Waiting for Rose

By Nancy Bourne

7.1 Y-smallour life can change in a split second. I know. It happened when I was seven.

Daddy was at the stove fixing my breakfast. He was wearing his blue striped pajama bottoms and no top and he was barefoot. His chest, which doesn’t have any hair, was so pale, he looked almost sick. And his face needed shaving.

“Here you go, Toots,” he said. “French toast with lots of butter and jelly.”

My name is Teresa, but everybody calls me Toots. Everybody except Grandma Charlotte.

That’s when I heard Mama coming down the stairs. I could tell she was wearing her pink satin bedroom slippers with the pompoms and the wedge heels because she was making a loud clomp with each step.

The minute she came in the kitchen, I knew something was wrong. Her old navy terry-cloth bathrobe was hanging open over her nightgown, which had a big yellow stain down the front. And her hair stuck out in different directions.

Before that day, Mama dressed for breakfast. At least that’s how I remember it. There was a bright blue cotton blouse, that smelled like lemon soap and the starch she always used, and she wore her hair, which was red and wavy, brushed back from her face and held in place with little curved combs. She would come to me first thing and take my face in her soft, soft fingers, and kiss me on the top of my head. She was so pretty and she smelled so good.

“How’s my tootsie-roll?” she’d ask.

“Sweet as pie,” I’d answer.

But that morning was all wrong.

She didn’t even look at me. Instead, she said to Daddy, “How come you’re not dressed?” Which was strange, since she wasn’t dressed.

“Don’t rush me,” Daddy said. “I got to get some coffee. My head’s killing me.”

“Well, no wonder,” she said in a voice I didn’t recognize. “You know, they’re gonna fire you one of these days if you keep being late all the time.”

I thought, they can’t fire him, can they?

I watched Daddy pour himself a cup of coffee. He sat down next to me at the red Formica breakfast table and snapped his newspaper open. He didn’t look at Mama.

“Get off my back,” he said.

She stomped over to the Frigidaire, pulled out a package of bacon, and threw a couple of pieces into the skillet which Daddy had used to fry my French toast.

“What’s going to happen to these girls, huh? When your mother’s finally had enough and fires your ass.”

I had never heard her talk like that before. I wanted to tie the belt of her robe and turn her around and say, Mama, go back upstairs. Come down again, all dressed and pretty.

“Stop screeching!” Daddy said without looking up from his paper. He wrapped his bare feet around the aluminum legs of the chair.

“I’ll screech as much as I like,” she said.

“Go ahead, then.” His voice was the kind of calm that tells you a person’s really mad but holding it back.

I started to get up from the table. I could tell something terrible was about to happen and I didn’t want to be there.

“I wish your precious mother could see you now,” Mama said.

“I wish she could see you,” Daddy said. He made his voice go up high like Grandma’s. “‘I warned you, didn’t I? I told you she was no good before you married her.’”

Then it happened. She grabbed that hot iron skillet with the bacon still sizzling in it.

“Mama,” I screamed. But she didn’t stop. She walked over to where Daddy was sitting. He just sat there and watched her. And then she hit him. Right on the head with that hot frying pan.

“Rose!” I screamed. “Rose! Rose! Rose!”

It was all confusion after that. Daddy was hollering and wiping hot grease off his bare chest. Mama was crying and saying she was sorry. The ambulance showed up, loaded Daddy in, and took off, with the sirens screaming. My sister Rose went too. She told me later that Mama was too upset to give a straight story, so she had to go. She told the doctor that Daddy had hurt himself cooking. She was fifteen years old.

Nobody even thought about getting me to school that day.

As I said, everything changed in a flash. But Rose told me it had changed before that. I just hadn’t noticed. Or maybe I didn’t want to. I was too happy being the baby of the family.

Take the time I sang Onward Christian Soldiers for Sunday service in front of everybody. I was six and I wore a white organdy dress with a sash tied in the back and puffed sleeves. Mama brushed my hair over a broomstick that morning into dark ringlets.

When the time came for my solo, Grandma took me by the hand and led me up from our family’s pew onto the stage next to Reverend Parker. The sanctuary was almost full and I could see red and blue patterns on the wood floor from the sun shining through the stained glass windows. I looked out at all the people, mostly grownups but some children, and wanted to run off that stage. But then Grandma started playing the organ, real soft, and I began to sing as loud as I could. I put my hands together, the way she had showed me, like I was praying, and looked up at the picture of Jesus on the Cross which is hanging at the back of the church.

When the service was over, everyone came up to me and hugged me and told me how pretty my singing was and how I might become a gospel singer someday. And when I got home, Mama made me an ice cream soda and made over me. That’s what my life was like then. If sometimes Mama’s laugh got a little too loud or Daddy looked like he was sick in the mornings, I paid no attention. I was their Toots.

Daddy didn’t lose his job, although he’s still late to work a lot of the time. My Grandma owns the Spottswood Hotel where Daddy’s the manager, and she wouldn’t dare fire her only son. Grandma is a very large person, not fat exactly, but when she comes into a room, everybody stops talking and listens to what she says.

And she hates my Mama.

“You made your bed,” she’d say to Daddy. “And the only way you’re going to be able to sleep in it is to make that woman behave.”

“How am I going to do that, Mama?” he’d ask.

“You know what I’m talking about,” she’d say.

He’d wink at me. “I think she wants me to bring your Mama to a WCTU meeting, Toots.” Grandma’s the president of the WCTU in our town, which is the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

Rose is eight years older than me. After the bad day in the kitchen, she tried to explain it to me.

“Mama was sick,” she said. “She didn’t know what she was saying to Daddy because she was feeling so bad.”

“She hit him,” I said. I couldn’t stop seeing it, my own Mama in that dirty bathrobe clomping across the linoleum floor, with that hot frying pan in her hand.

“She didn’t mean to. She didn’t know what she was doing.”

That made no sense. “She sounded more mad than sick.”

“I guess she was mad. But the sickness made her mad.”

“Why was she mad?”

“She wasn’t mad at you, if that’s what you think.”

“Why was she mad?”

“Grownups sometimes get mad.”

“Is Daddy going to be okay?” I was worried about him. He seemed so helpless beside Mama and Grandma Charlotte.

“Sure. You saw him when he got home from the hospital. They put a bandage on his head and some medicine on his burns. He’s fine.”

“Will she hit him again?”

I wanted her to say, no, never. But instead she hugged me. “I hope not,” she said. “But I’ll take care of you, Toots, whatever happens. I promise.”

It was the best I could get. And she was true to her word. Whenever Mama started drinking orange juice and smelling funny, I’d find Rose and she’d take me to Ballou Park or buy me an ice cream cone at the Dairy Korner or take me to her room for a story.

Another way my life changed was that Grandma Charlotte started coming to our house in the afternoons. A lot of the time Mama was upstairs in bed with the door closed, and Grandma didn’t bother her. She always brought ginger cookies, and she’d ask me to play something on the piano, hymns mostly, and she’d quiz Rose about school. She never stayed long.

One afternoon she showed up when Mama was downstairs fixing me an ice cream soda and pouring herself a glass of orange juice. She was wearing her old blue bathrobe, which I was getting used to, although I missed the pretty blouses. I missed them so much.

“Well, what a surprise!” Grandma said when she walked into the kitchen.

“I’m just fixing myself a little juice,” Mama said. “I think I’m coming down with a cold.” I could tell she didn’t like Grandma being there, but she was trying to be polite.

“Orange juice and what?” Grandma asked.

Mama glared at her and laughed. “None of your business,” she said.

“It is my business the way you’re acting. It’s very much my business.”

Mama looked up at the ceiling and said in a low, steady voice, “Please leave my house.” I wanted to get out of there, but Mama put her hands on my shoulders and kept me in my seat.

“I will not leave until I’ve had my say,” Grandma said. “You have no idea what’s happening to these girls. I won’t even mention the way you treat your husband. He should be able to take care of himself, although I sometimes wonder. But these girls need a mother.”

I could feel Mama leaning heavy on my shoulders.

Grandma said. “Sit down and listen to me.”

“I guess I don’t have much choice,” Mama said. “Do your worst.”

“Do you know where Rose is right now?”

“With friends. She’s sixteen, Charlotte.”

“Do you know with what friends?”

“Of course I know her friends,” Mama said, although it made me wonder. Rose rarely brought friends home, and when she did, Mama was usually in bed.

“Teresa, honey,” Grandma said, “now that you’ve finished your ice cream, maybe you should go. Your mother and I have some things to discuss.”

I looked at Mama. I didn’t want to abandon her to Grandma, but I was dying to get out of that kitchen. She didn’t say anything. So I left. But I heard Grandma say the name Cory as I was leaving. Cory was one of Rose’s friends and I didn’t like him. I didn’t like the way he put his hands on Rose, and I didn’t like his laugh, which sounded rude. When I asked her, Rose said he wasn’t her boyfriend, which made me feel better.

I was looking for Rose when Grandma pushed past me. Mama was standing at the door of the kitchen yelling, “Get out of here and don’t you come back.”

“Rose,” I called.

And there she was, standing right by the front door, her eyes on Grandma, her shoulders stiff like a soldier. I could always count on her to be brave.

“You heard Mama,” she said to Grandma. “Leave us alone.”

“Oh, sweetheart, if only I could.”

“You only make it worse,” Rose said.

I stood there looking back and forth between them, wanting them to stop, wanting all of it to stop.

“I’m going to speak to your father,” Grandma said.

“You do all the time.”

After she left Rose stooped down next to me and hugged me so hard we fell on the floor, which started us laughing.

“The old goat,” Rose said. And that made me laugh really hard.

And then one day, when I needed her and called and called, she didn’t answer. Mama had picked me up from school. She was supposed to take me to my piano lesson, but she drove home instead. I figured she was having one of her spells, because she was driving slow and she didn’t say anything. By that time, I knew it wouldn’t do any good to ask questions.

The first thing I saw when we got home was Rose’s red sweater hanging on the banister. Mama went right to the kitchen and poured herself a big glass of orange juice. She sat down at the table and laid her head down on her arms. I called Rose but she didn’t answer. So I went over and touched Mama’s back.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

She looked up at me like she was surprised to find me there.

“Why don’t you go play?” she said.

I didn’t feel like playing, so I went upstairs to look for Rose.

The door to her room was shut. I didn’t hear anything, but I figured she had to be in there.

“Rose?” I whispered through the door. “It’s Mama. Something’s the matter.”

She didn’t answer. So I opened the door. At first I couldn’t see anything. The blinds were drawn and there weren’t any lights. Then I saw Rose on the bed. And someone was lying on the bed beside her, face down.

“Go on back downstairs,” she said. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

But I just stood there. I couldn’t move. Because she didn’t have her blouse on. She had one arm crossed over herself and she was pulling at the sheet with her other hand, but I could see her nipples.

“Jesus, Rose, you said nobody was home.” It was Cory.

Rose pulled the sheet up around her.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“I’ll tell you later. Just a minute.”

I watched her get herself dressed and we went down to the kitchen. Mama was on the floor, lying in a puddle of juice and broken glass.

“What’s the matter with her?” I asked, squatting on the floor beside her.

But Rose didn’t answer. Instead she said, “Come on, Toots, let’s get her upstairs.”

She was pulling on Mama’s arm when we looked up to find Cory staring down at us.

“Oh my god,” he said, “She’s dead drunk.”

“No,” I told him. “She’s sick.”

“Alcohol poisoning,” he said.

“You’re wrong,” I said. “I hate you.”

“Just give us a hand,” Rose said. She sounded so tired.

When they had gotten Mama into her bed, I stayed behind, gazing at her face, patting her cheek, and saying over and over, “What’s wrong, Mama?” until Rose took me by the hand and led me from the room.

Then she was gone. Daddy drove her to a hospital where he said she would get well. I wrote letters to her at the hospital, and she sent me postcards with pictures of dolphins and giraffes. She said she loved me and missed me and would come home soon. I pasted the postcards in my scrapbook. And most nights I slept with Rose to keep from crying.

And then one day, when I was sitting with Rose on her bed, she started to tear up a letter she was reading.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“It’s from Mama.” She looked really angry.

“Let me see.” I tried to grab the paper.

“She’s not getting well.”

I started hitting her with my fists. “That’s not true,” I screamed.

Rose put her arms around me. “Poor little kid,” she said. She looked like she’d been crying.

I wiggled away from her and picked up the pieces of Mama’s letter that were scattered all over the bed.

“Read it,” I said, holding out the scraps of paper.

“You poor little kid,” she said again.

I laid out the scraps of paper on the bed. Too many pieces were missing to read it, but I pretended. “It says she’s getting well and is coming home soon.” And I left the room.

Mama did come home. And the first week or two were pretty good. She was dressed and smelling nice every afternoon when I got home from school, and she made dinner for us.

“Whoopee! No more Grandma,” Rose said.

Mama laughed her old laugh. “Ding dong, the witch is dead.”

But one afternoon, soon after she came back, I burst open the door to her bedroom, where Rose said she’d gone to take a rest. The blinds were drawn and the room smelled like cough syrup.

I tiptoed over to the bed and whispered, “Mama?”

She propped herself up on her elbow and tried to straighten the sheet which was tangled up in her legs. “Hi Toots,” she said. “How’s my baby?”

I took hold of the sheet and pulled it off of her. “Please get up,” I said.

But she flopped down on her back. “In a minute, honey.”

“Please,” I begged.

She didn’t answer. I stood there watching her face for a long time, but she didn’t say anything else. I left the room when she started snoring.

After that she was usually in bed when I left for school, and her door was closed when I got home. She still came downstairs from time to time, but she was usually in her nightgown and the gray showed in her hair. Daddy told me it was taking a long time for her to get well. And then he took her to what he called a rest home.

Of course, she came back again. And again. But she always went back to the rest home.
Each time I cried less.

That’s when Grandma Charlotte took over.

“How come she’s here all the time?” Rose asked Daddy.

“Toots needs her.”

“I’ll look after her like I’ve been doing for the past year.”

“You’re a kid.”

“Suit yourself,” Rose said, “but it’s me or her.”

And she meant it, because with Grandma hanging around all the time, Rose stopped coming home after school. She slept at our house, of course. Otherwise, Grandma would have called the police. But she never turned up until after dinner.

“Where have you been?” Grandma would ask.

“With friends.”

“You’ll end up just like your mother,” Grandma would say.

“Good.”

Occasionally I’d see her in town with Cory, their arms around each other’s waists, talking and laughing. I’d run up to her and beg her to come home.

“It’s awful without you,” I’d tell her.

“Not now, Toots,” she’d say. “I’ll be there tonight.” And she’d give me a big hug and off she’d go with Cory. I hated him.

After awhile, we only saw her on weekends. Grandma called the police, but before they showed up, somebody’s mother would telephone and ask if Rose could sleep over.

“She’s okay,” Daddy told Grandma. “Lay off her. She’s a teenager. Right now, she’d rather be with her friends.”

“Do you even care what happens to your child?”

“I won’t dignify that with an answer. Rose’s had a shock, and the last thing she needs is to have the cops trailing after her. Give her time; she’s a responsible kid.”

“She’s seventeen, Herman.”

“Just leave the police out of it,” Daddy said and disappeared into the kitchen.

“Don’t you pour yourself another drop of that whiskey,” Grandma said.

And Daddy just laughed.

Finally, Rose’s high school counselor reported her missing from school. Grandma telephoned all of her friends, but no one knew where she was.

“She’s with Cory,” I said.

But Cory didn’t know where she was.

“Search me!” he said.

“She’s a runaway,” the policeman said. “She’ll turn up when she needs money. They always do.”

But she didn’t. Every afternoon Grandma would telephone the police to see if anyone had seen her. I always stood beside her while she phoned, listening as hard as I could. Then I would go to her room and close the door. And I’d write letters to Rose. I would tell her what was happening in school and what songs I was learning on the piano. I’d tell her I loved her. I’d hear Grandma outside the door. “Teresa, honey, can I come in?”

“Leave me alone,” I’d say.

“Let’s go to the Dairy Korner.”

“Leave me alone.”

I kept all the letters in a box in Rose’s room for when she turned up. She’d promised to take care of me.

Grandma got Daddy to work on me, but I could tell his heart wasn’t in it. He was drinking a lot of whiskey by then. He had to hide the bottles, because Grandma poured the whiskey down the sink whenever she found them.

I’m ten now. Mama comes home now and then, but she doesn’t stay for long. I try not to think about the time before she got sick. Grandma’s pretty nice to me. She’s probably afraid I’ll leave. But I’m only ten. So I go to school; I go to First Baptist; I play the piano.

And I wait for Rose. I have my suitcase packed. Because some day she’ll come for me. I know she will. And she won’t be with Cory. She’ll come for me.

 

——————–
Nancy Bourne is a retired lawyer who represented California public schools in a statewide education law firm. Since retirement, she has been writing stories and teaching English composition to inmates at the California San Quentin State Prison. Her recent publications include stories in Summerset Review and Forge. Another story is scheduled for publication in Quiddity in Fall 2013.


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