Jimmy asks Mina, their oldest daughter, where Mommy hid the money. Mary’s voice trembles with loosely controlled panic when she discovers it’s missing.
Did you tell yur fadder where it was? she asks Mina.
No, Mommy. I didn’t.
Mina wants to embellish the lie – make it sound more true. Instead, it lies there between her and her mother, heavy beyond measure, like Sisyphus’ eternal burden.
Another payday. The money lies under the rug that hides the brown and curling edges of the living room’s warped linoleum floor. Mary tells Mina they’ll all go hungry if her father finds it.
His thin frame is nearly swallowed whole by the overstuffed armchair he sits in next to the window. Holding the newspaper upright in both hands, he reads the headlines in the dim lamplight. The lace curtain covering the scarred window billows softly in the cool, evening breeze and skims across the dark hair on his arm. Mina plays at his feet with her doll.
Glancing over his left shoulder, Jimmy looks to see what Mary is doing.
The wall of newsprint blocking his face from Mina’s view ruffles slightly. Curling down one corner of the page, Jimmy peers at Mina over its now broken right angle.
Psst! he whispers, Where’d Mommy hide the money?
The sharp sound of potatoes smacking the pan assaults Mina’s ears. The potatoes sizzle in the hot lard, hissing a rattler’s warning as their virgin side begins to brown.
Come on, Sugar, tell yer Daddy.
With a dull thud, the frying pan comes to rest on the homemade potholder that Mary put in the center of the white, baked enamel, metal table.
I don’t know, Daddy.
The lie lodges in Mina’s throat, threatening to choke off her air supply.
Come ‘n eat, Mary calls from the kitchen.
Sisyphus’ heavy lie rolls down the hill. Fresh air rushes into Mina’s lungs.
Mary watches as Jimmy, wearing heavy work-boots, navigates the loose gravel lot between the plant and its perimeter gate at the end of his shift at B&W. Stealing a glance out of the corner of his eye, he picks up his pace, pretending not to see her, and at 3:05pm slips in the side door of The Knotty Pine for a drink or two. Maybe a little gambling, too. Most of the paycheck in his pants pocket will likely be spent behind those doors.
Carrying a baby in one arm and holding a five-year-old with her free hand, Mary calls out to him. He doesn’t respond. She calls to his friends.
Tell James this. Tell James that.
He is not taking care of his family. He is useless, self-centered. Her children are the evidence of his gross neglect of duty, so she uses them to beg for help. She wants Mina to confront her father in front of his friends. Standing behind her mother, Mina wants to see but not be seen, but Mary grabs Mina’s shoulder, pulling her forward into full view.
Go On! she says, extending her index finger to highlight Mina’s lack of cooperation.
Mina’s sandals are rooted to the cracked, uneven pavement. The mid-summer temperature radiates in blistering waves across her toes and ankles. Pushing her through the thick wooden door, her fingers deftly placed between Mina’s shoulder blade and the hollow curve beneath it, Mary almost knocks Mina off her feet. Grabbing the heavily splintered doorframe to regain her balance, Mina stands firm.
Go ON! Mary cries, angered to the point of tears.
The poetry fades. Instead of open arms, Mary meets Jimmy at the door with grievances, demands.
A distaste develops for the way people fawn over him. The obsequious behavior of his friends sharpens her negative outlook. Frustrates her.
Don’t they know he spends his paychecks on booze and gambles away what’s left? Don’t they realize he is little more than a “flag-waving” father who brags about the children he calls “his” while failing to father them in ways that signal an understanding of what that entails? Can’t they see how hard she struggles to hold everything together, put food on the table, and keep them all from being thrown out of the shack they live in on the poor side of town? The one without running hot water? The one with no inside toilet? The one reserved for what other people call poor white trash and low-life hillbillies?
Anger suppresses a silence pregnant with fear. Harsh words rush in, filling momentary lapses in speech to keep the fear out. Mary dumps words by the shovelful into largely one-sided conversations like sand into a pail at the beach. She shovels faster and faster to keep the incoming tide from washing her words away with the undertow. It doesn’t matter much what the words are, what they mean, at whom they are directed. They just have to fill the empty space, provide a buffer between her and the world beyond her.