s and Catherine’s, if I tell her how much I care, and I can’t bring myself to say anything.
When I don’t answer, her tears come out but she tries to hide them and wipes her eyes on her big old coat sleeve.
“Do you want to use the phone to call your Dad?” I ask her.
“No,” she says, with more energy than she’s shown yet about anything. “I’m never going back there. He got married after you left, to this woman with two kids. I couldn’t stand it with her and her kids there.”
“What about Tommy?” I ask.
“He hates it too. He’s just waiting until he’s old enough to join the army.”
“Your dad probably thought you needed a mother,” I say.
“That’s just what he said,” Linda shrills out at me, “but we didn’t need somebody else’s mother!”
“Oh, shut up,” I tell her. “You’re making me nervous.” It surprises her but she calms down.
“Can I use the bathroom?” she asks after a minute
“Sure, it’s over there,” I tell her.
The baby wakes up then and has to be changed, and the repairman finally shows up, and I call Marge and tell her I don’t know if we can make it to the doctor and back before the kids get home.
“Can’t Linda stay home and be there for them?” Marge asks.
“Linda won’t be here that long,” I say. She’s followed me into the kitchen, still in that coat. “Look, Marge. I’ll call you back.”
“You want me to leave, don’t you,” Linda says. “Before he gets home.”
“Who?” It takes me a good minute to remember. Then I realize she doesn’t know. “Don’t worry about him,” I say. “We haven’t seen that character for over a year.” I turn away and start washing the oatmeal pan so I won’t have to look at the relief shining out of her face. I finish scrubbing the pan and go to work on the crusted-over bowls, mad at myself that I can’t keep the tears back. “What will I tell Cassandra and Billy if they come home and you’re here?” I say.
“Are they my other brother and sister?” she asks.
I turn to look at her.
“It’s all fixed, ma’am,” booms out the repairman.
“Okay, thanks,” I say. Linda seems to have turned paler, she has a pinched look about her that worries me.
“Mama, I’ll be right back,” she says and bolts out of the kitchen. I listen to the sounds coming from the bathroom. After a long time she comes back. I’m sitting at the kitchen table, thinking how exactly she looks like me when I was seventeen.
“You’re pregnant, aren’t you?” I say.
There comes that quiver again.
“Well, sit down. Who’s the father?”
“I don’t know,” she says, staring at the table like she’s lost her last friend in this world. “What does it matter. Neither of them’s ready to be a father.”
I think about what that means. I pick up the phone and call Marge. “Look Marge, let’s just wait till the kids come home and then we’ll all go to the doctor, how’s that?”
There’s a little silence, then Marge says, “Susan, that would be nine of us, counting the baby.”
“Just one more than usual,” I say.
“That’s true,” Marge says. “You and me and Linda and Catherine in the front and the kids in the back. Yeah, we can do it. Might be fun.”
Linda is giving Catherine a bottle when we hear the kids on the stairs. Wouldn’t you know they’d come trooping in just when we were starting to warm up to each other, say some of the things on our mind. I guess I’ve gotten used to the idea myself and it seems natural to introduce Linda as their sister. Billy’s eyes get bigger than usual and his chin goes down to his chest, but it’s Cassandra who shocks me. She takes one look at me and Linda sitting together on the couch, runs over and jerks Catherine up out of Linda’s lap.
“I’m the one helps Mama with the baby,” she says real hateful-like.
“Cassandra, that’s no way to act with your new sister! What’s got into you?”
Then she bursts into tears and runs off to her room with the baby. Linda feels real bad, I can tell. She gets up and edges past Billy into the kitchen and stands at the window looking out at the parking lot across the street. I find Cassandra sniffling on her bed with the baby snuggled up against her.
“You don’t need me,” she says, and twists her head around. “Why did you even come in here?”
I sit down next to her and she scoots away from me. ”Well, you’re wrong there,” I tell her. I always need you and I’m going to need you more than ever now, that’s for sure.”
“What do you mean?” she says, though it kills her to ask.
“Your big sister Linda’s going to need you, that’s what.”
“I didn’t even know I have a big sister and I don’t want one.” She spits the words at me.
“You don’t just have a new big sister, you’re going to have a new baby sister too,” I tell her. “Linda’s going to have a baby and she needs you so bad, Cassandra. She’s still trying to get used to the idea herself and she is going to need our help.” That gets her attention. But I start thinking about what I’ve just said and I feel scared. “Do you think we can do it?” Cassandra sits there looking like her head’s full of wild thoughts chasing each other around in a circle. Or maybe I’m just imagining she feels the way I feel. I put my arm around her and give her a squeeze and she only shrinks away from me a little.
Marge and I have funny ideas about fun. Here we are, a little later, driving down the freeway in her old Cadillac with the windows all steamed up, crammed in like sardines, listening to country music. Marge and I love those somebody-done-somebody-wrong songs. We sing along as though our hearts might break, until sometimes we look at each other and bust out laughing.
Linda joins right in. She’s in the backseat because Cassandra wanted her there. Marge’s big girl is up in front. Cassandra just beats everything. After I had the talk with her, she went and got that form the welfare lady always leaves with us. “There’s been a change, Mama,” she said. “We’re supposed to write Linda’s name here and send it in. We’ve had a change in out household!”
Then Billy put in, “She’s a girl so I get to keep my room to myself.”
“We don’t have enough beds,” Cassandra said, looking all down-hearted.
Marge saved the day. “I’ve got an old broke-down cot you can borrow. It takes up so much room in the hall closet we can’t find anything.”
We all tromp in and wait the usual couple of hours at the doctor’s and then it takes awhile because he has to see Linda and Catherine both. We stand in line at the pharmacy for the antibiotics, and it’s late when we get home. The kids bump the cot down the two flights of stairs and the neighbors start yelling at them. I take Linda’s coat and hang it in my closet, since the hall closet is still damp. I have some stew made up from yesterday, and while Billy and Cassandra do their homework, I show Linda how to make biscuits.
When we sit down at the table to eat, Billy says, “Isn’t it a good thing we have four chairs?” Somehow that makes us laugh.