A Different VoiceChapter 7
The children were both up early. I wanted to let Bud sleep, but this was another one of those days that Becky couldn't stand to be without her daddy. Finally I figured there was no way he could be sleeping through her screams, so I took her in to him.
He was awake. He looked terrible. Becky stopped screaming as soon as she saw him. No way to know if that was because of the purple on his face, or in spite of it.
"Here, Daddy," I said. "She's changed, washed, dressed, but no breakfast yet, because I didn't want it spit at me."
Charles was just finishing up his cereal when I came back downstairs. "What was the matter with Becky?" he said.
"She wanted her daddy."
"Why does she have to have him all the time?"
"Well….I guess she likes him best."
Charles drank the rest of his juice, and then he jumped off his chair. "I like you best." He gave me a hug around the neck. "Can I go outside?"
I nodded my head. I was afraid my voice would wobble if I tried to talk.
I suppose you've noticed that Bud and I didn't discuss Rhonda at all. Or Roxanne. Or whoever. We didn't talk about the possibility she might come back. I didn't even ask Bud about any of the details of Donny's death. He knew, I knew he did, because he went to see Herbert one afternoon after we got back from Arbutus's. But I tried never to think about Rhonda, or Donny, or the man with the crooked teeth, at all.
So it was really a shock to hear her voice on the phone that morning.
"Is this the little wife?" she said after I said hello.
"Who is this?"
"Oh, come on, you know who it is. Are you tired of the cute little fella yet?"
"What do you want?"
"I thought I'd let you know I was still alive. I'll be coming back through town in a few days; thought I'd pick up the kid. Or maybe get a loan. You know?"
I couldn't say anything for a minute. Did she really want us to give Charles back? Or did she want us to buy him?
"I don't know what you want."
"You're useless. Let me talk to Wendell."
There was silence at the other end. Then she said, "No? Are you kidding me? With what I found out about you, honey, I think you better let me do whatever I want. Or I might have to let hubby know a few things."
Bud said, "Who is that?" He was feeding Becky while he ate his own breakfast.
"I don't know what you're talking about," I said.
"I've been on the lam, but I needed something to do, so I looked you up. So to speak. I know all about you, honey. Does the big lug?"
Bud got up from the table. He took the phone out of my hand. "Who is this?"
He listened for a minute. "Where are you?" After a pause, he said, "Tell me what you want me to bring." After another pause, he said, "No. The boy stays here."
I wished I knew what she was saying.
"I can't get that much." Bud shut his eyes for a minute. "Yeah, OK." He listened a little more, then he handed the phone back to me. "She wants to talk to you."
"Don't you get in the way, SusieQ," Rhonda said. "I'll tell Wendell all about you if you do. You take good care of the kid, OK?" And the line was dead.
Becky was letting little handfuls of bananas drop on the floor.
"Three days," Bud said. "We got three days."
He sat down. Becky threw a little handful of bananas on his pants. He didn't notice.
"She might be lying," he said. "This just don't come up even---Why would she call and let us know? Why not just show up like she did the first time? If she's laying low, a phone call's kinda stupid."
Well, I thought, she's not Einstein, but I didn't say it.
"Maybe she's gonna try and snatch Charles ahead of time….but then, why call? I don't get it."
"Didn't she ask for money? Maybe that's really what she wants, and she knows you'd need time to get it."
"You think she'd rather have money instead of Charles?" He had trouble with that concept, but he thought about it for a while, and finally said, "I suppose that might be it. Be pretty stupid."
Bless his heart.
"How much does she want?" I asked.
"Five thousand…...how does she think we can come up with that much?"
He didn't answer right away. Becky took the opportunity to squish bananas all over the front of her dress.
"Don't worry about it……I've got it." He looked up and saw the look on my face. "It's not what you think. I ain't sure it's even mine. My name was on the account, but it was Mabel's. I haven't spent it 'cause I don't know where it came from or…………Now, don't get upset, it's a good thing we haven't done anything with it, otherwise we wouldn't have it now."
"Did you think I'd want to run out and spend it right away?"
Part of me was really upset that he kept it a secret, and part of me was amused by the look on his face. He knew he was in hot water, and trying to think of a way out.
"No…….I was just trying to forget about it…….myself……."
"We could have bought the house."
"Yeah……I thought of that…..but maybe we'll need a bigger house sometime. You know? Then we can buy that one."
He was so earnest. I had to smile. "OK. I'll bite. When will we need a bigger house?"
"Well…….maybe you got pregnant again last night." He smiled, too. "It could be. Maybe we'll have three kids this time next year."
The kid in the high chair was making sweet happy little noises, even though she was out of bananas. "Well, we'll have to get a house with more than one bathroom," I said. "If they're all like Becky." Her hair was standing up in squishy little tufts all over the top of her head. Some banana was dripping down her forehead. She grinned at her daddy.
She looked nice. If you like bananas.
Bud argued with me about who should give Becky her bath. I said I wasn't doing it. Bud was the one who left the dish on her tray where she could reach it. He said he needed to go talk to Herbert, and look up Richard, and get his paycheck for last month. I said I wasn't doing it. Becky would just scream if I tried to do it. Bud said he wanted to let the bank know about him withdrawing the money, and he had a couple of other things planned he wasn't specific about. Probably nonexistent things. I said I wasn't doing it.
He took Becky upstairs. I heard him running the water. I started the breakfast dishes.
When Charles screamed, I dropped a plate into the sink and heard it break while I was turning toward the door.
Outside. I couldn't see him. He screamed again. Behind the garage. I heard Bud coming down the stairs. I was running toward the garage; the screen door banged against the siding when Bud came out.
Charles was sitting on the ground behind the garage, tears running down his face, holding one hand with the other one.
"What's the matter? Charles, what is it?"
"I banged my thumb," he said, and held it up for us to see.
"Jesus," Bud muttered. "Charles, I thought you were dying, or something."
I turned to ask him what he did with Becky, but I didn't need to. He had Becky. She was naked, and dripping wet, but he didn't leave her alone. He's a good daddy.
"You scared us half to death," I said to Charles.
"But it hurts!"
"OK, go in the house." Bud looked grim.
"Lynn said I could play outside."
"I'm telling you to go in the house."
"I wanna build…"
"Your thumb hurts. You're going in the house."
"It feels better." And Charles just sat there. Stuck his lip out and didn't move.
Bud handed Becky to me, walked over and hoisted Charles up over his shoulder like a sack of grain. Charles looked back at me, his mouth open in astonishment for a minute, then he started to giggle. Bud bounced him a couple of times on the way to the house, and he giggled some more.
"This gives me a bad feeling," Bud said. He was watching me dress Becky. "What if something happened to Charles and he couldn't scream? How long would it a' been before we knew about it?"
"You can't keep him in the house all the time."
"For a while. I'll get him something to play with. Just till we get this straightened out. I'm still not sure she won't try to grab him."
"Bud." I picked Becky up and handed her to him while I put her wet things in the hamper. "You may not like her, but she's his mother. You can't keep him away from her."
"You're not thinking. Who wanted to kill Donny? Huh? A lot of people didn't like him much, but can you think of anybody who woulda wanted him dead? No. And Rhonda--"
"---Roxanne," I said.
"Whoever. She's running from somebody. Scared of somebody. Scared enough to look me up. Donny just happens to get cut in half by a shotgun blast in her room. Think about it."
"Now you tell me we should give Charles back to her if she wants him."
I kept him in the house while Bud was gone. He came back late in the afternoon, and slammed the door shut when he came in. Hard. The house shook. I'm surprised the window didn't break. Or the door itself. He looked ……..more than angry……….fierce, furious…….ready to blow.
He looked at me and said, "Fuckhead won't pay me for last month."
"You're talking about Richard?"
Charles stopped jumping on the couch. He sat down and didn't say a word.
Bud swung his arm sideways and hit the wall next to the door with his fist. The pictures on the wall rattled, but nothing fell down. Yet. "I'm through with this shit. I'm gonna tell Herbert I'm gonna take that job."
"Why wouldn't he pay you?"
"He said he doesn't have the money. So I guess I get to just whistle for it…….Probably drank it all. He was drunk when he answered the door."
It's been a long time since Bud was this angry. He started pacing.
"Goddam him! He wouldn't even talk to me about it. Just shut the door in my face. I don't know what the hell his problem is. I thought……..we used to be friends." He balled up his fists; he was going to hit something.
"Bud," I said, "Go outside."
He looked at me like I'd just betrayed him. I felt bad, but something was going to get broken if he stayed in the house. And the kids were scared.
"I'm going to keep the kids in here. You go outside."
He blinked a couple of times. I could see when he understood what I meant. He went outside.
He didn't come back in till supper was almost ready. It was a little later than usual, 'cause Charles was helping me. When Charles saw him, he sat down on a chair at the table and didn't move. Even Becky was looking at her daddy with wide eyes.
He had a big sack in one hand, and a bunch of flowers in the other. He handed me the flowers. "I got these before I went to Richard's. They've been in the car all this time." They were a little wilted. They had been a nice bunch of carnations.
I gave him a kiss on the cheek and he looked relieved. "We'll put them in water, and see if they won't come back. What's in the sack?"
"Something for Becky," he said, and pulled out a big green rubber pretzel. Wouldn't have been my first choice, but her eyes lit up and she reached for it. Stuck it in her mouth right away.
"And something for Charles." A box of Tinker-toys. "So you can build things without hitting your thumb." Bud opened the box and Charles sidled over to stand next to Bud. Bud showed him how they fit together, and Charles lost his wariness. He sat down on the floor under the kitchen table and dumped all the pieces out on the floor.
"Whoops, there's something else in here." A red cowboy hat came out of the sack. "C'mere, let's see if it fits you." That seemed to confuse Charles. "Come up here." He did. Bud put the hat on his head and pulled the string under his chin.
Charles reached up and put both hands on it. "It fits me," he said. He seemed surprised.
There was a little gunbelt with 2 silver pistols, and of course a red stick horse. Bud buckled the belt around his waist. I expected to see joy on Charles' face, and I know Bud did, too, but it wasn't there.
He touched the guns, looked at the stick horse……..and said, "What do you want me to do?"
Now we were confused. "It's for you to play with," Bud said.
Hope appeared. "I don't have to do nothing for it?"
"Bud just wanted to get you some toys, honey," I said. "They're yours, to play with."
"You buyed these for me?"
Now we saw the joy. Charles started to hop, then he picked up the stick horse, jumped on, and galloped around the room. After the end of the horse's stick hit the range a couple of times and the refrigerator once, I could see I was going to have to go through the house and make sure all the breakables were above horse-level.
While I was putting supper on the table, Charles climbed on Bud's lap, and showed him his quick-draw, and the pictures on the holsters, talking a mile a minute. And then at one point he squirmed around and gave Bud a quick hug around the neck, before jumping down.
It took a lot of persuading to convince Charles to put up the belt and the hat when he went to bed. I gave in and let him sleep with the stick horse.
In bed that night, Bud said, "We're not giving him back to her." After I turned out the light, he said, "He's my son."
No point in saying anything. His mind was made up.
But I had a bad feeling.