When I was still very young, my mother married a man with no name. He was after the sad dark husband that gave my mother her widow’s weeds and far before the bandy-legged drug dealer with a heart of gold that would be her latest husband. This man moved all of us, my mother, my two siblings, and I to live with him on his family’s property. It was a tiny one-roomed house with a flimsy partition separating the bathroom from the rest of the room. We all slept in the same room, laying arm to arm under thin borrowed blankets, our bundles of clothing tucked beneath our heads for pillows. My mother worried that we would not be able to sleep all of us comfortably in one room and they solved this problem by going out every night, my mother and her husband with no name, and sleeping all day instead. They would return at dawn, smelling of my mother’s ancient leather coat and whiskey and smoke, and rouse us to go out and play, leaving them to sprawl among the scattered clothing and sleep through the hottest part of the day.
This tiny house was at the bottom of a very steep hill. A slim paved road ran in front of it, in to the empty streets of a ghost town that would soon be consumed by the larger towns on either side of it. At the top of the hill was the house that the husband’s father lived in. It seemed impossibly huge and grand to us, looming there under the shade of towering oak trees, presiding over the vast verdant expanse of field leading to our humble abode.
The first day that we lived in the white house at the bottom of the hill, our mother took us to meet her husband’s father. She tore great hunks of hair out, pulling a snaggle-toothed comb over our heads, straightening our play-dirtied clothing with muttered expletives and sighs of exasperation. When she finally deemed us presentable, she set off up the dusty gravel road and we wend our way after her, quickly mussing our hair and further dirtying our clothing.
We were presented to the husband’s father with a voice full of tender affection, her hands tight and painful on our shoulders as she brought us forward one by one to meet him. He was an old farmer, rolling a cigarette with tobacco stained fingers, squinting at us from across the scarred kitchen table like the dirty ill-mannered specimens we were.
“Call me Pee Wee.” He declared, dropping the crooked concoction he had finished rolling with a lick and a flourish into his lips. His given name was Herman or Howard or something like that. I, being the curious and incautious child that I was, immediately asked why we should call him Pee Wee when Pee Wee wasn’t his name.
“Well, then, why should I call you Betty, when Betty isn’t your name?” He replied, squinting even more so he could take measure of the impudent child who’d dare to question him. Point taken, I dropped my eyes to my shoes and traced the faded linoleum pattern. Satisfied, he pushed himself back from the table with much groaning and grunting and said, “C’mon, I guess you should meet Mother.”
We followed his shuffling steps into the next room, which turned out to be the living room. There, on a hospital bed raised up in the middle of the room, surrounded by what seemed like thousands of tubes and machines, lay a fossil of a woman. It was one of the most terrifying spectacles I had seen thus far in life. I immediately dug my heels into the carpet and tried to resist the pressure of my mother’s hands pushing me forward. For a moment, the only sound in the room was the clicking and hissing of the machines and then the old woman opened her mouth and she rasped, “P. I. E.”.
“Yes, Mother, these are the new grandchildren.” Pee Wee replied, as if the three letters she had managed to pronounce meant something. He looked at us and managed the first fascimilie of a smile we’d seen on his face. “She had a stroke some years ago, ” he explained, puffing on his smoke the entire time he spoke, “ever since her speech has been impaired.”
When my mother’s hand released its vise on my shoulder, I turned and fled the room and the terrifying old woman in the bed, screeching “P. I. E.” after me, her voice audible almost all of the way down the hill. I received a spanking with a belt that night for running from the room but I didn’t care.
We stayed in that tiny house the entire summer….or maybe it was only for a few weeks. Time has a way of flowing and melding, starting and stopping with jerks and jars, blending and disappearing when you are young. Pee Wee, despite his hoary appearance, turned out to be an ally – one who always offered stale cookies and jokes that were beyond our understanding, as well as letting us tromp in and out of his house during those long golden summer days that our mother and her husband slept it off at the bottom of the hill.
Every day, however, we would be required to circuit past the hospital bed of the old woman and listen to her garbled yells of “P. I. E.” before rushing outside in horror and relieved laughter. My mother didn’t help us to understand the woman’s situation – she had a cruel ability to find humor in awful situations and to make fun of everything she didn’t like. She was endlessly disgusted with the new husband, Pee Wee, and the grandmother in the hospital bed. She began to mock the old woman’s way of speaking out of the left side of her mouth, laughing uproariously as she called for “KEY LIME P.I.E.! Apple P.I.E.!”, sloshing her drink as she gestured and mimicked the old woman’s motions. When my sister and I woke covered in the scratchy red bumps of poison ivy, she started calling us the “P. I. girls”, chortling harshly as she swabbed us down with calamine lotion and sent us out, pink and itchy, into the hot sunshine.
One summer afternoon, as we were drinking kool-aid on the sagging front porch of Pee Wee’s house, he pulled out his wallet and showed us the four-leaf clover he had carefully pressed and saved in it. “I got it from that field o’er there.” He said, indicating with the glowing tip of his cigarette the wide expanse of green field before us. “It’s brought me nuthin’ but good luck.” He returned it to his wallet gingerly and smiled with some satisfaction as we abandoned our seats and descended on the field to find clovers of our own.
This hunt would occupy most of the remainder of our summer days that we spent there. We would spend long hours combing through the tangles of grass, dandelions, and clovers, in search of our own bit of four-leafed good luck. My mother watched us from the darkened doorway of our little house, shaking her head with disgust. “You ain’t gonna find one!” She’d call and slam the door to shut out the sight of us.
Within a few days we were pretty sure our mother was right and that we would never find one. My brother and sister slowly lost interest and returned to building a makeshift treehouse in the biggest tree in Pee Wee’s yard out of an old pile of cardboard boxes he’d let us pilfer from his garage. I, however, was a stubborn little thing and I stayed out until my nose was red and peeling, laying on my belly in the grass while I carefully searched for the clover and day dreamed about all of the wonderful things that would come my way once I found one.
I found it late one afternoon, as the sun was starting its slow descent and my brother and sister were hiding from the worst of the summer heat under the fort they had decided to erect once they had given up on a treehouse. At first I couldn’t believe my eyes and my hands trembled a little as I plucked the mystical four-leaf clover from among it’s nearly identical brothers. I counted the appendages over and over again, to be sure there were four before I gave a triumphant shout and leaped up to share my prize.
My siblings were unimpressed, so I skipped into Pee Wee’s house, I knew he at least would understand my excitement. I careened through the kitchen and into the living room, expecting to find Pee Wee asleep in the threadbare Laz-boy in front of the fan. The living room was empty except for Pee Wee’s mother in her hospital bed in the middle of the room. Instantly, my mouth was dry and my heart was pounding loudly in my head as all of my earlier fear of the old woman clamped down on my spine and froze me in my tracks.
Through the large metal bars, our eyes met and I realized that she was looking at me and knew that I was in the room. Usually, she only looked at Pee Wee or gazed unseeingly at the ceiling. Her hand twitched and her fingers moved subtly in a beckoning motion. She wanted me to come closer to her. I did, walking on tip-toe for some reason, creeping silently across the shadowed gloom of the room. The machines around her clicked, whirred, and hissed and as I got closer I saw that she was trying to speak. As her hands opened and closed, her mouth also opened and closed much like the goldfish we used to keep at our old house, before we moved to the tiny house at the bottom of the hill.
I reached her side and looked down at her face, fully looked at her for the first time. Her sparse white hair glowed like a halo, a comma against the pink pillow under her head. Her skin was translucent and thin, I could see the map of veins along her temple. Her fingers were still beckoning and, unsure of what to do, I reached out and took her cold hand in mine. It instantly warmed, as if I had carried the sunshine in from the field and infused her with it. She opened her mouth again and I watched her struggle for a moment before she closed it once more without making a sound. I leaned my head close, within a few inches of hers, straining to pick up her words. What was she trying to tell me? Should I find Pee Wee? What could I do?
Now, up close, listening for words she couldn’t say, our eyes met again and I saw within her pale blue watery eyes a spark of something – an intelligence, a recognition, a humanity I had been unable to see before because of my age, my inexperience, my fear. She had always seemed like just another object in the room and I realized with a start that she was indeed a person. I looked up then, at the rows of dusty pictures in gilded frames on the walls around her and saw, really saw, that it was HER in them: raising Pee Wee as a young man, holding my mother’s husband’s hand when he was just a baby, getting married to Pee Wee’s father in yards of lace and tulle, beautiful and vibrant and smiling. I moved my eyes from the pictures on the wall and back to hers. I gave her hand a squeeze and whispered, “You can tell me, what is it you’re trying to say?”
Her lips parted and she whispered back, “P. I. E.”.
I would like to say that I spent the rest of the day with her, holding her hand and keeping her company. I didn’t. I was five, or maybe it was six or seven. I did what, at the time, seemed like my only recourse. I slipped my coveted four-leaf clover into the palm of her hand and closed her fingers over it. “I hope it brings you luck.” I told her, still whispering, still not breaking the sepulcher like silence of the house, before running back outside to find my brother and sister.
Pee Wee’s mother died that summer. We were dressed in second-hand black clothing and taken to the funeral home where we sat next to Pee Wee, the only other mourner present. He gave my shoulder a hearty squeeze and through his tears thanked us for coming. We lay under the chairs in the back and played tic-tac-toe on discarded pamphlets for the rest of the night, while Mother, Pee Wee, and the husband with no name drank moonshine from Pee Wee’s flask and morosely contemplated life. On the way home, my mother started her “P. I. E.” routine, with a drunken cackle and for once, I didn’t laugh. I told her to stop it, it was mean. Her mouth clamped shut with surprise and she regarded me over her shoulder with distaste, but she kept quiet for the rest of the ride home and I was grateful for it. I knew that it wasn’t the end of my mother’s cruel humor (it wasn’t, she called me P. I. girl from that day on), but I was happy for the reprieve.
My mother’s marriage didn’t last past the summer either and we were soon packing up to move out. I broke away from the car and ran up the hill to where Pee Wee stood on the porch, watching over the comings and goings of the rest of the world as he had for many years and would continue to. I flung myself at him and hugged him, hard. Even his gruff reticence had been a welcome friendship to me. He put me away from him with a flustered “Well, well..” and told me to get on back down the hill before my mom got mad.
I turned to go, but he called after me. When I looked back, he had his wallet open and was pointing with one yellowed finger at the slot where his ID should have been. It now contained two four-leaf clovers, pressed and arranged side-by-side in the plastic window. I choked back tears and nodded. I’m not sure why, but I nodded to him and he nodded back and I ran down the hill, tripping a little and crying even more, back to where my mother waited impatiently beside the car. I watched from the dusty back window of the car as we drove out of sight and Pee Wee dwindled to a dot on the porch; until we rounded a curve and couldn’t see the house, the hill, or the tiny cottage at the bottom any more.