Arnie DeBlonk pinched his Pall Mall cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, the glowing tip cupped in his palm, as he squatted near her mother’s kitchen door. Across the room, the girl’s mother flapped a damp dress shirt and fitted the sleeve to the ironing board’s end. The girl perched on the back stairs, a dark tunnel to her mother’s domain, waiting for him to leave so she’d get help with her social studies project.
He sucked in a drag, pivoting his brown work boots, shifting his weight left-right-left; his stance steady again.
Her mother bent over her iron, occasionally interjecting “oh, really” or “that’s too bad” as he rambled on about President Johnson, the mayor’s new license for carpenters, Mrs. Antonides’ kitchen, and how much he missed his children.
Arnie swooped up the Sign of the Cross and her mother murmured, “Elsa was a good mother.”
When Arnie was widowed at Christmas, he and Our Lady of the Sorrows wanted the girl’s family to take in his five daughters. The girl was twelve years old and his girls were between ten and fifteen. The girl’s dad, not bound by Catholic guilt, refused, saying where would everybody, including ten kids, sleep? When Elsa DeBlonk died, people whispered, “no one should die of pneumonia anymore.” The girl, tired of her four teenage brothers, would have liked sisters to help her with her period. Her mother was preoccupied with her dad and keeping the boys away from beer parties and teenage ‘hussies.’ The girl rubbed her hands against her hand-me-down dungarees and imagined having sisters to braid her hair, to teach her the Twist or the Monkey, and to explain how not to be a hussy.
A smoke column drifted toward the steam surrounding her mother’s iron. An inch of Arnie’s ashes faded from red bloom to gray. He argued “the miter joint corner has to be perfect, you see,” and the inch fell into his palm. Her mother propped up the iron and opened the kitchen window halfway. It was an unreasonably warm day for March, but the air gave the girl goosebumps. Although her brothers weren’t allowed to smoke their Marlboros in the house, her mother said nothing.
Arnie got up from his squat, the knees of his coveralls faded white. He plucked open his top pocket and poured the ashes in. He crouched again on his haunches, talking the whole time about the Saint Anthony’s Home for Children. Fifty miles too far away. Sister Olive too lenient. Sister Mary Rose played favorites to his middle girl.
The girl couldn’t stand it anymore and slid down the last two steps and stomped into the kitchen. “Mom, my Taj Mahal project is due tomorrow.”
Her mother looked at the girl like she’d forgotten who she was.
Arnie dug in the back pocket of his coveralls. “Here’s a quarter. Big girls like you should do your own school work.”
“Don’t,” her mother said, but she didn’t make the girl give it back. Yesterday she paid half of the Midway grocery bill so they’d keep extending her credit. People said Arnie got cash for when he finished a cabinet job, from county welfare, and through the Church. He lived in his basement and rented out his house now that his daughters were in the orphanage.
The girl buried the coin in her back pocket so he’d forget it. He’d never let her mother forget that she was the one who called the sisters of Saint Anthony and the county social services.
“Mom, Dad called. He’ll be home early tonight,” the girl lied.
Her mother buttoned the top button of a dress shirt, smoothing the collar. “Thanks, honey. Arnie, now what were you saying about Mrs. Antonides’ corner cabinet?”
She hung the white shirt on a hanger, hooking it to a cabinet knob. A high school teacher in a wrinkled shirt earned no respect. In the breeze from the window, half a dozen white shirts fluttered as Arnie lit his next Pall Mall and sank to his squat. The nuns would help his daughters with their projects. The girl climbed the stairs to her Taj Mahal shadow box.
Dedicated to Katherine Tinsley