As if ordered by a strict and disappointed teacher, you stand with your back against the pocked and battered living room wall. Your stomach bulging, making it difficult for your brown polyester pants to keep your rippled flesh under cover. The red long-sleeved shirt you wear clings to your deflated breasts and documents your comings and goings over the last three days. Each stain and smudge and drip having its own story to tell. On the white cuff of your left sleeve there are crusty green stains mixed with the dampness of wiped tears.
For hours now, Jimmy has incessantly whispered, “They took it. They took all of it. I told them to do it and they did it. They hate you. It’s true, it’s all true.”
This makes it difficult for you to look at your children as they play and laugh, especially now that you know all about what they’ve done – to you.
Over, and over, and over again you heard Jimmy tell you, they did it... they did it for me… they hate you… it’s all true.
And now, you clench your jaw, rub and press your temples, move repeatedly from side to side, trying hard to cope with the news, but it’s impossible for you to ignore what you’ve heard, to ignore what’s happened.
Bursting away from the wall, you break into their play circle and accuse them of taking your purse, taking your money, of working with Jimmy to make you – their own mother -- a penniless beggar on the streets of this small and ugly town, where everyone knows everyone and everyone knows everything.
They try to convince you that they didn’t take your purse, that they aren’t working with Jimmy, even swear on their father’s grave, but you don’t believe them. It’s his word against theirs. Jimmy got to you, and they know it. They’ve seen it before. The way you pause in the middle of a sentence to listen to what they can’t hear, the way you move your head from side to side as if witnessing a fast and violent argument, the way your eyes dart from corner to corner in an empty room.
Jimmy is whispering the unbelievable to you, and you, are believing. You have no choice.
Corralling them from the living room out to the hall closet, you demand that they look for your purse, find your purse, give back your purse!
They do look. They can’t find it. It’s not there to give back.
As you jostle, push, and pull them up the stairs, you spit accusations and threats and conspiracy and betrayal from your thin lips – it can’t be helped. You force them to scour and ransack every corner of every closet in every room but one, your own.
Huddling close together, they wait and watch as you sink into a concentrated silence and lean in to listen to what is being said. Then, as if startled by an unexpected discovery, you straighten up and then storm into your own bedroom and yank open your own closet.
You find what you are searching for.
Slouched against a dust-covered paper shopping bag, sits your black purse. As you bend down to grab it, you can smell the newness of the men’s clothes that will never ever be worn. You stop, take a deep breath, then kick the bag deep into the closet.
You shake and spill everything from your purse onto the bed and floor. Open zippers, search pockets, and pouches, and tear through your wallet. You sort and pile coins, separate each dollar with a licked thumb, and count -- not once, but three times -- a total of twenty-seven dollars and eighteen cents.
Then, you slowly and carefully return each of the spilled items to their rightful place and hug your purse, pressing it so tightly against your chest that the silver clasp leaves a red and swollen mark. Your shoulders ease, you smile, they smile, thinking it’s over.
But in a flash, you swoop down on them thrashing your loaded purse against their bodies. With each accusation you bring your purse down on them -- it was wrong to take your purse, it was wrong to hide your purse, it was wrong to help Jimmy.
Heaving and out of breath, you collapse onto your bed, still clutching and cradling your precious purse.
Then, in the quiet after your rage, the air-gulping sobs of your children break through. You crawl to the edge of the bed, and from behind the pillow you dare to look down at them. Cautiously, you slip from the bed onto the floor and curl up beside them, but you do not touch them, not yet.
Still holding your purse, you finally bring your lips to each of their heads and with softness in your voice you plead with them to stop crying, to stop shaking… to just look at you.
You caress and gently press their small shoulders, their thin arms, their slim legs, all the while telling them that there are no bruises, no cuts, no broken bones -- see, no need for all this crying, you say.
Pulling them closer, trying to wrap them all in your arms, you swear that you know now that they didn’t take your purse, that it wasn’t them, that they are good and sweet and helpful children, yes, the kind of children that love their mother. Right?
A small hand braves to break the silence, to answer your question, it reaches over and touches yours. Its weight and warmth a gift.
You lift that hand to your lips, kiss it, then hold it tight against your wet cheek, whispering, “It’s not your fault. It’s Jimmy’s. He’s the one making all the trouble. He’s the problem. Not you. Not you, my children.”
Janine Elias Joukema has been writing privately for many years. She is a Strategic Management Consultant and, for now, spends more time writing business reports than writing fiction.
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