The Lost Child


“C‘mon Lindy, show those teeth. You got only two days.”

 

There goes my daddy again, telling me to smile for that stupid camera. As if we don’t have enough Wallace Drugs envelopes full of pictures. I’ll label it “Lindy-Parade Prep,” and pile it with the others: “Lindy-First Day in Fifth Grade,” “Lindy-Halloween,” “Lindy-Christmas, 1959,” “Lindy-Contest.” That’s how Mommy used to label them. Like I was some kind of child star.

Daddy said it wouldn’t hurt to act normal. That was two weeks ago, when Mr. Purdon asked me to be in the parade. The Fourth of July parade. Pardo, Indiana’s, small-time answer to the Rose Bowl. Oh, I know words like small-time all right. It’s just the opposite of big-time, like in big-time spender. I heard that on a TV movie the other night. “The Late Show.” Daddy was in bed already. In the movie, the lady with dark lips and sleepy-looking eyes and blonde hair was telling the man with the moustache and curly lips and black hair combed straight back that she was crazy about him because he was a big-time spender.

So here we were two weeks ago Tuesday after supper. I’d cooked supper, like I do every night now. Chicken wings rolled in corn flakes, then baked in melted butter: mashed potatoes with canned gravy and canned peas on top. It looked real pretty with the peas on top, like they’d grown there and couldn’t stand to leave the potatoes. I put fruit cup in Mommy’s wedding champagne glasses for dessert and Daddy let me have all his cherries and grapes.

Daddy and me – Daddy and I – were still in the kitchen. Mommy was in their bedroom with the baby, crying. She was crying soft, so the baby wouldn’t wake up, but Daddy and me knew she was crying because when we eat, she stays in the bedroom, patting the baby, and cries.

 

I saw Mr. Purdon coming up the walk to the back stairs while I was taking the plates off the table. The real back door was open and we were using the screen door to keep the bugs out and let the air in. It was getting summer-hot out, being June, and we don’t have air-conditioning. Daddy says maybe next year we can afford it. Meanwhile, he says, the fresh air is refreshing. Fresh, refreshing, freshen up. I like to play with words in my head.

In walked Mr. Purdon without a knock. I guess it’s okay because he’s real important and Daddy needs to feel important right now so having someone as important as Mr. Purdon walk right into the house makes him feel like he’s something special. Mr. Purdon’s big-time because he’s the parade manager, being the owner of Purdon Lumber and Building Supply In-corporated on South Pardo Street.

I always wondered if Purdon and Pardo were related, they sound so much the same, almost like a song, Purdon, Pardo, Pardo, Purdon. Daddy says, “uh-uh, they don’t have anything to do with each other, it’s just a coincidence that Purdon’s is on South Pardo.” I always laugh when Daddy says that, Purdon’s on South Pardo. It makes me think of the Purdon, Pardo song all over again. Daddy laughs with me although I get the feeling that it’s just to make me feel good. All my life so far, Daddy knows how to make me happy and even though he’s feeling pretty sad himself now, he goes out of his way to make me feel good.

That’s why he says things like it’s important to act normal, like nothing is wrong. Even though everything’s wrong and we’re off-balance, like when the bubble in Daddy’s leveler – he uses it for hanging wallpaper – floats to one side or the other, not in the middle.

 

I’m friendly, well sort of friendly, with Angela Purdon. She’s in my class. Well, she was, only now school’s over for the year and I don’t know if she’ll be in my class next year. We may stay friendly, even though we never slept over at each other’s houses, she living on Applewood and me living here. We were playground friends. She’s more friendlier with Charlotte Soulter. Charlotte, they call her Frizztop because of her wild hair, lives on Applewood, too. Angela has straight, blonde hair. Mine’s wavy, like Elizabeth Taylor’s, only it’s brown. Mommy calls it dirty blond. I don’t like the word dirty with hair.

It’s easier to be friendly with someone on your own street, I guess. I’m not too buddy-buddy with the kids here on Birch, though. Most of them are boys, except for Bets. Bets and me are kind of close, in a way where we don’t get on each other’s nerves. Especially now we can’t, because I spend all my spare time near the house.

 

Mr. Purdon came in and right away Daddy offered him coffee. “Coffee, Jim?” That’s how he said it. It sounded so grown-up. Big-time friendly. Mr. Purdon said no thanks, real polite. He obviously had a reason for coming over and he wanted to get right to it, I guess. I hoped he couldn’t hear Mommy crying. It had got so I could hear the tiniest whimper from her. The baby didn’t cry much and when he did, it was real high-pitched like a tiny starving bird trying to tell its mom to hurry with the food or it wouldn’t be alive to call for it the next time she left the nest.

Mommy was like that mother bird, never leaving the nest for much except maybe to go to the bathroom or take a shower. No matter what, you can’t stop going to the bathroom, and I guess showering gives her a chance to wash the salt tears off her face. Even though I feel like it, I can’t cry now. Mommy and Daddy need me.

I always bring Mommy’s food into the bedroom. She keeps it dark in there but I know she’s hungry because the plate is empty when I go in to pick it up for washing. She lets me hug her but I don’t feel any hugs coming back even though she has her arms around me. I never look at the crib.

 

I like to go over exactly what happened when Mr. Purdon came because it makes me feel better, like things may turn out okay someday. “The reason I’m here is to ask Lindy Lee a favor,” Mr. Purdon said, like he was looking up to me instead of the other way around. Then he said, exactly these words, “The parade committee met last night at the store and decided that we want her to show off her hula-hooping on top of the moving stage for this year’s Fourth.”

I couldn’t believe what he was saying. Me? Lindy Lee Lambeth? A feature in the parade? On the moving stage? Oh, it wasn’t exactly a moving stage, just some wood nailed together on top of a Purdon’s Lumber and Building Supply In-corporated flatbed and decorated with streamers. For a minute – only a minute – I forgot about Mommy. I forgot about the baby. I forgot about everything except that I would be part of the Fourth’s parade. Not like when the Brownies marched when I was seven. That was the whole troop and we were all wearing the same uniform, except for the badges. Not even like when that man with the big ears, his name was Lyndon, came to town to get votes. Lyndon, like Lindy. Lyndon, Lindy, Lindy, Lyndon. He was in the primary, Daddy said. I wondered why he needed more votes if he was first already because primary means first. I learned that in fourth grade. Not that it matters.

This time I would be the main attraction. Big-time. I’d be spinning eight hoops around my hips – back, front, right, left, push out, pull in, swing, swing – showing everyone in town why I won the Kiwanis Fair contest. Maybe they could play “Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini” or even “Alley-Oop” while the truck carried me down the street. Everyone would be yelling, “Lindy, great job, Lindy,” or “Go, go, go,” just like they did at the fair. The Kiwanis has a fair every Memorial Day, in the park next to the veteran statue. I can’t remember the name of the veteran. This year was the first time they had a hula-hoop contest, probably because every kid in town begged until they got their parents to buy them a hoop and the Kiwanis thought the contest would get everyone out to the fair. It sure worked. I won over at least twenty other kids. I was the only one with eight hoops. Mommy and Daddy had got me two and I bought the rest with my allowance.

Of course, Daddy and me told Mr. Purdon yes and Mr. Purdon said to be sure and come to Parade Prep, that’s what they call the official rehearsal, July second. He said to rehearse on my own every minute until then. I knew he meant every day, but every minute sounds more serious. He also said that they would be playing “Stars and Stripes Forever” and to wear the colors of the flag so there went my idea of “Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini.”

I was so happy. I almost felt like things were right and Mommy wasn’t in the bedroom and there was no sick baby and we were the most perfect family in Pardo. I wasn’t lonesome. They weren’t sad and we would all be smiling for real when I displayed my prize-winning hooping act down South Pardo Street on the Fourth of July. Daddy would fill a whole envelope of pictures, “Lindy-Fourth Parade, 1960.”

 

Mr. Purdon said goodnight and left. The screen door slamming shut brought me back to real life. I thought of Mommy, so sad in the bedroom, probably staring into the crib at Bobby. They named him Robert Harold Lambeth, Junior, even though they knew he probably wouldn’t be around long enough to take Daddy’s name anywhere but here. I remembered the day Mommy came home from the hospital.

Daddy had already told me what happened. He said that the baby was a boy but it wasn’t normal. It had Mongoloid Fever, or something like that. I’m not sure exactly what he called what the baby had. He also had other terrible things wrong with him including a big hole in his little heart. He probably would die before he was a year old, maybe even before he was a few months old.

“He’s not the baby we expected, Lindy,” Daddy said. “Mommy’s very sad and so am I.” I don’t know why, but I felt like it was my fault and that I had to make them both happy again but I just couldn’t. I got this scary feeling, like I wanted to cover my ears and cry, but I couldn’t because everything around me would melt away if I did.

I remembered when Mommy told me she was going to have the baby. It was a miracle, she said. It’s not funny now, but I remember thinking it was funny then that the radio was playing “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” when she told me. “We never expected to have any other children but you, Lindy. Now you’ll have a sister or brother. You won’t be lonesome anymore.” The truth is that I wasn’t really lonesome, not then. I had Bets, I had school, and I got all A’s on my report card so I had that. Even though A’s aren’t people, working for them takes up your attention like people and they sure brought me lots of admirers, including the teachers, so they filled in time like friends. And I had my hula-hoop collection, all different colors. I could make the hoops go up and down my body, hugging me up, hugging me down, until I got dizzy from swinging around.

What was such a miracle about something that made everyone so sad? It even made some people mad. I wasn’t supposed to hear this, but when Grammy and Grampy Lambeth came over one Sunday from Indianapolis, Mommy and Daddy told them about the baby coming. Grammy asked Mommy if it was an accident and Grampy said, “I bet you do it every night.” Mommy said, “It’s none of your damn business,” and Daddy told them to leave. His own parents. I couldn’t figure the whole thing out.

Now that Mommy has the baby and the baby has Mongoloid Fever, Grammy and Grampy keep telling Daddy that they told him so. Grammy said she told her friends that Mommy lost the baby. That means he died. Mommy won’t talk to her or to Grampy for that matter. She was screaming in a hysterical fit. “What are they ashamed of? What are they ashamed of?” Over and over. If they all know that the baby isn’t dead yet, why did Grammy tell her friends already? What is she going to tell them when the baby dies for real? That he died again? I know it isn’t funny but it makes me want to laugh. And that makes me feel sad, that I want to laugh about my little brother, who I really don’t know, and don’t want to know, because if I get to know him and then he dies, I’ll really be lonesome, when I wasn’t lonesome in the first place …

The worst thing I’m thinking is that the baby will die right before the Fourth parade and that I won’t be able to stand on top of the moving stage in my white blouse and blue shorts and red strap shoes while the announcer on the grandstand tells everyone on South Pardo Street, “Here she comes, citizens of Pardo, Miss Lindy Lee Lambeth, winner of this town’s Kiwanis Fair hula-hoop contest. Watch her swing those eight hoops as she keeps time to ‘Stars and Stripes Forever.'”

 

Fishman-Gerwin

Author’s Comment: In a fiction workshop, the facilitator spread out photo post cards. I chose one of a young girl twirling within multiple hula-hoops, perhaps in her backyard. She looked wistful and I wondered where pure childhood joy had gone. I placed her in a dark situation inside an unseen home. Her mother was sequestered, grieving a dying baby, and the young girl assumed all responsibility for taking care of her father, all the while dealing with her guilt at wanting to escape to her comfort zone. (Don’t many of us retreat to these zones in times of stress?) In face of an overwhelming cloud, she hoped for a sliver of “fame” in this small town where familiarity, warm relationships, and traditions contrasted with the volatile environment of the sixties.

 

Gail Fishman Gerwin (www.gailfgerwin.com), who received her B.A. from Goucher College and, thirty years later, her M.A from NYU, founded the NJ writing/editing firm inedit. Her collection Sugar and Sand was a Paterson Poetry Prize finalist; Dear Kinfolk, earned a Paterson Award for Literary Excellence. Aldrich Press recently published her third collection, Crowns. She is associate poetry editor of Tiferet Journal. Her fiction, poetry, essays, and drama appear in literary journals and on stage. She and her husband Kenneth are parents of two daughters and grandparents of three boys and a girl.

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3 thoughts on “The Lost Child

  1. Alfred Weiss

    The narrative device of usingthe child’s voice succeeds beautifully in telling the story with unique poingancy and of creating a fascinating character (or of the author’s romantic recollection of herself when young). A lovely story!

  2. Catharine Lucas

    I like the author’s commentary on the story and how it came to be — I think of ‘performing children’ I knew growing up, and the sad or dysfunctional homes they came from, and how knowing about this kept me from envying their ‘fame’ –most of the time. If they also had homes I envied, I mostly had to hate them.

  3. suzi Q

    Eight — count them, eight — hula hoops. No wonder Lindy is pulled over and over between thinking of herself and worrying about her family. What a wonderful little girl.

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