Washing Dishes

It’s the oldest girl’s chore to wash the dishes.  She will do so without complaint, drying and stacking them on the cupboard shelves.

“Can’t we run the dishwasher?” she asks.

“No—that thing makes too much heat, and it’s already eighty-five degrees in here,” her father replies.  Disgust tinges the edge of his words, and he shakes his head at her like she’s an imbecile for even asking.

The girl’s brother and two younger siblings, a girl and a boy, wear the smiling faces of obedient, compliant children.  They dash away amidst the tension their older sister has created.  Their smiles have more to do with not having to wash dishes in the August heat.

And so the girl suffers alone as her family seeks shade in the darkened family room and cool beneath the ceiling fan.  She’s up to her elbows in hot, sudsy water, thinking about how her father never used to speak to her in that tone when he spoke to her as a child.  He developed the manner in the sixth year of his second marriage when his new wife had their first child, the little girl.  It worsened when the boy was born, as if her father was obligated to speak to her this way.

She’s not paying attention, and her hands slip off a plate.  It lands on the two inches of counter space between her and the sink, bouncing twice, before it shatters into a million shards.  All she can think is that she didn’t know a plate could bounce.

“I’ll replace it,” the girl says, sensing her father’s wife behind her.  No doubt the woman had come to criticize the girl’s work, but a more fortuitous situation presented itself.

“Don’t worry about it,” the woman says.  There is no inflection in her voice, no understanding in her eyes.  “It was ugly and mismatched anyhow.  The last one from your grandmother’s set.”

It is not the last one, but it might as well be.  There’s a saucer under a dying jade plant in the family room, chipped and stained from soil leaching out the hole in the terracotta pot.  The girl will pay for the broken plate with money earned from her job as a lunch counter girl at the golf course because it’s the right thing to do.

Later, when the sun dips behind the pines in the backyard, the girl sits in a lawn chair and drinks iced tea.  Her bare feet brush over the fuzzy, silver leaves of lamb’s ear she planted around the air conditioner compressor last year.  She thinks to herself that she cannot remember a time when there wasn’t lamb’s ear in her life.  Even at the apartment complex where she lived with her mother and brother.  And she thinks that it is stupid to have whole-house air conditioning and not use it.

There was an old couple who lived on the first floor of the complex who kept lamb’s ear in planters on the concrete porch.  She would slip down to visit them while her mother slept off her third-shift weariness.  Her brother sat in his playpen in front of the TV turned to Sesame Street.  The old man and woman knew the girl never had enough to eat, but they were also poor.  They fed her ice cream floats made with Pepsi and sent her home with bouquets of lamb’s ear.  Her mother spanked her when her brother ate one and got sick.  Then her mother got sick, and finally her dad came to visit.  She remembers him calling his new wife from the green phone hanging on the kitchen wall.  His finger absently picked at the peeling, flowered wallpaper.

“Honey, the kids are going to come stay with us for a while.”

With one sentence her life changed forever.  She and her brother had a new home and a new mommy who never let them forget that she sacrificed her career in banking to raise them.  Then came the two new siblings who the girl tried to watch over when she wasn’t being shooed away by her father’s wife.  She didn’t want her new sister and brother to eat lamb’s ear.  They are old enough to know better now.

She remembers when each of those babies came home from the hospital.  Everything smelled new then, like baby powder and plastic toys.  Plenty of pictures exist of these events, pictures with the girl’s profile or arm just barely captured in the frame. That’s when she realized her position was oldest girl, not oldest daughter.  Her brother is nowhere to be seen.  In fact, except for school pictures, there are very few of the girl and her brother since the arrival of their new siblings.

The sky turns dusky, then the shade of a bruise, and when the bats swoop from the trees, the girl goes in.  Her family already retired upstairs for the night without calling to her.  She is old enough to get herself to bed.  First, she must do a load of laundry that includes her bras and pantyhose.  Her father’s wife made her wait until laundry for the rest of the family was done because no one else needed to wash their items on delicate.  The girl doesn’t want her things ruined; she has to buy them herself.  No matter.  It is cool in the basement, and she can doze on the day bed while watching reruns of ‘80s sitcoms on the black and white TV her father keeps on his workbench.

The girl falls asleep to the rhythm of the washer and dreams about the Gibson Girls in the wallpaper behind her father’s bar.  She sees herself in the bust-enhancing gowns with her hair piled elegantly on her head and a bouquet of lamb’s ear in her hand.  Many suitors try to tempt her with ice cream floats, but the girl knows she is not free to accept, and so she runs away, Cinderella-style, to a waiting sinkful of dirty dishes.

Amphibious Fantasy

The rainforest is his favorite. A small slice of Heaven plunked down in the middle of his urban existence. The big cats are impressive, and everyone goes crazy over the elephants, but for Zach, the rainforest display at the zoo trumps them all.

He stands before the glass-fronted cage holding blue poison dart frogs. Three of them. Their shiny skin, unrealistic in royal blue, renders them plastic replicas of themselves. Until one moves. The frogs are active during the day unlike the lazy wolves that refused to cooperate. Zach really couldn’t blame them; he wouldn’t have left the safety of his cave to be gawked at by a bunch of fourth graders.

He understands the sleeping wolves. Even now he can feel his eyelids descending as he watches the frogs. Sounds of the rainforest are piped throughout the building: calling birds, buzzing insects, chattering monkeys, flowing water, growling leopards. It’s enough to make anyone want to take a nap. That’s exactly what Zach would do if he could pass through the glass and curl up in the window box display with his beloved frogs.

He has no fear of the poison on their skin. Somehow, he would become one of them. A superhero, of sorts, who uses the poison to get rid of the bad guys. The little frogs would help him like the bats do when Batman needs them. Besides, blue poison dart frogs bred in captivity aren’t poisonous like those living in the wild.

Zach continues to stare past his reflection in the glass. He chews the pull string on his hoodie, soaking it and gnarling the plastic end. Maybe he Blue Dart Frogscould be The Blue Dart. His outfit could be the same shade of blue as the frogs but without the speckles. And no capes. Capes are dumb. He would have a mask, though. A black one across his eyes. He imagines his face above a well-muscled, adult body wearing just such a getup.

A tap to his shoulder signals that it’s time to move on. He nods and smiles at his teacher, Ms. Schaeffer, allowing the whole class to drift past. Then he resumes staring at the frogs. Ms. Schaeffer doesn’t notice; she’s too busy flirting with the security guard trailing the class. And the tour guide, aware of her tenuous hold on the kids’ attention, doesn’t stop spewing rainforest facts or she’ll lose control. Zach already knows everything she’s telling them. He slips back to daydreaming.

A little blue dart frog poison on the breading of the corndogs Jaxson Michaels favors would put an end to the bullying. He’s pretty sure the whole school would be grateful when the sixth grader gasped and fell off his chair. He almost laughs at the image of Jaxson flailing on the floor. His grandma’s face surfaces before his eyes, scowling and shaking her head.

Zach’s breathing quickens. The thoughts of killing upset him. He scowls at his reflection then taps the glass to make the frogs move, a major taboo. No one witnesses his transgression, but he looks around all the same. The people milling about are parents with children. His class is nowhere in sight.

Like poisonous blue magnets, the frogs draw Zach’s attention once more. He considers sitting beneath the cage, leaning against the wall, to fall asleep to the rumble of thunder that has joined the other rainforest sounds. The clicking of heels speeding in his direction means Ms. Schaeffer has discovered his absence. Zach will tune her out when she scolds.

Blame it on the frogs, he thinks, but just don’t mess with The Blue Dart, lady.

~~~~~

Thank you to Michelle Smith of Just4FunPhotography for providing the beautiful picture of blue poison dart frogs.

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