All Grown Up
Rhonda Browning White
Daddy says it’s a good year, says demand for coal is high, so two cardboard boxes, instead of one, perch on the overstuffed black vinyl couch, waiting for Momma to wrap them. Two birthday presents for me. Momma says it’s a double bounty of goodness bankrolled on Daddy’s weary shoulders.
Momma wraps the presents in layers of white tissue paper, each layer folded and taped separately, so I’ll have to peel away the layers one at a time to reach the goodness inside. She wraps the boxes while I make the icing for my birthday cake. German chocolate with coconut-pecan icing. It’s mine and Uncle Bobby’s favorite.
I turn ten today at exactly 10:24 pm, and even though it’s not quite noon, Momma said we can count it like I’m ten already, so I can finally use the stove by myself. I stir the pitcher of fresh cow’s milk, swirling the yellow cream into the milky whiteness, then I pour it into the big measuring cup. I step down off the stool to level my eyes with the red lines on the glass.
“Use the heavy-bottomed saucepan,” Momma says as she peers through the pass-through between the living room and kitchen. “Keep the heat low, so the milk won’t scorch.” She smiles and disappears, and in a moment, more tissue paper rattles.
Momma almost didn’t let me make my own birthday cake, not because I’m not a grown-up (because I am), but because she said it ain’t right to make your own birthday cake. But I wore her down, and a while ago she handed me the wooden spoon with the scorched tip (I burned it last year when I was young), and she told me to be careful with the flame.
I pinch off a wad of the sticky white coconut strings and shove them into my jaw, before I dump the rest of the bag into the icing mixture. I hum “Happy Birthday,” because today is going to be the best birthday ever.
“Momma,” I call. “You know what? I’m going to be the best cook in all of West Virginia. Maybe in the whole wide world!”
“You think so?” she says from the living room. “I think so, too. You can be anything you want to be, pretty girl.”
Momma didn’t say, “You can be anything you want to be when you grow up.” That’s because I’m ten. I’m a grown-up now. I hum some more.
I finish cooking the icing, and I smear the thick, sweet-smelling mixture over each layer, then stack them together and cover the top and sides. The church ladies don’t put icing on the sides of their German chocolate cakes. Me and Uncle Bobby like our cakes covered up with it, so I made extra. I scrape the bowl and lick the spatula clean, then I see a few bald patches where the cake shows through. I don’t think anyone will pay attention to it, and they won’t notice that the cake’s a little bit lopsided, either, because it’s going to taste so good.
Momma dusts her hands together. “There. That’s done.”
I step around the corner and gawk at my presents, their boxes so pretty wrapped in layers of white tied with pink yarn.
I haven’t asked for anything this year, because it never matters what I ask for—I always get what Momma thinks I need. Shoes, or a nightgown, sometimes a church dress. Today might be different, because two presents mean double the chance for something grand.
The trailer shakes when Daddy comes inside and slams the back door so it’ll latch. His heavy footsteps tingle through my sock-feet as he ambles up the narrow hallway. “Sure smells good in here, Susie-Q.” He grins as he sinks into his armchair. “You reckon we can see what’s in these pretty boxes, Momma?”
Momma’s whole face smiles when Daddy winks at her. “I think so.” She snaps a fresh blue cube onto the top of her new Insta-Matic camera.
“Go ahead,” Daddy sweeps a big hand toward the presents. “Open ’em up.”
Winter wind whines at the door, and I shiver as much from happiness as from the chill in the house. I curl my hands into the sleeves of my sweater and huddle on the floor near Daddy’s feet. He raises enough to reach the first box, the biggest of the two, and places it on my lap.
“Hold up,” Momma says. “I need to take your picture, first.” She says she likes to record the good days.
I curl my sock-feet beneath me, sit back on my heels, heft the heavy box into the air, and grin. “Cheeeese!”
The flashbulb pops, and black and red circles jump around inside my eyes, and I can’t see too good. I blink hard a few times, and the room returns to normal colors again. “Now?” I ask.
“Go ahead, honey.” Daddy winks gray-green at me from behind his thick, black-framed eyeglasses.
I want to tear open the layers, uncover the treasure beneath, but I look at Momma and carefully slide one finger beneath the cellophane tape like I’ve seen her do, then I hold my breath until the tape pops its release. I’m ten now, so I need to open packages like a lady, not a banshee.
Three layers later, I find the thick box beneath the white tissue paper, and I lift the lid. More tissue paper. I shove it aside to uncover a nest of mixing bowls, red, yellow, and blue—and a brand new wooden spoon (no burned tip) lying alongside them. “Oh, Daddy! Momma!” I swipe at the water in my eyes. “Thank you so much!”
I lift out the bowls, each one separated from the others by squares of thick, blood-colored paper I will use later for carpeting in the Barbie dollhouse I made from cardboard boxes. I arrange the bowls in a pretty line, littlest to biggest, across the top of the coffee table. “I’ve never seen anything so grand,” I whisper.
The mixing bowls make me want to cry, but even if my eyes water, I don’t cry, because crying is for babies. This is the kind of present a grown-up gets. A grown-up, smart lady who can use the stove all by herself.
“You have another present, Susie-Q.” Daddy’s voice has a laugh in it, and he hands me the second box. It’s almost as heavy as the first.
I sniff and blink fast. This time I open the box like a banshee. Breath whooshes out of me when I lift out the things I needed the most, but didn’t know it. Two thick, heavy cookbooks: How to Cook – Volume I and How to Bake – Volume II.
I squeal and hold up the books, one in each hand, their weight evidence of how important they are. Before I can scramble to my feet to hug Momma and Daddy, someone pounds at the front door, and we all turn.
Momma and Daddy look at each other, and I don’t understand what the look means, but my belly feels like fish are swimming in it, so I know something is bad. None of us moves, then the knock comes loud again.
“You don’t think . . . .” Momma puts a hand to her mouth.
“He’d better not.” Daddy’s face turns hard like a statue’s. Momma’s face looks white, like when she first powders it, but she’s not wearing makeup today.
Daddy stands, steps across the strewn sheets of tissue paper, opens the door.
“Where’s my birthday girl?” Uncle Bobby’s drawl oozes across the living room, and I leap to my feet and run toward him, my arms reaching for him before I get there. He grins, and his blue eyes sparkle like the fancy earrings I saw in the Sears Christmas Wish Book. Uncle Bobby scoops me off the floor with one arm and spins me around and around. If I close my eyes, I’ll fly away, so I keep them open, because I don’t want to miss one second. Now that Uncle Bobby’s here, it really is the best birthday ever.
When Uncle Bobby slows the spinning, I bury my nose in his neck, smell his Aqua Velva, his Camels, and his Kickin’ Chicken. One of his girlfriends said he smells like raw maleness, which has to smell nasty, but I think he smells like a man. Uncle Bobby sets me back on the floor, but my head thinks I’m still up in the air. I love him in ways I can’t name.
Uncle Bobby grins at Momma and Daddy, but they don’t act happy to see him. I follow where Daddy’s hard stare is looking, and that’s when I see the bottle in Uncle Bobby’s hand. Maybe my seeing that Kickin’ Chicken bottle—w hich really has a picture of a turkey on it, not a chicken, and the turkey is standing still, not kicking—maybe my seeing it gave it some kind of power, because it lifted right to Uncle Bobby’s lips without him even looking at it. He finished all that was left of it, then wiped his lips on the sleeve of the splotchy Air Force jacket he brought back from Vietnam.
He holds the bottle out to Momma. “Throw this away for me, Sis.”
Momma’s lips melt into a thin white line, but she takes the bottle from Uncle Bobby’s hand and flings it hard into the trashcan. When the bottle shatters real loud, something thuds against the inside of my chest
“Bobby,” Daddy finally says, and I hold my breath. “Didn’t think we’d see you today.”
Uncle Bobby smiles at me, and I breathe. I’m flying again.
“What?” he says. “You think I’d miss my best gal’s birthday?” Uncle Bobby tilts to one side, like the wind is about to blow him over, but I look at the curtains, and they’re holding still. He stands like that for a minute, kind of sideways, and I think he looks a lot like my birthday cake; sort of lopsided, but still pretty.
It’s then I notice that Momma is watching me look at him. She smoothes a wrinkled sheet of tissue paper on her lap, folds it into a neat square. “I reckon you can stay for a piece of cake, Bobby. Susie made it herself.”
Uncle Bobby gawks at the cake, then looks at me with bug eyes, then gawks at the cake again and licks his lips. “German chocolate? That’s my favorite.” His words come out slow and thick, like the icing when I stirred it in the pot.
“Mine, too, Uncle Bobby! That’s how come I made it.”
“Oooh-wee! Sure does smell good.” He flattens his hands on the kitchen table and twists his face toward the cake, sniffing loudly. I don’t know if he loses his balance, or if the table won’t hold a man as big as a mountain, but the table tilts, and the cake slides toward Uncle Bobby as Uncle Bobby slides toward the floor.
“Good God!” Daddy yells. He rushes at Uncle Bobby, too late to save him. Daddy shoves his hands under Uncle Bobby’s arms, hefts him from behind. I think Uncle Bobby is too big and too heavy, but Daddy hauls him up like I haul Raggedy Andy, and he plants Uncle Bobby on his feet.
Uncle Bobby chuckles. “Whoops!”
His eyes warm my face, and I know he’s grinning his pretty white-teeth grin, but I can’t look at him. I can only see my first-ever German chocolate cake—my first-ever cake at all—splattered on the floor like a fresh cowpile.
“I think it’s time to go,” Daddy says. His voice sounds a way that makes me shiver.
“Awww, now, don’t be like that. It was an assident.” Uncle Bobby’s word has Ss that don’t belong.
Daddy’s eyes look like flint-rock, and I worry they’ll catch afire. “You heard me,” he says.
Uncle Bobby’s pretty lips curl into an ugly snarl, like the neighbor’s blue-tick hound before it bit me last summer. He points his finger at my daddy, and I close my eyes, using my only birthday wish to take away that pointing finger. But then I remember I don’t have a cake to wish on, so I open my eyes. I want to scream that it was an accident—I want to say the word the right way, so Daddy will understand.
“You ain’t treated me right since I came home from the war,” Uncle Bobby says.
Daddy doesn’t blink. “I said it’s time to go.” He sits again in his chair, and I know everything’s decided and settled.
A snort shoots out of Uncle Bobby’s nose, and he looks at Momma. “You gonna let him talk to me like that, Sis?”
Momma’s face freezes, turns hard and bright pink, like it does when I’m in big trouble. “You heard him, Bobby.”
Uncle Bobby’s face twists up in a way that scares me a little bit. Not like a little kid would get scared, but like a grown-up gets scared, because I think Momma’s a little bit scared, too. Uncle Bobby puts his arm around Momma’s waist and pulls her up against him. He grabs her other hand in his, and he’s dancing with her.
“Just a spin around the floor, little sister. It’s a party, ain’t it?” He kisses Momma sloppy on the mouth, and she pulls away and smacks his cheek real hard.
Daddy jumps up again, and this time he grabs the collar of Uncle Bobby’s jacket and whirls him around. Daddy cocks his fist beside of his head, and that fist is a gun aiming to go off. Momma puts her hand on Daddy’s arm, and Daddy’s fist wilts. He lets go of Uncle Bobby’s jacket, then he turns, opens the front door and stands beside it.
Uncle Bobby turns to me. “Susie, I have to leave, darlin’. But you remember . . . it ain’t because I want to.”
I stand up when he starts toward me, his arms ahead of him to give me goodbye hug, but his big hands are too heavy, and their weight carries him forward too fast. He stumbles off-kilter into the coffee table between him and me. My pretty mixing bowls fly into the air, and I stretch to reach the blue one, but it’s too far from my fingers. The floor catches and scatters red, blue, and yellow chunks.
Momma’s face rests in her hands, so she can’t see what’s happening. Her shoulders bounce, and I can almost hear her crying. My legs aren’t strong anymore, and they try to stop working, so I sit down hard on the floor. Uncle Bobby lays spread across the pretty broken pieces of my birthday.
He lifts his head off the floor, and his eyes find me. He looks sad and ashamed, and I should feel sorry for him, but nothing in me wants to do that. When Daddy helps Uncle Bobby stand, little pieces of my bowl are stuck to his jacket. I’ve never noticed before that Daddy is taller than Uncle Bobby.
Uncle Bobby’s lip is bleeding, and it takes some of the pretty out of his smile. “I’m sorry, Susie. I’ll get you another one.” He watches Momma pick up the pieces and drop them into the cardboard box they came in, then he dusts the little pieces from his jacket and gives me a funny look. “What was it, anyway?”
I shake my head. “No, don’t give me nothing.” He can’t ever give me back what they were. They were the prettiest mixing bowls in the world, a grown-up present bankrolled on Daddy’s weary shoulders.
Rhonda Browning White resides near Daytona Beach, FL and works as a ghostwriter, editor, adjunct professor, and Realtor. (She does what it takes to support her writing habit!) Her work appears in Bellevue Literary Review, Steel Toe Review, Ploughshares Writing Lessons, Tiny Text, New Pages, South85 Journal, WV Executive, Mountain Echoes, Gambit, Justus Roux, Bluestone Review, in the anthologies Appalachia’s Last Stand and Mountain Voices, and is forthcoming in World Enough Writers: Ice Cream Anthology, by Concrete Wolf Press. Rhonda recently was awarded the Sterling Watson Fellowship for the Eckerd College Writer’s Conference: Writers in Paradise. She blogs about books, writing, and celebrating life at “Read. Write. Live!” found at www.RhondaBrowningWhite.com , and about the craft of fiction writing at www.WhyTheWritingWorks.com. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Converse College in Spartanburg, SC.