My name is Jonathan David, J.D. for short, because Daddy hates the name Jonathan. He thinks it’s too long, and agreed to it only because it was the name of Momma’s brother who died when he was only eight and she was ten. David is for Daddy.
Daddy’s really smart, made a living as a plumber, never finished college for it or anything, because he had stood up in class one day and showed that instructor a thing or two. Daddy always said he didn’t need to be paying anybody to be teaching him things wrong, for one thing, and for another, things that he already knew.
I was six and Toby just a baby when we left the suburbs for the simple life, as Daddy put it. That was the plan, and when you’re six that’s all the plan you need, because the people in charge are supposed to have it figured out. Daddy always had a plan.
I walk up after a morning exploring the creek below the house, the damp warm air hanging on me like a moist heavy blanket. I see Toby in the front window, standing up on Momma’s ottoman, patting the window with the flat of his chubby hand. He sees me coming and lights up, slapping the window harder, saying “Day-Dee! Day-Dee!”
I go in, scoop him up from behind and spin around. He lets out a squeal, wearing his breakfast around his mouth like a big clown grin. I grab the dishrag, wipe him off while he squirms. Momma smiles at us, hands me a slice of toast topped with a fried egg. I gobble it down, standing by the table. Momma shifts her feet a little and gives me the get-going look before she turns back to the sink.
Daddy’s crouching in the garden with his chalk line, marking rows so that they’ll be even. I’d had to dig up and replant thirty-two broccoli and cauliflower plants earlier this spring.
Nothing’s worth doing if you don’t do it right, Daddy says. Toby stumps away with his little bare feet in the warm soft soil, trailing his blankie behind him.
Daddy tells me to use the tape measure and mark at the end of it in the soil with the trowel, then again at thirty-six inches for each plant.
Toby’s sitting off at the end of the garden, moving his feet back and forth in the dirt and babbling to himself.
Keep an eye on your brother, J.D., those plants cost money, Daddy says.
Toby soon wanders off to the shade of the maple tree in the front yard. He lies down, fingering his blankie and sucking his thumb, looking in my direction while he blinks, longer and longer, putting himself to sleep. Momma says I needed all kinds of rocking when I was little, and would yelp if I wasn’t all the way asleep when she tried to put me down. Daddy’d get so mad, tell her she was spoiling me, even stand at my bedroom door and watch to make sure she didn’t stay too long.
He thought you needed to do more for yourself, she said, and shrugged like that’s just the way it was. They don’t know Toby sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night, whimpering, and I grab my blanket and pillow and lie down on the floor by his crib, take his hand and hold on until he goes back to sleep again. Mornings when Daddy comes in and finds me still lying there, he asks if I was sleepwalking again. I nod, even though I don’t really know what sleepwalking means.
Toby sometimes likes to follow me a little ways through the tall grass up the hill behind our house when I go out exploring in the mornings. That slows me down, so sometimes I sneak away without him.
One morning I’m gone almost till noon, and when I get closer, I can hear Daddy hollering for me. I come around the back of the house, and Daddy sees me.
He asks me where the hell I have been, because Toby’s been underfoot all morning and he and Momma have been trying to hang drywall in the kitchen.
I’m silent, because anything is the wrong thing to say.
Well? he says, louder, towering over me, and smacks my behind with three sharp whacks. I swallow down a whimper, scurry in to find Toby. Momma is standing backed against a bookshelf like a shadow. I pass by without looking her in the eyes, steal into the hallway and slip into the triangle gap between wall and the hall door, where I can peek through the crack.
The front door slams, and I hear Daddy drop down in his chair. He asks, what more can you expect me to do, Debra?
Momma says, David, you’re doing all you can.
Daddy doesn’t say anything for a little while. Then he repeats, all I can, all I can…what do you mean by that Debra?
Momma says she just means she knows he’s working so hard, providing for us. She sounds shaky, but she goes on and says, you know me, I’m just a worrier about the bills. I’m not complaining against you, David.
Daddy sneers, but you always have to say it, don’t you Debra, make me out to be less than a man.
No, David, Momma says, low.
What do you mean, no David, mocks Daddy. Did you say it or not?
Momma is sliding along the bookshelf because she can’t back up.
I shut my eyes tight and with my back to the wall, I inch down the hall to our room.
Toby’s sitting in his crib, face red and blotchy, gasping and shuddering the way he does when he’s been crying really hard, and I know that Daddy whacked him too. I climb in with him, wrap his blankie around his shoulders, pull him down beside me and start singing all the nursery rhyme songs I can remember.
I hear the crashing start, and Momma’s screams over Daddy’s do you want some more? do you want some more?
Toby hears it too and his little body shudders under the blanket. I sing a little louder, laugh and tickle him. He chokes out little chuckles in between half-sobs, watching me with wide wondering eyes that know it’s all wrong.
He doesn’t know that tomorrow morning Daddy’ll saunter over to Momma while she’s frying bacon, drape an arm over her shoulders, kiss and tease her, and she’ll laugh and let him.
He’s learning. He’s learning.
Becky Ruff is a fulltime speech-language pathologist pursuing several of her passions, one as a freelance writer. She lives in southwestern Wisconsin where the Wisconsin River meets the Mississippi, and can often be found paddling her kayak.