Arlene rubbed her forehead, trying to smooth away the worry lines forming there.
She wasn’t sure how she was going to pay all these bills; the money Buck gave her each week never seemed to cover everything. It was her responsibility, paying the bills. He made the money, gave her a weekly allowance and kept the rest of his pay for himself. She never knew what he made, and the amount he gave her fluctuated from week to week.
She added the column of figures again, making sure the sum was correct. A frustrated sigh escaped her as the second attempt confirmed her addition. There was no way she’d be able to pay all the bills for the month.
She got up from the kitchen table and poured a cup of coffee from the old percolator sitting on the counter. As she sipped the bitter liquid, her eyes settled on the cane propped against the wall in the corner of the room.
Her mother’s cane.
Still in the hospital, recuperating from surgery. An unanticipated surgery.
Arlene continued to sip the coffee, staring at the cane. She visited her mother each evening, making sure she had what she needed, keeping her company. Buck was working a second job, and when he wasn’t, he was out with friends. She frowned as she thought how she and her sister, Edna, had to rely on Edna’s boyfriend to take them to the hospital. Neither of the sisters could drive.
Arlene had the additional worry of what to do about Judy. With Buck at work or out on the town, she had no choice but to take the nine-year old along, asking Edna’s boyfriend to sit with her in the car. The hospital wouldn’t allow her to bring the child inside… she was too young to visit.
Arlene didn’t like Mark, but she relied on him, especially now that her mother was ill. God knows Buck wasn’t any help! Mark and Edna had been going together for a year, and while he went out of his way to be helpful, Arlene disapproved of him and was against Edna’s marrying him. She didn’t think he was good enough for her.
He’s good enough to help you out, though, isn’t he?
She pushed the unhappy thought aside and took another sip of her coffee, swallowing it too quickly. The hot liquid scalded her tongue, making it numb. Briefly, her eyes filmed over with pain.
Looking at her mother’s cane through misty eyes, she shook her head.
She continued to stare at it. For a moment, it seemed to shimmer, the burnished wood glowing, commanding her attention. Nova cane.
She rubbed her eyes and looked again. Just a cane. Nothing more.
Nova cane… Novocain…
She smiled with bitter amusement at the wordplay. Her mother’s life had always been a source of guilt and anxiety for Arlene, numbing her own pleasure, her expectations. The emotional baggage she continued to carry from her unhappy childhood was not only heavy; it was deadening.
When was the last time she’d felt any real happiness? The thought depressed her.
She went back to the table and looked again through the pile of bills, deciding which she’d pay and those that would have to wait. After several moments, she looked up, hearing Judy’s footsteps as she descended the stairs.
Arlene’s brows drew together. Judy had acted like a brat the night before, carrying on because she had to stay in the car while Arlene and Edna were in the hospital visiting Mother.
As if Arlene didn’t have enough to worry about!
Who was going to take care of her mother when the doctor released her from the hospital? Edna worked full time and couldn’t do it. Arlene knew Buck didn’t want her mother staying with them… what was she going to do? And then… the bills from the hospital. Would her mother’s insurance pay for everything? God knows she and Buck couldn’t afford to help out, and Edna’s salary as an assembler in a toy factory barely carried the young woman through the week.
Problems, problems, problems… Novocain. How she wished she could escape… just stop thinking about everything. She was so tired of the constant worry, of carrying everyone’s load in addition to her own.
Arlene looked up from the bills. Judy stood in the corner, her hands fiddling with the cane.
“Put that down, Judy,” she said. “It’s not a toy. Your grandmother will need that once she’s released from the hospital.”
The girl put the cane aside, and bit her lip.
Watching her, Arlene thought of herself at that age. She’d seen photos of her and Edna, swimming and playing tag at Sunday school picnics. Judy was a dead ringer for the girl Arlene used to be.
Perhaps that’s why the child’s timid ways so often annoyed her. It was a reminder of her own timidity, and how she hated that! Arlene tore her eyes from the girl, going back to the bills in front of her.
Judy came close and put a tentative hand on her mother’s shoulder. “Mama, look… this is for you.”
Arlene glanced up, and Judy handed her a small pink shell. “Cindy gave it to me… last week she went to the beach and found this near the water. Isn’t it pretty? Put it near your ear… Cindy says you can hear the ocean if you listen hard enough.”
Arlene smiled, taking the shell and holding it close to her ear. “Yes, I think I hear it.”
Judy moved closer and leaned her head against Arlene’s shoulder. “Mama, tonight… can I say home while you go to the hospital?”
Arlene frowned. “Now, please don’t start with me. Your behavior last night was my first think this morning – and not a very happy one. You’re too old to carry on like this, Judy!”
“But, Mama,” started the desperate voice.
“I mean it, Judy. I have a lot on my mind, and I don’t need this. I don’t know what your problem is, but you will stop this. You’re going with me tonight, and that’s all there is to it. I can’t leave you here alone and worry all night long.”
“Judy!” Arlene warned, taking up her pencil again and going back to the bills.
“Mama, he touched me!”
Arlene froze, and the pencil stopped in midair.
She looked at the girl. “What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean… you know, right Mama?”
Unconsciously, Arlene picked up the small shell, and began to knead its surface, trying to get her emotions under control.
What did Judy mean? Mark? Did she mean Mark?
For the love of God! Didn’t she have enough to worry about? This, too?
She closed her eyes tightly, determined not to cry. Novocain… Novocain… She didn’t want to think about this. She didn’t want to feel the roiling disgust her daughter’s words provoked, didn’t want the ugly images…
Could it be?
No. Judy had to be making this up. Wicked child! Worrying her with fantasies. The girl was always making up little stories, lost in her own world… She probably heard something in school or saw something on TV and it ignited her imagination. Mark wouldn’t… couldn’t…
She had so many other things to worry about…
“Judy, I want you to stop this. I don’t want to hear you ever say anything like this again, understand? You know this isn’t true. So just stop it!”
Judy began to back away, tears staining her face.
“That’s right, go on. Go on up to your room. I don’t want to hear any more about this.”
The girl’s shoulders slumped forward as she turned away. “He touched me, mama. Don’t make me go tonight,” she said softly, her words dying out as she left the room.
Arlene watched the small figure retreat. Part of her was furious with the child. She didn’t believe her!
Couldn’t believe her…
She glanced down at her hands. Her fingertips were raw and red, evidence of the shell burn caused by her rough kneading of the shell’s jagged edges.
He touched me, Mama.
Arlene started to cry. Just another day in her shitty life.
She placed the shell back on the table. Maybe nine years old is old enough to stay alone for a few hours, she thought.
She stood up and went in search of her daughter.
Author’s Note: This story is written in response to a challenge to write a tale of indeterminate length based on phrases that are part of this week’s ‘Inspiration Monday’ from the blog, BeKindRewrite. The phrases used are: dead ringer; emotional baggage; nova cane; shell burn; and first think in the morning. I played a bit with the last phrase, but only slightly. Thanks to BeKindRewrite for the inspiration prompts this week!