The Fearsome Four
Life has a way of toying with our grandest schemes.
The room is a study in pale, monotone gray; even the cold, watery sunlight passing through the windowpane is bleak and sterile. There’s Mama, lying still, a peaceful countenance upon her face at last. How did it come to this? We were meant to be a force to be reckoned with, the four of us girls. And yet life has a way of toying with our grandest schemes.
I clutch my kindergarten papers in my tight little fist, listening to the satisfying sound coming from my white click-clack shoes against the pavement when a familiar honk from across the street catches my ears. I jerk my dirty blond head up. There’s Mama, sitting in the front seat of our blue 1963 Mercury Monterey. She smiles at me, a vision of loveliness in red lipstick, cigarette smoke, and cat’s eye sunglasses. There’s Tank, standing up in the backseat. She starts jumping when she sees me, clad in only a soggy cloth diaper and filthy t-shirt. She’s chewing on a paper stick, all that’s left of what, by the looks of her tongue, had been a red sucker. She has a weird black mark on her forehead. It takes every bit of my six-year-old muscle power to wrench open the enormous car door. I throw my papers on the seat and climb up close to Mama.
“What happened to Tank?” I ask.
“That sister of yours. She was jumping on the bed again. Fell off and hit the corner of the dresser. She had to get three stitches today.”
Mama glances over her shoulder at the traffic then pulls away from the curb. She holds her cigarette tightly with one side of her lips as she talks. It’s a clever parlor trick. She pats the back of her brown hair, which had been ratted shamelessly and sprayed until it could serve as a safety helmet. She’s humming along as some lady on the radio sings about a D-I-V-O-R-C-E.
“Aren’t we waiting for Sissy?” I ask.
My big sister, the red-headed bully of the entire third grade, got out of school fifteen minutes later than I did. I never waited for her to walk with me; she was much more formidable an opponent than any force I might find myself up against on my short walk home.
“Nah, let’s get home. Tank’s tired,” says Mama.
I stand up on my knees and look at my baby sister still jumping in the back seat, grinning at me with two teeth, all shiny blond curls and dimples. The stitches are gruesome, like some kind of a Picasso-rendered spider, the skin around it bruised and blue as two fathoms deep. Tank was aptly named. She would go where no one else dared to, do things our older sister and I wouldn’t dream of doing. She was sort of a crash-test dummy.
Normally I had to walk two blocks, sprint one block to outrun the mean dogs, cross the street to bypass the scary run-down Victorian house (there was absolutely no merit to the rumor about a dungeon and a crazy lady from the 1800s who lived there, I found out years later), then turn down our street, giving a wide berth to the skittish, bony white horse with one eye on the corner lot who tried to eat my bobbed hair as I walked by.
“Mama, I wish you would pick me up every day,” I say.
“June Bug, you know I can’t do that,” she says. “This is when Tank takes her nap.”
It was also when Search for Tomorrow came on TV, but I wisely keep my mouth shut. I look over at my mother, so young and beautiful. She is the apple of her husband’s eye. We will always be the Fearsome Four Forever More. Plus Daddy.
Sissy is chasing me with the kitchen shears, trying to ‘style’ my hair, and Tank is doing somersaults on the couch when we hear a pickup truck backfire out on the street. There’s our daddy, finally getting home from the service station. He’d scrub the grease from under his fingernails, dance with Mama in the kitchen while we girls pranced around them giggling, then come after us, pretending to be Big Foot. He would always catch Tank first and she would squeal like a stuck pig as he made disgusting noises on her fat belly with his mouth. Sissy took the game way too seriously; she would find a weapon and bludgeon him with it. That’s when Daddy would abandon his roleplaying and plop down on the couch.
“Okay, girls, that’s enough. Daddy’s tired. Juney, come unlace my boots. Sissy! Put them scissors down and go get Daddy a beer. Tank, get down off that table!”
To my young mind, this is the stuff of heaven. Although Tank is too young to care, Sissy and I are engaged in a vicious battle to win Daddy’s favor. Sissy sashays into the living room carrying a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, pops the top and hands it to Daddy; then she changes the channel on the TV to Walter Cronkite and adjusts the rabbit ears. Check. In retaliation, after I unlace and pull off Daddy’s boots, I take off his wet, smelly socks and rub his feet, even though he has a raging case of toenail fungus. Checkmate. I’ve stolen the king and won the game.
When I make it safely through the labyrinth of horrors that is my route home from school the next day, I find Mama lying on the couch. Tank is sitting in her high chair, pondering the murder scene of innocent Spaghetti-Os in front of her. There is telltale incriminating gore all over her fat cheeks.
“Juney, can you help get Tank cleaned up, please? I don’t feel so good,” says Mama.
Mama doesn’t look so good, either. She is wearing that thing, that grey nappy mouse-fur robe of hers that should have been given to the needy years earlier. The robe is hanging open, the belt long gone, exposing her Wonder Woman nightgown for all the world to see (It wasn’t until 1987 that we would find the lost belt looped around the neck of one of Tank’s teddy bears out in the tall weeds bordering the yard).
I reach my dirty little hands up to Mama’s forehead — though I’m not sure what I’m supposed to feel there — and I’m rewarded with a tender smile from my mother angel.
“I’m going to go see Dr. Stein in a few minutes. Mrs. Jovanovich is going to watch you girls until Daddy gets home. Don’t let Sissy put her in the closet again, okay?” Mama says.
I nod my head. Sissy and I are terrified of Mrs. Jovanovich. She is from Yugoslavia and smells like feet. She wears a tattered scarf over her grey frizzy hair, and her front tooth is gold. We were unsuccessful in our quest to locate her crystal ball the last time we were there, but we know she has one. According to my and my sister’s calculations, she is two hundred years old. Mrs. J. doesn’t speak English, but she tries to make Sissy and I laugh by playing this weird hand pinching game. The only one who gets a kick out of her is Tank, who also doesn’t speak English.
I don’t like seeing Mama like this, her hair greasy and her skin like dirty play dough. I need her to be fearsome. I go back to the kitchen to get Tank down from her high chair and she throws a handful of noodles that land in my hair.
I want to cry; I want to tell Mama that Tank’s being bad, that Mrs. Jovanovich is a petrified sorceress, but I want to be a big girl too, so I swallow my tears. I realize Tank looks just as scared as I do, so I hold my baby sister’s hand and toddle her off to the bathtub. Sissy will be home to help us soon.
When Sissy and I get home from school the next day, Daddy’s truck is already parked on the street. We turn to look at each other, then run inside. Tank is screaming in her crib, boiling over in a tantrum, the likes of which the world has not since seen. With a snort of relief, she reaches her pudgy hands out to Sissy, who obliges. Sissy lets some of the air out of Tank while I run down the hall to check and eavesdrop on Mama and Daddy. Mama is sobbing and violently sick.
“It’s okay, Baby. You’re gonna be fine. I’m here now,” says Daddy as he tenderly rubs her back.
He catches my eye in the doorway and holds me captive there. Many years later, I would recognize the look Daddy had that day as one of profound despair.
Sissy and I both realize simultaneously that now is not the time to engage in our usual post-academia tomfoolery. As Sissy wedges Tank into her high chair, I grab the box of Cheerios and sprinkle some in front of her. Quite a few more jump out of the box and land on the floor, and I wonder vaguely who will clean them up. Tank eats as if it’s her last meal.
I look over at the stove and realize that Mama hasn’t made dinner. A little shock jolts through my stomach, and I wonder how long she’ll be sick.
“What are we s’posed to eat?” I ask my older, wiser sister. I had erroneously assumed that, being the eldest, Sissy would have vast stores of knowledge that I had not yet attained — knowledge about what to do in a situation like this.
“I don’t know, stupid! What’s in the fridge?” asks Sissy.
I relay to her the contents of the refrigerator: three eggs, ketchup, milk, some meat on a plate, pickles, a grapefruit.
We look at each other forlornly then back at the fridge, willing abundant, tasty food to suddenly appear. We are both at a loss when it doesn’t.
“I’m having Cheerios,” says Sissy. “Grab us some spoons and I’ll get the bowls.”
After we’ve filled our bellies with toasty oats and milk, Daddy walks into the kitchen. He looks as tired and worn as a filthy throw rug. He still has on his boots, still hasn’t washed the grease from under his fingernails. He runs a hand through his curly light brown hair then stands with his hands in his pockets. He exhales a long, loud sigh.
“I need you girls to listen to me. Your mama’s very sick. She ain’t gonna be gettin’ better anytime soon.” Daddy’s voice starts to crack. “The doctor said we need to do everything we can to make her comfortable. Sissy, you’re the woman of the house for now.”
Sissy smiles only briefly until the full weight of her new role settles on her shoulders and she sobers.
“You two girls are to go straight to Mrs. Jovanovich’s house after school. I want you to walk together; do you understand?”
We nod in unison. I never would have believed I would agree to such foolishness, but my family needs me, and so I relent.
“June Bug, you’re to help out with Tank while you’re at Mrs. J’s house. If you see her climbing on something, get her down.”
I glance over at Tank who is standing on the counter, sticking her fingers in the butter. Daddy swoops her down and kisses her sweet, innocent face. For the first time in my young life, I see tears in Daddy’s eyes. He looks lost at sea.
I watch Sissy walk to the corner of the kitchen and grab the broom. I walk over to her, and together we clean up the pile of Cheerios that had fallen to the floor.
“Girls, come here and give Daddy a hug. I want you all three to know how much I love you and your mama. We’re gonna get through this.” With that, the dam breaks and Daddy’s tears come freely.
Things continue in this manner for the remainder of winter into early spring. Sissy has taken her new role seriously. Mrs. Jovanovich taught her how to cook a few things, like scrambled eggs, so she helps Daddy keep us and Mama fed. Sissy no longer chases me with scissors or dunks my toothbrush in the toilet. At nine years old, she is a woman now, and I respect her for it.
Oblivious to the dire situation at home, Tank continues to behave like a two-year-old, but she cries for me at night now instead of Mama. For some reason I can’t explain, I like that. I watch her face light up with a now four-tooth smile when I come to get her, and it makes my heart melt like butter. She is my sister. She always will be, no matter what, and I’m glad.
We’ve gained a new friend with Mrs. Jovanovich. She points to pictures of herself and her own sisters when she was young, hundreds of years ago, and she smiles as if she’s remembering the shenanigans they would pull. The Jovanovich parents look frazzled in the picture.
Mrs. Jovanovich seems to really enjoy our company for a few hours each evening. She even lets us take turns styling her hair. When Daddy gets home, we girls are allowed to visit with Mama for a few minutes, but not long. She is not getting any better. In fact, she looks worse every day.
It’s early Saturday morning when I’m awakened by frantic screaming. It’s not Tank, I’m sure of it. Sissy and I run out of our room and find Daddy panicking, yelling into the phone. He’s telling them to send an ambulance. I hear Mama softly moaning from her bed. Next, Daddy grabs Tank, kisses us girls quickly, and ushers all three of us over to Mrs. Jovanovich’s house.
Several minutes go by, and I reflexively reach for Sissy’s hand. Tank is asleep in Mrs. J’s arms. We watch from the bay window as Mama is wheeled out of the house on a stretcher and loaded into the ambulance. Daddy climbs in next to her, the doors slam shut, and the ambulance roars down the street, past the bony one-eyed horse on the corner, past the scary Victorian house, and out of sight.
The room is a study in pale, monotone gray; even the cold, watery sunlight passing through the windowpane is bleak and sterile. There’s Mama, lying still, a peaceful countenance upon her face at last. How did it come to this? We were meant to be a force to be reckoned with, the Fearsome Four Forever More. Plus Daddy. And yet life has a way of toying with our grandest schemes.
There’s Daddy, sitting in the chair next to Mama’s bed. He looks worse than I’ve ever seen him, as if he had just crawled out of a tomb. He gives us girls a little nod as we walk into the room and he beckons us over. Mrs. Jovanovich carries Tank on her hip.
“Girls, I have someone I want you to meet. This is April, your new little sister,” says Daddy as he opens up the blanket and lets us peer inside.
She is the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen. I’m angry at this tiny purple bundle of wrinkles. I’ve been angry since Mrs. Jovanovich told us that Mama was having this kid. I’m angry with Mama. She’s awake now, lying there sipping juice as if this is all okay.
I start crying. Mama sets her juice aside.
“Oh, June Bug, climb up here with Mama. I don’t want you to cry! Here — I want you to be the first one to hold your new sister.”
I crawl up against the pillow with Mama, and she hands me the bundle. I look at the beaten up face, the teeny tiny lips, and a nose just like mine. Just like Daddy’s. I touch her paper-thin nails and she curls her fingers around mine. I glance up at my other sisters. They are both smiling, and it makes me smile.
I exercise my woman’s prerogative to change my mind. My sister April is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Next to me. Then Tank, then Sissy, in that order. And I realize that nothing has changed. We can keep our title. Now we can be a stronger force to be reckoned with: The Fearsome Four Forever More. Plus Daddy and Mama.