At first it was just the three of us; Iza, me, and mam. We lived in a little wooden shack over the way. Mam used to call it “our little house”, but Iza says it weren’t a house at all; it was a shack. A garden shack, to be sure. I asked her what a garden was but she just rolled her eyes and chewed the ends of her hair. “You wouldn’t understand,” she’d say. “It’s an adult thing.”
She was always like that, Iza. Even though we were only four-and-a quarter years apart, she’d treat me like they treat Old Man Tom, from down the way. Tom, who babbled nonsense and giggled at people who pass by with spit dribbling down the side of his mouth.
“Why does it rain so, Iza?”
“It’s an adult thing, Mott. You wouldn’t understand.”
“Why do I have to wear your old things, Iza?”
“Just drink your soup. You’re too young to know, Mott.”
“Where do babies come from, Iza?”
“I can’t tell you, Mott. It’s an adult thing.”
I could tell she was lying, almost all the time. After all, Nana says babies came from storks, who delivers them to people they like. I wish they’d deliver them instead to people they didn’t like. Then maybe things wouldn’t have ended up the way they did.
They must really like us. I wonder why.
We used to sit, on the wooden steps of the wooden shack, her on the top step and me below. Iza was a dreamer, and would talk about who she’d be when she grew up. A nurse, an actress, a teacher, all sorts of things. There was this scruffy-looking guy who lived a couple houses down, and could be seen tinkering away in his garage from where we sat if we squinted. So she’d talk while squinting, which scrunched up her face all funny. He wasn’t very interesting though, so I’m not sure why she did it. Sometimes mam would join us, drying her hands on the apron she’d used to wear, and listen to her. It was never for long though. Mam was always busy.
At night we would sleep on our old mattress, the one with the creaky springs. I know it had springs and not the nice kind of filling because when I was little I jumped too hard and one of the wires poked its way through the fabric. It scraped me pretty bad, which is why I have this scar. There weren’t no jumping after that.
The summer I turned seven we moved to the west side. I remember because that was also the year we met Uncle Bill. Mam had gotten a job waiting tables at the diner, but for some reason she only worked at night. When I asked Iza if people ate past midnight she told me to shut up, so I guess they did. She came home one morning with her lipstick smudged and the collar of her blouse crumpled and told us to pack up our things, we’re moving away. Iza refused. The week before, the boy she always squinted at had given her a stick of bubblegum. She had made me leave when he came, but I saw her hide the wrapper under a loose floor plank, all carefully like it was a hundred dollar bill she had found, and not a little square of foil. You’d think she fancied marrying him, after all that.
Mam was furious, and yelled and yelled about sacrifices and opportunities and how we’d be foolish not to take them, until she broke down crying. She made Iza fetch the wrapper and ripped it to pieces on the overturned crate we used as the kitchen table. “They’re all bad, bad people. Don’t you dare trust them if you know what’s good for you!”
Our new house was a proper house, with shingles on the roof and a brass doorknob. There were cracks in the windows, but only because it was made of proper glass, the kind that misted when breathed on. There was a old street out front, with gutters that clogged when it rained and sidewalks that threatened to break your ankles if you weren’t looking, but it was our gutter, and out sidewalk, and we loved it.
Uncle Bill came, except he wasn’t really Uncle Bill, but we didn’t know at the time. He came the day we moved in. I remember looking up at him where he stood, towering between a pair of mismatched chairs and our overturned crate. When mam introduced him to us, he ran a coarse hand through his oiled hair before offering it to shake. “How’dyedo, boy?”, he said, and spat.
After that, whenever he came Mam would order us to “go play”, which meant “leave and shut the front door behind you, Mott.” So we did.
“Why does she keep making us do that, Iza?”
“Don’t ask questions, Mott. It’s an adult thing.”
The steps out front were made of red brick, and we’d sit, Iza and me, her on the top step and me below, just like we’d used to before. On sunny days the bricks would scald our bottoms until the sweat soaked through our thin shirts and drizzled into our eyes. Sometimes we’d see people pass by, pushing shopping carts of things across the bumpy road, the clang-clump-clang of their wheels echoing up and down the stifling street, until it lodged into our brains and drove us mad.
That winter, the first baby came.
I suppose he was really the third, if you count me and Iza, but to me he’ll always be the first. He was this tiny little thing, all wrapped up in towels like how they wrap fish in newspaper at the market – head to toe, with no wiggle room. I remember Mam shaking me awake one morning. “Mott, Mott! Come see.”.
He never lasted long enough to be named. Iza said the chill got to his lungs, but she didn’t see Uncle Bill carrying him out, towels and all, into the snow.
That didn’t stop them though. The next summer there came two bundles, twins. Then a fourth for Christmas, followed by one more the year after. On my tenth birthday, Mam made me my favourite sweetbread with a babe balanced on each hip while lza braided Zaha’s hair and darned a hole in Lana’s socks.
The following Easter brought with it yet another bundle, but this one didn’t cry and kick like the others. Stillborn, Iza called it. We buried it under the pine bush in our backyard, beside the first baby, as Mam sang from our little hymn-book. Then she went inside, and I know she cried because we heard her scrubbing and cleaning, up to her elbows in soapy water.
That was when the coughing began. By summer it had weaned Mam to the bone. It made it hard for her to breathe, but what with all the mouths to feed and linen to wash, there was no time for resting. We couldn’t afford a doctor either, but the strange old lady from two houses down would sometimes come with bundles of strange smelling teas. Iza said she was a witch, but I don’t think she was a very good one because they didn’t make Mam any better.
The coughing bothered Uncle Bill most, though. He would stare at her and frown, as if Mam was being loud on purpose. Eventually he stopped coming in, but would loiter around outside, smoking and peering in through the windows. One day he stuck his head through the front door and hollered for Iza, and I heard the two of them chatting and laughing on the front steps while Mam and I and the girls boiled pots of water for the wash.
One evening a few weeks later I was running a parcel and came home to a scene. Mam was doubled up by the wash pot, coughing violently as Uncle Bill yelled and swore and threatened to kick us out of the house, which made no sense, because it was our house, and people can’t go around kicking people out of stuff that isn’t theirs. The door slammed really hard when he left. Then Iza, who had been standing by the door the whole time, went to her, but Mam yelled at her too, and wouldn’t look at her, and coughed some more, and cried, and cried, and cried.
That night, Iza nudged me awake. In the dark, I couldn’t see her face, but felt her hot breath as she whispered into my ear.
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t know, Mott. It’s an adult thing.”
We never saw them again, both Iza and Uncle Bill.
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