Little House, 1979

A short, short story by Wendy Oleson

Wendy Oleson

I pack the red knapsack with honey and crackers. A notebook. I leave the stuffed bear out. He smells wet, green. My father found him in Grandma’s basement next to newspapers. He’d been Aunt Penny’s before she ran away. The red knapsack has a boy’s name on the back: Eric. Grandma got it at the Retarded Children’s Thrift Store where they sell broken toasters. Children don’t work at the thrift store, Grandma said. They live in the back on white linens stained brown. When people buy things it helps them eat. They eat green Jell-O. We are poor but not retarded.  

Yesterday my father got paid for painting a house blue. Money makes him sick. It paints the whites of his eyes red and he forgets me. If he saw me with the red knapsack, he might call me Eric. I feel more like a boy.

I’m too smart to run away, so I pretend by sitting under the tree. I’m a hobo as old as the tree. Grandma said the tree is being strangled by moss. The moss looks pretty, though, like soft carpet or velvet or the inside of a funeral.

I push fingerprints into the moss and wait for my mother to come. She puts needles into veins to feed the dying. She loves me, but she’s three days away, longer by a car that overheats on the highway. And gas is almost fifty cents.

I didn’t want to leave her. He knocked on the door when he knew I would answer, when my mother was at the store buying hominy and oats and a sad red pepper (cut away the rot). He said, Erin, let’s get ice cream. Hop on. I jumped on his back before he could get away. Daddy. It was a miracle, so I didn’t ask questions.  

No toothbrush for three days. From Kalamazoo to Ventura my teeth got mossy but never turned green. We ate spicy jerky with a green alien on the bag. The meat caught in my teeth, so I counted license plates and picked it out. I cried for Mommy without showing tears. We stayed in houses with porches owned by people my father called uncle. I was afraid to use the phone. 

What does my mother do without me?  She goes to work. She wouldn’t let dying people down. She goes to church because she wouldn’t let God down. She takes a bath because it’s important to stay clean. Grandma keeps me clean.

I take out the crackers and snap them apart. I dip them in honey and chew fast. I get honey on my notebook and leave crumbs in the grass. Once upon a time a child lived with Mommy and Daddy in a little brown house. Mommy loved Daddy and Daddy kept clean. When I go inside, my father’s asleep on the couch. Blue paint still on his face from somebody’s little house. He doesn’t wake up when I touch his cheek, and the toast catches fire, and Grandma yells Shit!

Wendy Oleson’s Our Daughter and Other Stories, won the 2017 Rachel Wetzsteon Chapbook Award (Map Literary). Her poetry, prose, and hybrids appear in Copper Nickel, Cimarron Review, Carve, Calyx, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing online for the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension and lives with her wife and dog in Eastern Washington.

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