My mother hates the front door to our house.
It’s not the red peeling paint or the fact the door is warped making it hard to open and close, it’s about what the door represents, the function of access and in her opinion, far too much access. “Anyone standing in the doorway can see directly into the bathroom,” she says to anyone who will listen, “and with two kids who refuse to conduct their business in private, well, that’s a peep show in the making, a real birds-eye view.”
I watch her iron sheets in the living room, spritzing each with water before pressing out the wrinkles in a haze of steam. The television is on and she listens to her stories play out on the screen that rolls black and white vertical more often than not. She plucks at the top of her blouse to cool her sticky self, pulling a tissue from the box to dab away sweat collecting under her arms. The front door stands open to let in any semblance of a breeze while she works, ironing sheets in our tiny clapboard house.
She must be plenty hot to leave that door open and risk a potential look-and-see by strangers into our house, I think, slipping into the bathroom.
I stand on the toilet to reach the sink and turn the water on cold. Black slimy insects spill out the faucet, tumbling one upon another to skitter about the wet basin and disappear down the drain. I discovered the bugs the first time I turned on the tap and have been fascinated every since, learning cold water typically results in more bugs swimming out the faucet than hot, although my mother says that makes no sense, the pipes all stem from the same place. My brother, on the other hand, learned quick there’s nothing more gruesome than Alabama water bugs after he stumbled into the dark bathroom half asleep and lapped a drink from the running water without the benefit of a cup. He swallowed two bugs whole that night, screaming himself awake after one landed on his face and tried to scramble up his nose.
The telephone rings. “Shirley,” my mother yells, “I hear you in the bathroom! Stop playing with those damn water cockroaches and go check on your brother!”
I trap the bugs inside the pipes with a rubber stopper, its metal chain chinking against the porcelain. I can hear them thumping underneath, trying to escape. “He’s still taking a nap!” I yell back, but she’s on the phone and doesn’t hear me. Otherwise, I say to myself, he’d be screaming his fool head off over these crazy water bugs. Always let the water run clear, I’d tell him, before taking a drink from the sink.
“He’s sleeping,” I said again, rounding the corner. She shushes me, irritated, her face twisted in reprimand. She mouths the words, I’m on the phone, and gestures wildly at the receiver as if playing charades. “I can’t get five minutes peace, is that too much too ask?” she asks the person on the other end of the line.
The iron is up, propped back, still hot. Steam puffs out the vents. I smooth out the sheet left draping the ironing board and remember my mother purchased the iron with thirty books of S&H Green Stamps. My tongue tasted gummy for hours after licking all those stamps.
She sees what I’m doing and shoots me a look, a glance some kids might take as a glare meaning get away from there this instant while others like myself might consider with more soulful interpretation, perhaps as a maternal plea for help with ironing the thankless, unforgiving fiber known as one hundred percent cotton.
A voice at the front door startles me. I swing around and knock the iron off balance. It falls on my forearm. I yank back and the iron clatters to the floor.
I sway, but give pause before the faint, thinking how funny my brother must be awake because I hear my grandmother screaming at him to shut the bathroom door now, that she could see his naked fanny propped up on the commode the very minute she stepped foot into the house.
Grand is a nurse who lives a couple of houses down the street, which is the single reason my mother agreed to live in a place where a bathroom stood in direct sight of a front door and more likely than not, could be seen from the neighbor’s yard across the street, if someone really tried. I sit at the table and she dresses my burn. It looks like melted vanilla ice cream, only bubbly.
She turns away to snip a piece of medical tape off the spool and I take a peek. Stop that, she says, popping me with the handle of her scissors square in the center of the gauze-covered wound. I flinch. Sit still, she hisses, raising the
scissors like a cobra ready to strike. This is what you get for not listening to your mother.
I’m afraid to ask where my mother is, so I don’t.
My father curses more often than not and I consider this as good a time as any to let one rip. I try to think of a good cuss to say in my head, but I’m only six years old and I’m afraid God might hear me. Worse, my grandmother might hear me or worse yet, read my mind or maybe even do both. Be it her own flesh and blood kin or the captive students attending her weekly Sunday School class, she can always detect when children think wicked thoughts. For those Grand caught stepping off the path of socially acceptable casual register, she relished dish soap on the offender’s profanity-ridden tongue, slick with drool in mighty effort to fight past the bitter aftertaste. Once certain the punished had swallowed, she offered a glass of water and said, Consider yourself lucky. My grandfather’s mother snipped off the tip of his tongue when he swore.
Rather than confront her with a how dare you or hands of my child, mind you, the parents of the church kids as well as my own mother and father would instead thank her very much for washing the filth from our dirty little heathen mouths. I recall one lady threatened to call the police, but she was up from Florida visiting family with her son (who was as brown as a mole, my grandmother called it a tan) and left town soon after without stirring up the promised trouble.
My arm smells cooked. It throbs fingertips to shoulder. I squeeze my eyes shut and think of Mighty Mouse. The caped cartoon crusader swoops through my thoughts to save my day anytime I feel scared and need help. He waited with me in the dark after I fell into a heating grate and flew circular patterns around my bed when I woke one night to see a shadow man on my bedroom wall. He lands on my shoulder when I get a shot and doesn’t care when I run from the doctor because I’m so afraid of the needle. Mighty Mouse is with me when I need him and he’s with me now, puncturing Grand’s poking, prodding fingers with his sharp rodent teeth. His red cape snaps with each bite.
“Well, that’s that,” she says, packing up the first aid kit. “Should leave a nice fat scar that will always remind you of what happened here today.” I hear my brother yelling my name. I look out the front door still open wide and there he is, running down the sidewalk, waving a couple of what were once frozen fudge bars at me. “Shirley! Shirley! Grand sent us to the store for something special, she said it
would make you feel better!” He stops to lick a trail of melting chocolate from the elbow up. Our mother catches up with him and pulls a wadded up tissue from her pocket to wipe up the mess. She notices me leaning against the red peeling door she despises so, backlit by the light of our peek-a-boo house, cradling my bandaged arm. I can tell she’s been crying.
“With them both screaming and carrying on, I couldn’t concentrate on nursing your foolishness, so I sent them both up to the Piggly Wiggly,” my grandmother says, massaging her hands and turning her back on me. Mighty Mouse gives me a wink and flies off towards the bathroom where the water bugs have pushed free from the darkness of the plumbing and into the light of the pastel sink.
Sheree Shatsky has called Florida home for fifty years. She writes short fiction believing much can be conveyed with a few simple words. Her work as an opinion writer has appeared in print and online. Ms. Shatsky’s forthcoming story “Florida Sightings” will be published by the Journal of Microliterature December 2013.