“One whose heart is filled with the love of God cannot willfully hurt anyone.”
The Men in Her Life.
“Fucker skipped on you again.”
“Ray, please, Honey; not in front of your sisters.”
Charli looked around the table. The two older girls were stabbing at their portions of the pork foo yung like they wanted to tear its heart out. She turned in her chair to watch people from their neighborhood who could have pretty teapots and tiny cups, and their kids could each order something different. They didn’t have to pick one dinner and cut off little pieces. They could have food left over, and get to carry it home in white boxes. If they forgot them on the table, Charli would go over and get them. Sometimes people came back and asked where their stuff was, but the little oriental men would only look over toward her, but not say anything, so she got to keep it. She didn’t understand how people could not eat everything they had, or how the Chinese men could just throw food away. She’d want to ask if her mom could have some of it; but instead she’d just walk over, take what looked good, and carry it back to her family.
But now other kids and their parents weren’t even eating. If they weren’t openly staring at her brother and her mom, or studying Charli and her sisters, they were at least sneaking peeks.
“Your dad just had to talk to one of the men he works with about some fossils; that’s all,” their mom said. “You heard him talking on the phone. He told us he’d be right back.”
“He always says that.” Pammie thrust her knife into a chunk of pink meat.
“Oh, Honey; but he will this time. He even told us to order dessert, didn’t he? He doesn’t always say that, now, does he? Hey, how about some of that nice green ice cream you like? We’ll order some of that, okay? Wouldn’t that be nice?”
Pammie twisted the knife until every piece of pork flesh was torn to tiny shreds. Francine just dropped her hands and stared at the table.
“You like that nice ice cream, don’t you?” Their mom seemed so distracted the kids couldn’t tell whom she was talking to, but they weren’t really listening, anyway. “He said there’s been a very important new discovery! Now, that’s exciting, isn’t it? Some big, scary dinosaur? Maybe he’ll bring us pictures.” She turned to Charli. “Here, eat, Honey,” she said. “Let me help you with that. Daddy will be right back.”
Charli lifted her purse up off her lap, and laid it on the table. Her mom stopped cutting the little girl’s food to fight back tears. Charli said, “Here. You can have all my money, Mommy.”
The sounds of scraping and poking against plates stopped at tables all around her. Charli tried to catch the attention of her brother, or one of her sisters, to suggest they all pitch in, but nobody in her family would look up.
“Fuck this!” her brother said. “I’m not paying for this shit!” He stood, and started shouting at waiters. “You hear me? This is crap! I wouldn’t feed this shit to my dog. Hell, I’d rather eat the dog than this crap!” He launched his plate. A customer across the room ducked just before it shattered on the wall behind her.
Their mother reached for her glass, but it only held water.
“Fuck this!” Ray shouted and slammed out the front door.
Charli climbed down off her chair and tried to follow, but had trouble with the door. She managed to shove and lunge her way through, then ran to where the car had been. Standing in the empty space, she called, “Daddy? Daddy! It’s your little Charli; it’s me. Don’t go, Daddy.”
Inside The China Pagoda, she knew, her mom would be ordering wine, but then wouldn’t know how to pay for it. Remembering the money in her piggybank, Charli ran the few blocks to their home, slowing to a stop outside the garage. It took her a long time to talk herself out of checking her daddy’s red toolbox. This time, she decided, she didn’t want to know.
She crawled in through the dog door. Walking slowly across the living room, smelling the dust and the sour odor of old food spills, touching each piece of furniture as she passed, everything hurt her so badly. It wasn’t right; it wasn’t fair; a home should have a daddy in it.
She climbed the stairs to her room, but then didn’t have to reach under her bed. Mr. Pigg was broken open all over her dresser. All her money was gone.
Little Charli just kept moving, taking short quick breaths high in her chest to keep from crying. In her sisters’ room, she dug through all their hiding places, but he’d taken theirs, too.
Heading downstairs, she made for the garage. The big red toolbox was empty. All the nice wrapped presents she’d seen in there were gone.
That poor tiny child could only afford to stand there staring, feeling terribly empty, for a minute or so, her little hands wiping back tears that had never actually broken to the surface. She knew her mom would be talking funny and blubbering by now. The waiters would be wringing their hands and all their neighbors would be talking about her family out loud and saying terrible, ugly things. Money or no money, Charli was going to have to get her mommy out of there.
Their dad didn’t come home that night. Ray became “Death Ray” again, breaking lamps and dishes, slashing at the cat with belts and fireplace pokers, leaving it cowering and spitting under the couch. Then he headed for the special school, to beat up on “retards.” Pammie searched the streets for Cambodian and Mexican girls she could knock down and kick because they “couldn’t even talk English.” Their mom passed out on the couch watching some old movie with James Cagney shooting and punching everybody, even his girlfriend. Francine finished up her mom’s wine. She was only eleven, but had been drinking for years. Charli decided to spend the night at Gramma Peggy’s. She took her Barbie with her so Ray wouldn’t come back and tear it to pieces.
When she got there, the garage door was closed, so she knew Grampa Ron wasn’t out there spending a little quality time with his one true friend, Jim Beam. The house itself was dark, though, which was strange; they always left “lights on for the burglars” if they went out. Charli climbed up into their olive tree to study things for a while, try to figure out what was going on. She didn’t like it; something wasn’t right. Everywhere she turned, the world scared her.
She didn’t hear Grampa’s radio in the garage, but didn’t see anyone moving in the house. Nestling her doll into a comfortable pad of leaves, she climbed down without it, and snuck up to the living room window like an Indian. Gramma Peggy wasn’t watching Gunsmoke. Their TV wasn’t even turned on. She stared in for a long time, but didn’t see anyone.
Charli slid through the night, working the wagon of garden tools over to the loose board in the backyard wall, propping the milk box up on it, and climbing through. She managed to drag a bench over to a back screen window so she could listen. Inside the house somewhere, she heard “Brownie the Mutt” whimpering. Listening harder then, she heard him scratching at something wooden. Something was wrong. Gramps never let him whine like that. He kicked and cussed the “damned ugly mongrel,” then swore harder because the dog was making him spill his drink.
Too scared to call out, Charli crept around, trying windows until she found a space she could squeeze through. A cast iron skillet lay on the dining room floor. A towel in the hall was soaked with blood.
She couldn’t take any more. The tiny child broke down into heaving bursts of terror, crying out, “Gramma. Gramma! Gramma; it’s me; it’s little Charli. Gramma; where are you? Gramma!”
No one answered. Brownie the Mutt came to peek out from the bedroom for just a moment, then trotted back in to start scratching and whimpering again.
Feeling like every joint and muscle in her body, other than her pounding heart, had frozen solid and was holding her back, Charli fought for control, forcing herself to walk very slowly down the hall. She found Brownie staring at the closed bathroom door. Now and then he’d scratch at it with his paw. It took a moment for Charli to hear her grandmother sobbing on the other side.
“Gramma, Gramma,” the child kept calling.
It was a long time before she answered, and then very weakly. “It’s okay, Honey, Gramma will be alright. You just go home now, Honey.”
Charli stayed put. She kept crying, but wouldn’t step any closer to that door.
Then it all broke loose. She dropped to her knees, sobbing uncontrollably until she just couldn’t breathe.
That sweet, broken child heard the bathroom door open, but couldn’t stand up, run to her gramma, or even stop weeping. She felt the soft, gentle hand of the woman who’d practically raised her, the woman she’d always thought of as her real mom, stroking her heaving shoulders, and her hair. Then she heard her grandmother’s voice. “You just have to understand, Sweetheart; your grandfather doesn’t mean to get this way; it’s just the liquor.
“And anyway, he’s a doctor, or we wouldn’t have this nice house, or any food to eat.”
Charli, still crumpled over herself, stared at the floor by the blue glow of the nightlight, watching a big drop of her gramma’s blood spread out through the shared pooling of their tears.