The Quiet Inside, A Short Story

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Mr. Dager asked us to write about our favorite place. I thought on it long and hard and by the end of the class period I was still sat there in my desk, thinking long and hard. I was trying hard to picture a place I really enjoy that I could write about. I thought about the pond and the ice cream shop in town and I even though about church of all places, but the same image kept popping up in my mind no matter how hard I tried to squash it out. Mr. Dager said that a favorite place could be a place we’ve been to once or a thousand times. The place that kept popping up in my mind I’ve been to at least a thousand times.

My favorite place is wherever I am when I see my mama’s belly rising out of that old bath tub. Usually I’m taking my time looking into the only mirror in the whole house. Last week I poked every single one of my teeth while looking in that mirror, just to make sure all of them are here to stay. Mama didn’t say a thing. Every once in a while she just sighed and when I snuck a peek I saw her eyes were closed and her smile was wide.

Every afternoon on Tuesdays, Thursdays and especially on Sundays everyone knows where to find mama – stretched out, all soapy and wet, in our big, white bath tub. You wouldn’t think a bath would be half as enjoyable if you couldn’t get your whole body underwater, but that doesn’t seem to bother mama. You also wouldn’t think that a woman as dignified as our mother would be content with people seeing her all stretched out soapy and wet in her altogether, but everyone is welcome in my favorite place.

Once or twice I’ve tried to lay in the bathtub as long as mama but I never can make it past five or six minutes without feeling bored out of my mind and as wrinkly as a bulldog. I wonder what mama’s thinking of when she’s laying there in that tub.

WHAT MAMA IS THINKING

What a remarkable thing it is to possess a human body. For never having carried a child my remarkable body sure bears the marks of motherhood. Breasts worn out from mothering and nurturing and soaking up tears. A belly stretched so tight its fit to burst. Fit to burst with memories and longings and a great love for the children placed in my care. Thighs tired from years of standing and supporting and moving forward. Feet propped up on the edge of this old tub, happy to not be needed for a few lovely moments every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday afternoon.

It can be so convenient to blame this broken body for being unable to carry a child, but I tried blaming and it doesn’t help. While sitting here in the soapy water that always gets too cold too fast I think about my remarkable body and all of its ways – it is broken, but it is beautiful. And I’m healing.

Mark bought and hung a curtain for me to pull around the tub and my body. He said, “Don’t you think it becomes inappropriate for a child to see their mother’s naked body after a certain age?” I wasn’t sure if he was referring to the age of the children or of the mother but to either intention my response was the same, “Keep the boys out while I’m in the tub if you want, but I want my girls to know what a real woman’s body looks like.”

Remembering I nod, lean my head back, close my eyes, and smile. A real woman’s body. Because I am a real woman after all. Am I not?

//

When I get home after school the first thing I do is kick off my shoes. As early as possible. Usually in the front yard. I climb down from the bus and as soon as the driver starts that big yellow thing moving again I kick my shoes as hard and as high as I can. I used to not wait until the driver started away, but she was always hollering about how young ladies should behave and I got tired of hearing it. Today as I watched my white sandal fly up toward the clear blue sky I squinted against the sun and remember what Mr. Dager and I said when I handed in my writing assignment.

“It’s not really about a place, Mr. Dager,” I warned him.

“What’s it about?” he asked. His eyebrows squeezed together and he cocked his head like a puppy does.

“Well… I don’t want to ruin it, but it’s kind of about a person,” I told him.

“People make great places, don’t they?” he said. His eyebrows moved back to their homes above his glasses and he smiled as he took my paper from me without taking his eyes off mine. I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant about people making great places but I liked the sound of it and I liked the way my eyes felt looking into his and so I agreed.

“Yeah, they do, Mr. Dager.”

My white sandal landed with a plop in the dirt in front of the house just as the little one slamed through the front door and onto the wide, wooden porch. “Hello!” she called. It was Tuesday, which meant that mom was in the tub and dad was at work. Which meant the little one, who isn’t old enough for kindergarten yet, was on her own.

“Hello,” I said back. The little one stuck her thumb in her mouth. I climbed the porch stairs and stroked her head as I passed. No matter how many times mama brushes that head of hair it always ends up a blonde tangled mess. In the living room I set my book bag gingerly next to my favorite blue chair. Just like I knew she would, the little one followed me into the house. After fetching a glass of milk from the kitchen I folded myself cross-legged into that blue chair and hauled the little one up after me. We sat together and shared the glass of milk. Then we sat together and shared the silence. I wondered what the little one was thinking about with her head on my chest and her thumb in her mouth.

WHAT THE LITTLE ONE IS THINKING

I like when she’s home. At the other house there were always lots of kids around to play with and talk to and hold my hand. Now, in the new house, I spend a lot of time alone. There are kids here but they’re always running away to other places where I’m not allowed to follow. Not mama, though. She always lets me follow. Just the other day I followed her right into the big, white tub and she never said a peep. She just let me splash on in and then worked out the tangles in my hair with her wet fingers.

Today mama and I spent some time outside chasing the butterflies and the white flowers that blow off into the wind. Mama called me little one and when dad came home for lunch we all ate outside together on the porch with the butterflies.

I wonder where Shayla is. And Georgie. They were my friends at the other house. I liked them well enough but Shayla never shared her milk with me and Georgie never worked the tangles out of my hair. We used to play house. I’ve always been the little one, which means I always got to be the baby. Shayla was the mom and Georgie was the dad. I’m pretty good at pretending to cry like a baby. I used to think Shayla was pretty good at pretending to be the mom but then I met mama.

//

Dinner is loud in our house. Not loud like a school cafeteria or a thunderstorm, but loud like the birds singing when the sun comes up. Loud like something is happening and it’s so wonderful you can’t help but sing about it. Or when something wonderful is happening and other people start singing and so even though you might feel a bit nervous, you can’t help but sing right along. That’s what dinner at our house is like. (The wonderful thing that’s happening is called family.)

Tonight at dinner the almost grown up boy told a remarkable story about something that happened at school. That great boy’s stories are always good because he manages to find himself in amusing situations without ever embarrassing himself or anybody else. He’s a very nice boy, and a very nice brother, especially seeing as he is almost grown up and when most boys get to that stage in life they can become very merciless and self-centered. As mama would say, “Not our boys. Our boys know how to love.” Mama’s right of course.

The almost grown up boy was rocking back in his chair, throwing his head back, and laughing from his belly. I was laughing, too, and so was everyone else, even the little one who probably didn’t exactly understand the story. When he finished up laughing, the almost grown up boy finally took a bite of mama’s green beans. “Mmmm,” he hummed and when his green beans were swallowed and on their way down, he opened his mouth to praise. “Those are really good, mama.”

“Thank you, baby,” was what mama said. I can’t tell you how many times a day those three words leave mama’s mouth. Mama calls everyone she loves “baby” even the almost grown up boy and even dad. The first time you’re on the receiving end of a “thank you, baby” from mama is the first time you’re home.

Dinner settled into more stories and laughing and green beans and the whole time I was watching the almost grown up boy. He kept throwing his head back and laughing and the look on his face and the joyful sounds leaving his mouth said that he meant those head-back-laughs with his whole heart. He is usually the one doing the entertaining – telling the stories, reciting the jokes, demonstrating the card tricks – so I can’t help but wonder what he thinks about when it’s not dinnertime and it’s not loud. I wonder what the almost grown up boy thinks about when he lays down in bed at night and everything is quiet and there’s no one to tell a story to or hear his head-back-laugh.

WHAT THE ALMOST GROWN UP BOY IS THINKING

Thank you, Lord, for this day. Thank you for my mama and my dad. Thank you for all of the times I thought that I’d never know what it was like to have a mama and a dad who love me and care about what I have to say. Thank you for all of my brothers and sisters and help me to be a good influence and someone they can look up to. Thank you for my health and the health of my family members. Please heal mama’s heart because I know it’s a little bit broken. But maybe if she could have babies like she wanted to I wouldn’t know what it’s like to have a mama and a dad who love me and care about what I have to say. Sometimes even when our heart is broken, it’s for the best and we just can’t see it.

//

If wherever my mama’s belly can be seen sticking out of that tub is my favorite place, waking up with the sun creeping through the window and warming me in my bed is my favorite time. Most people dread getting up and out of bed in the morning but not me. In those quiet moments before the day really begins, before everyone’s mouths start working well enough to fill the house with words, anything can happen. This morning I felt the possibilities were especially strong and I whispered to that sun shining through the window, “Anything can happen.”

My brothers and sisters and I are really fortunate because in this big, old farm house there are enough bedrooms for everyone. Mama and dad wanted to fill this big, old farm house up with kids to love and they did. My room is small but it’s mine and I like to take the time each day to breathe it in. This morning I lay for exactly twelve seconds in my bed after my eyes popped open. I stretched my arms high above my head and breathed it in. Then, in another twelve seconds I was dressed and running down the stairs for breakfast.

Mama feeds us well. This morning she was working in the wide kitchen when I ran smack into her backside and hugged her tight from behind. “Good morning, mama,” I whispered into her very self. I breathed her in, too. She said, “Good morning, sweetheart,” and served us up some pancakes.

“Today is going to be a great day,” I said at the table once everyone was seated and pancaked. I said that today is going to be a great day because I believe in the power of words. Mr. Dager is always talking about the power of words and I am always believing him. What you say matters. If I say today is going to be a great day right out loud for everyone to hear, then I am going to try my best to make those words come true, to make today a great day.

Breakfast is never as loud as dinner, because not everyone pops their eyes open to breathe in the day like I do. The older girls certainly take some time to warm up in the morning. The pretty one almost dropped that pretty head of hers right down onto her plate with exhaustion today! She should get more sleep instead of staying up late reading those books. But when anyone suggests that she get more sleep instead of staying up late reading those books her pretty little mouth explains that stopping a book right in the middle of the action is like walking away right in the middle of a conversation. It’s just not right.

The pretty one had a book with her at breakfast, closed up next to her plate of pancakes. She carried it around with her all day, sneaking peeks at the words during any moment of free time. I wonder what she’s thinking about all the time with that pretty nose in all those books. Does she ever have time to think for herself? Or is her mind always busy with the thoughts of all those people writing all those books?

WHAT THE PRETTY ONE IS THINKING

I wonder if I’ll ever grow to be like the ones in the stories, the ones who love themselves even before the handsome men love them. I wonder if I’ll ever grow to be like mama, so comfortable in my own skin I’ll bear it soapy and wet for the whole world to see.

Sometimes I search for my other mother in these books. I search the characters and the plots for women in her position, women with a hard choice to make. I search for a good enough reason to give up your daughter and I search for a daughter brave enough to forgive her once and for all.

But mostly when I read my beloved books I search for pieces of myself, pieces of myself I can knit together into one whole remarkable being. They’re always telling me how pretty I am and I smile politely and say thank you but sometimes I want to scream about how being pretty doesn’t feel very nice. Sometimes I want to beat someone’s chest and shout about how I’d rather be strong and courageous than pretty. Sometimes I want to beat someone’s chest and demand to know how I can take all of this pretty and turn it into forgiveness.

//

Before I had Mr. Dager for an English teacher I didn’t know I could write. I knew I could write of course, because even in the other house the kids learned how to read and write. What I mean is that I didn’t know I could write words able to make someone feel something the way those authors write the books that the pretty one carries around with her everywhere. I never thought anyone would want to carry my words around with them. But Mr. Dager does. He carries my words around with him.

That’s not all. I carry Mr. Dager’s words around with me, too. I write them down on scraps of paper I find in my desk, in the hallway, and at home and I stuff them in my pockets and my socks and my training bras. One time the loud one hollered for all the world to hear that I was in love with Mr. Dager. She hollered that I was in love with Mr. Dager because she just so happened to find some of his words when they fluttered out from my sock after a particularly impressive after school shoe fling. I didn’t correct her because I’ve lived with enough loud ones to know that contradicting them, even if they’re wrong, only makes them louder. But the truth is, I’m not really in love with Mr. Dager, I’m just in love with his words.

The reason I know I’m not in love with Mr. Dager – not the way the loud one was talking about anyway – is because sometimes Mr. Dager reminds me so much of dad and I definitely know I’m not in love with my own dad. Sometimes when he’s teaching Mr. Dager will just stop and look out the window for about twelve seconds. I think he’s breathing in the day. Or thinking about his beautiful, intelligent wife. Or maybe he’s composing his next words. Whatever he’s doing, he’s reminding me of my dad while he’s doing it.

Sometimes when dad’s out doing something in the yard, mowing the lawn or cleaning up after the dog, he just stops and looks up and out toward the sky and beyond. I think he’s breathing in the day, but I wonder what he’s thinking about.

WHAT DAD IS THINKING

Lord, you’ve really outdone yourself with this one. How can you be so good when we are so broken? Lord, I have so much to thank you for. Thank you for the sun, the rain, and especially for this day. Lord, thank you for my family. Thank you for my family. Lord, thank you for my children and for the way you brought each of them home in your perfect timing. Thank you for  granting me the privilege and responsibility of being the earthly father to these six beautiful souls. I pray that in your perfect timing they will each come to know you as their Heavenly Father.

Lord, thank you for my wife. For how she loves the children and loves me. Thank you for her selflessness, her patience, and her grace. Thank you for her remarkable body all stretched out soapy and wet in that tub and Lord, help her to heal. 

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