Evidence of Him
I find Mom sitting in the dim kitchen nearly naked, wearing only a see-through nightgown and a pair of holey underwear on top of her head to protect her curlers. Her eyes droop. She hasn’t slept.
“What?” I ask, frightened, my backpack still in hand. Back and forth her head slowly shakes. “What?” I ask again.
“Your Aunt Evelyn called.” I have some idea of what’s coming, but I wait for more. She shakes her head. Despair is not an uncommon reaction to phone calls from my father’s sisters. “She’s coming.”
Evelyn isn’t bad so much as she’s rich and white, and judgmental. She wants to help, to check on us, make sure we’re still alive inside our rat’s nest. So every year, she gets off of her husband’s yacht in Miami and flies to Oakland where her brother, his black wife, and all of their millions of children (five) continue (to her amazement) year after year, to exist. How were we not dead yet? How had we not been killed by one of Dad’s booby traps? How had we not been killed by a bullet on the murderous Oakland streets? And those public schools. So many things could have and should have killed us. That’s what Mom would have us believe about our aunt, and so even though she was nice enough, bought us things, bought things for the house, I remained skeptical. I watched for her judgments. But often, they never came.
“When is she coming?”
“Next week.” Mom pretends to weep in her hands. “Just look at this…” She lifts her hands from her face and motions to display the state of the house.
She describes the state of the house in shapes. It’s in good shape or it’s in bad shape. After relatives visit, when we clean the best we can, make things “passable,” as Mom says, meaning there are chairs to sit on, and more than just a narrow pathway to squeeze our bodies through each room. Bad shape is when we haven’t had visitors for a while, when we forget our furniture is made of wood because we can’t see it. Every surface is covered in papers, seeds, tools.
The house is in bad shape.
I put myself in the shoes of my aunt who will arrive in a week. She will notice a chainsaw near the front door, an industrial-sized ladder resting on the couch. She’ll see a coffee table covered in mail and plants. Horrified, I continue scanning the house as far as I can see.
Evelyn would have to take large steps over boxes used for organizing with labels on them in Dad’s handwriting: BILLS, TAXES, MAIL they said. She would then enter the dining room where she would see more papers, surrounded by boxes stuffed not with what their labels would have you believe, but full of more fun finds like pine cones, naked headless barbies, photo copies of very important articles that Dad cut out from the Oakland Tribune, and old issues of Outdoor Alabama magazine.
The six chairs around the dining table were also covered. They were storage for phone books, all seven of them, electronics Dad wasn’t ready to part with—a broken walk man, a retired boom box, walkie talkies with wires hanging out of them like guts, lots of dead batteries.
I join Mom in her anxiety, knowing that when Aunt Evelyn walked on, into the kitchen, she would find a room from which no perspective or angle could you see a sliver of counter or floor space. The surfaces were completely filled: a toaster, four or five half-full loaves of bread, open jars of peanut butter with spoons inside. More peanut butter behind the pile of plates. A pot of rice from the day before. A skillet coated in congealed oil. Cans of soup. Packages of Jell-O. Tapioca pudding. Dirty mugs. Cardboard coffee cups stacked from the nearby coffee shop for reusing. Oily paper bags full of day-old pastries, also from the coffee shop.
She’d see our latest acquisition, a small TV sitting on top of a broken swivel chair found on the street that offered five fuzzy channels. In the middle of the kitchen, near boxes and broken appliances, there is a chair for sitting while either talking on the phone or watching TV. This is where Mom sits. Above her is the refrigerator, which we’re proud of; water and ice come out of it. On top of the refrigerator is Dad’s filing system for receipts. Every time anyone opens or closes the refrigerator, a shower of receipts falls on top of their head.
Beside the refrigerator is where Mom sits, in the dark. Even though it is only afternoon, the house does not let much light in. The leg holes of the underwear she wears on her head open up to pink curlers with pressed black hair wrapped around them; they poke through like antennas. The nightgown she wears is sheer. I can see the outline of her long breasts under it. They sit on top of her tummy; these are the biggest things on her five-foot frame.
“This is my house,” she says. “How can I live this way?” She says this to no one, as if I am not standing there witnessing. “We have a week,” she says, regaining some composure. She looks at me, wanting me to acknowledge that she’d said “we” and not “I.” We we’re on a team. Dad was not on that team. I like being on her team. I can see life come into her eyes. “Vivian will help,” she says and smiles at me now. Now I am in the room. “We can do it.” There she is. Now she sees me. “Maybe Claire will even come and help.”
Claire. When I open the door I find my beautiful seventeen-year-old sister Claire sitting on the living room floor, her long bohemian skirt a pile around her legs, her lips red, her curls fallen onto her face as she and Mom laugh. I am merely seven. She is my hero, in part because she doesn’t have to live here.
“Guess who’s here to pitchfork!” Claire shouts when she sees me. She calls cleaning for relatives pitchforking. It’s a term she made up for the final moments before they arrive when things gets desperate and we stop thinking about logical places for things and just started tossing entire boxes down the basement stairs, under beds, and into closets.
A week later Aunt Evelyn arrives. Just hours before her plane touches down, the house is finally becoming passable. Dad paces nervously around the house peering over at what we’re doing, making sure we don’t throw anything valuable away.
“What are you doing with that?” He comes running towards me. In my hand is a cracked plastic filing rack that I’m about to toss in my garbage bag.
“That’s perfectly good,” he says, taking it from my hands.
“But it’s cracked,” I say. “And we have a bunch of others that aren’t.” I point to a pile I had uncovered as I cleaned. He storms out of the room. I hear the front door slam. And five minutes later he returns, eyes on my garbage bag.
He waits until the very last moment to leave for the airport to pick up Evelyn. From the front window I watch as his truck pulls off and drives down the street.
“He’s gone!” I yell.
“Pitchfork time!” Claire calls.
I run to the kitchen to join Mom and Claire, as they stuff everything in sight into bags and begin tossing them down to the basement. I stuff several bags in the closet of the bedroom all of us kids share and other bags under Mom and Dad’s bed.
The phone rings. It’s Dad calling from a payphone.
“He’s stalling her!” Claire announces. “He’s taking her to the Botanical Garden.”
We’re relieved to have a little more time. Mom goes to the Laundromat to wash sheets, towels, and a tablecloth. Claire sweeps and I shove the receipts on top of the refrigerator out of sight.
When too much time has passed, I glance out the front window every few minutes. I have watch duty. From the window I see the truck pull into the driveway, her luggage precariously loaded on top of a layer of gardening tools and the chainsaw Dad took out of the house earlier that week in his fury.
“They’re here!” I alert everyone to get into position, look normal, wipe the dirt and sweat from their faces.
Evelyn opens the truck door. I watch as she looks up and down the street, re-familiarizing herself with the neighborhood. Her red hair is exactly the same color as his. Her nose just as big. Claire says the only difference between them is that Evelyn married well. I think about Mom, I think maybe she didn’t marry well when she married Dad.
I hear Claire and Mom scuffling in the back. Vivian has retreated to our bedroom. I wait in my place on the couch to greet Evelyn when she comes through the door. I am the greeter. Someone has to be the buffer between Dad and everyone, so I stay.
Evelyn looks like she’s just stepped off a boat. Her white Capri pants reveal her pale, freckled ankles, strapped into wedge sandals. A freckled chest shows beneath her loosely buttoned plaid shirt
“Hello my dear,” she sings the word hello and comes towards me with wide-open arms, grinning. Up close, she smells just like chlorine. When she lets go, she looks at my Dad and asks him if she can use the bathroom.
Dad scratches his head where he still has a halo of red hair. “We don’t let our guests use the bathroom,” he says. She looks at me for confirmation that he’s joking and laughs. “I’m serious,” he says. “The café down the street is open, Sophia will walk you there.”
“Oh Bruce!” she says, hitting him on the chest.
“We only invite guests over who have superior, enlarged bladders.” She laughs to be polite. “I thought we were related, but I guess not. My relatives all have enlarged bladders,” he says.
“Well if it’s too much trouble…”
Dad stops his act.
“Let me go ask Shirley if it’s ready,” he says, walking through the dining room he now barely recognizes. All of his things are missing from it. He doesn’t know how to act, where to put his body, and he most definitely does not know what to say. And in his dismay at the state of his house, the absence of his things, he has ruined it all. The whole point is to pretend we haven’t tried to make the house look this way, that there aren’t bags of garbage hidden behind every closed door.
He returns with the okay, but explains that the toilet is rigged so if she has to go number two she really can go to the café if she wants to be comfortable. Still, Evelyn opts to use our bathroom.
When she comes out, we wait for her to have something to say or do because we have nothing to say or do. We don’t even know where anything is. We barely recognize the surfaces she begins placing her things on: her purse, her sunglasses. Do something, Evelyn. Say something. We have nothing planned besides having a passable house for her to enter.
Claire, Mom, and Vivian still won’t come out. Junior still isn’t home. I have Dad duty. I have to be there with him. I can’t leave him alone to do something like offer to hang her sweater in the front closet where I know for a fact a garbage bag is stuffed. I watch in horror every time Dad opens his mouth.
Luckily, Dad’s first instinct in uncomfortable situations is to leave them.
“Would you like some Chinese food? I’ll get some Chinese food while you rest.”
Evelyn smiles. “That sounds fantastic, Bruce.”
Dad returns nearly an hour later with a bag full of Chinese food from the restaurant around the corner. We eat at the table for the first time in almost a year. Vivian emerges with the smell of food. She greets Evelyn, makes herself a plate and sits at the silent table with us. Evelyn attempts to fill the silence with questions, which Vivian responds to with one word answers: good, no, yes.
With the slam of the door, Evelyn, Vivian and I are left alone. Our chewing fills the room. After minutes that seem hours, Mom appears. She is dressed for Evelyn in a red blouse, jeans, and maroon lipstick. Her head is full of fluffy pressed curls, shiny with oil. Even over the smell of Chinese food, her perfume fills our noses. Claire follows. She wears a loose green knit sweater that slumps off one shoulder, jeans with holes in both knees, her hair an explosion of curls that she has to constantly move out of her face.
I am instantly grateful for their presence and furious with them for leaving me alone for so long on Dad duty. I relax into my seat and let them take over. Claire is good at talking to people.
“Well hello!” Evelyn shrieks. “Were you two resting? Bruce tells me how hard you all were working to clean the house. You must be exhausted!”
I can see the rage growing behind Mom’s squinting eyes and half smile. Her body moves with a rigidity saved just for Dad’s sisters.
Evelyn takes my brother Junior and I for a walk through the part of the neighborhood full of shops and cafes. Evelyn walks ahead, waiting and looking back at us from every corner. Her long, freckled boat legs are faster than ours. She walks like she knows the place.
“Here,” she says, pointing to a bookstore. We follow her in and then we all separate. I go to the kid’s section and Junior goes to the comic books. She has a stack of books on the counter when we’re ready to check out. She buys Junior and I one book each. On the spine of one of her books I read the words Driven to Distraction, followed by the words Adult ADD.
Later that day I notice that Driven to Distraction is sitting out on the dining room table in plain sight. I don’t move it. It stays there all day. I see everyone pass by it, reading its title, picking it up, putting it back down in its place. When Mom sees it, she picks it up, too.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Mom holds the book up. When she’s upset, her speech is styled in anger. She repeats herself in a British accent. “What is the meaning of this?” She sets the book back down and looks at me.
“It’s for Daddy. Evelyn got it. She thinks he has ADD.”
Her body moves towards me, stiff, in slow motion, a half smile. “Is that right?”
When I see the book again it’s on the front porch. There is evidence of Dad in it—it’s bursting with receipts and newspaper clippings, an envelope of seeds.
Melissa Valentine is a writer and acquisitions editor living in Oakland, CA. She received her MFA in nonfiction from Mills College. In 2013, Melissa was a finalist for Glimmertrain’s Family Matters writing contest. She is currently at work completing her memoir, The Names of All the Flowers.