Authors: Ashley Hope Pérez
Estella had turned her face to the wall while the doctor explained how to use the formula, but Naomi had listened. Now she mixed the powder with the water from the pitcher on the dresser, guessing at the proportions.
She picked up Cari first because her cries were sharpest. But when she tried to put the rubber nipple in Cari's mouth, the baby spat it out. Naomi put her back in the crib and tried with Beto, but his reaction was no better. She tried dribbling milk into their mouths. After a few minutes of that, Cari finally latched on to the nipple, tugging at it greedily. Naomi stopped her when the bottle was half finished and gave the rest to Beto. “There,” she said, “there.”
She bounced them like she'd seen Cuca do until they burped. She changed their diapers then laid them back on the bed and watched their eyelids grow heavy. They curled in toward each other like kittens, and Naomi lay down beside them. This was her family now. Mami was gone, and her doll was gone, but she still had the twins. She laid her braid across them.
“Yo te tengo a ti,”
she whispered in each twin's ear. “I've got you.”
Naomi tapped a floury fingerprint on Baby Joe's nose as he toddled past in one of his many tours around Muff's kitchen table. They were working up a batch of biscuit dough while J.R. played with his truck in the corner and Joe Joe practiced walking.
“See, these are what you need for biscuits.” Muff nodded at the heavy baking trays on the counter. “Those pans of Henry's are hardly better than a garbage can lid. We'll see that he gets you something decent. That's a man for you. Spends money on his truck but won't buy a decent pan or skillet unless you press him into it.”
She nodded approvingly as Naomi turned out the biscuit dough. “You don't need me to tell you what to do now,” Muff said. She grinned and made to take off her apron. “Think I'll just go put my feet up.”
“You could, you know. You've helped me so much. I'd like to be useful to you, too,” Naomi said. Thanks to Muff, Naomi's Southern cooking had improved. Muff taught her to fry chicken legs and turn the small bits of dark meat into chicken and dumplings. They made chocolate sheet cakes, pork chops, fried squash, and the flaky, soft biscuits that were her specialty.
“You certainly know your way around my house, seeing as how it's the exact same as yours.”
It was true that the layouts were mirror images of each other. Kitchen at one end, living room at the other, a hall with two bedrooms and a bathroom in between. But for Naomi, the feeling inside the two houses could not be more different. It wasn't just that Muff had a radio and better cooking gear; the house had the warmth of a place where people were happy together and would go on being happy.
Muff went on. “But you know I can't pass on the chance to gab. And anyhow,” she turned her face and rubbed her nose against the side of her arm, “you already darned up J.R.'s church pants real nice. Maybe you can sew something for the new baby. The twins both said it was a girl. Real confident of it. We'll see.” She wiped a doughy hand against the slight bulge under her apron. “Where are they? I'm surprised they aren't here waiting for fried biscuit scraps with honey.” She raised her voice. “We all know that's why J.R.'s playing in here and not eating dirt in the yard.”
“The twins? Probably off in the woods somewhere,” Naomi said.
Occasionally the twins came along and played with “the babies,” as they called J.R. and Joe Joe. Other times they ran with the neighborhood kids or stayed late to help Miss Bell. Today, like most days, they'd gone off with Wash. Where exactly or to do what, Naomi didn't know. Fishing, woodworking, treasure hunting, wandering.
What mattered was that she got things done. Lighting the gas stove no longer took much thought, and she knew how to handle the oil- and mud-stained laundry Henry left in heaps for her to wash. After clearing away leftovers and washing dishes at night, Naomi packed four lunches, folding wax paper around the sandwiches and laying out the thermos for Henry's coffee. She tried to stay on top of the sewing and to keep dust from gathering in the cracks between the floorboards. But there was always more to do.
Naomi dipped her glass in flour and began cutting out the biscuits. Muff did the same from the other end of the table. “I could show you how to make tortillas. Or tamales,” she suggested.
Muff shrugged. “I'd like that, but Bud, he's just a country boy. We went to San Antone for our honeymoon, did you know that? I tried some of that good Mexican food, but Bud likes his chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes.”
Naomi persisted. “Isn't there something?”
“Well...” Muff looked to be thinking hard. “How do the twins feel about animals?”
Naomi remembered the small gray cat Cari and Beto had fed in secret until Abuelita found out and put a stop to it on account of the waste. And there was the sparrow with the damaged wing. The twins had kept it in a box and fed it nothing but bits of candy cane for over a week. It hadn't occurred to them that their favorite food might not sustain the creature. By the time they showed it to her and asked for help, it was just a beating heart inside a cage of matted feathers. She still remembered the bird's glossy dark eye, how it trembled when she lifted it out of the box.
Naomi blinked the memory away. “Fine. What do you have in mind?”
â â â
That was how Naomi and the twins started feeding Muff's chickens and gathering eggs from her coop. Technically, residents weren't allowed to keep animals other than pets in the Humble camp, but plenty of folks worked around that by putting pens and makeshift henhouses on the far side of the camp's back fence. It was mostly chickens, but there were also a few goats and hogs.
Tending chickens was something Naomi knew how to do, a small way to be useful. And Muff pressed them to take half of the eggs each day, which helped stretch the groceries. For the rest, Naomi shopped at Mason's on afternoons when she could count on Henry to be working late. She felt a need, without ever exactly announcing it to herself, to conceal her solution to the grocery problem. At first, Naomi worried that Muff might question her about her ingredients when she came over to help her cookâCalumet baking powder instead of Clabber Girl, Sunshine Saltines rather than Nabiscoâbut if she noticed, she didn't say anything.
The strangeness of the place wore off little by little, but Naomi's hostility toward Henry did not. She dreamed of taking the twins away from him. She socked away a dollar, sometimes two, from each week's grocery money. Just in case. But by the time she thought she might have enough to get them back to San Antonio, there was another problem. The twins loved their school. They were growing. They came home flushed and laughing from the woods.
And Henry was mostly gone, often working twelve- and sixteen-hour shifts for days in a row until his team hit oil and they moved on to look for a new site. As far as Naomi was concerned, the less she saw of him, the better.
Naomi found the tree on her way to call the kids home from fishing one day. She knew the way; she'd gone along once or twice to watch them fish with Wash when Henry had the day off and she wanted to be sure to be gone.
Her steps slowed as she neared the river. The path was soft with pine needles, and squirrels hurried up and down the trees with acorns in their mouths. In the shade, the air smelled of true autumn. The wind whipped up a froth of fallen leaves on the ground around her, and she pulled the sleeves of her sweater down over her hands. She felt a sudden need to climb. She paused in front of a stand of hardwoods and studied the trees. A ways off the path, two enormous oaks grew close together. Apart, they would have been impossible to scale because the lowest limbs were too far up. But she thought she could brace her back against one and inch her way up to the branches. She went closer, picking her way through brambles and brush. As she walked around the trees, she saw that there was a split in the larger tree that widened to almost two feet across at its base. She crouched and peered into the dark opening.
And then she was inside. The tree was hollow. Not just at the base, either, but at least halfway up the trunk. She stood up inside and stretched her arms over her head. The feeling of safety was glorious.
Beto fingered the frayed edge of his shirt and looked over at Cari. She was squatting near the bank of the river with her dress pulled down over her knees against the cold. Wash was gathering small, flat stones from the edge of the water. While they'd been walking to the river, Wash had gone from telling them he'd teach them to skip stones to saying he could do it blindfolded.
“I don't think you can,” Cari said. She gave her curls a shake in Wash's direction. “Beto doesn't think so either.”
“I didn't say that,” Beto protested.
“I'll show you,” Wash said. “I just need a blindfold.” When he couldn't find anything big enough, he unbuttoned his shirt, shrugged it off, and rolled it. He handed it to Cari with a grin. “Tie it tight, now. You'll see. Doubting Thomases, the both of you.”
Cari knotted the shirt behind his head. “Why aren't you working in a circus, then, if you're such a talent at it?” She smirked at Beto.
Beto bit his lip and tried not to let her doubt in.
Wash smoothed the blindfold over his eyes. “Now hand me one of those nice flat ones I had picked out.”
Beto slid a stone into Wash's hand and stepped back.
“Come on, y'all are going to at least have to put me at the edge of the water.”
Cari and Beto grabbed his arms and led him down the steep slope to where the river washed up over a sandy bit of shore. “Thank you, lady and gent. Now, behold the mastery of the master!” Wash bent and felt for the water, dipped his stone in, and then lowered himself to one knee. He kissed the stone and then whizzed it toward the middle of the river.
Beto watched as the stone hit the water. It didn't sink but spun and leaped one, two, three times more before disappearing into the water. At the sound of the last plop, Wash stood and frowned. “Only four skips? I can do better than that.”
Admiration bloomed in Beto. He handed Wash another stone.
This time there were six skips before the stone disappeared almost at the other side of the river.
“Can you make it go all the way across?” Beto asked, a little breathless.
“Blindfolded,” Cari added. There was still a hint of challenge in her voice, but Beto could tell that she was impressed.
“Of course I can.” Wash rubbed the last stone between his hands. “Just watch.”
He took another step forward, swinging his arm harder this time. The stone sailed across the surface of the water, but the momentum of the pitch threw Wash off balance, and he tumbled into the river.
He surfaced, spluttering and tugging off the blindfold.
“Wash!” Beto and Cari shouted. They felt the same fear because they had the same knowledge: people could die in water.
Wash waved and looped the shirt over his arm. “I'm fine,” he called. But instead of swimming back to where the twins crouched on the bank, he swam to the far side of the river. A moment later he was back, grinning. He held up a flat gray stone. The sun played across its wet surface.
He grinned and lobbed it to Cari.
“It's the same! It made it all the way across!” Beto cried when he saw the stone in her hand.
Cari frowned. “It looks like it.” She glanced over at Beto with a cocked eyebrow, and he nodded. He took the stone from her and slid it into his pocket. Even through the fabric of his pants, the rock felt cool against his leg. A lucky find.
“Told you,” Wash said. He was still treading water in the river.
“You think it still counts if you fall into the river?” Cari said.
“Sure it does,” Beto said.
“I have my doubts.” Cari spoke just as someone came running through the trees.
Beto spun around to see Naomi. “Wash!” she called as she scrambled down to the edge of the river. “Get out of there! It's too cold. You'll get sick for sure.”
“Thanks for your concern, ma'am.” Wash sidestroked a few yards downstream until he reached a spot where the bank wasn't as steep. He climbed out and shook himself like a dog. Then he put on his wet shirt and came high-stepping through the brush to where they were. His grin was wide, but his teeth were chattering.
“You need to get dry,” Naomi said, crossing her arms.
“It's only a little chill, I'll be fine. You enjoyed the show?”
“We're going home,” Naomi said to the twins. “Wash, go dry off and eat some soup or something. Warm up.”
“Aye, aye, captain.” Wash winked at Beto.
“I'm serious,” she scowled, but already a bit of a smile broke through in her voice. “Who'd keep the twins busy if something happened to you?”
“I'm off, then,” Wash said. “I have my orders!” He gave a salute and jogged up the path and was already almost out of sight by the time Beto made it into the woods. Before he rounded the bend, Wash turned to wave, and then kept on running.
Beto and Cari waited in front of Mason's while Naomi finished shopping inside. They liked to line up their candy along the low handrail that ran along the far side of the sloping porch. After, they ate the candies one by one until they met in the middle. They finished all but the last candyâthat one was for Naomiâand hopped down from the porch to play marbles on the packed dirt in front of the store. Two black girls about their sister's age walked past them and up the steps carrying books against their chests.
Beto peered up over the edge of the porch.
“I don't see why you're mad,” the girl in blue said. “You know how he is.”
“Sure, but it's
.” The other girl plopped down in one of the rockers.