by Jamie Poole
My boy Ethan was learning about penguins at school. I hated to admit that I didn’t know much about the birds. In fact, I wasn’t even sure if they were birds since they didn’t fly. As soon as he piled in the car with his Spiderman backpack in one hand and a sweaty fistful of construction paper in the other, he started up with the questions again.
“Mama, Mrs. Carson said penguins live in Antarctica but not in the Arctic. Why can’t they live in both places?”
“Hmmm … I don’t know, baby. Maybe we can read about that in one of our encyclopedias at home.” In 1982 my mama got roped into buying a set of World Books from my fifth grade teacher. They’d cost her a thousand dollars and that was back fifteen years ago. Now they propped up my box spring and mattress.
I was already feeling stressed by the time he got in the car. Car-line always made me feel that way. Sitting still didn’t come easy to me. Made me feel real nervous just sitting there, arm dangling out of the car window because the air conditioner was broken and it was already ninety degrees in May.
The air’d turned real sour in the Sentra because my littlest had tumped over her cup of chocolate milk and I hadn’t had time to clean it up this morning before getting to work. I was still wearing my Food Champs uniform. Polyester always made me itch when I sweated. Then there was something about the look that teacher gave me when she helped Ethan into the car that made my lip curl.
Ethan was still fiddling with his seat belt and the blonde upfront holding the green paddle was motioning me to pull ahead, but I couldn’t shift my transmission out of neutral. She kept motioning real hard with that paddle and giving me the stink eye, and I kept digging around looking for first, but it was going to take a minute.
A horn honked behind me. I looked in my rear view mirror at a man in a SUV motioning at me to move along. I stuck my head out of my window and yelled,
“I’m fixing to.” Then stuck my head back in and said, “If you’d just give me a damned minute.”
“Mama?” Ethan asked real polite.
“I saw on this video today that some penguins live in hot places.”
“Do they?” I asked still digging for first.
“That’s what I saw.”
“Then why can’t they live here?”
“Baby, I think Alabama is too hot for them.”
“Could they live in Canada?”
“Hell, I don’t know. Maybe they already do live in Canada. I’m no freaking Canadian and besides that, I got a real problem right now.” Ethan hushed.
I was gripping the leather knob on top of the gear shift so tight my knuckles were white. It didn’t look like first was gonna work for us, so I pressed hard on the gas and grinded the transmission into second and pulled off. Rocks clanged against the hood of the SUV. I didn’t look back.
“I‘m sorry, baby. We’ll look that up too when we get home.”
I was tired after standing on my feet behind a cash register all day. On Tuesday and Thursdays, I worked a split shift, 8-2 then 7-10, so that twice a week I didn’t have to send my boy to after-school care, and I could be there to pick him up right at two-fifty. I hated being one of those parents that sent their kid to public school before seven am and picked them up at six at night. It just wasn’t right for a little boy, no bigger than a minute, to have to sit in a public institution for ten or twelve hours a day.
I looked at the clock on the dashboard. It was already after three and I still had to pick up my little girl from the baby sitter’s. Mrs. Judy lived in that green trailer at the front of the trailer park with the double-seater white glider out front.
When I pulled in the dirt drive way, I saw Sophia sitting outside digging in the dirt with a kitchen spoon. I could see blue shadows from the TV bouncing off the screen door and hear Bob Barker hollering for somebody to come on down.
“Hey baby girl,” I called out to her. Then I turned back and said, “Stay here, Boo-Boo. We won’t be but a minute.” Then I got out and walked over to Sophia. “Whatchoo you making Mama? You making me a blueberry pie?”
Sophia nodded her head and her dark curls bounced in her pigtails. She had her daddy’s dark eyes and long eyelashes. She was something beautiful that’s for sure. I scooped her up in my arms and climbed the two short steps to the front door. I called through the screen door, not meaning for Mrs. Judy to get up.
“Thank you, Mrs. Judy. I got Sophia and we’re gonna go on home now. ”
Mrs. Judy stood up even though I could see that it was painful for her. She had some kind of degenerative arthritis that wasn’t ever gonna get any better. She couldn’t work, hadn’t ever worked, which would’ve been fine if her husband hadn’t of died so young. He wasn’t but fifty-three when he had a heart attack. He’d gone to the hospital the night before complaining about chest pain. They told him it was gas and sent him home.
Mrs. Judy’s blood pressure and diabetes medicines cost her half her social security check each month. She said she didn’t think her body would last much longer, but she hadn’t even turned sixty yet. I told her I didn’t believe that and figured she still had thirty more years of good living in her.
She pulled out a cigarette and motioned for us to come in.
I said, “Thank you, but I better not. I’m gonna take these two home and feed ‘em some supper before I bring ‘em back tonight.”
“The good Lord’s gonna take me home soon. I can feel it,” Mrs. Judy said.
I shook my head and shifted Sophia over to the other hip. “But don’t you worry,” she continued, “not before that little angel’s in school.”
I smiled. “How’d she do today? She give you much trouble?”
“That little baby don’t give nobody no trouble.” She wrinkled up like a California raisin when she smiled. You could see her scalp because her hair was real thin. She had a big mole by her lip, and it got lost in a wrinkle when she smiled like that.
She pulled a lighter out of the front pocket of her dress and lit up a Camel’s unfiltered. While she took a drag, I asked “did she eat alright?”
“Oh yeah. She eat real good. She sleep real good too. What’d we eat today? Oh that’s right. Black eyed peas and cornbread. She sopped it right up then fell asleep on the dog’s bed, silly child. She talks more to that ole mutt than she does me. I was watching Phil Donahue, and I looked over and there she was, snug as a bug in a rug, right there on the floor. I had to shoo Dixie off ‘cause she wouldn’t stop licking at her. They’re a pair them two.”
I looked back at my beat up Nissan. Ethan was still sitting in the backseat like I’d told him. He was pretty good about obeying.
“Thank you again, Mrs. Judy. We’ll see ya in a little bit.”
“Don’t you leave without letting my little girl hug my neck. Come hug my neck, Angel.”
Sophia leaned over and gave her a quick hug and then nuzzled back to me again. She liked Mrs. Judy, but she loved her mama. I hated leaving her with anybody that wasn’t family, but my sister had four of her own. She didn’t have room for anymore, and Mama moved to Mississippi last year with her new boyfriend. She said they were gonna get married, but I didn’t reckon they’d quit fighting long enough to say, “I do.”
Our trailer, a white and gray single wide, sat propped on cinder blocks about a dozen trailers down from Mrs. Judy. Aluminum foil covered the bedroom windows because my husband worked night shift. He left me when I was pregnant with Sophia, and I just hadn’t gotten around to taking it down. I guess I kept thinking he was gonna come back, but it’d been three years and the courts couldn’t even find him. I wondered if he wasn’t dead.
I carried Ethan’s backpack inside and turned the TV on for the kids. Ethan didn’t care for TV much, but his sister sure did. She’d squeal like a stuck pig when Barney came on. She wasn’t talking much yet. A delayed speaker is what the pediatrician called her. He said not to worry though. I said I wasn’t. He said, with a funny accent, “Even Albert Einstein was a delayed speaker.” I said, “I ain’t never seen no adult that couldn’t talk, so I guess she’ll talk when she’s got something to say.” He laughed at that. He seemed real nice. He was a sand nigger. That’s what they called him, but I didn’t.
I overheard one lady complaining that they always sent the weirdos and the towel heads to work at the free clinics and that you didn’t see no towel head doctors at the paying ones. I told her you don’t see no welfare mamas there either and to shut her fly trap. It was Brenda Mason who said it, and I never did like her anyway. She always tried to squash her two hundred pound behind into a pair of too small blue jean shorts, like she was Daisy Duke or something. But don’t nobody remember Daisy Duke having cottage cheese thighs.
Vernon, my husband, he used to have a thing with her back before she got so fat and he joined the Army. He was a veteran, went to Desert Storm. He spent three months in Saudi Arabia before his barracks got bombed and twenty-eight people died. One of the boys that died wasn’t even eighteen years old yet. He’d told Vernon he’d lied to get in the military because he didn’t figure he’d find a meaner sonofabitch than his daddy and at least this way he’d have a gun and a fighting chance.
He wasn’t but two months out of basic when he died. It was real sad. Vernon never talked about it, but he had real nasty dreams. One time he gave himself a bloody lip in his sleep, swinging his arms and fighting the sheets he had tangled around his feet. He didn’t even remember it in the morning.
Vernon’s sister came over while I was fixing the kids’ dinner. She just lived across the street. I loved her but didn’t approve of her much because she sold drugs that she was supposed to take for her bad back to the pedophile that lived three trailers down for four dollars a pop. He didn’t mess with nobody, rarely came out of his trailer. Carrie would have one of her kids run the pills over and bring back the money. She wasn’t real particular about which kid she sent either. That never did seem right to me.
She only came around when she needed something. “Now LeeAnn. You know, I’d do it for you,” that’s how she started off every sentence. She was always asking for something.
“What is it, Carrie?” I’d known her my whole life, and she’d always been the same way. Too pretty for her own good. That’s why she had three kids with three different daddies. She couldn’t keep her legs crossed long enough to keep a good man. She’d have one in the bed and one in the truck waiting to take her out again. “Whatchoo you need me to do this time?” I asked. She hadn’t even come inside the door yet, and she was already asking favors.
“You know I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t something important.” She had her red hair in hot rollers and a pair of white Bongo jeans painted on. It could only mean one thing.
“Duke Miller’s in town,” I said.
“Yeah, how’d you know?”
“His mama stopped by the store today while I was working, about talked my ear off. Talking about how her son is shitting in high cotton now.”
“Yeah, he invested in real estate. He could buy this whole trailer park if he wanted to.” She sat down on my La-z-boy recliner, ignoring the newspaper I had piled up on it.
“Yeah, that’s what his mama said too. So what you want me to do because you know I can’t watch the kids tonight? I gotta work.”
“No, I got a sitter tonight. I just need your car. And just for a little while.” Carrie looked up at me with her big brown eyes and batted her fake eyelashes at me. “Come on, LeeAnn. You the closest thing I got to a sister.” She was right about that. I was the only girl that could stand her.
“Well, I guess til the divorce is final, we are still family.”
“Does that mean you’ll do it?”
“What’s wrong with your cars?” She had a Yugo and a Chevette. Neither one of them ran more than occasionally.
“I can’t meet Duke in those cars. Besides, I told him that I’d gotten a good paying job now and was making my way up. I wanted him to think of me as a peer.”
“The only person Duke Miller thinks is a peer is God. I don’t know why you waste your time on him.”
“He’s gonna be my ticket out of here, LeeAnn. You just wait and see.”
“Yeah, alright. But you got to drop me off at work. I got to be there by seven. I’ll get a ride home. Just have my car back in time for me to take the kids to school in the morning.”
“Yes ma’am, I’ll do it. Hey, by the way,” she said adjusting the electrical tape on the heel of her boot. “I picked up a movie on penguins for Ethan from the library today.”
“You did that?” I looked over at her but she was so intent on wrapping that heel up that I couldn’t see her face to see if she was telling the truth.
“Yeah. I guess Aunt Carrie ain’t so awful after all, is she?” she said looking up at me with a half smirk.
I stepped from behind the counter where I was cutting up an onion for the red beans and rice I was making and walked over to her. She stood up, and I gave her a big hug without touching her with my hands.
“I’ll bring it over when I come back at seven,” she said backing out of the trailer door as she talked. She never did stay more than a minute. I think she was allergic to sitting.
“Wait! I have to be there at seven,” I hollered after her, but I knew it was pointless. That woman’d be late for her own funeral one day.
The kids ate pretty good while I ironed a clean uniform. I’d lost about forty pounds since I’d gotten these uniforms from Food Champs. When I started I didn’t know I was pregnant. Two months later I was giving birth, and Vernon had already gone out for a pack of cigarettes and never come back. I knew the top was too big and hung on me like a paper sack, but I didn’t have anything to pin it up with.
“Ethan, run over and ask your Aunt Carrie if she’s got any safety pins.”
“Yes ma’am,” Ethan answered and set his spoon down on his TV tray. “I don’t need to put on my shoes, do I?”
“Naw, you’re fine.” I loved that boy with my whole heart. He wouldn’t hardly make a move without asking me if it was alright first. I don’t know where all that sweetness came from, but I guess the Lord knew it was about time I had some.
Ethan was a surprise. I wasn’t planning on marrying Vernon. He wasn’t the marrying kind, everybody knew that. He was too pretty to marry, just like his sister. He liked things fast: fast cars, fast women, and fast money. And we all knew money didn’t come fast to nobody in this trailer park. I’d lived in that trailer my whole life and Vernon had lived in the one across the street his whole life until he moved in with me and Mama. Mama said I was eighteen, I could do what I wanted as long as I paid half the rent.
The day I found out I was pregnant Vernon came home and started putting his clothes in a pillow case. I said, “what’s going on, Vernon?”
He said, “I just don’t love you no more.”
I said, “You moving back in with your mama?”
He said, “No. I’m moving in with Misty.”
“Misty who? Carrie’s little friend?” I’d seen some little tramp running around over there. She wore a t-shirt that said “Objects under this shirt may be larger than they appear,” and her bangs were bleached about three shades lighter than the rest of her sandy blonde hair. “How old is she?” I asked standing behind him with my hands on my hips watching him pick up t-shirts off the floor, check to see if they were his, and then dump them in his pillowcase regardless.
“She’s fifteen, but what’s that got to do with anything? You ain’t listening to me LeeAnn. I don’t love you anymore.”
“Well, that’s real fine Vernon, ’cause I’m pregnant. And before you even ask, yes it’s your baby.” That stopped him in his tracks. He looked over at me and saw the tears in my eyes, and he dumped all the clothes out right there on the floor, wrapped his arms around my waist, and pulled me to him on the bed. He said he was sorry and that he didn’t care about Misty and that if I wanted to, we’d get married and have the baby.
I said I didn’t know if I wanted to get married but that I was gonna have the baby. He said then we’d better make it right before the Lord. Two months later we signed papers at the courthouse, and I took Vernon’s last name. We were happy for a while. Ethan came out in April and was the prettiest little angel baby ever. Vernon doted on him like he was the next baby Jesus. He’d bring him little gifts from the gas station where he worked. I’m pretty sure he took the stuff when no one was looking, but it was still nice of him to think of us.
Ethan used to sleep with the Alabama key chain with the gray elephant on it every night until Sophia lost it. He didn’t get mad though, he was always watching over his sister. I think we both knew that she was born special and needed more watching over than most. Ethan was real good about that. He was real protective about us.
When he came back from Carrie’s he was running and his blonde hair was wet with sweat. He wiped his forehead with the back of his arm then opened up his sweaty fist to show me four fat safety pins.
“Aunt Carrie gave me this video to watch about penguins. Mind if we watch it while we eat dinner?”
“That’s fine,” I said as I carried my shirt to the bathroom to pin. “You know how to put it in.”
I looked in the mirror in the bathroom and felt a little depressed. I sure could use a little color on my cheeks, I thought. I was real pale and too skinny. My hair was tied back in a rubber band and I curled my bangs under with the curling iron. It didn’t help. I still looked like a little mouse.
I heard the movie starting in the living room and I checked my watch. Twenty til six. I turned off the light in the bathroom and walked the couple of steps to the living room. I squeezed in between the kids on the couch, then pulled Sophia to my lap and moved her TV tray out of the way so I could stretch my legs. I’d eat her leftovers before I left for work.
The movie had already started and when I leaned over to Ethan I could tell he was real into the movie. His little body was stiff as a board.
“Penguins are a group of aquatic, flightless birds living almost exclusively in the southern hemisphere” the smooth voice of the documentary lulled on. I struggled to keep my eyes open. Don‘t fall asleep, I told myself. I needed to learn about these birds so I could help Ethan with his school work. “The female lays a single egg, and the co-operation of the parents is needed if the chick is to survive,” the voice continued.
I leaned over and squeezed Ethan’s hand and it was cold and clammy. He was staring at these two penguins exchanging an egg with their feet on the TV, his body didn’t move and his eyes didn’t blink. The penguins looked like they were playing soccer with the egg. Then all of a sudden they stopped and one penguin let out a high-pitched screech. The voice came on again, “The exchanging of the egg is a delicate process that may result in death. Even minimal exposure to the elements will kill the developing embryo. Ethan’s hand squeezed mine real tight and he let out a whimper. He was hurting because of the dead egg, but I didn’t know what to say. He was staring so hard I didn’t want to interrupt him. Sophia had fallen asleep on my lap, and I pulled her to my chest.
“I’m gonna go lay your sister down,” I whispered. He released his grip on my hand, but didn’t look at me. I could hear the voice from the TV drone as I laid Sophia on my bed. “For two months the male penguin protects his egg under extreme weather conditions. The males must huddle together because a penguin alone will never survive. By the time the mother returns, the male penguin will have lost almost half of his body weight and not have eaten in four months.”
I sat down next to Ethan again feeling cooler without Sophia sweating on top of me. I noticed that Ethan’s bowl was still full and realized he’d barely spoken since he’d came back with the safety pins. I wanted to say something about eating, but a boom from the TV stopped me. A snow storm blew across the screen and the penguins huddled together to bare the brunt of the storm. Some penguins fell over and were toppled with snow. Ethan sat up straighter.
“Let’s turn this off, Boo-Boo,” I said.
“No!” Ethan shook his head. I put my arm around him. “What’s happening, Mama?” he asked. I looked at the screen and it didn’t look good for the penguins. They were all bunched up together, but some of the penguins had been blown away from the group. They were trying to make their way back, but they kept getting knocked down again.
“I don’t know. I think some of them might not make it.”
Then the voice announced, “Some eggs will not survive. Although the loss of an egg is tragic, without the added responsibility the penguins can go back to sea to feed for the rest of the breeding season.”
Ethan turned to me. His eyes were red and full of tears. He punched the pillow next to me and pushed his TV tray away. I pulled him into my arms, but he struggled against me. “Why did that egg have to die? It wasn’t his fault. It was the storm’s fault. He didn’t want to die.”
“I know baby,” I say fighting back the tears.
“I hate it,” he screamed into my shoulders through snot and tears.
“Me too, baby. Me too.”
“His mama left him and his daddy let go. He didn’t hold on tight enough to him when the storm came. And now he’s dead.”
“I know, baby. I know.” I was holding Ethan against me as his whole body shook and trembled.
We stayed like that for a few minutes. The storm ended and the voice carried on about how the mama penguins were at sea, looking for food. Ethan wiped his face with the back of his hand and leaned against me.
“Let’s turn it off, baby,” I said.
“No, I have to see if the other penguins make it.”
“Baby, this might not be all the bad stuff that happens.”
I was right. It wasn’t two minutes later that one of the mama penguins was in the water looking for food when a big ole leopard seal swooshed up, chasing after her. She was swimming pretty fast and it looked like she might get away. Ethan and I were screaming at the TV, “Go! Go. No! Get out of the way.” But it didn’t help. That seal took that penguin in his mouth and ate her. Ethan wailed. I picked him up as I stood up and walked over to the VCR and turned off that damn movie. He was still balling a few minutes later when Carrie opened the front door.
“You ready?” she asked. I looked at my watch. It was ten til seven, and my top was wet and snotty.
“Yeah. Sophia’s sleeping. Let me go get her.”
I wiped Ethan’s tears with my thumb and hugged him real tight. “I won’t ever drop you, baby, ” I told him.
He said, “but what if there’s a real bad storm?”
“I’ll just hold on tighter.” He nodded, but didn’t look so sure. I didn’t have time to explain more. Carrie was already waiting in the car.
“Go get in the car. I’ll be there in a minute.” He nodded and walked to the door.
I wrapped Sophia in a blanket and carried her to the car. Carrie was already in the driver’s seat with the radio blasting.
“Turn it down. She’s sleeping,” I said. Carrie stopped dancing and turned the radio down. She looked like she’d already been drinking, and I rolled my eyes at her before I checked to make sure Ethan had his seat belt on.
“You mad at me or what?” she asked smacking her gum and looking at her makeup in the rear view mirror as she cranked the car up and pulled off.
“Watch where you’re going.” I said shaking me head. “I’m not mad, but I told you Sophia was sleeping so I don’t know why you have to blast the music like that.”
“I’m not talking about that.”
“Then what are you talking about?” I said gripping the door as she sped around curves.
“Didn’t Ethan tell you that Vernon came over? I thought you’d be furious.”
I looked back at Ethan and saw the tears drip from his chin and hit his white knees of his blue jeans. I remembered the last words from the TV before we turned it off, “The loss of the female penguin means certain death for the egg. After the egg hatches, if the mother does not return within two days, the male penguin will abandon the chick. If the mother does not bring home food, the chick will die.”
“Naw. I’m not mad, Carrie. I gotta go to work.”
A native of Mobile, Alabama, Jamie Poole holds a BA from UCLA and is a graduate student at the University of South Alabama. She’s spent most of her life teaching English and writing for other people. Now, she writes for herself and has been published in Guideposts magazine and In-Madrid.