Sunday, June 8, 2003

Isabella descended the stairs

Isabella descended the stairs, deliberately, careful not to reveal her presence nor distract her own hearing from the voices in the kitchen. Her hand slid against the wall above the banister. The passageway was dark; there were no windows. She dropped one foot onto the carpeted step and brought her weight down onto both feet. Her progress resembled the walk she made as a flower girl in her aunt's wedding that summer. The dress she wore was bright red, embroidered with pink flowers to match the tulips in her bouquet. Baby's breath tied back her short black hair. She liked the dress, and the entire day, everyone told her how pretty she looked.
Downstairs, her mother's dry sobbing masked the mumbled words between her father's sisters. "He's dead," she repeated between deep struggled breaths; "he's dead."
The wedding lasted several hours, and Isabella became restless. She squirmed in the pew when she was supposed to sit quietly facing forward. She screamed at the reception, trying to make her father chase her. She loudly and wetly wept when her parents took her home. Her parents, however, were not angry and did not punish her. They felt the happiness that comes from celebrating love, the euphoria that comes from wholesome laughter, hearty drinking and endless dancing. Isabella's father had joked with the other guests, "she's a terror, just like her old man-takes shit from nobody."
When he left, Isabella knew she would never see him again. It was a Sunday evening. They had finished a simple meal of sweet potatoes, green beans and pork chops that her father had prepared, and her mother was washing the dishes, wearing bright yellow gloves. Her father browsed through the thick newspaper, allowing random articles to catch his interest. Isabella stacked multi-colored plastic building blocks together, imagining that her creation was an exact replica of their own two-story brick house. She hummed to herself a tuneless melody that sounded, in her head, like a symphony.
As she entered the kitchen, she passed through the room serene, almost indifferent to the tense emotions of the older women. "Isabella!" her grandmother spat. "What are you doing down here, young lady? You're supposed to be taking a nap."
The child answered with a pout, "I'm thirsty."
"Come here right now," said her grandmother.
Isabella approached Gram with her eyes diverted to the floor, bracing herself.
Although they lived near the coast and spent many autumn weekends at the beach, a veritable forest surrounded the backyard of their home. Isabella often played with the boy who lived in the house across the street because she had no siblings of her own and no friends from school in her neighborhood. He had a trampoline and chili-bowl blond hair. The boy's name was Andrew. He and his family went to church every Sunday, Monday, Thursday, and Friday. His mother spoke in tongues, that's what she called it, the gibberish she would chant in the car or while practicing needlepoint. Their stereo played a constant loop of hymns.
Once, Isabella came home from Andrew's house and told her father that if they prayed, God would give. He muted the television. "Let's pray for a pile of money," he said, excited, grinning. Obediently, she kneeled, tightly closed her eyes like they did at Andrew's house, tightly weaved her fingers together, propped her elbows onto the coffee table, bowed her head and whispered, "dear Lord, please give us some money." She opened her eyes and slowly surveyed the room. Nothing had changed. She looked up at her father. "You can't just ask for something, Belly" he explained; "you have to earn it."
He had said the same thing after dinner that night when Isabella demanded dessert. "What have you done lately to deserve ice cream?" he asked her. "Monkeys don't eat ice cream," he said without looking away from the paper.
"Daddy!" she squealed, "I'm not a monkey!"
When she got to Gram's feet, she fell into her lap, nestled her nose into Gram's warm round stomach. Gram's arms enveloped the tiny, motionless Isabella, and her mouth went to Isabella's ear, murmuring, "Daddy's dead, baby. I'm so sorry." Her voice cracked on her redundant song, "daddy's dead." The room hummed with the white noise of the refrigerator and hushed weeping, but Isabella could hear nothing but her grandmother's heartbeat and her own steady breathing.
The following months blurred by with a rush of uneaten casseroles, unfamiliar adults ringing the doorbell, sitting on their couch for awkward silent hours. Isabella's mother rarely spoke or smiled. Their house seemed to echo at night like a hollow conch shell as Isabella lay awake in her starlit bedroom, wondering if her father was watching her at that moment or if he would at any moment be at their doorstep with apologies for the confusion. She invented elaborate excuses for his absence: Desert islands with one palm tree and a six-pack of empty bottles, him wearing a tattered shirt and an uneven growth of beard. A secret mission with the President, or even in outer space. Another woman in another country starting a new family in another language.
When March came, Isabella's mother started packing the dishes into boxes. She packed the books and the photo albums and the picture frames on the walls. She put all of Isabella's father's clothes into a box and labeled it "Salvation Army." She planted a "for sale" sign on the front lawn. "We have to go," her mother said. "Everything reminds me of him."
It was a Sunday night, and her mother was wearing bright yellow gloves. They had finished dinner, sweet potatoes green beans pork chops. Isabella played with plastic building blocks while her father distractedly read the newspaper. She wanted dessert, but she couldn't have it. She felt angry that he was teasing her; she didn't understand why she couldn't have any ice cream. She yelled, "I'm not a monkey!" and her mother turned around from the sink. Her face was puffy, she had been crying.
"Just give her some fucking ice cream so she'll shut up, Larry."
"We don't have any ice cream, Susan. Don't use that word in front of her."
On her sixth birthday, her father had spelled her name in candy on a chocolate frosted yellow cake he had baked. He had helped her make a long chain out of construction paper that draped over the curtain rods in the living room. He had blown up all the balloons while her mother was at the store buying disposable plates and hot dogs. She remembered his pointy hat and him taking pictures of her opening gifts, the white flash in his big hands. Her smile had gaps all around, but he treated her like a fashion model. He said, "you're growing so fast, Belly. Soon, you won't need me at all."
Some of the adults at her party also attended the funeral. They shook their heads and frowned as they passed his open casket. The prayers angered Isabella; she did not believe in God. They patted her and said, "You're so strong. Such a good girl for not crying."
It was a Sunday. They finished dinner, sweet potatoes. Isabella wanted ice cream. Her parents quarreled. Her mother's yellow gloves waved her father out of the house. He kissed her on the forehead before he walked out the door. Isabella watched him get into the car, turn the ignition, put his right hand on the passenger headrest, look over his shoulder and back out of the driveway into a truck driving in the wrong lane. It happened in an instant.