When Daley was five and I was eleven, I came home from school and Mama was sitting at the kitchen table crying. Daley was busy putting toothpicks into a row of holes in the pegboard mounted on the wall opposite the refrigerator and stove.
The pegboard was a new addition to the kitchen, a present from Mama to Daley. Or maybe it was a present from Mama to herself. It kept Daley occupied where Mama could keep an eye on him without going crazy. Before the pegboard, it was hard to coax Daley out of his room.
Mama daubed her eyes with a napkin and stared out the sliding glass doors to our backyard patio. “Do you remember the day we brought Daley home?” Mama asked. “He was in a little blue blanket. Do you remember?”
Daley counted out eighteen toothpicks, and began filling in a new hole. He was sweating and the soft, downy hairs on the back of his neck and around his temples were curled.
“He was really small and his eyes were closed. You let me hold him,” I said.
Mama reached for my hand, wanting me to sit at the table with her. I handed her my lunch box instead, pretending I didn’t understand. I felt bad, but sometimes when I came home from school, Mama scared me. If she got her hands on me when she was like that, she wouldn’t let go. She’d make me sit with her and Daley the rest of the day watching Leave It to Beaver reruns or some other make believe family.
Mama took my lunch bag and set it down on the carpet beside her chair. I reached down, irritated that she’d put it on the floor. But Mama brushed my hand away. Then she grabbed hold of my wrist and pinched me.
“Owww! What was that for?” I rubbed at the little red mark she’d left on my skin.
“That’s what you did to him.” Mama said it fast. She held her breath as she talked. “I showed you how to hold him, and I gave him to you. You looked so happy. Then you pinched him.”
Mama laughed but it was one of her bad kinds of laughs, like she wanted to cry but choked it back. She grabbed my arm again. “Why did you do that?” Her voice got louder and she leaned toward me, staring at me as if she was trying to see inside my head. “Why did you pinch him?”
“I don’t remember,” I said. “Honest. I don’t remember.”
“I just need to know.” Mama let me go. “I’m not mad at you.” She stood up and went to the kitchen counter. She took two tall glasses off the drain board.
“Would you like iced tea?” she asked.
She didn’t wait for me to answer. She didn’t need to. I loved iced tea so much. I’d eat two servings of pickled beets just to get some. She knew she had me. Knew I was trapped. No matter how weird she was acting, I wasn’t going anywhere.
She put in plenty of sugar, just the way I liked it, and took some ice cubes from the bowl she kept in the freezer. She got the special long handled spoons and brought everything to the table.
I loved the way those spoons sounded when she stirred the sugar at the bottom of the glass.
So did Daley.
He heard the spoons and the ice clinking, and he stopped filling the hole that had captured his attention. He put all the toothpicks back into the box, counting each one as he tucked them inside. When he was satisfied that all the toothpicks were turned in the same direction, he closed the box and put it down on the floor. In his funny lurching way, Daley walked over to the table and stood between Mama and me.
He stared at the ice cubes swirling in Mama’s glass.
“Do you want some, Daley?” Mama asked, in her Daley voice. She always talked to him like he was deaf or something, real slow and careful and louder than she talked to me. Distinct. She talked to him very distinct.
Of course, Daley didn’t answer. He never did. There was no give and take with Daley. But she got up as if he’d said, “Yes, please,” and went to the refrigerator.“I thought you were jealous,” she said. She tore two sections of paper towel off the roll, put them on the counter, and opened the freezer. She took out a new tray of ice and ran warm water over it.
Per Contra Summer 2007