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Home is where the phone is

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For your 10th birthday you want a telephone. The family has moved and you have a room of your own. You want a pink "Princess" telephone, slim and oval and modern with a clear plastic dial.

Your parents get you the Princess phone and you feel positively preteen. You lie on your stomach on the bed, propped up on your elbows, feet pointed upward, and talk to your two friends who also have phones. They teach you how to eavesdrop -- a hand quickly slipped over the mouthpiece, a finger lifting slowly off the hang-up button.

One night your father comes home from a business trip and retreats to your room to make a call. He closes the door. You go to the living room extension and use your best eavesdropping technique.

"I know, I know," you hear your father say in low tones. "Just be patient and don't call me here." A strange woman's voice says she misses him. She loves him.

"I love you too, baby," he says.

You slip the receiver onto the cradle, your mouth dry. Your chest feels like it will explode. Your eyes frantically search the room for your mother or anyone else who might have heard the words leap from the telephone.

Your father goes to the bathroom and runs water, then emerges ready for dinner.

"Isn't Mama the best cook in the world?" you say, nervously picking at your food, looking from him, loose-jointed and sexy, to her, tired and anxious but beautiful.

"Yes, Little Bit," he says, stuffing pork chops and mashed potatoes with gravy into his mouth, never looking up. Your brother is babbling about baseball. After dinner, your sisters crowd your father's knees, playing and tickling and giggling. Your mother washes dishes and you watch from a place that feels far away, though you are right there in the room with everyone.

About a month later, you are playing one afternoon with a girl everyone makes fun of at school because her last name is Sidebottom and she's fat. You are sharing Barbie clothes, yours hand-tailored by your mother, hers store-bought. You run into the house to retrieve the case of clothes and are about to run back outside when the loud ring of the phone shatters the warm inside air. You turn to answer it but your mother is already there.

"What? Oh my God. Where is he?" she says, her voice rising to a shriek. You watch her go limp and slide into a chair. "Go find your sisters and your brother," she tells you, silent tears already creeping down her white face.

Your father's car has been found in a ditch next to the highway he travels hundreds of times a year. He was thrown out. He'll be okay but has a bad shoulder injury. Mama will meet the ambulance and the kids will spend the night at Mammaw and Grandaddy's house.

By the time you arrive, darkness is falling. Mammaw warms up cornbread and country ham slices. You smother the cornbread in molasses and eat it with a fork. The four of you take turns washing and brushing your teeth, then Grandaddy leads you in a prayer for Daddy.

Mammaw makes beds for you -- your sisters share the double bed in the extra room, you take the slim Hollywood bed with its padded headboard in the same room. Your brother will sleep on the folded-out couch in the living room. All the rooms in Mammaw and Grandaddy's house are connected, with their bedroom at the center.

When the lights go out, you can hear the ticking of the heavy clock on the mantle, syncopated with the sounds of breathing, whispering and sniffing. Bedsprings squeak as everyone settles in. Your scratchy sheets smell of sunshine and bleach and a hot iron.

You think of your mother at the hospital and you remember last week when you picked flowers from neighbors' gardens and brought them home to her. You were mortified when she put them in a water glass on the kitchen table and you saw ants and earwigs crawling out of the centers where the smooth petals overlapped.

You fall asleep to the steady sound of your grandfather's snoring. In your dreams, a telephone rings. You fly awake, then settle back down only to dream the scorching, startling sound of a naked telephone ringing over and over.

You remember your mother sinking to the chair. This will be the telephone call, you reason, that will keep your family together.

-- kathryn@csindy.com

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