Amy Kitchell-Leighty

The Weight of a Heavy Foot

My mama stood on a stool, her belly poking out so far it touched the wall as she stuck another tack into the “Happy Birthday” sign. She sighed, brushed a blonde lock of hair from her eyes, flinching as her finger ran across the faint mark of a bruise, and asked, “Is it straight?”
  “Mmmhmm.” I replied.
  The sign was for me. “You were a fast delivery,” she said to me every year. “I ate a cheeseburger with an onion for lunch. I thought I had indigestion. You thought different. Before I knew it, your daddy was rushing me to the hospital. Forty-three minutes later, you were here.”
  I scooted a chair out from under the kitchen table and sat down on my knees. My birthday cake was cooling on a plate. “When you gonna icing it?”
  “It’s not time yet.” She dried her hands on a towel, finishing the dishes. Her hair fell in long curls all the way down her back, stopping at the top of her maternity pants. Whenever she vacuumed the carpet, scrubbed the kitchen floor, or planted flowers in the backyard, her curls would tighten up in wet sprigs around her face. Mama was going to have a baby boy. “He should be here in June,” she told me one day while we hung sheets on the clothesline. I was going to help change diapers and warm bottles, just like I had done with my little sister. Gretchen was four and looked exactly like mama: blonde hair, light blue eyes. I looked more like daddy. My hair was dark and straight and the only way I could get it to curl was to roll every strand in pink sponge rollers and sleep on mama’s satin pillow case. My special pillow case had been my grandma’s. It was ivory with a line of red roses down the seam and had been part of a matching set. “This is all I have left,” mama would say when I’d ask to sleep on it. She kept it tucked away at the top of the linen closet in the hall, had to stand on her tiptoes just to reach it.
  I heard a knock at the front door and ran to answer it. There stood Aunt Claire holding a box covered in balloon wrapping paper and topped off with a yellow ribbon. Uncle Benny was by her side.
  “Happy Birthday, kiddo!” Aunt Claire said, handing me my gift. She was a tall woman, taller than Uncle Benny. She wore long dresses with her white slip showing in the back, and every piece of jewelry she owned shone from her plump fingers, wrist, neck, and ears. Uncle Benny wore gray slacks and long sleeved shirts even in the summer, and always took his hat off before he came through a door. They followed me to the kitchen and I set my present on the counter.
  “Need some help?” Aunt Claire didn’t wait for a response, began smothering my white cake with strawberry icing. “Paul here?”
  “He’s sleeping.” Mama responded.
  Aunt Claire snorted, “Is that what you call it?”
  “Benny, there’s beer in the fridge.” Mama said, ignoring Aunt Claire’s remark and rummaging through the junk drawer. “Or I could make you coffee,” she added, holding up a box of candles and closing the drawer.
  “He’ll take coffee,” Aunt Claire answered.
  Uncle Benny went to the living room and sat down on the sofa. I went to the television and pushed the power button. “Whatcha wanna watch? We can’t find the remote.”
  “I don’t care, honey,” Uncle Benny replied.
  I pushed the channel button up, finding a football game, and went back to the kitchen. Aunt Claire and mama quit talking. I could tell I had walked into something I wasn’t supposed to hear. I did that a lot.
  “Baby, go check on Gretchen.” Mama forced a smile like I didn’t understand.
  I pulled my shoulders back, squeezed my lips into a thin line, raised my right hand to my forehead, and saluted. Then I turned on the heel of my purple Nike shoe (the ones with the soles that had lost their glue somewhere between the monkey bars and the permanent Hopscotch game at the playground—but still my favorite pair.), and I marched down the hall.
  I stopped at Daddy’s bedroom. It was closed. I put my hands against the woodwork, leaned in, and pressed my ear to the door. I heard the humming of the box fan that sat in the corner of the room next to the dresser. I heard the snores that fell from his mouth. I turned the knob slowly, carefully, and opened the door just a crack to squeeze through. I stood in the dark room blinking my eyes for them to come into focus. The air was thick and hot and smelled like beer. The curtain was drawn. Gretchen’s Winnie-the-Pooh beach towel was draped over the window, and I wondered where mine with the pink flamingo was. Mama had bought us those towels last summer for our trip to Circus World. The four of us left so early it was still dark outside, and Gretchen slept in her pajamas the whole way there. Not me, though. I woke up early, dressed myself in my favorite jean shorts and that blue shirt with the butterfly on the front, and sat on the couch until the rest of them got up. Mama had packed a cooler with bologna and cheese sandwiches, Pepsis, and Little Debbie snack cakes. “No beer today,” She told daddy as she spread the ice on top of our lunch. But he talked her into just a couple of cans, making her rearrange everything just so they would fit.
  That day was hot as we walked from one end of the park to the other, Daddy and me stopping at every ride we passed, Gretchen in the stroller, and Mama saying, “I’ll wait here. It’s more fun to watch.” And she did. Daddy and I wound our bodies through lines of people like garter snakes, pausing every few steps to wave at Mama and Gretchen. Once he sat me up on top of his shoulders and turned me around in a circle just so I could see what I had been missing way down there where I usually stood.
  Daddy let another snore roll from his lungs, bringing me back to the aroma of his bedroom, and I scooted backwards into the hall. I saw the front door open and in walked Uncle John, Aunt Marcy, and their three-year-old twins, Ronnie and Donnie. Aunt Marcy was an eighth grade math teacher and a cashier at Kroger’s on the weekends. Uncle John couldn’t keep a job for very long and had now come up with a plan to make the whole family rich, but it was going to take some time and a little bit of cash, and Mama had told Daddy that he’d better just stay away from that plan of Uncle John’s. The twins ran past me, knocking me up against the wall, heading for the backyard yelling.
  “Be a doll and take the boys out,” Uncle John said, rubbing the top of my head with his knuckles.
  He was my least favorite uncle, always talking loud, making fun of the things I said, the way I walked. “I don’t know how you two put up with your husbands,” Aunt Claire said one day when she and Aunt Marcy had come to help Mama clean the house after one of Daddy’s rages.
  Outside, Ronnie and Donnie were as loud and rough as their dad. They swung on the swings, ran up and down the alley, and finally settled in the sandbox with Gretchen. I sat on the swing, twisting the chains tight, spinning out of them, and wondering if Mama might take us to the park pool tomorrow when I heard Gretchen scream; I ran to her. She was covering her eyes, sand powdering her hair. Ronnie and Donnie took off for the house as I walked Gretchen inside to the bathroom.
  “What’s going on?” Mama asked, pushing past me and kneeling in front of Gretchen, who was now sitting on the toilet seat.
  “One of ‘em threw dirt,” I said.
  “Get a warm washcloth.”
  I held a washcloth under the faucet feeling the water heat up. Aunt Marcy appeared in the doorway. “She alright?”
  “She’s fine,” Mama said as Gretchen sobbed brown tears, leaving trails down her cheeks. Then she looked at Aunt Marcy, sighed, and said, “Tell John to wake up Paul, would ya?”
  I left the bathroom, making my way back to the kitchen. Aunt Claire was lighting the eight candles now standing upright in the middle of my pink cake. Several presents lined the counter, along with paper plates, forks, and a gallon of vanilla ice cream. Ronnie and Donnie sat at the table shoveling chocolate chip cookies into their mouths. Mama brought Gretchen in, sat her down at the table, and handed her a cookie. Gretchen’s eyes were red and swollen, her curls pointed in every direction.
  “Where’s Paul?” Mama asked to no one in particular while blowing air from her bottom lip, making her bangs fly up off her forehead.
  “Wouldn’t budge,” Uncle John hollered from the living room, his eyes on the game. Aunt Marcy shrugged her shoulders.
  Mama let out a slow breath, closed her eyes, and walked back down the hallway. A few minutes later she was back, blowing out my candles, and saying, “It’s going to be a while.”
  I plopped down on the chair, wondering if she even bothered to make a wish when she blew those candles out and thinking that it probably wouldn’t come true anyhow because it wasn’t really her birthday.
  This was always happening with us: Daddy wouldn’t get out of bed on Saturdays when Mama just wanted to get out and go somewhere, take a drive, go to the park. He wouldn’t come home from work. Instead, he’d stop off at Kramer’s with his buddies. And when Mama would finally call because supper was cold and we couldn’t eat without him and me and Gretchen’s butts hurt from sitting so long on the hard, wooden seats, well, he wouldn’t come home then, either.
  Thirty minutes later, Aunt Marcy lit the candles and asked Mama to try it again. “Not yet, honey,” Mama said to me when she returned from their bedroom, and with one quick breath blew those candles out again.
  “This is ridiculous,” Aunt Claire said. She grabbed the lighter and lit the candles. “Benny and John, get in here!” she called out.
  Uncle Benny and Uncle John came in while Aunt Claire pushed the cake in front of me and started singing as the others joined in. “Happy Birthday . . .” I looked around the room at all of their faces: Gretchen’s bloodshot eyes, Ronnie and Donnie’s chocolate covered cheeks, and my daddy, who had emerged from his sleep, now stood in the doorway of the kitchen. The song ended with the sound of his fist on the molding. Everyone turned to look at him. I let the air out of my mouth, trying not to blow out my candles, but two flickered out anyway.
  “Startin’ without me?” He looked at Mama, who was standing behind me, her hand on the back of my chair. He was barefoot and wearing a pair of Levi’s with no shirt. The black hair on his chest was wet and clung to his skin in clumps. He held a Miller Lite in one hand, the other hand propped against the wall. “Startin’ without me?” He slurred again.
  “Blow out your candles,” Mama said to the floor.
  I blew out the remaining six, forgetting to make a wish as Ronnie, Donnie, and Gretchen clapped. Daddy grabbed the basket of ivy that hung from the ceiling and threw it past me and at mama’s head. It hit the wall instead, as Mama screamed and dirt and leaves scattered to the floor. Ronnie and Gretchen started to cry, and Donnie slid under the table. Daddy stormed across the kitchen and snatched Mama by the back of her head, her curls coiled around his fingers.
  “C’mon, Paul,” Uncle John said, stepping toward him.
  “Fuck you, too!” He let go of mama’s hair, shoved Uncle John, and they stumbled into the cabinets. They threw punches. A picture fell from the wall, chairs scooted across the kitchen, and Aunt Claire hurried the four of us kids to the couch.
  “Paul, please,” Mama whispered, as the two men pummeled each other’s faces. Daddy fell on one knee, breathing hard. Uncle John took a step away from him, his shirt untucked, his usual slicked-back hair messy.
  Uncle John swung around to face his wife. “Let’s go,” he said, grabbing the twins by the arms and shoving them all out the front door. But not before Daddy stood up, running out after them yelling, “You no good son-of-a-bitch!”
  Aunt Claire went back to the kitchen and began scooping melted ice cream onto plates, telling me and Gretchen to get back up to the table, and Uncle Benny grabbed his hat off the hook by the front door. Daddy came back in the house cussing and hollering, blood trickling from his lip, his hair standing at attention around his head. He just stood in silence staring, his eyes darting back and forth from each of us. Mama cut the cake into squares and placed them on the plates with the liquid ice cream. She handed me the first piece, then Gretchen. Uncle Benny said he’d just take coffee. And just like that, as if Daddy had had his fill of my eighth birthday party, his bare feet thundered back to his bedroom. We heard drawers slamming and closet doors banging, and then like a light bulb flash, he flew by us, boots and flannel shirt gripped tightly in one hand. The screen door crashed closed and his muffler groaned as he sped out of the driveway.
  Later that night, when I was sleeping, my bedroom door clicked open, shedding light in from the hallway. I heard the floorboards creak with the weight of a heavy foot and felt my bed sink in as someone sat down on the edge. I opened my eyes and looked at my daddy. His eyes were as bloodshot as Gretchen’s had been earlier that day, his breath thick with beer. He handed me a doll with a yellow dress, red yarn hair pulled back in a ponytail, and a little blue star at the top of her right cheek. He left my room and I held her to my face, smelling the newness mixed with smoke and alcohol.

Amy Kitchell-Leighty

AMY KITCHELL-LEIGHTY holds her MFA from Bennington College. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Main Street Rag, Bellevue Literary Review, Unrorean, Salamander, Coachella Review and many others. Her poetry manuscript, Ghost Babies, is awaiting results for publication. In addition to poetry, she writes fiction and non-fiction; she is working on her first true crime about an unsolved murder that took place in 1972.

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