Big Bad Blue

It is late summer and I am perfecting the art of dozing. I lie on my back on the ancient single bed, arms crossed over my chest like an Egyptian mummy, and practice my technique. My goal is to drowse, but not sleep, for sleep equals oblivion and I do not want to be oblivious during this, the only cool part of the day.  I turn my face toward the window fan, every bit as ancient as the bed, as I slip in and out of dreamland. The minute hand on the clock makes its inexorable revolution as I drowse. I gaze at it frequently, for time moves more slowly that way. My daughter stirs and snuggles closer to me. She is cool, but not conscience of the fact she is cool. I, however, am relishing every second of this hour, half-asleep, but still aware of the sweet morning breeze on my face. The alarm will go off soon, terminating my time in front of the fan, but for now I am content to lie in bed and doze.

It was only a few months ago that my life had been normal, when creature comforts were something I took for granted. John and I were far from wealthy, but my part-time job at Becky’s daycare provided extras we could not otherwise afford–two cars, the privacy fence, an elaborate deck. We had everything we needed and then some, but at the time I did not think of just how truly rich we were, for it is only when the good life is snatched from you that you look back and realize just how good it was. Instead of appreciating the fully-stocked pantry, the central heat and air, the freedom that a vehicle gives you, I spent most of my days bemoaning my fate, worrying about this, fretting over that, and when my coworkers complained about their problems, I could counter with plenty of my own. The big problem, however, the thing that John did, I kept to myself.

It was a gorgeous day in spring, not too hot, not too cold, the day that my good life ended. Becky was going through one of her fussy periods—they seemed to be increasing in number lately–and I was weary of handling them. Last night John had done the bad thing, I felt the stirrings of a headache, and the car was making a strange noise again, so I had enough to worry about without having to cope with a petulant three-year-old. I spent much of our morning commute fighting with my daughter and when I arrived at work, I was in a thoroughly foul mood, one which had improved only slightly by noon. I was preparing the children for naptime when Mrs. Manning entered the room.

“Doris, can I speak to you for a moment?” The expression on my boss’s face was serious, her voice low, almost secretive.  It was obvious that bad news was coming and my first thought was that I was to be laid off. I mentally revised our already straining-at-the-seams budget as I followed her to her office. My heart sunk as she shut the door and gestured toward the visitor’s chair. She perched nervously across from me and chewed her bottom lip for a few moments, sending me into a total panic. Had a parent complained about me, a child made a wild accusation that I would be unable to explain away? Was I to be fired, not simply laid off?

“Please,” It was I who finally broke the silence. “Something is wrong, tell me what it is.”

Mrs. Manning gave a long, shaky sigh, bit her lip one last time and finally spoke.

“Becky has told us something that you should know about, something that has to be reported.”

This statement, too, was followed by silence, as if she expected me to be able to form a response to such a bombshell. I could only stare in surprise. Had Becky told her about the beatings?  This seemed improbable, as she had never witnessed one and John and I were careful to keep them from her. They were done when she was asleep and I had trained myself to whimper rather than scream so as to not wake her.  The bruises were always on my upper arms, and I wore long-sleeved shirts until they faded. Oh, we were considerate parents, John and I, ensuring that our child never knew how bad things really were.  But Becky must have found out somehow, or why would I be sitting here now?

“Please,” I implored, “tell me what’s wrong.”  There was another moment of heart-stopping silence, then Mrs. Manning leaned toward me.

“Are you aware,” she blurted, “that your husband is molesting your daughter?”

And with those few words, I lost my comfortable suburban home, my middle class life, and my husband.

I hit snooze for the last time and roll over to nudge Becky awake. She opens her eyes to give me a slow sweet smile. “Can we see Daddy today?”

“No, honey, you know we can’t do that. We’ve talked about this, you know we won’t be seeing Daddy for a while.”

Becky puckers her face, on the verge of a full-fledged whine, and I hold up my hand to stop her. I am struck by how incredible it is that my daughter wants to spend time with a man who had performed such horrendous acts on her, but to Becky John is still Daddy, the one who tickled her, gave her butterfly kisses and lifted her up to reach the sky. John is still her father, I remind myself, and the fleeting moments that she felt uncomfortable with his actions are lost in the far greater memories of when he was a good parent.

“Oh. Okay. Then can we go visit Big Bad Blue?”

Becky’s abrupt change of subject is a little dismaying. Already she is forgetting her life with two parents, the home she once lived in, the little luxuries she no longer has. Other things have become important to her, one of which is Big Bad Blue. Big Bad Blue “lives” six blocks away, a huge bank building underneath which hover the various benches of the city’s bus stops. Big Bad Blue is indeed big, a good five stories taller than the other downtown buildings, and it is definitely blue–a bright neon color offensive to all except my daughter. Where the “bad” came from, I do not know, but the building has been known by this name as long as I can remember. For some reason Becky loves Big Bad Blue and talks about it as if it were human, her best friend. On top of Big Bad Blue is a digital time/temperature readout and Becky delights in reading the numbers it displays. “Four twenty three” she will shout, then “the temperature is ninety eight “, inordinately proud of the fact that she not only recognizes the numbers, but knows also that the tiny zero that means “degrees.” Big Bad Blue, or rather the promise of visiting him, is my trump card in a continuing battle between myself and a confused child who understands nothing of why her life has so drastically changed.

Becky’s face clouds as she answers her own question. “I know, I know, not until tonight when it gets cooler.”

Every day for the last several weeks, after the sun has set and walking is only slightly uncomfortable, Becky and I take a stroll for the sole purpose of visiting Big Bad Blue. We chat as we walk, although Becky does most of the talking. I give the occasional grunt, the muttered “uh huh” as I inwardly fret over my multiple, seemingly unsolvable problems. My life now could not be bleaker. We live in a virtual shack, with no car, no air conditioning and very little food. The vehicle problem is minimally solved by the fact that we live on a major bus route, and food stamps supplement our meager grocery money, but there is no solution to the heat. Except for my dozing time, the heat is always there, a living presence, something that requires constant coping.  The fan remains in the bedroom window, for once the sun has risen it is useless. So we cope in other ways–lightweight clothing, wet rags on our foreheads, napping the afternoon away in sweaty discomfort to make the day go faster. The heat is a Thing; it controls our entire lives and I fear that autumn will never arrive, that Becky and I will spend eternity battling this uncaring monster.

This day begins with our usual shower, one we take together. The tub, despite my myriad attempts at cleaning it, is too rusty, too grimy to sit in and the water heater does not generate enough hot water to provide for two showers, so Becky and I stand under the weak spray together, switching places as we shampoo and scrub. The shower situation is one more aggravation in a long list of them, but we have learned that skipping the toweling step prolongs the amount of time we are cool. I glance at the clock as we leave the bathroom–we have less than an hour before the heat becomes a problem, then another twenty-two before I can once again doze in front of the fan.

I had expected John to be gone when I got home from work that day, had pictured a horrific scene in which he had been handcuffed and dragged from his office, but when I turned onto our street I saw his truck in the driveway. I parked behind it and sat in the car for several tense moments–now what? Mrs. Manning had called Child Services while I was in the office with her, explained the situation, then handed the phone to me. I was told that John would be arrested immediately, so why was he here?

I removed Becky from her car seat and she quickly ran up the front steps. “Yea, Daddy’s home, Daddy’s home early!”  Becky had not yet been told of the situation, as the social worker had hoped that John would confess and spare her the trauma of testifying, so to her John’s early arrival meant good news, extra Daddy time. But it foretold disaster for me. What if he had convinced the authorities of his innocence and they simply let him go with an apology for the inconvenience? If so, a beating was in my near future, perhaps even in front of Becky. The beating would surely be severe, as he would interpret my phone call as an act of ultimate betrayal. There was nothing to do, however, but follow Becky up the porch steps and into the house.

John was standing in the front hall, one arm behind his back, a familiar sheepish look on his face.  Sometimes, every six or so beatings, my husband would feel remorse for his actions, although to express this remorse with words is not in his nature. Reparation is thus given in the form of flowers, often followed by a nice restaurant meal. These offerings had long ago lost their ability to appease, for I had learned they meant nothing, and the flowers served only as a reminder of my pain.

John pulled a wiggling Becky next to him with his free arm and, with a slight flourish, presented me with a large bouquet of wine-red roses. The flowers shone with a fine mist, the tiny droplets of water glistening in the harsh overhead lights of the foyer. For a moment I saw nothing but the water drops, each one uniquely beautiful in its perfection. John and Becky faded from view and the drops encompassed my entire field of vision–nothing existed except for them and the absolute beauty and serenity they represented. I felt I could gaze upon them for years, for to do so would prolong the time of reckoning, the time I would have to live with what I had done.

“Take them, Mommy, they’re for you!” I heard Becky’s voice, realized that the bouquet was still being thrust upon me, but I could focus only on the water droplets. This could be my eternity if I allowed it–no more beatings, no more responsibilities, and today had never happened. But behind me, on the closed front door, was another reality, one I was finding difficult to ignore. BANG BANG BANG. Somebody wants in, I thought, somebody wants me to open the door. And when I do, the droplets will fade from reality, replaced by a much harsher one, the reality of an underemployed single mother, a person who will spend the next several years hovering on the precipice of poverty. POLICE. OPEN UP. I wrenched my gaze from the roses; the droplets disappeared from my vision. My new reality had arrived.

Becky is being obstinate. She does not want to wear her best dress, she does not want to go to the job interview with me, she will not sit quietly coloring while I talk to the lady. I try to reason with her–this is my third call-back, I am definitely on the short list, if she is really, really good I might get the job. These words, of course, mean nothing to a three-year-old and Becky’s face tightens stubbornly as I talk. I next try bribing–ice cream will taste so good when we get home, so cool and refreshing. Becky clamps her lips together and shakes her head. I resist the urge to use threats for I know from experience they will result in a snit that could last for hours and I desperately need her to be on her best behavior. The idea surfaces and I speak before I fully realize I what I am going to say. Big Bad Blue. If she promises to be good we will not catch the bus on the corner, but rather walk to the transfer station under Big Bad Blue. Becky brightens, all is right with her world now, a visit to her best friend is in her immediate future.

I regret my promise almost immediately, for we walk only a block before the heat descends, bringing sweat to our foreheads and suffocating us with its hot breath. I hurry us along, trying to ignore the thin trickle of perspiration running down my spine, convincing myself that I will still be fresh for the interview despite the sheen of moisture on my face. I am talking to Becky–we must hurry, we don’t want to miss the bus–but she is not listening. We are close enough to see Big Bad Blue, to read the numbers on his head.

“Ten forty-two!” she shouts. “Ninety-three degrees!”

And then it happens. A gust of wind, so strong it nearly knocks us over, barrels down the sidewalk. And it is cool, almost cold. It is a cool wind, the kind of wind that heralds a cold front, the kind of wind that portends fall, the kind of wind that means this hellish summer is finally over. It is a blessedly welcome, long prayed-for, cool wind.  Ignoring the fact that we might miss our bus, my daughter and I stand on the sidewalk in front of an abandoned downtown building, eyes closed, arms outstretched, faces to the wind, the cool wind, and lose ourselves in sensuous pleasure. We stay that way for several moments–nothing can be sweeter than this experience and we want to relish every second of it–before Becky opens her eyes. “Ten forty-five!” she shouts. “Seventy-three degrees!” Incredibly, the temperature has dropped twenty degrees in less than three minutes. For the rest of my life, I realize, I will remember this moment, the moment that Big Bad Blue documented the end of summer.

I once again take Becky by the hand and we continue our journey. We have missed our bus, but there is always the next one, for the buses run in cycles, just like the seasons do.

by Deborah Reed

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