Rob’s eyes were on fire. He rubbed them with the heels of his hands. They burned even more. He tried blinking
several times, but that didn’t help either. He placed his arms on the table and lowered his head, hiding his eyes in the crook of his elbow. Maybe if he rested them for a while, it would
He hated playing the bars. The people were loud, obnoxious, and vulgar. They drank until they couldn’t stand
upright. They smoked cigarettes, one right after the other, coughing and spitting. He’d never get used to the language they used, even though he heard some of the words come out of his father’s
His ears were ringing, too. After a gig, he would lie awake most of the night because his ears rang so loud. It
made him dizzy and gave him a headache. He tried earplugs, but that only drowned out the sounds of the house and made the ringing louder.
Rob hoped the next set was the last for the evening. He was tired, and he had an Algebra exam in the
His Algebra teacher wasn’t a big fan of his. He let Rob know he disapproved of his father's music and taking
young boys into bars to play that kind of music. He would be looking for a reason to fail him. And Algebra wasn’t Rob’s best subject. In truth, most of the classes weren’t his best subjects. He
might as well admit it. He would be failing his junior year. And he would be failing as long as Dad insisted they play these bars until two a.m. five nights a week.
Shifting uncomfortably in the hard, wooden chair, he lifted his head. His eyes still burned, but there was
nothing he could do. He watched the people around him and tried to take his mind off his raging eyes and ringing ears.
He missed his mother. She’d been gone almost eight months now. The hole she left in Rob's heart grew wider with
each passing day. Every morning he would wake up and listen for the clattering of pots and pans from the kitchen. He would wait for his dad to yell for her to quiet down. He could almost smell the
hot breakfast drifting up the stairs.
But the house was silent. The smells of breakfast would no longer wake him. He felt like he was living in a
Rob's attention came back to the bar. His eyes searched for his Dad and found him sitting at the bar. He was
laughing with a woman sitting beside him. The woman had a drink in one hand and another full one on the bar.
She seemed older than his dad. Her hair was a light brown with streaks of grey running through it, and she wore
it short, curling just below her ears. Small pearl earrings dangled from her earlobes. Her eyes were beady, her smile thin. The skirt she wore, she pulled above her knees. She had crossed her legs
and swung one leg back and forth. Each time she swung her leg, her sandaled foot seemed to get a little closer to Carl's leg.
Rob turned his gaze quickly away when the old man caught him staring at them. He could feel the heat rise in
his cheeks, and he tried not to watch them but found himself observing them through lowered lashes. He was starting to feel a little sick and wished that his brothers saw this. But they were busy
with their heads together, rehearsing their harmonies over the loud voices and clinking glasses. Rob wanted them to know. He wanted to show them what he was seeing, but he just couldn't bring
himself to get their attention. He was afraid that they’d laugh at him, as they always did.
Now the woman was sliding off her stool, grabbing the drinks, one in each hand. His dad slipped his arm through
hers, and they left the bar and approached the boys. Rob spun around in his seat and pretended that he didn't see them. Please, Dad, please, don't bring her over here, he prayed
But that's just what Dad was doing, all smiles as he led the woman to their table. "Hi, kids," he grinned as he
The brothers glanced up in surprise. They had been so involved in their singing they had not noticed their
father. Rob saw their eyebrows raise in unison. At least now they noticed, and Rob gained a small bit of satisfaction from the looks on their faces.
"I want you boys to meet someone." He brought her around in front of him and placed his hands familiarly on her
shoulders. "Greta, these are my boys. Caleb, Jacob, Luke, and Robby. Boys, this is Greta, Miss Baker to the four of you."
All four boys were shocked into a motionless silence as they stared at the strange woman whom their father
seemed to know all too well.
"Didn't I raise you better than that?" he asked, his voice rising above the crowded room. "Stand up in the
presence of a lady, for Christ's sake."
Caleb was the first to stand and offer his hand. "Hi, nice to meet you, Greta-er-Miss Baker."
The others stood and shook the woman's hand.
"It's so nice to meet you, boys," she said. Her voice had a high-pitched, gravelly quality to it as if she had
been a heavy smoker at one time. "I've heard so much about you."
"You have?" Caleb asked in surprise. "We haven't heard anything about you."
Their dad’s hand clapped Caleb across the ear.
"Ow!" Caleb exclaimed. "What'd you do that for, Dad?"
"You're rude. And the break is over."
Still rubbing his ear that was slowly turning a bright red, Caleb nodded to his brothers, and they rose and
climbed to the stage. Their dad seated Ms. Baker at the table the boys had left and followed his sons.
He tapped the microphone, then cleared his throat. "Everybody," he said into the mic. "Excuse me, people." He
tapped the mic again. When he still wasn't heard, he raised his voice. "I said, excuse me!" He shouted into the microphone.
The bar grew suddenly quiet. The people had turned to the stage.
"I have an announcement to make," he said, clearing his throat again. "And since I know most all of you here, I
wanted to share this news with you." He motioned to Ms. Baker. "Stand up, sweetheart. I want to introduce you all to my future wife, Greta Baker."
He sat hunched down in the pew between his brothers. His tie was too tight, and the smell of the flowers that
decorated the church made him nauseous.
A few of their dad’s relatives sat in the pews on the groom’s side of the church. Some of Mum’s kin sat there
But on the other side, the pews were empty.
There was no organist. The only sounds in the church were hushed whispers, coughing, the rustle of clothing.
Parents warned their children to be still.
She wore a cream-colored suit with matching shoes. The suit was not new. It had been stored in mothballs in her
attic for years. On her head sat a large hat filled with yellow mums. She carried the same flowers in a small bouquet that she held close to her breast.
Greta's cream-colored shoes squeaked as she walked up the aisle.
As she approached the altar, she passed the children and grinned. Her teeth were yellow and crooked, her smile
Rob covered his eyes with the heels of his hands. He couldn't stand to look at her. How could his father marry
so soon after Mum's death and to a woman as hideous as this?
"Oh, God," he groaned. It came out louder than he realized, and Caleb elbowed him in his side.
"Stop it," he whispered. "Dad's happy. Leave it at that."
"Dad's never been happy," Rob whispered back.
"He will be now," Caleb said. "She's loaded."
The wedding couldn't be over soon enough for Rob. But he still had to get through a small reception held at Greta's house. Not all the wedding guests came, and the ones that did ate nothing from
the table where Greta had pulled leftovers from her refrigerator. Hot dogs that had been boiled for her supper, possibly days or weeks ago, and still in the same water she had cooked them, were
placed on the table. The bread and buns were turning blue with mold on the edges. Pastries were stiff and had started to develop mold.
Some of the guests opted for water until they spied the oily dishwater in the sink where she washed her dishes.
Rob watched his dad. The old man sat at the table, heartily stuffing his face. Rob couldn't understand how he could eat this debris after all the savory dishes Mum had made when alive.
"Come on, kids." His father caught him staring. "Eat something. There's a lot of good food here. We don't want it to go to waste."
"Can we go home, Daddy?" Ruthie asked. "I'm tired."
"We are home, Sweetheart. Greta’s home is our home now.”
Tears welled up in her eyes. “But what about our house?”
“Well, we’ll be selling our house to a family that will be as happy there as we were.”
Did he believe that? Rob thought.
“I want Mum,” Lizzy started to cry. “Mum’s at our house. I want to go home, too.”
His father lifted Lizzy from her chair and sat her in his lap. “Mum’s not there, sweetheart.”
“Where did she go?” Lizzy wiped at the tears on her face.
“She went to Heaven.”
“Can I go there, too?”
“Not yet, Lizzy.”
“But when is she coming back?” Ruthie asked.
Rob waited for his dad’s answer, wondering what he would tell them.
He sat silent for a moment, his hand absently stroking Lizzy’s dark hair. He adjusted her on his knee and pulled her closer, and said, “I don’t know, Ruthie. Whenever she’s ready to come back, I
“But when?” Lizzy cried and started to shake her head back and forth. “When, when, when?”
“Lizzy.” His father shook her gently. “Listen to me. Mum was very tired. She worked very hard cleaning the house and taking care of you kids. She got tired, so she had to go to Heaven to rest.
Maybe once she’s rested, she’ll come home.”
Rob glared at his father. Don’t lie to them!”
“But if we sell our house, how will she find us?” Ruthie sniffled.
“Everything will be fine.” A distant look clouded his father’s eyes. For a moment, Rob thought the old man disappeared. Then he blinked several times and looked at them. “Everything will be fine.”
"I don't want to do it anymore!" Ruthie cried, the tears streaming down her face.
Rob pulled her onto his lap and wiped the tears from her face with his thumb. "Don't cry, Ruthie,” he said. "Everything will be okay."
"No, it won't!" she sobbed. "I miss Mum. I want Mum back!"
Rob fought his own tears as he held his sister. His heart broke for her and Lizzy, whose memories of their mother would grow vaguer as the years rolled on. "I'll help you." He smiled at her. "How
does that sound?"
"Can we get Lizzy to help, too?" she asked hopefully. "She needs to start helping."
"Of course, she does. She's old enough." He put Ruthie down on her feet. "Why don't you go get her, and we'll get it done fast."
Ruthie skipped happily out of the room to find her sister.
He rested his elbows on his knees and hung his head. He was only sixteen but felt so much older. Living with Greta aged them all.
His brothers were the lucky ones. They found careers as preachers and wives to take care of them. There was no escape for Rob or the two little girls. He knew deep down that if he could, he would
not think twice about breaking free, even though it would mean leaving the little ones behind.
The shame he felt for having these thoughts alleviated somewhat when the two girls came into the room. Ruthie was pulling Lizzy by the sleeve of her sweater.
Lizzy was crying as Ruthie dragged her into the room. "I don't want to pick up lint!" she howled. "It makes my fingers hurt! I don't want to crawl all over the carpet. It's dirty and makes my knees
Rob picked her up. "I'm going to help. It won't take long if we all pitch in and do it. You must learn sometime, Lizzy. Ruthie can't do it all by herself.”
"But why can't we use the vacuum?" she cried. "I saw one in the closet."
"Because Greta doesn't want to use too much electricity. She says it's very expensive."
"But what if I promise not to use 'lecricity?" she asked innocently.
Rob tried not to laugh. "It can't be helped, sweetheart. Vacuums use 'lectricity."
Lizzy thought on this for a moment, then slid off Rob's lap. "Ok," she said. "I'll pick up lint."
They were down on their knees, picking the lint up off the carpet when their father came in the door from work. He stopped for a moment to watch them. Then he turned and left the room.
Rob expected to hear a slap and sobbing coming from the next room. But all he heard was hushed voices. His father never hit Greta. Greta would never tolerate such behavior. She alone controlled the
checkbook and savings account.
Greta had never been married and was the proverbial old maid schoolteacher. She had no children. She was a miser and liked to brag she still had the first dime she ever earned. Rob could believe
They just finished with the carpet when Greta called them for dinner.
Rob stared morosely down at the table. Hot dogs again and not just hot dogs. But the hot dogs that had been left from dinner the night before. Fried potatoes, he wasn't sure when they had those
last. Moldy bread with butter. He felt his stomach churn at the sight, but he was hungry, and he was learning how to eat things he would never have attempted before.
As soon as Greta plopped a hot dog on Ruthie's plate, she started to cry. "It's green!"
"It's not green," Greta said.
"It is green. I don't want to eat that! I'll throw up!"
"Eat it," Dad grumbled. "Just shut up and eat it."
"Here, Ruthie." Rob took her plate and started to cut the green from one side of the hot dog.
"What do you think you're doing?" The old man asked.
"She won't eat that part. I'm just cutting it off."
"She'll eat it," he growled. "Put her plate back."
"Do what I say."
Rob glared at his father but put his sister's plate back in front of her. "It won't hurt you, Ruthie," he said. "Watch." He stuck a piece of hot dog in his mouth and chewed it, smiling while he
"I can't," she wailed. "I can't eat that!"
The old man stood up and started to remove his belt from around his waist. "What did I say, Ruthie?"
Rob stared at his father, his eyes daring him to use the belt on the little girl. His dad shook his head and sat back down.
Rob convinced Ruthie to pick up her fork and cut it into the hot dog. With tears in her eyes, she forced a bite into her mouth. She chewed slowly.
Suddenly her eyes grew wide in her face, and she opened her mouth.
The geyser spewed from her lips. She threw up all over her lap, her plate, and part of the table.
She started to cry, the drool dripping down her chin. "I told you!"
At this, Lizzy started to howl. "My fingers hurt! My knees hurt! I don't want to pick up lint anymore. I don't want to eat green hot dogs!"
"That does it!" the old man bellowed, his fist pounding the table as he stood.
Rob jumped quickly to his feet. "I got this, Dad," he said, grabbing Ruthie by one arm and Lizzy by the other. "Come on, girls."
Rob hated his father at this moment. He hated his wife even more.
The old man married for money. He thought he would be living the life of leisure. But the woman he married was a miser, and he would never see a dime. This time the joke was on him. But his
children were paying the price.
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