I’m a kid. I am in bed. Mama is up late. The kettle on the stove is whistling. The sound wakes me. I look at the clock, it is two in the morning.
I walk downstairs to see my mother at our dining table. The tabletop is scattered with paper, envelopes, an empty mug, and a calculator.
She leans over a mess of bills that might as well be a tablecloth. She punches numbers on the calculator and makes a grimace. I know my mother. I know that look.
“What’s wrong?” I say.
She runs her fingers through her hair. “Oh, I’m just robbing Peter to pay Paul, go back to bed.”
“Paul Newman, who else? Now go to bed.” She buries herself in her hands.
“Have you been crying, Mama?”
“I’m not crying, now go to sleep.”
“But, I can’t sleep.”
She points at me. “I don’t wanna hear about your ‘but.’ I want you to go to bed.”
“I’m not tired.”
“Well,” she says with a sigh. “Then just pretend to sleep, I don’t care what you do. Go upstairs and count your blessings.”
This is what all Baptists do. We do not count sheep, or listen to meditative sleep instructional CDs by Deepak Chopra. That stuff is for Methodists.
“Blessings?” I say to my mother with my trademarked rebellious tone. “WHAT blessings? We’re probably gonna STARVE to death aren’t we?”
I don’t know what has come over me, talking like this. I storm upstairs, slide beneath the covers, I stare at the ceiling. I can’t sleep because life has dealt my family nothing but lemons. And I’m worried. We have limited means, tall debts, and a car that leaks oil like a colander. And now my mother is having to pay this Paul fella.
My mother comes into the bedroom. She sits beside me. She touches my hair and doesn’t say anything.
Finally, she speaks. “Your health. That’s number one.”
I said nothing.
“Your health. You can count that as your first blessing.”
“You can walk, talk, and do all the things boys do, you don’t have pain, and you’re not sick.”
“And you’ve got your music, your guitar, and your piano, and you can play them anytime you want and fill this whole house with beautiful songs. That’s a blessing, ain’t it?”
“And don’t forget about my accordion.”
I get no respect.
“And food, sweetie,” she goes on. “We have lots of food. Some people aren’t lucky like us, but downstairs in our fridge we got bacon, and eggs, and sausage…”
“And pancakes,” I point out. “We have ingredients for pancakes.”
“Yes. We can have flapjacks whenever we so choose. We’ve got flour, milk… Oh brother, we got pancakes, lemme tell you, we got plenty’a pancakes.”
“Can we have pancakes tomorrow?”
“I don’t see why not. We can have biscuits too, would you like biscuits?”
“Does a fat baby burp?”
“And we have a car that runs, and Ollie—don’t forget him, he’s a good dog. We have a place to live, and…”
I jumped in. “And I’ve got forty-two dollars in a box in my closet, so if you wanna pay that Paul guy, you can have it.”
Her eyes were bright and shiny. “Wow! And just look at you. You got forty-two bucks. But no, I don’t need it. We’re gonna be fine, we’ll just have to buckle down this month. You keep that for something special.”
“And TV,” I add. “We’ve got TV.”
“Yes! We can watch it every night.”
“And maybe you can watch that Paul guy on TV?”
“Paul Newman. That’s right, Mama can watch some Paul Newman.”
“What’s so great about Paul Newman?”
“Everything is great about Paul Newman.”
“And Mama, I was thinking, you know, we have each other, too.”
She touches my face. “Always,” she says. “We always have each other. Forever and a day. And even longer.” She wipes her face.
“See?” she goes on, “we have a lot to be thankful for, don’t ever forget that. You’re breathing, and that means you’re one of the luckiest people alive.”
“Now go to sleep, okay?”
“Are you serious about the pancakes?”
“Go to bed.”
“I’ll always love you, too.”