“I was not,” I said, suddenly certain. “I loved him right away.”
Mama banged the tray on the edge of the counter, and emptied the ice into the bowl. Picking out two cubes, she held them up, and inspected them. She nodded, and put them on the paper towel.
“That’s what you said then!” She seemed all excited. “That is exactly what you said, right before I showed you how to hold him. You said, ‘I love him already!” See, you do remember.”
Mama came back to the table and sat down. She held the paper out for Daley. He just stared at Mama’s glass on the table. Finally, she did it the way Daley wanted. She put the towel down on the table, flattened it and sat back in her chair, giving him room.
Looking across at me she said, “You held him for a long time, and you looked so happy. You sang that song you loved, the one on the Donovan record. You crooned it to him, “Happiness runs, happiness runs.” You sang the whole damned song. And then you pinched his arm.”
Daley lurched forward and picked one cube up in each hand, so he could rearrange their placement on the towel. He put them down exactly in the center of each section, so they had equal amounts of white space around them.
Mama reached out and swept the sweaty curls off Daley’s forehead. He stared down at the neatly aligned squares.
“I asked you why, of course,” she said. “I thought you might remember. That you could explain it to me.” After fussing with Daley’s hair, she did the itsy-bitsy-spider walk with her fingers down his neck and chest. Sometimes, when she did that, Daley almost looked happy, but never when he was in one of his ice-cube trances. He twitched away from her hand.
I sipped my tea, savoring the feel of the ice against my teeth, and the sweet metallic taste in my mouth. Mama lit a cigarette.
Daley’s ice melted into the towel. When the water marks spread across the paper, and touched each other, he picked up both ice cubes and left the table.
“Ten minutes, thirty three seconds,” he said. He walked across the room, his legs stiff. He looked like Pinocchio, before he got turned into a boy. When he got to the pegboard he sat down with is back to it. He crossed his legs, like a Buddha, and rested the back of his hands on his knees, cradling one ice cube in each palm.
Mama checked her wristwatch, squinting through the smoke.
“You said you weren’t sure he was alive” She exhaled and her face was hidden in a plume of smoke. “You said he didn’t look real.”
I shrugged and sipped more tea, swinging my feet back and forth under my chair, banging my heels of my shoes into the rails. I didn’t want to talk about Daley, didn’t want to remember pinching him or how much I wanted a little brother.
Mama sat across from me, puffing smoke and waiting for me to say something.
I pictured it in my head. Mama coming through the door, looking so proud. I don’t remember Papa, so much. Maybe because he didn’t stick around very long after Daley came home.
Daley. He’d looked so perfect, so beautiful. He was very still inside his blanket. I wanted to hold him and see his eyes open, so badly. I wanted him to curl his fingers around one of mine. I sang to him, trying to wake him up. And after a while, I remember thinking Mama was playing a game with me. She’d left the real baby in the hospital and brought me a doll. So I pinched him. If he were real, he would open his eyes. He would cry, and I could comfort him. The only reaction I got was Mama’s slap. “He looked like a doll,” I said.
“I was worried that you meant to hurt him.” Mama sighed, “I never even noticed that he didn’t cry.” Mama shook her glass, made her ice cubes rattle. They were almost gone. It was a small sound.
Daley didn’t look up. He was watching the ice cubes melt in his hands.
We drank our tea, and Mama stared out the door. When the coal on her cigarette was all the way down to the filter, she blew smoke out from her nose, and crushed the butt in the ashtray she kept on the table.
Per Contra Summer 2007