Copyright 2004 by Marc Robinson
"Where do the pictures come from?" He was looking behind the TV, as if to find their source.
"I don't know, honey." She was tired of the questions. If she didn't answer them any more, maybe he'd stop. She hoped he stopped taking things apart, too: alarm clocks, toasters. She hoped he didn't take the TV apart; he might electrocute himself, or cost her money she didn't have.
"Is it like the radio?" he asked.
"What do you mean?"
"Do they send the pictures like they send sounds? To the radio?"
"I guess so." He was four, but he'd taught himself to read. She would have bought him an encyclopedia, or the "How Things Work" books, if she'd had the money. But when her sister died and left her the boy, Carla was single, and a nurse's aide. Three years later, she was still single, and a nurse's aide. With the boy, she might always be. Thank God the hospital offered child care; otherwise, she'd be in hock to her eyeballs.
It was just her and the boy. Her mom had retired to Mexico, her dad, the useless prick, was dead, and her sister was dead, too. No one had heard from her brother in years, and he'd never been one to help if there wasn't anything in it for him. All her childhood her parents had yelled at him, but he wouldn't stir until it was obvious he was about to get a beating. Then he would do the least he could get away with, as poorly as he could. The day he graduated from high school he moved out. When his girlfriend got pregnant, he vanished. He didn't even bother asking her about an abortion, just up and left.
Unmarried pregnancies were the rule in the family. Carla's sister, the oldest of the three siblings, had been born two months after their parents' wedding. Carla had wondered who her nephew's father was, but Cindy had never said. She might not have been sure. She'd never been willing to say, anyway. The boy had hair as black and silky as a Chinese, but no slant to his eyes, and his skin was fair, like a blond's. Almost like an albino's. He was thin, but he ate staggering amounts of food. His movements were quick and abrupt, so much that he often startled her. She never knew exactly what to do with him -- he seemed like am alien. He was weirdly precocious; he'd taught himself to play chess. And when he found the cat dead, he dissected it on the kitchen floor and made a disgusting mess. The blood had ruined his shirt and jeans, and she threw them out. He didn't understand. He said he could wear them, they weren't worn out yet. Nothing fazed him. It was all there to feed his curiosity.
She knew she'd never get a man now; men weren't interested in a woman with a four-year-old boy. They'd sleep with her, then they'd bolt. The record had been two months. That was a year ago. Since then she'd had one date, and he couldn't get her home fast enough when he'd found out she had a child.
The apartment didn't help, either. Two blocks from the hospital, on the top floor of an old four-story brick building. The roof had leaked, until the owner fixed it, and no matter how many coats of Kilz she'd slapped over the stain on the bedroom wall, eventually the blot showed through again. She'd admitted defeat and hung a large quilt she'd found at a yard sale. It was a bit yellowed, but it looked better than that damn spider shape on the wall, like a sinister shadow.
There were four rooms: the front room, behind it her bedroom and the bathroom (tub, no shower) on either side of a short hall that led back to the wide, shallow kitchen. The view from the rooms was of other buildings, or the street. The boy slept on the couch in the front room. Lately she'd given up pretending it wasn't his bedroom, that she'd find something better soon. The owner liked her, and wanted to date her, though he was married. She'd learned to ignore his overtures, and they'd tapered off. She had no idea why he let her stay at such a low rent; he knew by now that he didn't figure in her plans. But let her stay he did, and she had no desire to look this gift horse in the mouth. She'd take the deal for as long as it lasted, though she had no idea what she would do when the arrangement came to an end. She needed to go back for her nursing degree, but she lacked the time and money. And the energy. When she got off work, she and the boy walked home, and she stopped on an errand or two, and then she might do a load of laundry at the corner laundromat if all the clothes were dirty. She cooked dinner and washed dishes, did a little housecleaning, maybe while listening to a video he was watching. By the time the chores were done she had to give him his bath and read him a story and hope he went right to sleep instead of pestering her with questions. Even with the best shoes she could afford, her feet hurt, and she often nodded off while reading him his bedtime story. He didn't need much sleep. That wasn't normal, was it? He usually woke before her, and came to bed and crawled in with her. She was always tired after spending the day on her feet.
And yet, after the small annoyance of being wakened by the boy sliding in next to her before the sun was up or the alarm had rung -- after the momentary annoyance wore off, he was a comfort. She would draw the little thin limbs against her chest, and kiss the fine hair, and smell the soap and shampoo odor still left from his bath, and feel his warmth. He radiated an unusual amount of body heat. She would draw him to her, and fall asleep again, in the simple comfort of his presence, of the rise and fall of his breath, and his unthinking trust and affection. She hated to get up when the alarm rang -- she wanted to lie in bed the rest of the day. Everything was downhill after getting out of bed.
He was nearing his fifth birthday when he began bugging her for a dog. Every day, he said, "Mom, I really want a dog," looking significantly into her eyes. Why had he started calling her Mom, anyway, instead of Carla? She'd always made it clear that she was his real mom's sister.
"I have a name," she said. "Carla. Use my name. I'm not your mom." He probably got that from the other kids in day care. He wanted to have a mom, like them. They all did.
"I want a dog," he said.
"I told you, we can't have a dog. The owner won't let us have pets."
"No. I can't afford it." She went to the bathroom, ignoring his next question, and closed the door. She ran a tub and lay in the water and flipped through a month-old copy of People she'd taken from the waiting room. How did all these Hollywood stars get such perfect smiles? Was it only dental work? She wished she could afford it. She bared her teeth at the mirror. Not bad, but no match for Britney's. Her nose, though, was better than Britney's, which was way too wide. But that girl's mouth -- incredible. Then again, Carla's tits were real, and bigger than Britney's fakes. Hips a little big, but she bought her clothes to minimize the flaw.
She soaked until the water cooled, then towelled off and donned her robe and looked in on the boy. He was building some kind of tower with several decks of playing cards. It was already taller than he was, and he'd dragged a chair over from the table so he could continue to work on it. The tower was amazing, because it was almost as wide at the top as the bottom. She wondered how he managed to keep it stable.
She'd just fallen asleep when he crawled onto the bed with a book.
"Story," he said, and got under the sheet with her.
The book was The Thirteen Clocks, his favorite. "Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill," she began. She fell asleep somewhere around "Hark, hark the dogs do bark," but he didn't wake her, at least until the middle of the night, when he began waving his arms and legs, bumping her and laughing.
She shook him. "What are you doing?"
He sat up and blinked.
"What happened?" she asked.
He lay down and turned toward her. "I was flying, and carrying you up into the clouds. There were beautiful birds everywhere, all different colors. Red birds and blue birds, and black birds and white birds, and yellow and green and orange. All different kinds of feathers. Every color. All flying around us like snow. And way up on top of the clouds. Up there a castle where we live with our friends and all our pets. Horses and dogs and cats. They have a special language they talk, and we can talk to them. We all take care of each other."
She was silent. She wanted to go back to sleep, and she wanted to stay awake and hear more. She yawned and looked at the clock. Almost one a.m.
"Are dreams real?" he asked.
"No, honey. They aren't real. Wouldn't that be nice, though?"
"It felt real. Really real."
"Sometimes they're like that." Then you wake up. She sighed. "My dad -- your grandpa -- he used to sing a song that life is like a dream." She sat up. "I'll teach you. 'Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream...' " she began. First she taught him the song, then how to sing it with the delay between the first and second singers. When they'd sung it half a dozen times, she kissed his forehead and said, "Now I'm tired. I have to sleep."
"Can I sleep here? With you?"
"Yes, but no more dreams. Don't wake me up. I really need to sleep. Okay?"
"Okay," he said, and curled up against her.
She dreamed of dogs and horses. In the morning, she slept through the alarm and was late to work.