FICTION: The Story Keeper
By Amanda Cera
“How can you live like this, Mom? Daddy would’ve never let this happen.”
I try to focus on the words hurtling from my daughter Katie’s mouth, but before I can grasp each one’s meaning, another one comes along so I just stop trying to hear. Instead, I imagine the words are solid, concrete objects that I can pick up, turn over, examine, and store away for later use.
“It’s Christmas for God’s sake. I brought you a tree, and there’s no room for it here!”
I picture my antique glass Christmas ornaments, (Memaw’s treasures from Macy’s) tucked safely in their cartons, each fluted sphere, each spired ball, each delicate icicle, individually wrapped in old sections of the Sunday comic strips. What Charlie called the “funnies.”
I can see them clear as crystal in their boxes in the back bedroom under the left side of the white canopy bed that used to be Katie’s pride, her “Princess and the Pea” bed. The pebble is still there too, between the mattress and the box spring. I hid it there Christmas of ’96. Katie had the flu. Oh, she was so weak and feverish…just pitiful, her fever kept spiking no matter what I did. Even as sick as she was, she was afraid Santa wouldn’t bring her toys because he wouldn’t want to catch the flu.
Katie was stubborn then, still is. No amount of convincing about Santa’s magic would console her. I couldn’t think of anything to make her stop crying. Then it hit me. Her daddy always calls her his princess. Cliché I know, but him calling her that always brought a shy giggle and a blush from her. Even that last time in the hospital three years ago. Her daddy was always her weakness. Me, I had to earn her love and approval.
When Katie fell asleep between bouts of fever, I went outside in the drive and found the smoothest, whitest round pebble I could find, about the size of a pea. I took it inside and slipped it between the mattress and box spring of Katie’s bed, then I waited for her to wake up.
I didn’t have to wait long before she stirred; for several days she’d had only fitful sleep because of her fever. I gave her a sip of water, and then watched the tears seep slowly from the corners of her big blue eyes and disappear down the sides of her face, leaving only faint trails as evidence of their passage. I can remember thinking how precious those tears were; how I wish I could have captured them, treasured them like priceless diamonds though they were twice as dear and unique.
“Santa will come, honey. I promise.” I told her I’d talked to him while she slept, and he’d promised to come. Where most six-year-olds would have been instantly convinced and delighted, Katie was skeptical. She stared into my eyes, her face all crunched up like a squashed soda can, sharp edges and all. Her look could cut right through you, even at six.
“You don’t believe me?” Katie didn’t move or look away. “He said he left a promise pebble under your mattress, kind of like the pea in the fairy tale.”
“Daddy calls me Princess,” she said then, a smile obliterating the criticalness in her eyes. She sat up in bed, and leaned over the bedside, digging her small hand under the mattress. I knew better than to attempt to help her find it; for her to believe, she’d have to find it herself. Otherwise, doubts would cloud her faith, and she’d be back to worrying. I’d always hated how different Katie and I were, but in that rare moment of victory, I was grateful to have understood her well enough to give her the proof she needed. The instant her fingertips connected with the stone, her face brightened, and I knew she believed.
“It’s trash, Mom. Empty soda cans? Broken plates?”
I shake my head to clear the past and try to focus again on what the grown Katie is yelling at me. She kicks a crushed soda can, and I think again of her sharp-edged, skeptical face that Christmas so long ago. I reach out and take a cracked white ceramic dinner plate that she’s shoving toward me. The words are lost again. Actually, they aren’t lost. It’s more like they’re deflected; I’ll find them later, chew on them a bit, but I won’t do anything with them. Katie’s words can’t penetrate into my world. She’s never been one cursed with insight and compassion. I watch my arm extend and my hand grasp; my fingers close around the plate’s fluted edges, disturbing a layer of downy dust.
I found this plate in the neighbor’s trash can after the last dinner party before her divorce a year ago. It’s nothing to her now, but it marks the passage of significance. It’s not like a plastic unbreakable thing without soul. This plate has history, is made from clay of the earth that might have witnessed the doom of the dinosaurs, the resurrection of Christ, the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. I hold the plate up in front of me until my reflected face is where Katie’s head would be without the plate’s solidity. Instead of hearing Katie, I close my eyes and imagine what the plate would say if could it speak.
I was scared of the fall mostly, petrified little hands would lose grip and shatter me into pieces. Things beyond their usefulness are trash in this house. I feared the little hands, but it was large ones that broke me, hurled me across the dining room and watched as I fractured and crashed to the ground. Later, the big hands came back and tossed me away like rubbish. No mistake, I could have been salvaged—no worse for wear—but that would have taken time, care, concern. At least I’m still a plate, broken and unable to hold the morning eggs and toast, but a plate, regardless. What can they call themselves, I ask, when they don’t even know that what they value most…are things already beyond repair.
“You’ve made a pigsty out of Daddy’s house, out of my childhood.”
I know that’s how she sees things, and I would try and explain, if she would listen, but she won’t and I’m tired of trying. I lower the broken plate and place it gingerly on a stack of “whatsit” on my left. I call it that because I’m not sure what all’s in the pile, and I can’t look through it in peace while Katie’s here. I look down at my feet and see sales ads and unopened phone bills. Through the envelope’s clear window, I can read my name: Louise Stockton. I repeat it again to myself—Louise—and it feels weightless and lifeless, an empty husk of long past possibilities. Maybe that, I can throw away, I think.
“Where do you sleep? Eat?”
“I don’t sleep much these days,” I say. I turn away from my daughter and wade through the stories cluttering the hallway. I have to turn sideways to negotiate the space without breaking anything. I finally reach the bedroom I shared 30 years with my Charlie. His space in the bed is the only clear spot in the room. I sleep on a clothes pile. Katie stops at the doorway, and I’m unsure whether she is afraid to crawl over the stuff or if that clear, empty spot on the bed is too heavy for her to lift, too palpable for her touch. Somewhere inside me, I know I came in here because I knew she wouldn’t be able to follow. Sometimes I still get the upper hand with her.
She is silent for the first time since she inched her way through the front door of the house. The quietness is viscous as I pick up a torn apron from my sleeping pile. I couldn’t tell her where I got this if she cared to ask, but the apple pattern hand-stenciled along the bottom of the front lets me know someone, somewhere loved this dearly.
I was a great cook. The best Charlie could do was throw together a sandwich. I was the chef. I roasted; I steamed; I baked every single birthday cake Katie ever had, though her Dad always presented it to her. A gaping wound scars the front of the apron. I hold it up in front of me and the rip looks like a mouth, and for a second I’m scared it might devour me. I’m scared I might disappear like the years of my life, with no one left behind to speak my words, to tell my story.
My fear subsides as my eyes find the imperfectly shaped red and green apples along the apron hem. In the still silence of the room, I close my eyes and listen to the apron’s story, not for the first time.
I’ve never been afraid to get dirty. Never feared the pungent aroma of garlic or the lycopene-packed, staining power of tomatoes. To me, those are like purple hearts to a soldier. I was honored to sacrifice the purity of my front panel to protect others from stains, to absorb the spills and miscalculations, to transform the bitter truths into sweets much more palatable to swallow. I am not bitter from all the transforming. I’m ripped and tattered, but never bitter from service. It was my duty; I performed it with love.
I hear Katie turn. She is working her way back toward the front door, and I both hope and fear she will walk right through it, get into her car, and drive away. I let the apron fall from my hand as a glare of sunlight slants in through an impossible crevice in a precipice of “whatsit.” The sunlight lands in the clear, empty spot on the bed, then streaks over the side and reflects in the lens of Charlie’s broken reading glasses. I already know their story. They tell me every night when I climb onto my pile to rest. I know every nuance, every bend of each word.
The sunlight glares brightly through the lens, momentarily blinding me with smooth, warm, whiteness. My heart jigs in my chest, and I know Katie just needs to touch that promise stone. I remember again that Christmas, how the sharpness of her doubt melted to silky smoothness when her fingertip felt the solidity of the promise, my promise. I remember how she looked at me then, clutching the stone in her tiny hands. “He’s coming, Mommy.”
I’m halfway down the hallway when I hear the door slam and the car’s engine rev to life, but I continue to work my way through the stacks and piles toward the back bedroom, toward Katie’s room and the promise of wholeness and faith restored.
Originally published in Volume 4 Issue 1 of Kitchen Drawer Magazine