Installment#3 / But I Didn’t Die / a fictional memoir by Tom Evans

Once inside, standing in the immaculate kitchen on the waxed linoleum floor, I immediately saw that it was not only nicer it was cleaner than any place I had ever seen before, and I had been in quite a few homes in my young life. But this was different, this was our home, too, and I hungrily took it all in, determined not to miss a thing- the spotless sink, the modern stove and refrigerator, its muffled hum clicking on and off, the ample kitchen table set in a nook surrounded by booths instead of chairs. I smelled its smells: dishwashing detergent, spic and span, floor wax, bananas, and the remnants of something grilled.

We moved on to the dining room, with its long table and six chairs, a large breakfront containing silver and china, and a liquor cabinet. Just past it was a small den with a comfy looking love seat and portable television that led out to a foyer, where Mr. Barnes’ desk was.

Last but not least, was the spacious living room, with its plush carpets and ample furniture, most of which was covered with sheets (the furniture was just for when we had guests, Mrs. Barnes explained, noticing the puzzled look on my face, we never sit on the covered furniture), which accounted for the impression I had that it looked for all the world like it had never been lived in. Its piece de resistance, as far as Rory and I were concerned, was a huge, squat, state of the art Silvertone console television that sat smack dab in the center of the room in front of a bay window, across from which was a goldenrod colored couch and a green leather recliner.

Then it was up the gray carpeted stairs to the second floor, where, along a broad carpeted hallway, there was a bathroom and three bedrooms, the first of which, immediately across from the bathroom, we were told was ours. The bedroom down the hall, diagonally across from ours, was the master bedroom, the room next to ours a lavishly decorated room. When we asked what that was for Mrs. Barnes announced suddenly, Oh, we haven’t told you! In all the excitement we must have forgotten. You have a sister, her name is Penny, she’s a couple of years younger than you, and that’s her room. She’s visiting her grandparents in Cleveland right now but will be back tomorrow. I think you’ll get along just fine.

Perhaps, but finding out like that was a bit disconcerting if not a bad omen, as was the explanation concerning the circular marks above her door about halfway up I noticed and thought were strange-looking.

Gee, Wesley, Mr. Barnes said (for the first of many times), you don’t miss a thing do you? I had a blind aunt, now deceased, who lived here and the circles were made by latches that had been placed on them so she wouldn’t go in the wrong room.

I have to admit this was a little spooky and briefly imagined the ghost of the blind aunt wandering around trying to find her room, hoping she wouldn’t come in ours, especially before I had even seen it.

Which wouldn’t happen because that’s where we went next. I hesitated before I went over the threshold, Rory following so close behind he almost bumped into me, taking in what seemed like the incredible vista of our room. I immediately noticed the bunk bed against the wall, the green bedspread with its yellow, red, white and blue diagonal and horizontal stripes, exactly like the one on Timmy’s bed in Lassie I’d come to find out!

As we walked across the faded green linoleum floor the empty room echoed slightly. We looked up and down the lemon colored walls and ceiling, and opened the French doors that led out onto a summer porch that had been built over the backyard patio. It was stuffy and close, and smelled slightly musty in there, with a dead insects on the floor, and signs of slight water damage on the linoleum, some of which had spread into our room, and the ceiling. Not that I was complaining, mind you, as Mr. Barnes said, I noticed things.

Let’s open some windows and keep these doors open, air this place out, Mr. Barnes said, it’s the first time they’ve been opened since we closed them last fall. On really hot summer nights you can set up a cot and sleep out here if you’d like. It’s going to be nice to have someone in here again.

That sounded like fun and I couldn’t wait until we could do it.

Just as I was coming back into our room, Mrs. Barnes appeared out of nowhere and said, Wesley, Rory, open up your dresser drawers, we have a surprise for you. When I opened my top drawer, I saw it was filled to the top with new underwear and handkerchiefs. In the middle drawer were summer tee shirts, white crew socks, and a cord belt. The bottom drawer, the deepest, contained several pairs of shorts and a new pair of blue dungarees. Rory’s was the same, his clothes merely a different color, which I knew immediately he wasn’t going to like, hating for us to be dressed alike. I hoped he’d keep it to himself, but, again, Rory being Rory he might not.

I was overwhelmed by this unexpected bounty, we’d never had anything like it before. We got you all new clothes for your new home, Mrs. Barnes said, I hope you like them.

Of course we do, I effused, looking over at Rory, knowing he was also thinking what’s wrong with my old ones?

Thank you, I said, We’ve never had so many things, while at the same time I couldn’t help wondering where our suitcases were. I thought Mr. Barnes had gone to get them, but when he came back in the room he had instead identical gift-wrapped boxes, which he presented to us, encouraging us to open them. I tried to imagine what could possibly be inside, not having gotten a present since I could remember, thinking (hoping) it was some kind of magical toy.

Rory, unusually enthusiastic, had already torn into his and when I opened mine I couldn’t help but be disappointed to see it was a brown leather pouch. After an awkward pause during which I attempted to decipher what I was holding in my hands, Mr. Barnes told me to unzip it and look inside. Inside, lying on the velvet interior, I saw a comb, brush, and tube of hair cream. When I looked over at Rory I could see he’d gotten the exact same thing except his was black, and was equally if not more puzzled than I.

Those are called dop kits, Mr. Barnes said, and as you can see they hold your very own personal articles, to keep them in when we go on trips.

When I had finished putting all my new things away, Mrs. Barnes was right there once more, saying, Now let’s get you both a bath so you can change into your new things. Rory blanched and hung back, so Mrs. Barnes led me straightway into the bathroom and while she ran my bath told me to get undressed. Very uncomfortable doing so in front of this stranger I covered myself with my hands although Mrs. Barnes didn’t seem to notice. Just pile your clothes on the floor, she said, and I’ll throw them down the laundry chute to wash them. I never saw them again.

She soon came back with a couple of bath towels from the nearby linen closet then tested the water temperature in the tub with her finger and told me to hop in and soak awhile until she came back to wash me. I got in the tub and immediately sank into the warm water which had been sprinkled with bath salts, lying on my back and letting the steam settle around me. I didn’t recall ever taking a bath before, only showers, and not too many of those if you want to know the truth, but figured I could get used to it pretty easily it felt so soothing. Mrs. Barnes could take her sweet time coming back as far as I was concerned, I was in no hurry for her to wash me. I was perfectly capable of washing myself, but it seemed I was going to have little choice in the matter. I splashed around with the coral-colored Lifebuoy bar for a while, squirting it out of my hands and over the waves I was making by scissoring my legs back and forth in the water, pretending it was a little boat making its way over the broad ocean.

Mrs. Barnes returned and got straight down to business. Kneeling beside the tub she set to washing me, beginning with my face, ears, and hands, none too gently either, she scrubbed me but good, getting soap in my eyes, nose, and mouth in the process, with little sympathy. Oh you’ll be all right, she said, a little soap never hurt anybody. Working downwards over the length of my body, she had me turn over and back again, doing my feet last, which tickled, of course, but she held fast to them until they were squeaky clean. Next she lathered my head and rinsed me under the faucet, then told me to stand up, handing me a thirsty towel from the towel rack. It was embarrassing enough for me to have someone bathe me, I couldn’t imagine how Rory would take it. I was all red behind while in front I was white, except for the red blotches where she had scrubbed hardest, and as clean as I would ever be- and, even taking into account the lingering taste of soap and my red burning eyes, I had to admit I felt pretty good. From the thick ring I left in the tub I guess she was right, I certainly had needed it. I was tingling all over and hurried to my room, as I had been told, to get dressed, telling Rory it was his turn. I could see he wasn’t going to budge but he finally relented after I reassured him it would be all right. In no time at all I was slipping into my new clothes. I chose a lime plaid summer shirt, and khaki shorts, everything fit and I felt like a million dollars with them on, the first time I remember having new clothes to wear.

I heard a commotion and possibly a splashing sound coming from the bathroom and Mrs. Barnes’s insistent yet measured voice. Soon after Rory came back looking quite bedraggled but otherwise not the worse for wear, if not exactly cheerful. When Mrs. Barnes came back into the bedroom shortly after she gushed so much about how nice I looked in my new clothes that I was both embarrassed and not a little defensive, thinking, I thought I looked fine before.

Just then Mr. Barnes came upstairs and suggested we all go for a ride after lunch to see the sights in Wilsonville. When he asked what we wanted for lunch I said peanut butter and jelly sandwiches because that’s what we were used to, and Mr. Barnes replied, I think I can handle that, with a nice cold glass of milk.

When lunch was over we got in the car and set off for a ride through the quaint, sleepy village, along tree-lined streets, past cozy looking houses, one catholic and several protestant churches, an elementary, secondary, and high school, a working cider mill with a water wheel dating back to the previous century, small shops, two restaurants, a donut shop, a couple of men’s clothing stores on Main Street, a post office, telephone building, amusement park, town hall, library, and fire station. As I took it all in I immediately fell in love with it, couldn’t get enough of it, or quite believe such a place existed and that I now lived there.

Mr. Barnes wondered if we should run by his brother’s house so we could meet my cousins, but Mrs. Barnes was vigorously shaking her head from side to side and exaggeratedly mouthing the word NO. Mr. Barnes acted as though he hadn’t seen and headed down Elliott Street, where they lived, mollifying Mrs. Barnes by saying, We won’t stop in unannounced, as part of the grand tour I just want the boys to see where they live. As we passed by the house I saw a winding driveway, its entrance flanked by concrete hitching posts, which led up to a stately stone house with mortar chinking, surrounded by an expansive lawn bordered by elm trees.

On the way back when Mr. Barnes asked us out of the blue what our favorite food was we didn’t know how to answer. Well, I hope you like hamburgers, he said, because that’s what we have most Saturdays in the summer, cooked out on the grill, with beefsteak tomatoes fresh from the garden. Of course you do, he replied rhetorically, everybody loves burgers.

We watched eagerly as Mr. Barnes heaped the coals on the grill, doused them with lighter fluid, then flicked in a wooden match which started the coals blazing. I could tell he relished this job as much as I did watching him do it, and when the burgers began sizzling smelling all the delicious smells, while he quaffed an ale from a frosted ice tea glass embossed with black Canada geese. Flipping the burgers with a long-handled spatula, he asked, Who wants cheeseburgers? Again when we didn’t respond, he said, I’ll do half of them with cheese, half without, and you can decide later.

We ate outside on the flagstone patio at the picnic table in the shade under the portico and everything was delicious. We were famished, eating everything that was offered, as much as we wanted of the thick hamburgers topped off with a greater variety of condiments than I ever knew existed: mustard, ketchup, relish, Indian relish, pickles (dill and sweet), and thick slices of red onion; potato chips, milk, all of this topped off by large bowls of ice cream with chocolate syrup and peanuts.

The Barnes’s were impressed and pleased at how much we put away and we were glad to accommodate them, completely sated for the first time we could remember, with a beneficent breeze wafting over us all the while. It was the finest meal we had ever eaten and when I said as much Mr. Barnes replied, tousling my hair, Well I’m glad you think so, Wesley, but I’m just a short-order cook, wait until you taste Mrs. Barnes’ cooking you guys are in for a real treat.

As we lay in bed that first night, me on the top bunk, Rory on the bottom (we agreed we’d switch places on a regular basis) we talked quietly about the events of that first day. I told Rory how different I felt already, so different, in fact, it was difficult to believe that only a few short hours before I had been a foster child, a ward of the state, so much had transpired since.

Don’t you feel the same way Rory?

I got no response so I leaned over the edge of the bed so I could see him. He shrugged his shoulders and said softly, We’ll see. You have to give it a chance, Rory, I said, and you will see it’ll be all right. You have to admit the food’s pretty good don’t you? I said. Rory nodded, unwilling to commit to more than that.

Mr. Barnes had said goodnight and shook our hand before we went upstairs, and we could smell his pipe as he settled into his easy chair with his reading glasses on, reading the paper or James Bond paperback he favored, Wingsy at his feet.

When Mrs. Barnes came upstairs to tuck us in she first asked us to kneel down and pray.

But we don’t know any prayers, I said.

Then I’ll teach you one that you can memorize and say every night before you go to sleep, okay?

We nodded, closed our eyes and folded our hands as she recited:

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep; Glad                                     and well may I awake, and this I ask for Jesus’ sake.

It may take you awhile to memorize it, but it shouldn’t be too difficult, and we’ll go over it in the coming days until you do, she said. Now say it three times and it’s yours.

She was right, by the third time we had most of it memorized, which surprised and impressed her. My, you two are a quick study, she said, I had no idea. Mrs. Barnes said goodnight but before she left the room I thought about asking if she would leave the bedroom door open, which was what we were used to, but decided against it, believing what Mrs. Barnes had said before about new clothes applied here also. New rituals for a new beginning.

As I lay there listening to all the unfamiliar sounds a new place makes, I realized I wasn’t afraid of each unfamiliar sound I heard, like I used to be at each new foster home.

You okay Rory? I asked. He didn’t say anything right away but then said, I’d like the door open. I tried to talk him out of it but Rory wasn’t going along with this ‘new’ stuff line of thinking. When I couldn’t talk him out of it I reluctantly got out of bed (hoping this would be all right) and opened the door (hoping that would be all right).

As I lay there waiting for sleep to arrive, I looked up at the ceiling and out of habit began my nightly ritual of making sure every part of me was tucked under the covers, with only my face exposed, so I felt comfortable and safe. Just then I made out a shadow on the ceiling shaped just like a rabbit and told Rory but he couldn’t see it. It’s been a pretty good beginning, I thought, smiling, I can’t wait for tomorrow, and fell fast asleep.

—–o—–

Two days after arriving we came down with miserable colds and had to stay in bed for several days, continuing the pattern established in our foster homes, wherein we got sick in each shortly after arriving. This was especially disheartening after what I thought was such a promising beginning. I couldn’t help but think that as this was just how it was at all the other places, and since they hadn’t turned out so well, why would this one be any different?

Lying there in our dark room feeling as wretched as we did, I still managed to convince myself it was different- we’re adopted now, that’s what made the difference. It was mostly an act of faith on my part, but if it was meant to be a test, Mrs. Barnes surely passed it with flying colors, as she seemed to be there whenever one of us woke up needing something, bringing us ginger ale to drink, something to eat if we wanted, which we mostly didn’t, but if we did only saltines.             She kept trying to open the bedroom curtains, but we asked her not to, wanting it to be kept dark because that was the way we were used to having it when we were sick previously. Again to her credit, Mrs. Barnes humored us, which was another new experience. Feverish at times, she wiped our faces with a cooling damp cloth, spread Vaporub on our chests, covering that with a diaper which she fastened around our necks with safety pins, also daubing our nostrils with it. Finally, she would fluff our pillows, straighten out our blankets, get us settled back in bed, and before leaving, reassure us that she would be back soon. It had all turned out so much better than I’d anticipated and that no doubt hastened our recovery.

Once we began to feel better we even let Mrs. Barnes open the curtains, and she would sit with us and we would talk, small talk, what she and Mr. Barnes had planned for us we were better, goings on in the neighborhood, how Wingsy had noticed we weren’t around and would often lay at the foot of the stairs waiting for us to finally come down, that we would be meeting Penny (her return had been postponed by our illness) as soon as we were better. We didn’t say much, but enough that Mrs. Barnes discovered we had speech problems, pronouncing ‘work’ wuk, ‘dirt’ dut, ‘animal’ aminal, and I’m sure there were others I couldn’t remember.

When we were finally well enough to get up, Mrs. Barnes was puzzled when bringing us our old bathrobes (we had asked that she keep them and they were pretty new so she let us) she found dried-up slices of bread in the pockets. I explained that at the last foster home we’d had the mumps but the foster mother kept giving us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which were too painful to eat, so we hid them in the pockets of our bathrobes so she wouldn’t know. Why didn’t you just tell her that, and ask for something else to eat? Mrs. Barnes said. I just looked at her, smiled slightly, and shrugged my shoulders, knowing I couldn’t have done that in a million years.

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