|SCREW, BUTTON, POTATO
By Jill Jepson The child has hair the color of butter and a bruise on her knee. She is sitting in flowered cotton pajamas on the linoleum floor of the small kitchen. From the next room, she hears the sound of a television set. Men talk. An audience roars. Through the walls, she hears her mother and father laugh.
In front of her lies one of her father’s handkerchiefs, a white square on the cracked tan linoleum. In the center of the square sits a small screw. She selected the screw from the drawer in the kitchen because it was mysterious and beautiful: the flat top with its puzzling groove, the strange and delicate ridges spiraling down the silver shaft. It is cool to the touch, and heavy for its size. She touches the screw, notes the sharpness of its ridges, then draws her hand back. She pulls the edges of the handkerchief together to create a bundle. She stands up and picks up the bundle wrapping her fingers around it tightly so that it will not open. She carries it into the living room.
Father is sitting on the couch, and Mother, in her scratchy skirt and bobby sox, on the floor. They are watching the TV. The audience applauses. Mother looks at Father. They say something and laugh again. The child laughs, too. She has a heart like a small insect, rubbing its legs together and waiting for rain. She has hands that want to reach the high cupboards and a mouth that cannot form the words in her brain. She tells stories sometimes, out loud in bed, whispering so no one hears. She forgets them by morning, but she doesn’t mind. So many more swim through her nights, a thousand and ten stories.
“A present,” she says.
Mother smiles. “A present!”
The child holds the bundle out to Mother, who takes it with great care, knowing it contains dangerous and wonderful magic. Mother places the bundle on the floor, gently because it is tied by heavy rope to the child’s chirping heart, and lets the edges open. Her eyes widen. “How lovely!” She takes the screw as if it were a diamond. It is a diamond, pressed into being in the heat of the child’s eyes.
The child skips away to the kitchen again. She sings a song with no words. She opens the drawer next to the sink and surveys the gold and rubies, the wolves’ teeth and musical notes. The child sees sounds in color. The colors have gender. Red and yellow are girls. Blue, green, purple, and orange are boys. She is so sure of this that she never imagines others do not see it.
The child sits on the floor. She folds her legs and smoothes the handkerchief in front of her. In the center, she places an orange plastic button. It is round and the color of a scraped knuckle. Against the white square, it is like a scab on her pale hand. She watches the scab and scratches her ear. She picks the button up and tosses it aside, does not watch as it roles under the table. She scrambles to her feet and opens the drawer again and finds a yellow button with a silver rim. She holds it, fingers its rounded surface, tests its weight. She sits down and places it in the center of the handkerchief, where it becomes a yellow sun drawn on white paper. She folds the ends of the handkerchief together and carries it into the living room.
“How beautiful!” Mother says, holding the sun in the palm of her hand.
“Be careful,” the child says. “It will burn you.”
Again and again, the child returns. She brings a white barrette, a spool of green thread, a sugar cube, an eraser. Mother opens each one, exclaims at each consecrated gift: a snow flake, a bundle of grass, a chip of sparkling ice, a soft pink valentine.
The child in her shimmering dream doesn’t realize she is soon going to make a mistake. She is walking on a high and treacherous ledge, and in a few minutes, she will take the step that sends her plummeting, to crack open her rib cage on the hard edge of her Mother’s wrath.
She is growing bored with the treasures in the drawer. Soon, she will go to the refrigerator. She will struggle to open the heavy door. When she does, the air will sting her face. She will touch the cool celery. She will sniff the butter. Behind the milk, she will find a bowl covered in wax paper. In the bowl, are four small, boiled potatoes.
At 40, she wishes she could return to warn her child self not to do what she is going to do. Potatoes may be fine: cool and round like small pebbles pulled from a stream. They may be fragrant and moist and remind the child of her mother’s dinners. Do not touch them, she says out loud in an empty room. Do not pick the smallest one. Do not take it from the bowl. Do not close the refrigerator with the little potato in your hand. Do not sit back down on the cracked tan linoleum. Do not place the potato in the handkerchief. Do not fold the edges of the white handkerchief together, taking such care. Do not stand up, pick up the bundle, carry it into the living room, offer it to your mother, your insect heart fluttering with love. Do not expect the wide-eyed joy, the delight. Don’t trust it, that Mother’s gold. It won’t come every time.
But she cannot go back, cannot find the key to time, cannot warn her child self, cannot protect her, and so she is condemned to simply remember, to watch from the distance and to blink her eyes against the light.
The child is punished, not with spankings or bed or standing in the corner. But with words, with eyes, with anger from the one she came to with her gift, who forgot the enchantment, the child’s heart. Who feared more for a stain on her new carpet than the stain of red that would spread across the child’s gaze. Her anger is like a wall with no windows.
The child has hair the color of butter. She is sitting in the kitchen, on the floor, listening to the sound of the television set. Men talk. An audience roars. She hears her mother and father laugh. She watches the square of white on the linoleum in front of her. She hates the potato, but also the shining screw, the yellow button, the green thread, the pink eraser. She hates herself for not having known the difference between gifts that bring joy and gifts that bring anger.
For the rest of her life she will remember the handkerchief, the tan linoleum, her mother’s skirt, the kitchen drawer, the treacherous silver handle of the refrigerator. And she will offer people the gift of herself always with an edge of fear. At forty she wonders, “Mother, how could you have done this? I was a child and I loved you.” But, sitting on the floor with her father’s handkerchief, she is too young for a mother who is not perfect, and so she blames herself. She is three years old, and she has a bruise on her knee. About the Author:
Jill Jepson is the author of two books, Writing as a Sacred Path (Ten Speed Press, 2008) and Women’s Concerns: Twelve Women Entrepreneurs of the 18th and 19th Centuries Peter Lang, 2009). Her articles and essays have been published in Writers Digest, Arizona Highways, Aloha Magazine, Alaska Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, A Woman’s Path: Women’s Best Spiritual Travel Writing (Travelers’ Tales Press) and many other publications. Her short stories have appeared in The Writing Disorder, Across the Margin, Easy Street, and Darkfire Fiction. She holds an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, as well as two other graduate degrees, and teaches writing and linguistics at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota.