Grove City, PA-1956
"The boy is six years old, he can take care of himself."
"But he's sick, Carl."
"And I'm not?"
Robby’s pajamas were drenched. He’d been sweating all night with the fever, and Mum got up several times to tend to him. Now, dad was angry. But Robby couldn’t help it. He started vomiting sometime
after everyone went to bed and he couldn’t stop. He was scared. He thought he might be dying.
Chills raced through him from the cold floorboards and set his teeth chattering as he slipped from the warmth of his bed. Not wanting to wake his brother, he tiptoed across the room, opened the
door, and listened for the angry voices of his parents.
The sound of the backdoor slamming told him his father was gone and he heaved a sigh of relief. He went back to his bed and grabbed his pillow, hugging it to his chest. The pillowcase bore the
stains of old slobbers and snot and the feathers left inside were few. His three brothers before him had cradled their heads on it. The next child would adopt the pillow once Robby no longer needed
Mum's new baby would be coming soon. He heard Dad tell her she could stop having babies when she gave him a daughter. He hoped this baby would be the daughter he wanted. For Mum’s sake.
Leaving his bedroom, he crept down the stairs and padded into the living room. The quilt his mother made last winter was draped across the back of the couch and Robby lifted it, lay down, and
covered himself. He closed his eyes, feeling as if he had traveled a great distance.
"What's the matter, boy?"
Robby's heart jumped, and his eyes fluttered open. He thought his father had already left for work.
His father loomed over him and sneezed into a large bandana. "I asked you a question, boy," he said, his voice gruff. He ran the kerchief under his red nose then tucked it back into his pocket. "I
expect an answer."
Robby sunk deeper into the cushions of the battered sofa. “I'm sick," he mumbled.
"Like you're the only one? I still have to go to work, though, don't I? You can't go to school, but I still have to go to work, sick as a dog, so's I can feed all you damn brats. What do you
suppose would happen if I decided I couldn't go to work?"
Robby stayed silent, not sure what kind of answer Dad wanted.
His father sneezed again, then turning on his heels, he left the room.
Robby sat up. His father was right. His father had to go to work. He had brats to feed. Robby should be stronger and not whine like a little girl. He should fight the cold and get dressed for
school. But as soon as he tried to get up from the old sofa, his head started to spin, and his stomach lurched, and he fell back on the couch cushions.
He shivered again and lay back down, rolling over on his side. The pillow cover was refreshing against his hot face.
Footsteps came from the kitchen. Cool hands brushed his forehead.
"How's my baby?" Mum's breath tickled his ear as she sat down beside him on the couch and stroked his hair.
"I feel bad." He coughed then sneezed.
She handed him the handkerchief from her apron pocket. "I know you do, baby."
"Mum?" He shifted onto his back to face her
"How come Dad hates me?"
"Your Dad doesn't hate you, Robby," she said. She kept twisting her hands. This was something he witnessed often. She stopped when she saw him watching and put them on her swollen belly. "Why would
you say something like that?"
"He always hollers at me."
"Oh, honey, he hollers at all of us. If your fever goes down later, I'll make you some hot soup with some nice warm bread. How does that sound?"
Despite his illness, Robby's mouth watered. He never could refuse his mother's bread. She made her own from scratch. Robby had never tasted store-bought bread before. He didn’t think he would want
"I could help you make it?" he asked hopefully.
She placed her lips against his fevered brow. "I don't think you're up for it."
Robby’s idea of helping was by running paths with his toy trucks through the spilled flour on the countertop. It usually kept him occupied.
But sometimes Robby couldn’t stay occupied and his curiosity got the better of him. Once he followed her down the rickety steps to the basement and hid in the shadows.
She stood in the center of the room. Praying in a loud voice, she held her hands high in the air as tears streamed down her cheeks. She would swoon and fall to her knees on the concrete floor. Then
she would start to sing a gospel song Robby knew very well. They sang it in church every Sunday. When she sang, a soft glow would light up her face and she would smile. He loved to see her smile.
She so rarely did.
"I’m up for it," he protested now. As if to prove his point, he threw the quilt back and struggled upright. The cold air that hit his feverish body made him shuddered. "Oh, Mum," he groaned. "I
don't guess I am up for it."
"I didn't think so. But you always think you know best."
"Ah, Mum, I don't."
"We'll see." She tucked the eiderdown around him and rose heavily. "I hope I'm around long enough to see you grown. Then I can rub your nose in it."
A stab of fear pierced Robby's heart every time she made these comments. She spoke of dying all the time. He begged her not to talk like that. But she'd only scoff and tell him death was
inevitable. They would all die someday. She was just a little closer to Jesus with every breath she took.
Robby settled back against the pillow and shut his eyes.
In the kitchen, his mother hummed against the clattering of pots. If Dad were home, he would be spitting fire, hollering at her to quiet the racket. If she didn't listen, he'd make a trip to the
other room, and Robby would hear a sound slap and his mother's quiet sobbing. Dad hated commotion and used his belt on the older boys a lot.
Robby was glad Dad was at work. To him, the racket coming from the kitchen spoke of good things to come. He knew the aroma of baking bread would, in time, fill the house.
He tried to stay awake, but his eyes grew heavy, and his breathing even. Finally, he drifted off into a feverish sleep.
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