Chapter 1 – The Year of the Wishing Rocker
he Wishing Rocker creaked from the strain as Audra’s fanny filled the saddle. Last year when she was eleven, she had been able to stand on the flat of the armrests and balance as she rocked the chair. Now, she worried if she tried to stand on it, her recent weight gain might collapse them. She longed for last year’s body when people called her a bean pole. No one called her that anymore. Now, she was more a bean pod than a pole. Her insides swelled bulbous and curved under the shell of her skin. She kicked off and pressed her weight hard against the back slats into a full tilt upward to the tiptop of the rocking rails where she located that place of balance and stillness. Gravity threatened to pull her down, so she pushed. Next on her afternoon agenda: The Wish of the Day. She was home alone so often these days to wish and rock.
Her father had left a year ago and she hadn’t seen him since, not even a phone call for her twelfth birthday. She scooted and rocked around the house. The wish often revealed itself as if it were playing the game “Hot and Cold”. She liked to lapse into the wish’s warmth.
It was August 2, 1975 and according to the WKBW weather report, it was the muggiest day of the summer in Lackawanna, NY. She often turned the town’s name over in her mind—because of the ‘Lack”, sometimes you “a wanna.” The sunshine radiated through the picture window which caused the livingroom to feel like a hot box. She did “lack” an air conditioner and she sure did “a wanna” one. She wondered if that might be the Wish of the Day.
Before her father left a year ago, she was usually on the outside of this window looking in. On the front lawn, she would watch her parents face off against one another as if the window were a drive-in movie screen. Sometimes they garnered an audience of neighbors. Her best friend and next door neighbor Dani Reed often asked, “What’s your mom got against closing the drapes?”
Now that it was summer and her mother worked so often, Audra spent more time on the inside looking out this window. Since her father left, her mother took the opportunity to decamp—to work more at the hospital, to socialize with her friends, and to take solitary walks. She seemed refreshed—sad and hurt—but reinvigorated as if the whole thing had been a hard exercise to make her stronger, leaner, tougher, more independent. The father’s absence had caused Audra to feel the opposite—fleshy, needy, and spaced-out.
In her rocking reverie, she almost deluded herself into believing she could wish to time travel back to last year to when she was a bean pole and her dad was home studying. When the futility of her wishes became oppressive, she stopped generating them and allowed the wishes to play hiding games with her.
She had rescued the rocking chair from the “spare” room which housed Audra’s baby furniture: a glossy white painted crib, dresser, armoire, and rocker with decals of pink and blue cherubic lambs and teddies. After her father abandoned her, her mother filled the room with the stuff he left behind. His clothes were stacked in her crib and his papers in the drawers of the dresser. The spare room became packed with relics. She was not ready for ruins. That’s when she took back the Wishing Rocker. Over the year, the gloss on the paint cracked into web-like lines, the lamb’s nose chipped off, the paint on the armrest wore down to the wood.
During the commercial break between the soap operas All My Children and One Life to Live Audra pushed the rocker off the carpet and onto the wooden dining room floor. She ran at the chair, jumped into it and pushed off until the rocker rails slid across the floor to the bathroom. She popped off the chair to face herself in the full length bathroom mirror. Audra hoped to foil her new body by continuing to wear the same old ones. She thought she could flatten her fecund figure to make herself appear as she once did. Her hips plumped at the waist and her thighs through the tears in her jeans; her tank top revealed a plunge at the neckline; and her ripped up canvas sneakers caused her pinky toe to flee the confines of the rubber sole. She lifted her gaze, which so often these days was trained on her feet, to meet her own big, round eyes that matched the brown hue of her hair. The matchy-matchy coloring, the almost comic inflection of her voice, and how her eyes flitted upward gave the impression of hyper femininity as if she were Betty Boop. Sardonically, she pitched her shoulder under her lifted chin, “boop boop be doop.” Then, she popped a zit.
She imagined Dani tossing her head: “Oh, how very droll of you, Darling.”
Audra charged out of the bathroom to get a good slide off the rocker but it stopped short in front of the dining room window which faced the Reed’s small kitchen window.
Quickly, Audra squeezed her eyes shut as she could feel the wish about to materialize. She rocked. She repeated the lines from a script similar to what she heard on game shows.
“And now it’s time …” insert drum roll “for The Wish Of the Day”
When she opened her eyes, she expected to see nothing more than the Reed’s window. After all her Wishing Rocker was a basic nursery chair, not a mystical Genie. She thought the wish would need time to “make hay while the sun shined.”
On Thursdays, Dani’s mom, Jane Reed, studied at the library and Mr. Reed slept at the fire hall while Dani and her sister Kit stayed at their grandparents’ house. According to Dani, this arrangement was beginning “to cramp their style.” Every week, the grandparents dropped them off early and earlier, unbeknownst to Mr. or Mrs. Reed. While Audra’s eyes were shut, she believed her wish was to cool off in the Reed’s air conditioned living room and watch the rest of One Life to Live with her friends.
Instead, as her eyes opened, she saw smoke rise from the opened screened window. The sunlight slanted against the side of the house so she could see the stovetop with the rest of the kitchen in shadow. On the stove was a cacophony of boiling and burping pots and pans. From out of the steamy shadows of the kitchen, a man stepped into the sunlight. His hair was a tangle of black curls and he wore a scruffy black beard that grew to the top of his cheeks. The grey t-shirt he wore was paint splattered or was that sauce? He opened the lid off a pot and stirred with a wooden spoon.
He dipped into the shadow and returned with a loaf of bread. Audra knew instinctively he would twist off a piece and then hold it between his thumb and forefinger to dunk the end into the sauce. Then, Mrs. Reed appeared behind him. He cupped his other hand under the dripping bread and fed her.
Audra felt her adrenaline shock her. She dropped off the rocker. To get out of sight, she dragged the rocker by the support rails into the living room. She felt a fugue come over her as if the steam rolling out the Reed’s kitchen seeped into her house.
Something about what was happening in the Reed’s kitchen gave her the feeling of watching a rerun of a favorite show. She rocked hard determined to return safely to the doldrums of the afternoon.
She could not stop musing on this man and how he looked—not at all like men from around here where there were barbers and shavers and new clothes. She remembered his large hand as he daintily dunked the bread into the sauce. She could almost feel the intense heat of sauce on the spongy bread inside her mouth, how the still hard crust almost cut the roof of her mouth. She could hear him ask, “More salt?” Her dad loved to dunk the bread.
Her dad. Her. Dad. Her Dad.
She shook her head to clear her foggy brain. That guy, this scruffy man with the dirty clothes—this Sasquatch man—was her dad?
Her heart thumped and the adrenaline shot through her again. She jumped out of the chair to the dining room window and banged on it. The steam coming off the stove top was more voluminous now. Questions began to pop: “Why was he at the Reeds?” “Was he there this whole time, locked in the garage like Sigmund, the Sea Monster?” “How could Dani not tell her?”
Audra ran to the top of the stairs, leapt down them three at a time landing her smack into the door which she swung open and almost fell over the porch step. Her legs propelled her forward as her arms wheeled to find balance. As Audra grasped the handle of the screen door, Dani shouted, “Stop.”
Audra leaned her forehead on the hot aluminum door. Panting, she felt the sweat swell onto her forehead. She swung around to face Dani on the concrete slab next to her. Dani grabbed Audra’s wrist. “Don’t you dare go in there.”
If Audra was all curves, Dani was slim and broad like Flat Stanley in a red checkered jumper, even her hips splayed. Audra wondered if it was her ballet practice that turned out her boney shoulders and hips or if ballet simply suited her body type. Audra knew that Dani pulled her hair into a bun not to appear the ballerina but because Dani’s hair grew like a corn husk – unruly. For Dani, unruly was unacceptable.
Audra tried to shake her off, “MY DAD IS IN THERE.”
“What? No. Wait. That’s your dad?”
“Yeah, I mean he looks different but it’s him. I’m sure of it. Come on, Dani, let go. I haven’t seen him in over a year.”
Dani released Audra’s wrist, “Go right ahead if you don’t care about seeing him make-out with my mother.”
“What? NO. They’re cooking, sauce, I think.”
“Sauce? That’s what you think they’re doing? He’s feeling her up. Probably more by now.” The muscles in Dani’s face angrily pinched hard against the tightness of the bun.
She explained that when she got home, she and Kit had gone up the back stairs. Before they opened the kitchen door, Dani spied her mom and some wild looking man through the window of the door “practically doing it” on the dining room table. Audra’s father’s hand pulled up Dani’s mother’s handkerchief top.
“STOP. Stop. Stop it. That’s so gross.” Audra began to picture it as if she had seen it through the window in the door as Dani would have seen it: the transistor radio on the kitchen table which was always on—volume up, tuned to an AM station playing romantic rock like Bread or the Commodores or America; Audra could see Mrs. Reed in her paisley blue handkerchief top with the spaghetti straps (she had sewn two just like it for Audra and her mom); she watched her father’s large hand—the same one that dunked the bread in the sauce. She tried to shake it from her mind. “Where was Kit? Did she see it, too?”
“She’s not tall enough to see through the window on the door. She was hopping up and down because I wouldn’t let her in and she wanted to see. She kept yelling the stove was on fire. I pulled her out of there before they heard us. She ran over to Sandy’s.”
Audra and Dani were standing at the corner of the house now to see the smoke coming out the window. “If she thinks the house is on fire, is she getting Sandy to call your dad?”
“NO! I told her it wasn’t a real fire and under no circumstances to call the fire department. I told her it was nothing and not to tell Sandy anything.”
Dani intended to guard the house from nosy neighbors. She did not want the neighborhood to see the demise of her parents’ marriage as they had seen Audra’s.
Kit and Sandy came out of her house. With a cigarette dangling from her lips, Sandy’s latest baby was slung on one hip. And on the other, she gripped a rotary phone. The seemingly endless cord trailed back into the house. The baby fingered Sandy’s tube-top and threatened to unleash Sandy’s bosoms. The cord finally stretched to the end and pulled Sandy up short and back to her side of the lawn. The baby bounced on her hip and the ash of the cigarette just missed its nose.
Dani charged over toward them. “Sandy, don’t you dare call ANYONE!”
Sandy was not in the habit of going against any orders even from a twelve year old. “Kit, I told you not to get Sandy involved in this. THERE IS NO FIRE.”
Kit stomped over to Audra to plead her case nearer to the action, “Help, Audra. You see it too, right!?!”
Kit entreated Audra as if she were the middle sister who had a shred more influence than she did. Kit complained that Dani was some sort of dancing sheriff.
At least a head shorter than Audra and Dani, Kit’s scalp smelled of burnt plastic-y fumes of Aqua Net hairspray. She sported her grandma’s look which included garage sale costume jewels and her weekly curl and set done by a beautician. Kit wore an orange floral poncho edged with olive green fringe which became part of her daily wear no matter how warm it was. She said it hid her baby belly. Dani said she looked like a squash.
Audra enjoyed Kit’s sisterly feelings. “Trust me, you don’t want your dad here.”
“Yes I do.” Kit swung her small arm out from her poncho, the fringe quivering for flourish. “The house is on fire.”
Years later, the girls would try to piece together what each of them had seen exactly. Kit insisted that she had seen the stovetop ablaze with flames that licked the sides of the pans. Dani insisted the only thing burning up was her parents’ marriage. Audra remembered her dad coming through the smoke as someone she did not know.
The smoke, heavier now, landed on them and with it, the acrid smell of tomatoes burning. Audra shrugged, “Maybe Kit is right.”
Dani slapped Audra’s shoulder: “You don’t care. You don’t care about anything but getting to see your precious father who obviously doesn’t give a shit about you.”
Kit recoiled as if she had been hit and fell to the ground.
Audra cried, “Blame it all on me then.” She marched away from her friends. The dispersing smoke appeared to follow her around the corner of the house.
Sandy was still leashed to her phone line. Her toes rubbed anxiously against the plug on her flip-flop and her cigarette rolled loosely along her oily lips, shiny from her bubblegum-scented, nude colored lip gloss. Sandy’s head cradled the handset. She had her thumb pressed down on the switch hook. When Audra approached, Sandy released it. The dial tone droned against Sandy’s sweaty face. The base rested on her hip. She thrusted it toward Audra to make the call.
Audra jammed her finger into the 0 hole of the rotary phone and spun it until it hit the stopper. She held her finger there. She felt the same way as she had when she tilted into the stillness at the tiptop of the rocker rails—hung in the momentary balance between allowing herself to fall over or to force her weight forward.
If she released her finger from the dial, the phone would connect to the operator and then to the fire hall. She could just as easily depress the switch hook to end the call. Up to her.
She did not want to make this call. She could tell Sandy that there was no fire. Her dad was just making dinner … for the Reeds … after no one had seen him for a year. Weird as that was, she could just go home. Audra thought, “Let him be on the hook.”
What if she plucked her finger from the 0 hole, let the wheel spin, connect to the operator, and the fire department did show? What if they arrived to do nothing more than douse a burnt pan and catch her father and Mrs. Reed making-out or by that time “something more”? She wondered, how long does “something more” even take? What would Mr. Reed’s reaction be upon seeing those two do “something more”? With sirens blaring and a parade of fire trucks, the whole neighborhood would know about this affair, eventually her mother would have to find out. What if Audra was on the hook not for reporting a fire but for tattling?
He’d been gone for a year and he didn’t even come back to see her. She could feel the anger spread to the tip of her index finger. She thought of how angry Dani already was. If Audra ended this call, Dani would be on the hook for either not calling the fire department or busting their parents. That was so much worse than dialing the operator.
Audra looked up at Sandy. With her halter-top, cut-offs, fair skin, and the Bonnie Bell Lip Smacker, not even a cigarette and baby could make Sandy look much older than Audra.
Sandy said, “You can let go, I won’t make you talk. Your parents won’t know it was you.”
Audra pulled her finger from the wheel and heard it tick back. As she turned away to rejoin her friends, she heard Sandy say, “My neighbor’s house is on fire …”