“Time to get up!” Robert’s command ripped through the silence of that Saturday morning. Marie was suddenly very aware of the icy cold stinging her nose and the sweet stink of fresh brewing Chinese herbal tea.
“Get up!” Robert said louder causing Jason’s motionless little figure to jerk under the sheets. “Y’all got work to do, you’re not gonna sleep all day.” They were used to this gruff wake-up call by now. Mr. Robert—or Daddy as they were now supposed to call him—wasn’t that friendly stranger anymore. He was stern and strict and his once gentle face was almost always contorted into a grimace. Yvonne had told them that Robert was in a bad car accident years ago that left him with back problems that made him as cranky as he was all the time. Somehow this too ended up being among the many things she didn’t seem to notice while they were dating.
When Marie’s glazed eyes managed to clear enough, she was able to read the time on the Felix the Cat clock across from them on the kitchen wall. It was only 8 am. There was a religious program playing on the box television. It was a common tactic of Robert’s to put on a sermon or the news in the morning so Marie and Jason wouldn’t be tempted to waste time trying to sneak peeks at the TV.
Jason stumbled out of the bed and towards the hall to the bathroom. He fell halfway back to sleep on the way there and bounced with a thud off the door that led to the bedroom.
“Be quiet!” Robert hissed. “Your mother is sleeping.”
Marie nearly drifted back off to sleep herself but the rush of freezing air that hit her body sprang her wide awake as Robert wrenched all the covers off her and onto the floor.
“I’m not going to say it again,” he said glaring down at her, his eyes shrunken and narrowed through his Mr. Magoo glasses.
She leapt to her feet swooning a bit from the change in position and made her way into the kitchen. On the stove was the ugly, black oriental pot filled to the brim with dirt colored water swimming with pieces of bark and skins and leaves. Yvonne wouldn’t touch the stuff; she said her jaw would lock up at the sight of it. But Robert swore by its ability to cure all. On the burner next to it was a pan with one serving of oatmeal in it—Robert’s breakfast nearly every morning with a blackened piece of toast. Marie knew she and Jason were to eat cereal. They didn’t mind it though. Occasionally they got lucky and Yvonne would open “Café Poo Poo”. She would talk in a funny French accent and make them hot chocolate with baby marshmallows, scrambled eggs with chives and pepper, several pieces of bacon, and light brown buttered toast. Sadly, that day was not one of those days.
Marie shuffled to the sink and took her toothbrush from among the other three that sat in a chipped coffee mug next to the dish drying rack, and obediently put only a dab of toothpaste on it from the tube kept in the window seal. By the time she finished brushing her teeth and washing her face, Jason was waiting behind her. If you haven’t guessed yet, there wasn’t a sink in the bathroom. There wasn’t a tub either, only a shower thats plastic walls were warped and pulling away from the wooden panels and a toilet that sat in front of the water heater with only haphazard boards separating the two except at the very base. There was a huge gap down there where cobwebs and an occasional eight-legged beasty were clearly visible. Nothing was funnier than the day that a fat gray rat strolled from behind the toilet and looked up at Yvonne while she was sitting on it. Her scream at that moment was enough to put Alice Faye to shame.
As soon as they were both dressed and had eaten, Marie and Jason made their way out into the yard to start their chores. Normally they would start with cleaning the inside of the house, but that day, Robert didn’t want them making noise and waking up their mother. So they walked in between the shack and the garage out into the full acre of backyard being careful not to slam the gate that was attached directly to the side of the house that was the bedroom.
They started their usual routine of watering the fruit trees. It was one of the chores they really didn’t mind too much. Just put the hose in the trench at the base of the tree, wait for it to fill up then move the hose to the next one. There were a total of about twenty of trees: apple, pomegranate, apricot, fig, avocado, boysenberry, and several others that never produced fruit so they couldn’t tell what they were. The only tree they never had to water was the walnut tree. Marie was convinced that thing wouldn’t die of thirst if she prayed for it to. It was the tallest most massive tree she had ever seen in her life. She could easily see it from the driveway towering over the houses. She used to imagine placing two houses on top of each other, and in her mind they still wouldn’t block that tree. Besides the boysenberry tree, whose fruit she and Jason loved to eat ripe or not, that walnut tree was their favorite and yet most hated. Some of its branches had grown down onto the dirt so they could climb on them and pretend that the shorter ones were horses for them to ride. But during the fall, it was their most hated enemy. It dropped thousands of raw green walnuts that were rotted on the inside and oozed black stickiness mingled with maggots. Marie and Jason were responsible for raking all of them up and throwing them away which might not have been so bad if the tree didn’t drop a thousand more for them to rake barely a week later.
There were also bushes in the far back of the yard that grew along the fence that Robert would have them use hedge clippers and pruning shears to cut down as much as they could. It was physically hard and boring at first until their little imaginations took over and their tools became dinosaurs eating away at the branches. They would even argue over which bushes belonged to whose dinosaur.
But this particular day, they were assigned to the most boring task of all—weeding. Robert came out there with them, but he was fixing the chicken coop. They lived in what Robert had told them was considered the Richland Farms area of Compton which is why they and the neighbors were allowed to have animals like chickens and goats and such.
They stayed focused on their work. Just because Robert was doing something else, didn’t mean he wasn’t watching them with the eyes in the back of his head—or the ones on the sides. The work was coming along fine until they got to the vegetable garden.
“What are you doing?!” They both jumped as Robert’s voice barked from behind them.
“Pulling up the weeds,” Jason answered.
“Does this look like a weed to you?” Robert asked holding up a handful of leaves and stems.
“Y-Yes,” Jason said.
“This is a tomato plant! Can’t you smell it?” he said shoving the vines up to their faces.
Jason stuttered some unintelligible answer. Robert took the only other thing that he had in his hands—the monkey wrench—and cracked Jason upside the head with it. “You two cannot be this stupid! You did this on purpose.”
Jason held his head, eyes shut tight, and mouth wide open. No sound came out for a few seconds as tears started streaming down his cheeks. Then he finally took a breath and let out a long sharp cry.
“What the heck is going on out here?” Yvonne’s voice called from the bedroom window.
“Go in the house and tell her what you did! And shut up all that crying.” Robert ordered. They did as they were told, scared all the while that Yvonne would be angry with them too because those were her tomato plants.
She was still in the big t-shirt that she had been sleeping in, and her hair was wild on her head when they came into the bedroom to tell her what they had done.
“We pulled up your tomatoes by accident,” Marie told her. Yvonne’s face instantly shifted from bewilderment to irritation.
“Those kids don’t pay attention to nothing unless it’s a cartoon,” Robert said coming up from behind Marie.
“Why is he crying?” Yvonne asked gesturing at Jason who was still red and wet in the face and sniveling.
“Daddy hit him on the head with a wrench,” Marie said before she could stop herself. Yvonne’s head snapped in Robert’s direction with her mouth open.
“I didn’t hit him! I barely tapped him. Tell your mother the truth!” he said turning his glare on Marie. Yvonne turned to look at her too, though Yvonne wasn’t glaring.
“I did tell the truth,” Marie said in barely more than a whisper. She could feel her heart beating in her throat and her palms beginning to sweat.
“So you’re calling me a liar then?” Robert said taking the black belt off the hook on the wall next to the closet. The clinking of the buckle made her stomach turn over.
“I’m n-n-not calling you a liar,” she stuttered.
“Then whose telling the truth?” he said smoothly moving towards her. She hesitated to answer, her tongue practically glued to the dry roof of her mouth. Robert made the belt into a loop. “You better answer me.”
“You are telling the truth,” Marie said backing away.
“So you lied then?” he said looking from her to her mother as if to make sure that Yvonne was hearing this.
Marie hesitated again. He raised the belt. His face turned red and the look in his eyes was terrifying.
“Yes!” she yelped, “I lied!” That was the first moment during the interrogation that she actually felt guilty. She knew God hated liars, Robert had told them that so many times. But she justified it to herself. To Robert, the truth was a lie so she couldn’t be sinning if she told him whatever the truth was to him.
Robert grinned, handed off the black belt to Yvonne, and took a brown one off the hook.
“Take her in the bathroom,” he said nodding towards the hall, “I’ll deal with this one,” he said waving the belt at Jason.
Yvonne opened her mouth as if to protest but Robert didn’t even let her start, “These kids have to learn that there are consequences for being disobedient.”
So Yvonne did as she was told and took Marie into the bathroom locking the door behind them. Marie started to cry silently as her heart pounded harder in her throat. She knew this was going to hurt. Her mother never hit as hard as Robert but her whips still stung pretty badly.
“Pull your pants down,” Yvonne said—a little louder than she needed to.
Marie could already hear Jason screaming back in the bedroom. No matter how much they fought and drove each other crazy, the sounds of Jason being beaten made Marie hurt and cry even more for him. It was always worse when the belt hit their bare skin, like it was hitting Jason’s then. Marie knew Jason’s underwear was down solely from the noise the belt was making. It wasn’t the muffled thump it made against layers of clothes, but the sharp slap of leather on flesh. Marie’s hands shook as she pulled her own underwear down, goose bumps forming on her bottom as she turned it towards her mother—and the belt. Marie tightened her butt cheeks, closed her eyes, and waited for her mother to hit her.
“Scream,” Marie heard Yvonne whisper into her ear. Marie opened her eyes confused but just in time to see the belt hit the toilet seat. Then she understood and she screamed. Every time her mother hit the toilet seat Marie screamed. When Yvonne was done, Marie turned back around and smiled at her. Marie tried to whisper thank you, but Yvonne told her to hush.
“Don’t tell Daddy about this, okay?” she whispered, but for Marie that went without saying. Yvonne stared at the floor as she waited for Robert to stop beating Jason. “I wish I could have…,” she mumbled. Marie waited in the bathroom with Yvonne until Jason’s screams were reduced to whimpers and Marie could hear the clinking of the belt returning to its hook.
Robert sent them back out into the yard for the rest of the day. They continued the weeding extra slowly to make sure they didn’t have any more accidents. At three o’clock, they waved goodbye to their mother as she got in the red Saturn Mercier had given her to leave for nursing school. Yvonne was taking evening and night classes for her vocational nursing license. It was always hard for Marie to watch her mother leave them, but on days like this it was even more difficult. Robert could truly do whatever he wanted when Yvonne wasn’t home, and Marie wasn’t entirely sure if Robert was done punishing them for that morning.
But Robert didn’t say a word to them until he called them in for dinner. They came inside and took turns washing all the dirt from their hands. While Marie was waiting behind Jason, she got a look at what was on the stove. There was a pan of meat loaf that Robert had made—she knew it was his doing because it was smothered in ketchup which Yvonne hated. Beside the pan was a small rusty pot filled with a mix of corn and peas, and next to that was a pot of yams. There were hardly any dishes Robert made that they really liked but there was no food in all the world Marie and Jason hated more than his yams. Robert knew it, but he didn’t care. Yvonne usually wouldn’t let him give them the yams, but she wasn’t there to save them this time. As Marie washed her hands, she hoped against doubt that Robert would be merciful and leave the yams off their plates.
They sat down on the floor in front of the coffee table with all the picture frames and waited for Robert to bring their dinner. The album with the mouse on the moon that had acted as a reflector for the TV was no longer there. Robert had moved it as soon as he discovered their use for it even though neither of them had ever spilled anything while looking at it.
“You have thirty minutes,” Robert said setting a plate down in front of each of them. Both plates had a heaping pile of yams. Marie and Jason set to work tackling the meat loaf first, then the mixed veggies, before finally beginning to nibble their way through the yams. In addition to being a picky eater, Marie didn’t do too well with large meals. Most days that Robert gave them a time limit that Marie knew she couldn’t meet, she would wrap her excess food up in her napkin or beg Jason to eat it for her. Yvonne had taught her how to do it smoothly so she wouldn’t get caught. But with so many yams and Jason barely being able to keep his down, she was beginning to panic.
“Five minutes,” Robert called out from the bedroom where he was laying down, his face hidden behind the Bible.
“Please Jason, I can’t finish them,” she whispered inching her plate of remaining yams closer to his. He had only one piece left to go of his own yams and shook his head hard as he stared at Marie’s plate. She was almost in tears by then. She couldn’t imagine trying to shovel all the yams down in the little time she had left. And she was deathly afraid of vomiting. A few months prior she had had a bad experience doing that in the middle of the night. Her mother had heard her retching and had gotten up to see if she was ok. Initially she was. She had vomited a little pile in her hands, and only one kernel of the corn she had for dinner managed to end up on her pillow case. Yvonne had her wash up, then she left Marie with a small trash can that she told her to use if she had to throw up more. Not long after her mother had gone back to bed did Marie start vomiting again only this time she couldn’t breathe. The pasty mass had gotten caught in her throat. It wasn’t until she managed a cough that she was finally able to bring it up. The experience lasted maybe only a few seconds, but that was enough to make her dread throwing up forever after. The idea of being out of control of her body—not able to breathe or call for help; she couldn’t go through that again even if it meant a beating from Robert.
“One minute,” he called from the bedroom.
“Please!” she whispered to Jason, tears free-flowing now.
He stared at his sister for a moment. Marie knew that he hated to see her cry, even if only in moments like this when they shared a common enemy. Jason grimaced down at the yams before shoveling all of them onto his plate.
“Thank you,” she whispered genuinely grateful to him.
He started eating them as fast as he could. But he wasn’t fast enough.
“Time’s up,” Robert called from the bedroom. Marie could almost feel her heart slam against her ribs as she heard the slopping of the waterbed and the shuffling of Robert’s feet as they found their way into his slippers. She looked at the yams. There were way too many left. She looked at their napkins. They were filled to bursting with the yams they had already hidden in them. She looked at Jason.
“Why aren’t you finished?” Robert barked standing over Jason.
“I’m full,” Jason moaned.
“That’s a lie,” Robert said, “You could eat like a pig if I gave you cake and ice cream all day like your grandmother does. Finish your food!”
Jason picked up his fork again and put a small piece of yam in his mouth.
“Don’t play with me!” Robert yelled, “I said finish it!”
Jason took another piece almost as small as before. Robert reached down suddenly and snatched the fork from him. Marie scooted away terrified of whatever Robert was about to do. He stabbed half of the remaining yams onto the fork, grabbed Jason’s cheeks forcing his mouth open, and shoved them all into his mouth.
“Eat it!” he yelled.
Jason’s face was completely red, his cheeks were bulging and stained with tears. But Robert just stabbed more yams onto the fork and shoved them into Jason’s mouth before he even had a chance to chew the others.
Marie couldn’t watch anymore. She closed her eyes and covered her ears. But she could still hear Robert’s muffled yelling. She was crying by then. This is my fault. Daddy’s doing this to Jason because of me.
“Clean that mess up!” Robert yelled after he yanked one of Marie’s hands away from her ears. She looked up to see that the table and Jason were covered in slimy chunks of yams mingled with partially digested meatloaf and mixed vegetables. The look on Jason’s face wasn’t accusatory or angry when our eyes met, just sad. Marie wanted so badly to tell him how sorry she was but that was impossible with Robert still in ear shot.
“When you’re done, both of you take your showers and go to bed,” Robert commanded as they hurried back and forth getting paper towels and old rags to mop the table.
It was five o’clock in the evening when Marie and Jason were all cleaned up and lying on the futon that Yvonne had taught them to pull out into a bed. Robert had closed himself up in the bedroom so he wouldn’t have to look at them. Marie stared out into the kitchen that was still bright with sunlight gleaming through the window over the sink. It was so quiet in the house that she could hear other children outside playing and screaming with laughter, the mariachi music of their Mexican neighbors, and the chirps of the sparrows outside the front door in the bird houses Yvonne had made for them out of hollow gourds. It was like there was a whole other world outside that gloomy house. Marie just wished she was out there.
When she was pretty sure that Robert wasn’t coming back out of the bedroom anytime soon, she turned to Jason.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“It’s ok,” he said still looking miserable.
“Let’s see if we can stay awake until Mommy gets home,” she said knowing that would make him smile. Whenever their mother had class, they would compete to see which of them could manage to wait up for her. Most days Robert sent them to bed at seven or eight so they only had to lie bored in the dark for a few hours before Yvonne got home. Marie imagined how funny it must have been for her mother to walk in the door in the middle of the night and see two little munchkins that were perfectly faking sleep pop wide awake and start waving at her. Their efforts were always rewarded since Yvonne would let them watch TV with her until they fell asleep for real. Occasionally, Robert would come out of the bedroom. But Yvonne had taught her children well. They knew not to make any sudden movements—besides snapping their eyes shut, of course. And if Robert called their names, they weren’t supposed to answer the first time, just groggily stir a little the second time, and only answer slowly if he called a third time. When done correctly, her teachings always worked well to fool him.
“I can stay awake,” Jason whispered back to her and they both turned to face the Felix the Cat clock on the wall. They had about six hours to go before their mother got home. So they just watched the tail and eyes of the cat swishing back and forth with every second, listened to the laughter of the children outside, and together they waited.