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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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Broken

by Elizabeth Cummins Muñoz


 

The day Jimmy broke his arm, I saw my mother hammering in the moonlight. I remember the white of my nightgown at the window, my brother moaning across the room, and my father below, lame and defeated. At his feet, the flowers I'd gathered that morning lay crushed and shoved about our broken front porch.

   

Jimmy and I made a world out on the porch when we were little. Its great front steps rose up to a wrap-around veranda studded with splinters and stubbed toes and firefly nights. My brother and I would weave our make-believe in and out of wicker rockers and calico cushions, an old wooden crate where adults could rest their feet on a hot afternoon. My mother's presence always hovered in the periphery, a voice, a sigh. I close my eyes and see her, come out from the kitchen to sit back onto the rocker with a sweaty glass in her hand, her feet raised high onto the crate. She fell into her body, legs splayed out so that her apron dropped between her denim knees and left her ankles far from crossed. Her head tilted back as she closed her eyes and lifted her face to the slow moving fan above. The sweat on her neck smelled sweet like cold clean lemonade, and I longed to climb up to her, upon and inside of her, but her eyes were shut quite tight and her body filled up the whole of the porch, and I was older than Jimmy so I knew Momma's body quiet and the sting of her reluctant embrace. It would do no good to need her then. I held my breath and waited for her to come back.

 

"Jimmy, no!"

 

He lifted himself up onto her, electrified by the same belly bunnies as I to see our mother so daytime still. Her body woke to him, and she pulled her weighty arms around his waist so that he twisted his face into the not-quite-rightness of her. I watched from behind the rocker, uncertain, and wanted the scent and heat of her.

 

"Off you go, Jimmy," a too-cheerful smile and a pat on the bum. I waited for him on the third step from the top, which is also the third from the bottom, and when he came to me, I pinched his fat back and ran hard across the barefoot lawn.

 

***

 

Dad was a giant who came up the steps as the sun went down. He carried a briefcase heavy in his right hand, newspapers or packages tucked into the left.

 

"What a mess you've made," he'd survey our rocks and sticks and mud piles stacked one upon the other. The faded wooden planks became fortress and fairy world, and the great empty cardboard box was a throw-away thing tossed out to our fantasy world of castle and spaceship, hideout in a jungle rain. He'd step over crayons and scissors and ribbons of twisted tape and into my mother's kitchen, as he did that evening, just before Jimmy got his idea to climb the thick porch rail. Dinner-smell escaped through the side door as Dad entered, and on the porch our bellies filled suddenly with onion and butter clouds and dinner-wanting. Mumbled voices slid out from under the kitchen door, "The kids... such a mess..." Momma's voice fell heavy and not as her morning song and Dad let flow a quiet poem with no rhyme, low and long.

 

Momma chopped and stirred, pulled and banged on the meat with a tenderizer that looked like a giant's club and carried the face of an angry silver waffle. Jimmy had come after me with the club raised high the first time he found it, and though I knew it was only my brother and only a nothing sort of thing from Momma's kitchen drawer, I had huddled behind the shed in fear of what Jimmy and the tenderizer might become outside the swinging screen door.

 

But that day the waffle face was only a dinner-maker on Momma's chopping block, and I kneeled on the porch arranging my flowers and listened to the thumps and the chops, knowing the thing would be heavy in her hand, sticky red juices running through the silver lines and down her bare arm. That image floated in the back of me as I squatted next to the cardboard box that would not stand straight as a cottage should. The flowers had gone limp at its painted-on door and all of it seemed so far away from the picture in my mind.

 

"Kids, dinner."

 

Jimmy balanced on the rail, though it's not allowed, carefully, carefully, his eyes darting to door and window. My tummy began to rumble with meat sizzling and boy tumbling, Jimmy's rule-breaking, and the coming of the second call to dinner. "You're gonna get a splinter," I said. His fat toes curled around the wood.

 

"Kids, dinner!" Momma again.

 

 "Jimmy, Dad's gonna be mad."

 

He continued to step along the rail, silent and grinning. He'd made up his mind to walk the length of the wrap-around, ducking at windows and heart racing. Momma's call still filled up the twilight air and my brother moved slowly, one earth-stained foot in front of the other.

 

Footsteps came heavy from the kitchen, her hand certainly reaching for the door. I squeezed my eyes shut and waited. "Carolyn, now just hold on a minute," Dad pulled the handle closed again, moving her fingers away perhaps. But Momma would not hold his hand now, not even if he touched first. Momma doesn't hold hands when dinner is waiting and baths have yet to be drawn.

 

Jimmy had come round to the front now, moving toward the great porch steps with his arms stretched out wide like Superman. Voices from the kitchen had fallen into a rhythm again, and it was soft and good when I crouched back down to set up my garden around the empty box. It would be a cottage, just like ours, with a rounded door and two square windows on the front and flowers all around.

 

Momma liked to call our house a cottage. On sunny days when the laundry could wait and there was no sense in wasting a sunny day,  she'd make us wear hats and we would dig. My shovel was red with a ladybug at the handle and Jimmy had a frog one, but he'd drop it and use his hands whenever he found the first worm. Momma said it's good to get your hands in the dirt. Her hat was great-brimmed, her hair pinned back at the neck. The only times she'd ever squat down like us was when we were in the garden. I took care of the weeds and Jimmy let in the air. Momma said that meant he was in charge of moving the soil around so plants could grow. Flowers and bushes, I dreamt of a garden filled with petals and blooms. "More flowers, Momma!" Dad liked them too, colors like a rainbow, but Momma would only smile and say she needed to tend the roots. I asked her why the roots mattered if you never got the flowers. She nodded and rocked back on her heels, hands not red but dark with mud and soil, her gardening gloves laid on the ground next to Jimmy's shovel.

 

And one time she called, "Go on now and get cleaned up for lunch" which meant tuna sandwiches and apple slices with juice, only the bread would be mushy if we waited too long. But I forgot to put back the worm I'd saved in my pocket, and when I quick turned around and ran out the back door toward the garden, I stopped at the bottom step and let the worm slither a while in my hand. Because there was Momma, as still as I'd ever seen her, on her knees in the middle of the freshly-turned dirt and her face in her dark-stained hands, all of her clear as day in the morning sun. That night, I'd dreamed that we planted Momma in the garden, and she gave off deep roots and green green leaves, but no flowers blooming.

 

 

***

 

On the day of Jimmy's accident, I tried hard to give my cottage a garden thick with blooms but my flowers kept falling. In summertime, white flowers would spring up about the lawn like magic, and Jimmy and I had gathered piles and piles that day, quick before the lawnmower came. They wouldn't stay up, though, no matter how I arranged the rocks, and I wanted to kick the whole thing hard because I'd been trying and trying, and "Jimmy, come help!"

 

"Uh-uh," because he hadn't made it all around yet, and he was gonna jump this time, over the steps and across the break in the porch rail. From one side to the other was a big long jump, and even I hadn't done that before.

 

Crash!

 

I turned my head fast to the kitchen window and the quiet talk exploded—"Damn! look what I did." Dad's voice had gone silent and now there was only Momma and the rise and fall of her words, sharp and not at all like a song.

 

Jimmy crouched to make the leap and he looked like one of my flowers, all folded up and droopy away from sunlight and dirt. That was when I remembered about the rail on the other side and why I had never tried to jump, Momma's thin voice saying how Dad never gets around to fixing anything. I screamed "Damn!" to warn Jimmy, but the crack came anyway just as soon as he fell from the splintered wood of a rotten rail board. Then another crash, except not so high, not so sharp, just Jimmy on the great front steps bent up all wrong and crying louder than his siren voice.

 

The kitchen door swung wide, and fast footsteps flew, Dad's words flat and hard. "Kat! What were you two doing out here? How could you let him do that?" But it didn't matter, it wouldn't matter if Momma would look at me right. She bent over Jimmy, her high voice gone too low and tight, and she touched and looked.

 

"Ned, get the car ready." Dad almost talked but she stopped him with her hand, "I'll carry him."

 

Momma, is Jimmy okay? Is he gonna die? But all of that stayed in a clump in my neck because none of me could move. "Kat, get into the car," she said. But I couldn't move my feet, and she was gonna be so mad because I never even came in for dinner and now this, and I couldn't make my body move to get in the car, but Momma, Momma, is he?

 

"Carolyn, the keys?" from the kitchen window.

 

Then she looked at me, her eyes wet and her hair sweaty and her fingers red on my brother's forehead. "It's okay, Katy baby, it's gonna be okay." So I breathed out long and ran to the kitchen, because I knew where the keys were, Momma put them in the same glass jar every time.

 

***

 

The hospital smelled of plastic and cleaning bucket and hydrogen peroxide bubbling on a skinned knee. Great fluorescent lights crowded out the hiding places for cobwebs and critters. Only I found one, a sort of skinny beetle. I didn't know its name but it flitted and flatted fast across the white floor, straight-ways and side-ways and quick slip under the closed door across the room. I chased after it and reached my fingers under the heavy door.

 

"Kat!" Dad's voice pricked sharp like a fat-fingered Jimmy pinch. I checked Momma for mad, but she was only chin on hand and eyes far away. A chair sat empty between them.

 

When we took Jimmy home, his arm bent stiff in white plaster that burned my nose with new-smell and fixed to the side of my brother's chest, hard and heavy. He watched me carefully as I put my fingers out to touch the cast for the first time, and we each held our breath a little as we waited to see how it would feel to put my hand on what was and wasn't Jimmy.

 

"Well, son, now you've got a battle story." Dad looked back from the mirror and smiled all wrong, pulled his shoulders too high. The car stopped fast at a red light so that Jimmy's face scrunched up and Momma sighed loud. Trees raced by.

 

***

 

At the steps I thought, I'll close my eyes—one, two, three—and run. I'll squeeze them shut and make fists and speed up the steps, fly over the broken parts, and land safe inside.

 

"Kat, get in the house. Go on, now."  Big hands lifted me over the splintered boards.

 

I opened the door for Momma and Jimmy, and she breathed heavy holding him, now that he was not just boy, but cast and brace and the white sting of cleaning bottles. Dad reached to help her through but she stepped fast and called from over her shoulder, "Fix the porch, Ned."

 

Her voice stayed with us, Dad and me. I looked out from the inside, and he stood on the porch looking in with the keys still hanging from his hand.

 

The next time she said it, I was in my pajamas. Dad was the sound of ice and glass and footsteps downstairs and Momma stepped out of our room, just come from tending to Jimmy. "Fix the porch, Ned," her voice shot down, and Dad's footsteps stopped. At the top of the staircase I watched Momma put her hand on the fat banister, dark and slippery. Maybe when no one was around, she would slide down it, too.

 

"Carolyn, it's late already. We've lost the light of day." Dad had taken off his glasses and that meant only TV was left, and no tucking us in.

 

She didn't say anything, and so I moved toward her.

 

"Momma?" But her silent eyes stayed fixed on Dad.

 

I wanted the soft place around her belly, to lay my head on her hip and reach around her, because I was too big to be carried now.

 

"Momma, will you tuck me in?"

 

I reached for the crumpled fabric of her skirt, thin in the place I held on to. Her clothes still carried the scent of doctors and shiny hallways, and I pulled myself into her because I wanted the real smell of her, and because my room felt too dark with Jimmy already sleeping, and because she hadn't said a word back to Dad. He only looked up at her, quiet at the bottom of the stairs.

 

"Fix the goddamn porch railing, Ned."

 

Then she turned around and put me to bed the way she's supposed to do, only the back rub ended too soon and the touch carried no rhythm, like part of her was already out the door and any second she'd be on the other side. So I had to hold on tighter.


"Kat, come on. Let go, baby."

 

"Just another minute, Momma."

 

"Come on now, Kat, it's been a long day."

 

And then she really did slide out of the room and all that was left was Jimmy breathing wrong, bottles of medicine on the table and juice with a bendy straw floating in it. I cried in the quiet then, because no one had given me a juice with a bendy straw.

 

***

 

The next time I heard it, night had come fully and the voice pushed up through the window. I first woke to the banging, and when I stepped to the window the front porch and the moon and the garden and the cardboard box all spilled out before me, different in the night. I could only make out the outline of things and all of them at once, seeing it all that night in a way that changed everything.

 

Momma knelt low and worked the hammer to loosen the rotting and splintered porch boards, flipping it to the back side to pull up its broken pieces. New planks of wood lay against the undamaged railing and stuck their feet in my play-time garden, shoving the rocks and spilling the flowers all around. Those boards had been stored in the shed for a long time. Jimmy wanted to make a tall ramp when we first found them, but I said no. I didn't know if it was the ramp that was wrong or using the wood, but some things are just bad and Jimmy never cares.

 

He had started to move a little, squirming and moaning every so often, and if I stepped to the side at the window, the moonlight would shine through onto his white cast. I rocked forward and back, forward and back, casting light and shadow across him like Morse code.

 

When Dad came out of the front door, he tripped over the toolbox and its metal rattled in the night.

 

"Carolyn, what are you doing?"

 

Momma didn't look up at him. She only pulled hard at the boards with her giant's hands in work gloves.

 

"Carolyn, honey, come into the house. It's two o'clock in the morning."


Momma worked on, her head down low like in the garden, only now her body jerked and yanked, never to stop and sink soft into the damp earth.

 

Talk, Momma, talk!

 

Then Jimmy's moans called louder and his hot body twisted this way and that, and there was no one else so I leaned over his bed like Momma, "Jimmy, sweety, you okay?" I reached the juice with the bendy straw to his mouth just like she'd do, "Here, baby, take a sip." But he only turned away and half-cried, and he was not Jimmy. I laid my hand across his forehead, like I'd seen her do, and it felt all wrong, too hot, too sweaty. So I dashed to the window to call out to them, but—

 

"Carolyn, damn it, come inside."

 

She raised her face to him, no longer tearing at the wood. The creaks and the snaps all went silent, and Momma stood up and looked at him. Jimmy groaned from behind me, needing me, but Momma was finally looking at Dad and so I would stay at the window, watching them from above in my white pajamas.

 

"I told you to fix the porch."

 

"Carolyn, I—"

 

"I told you to fix the goddamn porch."

 

She spoke louder now and her angry voice rose up into the night. It was the really mad one where me and Jimmy shut up—just be quiet kids, just shut the hell up for once —and leave her be, because she can't even get five minutes to herself, damn it, and there's always more work and nobody does their chores, and because she's tired and she needs a little peace and quiet, damn it, so just shut up for Christ's sake and leave her alone.

 

Only then she used the voice on Dad.

 

"Fix the porch, Ned."

 

She placed the hammer in his hand, wrapped his fingers around it. He'll get a splinter, out there with those bare feet.

 

"Fix the fucking porch!"

 

"Carolyn, the neighbors-"

 

"Fix the fucking porch, damn it! Fix it right now, you lazy son of a bitch. Take this goddamn hammer and do it. Do something! Jesus Christ, something." Her fists pounded on his chest like a gorilla, falling hard and fast, and Jimmy's sounds grew louder and louder, and I didn't know which medicine was the right one.

 

"Worthless! worthless!" She yelled, hitting and crying , and he tried to push her away but the hammer hung too heavy in his hand and surely it would fall.

 

"Momma," Jimmy cried out. But only I could hear, because that was when Momma screamed, loud and into the night and no words attached. When I left Jimmy and got back to the window I saw only my mother on her knees with her face in her hands and Dad standing still in bare feet with a hammer loose in his right hand and broken boards all around.

 

***

 

I spent the rest of that night in Jimmy's bed. Holding tight to his good arm, I made myself small to fit next to his body and dreamed of hammers and crushed flowers. Someone covered us in the night, and when I woke I found the juice cup empty and Jimmy's face cool to the touch, his breathing just as it should be.

 

It took a long while to walk to the window, and mostly I remember the way my nightgown unwrinkled itself as I moved across the room, falling into place in the morning light. On the porch rail down below, a stretch of unpainted wood bridged what had been broken just hours before. The tools and splintered pieces had been cleared away, and new weed-flowers had grown up on the lawn. So I left my brother sleeping and stepped quickly down the stairs and out the back door into the morning grass, where I picked flowers while my parents' voices pushed low and even through the kitchen screen door. I smelled bacon in the air. Momma must almost be done cooking breakfast, I thought, and ran barefoot toward the porch with a fistful of fresh white flowers.