It was all too quiet now. Luce could hear the clink of the spoon on Mama’s saucer and cup, Mama chewing on toast, little wet smacks from inside her cheeks that set something quivering inside Luce’s throat and belly. Luce tried to make noises with her own mouth, squirting the mushy cereal between her teeth to make a bubbly rushing sound right inside her head. The cornflakes tasted wrong because Mama had put too much milk on them. Her daddy would have poured it right. She wanted to ask about her daddy but she knew she mustn’t.
The noise from upstairs had stopped; she couldn’t hear her daddy any more, not the cries nor the thuds.
The sunlight through the blinds made stripes across the draining board and the lino and the oilcloth. Mama didn’t say a word, just sat chewing like nothing was happening, or ever would happen, face all set and wooden, almost like she, Mama, wasn’t there. Her daddy would have had the radio on, ask her about her friends and games. Breakfast with her daddy made you feel part of something, made you feel like the day ahead was something fun.
She knew she had to be a good girl. She ate the last of her cornflakes and they slipped soggily past her teeth, nothing but a faint sweetness in the milk. Mama’s face was still, her mouth tightly pressed together. Luce wanted her daddy to take her to kindergarten and she knew she couldn’t ask and this became a pain inside that made her feel sick.
‘Go brush your teeth,’ said Mama. Her voice was different. Tough still, but with something extra Luce couldn’t name. She ran upstairs, glad to be out of the kitchen where even with the sunny stripes it seemed dark.
‘I said go quiet,’ Mama snapped, all at once in the hallway looking up at her and she not even realizing she’d made a sound. She nosed her white socks up the remaining treads and tiptoed across the landing to the bathroom. The smell of her daddy’s shaving foam was so faint, it was hardly there. The sink dry and not one dot of shaved beard against the white. The faucet could turn easier cause he hadn’t turned it off. The paste was bitter on her tongue and she spat hard and the dribble ran down her chin. She wiped it with the back of one hand and was about to wipe the hand on her dress but in the nick of time remembered and rubbed the hand instead with the underside of the towel on the rail so Mama wouldn’t find it, not this morning leastways. She stood outside the door of the guestroom where her daddy was and listened. It hurt that now, after all the noise, all the hollering and lowing like some fairytale beast trying to sing, she could hear nothing. She so wanted to go in and pat his arm, bring him the firework picture she had drawn him yesterday, after kindergarten, wanted to see him smile. She leaned up close to the door, didn’t dare rest her ear against it in case he might hear and wake - if he was even sleeping? Upsetting him seemed the worst possible thing she could ever do in the whole world. She had to be a good girl.
On the walk to kindergarten her mama took her hand at first but then let go and said, ‘You could boil milk on this sidewalk.’ There was the racket of the locusts, and some sharp little bird twittering, and as they began to see other kids walking with their mamas, Luce started to look out for Joanie. Joanie rode to kindergarten in a car sometimes.
One time Luce’s daddy fetched her from kindergarten in his new auto which smelled of glue and had turn-signal lights in the dash like dark jewels. Her daddy took a left and then a right at near about every block, just so she could watch them flash bright emerald.
At the kindergarten, she opened the screen door and looked for Joanie. Some children were still saying goodbye to their mama, a pair here, a pair there. The room was loud with their goodbye talk and the children already playing. In the listening corner Mrs Kroger stooped to hear Polly who nodded as she talked, ponytail swinging, like she was agreeing with her own self. And there was Joanie! Hugging her mama goodbye on the porch, and turning round and looking at the class. Luce watched her, waiting for Joanie to see her. What it meant to get those eyes to smile; how good Luce felt if she made Joanie laugh, or even just lit the spark in those calm eyes. One time she’d been round at Joanie’s, they’d pressed see-through paper to the glass of the Woodvilles’ television set and drawn over the cartoon shapes of Crusader Rabbit before the picture changed - Joanie went real fast and got Crusader Rabbit’s ears and the ovals of his eyes and those huge sleepy eyelids. Luce herself only got as far as half a sun umbrella. It made Joanie laugh, till she laughed so much she couldn’t even hold her pencil.
And now Luce thought, where’s Mama? She couldn’t see her in the room or on the porch and Mrs Kroger’s voice was going up as she told everyone to find their name-hooks and put on their smocks.
‘My daddy has a new car,’ Luce said as Mrs Kroger squirted paint into old saucers and handed one blue, one red, one yellow, one green to each of the tables. Joanie and Luce and Polly, and Suzie and Amy and Rosemary shared a table. Polly looked up from her piece of paper. Joanie drew a big round yellow circle and Luce said, ‘That’s a sun.’
‘No,’ Joanie told her, ‘it’s gonna be a flower.’
‘Who needs a rag for their finger?’ asked Mrs Kroger. ‘Anyone changing color yet?’
Polly dipped her finger in blue paint then looked across at Lucianna and drew a shape that could have been a bottle. Or maybe the trunk of a palmetto.
‘What’s that?’ Luce asked.
‘Not telling,’ said Polly, biting her lip and making rabbit teeth to make fun of Luce.
‘What do you think it is, Lucianna?’ Joanie asked.
‘I thought it was a… monkey!’ Luce said, and Joanie giggled. Polly stared, confused. ‘Or a telephone.’ Joanie giggled again, and Polly’s face was sad now as well as confused. All at once it was like Luce was bigger than them. She actually felt bigger. Like that episode of Crusader Rabbit, where he and Rags reach the Texas state line. When they jump over to the Texas side, they’re bigger straight away. Now there was a new look on Polly’s face. ‘Your daddy’s sick,’ she said.
‘He ain't sick,’ said Luce.
‘He’s a peg leg,’ said Amy.
‘That don’t make him sick,’ said Joanie.
‘Mama said he lies in bed some days and don’t do nothing but cry,’ said Polly, making another bunny face.
‘He does not.’
‘He does so. Mama said. She was telling Aunt Elsie, and Aunt Elsie said Uncle Ken got sick that way and Uncle Ken was in the Air Force also.’
‘So?’ Luce’s voice came out high and screeching. Joanie giggled. Luce was small; she was nobody. All at once there were tears and the girls round the table, even Joanie, looked at her with wide eyes. She splatted her hand on the red-paint saucer and swiped at Polly.