Sonny is only one of the spies at the Bradshaw house in Mozier, Alabama. But as a child he saw a tray full of dinner come flying across the front hall at his father. His mother's aim was dead on. And Daddy's departure promptly followed.
Loretta, Sonny's older sister, spies by eavesdropping. As she tells him, "How else am I going to survive in a family tight-lipped as tombs?"
But the kids' spying only scratches the surface of what's really going on in this 1950s family in the deep South. While Deaton, the youngest, worries about pirates and vampires, and Uncle Marty, family protector, serves up scripture with every bite at the Circle of Life donut shop, somebody is watching.
Somebody unsuspected by Sonny. But at thirteen he knows something's fishy, and he intends to find out what. That's why one Friday after Uncle Marty pays him for dishwashing at the Circle of Life, he sneaks out of town, first by bike and then by bus. Selma, his mama; Mamby; Nissa; Uncle Sink; Aunt Roo; his sister and brother -- nobody from that all-too-serious but often hilarious crew has a clue where he's gone. And even Sonny can't say exactly what he's after, until those tight-lipped tombs start talking, and life in the house on Rhubarb changes for good.
Now he can hold me in both hands and fly me through the air. I'm a Spitfire.
At Grandpa's he lets me stand on his shoulders and pick the highest peach off the tree.
Daddy makes things work, inside and out. He fixes the clock. He fixes the car.
And he is smart. That's what my mama is always saying: "Leon has the quickest mind of anybody."
For his work, he looks at land for the paper mill. He puts numbers on paper and draws lines with special tools and then they know how to make a road.
When we were going to Uncle Hickman's house, and I was in the backseat with my sister Loretta and Mama was up front with Daddy and the baby (who doesn't know anything, only spits and cries), Daddy said, "Sonny, someday when I'm long gone and you're driving out to the homeplace, you'll remember that your daddy built this road."
"Yes sir," I said. Long gone? Where would Daddy go?
"He means dead," Loretta said, pressing her thumb into my forehead so hard I was sure she'd left a dent.
I remember what Daddy said about the road.
Like I remember how he smells: tangy from shaving in the morning, sweaty and dusty at night.
But when they say, "Sonny, you just forget that," I don't remember anything.
I am good at forgetting and remembering. Mama scratched me once, real bad down my back, and I don't remember that. How she shrieked, "Now for the love of God, would you hush?"
I remember how Mamby put Mercurochrome on the scratches, how it stung and I didn't cry, and when I told her it was the neighbor's cat Zooko who scratched me 'cause he thought I was a tree, she said, "Some cat."
I don't remember when Daddy was gone for a long time and Mama said it was for business, but Grandpa said, "The road to Hell has got a layover at Natchez."
Nobody has told me to forget last night yet. Daddy didn't come home for dinner. Mama gave us some sugar bread and put lids on all the pots on the stove. Finally it was so late that she put the baby to bed and the streetlights came on and we sat at the kitchen table and started passing bowls around. Loretta asked why we hadn't had a blessing.
Mama looked sharp at her and said, "I guess I'm not feeling very thankful."
When Loretta took her first bite, she said, "I can see why." The food had got thick and sad.
"That remark earns you the dishes," Mama told her. Loretta's only nine but she's tall. She can reach the faucets.
"I'll help," I said, hoping to stop a fight.
"Thank you, Mr. Butterfingers," Loretta said.
"He can scrape out the pots," Mama said.
Before I did that, Mama fixed another plate.
"Is that for Daddy?" Loretta asked.
That made me feel better. Daddy would be home to eat. I started scraping the yellow and green food globs into the garbage.
"Won't it get cold?" Loretta asked.
"It's already cold," Mama said. She got out a long box and unrolled foil from it to cover the plate. Then she set Daddy's dinner with its silver blanket in the oven. "I'm going to check on the baby. Sonny, you finish that and get ready for bed."
When she was out of the kitchen Loretta said, "She'll send me to bed too. We never get to see the good stuff."
I stood still, trying to think what she meant.
Loretta whapped me on the chest with a dish towel. "Stop thinking, Sonny! You'll have a spell!"
So I put the last plate on the counter and went upstairs and got into my new summer pj's with the white sailboats painted on them. I'd already had a bath back when we were hoping to eat with Daddy. I sat on my pillow with my knees up to my chin, then slid myself between the sheets like you put your hand in your pocket. That way nothing can snatch me in the night.
The phone ringing woke me up.
And Mama's voice. "We're just fine, Roo." Oh, it was Aunt Roo. That was good. "Well, no, he's not, but that doesn't mean -- " She was quiet for a minute, listening. "Tell her I said she's a liar, then. A filthy liar! And you of all people shouldn't listen to her." Mama slammed down the phone.
My mama doesn't say "liar" or "filthy."
I slid out of the bed-pocket to sit on the stairs, in the shadows where she couldn't see me. I had to see if it really was my mama who said those words. But she had left the wide hall where the phone sits on the marbletop table and gone through the dark dining room to the kitchen. I heard a cupboard door open and then the rattle of dishes and she came back with Daddy's supper on a tray. She balanced this by the phone. Then she took off her shoes. My mama doesn't go barefooted. Even if she has on her nightclothes, she wears slippers.
I got sleepy, but the uuff of the front door woke me. It sticks a little. Then Daddy said in his saved-for-night voice, "Why, Selma!" and Mama lifted that tray to her shoulder like a waitress and heaved it at him.
"You missed your dinner, but it didn't miss you," Mama said.
I am really going to have to forget the crash and splush and clack of that china and silver, that roast beef and creamed corn and that little tray with the butterflies on it, and Daddy yelling, "God damn it!"
And Mama saying, "You think I don't know you're up to no good? This is humiliating, Leon. Even Roo's neighbor knew you weren't home. Why you want to throw away your plateful in this life I do not know."
But you threw it, Mama, I wanted to say. Why didn't you go to bed like you told us to? Why didn't you just forget it?
Daddy bent over the mess and got a glob of corn on his finger. Then he came up to Mama and wiped it on her cheek. "Because I don't like the food," he said.
And she slapped him across the face. It sounded like little thunder, and I let go my breath and the pee I'd been holding. I couldn't run to the toilet because they'd hear me. I just let it happen, like everything else. There must have been a dipperful.
Then together they picked up the broken dishes, put them on the tray, and went out to the kitchen. Later Daddy came back with a rag.
I knew then to run get in bed, because in a minute they'd be coming up the stairs.
Nobody woke me up today. Just too much light.
No smell of breakfast, no baby crying.
From the top of the stairs I saw suitcases in the hall. The front door was open.
I ran down and out, summer grass licking my feet.
Daddy was loading the car. I jumped on his back and he almost lost his balance.
"Hey, Son!" he said.
I didn't answer. I could feel sweat through the white shirt I'd watched Mamby iron yesterday. He straightened up. "No time to play monkey," he said.
I didn't move. His backbone was knobby against my cheek. His suspender so close to my eye looked like a road.
"I said, Get down, Sonny."
I did, but I held his arm as I slid and then I bit him on the meaty part of his hand.
"Why, you little hellion!" he said, slinging me off.
I ran into the house to get my clothes on.
My daddy's hand tasted like metal, but sweet, too, like dough, and salty like tears in a pillow slip. It tasted like clothes and the leather suitcase handle.
I got back outside as fast as I could and stood on the running board. Maybe I could hide in the car when he wasn't looking.
"Where are you going?" I asked.
"Natchez," he said.
"For how long?"
"I don't know, Sonny. It's business."
"But Grandpa says -- "
"Forget what that old man says. You listen to me."
He was talking about Mama's daddy. It made me shiver. And the shivers sent Mama's words right out of my mouth: "You think I don't know -- " But I didn't know, so I had to stop.
"Don't know what?" He set the box he was carrying on the roof of the car. Maybe he would turn around now. Maybe he would carry it back in the house.
"That you're up to no good." I was ready for him to slap me like Mama slapped him.
But he just said, soft like it was a secret, "You see why I've to go, Son. A man can't live in a house of spies."
I wanted to say, I'm not a spy! but I had watched from the stairs.
"You remember that," Daddy said.
And he walked back to the house for the last load. He had just given me a test. Really I'm supposed to forget what he said. Grown-ups test you sometimes.
You don't know my daddy. He would never call me a spy. He would never go off and leave us. I just have to figure out what to remember, what to forget.
George Ella Lyon is the author of Trucks Roll!, Planes Fly!, and Boats Float!, cowritten with her son Benn. Among George Ella’s other books are the ALA Notable All the Water in the World and What Forest Knows. A novelist and poet, she lives with her family in Lexington, Kentucky. Visit her online at GeorgeEllaLyon.com.