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by Ann Wertz Garvin
Four year-old Clementine stared up at her aunt from blue plastic booster seat. With the clear, sweet, pixie-voice of a child she said, “You are a dumb, stupid lady with really bad ideas.” But with her lisp and enunciation difficulties, it came out, “You are a dumb, thupid lady with weally bad ideath,” which unintentionally took the edge off the message. The “bad idea” Clementine was referring to was a nap.
Truth was, Clementine was a little nicer to her lately, but this just wasn’t one of those times. Tess squinted down at her niece and gauged her own response. She could a) give Clementine a time-out. b) withhold dessert or c) read another chapter in How to Raise a Spirited Child. Tess was both thrilled and excited to find this book. She searched desperately for the book How to Raise a Pain in the Ass when she was married, but the manual was nowhere to be found.
She wrestled the screaming Clementine to bed and glanced around for something that might prop her up a bit. Just a little crutch.
Something to lean on that didn’t roll away, poke her in the eye, file for divorce.
When she agreed to take custody of her niece “in case of emergency,” the thought did not occur to Tess that her sister might actually die. Six-months before, Tess promised to baby-sit while Sharon and Tim went out for dinner. The roads were clear, the night sky clean, and a beautiful brown-eyed deer watched as Sharon and Tim’s Honda swerved, skidded into the gravel, rolled, and was halted by the most graceful birch tree on Highway 51. No drunk, tired trucker or weatherman to blame. The fullness of that night collected in Tess’s throat and she swallowed hard and then harder still.
There was no stopping the hollowness if it were to open.
Quiet now, Tess eased Clementine’s paneled wooden door open and stepped inside. Her niece possessed her own sleep-smell, a mixture of potatoes and cinnamon with something else. Kid-musk? With her eyes she studied Clementine’s face, touched her eccentrically long eyelashes and sweaty forehead. There was a sheen to her skin and beads of perspiration collected on her upper lip. She was a sweaty-napper, working so hard to sleep.
Her husband had been ugly with indignation and rage when he realized nothing would influence Clementine’s custody plans. He had made it clear from the start that children were a deal-breaker. His words. She smelled his anger, burning with an electrical frisson that scorched her thinking and cauterized her insecurities. Sure not to bleed, she said, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” And she shut the door to her mind, but not before his words coiled sideways and slipped inside.
Outside Clementine’s room Tess settled herself onto the floor and pulled a newspaper in front of her. The employment ads were Tess’s favorite part of the paper. The other sections were so final, so reported, so past tense.
She let her eyes walk over to a very small printed square containing the barest of job qualifications, no bold type or borders set the ad apart. Help wanted. Experienced person for milking cows in a parlor and general farm chores. Must like working with cows! Exclamation point! She read the words again and gave a little puff of a laugh.
She fondly pictured the farmer who placed the ad, calling in his desires to the newspaper, counting his words, frugal with his needs, hoping to find a mutual lover of cows. Someone to read his tiny missive and come to his aid. She picked up the paper and carefully tore out the farmer’s advertisement and held the tiny “want” in her fingers. Her sister’s face entered her thoughts and their mother’s floated in, soft-skinned and milky, the ultimate nutritional supplement. She thought of sweaty sleeping Clementine tangled in her blanket, Lovey-Bun in a chokehold, and wondered what might Clementine request if asked to place an ad for a mommy. What two line appeal might she make? Love wanted. Must smell like mommy and remember her favorite song. No xperience necessary. Must like working with child.