Home was a safe place in our A frame house in the country until the day the phone rang and my mother answered it only to start weeping ferociously. At six I was old enough to help with some things so when she gestured for me to pass her her cigarettes and lighter, I did.
I stood watching her for a while, her pretty legs crossed and pink chenille mule style slippers keeping her feet warm in our drafty winter home. I wanted to know what was wrong but I knew I couldn’t ask until she was off the phone. I idly played with some toys and books nearby, keeping an eye and ear pealed toward mom’s conversation.
My mind ran to all sorts of catastrophes including about dad and my older brothers and sister. It’s a good thing something happened to take my attention off my impatience before I got myself into trouble for interrupting Mom on the phone.
Mom lit a second cigarette and at once, her laquered bun she’d carefully crafted to look pretty like I Dream of Jeannie’s hair, took to flame. I tried to get her attention.
“Mommy, Mommy, your hair is on fire!” I said this several times but she whooshed me away with the hand holding the freshly lit cigarette. I was panicking and thought about grabbing a bowl of water to pour on her head when she suddenly dropped the phone and it swayed to and fro on the black curly cord.
She set her cigarette down in the ashtray and began pounding at her head with both hands, smashing the stenchy bun down altogether and collapsing the flames while looking at me.
“Why didn’t you say something?” she asked.
“I did,” I said. “Lots of times I did!”
“Well, I never heard you,” she said before picking up her cigarette, grabbing the phone back up to her ear and resuming her tearful conversation.
When she finished the call she told us kids her grandaddy had died. We didn’t know him so it wasn’t upsetting to us but we knew death was a bad thing that meant you’d never see the person again so we felt sorry for Mommy. We knew our loving grandfathers and couldn’t imagine losing them.
Upstairs I went to resume playing with my sisters, our makeshift Sears catalogue people and furnishings our little dolls and houses which we often spent hours enjoying. All at once Mom bellered up the stairs with such a start to us that we two girls jumped.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, thinking she’d had another phone call.
“I’ve been calling you for ages. Come down here and watch the babies while I cook supper,” she said. “How many times does a person have to call you?”
“Well, I never heard you,” I said as I skipped down the stairs to help.
“You hear just what you want to hear,” she said.
(c) Janni Styles
(Originally posted here in 2015 as a prompted piece in a weekly fiction feature)