Mama's Secret

By Devorah Uriel

Mama’s pacing and yelling a lot of words but all I hear is the danger in her voice.  Padgey and Butch look almost grown up, except that they’re calm.  Padgey hold’s Trina by the hand because she’s likely to wander off.  I’m 7 and old enough to follow along without anyone paying much attention. 

The courtroom looks like a big old church.  Seems like it’s mostly made of rocks. It smells like laundry left in the washer too long. There aren’t hardly any windows but there’s plenty of lights so it’s bright enough. The smooth floors and the ceiling so far away make lots of space for voices to bounce around in.  We go into a big room with rows and rows of pews. There is a separate area where the judge stays-like a priest.  I wonder if he’ll be a nice man. 

We take our seats in the back pew. Padgey goes in first because she’s the oldest. Trina and Butchy in the middle, then me. I’m next to mama who sits on the aisle. The judge isn’t here yet. We just sit.  Nobody talks.  There are lots of other families sitting in the pews. They talk in whispers, smoothing skirts and straightening ties. The girls in front of me have bows in their hair. Stupid bows.   

A door opens and some people come in through a side door into the priest space. One of them must be the judge because he takes a seat at the big desk that’s up high. He has silver hair and black-rimmed glasses. He pulls a little chain on the lamp and is looking at papers. Something about the way his mouth is, like a straight hard line-makes me look away.

Mama said daddy will be here today and that the judge is gonna try and take us kids away from her. I haven’t seen Daddy since me and Butchy ran away to California on the train. That trip sure did cause a lot of trouble. Mama said we are to be real good, not talk to Daddy and tell the judge how much we love her. The hardest one of those will be not to talk to Daddy. Mama smiles at us with that tight smile that says “remember what I told you.” We all nod without smiling back. 

I hear the big doors open and I twist in my seat to see. I know it’s him though. I just know. He looks so handsome. He shaved and put on a nice clean blue shirt with buttons.  His blue eyes sparkle when he winks at me. I want to run and jump in his arms so bad- but I know better.  Still, when he smiles at me I smile back. I’m real careful not to look at Mama after that. I hope Daddy hasn’t had his Bud today. Daddy’s nickname is Bud after his favorite beer. Daddy likes beer even more than I like ice cream.

“SmithvsThomas”, please come forward.  She says it loud but she still sounds like a little bird. The lady stands at the railing with her clipboard and looks right at us.  Her black dress seems too big for her and I wonder if she’s really a grown up. She motions for Mama and daddy to come up there-to the priest place.  Daddy gets there first and Mama is clearly mad about that.  Mama rushes forward brushing off her skirt as she walks.  She looks beautiful with her dark hair piled on top of her head. The woman with the clipboard is reading something to Mama and daddy but I can’t hear anything.

I bump my shoulder into Butch. “Do you think they’ll take us away?” 

“Naw. I kinda wish they would though.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“I’m ready to be on my own.” I don’t say anything. I think about what that would be like for Butch to be gone. Mama and Butch fight—a lot.  He’s getting pretty big and strong.  Sometimes he fights back. Sometimes he’s mean to me. I don’t want him to go though. He messes my hair and I laugh. 

“Want to see if we can get closer and hear?” Before I can answer he drops to the floor and slides under the pew in front of us, just missing the girls with the bows. 

Padgey whispers between clenched teeth-“get back here!”  But he’s gone. I think about it for a second and then I’m after him faster that lickety can split. 

Several rows up I peek above the pews and wave at Padgey and Trina. Trina giggles. I duck behind the pew and pop up again mouthing peek-a-boo. Trina laughs and squeals loudly. Even Padgey smiles. I look around. Mama and Daddy are talking to the judge now. I can’t see Butch anywhere. Oh there he is! He’s right in the front row lying down like he’s taking a nap! He waves at me. I smile. He wants to get in trouble. Mama says trouble is his hobby. I stay where I am. It’s easy to hear Mama now, she’s practically screaming.

“He took her out of state! How is that good parenting?” 

“Lower your voice Mrs. Thomas.”

“Don’t call me by that filthy name.” 

“Lower your voice Mrs. Smith or I will find you in contempt of court!”

“He’s an asshole!”

Now Daddy’s yelling too. Daddy doesn’t often yell but mama has a way with him. 

Mama is not exactly right. Daddy didn’t take us out of state. Butchy and me hopped a train all by ourselves. Daddy actually brought us back. Eventually.

“Psst! Over here!” Butchy is calling me to come over. He’s standing up on the pew and his hands are together fist-to-fist. He holds one fist close to his left eye and slowly looks around the room like he’s a pirate looking for land. When he spots me through his telescope he jumps as if surprised and nearly falls off the pew.  A loud laugh explodes from me and my knees give in.  I’m afraid I might pee my pants so I cross my legs and squeeze tight.  Mama, daddy and the judge all look at me and then at Butch. Butch jumps over the back of the pew and starts running down the length of the next row, still with hands in search position. Laughing, I follow him at a full run. 

Mama yells for us to stop it and sit down. Her voice bounces around the room and it sounds like there are 3 of her. Trina gets away from Padgey and runs after me. She trips and falls. She sure has good lungs. I look at Padgey. She just shakes her head and walks right out of the courtroom so I run to Trina and give her a hug. Mama runs after Butch and daddy runs after me. I don’t know why but since everyone is running I decide to run some more too. Nowhere in particular, just around the courtroom.

A loud pounding brings us all to a stop. The judge is standing with a wooden hammer in his hand.  He’s red in the face and shaking his head.

“Order! Order!” he shouts.

Butch yells, “I’ll order French Fries!” Trina and I fall to the floor laughing.  Mom catches Butch by the back of the shirt and falls onto the floor on top of him.  She sits across him and her nice skirt is all scrunched up around her hips showing her garters and a long rip in her stockings. She hits Butch real hard, over and over. Butch covers his face with his arms. Daddy runs over and pulls her off. Then mama hits daddy. Pow! Daddy’s nose starts to bleed. The blood looks purple on his shirt and I remembered that red and blue make purple.

A policeman runs over and takes both of Mama’s arms and holds them behind her back.  Another policeman takes daddy. I’m not laughing anymore. I run to Mama but someone grabs me. I hear Mama’s policeman say to the other one “she’s fuckin’ crazy”. Mama is still yelling at Daddy so she doesn’t hear the policeman. Good thing for him.

Mama’s crazy.  Mama’s crazy.  I hope I didn’t say that out loud. I twist around to see who’s got me. It’s the lady with the clipboard.  The little bird.  She smiles at me and I smile back.  She lets me go.  I like birds.  I wonder who else knows mama’s crazy.  Not Padgey and Butch.  Daddy never said anything.  Does Mama know? I’m probably the only person who knows.  Me and the policemen.

We know Mama’s secret.