The 125th Commandment
The week Amy got her first disciple was the same as many others that year. The morning radio talked about the eruption of Kilauea off in Hawaii, and at Glendening Elementary, Ms. Welch read the third graders Twenty-One Balloons and Lizard Music so they could better understand the nature of volcanoes. All Amy knew of them she had learned from a children’s science program on PBS where they had shown how life was returning twenty years after the last eruption of a mountain (whose name she couldn’t remember), but the pretty host of the show was wrapped in a blue duffle coat and green leg warmers, so it must have been someplace cold. Later the volcano had blown again, she couldn’t remember when, and all she could think of was how silly the gophers had been to move back, to settle in as if the danger was over. Silly, silly pocket gophers, it’s never over, she had thought. Their babies must have died too. If she was a pocket gopher she would protect all the babies from eruptions big and small, then build them houses on something quiet and sedimentary, just like sweet Jesus did.
The idea of Peter being Jesus’s rock had comforted her almost as much as hearing that if she put a quarter in the basket and sang on key she would eventually go to a place where there was no screaming, only harps and wings and songs with regular measures. She had looked around for a rock on which to build but had been disappointed in what she found. Her brother Michael would make a poor rock on account of him being obstinate and swearing all the time.
Amy certainly was with her babysitter enough for her to be a good candidate, but Diana was a shaky foundation at best, being always five seconds away from a major meltdown. Plus, the way she kept her fingernails filed to points and painted cherry red wasn’t all that church-like, and Jesus probably didn’t approve of how she treated the baby. Then again, she was making the decisions here, not Jesus, but she agreed with Jesus on this one, so, no, Diana just wouldn’t do. Ms. Welch was calm and orderly, which Amy appreciated, but after 3:00 p.m. she went her own way and Amy went hers. A part-time rock was like no rock at all. After looking most of the week, she finally broke down Thursday morning and asked her mother.
“I’m starting a religion, Mom. Would you be my rock after they crucify me?”
The rusted Mustang struggled up the incline in the 5:00 a.m. dark of the winter morning. Her mother was silent, face focused forward on the skyline of the city in the distance.
“Really, Mom, I need someone to do this, okay? I don’t want to go around setting up people for glory just to find out later I didn’t have the right rock so nobody cared. Okay? Okay, Mom, okay?”
“Amy, please, it’s early, have a little pity.”
Although she’d been told many times that her mother’s nerves were shot from nightly data entry classes at the vocational school; even though she’d been told that no one likes a blabbermouth like her cousin Charlie’s wife, Lynn, who, it was said, could’ve helped the boys win last year’s Labor Day raft race if only they’d used her mouth as a motor; and even though she hadn’t even written her own commandments yet, so wasn’t entirely sure what her religion would require, she continued talking.
“It wouldn’t take much, Mom. You’d just need to walk around telling people how great I’d been and, well, come out and meet me when I come back. That’s a big part. I’d like it if maybe you could bring some chocolate milk with you when you come meet me on the road. I’ll probably be pretty thirsty after being dead three days and all. Okay?”
“I’ll get you a rock all right,” Michael murmured from the back seat, “upside your head.” The summer before he had entered a new level of cool, being eleven and all. During lunch recess, he and his friends would jump the back fence and smoke by the creek. When Amy would try to follow, they’d say, “No, teachers’ll miss your mouth.” He listened to Aerosmith and Stevie Ray Vaughn and took down all his Michael Jackson and Culture Club posters.
“Well, you’re not going to be my rock, so there.”
He pushed on the back of her seat, jostling her forward and causing her neck to struggle against the seatbelt.
“Fuck you.” He hit the seat again.
“Watch that mouth.” Their mother came out of her traffic-induced haze and adjusted the heater vent, sending a blast of warm air toward the back seat.
“Why? What’s it gonna do? Tricks?”
“I mean it. Diana says she won’t take either of you anymore if you mouth off again. Says the other kids are picking it up.”
“What? That slut Tracy’s only 16 and’s got a kid already. There’s a bad influence around there, but it ain’t me.”
“You know Diana offered me macaroni and cheese for a week if I’d go throw a bag of dog shit on the dude’s porch?”
Amy perked up at the mention of macaroni and cheese. She thought she heard her mother whisper “trash.”
“I wish I had the money to keep you over at Judy’s, but she’s asking more than I’ve got.”
“Why, Mom? What’s wrong with Diana’s?” Amy asked.
“Huh? Oh Amy, don’t worry about it. And don’t you go saying anything to her about what I said either.”
Their mother went back to focusing on the traffic, waiting for it to ease up so she could make the left-hand turn into the babysitter’s driveway. The children opened their doors and said their goodbyes, and their mother pulled away into the morning traffic that would take her the half hour to the Dyserts’ fertilizer factory out on Route 33. Amy liked that her mother was working for the Dyserts now, not only because the pay was more regular than temping as a secretary, but also because all the pennies in her pockets came back green, which Amy took as a sure sign her mother was magical and indeed worthy of being her rock.
Once inside the coal and wood fire-scented coziness and chaos of Diana’s, they went into their regular routine. Michael headed for the new addition, where the black and orange afghan was already waiting for him, still crumpled on the edge of the couch where he’d left it the night before. There were plans to add siding sometime soon, but for now the addition was just the old back porch enclosed with Tyvek and drywall. Although the word seemed a bit much for the space, Diana liked the sound of “the addition,” like things were on their way to adding up to something grand. On most mornings there were six of them, nine if you counted Diana’s two still at home, but since the Stoudts didn’t come until nearly eight, almost time to catch the bus anyway, there was plenty of space. Michael in the addition, Amy on the brown nubby sofa in the living room, and Tracy’s baby in a pen in the kitchen.
“This kid ever go home?”
Amy leaned into the pen to get a better look at the splotch of dried pea on the baby’s cheek.
“You ever shut up?” Diana asked as she chopped something tough and brown on the cutting board. The voice of Dusty Rhodes on 700 WLW (The Voice of Ohio River Valley) was deep and soothing. Amy could see why Diana still listened to him even though the station was coming from down to Cincinnati. He described the smoke that warned of a coming new eruption and the evacuation of people living near, but neither Amy nor Diana paid much attention and let his voice be a comforting drone in the background.
“It stinks. You should clean it.”
“Well, thank you, Miss Blondie. I’ll make sure to get around to that.”
The way Diana called her Miss Blondie confused Amy since all she could think of was that singer her cousin Dustin listened to, who seemed, by all accounts, attractive and successful. She said it with a note of blame, a note of disgust, a note of disdain which led Amy to believe that where Diana was from it must have meant something else. Since she couldn’t figure it out, and Diana just walked away whenever she’d asked, Amy took it as a compliment.
Amy pushed herself up to see onto the counter.
“That looks like last night’s liver.”
“Because it is.”
Diana chopped the pieces smaller and smaller until each was only the size of a single bite, something that could almost be swallowed without chewing, something that would not go down easy, but would go down all the same.
Amy still remembered the gritty taste from the night before, how hard it had been to make herself chew it thirty-two times before forcing it the rest of the way down.
“For Christ sake, just swallow it,” Diana had said in response to her faces of exaggerated chewing and disgust. But Ms. Welch had said “chew 32,” so chew 32 was what she would do. There are ways things should be and ways they shouldn’t. Michael hadn’t eaten his and had nearly flung the plate on the floor, but Diana’s husband Clint had raised his hand, a warning none of the kids ignored more than once.
“This is shit. Cheap shit.”
He’d walked out to the addition to finish House of Danger, the Choose Your Own Adventure book he’d started that morning. Diana had picked up the liver with her long thick nails, real but so good looking you would have thought they were press-ons. She put it in a small orange Tupperware with a clear lid which now sat empty beside the cutting board as she chopped.
“This isn’t for breakfast is it? Because Commandment Number 5 of Amyanity clearly states Thou shalt eat no liver on Thursdays before noon. Now, Fruity Pebble, Fruity Pebbles would be excellent. If you have Fruity Pebbles, I would accept those as an appropriate tithe.”
“This is Michael’s breakfast, you’ll get yours when you wake back up. Now go on, get to your couch.”
“Tuck me in?”
“In a minute.”
Satisfied, Amy went to the living room to lie down. The thought of liver two days in a row would have been too much and she was glad she’d been quick enough to think to add that commandment. As she snuggled under the Dutch girl quilt, she began to hope there’d be grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner that night. Even though she knew Commodities didn’t get passed out until Saturday and the possibility of any of the cheese being left on a Thursday evening was slim, she was sure that if she hoped hard enough, it would be there. She’d get done with her homework and there on her plate would be the warm melting deliciousness, maybe even with macaroni salad made with the shells instead of the little elbow pastas, the shells that trapped the mayo and celery inside so you didn’t know you were getting some until it was in your mouth. It was comforting to know that sometimes good things were hidden, but that eventually you would bite down and have yourself a mouthful. And Coke, maybe there would be Coke still in the can too, with a little drop of water coming down the side like in the commercials. She wouldn’t share any of it with Michael. Not sharing was selfish though, she probably should share. Maybe she’d share with the baby, she liked the baby. Yes, it was settled, she would share the Coke with the baby. And maybe Clint would have to work late and Diana would let her talk during dinner. The daydream grew and grew, as daydreams do.
Since she couldn’t sleep, she focused on what the evening would be like with its grilled cheese and Coke, trying not to hear what was happening in the addition. The “I won’ts”, “you wills,” and “fuck yous,” soft things hitting the walls, hard things hitting the walls, and finally the sound of a mouth being held shut against its will, which is to say, stillness. Soon Diana, flustered but victorious, came to check on her and put an extra log in the fireplace. Amy didn’t ask about the noise, just stayed quiet waiting for any cue from Diana. She knew not to question, but could she talk at all? Tell her about her next commandment, which would run something like thou shalt not scuffle between sundown and sunup on the Sabbath, every day being the Sabbath in Amyanity?
“Good night, Diana,” she said, finally figuring this was safe enough.
“It’s morning, Amy.”
She caught a glimpse of the brown liver lodged beneath Diana’s red thumbnail.
“Oh, well then, good night/good morning.”
Diana shook her head. “Okay kid, good night/good morning,” and she walked back to the kitchen to wipe down the cutting board and listen to the radio announcer report on the distant volcano disrupting the lives of others.
“Diana?” Amy called.
“Don’t sound like you’re sleeping.”
Amy slid into the kitchen. “Diana, I’m worried about the volcano. Will we get evacuated?”
She sighed, answered anyway, “We’ll get some heavy rains our way, that’s about it.”
“Ash? How strong you think the winds are?”
“Ms. Welch said that when Krakatoa blew, they had ash in Connecticut and snow in July in Cleveland. Cleveland! I’m just saying I don’t want snow in July like those people got back then. I’m sick of winter already. I want to be warm when it’s supposed to be warm.”
“No, Amy, it’s just on the radio. It ain’t happening to you.”
“Then why do they keep talking about it?”
Diana paused and, having no answer, returned to her original stance.
“You don’t look like you’re sleeping.” She turned Amy toward the living room with a gentle scootch.
That night for dinner they had Johnny Marzetti with pintos instead of beef, even though it was better with kidneys. Dreaming of grilled cheese during arithmetic had been nice and thinking of the Coke, a pleasant distraction during recess when Michael was showing his friends the scratches on his arms and face. Michael’s badass status, for the day at least, turned the fight into a win-win. Amy’s list of commandants grew: thou shalt not build a fire when the coal furnace is running lest the smells conflict and thou shalt have no scratches. The redness of the lines on Michael’s arms worried her, like maybe they could get infected or leave a scar. He ate his dinner that night without a fuss. Then again, it wasn’t liver. The evening would have been reasonably pleasant except for the baby’s crying that drowned out everything, from the sound of T.C.’s helicopter on Magnum to the filing of Diana’s nails in the living room.
“Shut it up or call its mama to come get it.” Clint had little patience now that his own three were in their teens and learned their lessons long ago. Diana held the baby tightly, hoping the weight of her body would comfort it, but this did no good. The baby didn’t know that Furnace Two had gone down at the plant that day. The steel had begun to set in the vat and not in the wheel molds. The baby didn’t know that Clint was looking at a long, hot weekend, as everyone on B Crew would pull double shifts to get the vat cleared out and ready for another week of steel and fire. The baby didn’t know that Clint’s oldest girl, Shelly, had announced at dinner that she wasn’t going into the Army after graduation as planned, but instead was keeping her job at Central Hardware to be closer to her boyfriend. The baby didn’t know that it wasn’t the only one who just needed a good nap and some clean underwear.
“When’s Tracy getting off tonight?”
“Ten.” The louder she spoke, the louder the baby cried.
“Oh, Jesus, ten o’clock, Clint. Tracy will be back around ten and Rod’s not got the sense God gave a cricket.”
Diana went into the kitchen to heft the baby into the pen and Amy followed.
“In my religion, babies can cry whenever they want and no one will yell. You can be my first disciple.” The baby was not comforted by this promise.
“You can be my disciple, too.” Amy placed her hand on Diana’s shoulders as she hunched over the Formica countertop, hands raised, eyes closed for a moment. Amy tried to reach up to pat her head, but could not quite make it.
“Special Commandment 73: All babysitters will have assistant babysitters. I could be your helper, Diana. Take the baby for walks, play peek-a-boo, clean her up after supper.”
“She don’t want to play peek-a-boo and can’t tell the difference between dirty and clean.”
The solution had seemed so reasonable, Amy was unsure where to go next, so she went to her couch to sleep until nine when her mother would get out of class. To sleep meant she couldn’t hear whatever was happening in the kitchen. But she still knew. It was the same thing that happened every night and it never ended well for the baby. Diana never seemed more relaxed, but things were quieter, which was something. When she arrived, her mother said nothing about the scratches and neither Amy nor Michael brought them up.
The next day was Friday, which meant her mother would pick them up at six and they would have dinner at their own house sitting around the little maple table Granny Mingus had passed down after she’d gotten that government grant to update the house. It had looked so small in the new space that her kids had pitched in to buy a new one that fit better. They had gotten the old one with its years of gum stuck to the underside and its mismatched center leaf. The thought of that dinner could get Amy through the day. Commandment 87: Thou shalt eat pizza at home each Friday with milk and salad (cucumbers and radishes optional). She liked the way that sounded. Her commandments were coming together nicely. It felt good to have a list, to know that X and Y could and would add up to Z, even if she had to write the equation herself. She hadn’t decided yet what the afterlife in Amyanity would bring, but it would be more interesting than angels and harps and less time consuming than reincarnation.
Friday morning Amy was ready to move to this next step. “Mom, what should Heaven be like? I think I’ve got my rules, now I just need the reward. No one will do anything without a reward.”
Her mother cranked the engine and pulled the car out toward Diana’s.
“What should it be, Mom? There’ll definitely be no homework and maybe no rain or snow. What else, Mom? What else?”
“Quiet. Heaven will be a very quiet place.”
“Oh, but what about birds? Won’t there be birds in Heaven? My Heaven should definitely have birds.”
“Take a fucking hint you moron,” Michael pushed the base of his hand into the seatback, then once again for good measure, and the car was quiet the rest of the drive.
Truly, Amy hadn’t planned to steal the baby that day. After she’d said “goodnight/ goodmorning” to Diana, she lay on the couch picking at its large decorative buttons, unable to sleep. Usually the house was quiet in the morning except for the radio and small kitchen noises as Diana packed her children’s lunches and fixed their breakfasts. The evenings were the loud times, when Clint was home and the TV was on. But today the baby was crying. Diana had yelled first, then turned the radio up, then yelled again. When Amy heard the slap over the Dusty Rhodes Show, she felt a commandment she’d forgotten to write had been broken. One about mornings, and quiet, and babies getting to be babies.
She was tired of people not respecting Amyanity. At this rate none of them would get to Heaven. After Diana passed through the living room toward the back hallway, Amy snuck to the kitchen and lifted the baby from her pen. She hadn’t been expecting it to weigh so much, or maybe she had been expecting herself to be stronger. The baby was surprised to silence, assessing the new situation. It was too cold to walk outside without taking time to get their winter gear on, by then Diana would be back from the bathroom. So she took the baby downstairs where no one ever went except to put more coal in the furnace or to do laundry. She hunkered down under Tracy’s old clothes hanging from the water pipe, the red corduroy overalls making a cozy fort. The concrete cold seeped through her jeans making her chilled even though the furnace was not far away.
“It’ll be okay. Don’t you worry now.” She sat the baby, all squiggly arms and flailing legs, in her lap. It made soft guttural noises of escape and reached its arms toward the ground. She heard her name being called from above and then the sound of the backdoor opening. Attempting peek-a-boo with the baby did not distract it from reaching for the hot, bright metal of the furnace not two feet away. It was not a very good disciple; it didn’t care if she ever reappeared from behind her hands. The door reopened and she heard the quick movement of feet above her and the older children being roused from their sleep. Her name some more, doors being opened, doors being closed, the word “Hell” a few times, her name some more.
“Let’s go somewhere where there’s no yelling, okay? What do you think of that, baby? Not a quiet place, just no yelling. Except you, you can yell all you want. Yell your head off. And me too, I can yell. We can yell our fool heads off. What do you think of that, baby, what do you think of that?” She took the coo as an assent and smiled. Although she was still unsure where such a place was, knowing it might be out there was comforting.
“No, baby, that’s hot,” and she struggled to pull the baby’s arm back toward her and away from the furnace. It began to cry and push her away. The word “basement” and the scuffle of four pairs of feet came from above. No shushing or bouncing would stop it, so she held the baby loose to her chest to muffle the sound, but it squirmed even more.
“I don’t hear her anymore,” Michael said when he was halfway down the steps. Amy pressed the baby tighter as she’d seen Diana do, it was still. She tucked her feet under and let Tracy’s old clothes engulf them both as Michael moved around the room shifting boxes of old Barbie gear and Star Wars toys for just a minute to sound like he was giving a good search.
“Maybe it was coming from outside?”
He sighed and put his hands on an old T-ball uniform and a ballerina skirt then slid the clothes back and forth, his eyes never leaving the ceiling.
“Nope, not down here.”
He huffed his way back up the steps and Amy heard four pairs of feet heading out in the winter dark. The sun was just beginning to rise over the east edge of town, catching the light off the well-meaning but not quite right skyscraper of the LeVeque Tower. They would all go to school soon and Diana would take a nap before Price Is Right. Breakfast, kids off, nap, Showcase Showdown, lunch, and Days of Our Lives with tidying during the commercials. That was the way it had gone when Amy had been home sick from school, and she was counting on that being Diana’s ritual. She could probably get the baby down the hill and to her house while Diana was sleeping. There would be the spare key to get in, and she could hide out until her mom got off work. Her mom would know what to do; otherwise she wouldn’t be the rock. She’d bring the baby chocolate milk and show Amy how to get the peas from its face and how to soothe it when it cried. After a few minutes, Amy relaxed her hold and took a deep breath. The baby reached up and patted her face. She crossed her eyes and rolled her tongue to make it giggle.
Unsure what else to do, she sat and waited for the baby to grow restless again, for the sound of the game show to start, for someone to realize that half-assed was the only way Michael ever did anything and come double-check the basement. While she waited she made a new commandment, one that was the best one yet. Commandment 125: Everything turns out okay in the end. It has to, it just has to.