The scream ripped away the comfort of his blanket and his dream. Suddenly, Max was awake and aware that something was not quite right.
"Is it Christmas, already?" He questioned. Waking his thoughts by rolling through a battery of questions to himself, Max rattled off the answers,
I'm seven years old. No, just turned eight!
My big brother is still sleeping next to me.
I'm in my house in Paducah, Texas."
Well, everything seemed in order. He slowly began to lie back down, but then, as before, a scream pierced the air. It was Mama.
"Jack! Jack! Wake up!"
Max scrambled out of bed and down the stairs thinking Santa must be stuck in the chimney. Mama blurred past him on the way to the kitchen. As he stood in a sleepy freeze, he watched her run to the water pump and with one hand begin the pumping motion to bring the slow moving water to the sink spout. In one sweeping second her other hand whipped open the cabinet door and brought out a glass.
As Max watched from the doorway, he saw her grow older. Although she was already fifty-two, he never thought of her as old. Her gray hair was not in it usual bun, but instead, partially covering her face in uneven strands like an old mop. Her robe hung unevenly on her shoulders, and the belt drooped lifelessly by her side.
The breeze cause by her rushing passed him interrupted his thoughts. He finally found his feet and walked to her bedroom door. She stood by the bed. She seemed to hesitate, and then with a piston move of her arm, splashed the whole contents of the water glass on Papa's face. They both hoped . . .expected Papa to jump up spittin' and coughin' and yellin' at Mama that she must be crazy.
The bed didn't move.
Papa didn't move.
The water dripped off his face like tears in a rain shower.
Max's Papa, who could sternly lecture him, give him a fierce thrashing, but gently tousle his hair and wink an eye, would never move again.
His Papa, whose laugh could travel out the kitchen and into the street, would never laugh again.
There was a Christmas morning celebration, because lots of people came over and brought all kinds of delicious food. But instead of the expected laughter, a strange silence hovered only to be interrupted by stifled sobs.
Last Christmas, Max remembered his big brother Jackie hoisting him on his shoulders and bounding down the stairs. The bouncing came to an abrupt stop in front of the Christmas tree. Below was a shimmering pool of brilliantly wrapped packages. The storm of bows and ribbon and wrapping paper echoed in Max's ears as the memory wave brought him back to this day. Why did this Christmas have to be so different?
After getting his hand slapped reaching for an apple dumpling, Max was told to go into the parlor and sit on the piano bench. The scratchy woolen suit that Mama told him to wear gnawed at his skin. The hard leather shoes trapped and cramped his toes.
His sister Elma came in with Little John. They were supposed to be friends. John was his nephew. Little John was seated next to Max.
'You are so prissy," Max mumbled to himself. Six years old and he looked forty. Little John sat perfectly still. His hair was plastered into place and his fingernails were trimmed and shiny.
Max glanced at his own ragged nails and scraped fingers. Mama's attempts to civilize him usually resulted in her rolling her eyes and shaking her
head in defeat. He couldn’t help it. As he rubbed the still red bruises on his middle knuckle, he remembered how good it felt to punch Joey Thompson yesterday when he had said Max’s momma looked like an old granny. After bloodying his nose and mouth, just a little, Max made him take it back. Which he did, knowing Max had more to give.
Little John nudged him back to the present.
“My Grandpappa’s dead!”
“GRANDpappa? That was my papa! I’m only two year older than you and that’s my daddy!”
Confusion flushed both their faces. One man, two little boys. A grandfather to one and a father to the other?
Max was just about to tell Little John that he didn’t know what he was talking about, when a familiar smell snatched his attention. His sister Rose had arrived with her boyfriend, Edgar. Nothing, not even an easy-win argument with that little priss would keep Max from his Rosie. Before she could completely get into the doorway, he had flown into her arms and buried his face into the side of her Evening in Paris neck.
Rosy always carried the aroma of flowers about her. He wondered if she would ever smell like flour or soap or bleach like Mama. He really believed that’s why she was called Rose. For the first time today, the scenes, the scents and the feel was finally right.
“Say now, Maxy, I’ve come back home. It’s okay. Don’t you worry about a thing.” Tears were glistening in her eyes, and Max began to feel angry and unhappy at the same time.
As Max sat and dosed on Rose’s lap that afternoon, he listened to the bits and pieces of conversation that swirled around the room like the smoke from all the men’s pipes and cigars. Harsh and pungent at first, and then dissolving into resignation.
“Why didn’t she call the doctor right away?...I hear that the store is in trouble….You and Edgar just can’t get married next week, not now…Momma and Maxy won’t be able to stay here very long…You can’t expect me to watch over them; John is too much of a handful as it is …Well, somehow, things will have to work out”…
Later that evening, Max was sent to the back bedroom to play with Little John. Reluctantly, he accepted the new chore. The play drifted into one of Little John’s “Know-It-All” conversations.
“My mommy says you and Grandmother have to leave here.”
“You don’t know nothin’, Johnny.”
“Uh-huh! I bet you and Grandmother won’t even live together anymore. Mommy said so.”
“Well, She don’t know nothing either! I’d never leave Mama, Jackie, or Rosy! They’re my family, and families don’t get split up.!
“My Mommy is your family and she doesn’t live here.”
Anger and fear battled inside Max’s head while John ran out of the room. He yelled back to have the last word and maybe more so to convince himself,
“Anyway, when I grow up, I’m never going to die! And even if I do, I’m not going until all my kids are grow’d up. I’m going to have a big family, but nothing is going to separate us. We’ll always be together. Just you wait and see.”
Max kept his promise, at least until November, 1980 at the too young age of 62 he let go of his four grown children to once again join the love of his life. Although the four of us have rarely lived near each other, our closeness is one that never makes the miles separate us.