The Painting Room
After breakfast, Mrs. Birch used the warm dish cloth in her hand to clean Edward's jammy face and cheek. "There you go, Jam-Face. All clean. You're ready to go." It took Edward by surprise, but pleasantly so. It was a little thing. Edward was nine and so too old by over a year to participate willingly in displays of affection. But not too old to want, need, even yearn for them. The gentle face-wiping comforted him. Made him feel mothered, and for the first time in a long time, the triangle in his throat didn't feel as sharp or as big.
In the van on the way to school, Mrs. Birch asked them all if they remembered to grab their lunches. She pulled up to the school curb and Edward got out along with Mrs. Birch's children and the lunch she had prepared for him. There was always a dessert, something his own mother hadn't done. Four Nilla wafers, a tablespoon of chocolate chips, a cookie, six Skittles, or a sneakable amount of red hots to be eaten covertly during math. Always something. He worried a little that it was temporary, that it might end. He wondered if she packed a dessert for everyone. She did do special things just for him. Since school started, for example, chocolate milk had found a happy home in the Birch refrigerator. The first time she bought it, she stood him in front of the open fridge and pointed at a quart container of buttermilk. "Everyone in this house likes chocolate milk. No one likes buttermilk." She squeezed his shoulder. He didn't understand until she opened the buttermilk carton and instead of buttermilk, he saw creamy chocolate milk inside.
The night before, business as the new usual: homework, Lego. Dinner, more Lego, bed. She made the rounds making sure everyone was pajama-ed, clean of tooth, and tucked in.
Mrs. Birch's bracelets jangled together as she made her way down the hall to the boys' room. In bed, Edward closed his eyes and thought of his own mother. He could see her wearing the old, soft robe that he had loved. He pushed his eyes hard with his fingers to keep the stinging from turning into tears. He felt a triangle in his throat. He imagined he could smell his own mother's perfume. Her perfume had been somehow gold — spicy and warm was how he thought of it. Mrs. Birch just smelled soapy and clean. Edward kept his eyes closed as Mrs. Birch came into their bedroom to say goodnight. She tucked in her son Ben in the other bed.
"Goodnight you two. Why so many clothes on the floor? Ow! These Legos!"
"Sorry, Mrs. Birch."
"Ok, ok, no harm done. I didn't like that foot anyway."
And then, what she always did. The window, opened a crack. The night light snapped on. The soapy smell coming in close as she pulled up the covers and smoothed Edward's hair.
"Goodnight, Edward. Have a good sleep. Goodnight boys, see you in the morning. Ben, did you go to the bathroom?" She asked Ben, but he knew the question was meant for him.
He had known Mrs. Birch all of his life. He'd slept over in the very same bed before. Way before. It seemed so long. But he knew it wasn't that long ago. His mom's doctor visits, the good news, the bad news, the hoping and the being positive, and the breast cake when they thought it was gone for good. The cake had made his mom laugh and then cry. "It's a happy cry, sweetie. I'm happy. We're all happy today!" His mom and Mrs. Birch drank tea and talked about the new addition the Birches were adding to the side of the garage. His mother and Mrs. Birch used to talk and laugh for hours. It could be annoying. His mother had helped Mrs. Birch with ideas for the room. She said it would need another window, a sink, and a real wood floor.
Months later when it was finally finished, Mrs. Birch moved all of her painting supplies from the basement into the new room. Ben called it the painting room, so now everyone else did too. It was a tiny room filled with paints, brushes, pencils, pens, paintings, an easel and water jars along the counter. There was a little sink, another window added after dry wall had gone up, and a wide-planked walnut floor. Mrs. Birch painted the expected fruit, flowers and swirly designs. But also she painted scenes from the neighborhood: the Hickory's dog, kids on swings with long chains and a girl playing in a sprinkler. The little girl's hair was curly and long and just getting wet. The sun shone on her hair and made it glitter. The girl's face wasn't visible, but you knew she was laughing. And there was the boys' favorite painting: the old neighbor, Mr. Klein, sitting on the bench in his garden under the pear tree. Ben said he looked like a short Abraham Lincoln. Next to him, on the bench, was a plate of perfect pears. But it was their favorite because the ground was full of pears: ripe pears, over-ripe pears, even some rotting pears.
Edward and Ben used to go in the painting room to ask Mrs. Birch for more cereal, for a ride someplace, for homework help, for whatever it was they needed. They barged in once last summer and asked if she'd take them to Home Depot just so they could browse.
Surprisingly, she had allowed it. She let them walk all around Home Depot. The drill area. The ax aisle. Forty-two different hammers. Lumber and plumbing supplies. Saying no to the chainsaws, she bought lantern flashlights with little Buzz Lightyears on them instead. Ben and Edward felt too old for Buzz, but they liked the lanterns just the same. She bought hotdogs and Mr. Pibbs. After eating, in the light fixture area, Ben turned a glass and brass chandelier on and off and on and off. Ben said something about how he couldn't believe how nice his mom was being. Standing under the flickering lights, Edward began to understand that Mrs. Birch was doing this — stopping her painting, driving them here, buying the lanterns and the junk food — because his own mother was sick. Even more. Because his mom was dying.
Back at the Birches, Mr. Birch had let him flip the burgers on the grill. His own dad had been there too, then left again to go back. He had slept over that night, many nights.
Tonight Ben's breathing was regular. Ben always fell asleep first. Edward listened to the dryer going. Mrs. Birch forgot to check pockets for change. He thought of Mrs. Birch's foot. How much it must hurt. He'd stepped on Legos before. Red numbers of the clock said 11:08. So, he must have slept. The memory of his dream came back to him. His mom in that high bed at the hospital. His dad's wrecked face. The smell of cleaner and the stiff hospital pajamas.
Instantly, he got out of bed and stumbled over the clothes on the floor. He banged his foot against something. He felt his way down the hall to the stairs. His hand gripped the railing all the way down. The carpet felt like velvet on his cold feet. He moved swiftly through the family room and then out the sliding door to the backyard. Was Mr. Birch calling him?
The grass was so cold! And wet. He saw the light on in the painting room. He saw her through the windows. Her face was inches from the paper, brush in hand. As he opened the door, she turned to him.
"Edward! What is it, hon?"
In two steps he was at her side, and now fully awake.
"I wanted to ask you about your foot. Is it better now?"
She scooped him up as best she could and he allowed it. He crumbled in her arms and cried and shook quietly for a long time.