(Excerpt from a novel-in-progress)
Although I am only eleven years old and one would think that young, blank canvas, nascent minds would be constantly in motion with new ideas, fun amusements, and creative endeavors, sometimes I need a mind-numbing pastime. Thank God for TV. It can’t get more anesthetizing than that (I’ll admit I had to look up the spelling for several words in this paragraph, despite my school vocab wonder girl status).
Mom’s got stacks of parenting magazines and crap ass, set by the dumpster bookshelves stuffed with how to raise your child “right” tomes, and yet I wonder if her mind has no more adhesive ’cause nothing seems to stick. I check out chapters and articles she’s marked with sticky notes and I wonder what she does with this information because I don’t see any implementing or actualizing of their directives.
Number one: make dinner with the family a priority, as a time for everyone to sit around the dining room table and commune; make it a sacred time. My dinner companion more often than not is Sponge Bob Squarepants and he doesn’t bring a whole lot of depth to the table though I do get a dose of comic relief at the end of another long day. That’s double brownie points in my book.
Number two: Create a stable home environment; children need a sense of security, to feel safe so they may thrive.
What they don’t explain is what happens if this security is not provided, except for extreme cases. Everyone seems to ignore the not-so-good but not-quite-tragic instances. I guess there’s no drama in those stories; it’s not good copy.
Discussions seem to be about what “should” happen and the dire consequences if they don’t. What about the effects of a situation that doesn’t blow all the way past the outer edges? What if a child hasn’t run away and tried to cross the border with only a twenty dollar bill in her pocket and no I.D. or burned the tail of the neighbor’s cat or painted her bedroom walls black with dripping red stripes? I guess it’s assumed that if a child’s reaction to her environment isn’t extreme then she isn’t being adversely affected and will land solidly on her own two feet. I gotta say, thinking that way allows a whole lot of kids to go swimming with no one anticipating the riptide. Slipping and sliding can be just as dangerous as falling off a cliff. Well, maybe not as dangerous but it should warrant an article or two. I would think.
Our walls are thin. Mom waits until I’ve gone to bed before she sits at the dining room table to deal with the monthly bills. She starts out calmly, placing each bill in a stack by due date and making the monthly expense sheet. Then, she snatches the first bill (usually the gas bill as it’s due the soonest and is, by far, the cheapest), writes the check, accounts for it in the checkbook, seals it in the accompanying envelope and places it to the right, then crosses it out on the expense list. I can see her take a deep breathe, and her back and shoulders straighten. She’s sitting stronger in her chair, like it feels good; one bill successfully paid. I think, maybe this month all will go well. We’ll step around the red and gloat in the black. Mom writes a couple more checks, laying them off to the right. Too soon, she picks up the checkbook in both hands and is still. Paralytic still. I can feel her dismay and desperation all the way to my hidden corner in the hallway.
She grabs a blank sheet of paper and adds and subtracts furiously, as though hoping for some math magic, you know, the “fuzzy math” (George W. Bush, Oct. 4, 2000). I know from looking at tossed sheets that she’s computing her month’s possible income (best case scenario and worst case scenario) and comparing that with the remaining outstanding bills. The bills are absolutes. The only numbers she can fudge are food, gas and extras like clothes, drugstore supplies and carving into her budget for unexpected visits to the doctor or the mechanic. By this time her elbows are on the table, her back is slumped, her shoulders rounded, her protruding neck resembling a turtle. I think she wants to withdraw into her shell (game over) and never come out. Her chin tries to remain high, but it’s wavering.
All too soon, her head thumps onto the table and her arms collapse over the back of her head and I see her shoulders trembling. Her crying is noiseless (I’m sure for my sake), but the drip of her tears onto the bills below reach me as though amplified; they sound like doom. I will dig into the wastebasket tomorrow and pull out the scraps of paper and rummage through the outstanding bills shoved mercilessly into the file folder to see if I can find an error in her math that might work in our favor, but I won’t be able to discern the numbers—her despair has blurred them into pulp. Mom seems particularly jumpy on the days following these nights, easily startled. She knows they are still there. They are the ones outstanding, lurking. Always waiting, oppressively patient.
Sponge Bob makes me laugh.
Kat Ward is the publisher of Hometown Pasadena and released her first novel, Amy’s Own, in 2012. She is currently working on Keeping Sane, and Other Aspirations, and hopes to god that she will complete her first draft in 2014.