Jenny's Secret by Mimi Rosen

I like feeling the sun on my face. Summer’s breeze carries the smell of lilacs across the yard and I tilt my head, so it floats up my nose. Momma and me are sitting on the front porch, looking across the field at the weathered barn. Daddy’s rusty tractor sits crippled near the weed filled pigpen. The last of the hogs died some time ago.

Daddy lets the screen door slam and I jerk a little.

“You startled her, Ezra," Mamma says.

“Ah well."The Jessup County Gazette’s folded under one of his arms. “I went aheadand made that call."

Floor boards creek under Daddy’s heavy boots. Beads of sweat speckle his forehead and some drip down his round face. “Move over, now," he says, shoving in beside Mamma on the porch swing."

One of our hens chases another across the yard, like they’re playing. I think about playing sometimes. It used to tickle me, watching Billy and his friends run across the meadow towards the train tracks. Last night, I dreamed that we was playing Tag in the corn fields. We dodged in and out through the tall stalks. Billy tackled me. I fell to the ground laughing. But that was just a dream.

A ladybug lands on Mamma’s dimpled arm. Maybe, it’s drawn to the flower print on her dress. She brushes it away then rests her hand just below the fleshy part of her neck.

Her eyes are bluish-gray. They look past me, like Mamma’s picking her thoughts from thecherry trees up the road.

“It doesn’t seem like the right thing," she says.

“You just leave things to me, Ma."

Daddy unfolds his newspaper. I can read the big print on some of the pages.

Roosevelt Signs New Deal, it says.

I learned to read when Billy was little. I was ten years older than him, but I didn’t go to school like he did. I was born with afflictions, so Mamma and Daddy kept me at home.

Watching Billy do his lessons was the most joyful part ofmy day. He’d read those stories about Dick and Jane. I used to laugh -- cause he’d get tangled on words I knew. I used to laugh -- cause I knew all those words.

“You be quiet now, Jenny," Mamma would say.

Mamma had sternness in her voice, but I could tell by her eyes that she didn’t mean it.

Billy died almost a year ago, when he was just 16 years-old. Mamma aged a hundred years that day. He was her hope, she said. She lost her smile after that. She keeps Billy’s picture between her favorite psalms in Aunt Edna’s bible. She turns to those delicate pages

whenever Daddy goes off places. That’s when the kitchen feels most like a church, with Billy’s black and white propped on the table and Mamma’s face melting in reverence.

It was hot that day. I remember the heat, like it’s still sticking to me. I sat out on the porch most of the morning. Sun steamed my skin, until I blistered. Mamma put a cool towel over my face, but it didn’ t help the stinging much.

“I’m sorry, Jenny," she said. “I should have minded you better."

Mamma was riled on account of what Daddy done. Our little Collie dog, Merle, had her puppies under the front porch the day before. Daddy crawled under there early and stuffed those pups in a sac.

“We can barely feed ourselves, Anna," Daddy said. Then he took those yelping puppies away in his old-truck.

I cried for those puppies and for Merle. I knew how sad she felt. A thing can feel a loss, even if it can’t tell of it.

I suppose the heat had dizzied me some, because I couldn’t stop crying over those puppies. All day long, stinging tears rolled down my face. Daddy’s eyes burned me too. Iknew how he gets, but I couldn’t keep from crying.

"Ur squawking!" Daddy said, tracking mud across Mamma’s scrubbed floor.

“She’s ailing, Ezra."

Mamma piled rice onto his plate.

“I’ll walk Jenny around a bit, Mamma," Billy said. “I was fixen to get some air anyway."

“But you haven’t touched your plate."

Billy kissed her cheek. “I always love your fried chicken, Mamma, but I’d like to see to Jenny, first."

Daddy grabbed his arm. “Set her on the porch and come back to the table."

“Why, Daddy? She’s upset."

“Do as I say!" Daddy slammed his fist on the table, causing the dishes to pop up, and Mamma, Billy and me to shudder.

Now, Billy was born with Mamma’s kindness, but he had Daddy’s stubbornness in him,too. He turned and wheeled me into the parlor, out the door, and into the cool evening air. He pushed my chair along the country road for a short time then turned me around. We were heading back home when Daddy’s old-truck come puttering. It squealed and stopped alongside us. Daddy got out, his chest puffed out in his crusty overalls. He didn’ t say anything. Just walked over to Billy, grabbed his shoulders, and shook him around some. Then he tossed him aside, like a sac of grain.

“You need to mind me, Boy," Daddy said, rolling up his sleeves.

Billy stumbled and rolled down the hill, into the ditch where the train tracks lay. He slammed his head on a metal box that was part of the tracks. Then he just stayed there, with his body twisted, and his head resting against one of the steel rails.

“Get up," Daddy said, but Billy didn’t move. “Get up, now, Boy."

Daddy stepped into the ditch and nudged Billy with his boot. Then he kneeled, and held his hand over Billy’s mouth and nose for a time. “Oh Lord," he finally whispered, pressing his hand into his prickly cheek.

He looked towards the meadow and woods beyond it. Then he stood and looked up and down the road. He clutched his mouth with his leathery hand and squeezed out a sort of whimper. Then he looked at me. He spent time looking at me. It felt like an hour. His face turned the color of pig’s blood. His eyes made me think of Merle, pining over her pups.

Daddy huffed as he stepped over the tracks. He grabbed Billy’s shirt, on each side of the shoulders and dragged my brother onto the steel rails. Then he grunted and huffed his way back up the hill. Daddy left his old-truck idling on the road and wheeled me back to the house.

“Where’s Billy?" Mamma asked, walking out to tend her garden.

“Can’t say," Daddy said. “Found the girl sitting up the road by herself."

“Do you think something happened to him?"

Daddy grabbed Mamma’s arm. “Probably just went off somewhere." But his eyes kept straying from her face.

“It’s not like him to just run off and leave her."

“Leave it be. He’ll come round soon enough."

But Mamma couldn’t stop worrying about Billy. She kept pacing the floor and looking out the window. She stayed up all night pacing.

I couldn’ t sleep either. “Billy," I kept saying, until Mamma looked straight into my eyes.

“Did something happen to your brother, Child?"

I tried to tell of what I saw, but only twisted sounds come out. Then Mamma’s eyes sunk and her face looked wrung out, like Daddy’s gray undershirt after a washing.

When the sheriff come by the next morning, Mamma crumbled before he even opened his mouth. Somehow, she knew. Someone had found Billy by the rail road tracks.

“Killed by train," the sheriff said.

The loss of my brother has me crying at times, but I’m angry, mostly. Sometimes, when Daddy comes in sight ofme, I shout about what I seen, but my words come out garbled. I think Daddy understands them, though. The look of a troubled soul is hard to hide.

Daddy lights a cigarette. Clouds of smoke float around him. He inhales and sinks in a little more beside Mamma. He’s watching me, but his eyes aren’t kind. I turn my head, so I can’t see his face.

“I just think it should be on us," Mamma says. “She’s ours to care for."

Mamma’s hand seems small when she sets it on Daddy’s chipped fingers. “Please, Ezra. Let’s think on it some more."

“You let me do the thinking, Ma." Daddy swipes his hand out from under hers. “She’ll be alright." He lifts his cap and rubs the sweaty skin on ad with his fingers.

“I just wish …" Mamma says, looking at my eyes.

“Now, it’s wrong to keep on this way and you know it. She’ll have a clean bed and there are doctors and nurses to tend to her." He sits back and sets his eyes on me. “Besides,do you really think she’ ll know any different?"

Mamma touches my hand.

“You know, Child" she whispers. “Don’t you?"

The knot in Daddy’s throat slides up and down. Then his eyes sink toward hisnewspaper again. He adjusts his hold of it, so it’s in the way ofMamma’s sight of him.

A tear runs along side her nose and dangles from the tip of it. She pushes herself up from the swing and grasps the handles ofmy wheel chair.

“I best get her ready." She wheels me inside.


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