By W. Leander
See me: I am nine years old, short, brown and bony, lying on my belly under the dining room table in only my socks and underwear on a hot and listless Saturday morning. I am alone, nobody else but me. It is so quiet in the apartment you can hear the floor groan; you can hear the refrigerator’s motor humming off and on; you can hear the kitchen faucet’s slow, ceaseless dripping. Outside, through the apartment’s propped-up open windows, you can make out boys cursing, women laughing, cars honking and motorcycles screaming by down at the streets far below. Mom is still in her room, door closed. And I need to be careful. If I wake her on her day off, that will be bad. Very bad. So I stay quiet.
The table I am under is large, made from stained wood and thick, heavy, black glass. We rarely eat on it. It is normally only for nights we have “company.” When it is just Mom and me, we usually eat in her room on her bed in front of the TV, watching Lou Grant or The Love Boat or something. Mom didn’t buy the table. She got it from Granny. Most of our furniture is from Granny: the dining room table with the three chairs that don’t quite match; the twin, tan sofas; the rug underneath the sofas; the vacuum that barely vacuums the rug; the crockpot where Mom makes pork and bean chili; most of our plates. Lamps and hangers and blankets and things. We had to get the furniture from Granny because Mom couldn’t afford new couches and rugs and crockpots when we left Granny’s house. Granny isn’t rich, she just has a lot of stuff because she’s old. When you’re old, you have to get rid of all your belongings before you die. That’s the truth.
I like to be under the table. I like to be under things. I like hiding under my bed or hiding in the closet, and when I sleep, I sleep with the covers over my head. Then I pretend I am a turtle hiding under my shell. And my pillow is my little turtle friend.
Mom used to get mad at me when she caught me under the table. She would say it was weird. “Hey you, come on out from under there.” But I feel safe under the table. It is cool and dark. I sometimes bring toys with me when I am under here—Star Wars action figures and GI Joe’s, stuff like that. I can stay down here for hours. During these times, of course, it’s not really a dining room table. No, it is a dark forest. And these are not table legs and these are not chair legs. They are the trunks of ancient trees that rise up and up into a murky, hooded sky. And it is not an area rug I’m lying on but a field of golden, wild grass. You will not find grass like this anywhere else in the entire world. No, you have to come to my dark forest to see it. But I’m the only one who knows about it! However, sometimes our dining room table isn’t a dark forest at all. No, sometimes it is an abandoned underground city, sometimes a gigantic starship, or an exploding volcano.
But sometimes it’s just a table.
Right now what I have open in front of me is one of our large photo albums that’s housed in one of the bookshelves in the living room. There are four photo albums total: one is blue, one is red, two are green. What I do is, I grab one of the dust-covered albums, get under the table and look at pictures. There must be hundreds of photos nestled in these plastic binders. I go through them one by one, slowly, even though I have seen each of them many times. Pictures of family: Mom and Granny and Uncle Stacy and Aunt April. Close cousins and far flung cousins or friends from long ago, never seen again. Spooky yellowed pictures of old men and women, strangers to me, frowning stiffly in heavy clothing so scratchy and uncomfortable looking, I want to itch myself just looking at them. Pictures of birthday cake and backyards. Pictures of old cars and empty birdcages.
The photos are all faded and creased and stained with fingerprints, most of them mine. That’s why Mom doesn’t like me looking at them by myself anymore. I have dirty fingers.
But I feel sorry for the albums. I wonder if they get lonely by themselves, just sitting there on the bottom shelf getting older and older. No one takes them out and plays with them. At least they have each other. When I go to the living room I can hear them calling to me: Pick me . . . No, pick me . . . You picked green last time, it’s my turn today. I try not to play favorites and give each one a go when I take one off the shelf and sneak off for the dining room table. But, of course, I do have a favorite. The blue one is my favorite. That’s because it has the oldest pictures. The red one has the newest. And the fewest. I like that one least.
The photos in the blue album are from another time. A time before I was born, before I was “even a thought.”
Here is Granny and Grandpa in black and white, looking serious but young. Not young like me. Young like Mom. Grandpa is in a dark suit and tie; Granny wears a long, flowery short-sleeve dress with a stiff white collar. They are standing on the steps before a blurry brick church. They stare directly at me. Like they know I’m looking at them and are not happy about it. Here’s a picture of my uncle Leander before he was killed. In this picture he is standing in the driveway of Granny’s house. He is wearing jeans with no shirt and leaning against a huge yellow car, squinting into the bright camera flash and smiling.
I skip over some of the pictures of family and friends. It is my mom I want to see. The ones of her before. Before I was “even a thought.” It's hard to think of my mother as ever being young, but here's the proof. Here she is at a park, sitting on a swing. She is with some school friends and they are laughing and smiling at each other. Here she is in her high school cap and gown surrounded by other kids her age. They are waving and making silly faces. It's like she is my mom and not my mom. Here, in these albums, she is almost always smiling, always happy.
The pictures are in no order. Time jumps and skips. Here she is when she was my age. She is in Grandma’s living room, but the furniture is different. Gone is the couch covered in roses and plastic that make my legs sweat. Nowhere is the glass coffee table, the large color TV. Even the wallpaper is different. Mom stands with her brother Leander. They stand shoulder to shoulder. The both of them are all smiles, mouths open, Mom’s front teeth missing, like they are saying cheeeeese!
“Your momma used to follow that boy everywhere,” Granny once told me. “Got to be Leander had to hide from her in the bathroom. Just to get a little peace.” I try to picture this, a little girl named Momma chasing her older brother through the house. I had tried once asking Mom about it, but she told me she didn’t remember.
I turn the page.
Here she is as a teenager in a sweater and cutoffs, standing barefoot in the backyard of my grandmother’s house, hand on her hip, her face tough and frowning into the camera. Here she is, older now, with some of her friends in some unknown kitchen. She has her hair done up in a way I have never seen before and she’s sitting at a table playing what looks like dominoes with another girl and two men I don’t know. Mom has a lit cigarette in one hand. The girls wave and smile to the camera. The men squint and try to look hard. One of the men (he has a wispy mustache and shining eyes) has an arm draped over my mother’s shoulder. I see his arm and I get mad. Get your arm off my mom! I want to say to him.
I wonder what it would be like to have been the same age as her. I wonder if we would have been friends, if she would have even liked me.
I don’t like the ones that were taken after I was born. Like this one: mom seated outside by a public pool with me in a diaper and crying on her lap. Her face is wooden. Unsmiling. Her body round and thick because of me. She has never been able to get back to her pre-me shape. Though she tries. Once every few months she goes on a diet and then there’ll be a couple of weeks where she eats nothing but grapefruit and boiled eggs. You’ll see pink dumbbells in the living room, exercise magazines on the coffee table. She’ll have a can-do attitude. “This time I’m going to stay on the diet. This time I’m going to lose the weight!” In the evenings after she comes home from work, I’d see her in the living room exercising, her face sweaty and intense. For fun I’d sometimes do her exercises with her, both of us on our knees and elbows doing mule kicks. But after a week or two, she’d break down and buy a cheesecake or pickup McDonald’s at the drive-through and then I’d know that diet-time was over.
Soon Mom will wake up and shoo me outside, harping on me to go and find my friends. When that happens, I will go downstairs and sweat on the steps and watch people parade past me on the sidewalk. But for now I am content to lie on my stomach under the table—which is not a table but a forest—tuning out the noise down below while I stare into the past and wonder.
W. Leander is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.