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Some say you get your best education in school. Others say it's through life. I got my best education early on eavesdropping at Mama's feet while she talked to my aunt on the telephone.
She wasn't really my aunt. Not by blood. She'd been Mama's best friend since they were little girls living in the same neighborhood in Temperance, Indiana. Then they grew up. Mama and Aunt Maureen liked to joke that they would have stayed in their hometown if Temperance hadn't practiced what it preached. When I asked Aunt Maureen what that meant, she just said, "Can you say boring?"
So Mama got a scholarship and went to a community college across the state in Hickory, and Aunt Maureen got married and moved to Georgia. Even though a good part of the USA was between them, they'd stayed best friends for eons, which is a word I learned because my mama always said it when they talked about how long it had been.
"Eon" wasn't the only word I learned the meaning of by listening in. I learned my first cuss words that way, too, but I won't tell you what they were because the best way to get that education I told you about is to act like you're not hearing anything. You just have to be quiet and stay in the shadows. You go and repeat something you weren't supposed to hear, then, buddy, it's all over.
Listening to Mama and Aunt Maureen is how I learned the secret to making angel food cake so light you'd swear it would float away before you could slice it; it's all in the beating—plenty but not too much.
I learned that sheets under 300 thread count weren't worth spit, even though they were a whole lot cheaper. They'd pill and then you'd have to shave them.
I learned the most important thing last year when I was eleven. That's when I heard Mama say that Jack Henry, my stepfather, was having himself a good old time with someone other than my mother. Probably someone with less than 300 thread count sheets, too, if that's what Mama meant by her being cheap.
Mama cried and cried to Aunt Maureen.
"That's what I get for marrying a guitar player who makes his living singing in a bar," she'd sobbed.
It's a good thing Jack Henry wasn't there to hear her. He always said he wasn't just a saloon singer. He was a star on the rise and singing at Harmony Street Blues was just the first step toward fame. He'd get real mad if someone didn't call him by both his first and last name. "So people won't forget that talented guy is Jack Henry," he'd say.
Together Mama and Aunt Maureen came up with a plan. First Mama called McDermott's Lock and Key and had new locks put on the doors. Then she took everything Jack Henry owned and threw it out on the lawn with a sign that said "Free." I know because she let me paint it.
When he came home late that night after playing at Harmony Street Blues, he hollered and banged on the door for Mama to let him in. But she just kept up a running monologue of what he was yelling to Aunt Maureen on the telephone as she went from window to window, peeking through the curtains. "I'm staying strong. I'm not letting him in," Mama told her. I knew Jack Henry was toast as long as Aunt Maureen stayed on the line.
He finally gave up, dragging away the few of his possessions that were still left in the yard.
Sixty days later, Mama hauled me and my little half brother, Jack Jr., to divorce court. She pulled me by the hand to stand before the judge and picked up my brother, eyes blinking, thumb deep in his mouth, and plopped him on the judge's desk. When the judge asked her why she wanted the divorce, she said it was bad enough that Jack Henry had been kissing up some other woman but he did it in the shirt she'd bought herself and washed and bleached to keep it snowy white. She said the least he could have done was take that shirt off.
When the judge banged the gavel declaring her a free woman and giving her custody, she settled my brother on her hip, grabbed my hand, pulled us out of that courtroom, and never looked back.
I did, though. I looked back at Jack Henry. He lifted his sad face, his thick dark hair falling over one of his tear-filled eyes, and said, "Bye, Jack Junior." It would have been a moment to thaw the coldest of hearts if I hadn't known that Jack Henry was such a con artist.
He came around home every so often after the divorce, but not what you could call regular. Definitely not the every-other-week visitation schedule the judge declared. He'd never paid much attention to me when he lived with us, but then he didn't tell me what to do or scold me, either. I considered it a fair trade. Now he didn't acknowledge me at all.
You'd think he would have paid more attention to Jack Jr., but I guess Jack Henry wasn't particular whether you were his stepchild or his kid by blood—his parenting skills were the same.
After the divorce, though, he'd come around saying he needed to see his boy. He'd wrestle with Jack Jr. and tousle his hair. But then it was easy to figure out the real reason he came, which was to beg Mama to take him back. She almost caved in a time or two. I could tell because she'd go all soft-eyed while he was there and wouldn't put up much fuss when he hugged her, especially when he'd sigh and say, "Oh, Cass." She looked like she'd almost melt, and I figured she was a goner. He'd whisper something in her ear and she would hold her hand over her mouth and laugh. But then he'd eventually say, "I can't pay all the support this week, baby," and her face would set hard, like stone. He'd leave, promising to make it up the next week.
Mama would immediately get on the horn to Aunt Maureen. The two of them would talk about Jack Henry in a way that made a person almost feel sorry for him. Mama would be in such a state it didn't matter if I just sat there and listened outright without pretending. I learned lots of new words that I probably wasn't supposed to on those days.
I also learned that Mama was a "serial marrier." At least that's what she called herself to Aunt Maureen. I could tell Aunt Maureen was doing her best to talk Mama up but Mama wouldn't have any of it. "You know it's true, Maureen. Between the two of us we've had three husbands and counting! Why we're a regular soap opera!"
I knew Mama had been married to my dad, Travis Greer. She'd left community college because she was "in a family way," which meant she was pregnant with me only she never said it just like that. So my daddy made husband number one, although he took off before I was born. Jack Henry made husband number two. Aunt Maureen was married to Uncle Sonny, an over-the-road truck driver with a big tummy and the warmest hugs I ever got from anybody. That made three husbands. I wondered what the "and counting" meant.
The last time we saw Jack Henry was in July and he didn't seem different from any other time. He tried to sweet-talk Mama again. He gave her some of the support money—not all—with the promise to make it up next time. When his check didn't come the following week, Mama, acting on Aunt Maureen's advice, packed us kids in the car and hightailed it to the trailer court where he'd moved. Sure enough, his trailer was empty and his landlord didn't even know he'd gone until Mama told him.
She dragged us to Harmony Street Blues. It wasn't Saturday, but to make ends meet, Jack Henry worked as a bartender on weeknights. I had to keep Jack Jr. outside. He cried for his daddy, but I explained that the sign said "No Minors Allowed" and that meant us. I cupped my hands to peer through the window, though. I could see the owner shaking his head no to Mama and shrugging his shoulders, which I took to mean that he didn't know any more about Jack Henry's whereabouts than we did.
That day was the last time Mama called my brother Jack Jr. From then on she called him JJ. It's what she put on his registration papers when school started in August, and when Mrs. Wilton, his kindergarten teacher, asked Mama what the initials stood for on the first parents' night, Mama looked her straight in the eye and said, "J." Then she hesitated a good long beat and said, "J."
With Jack Henry running off and not paying child support, a lot of phone calls were going down with Aunt Maureen, and I didn't like them.
"Oh, I don't know, Maureen. I hate to uproot the children. They've been through so much."
Well, now, I didn't think we'd been through that much. With Jack Henry gone, there was a lot less hollering. It was that "uproot" part I didn't care for. It sounded like we were weeds you'd pull out of the ground and then toss aside.
"I know you could put us up for a while but you only have the one extra bedroom. And what if I can't find a job right off? You can't take care of us forever," Mama continued.
But even I knew that if Jack Henry wasn't paying any support and Mama wasn't working, we had to get money from somewhere. I tried not to miss any of their calls, seeing as how their plans affected my future, too. I must have missed a few, though, what with Mama not having the money to make as many calls anymore and me never knowing when Aunt Maureen would call her.
Mama said we needed to start going to church again. Mama, Jack Henry, and I had gone to the Hickory Presbyterian Church when they were first married—until I heard Mama tell Jack Henry that we were going as an upstanding family and that meant she wasn't going back until he could attend without a hangover.
"But, baby! Saturday night is music night! It's not my fault church is the next day," he said.
So we quit going, but I remember drinking Kool-Aid, singing songs, and making a donkey out of Popsicle sticks during Little Lambs Sunday school. After that one brief spell, we became Easter and Christmas goers and that suited me just fine.
"Mama," I whined. "Do we really have to go?"
"Ivy, we're in a pickle. Anyone with brains can see that. I've got no husband, no job, and no prospects. Putting in a little time with the Lord might be the ticket," she said.
"We can do that from home. There're preachers on TV every Sunday morning," I said.
"Why don't you think about working with me instead of sassing me, young lady."
I didn't think that making one little suggestion qualified as sassing, but Mama wasn't herself these days and I decided not to push it.
So we went for three weeks and I was as baffled as the Presbyterian congregation when, on the third week, Mama stood up in the middle of Sharing Blessings and Concerns.
"We've been left at God's mercy," she started. I cringed lower in my seat but Mama pulled me by the arm to stand and said that we needed a way to earn some money.
"For six years I've been married to Jack Henry and have been a faithful wife and mother. It's true I don't have many job skills, but I'm a hard worker all the same. I'm not asking for charity," she emphasized. "But I am asking for charity of the heart. If anyone has a job I could do to earn money and feels the Lord leading them, please listen to Him and give me a chance."
Then we sat down and I just wanted to keep going down until I was swallowed up by the cracks in the hardwood floor where no one could see my absolute mortification.
I had a sinking feeling that this moment wasn't going to go forgotten. In the short time we'd been coming here it was easy to see that once the Hickory Women's Presbyterian Guild took on a mission, things were never the same. Just ask anyone who ever had a stare-down with one of them over trying to take a cookie before the pastor invited the parishioners to refreshments.
After church, the same people we met at the Kroger grocery store who never did more than nod in our direction came hugging on Mama. They told her how courageous she was. I slipped out the door before they could get their arms around me, too.
I ran around the back of the church, where I knew JJ would be. They always took the Little Lambs class outside on nice days, and seeing them now, holding hands and singing kiddie Bible songs, made me wish I was that age again.
"Come on, JJ," I said. "Time to go."
"Okay, bye, Maryann, bye, Adam." And the list went on. I'll have to admit, JJ was a sweet kid. He always had to say goodbye to everyone.
"Bye, Caleb," he said.
"Caleb? What was Caleb doing in Little Lambs?" I asked. Caleb was about my age, too big to be in the Little Lambs class. He had moved to my school last year but we didn't have the same classes so I didn't know much about him.
"He's a helper. And he's my friend," JJ said. "He's been around the world!"
"Around the world?" JJ was only five. I figured he'd gotten part of it wrong. But I glanced back at Caleb. He was a squirrelly-looking kid. He wore glasses and had the kind of brown hair that is the most boring color on the planet. The way he looked and the fact that he made stuff up about being a world traveler made me decide he must be a loser so I kept my mouth shut. I felt almost pious for choosing not to make fun of the less fortunate.
When JJ and I got too hot outside and tired of waiting on Mama, we went back into the cool church. The crowd around Mama had thinned to just Pastor Harold and a man and woman who had given a mind-numbing talk on their summer mission trip to Minnesota, which sounded like an excuse to get in a vacation, if you ask me.
"Oh, Ivy, JJ, come here!" Mama said. "See? These are my children," she told the couple as she took a tissue from her purse and wiped the sweat from JJ's face.
"Kids, this is Mr. and Mrs. Bennett." She looked nearly ready to explode with happiness.
"Ivy is the same age as Caleb. You might have seen her at school last year. I'm sure they'll be the best of friends."
Best of friends? "Mama!"
"Ivy, take your brother and wait outside," Mama said, still in that chirpy voice but looking at me out of the corner of her eye like I'd better not ruin whatever she was up to.
I sighed a great big one, figuring you can't get into trouble for breathing, can you? But I did it loud enough so she'd know I didn't want to be best of friends with anyone but my best friend, Ellen. Then I grabbed JJ's hand and left the building.
When Mama came out, we piled into our car. "Roll the windows down," she said. "I read you can save gas by not running the air conditioner."
"Mama, it's 150 degrees outside!"
"Must you argue with me every step of the way, Ivy? Be glad we have a car." She used her elbows to steer as she put the back of her brown hair up with a bobby pin. "If it comes between the house and the car, we'll be hoofing it."
She'd made that threat before. I had heard her tell Aunt Maureen, "They say to do without food but dont move out of your house. Once you do, you'll be homeless."
"Listen, kids, I have some great news. Two bits of news, actually. Turns out our landlord's wife, Mrs. Morgan, goes to our church. How's that for luck?" She glanced at JJ in the rearview mirror. Then she looked both ways before turning her bright face on me for a second.
"What's lucky about that?" I asked. Last I knew, Mr. Morgan had called and demanded the rent.
She turned back to the road. "She's going to ask her husband to cut our rent in half for the next six months. Half!"
"Can you pay half?" I asked.
"Well, not yet. But I'm working on that." Her face lost its spark as she concentrated on the road.
"Which brings me to my next piece of good news," she said. "Mr. Bennett moved to town last year to fill in as the high school science teacher but a vice-principal position is opening up at a school in Bloomington, near their daughter and her family. Mr. and Mrs. Bennett plan to stay with their daughter while they look for a house there but that's nearly three hours from here. Since her house is really small and Caleb just got settled at school here last year, they thought it would be best all around if they could wait and move Caleb once they buy a new home, hopefully in a month or so. And here we've got that big old half-empty house…"
Mama's voice caught. I knew why. I remembered when we moved into the house. "It's perfect, Cass," Jack Henry had said. "Harmony Street. It's on the same side of the road as Harmony Street Blues. I'll never get lost coming home from work."
"I don't know…" Mama had said.
"We can get a dog," Jack Henry had said.
Mama had laughed. She sounded more like a kid than a woman. "You know how much I love animals."
"Of course I do, Cass."
"But it's so big!" Mama had said.
He'd swung her around. "Sure, it might seem that way now with only Ivy, but you just wait. We'll have a dozen kids and then you'll be telling me you think it's too small!"
But Jack Henry suddenly developed an allergy to animals, or so he'd said. And JJ was the only baby he had ended up wanting.
"So." Mama's voice broke into my thoughts. "They'd like to pay me to let him stay with us for a few weeks."
"Caleb?" I asked. She nodded.
"Caleb Bennett, a kid we don't even know, is going to live with us? Mama, what were you thinking?"
"I was thinking about keeping a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs, Ivy. These are hard times for us, changing times. We're in flux, you know."
I had heard Mama use that word with Aunt Maureen. It meant just what she was saying—nothing would be the same again.
"Even when Jack Henry was here, we thought about converting some of the rooms to take in boarders. I'll admit, I'm not comfortable with that idea now that it's just … us. With no man in the house." She cleared her throat and a sad look stole over her face. "But Caleb's a child. I think it'll be just fine."
JJ strained against the harness of his booster seat to pat her back.
"I think it's great!" JJ said. "Caleb's my friend. Can he sleep in my room?"
"It is not great, JJ. You're just a little kid. You don't understand," I said.
"I do, too, Ivy, and you're just being mean. It'll be nice having a big brother instead of just a dumb sister!"
I knew I'd gone too far because JJ never had a bad word to say about anyone, especially me. But I didn't care. It wasn't Caleb, exactly. I didn't even know him. It's just that our lives felt like a box that had been picked up and turned upside down. You don't have to be an expert on gravity to know that when things are flipped over, something's bound to break.
Text copyright © 2013 by Chris Woodworth