January 3, 1964
Our Ma died three days after President Kennedy was killed, and I reckon Daddy must’ve thought the whole world was coming apart on him then, ‘cause he didn’t have no idea how to take care of me, a nine-year-old boy, or worse, my little sister Nettie, who’d just turned three.
When Miss Jaskey, from the County Office, come to see if we was okay, there weren’t nothing to eat in the house ‘cept three jars of baby food from when Nettie was just a little bitty. We’d had six jars the day before, but Daddy come in the kitchen and ate two jars of sweet peaches, then left us on our own, while he went down to Rusko’s Superette to get another box of beer—that he drank warm—before knocking out on the davenport again. I fed Nettie one jar of mushed peas, and then hid them last three jars in a cubbyhole where the milkman used to leave our milk and cottage cheese.
Daddy told Miss Jaskey he couldn’t sleep in his and Ma’s bed no more on account of Ma being dead, and as far as me and Nettie was concerned, he said he didn’t want to be important to nobody no more, so he let Miss Jaskey and Mister Frankenbeck—a great big feller Miss Jaskey brang with her—take us to The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Orphanage in Ocala, where someone might could take better care of us.
Daddy didn’t mean nothing by giving up on us, and the truth is we was took better care of there, but me and Nettie wasn’t too hot on the idea of going to church on Sundays, and at The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Orphanage, you had to go to church every day, and tell Father Blackburn at confession if you'd done something bad—even if you was just thinking it—every Saturday.
At the start, Miss Jaskey and Sister Mary Augustine was extra-insistent on the idea of me and Nettie being took in by the same family. Sister Mary Augustine said it’s important that siblings ain’t separated. I had to ask what that meant, ‘cause I’d never heard the word siblings before. I told Nettie it was okay, and don’t worry, it just meant that we’d be brother and sister, together forever, no matter what.
Then didn’t Sister Mary Claudia—who said I’d cursed at Vespers, when it was really Alvan Clouse who done the cursing—didn’t she find a couple from Pensacola who was only wanting a nice little girl, and didn’t she let Nettie go with that couple from Pensacola before making sure with Sister Mary Augustine and Miss Jaskey first? Sister Mary Augustine said she didn’t have no choice but to set me down in the troublemaker’s room, in the basement, ‘cause I was madder than a wet hornet on Flag Day over me and Nettie.
Now just here lately, Sister Mary Augustine told me that nobody’s heard nothing from Daddy since Christmastime. He ain’t living in our house no more or going to his job at the Sand and Gravel Works. She said he’d asked after us on a telephone call sometime after Thanksgiving, and when Sister Mary Augustine told him that me and Nettie was separated siblings, he went and hung up, and there wasn’t nothing more to say about it.
I reckon Nettie must be well and happy with that couple from Pensacola. I’ll bet they put up a Christmas tree, and Santa Claus probably brang her more presents than he could afford to leave me, or anybody else, at the orphanage. Then too, Sister Mary Augustine said that presents is nice ‘n all—and I got this book, with blank pages, that I write my thoughts in, if I have any—but the important thing, she said, is to remember that Christmastime is really the birthday of Jesus. She said it’d be best for me to try and take after Jesus, if I could, and wish goodness and peace for every soul on earth, even if me and Nettie ain’t siblings together no more.
I do hope Nettie don’t miss me as much as I miss her, and Ma—and Daddy too. I guess. She’s still a little one, and maybe she don’t think on it the same as I do. Father Blackburn says I should take stock of the things I do got and be thankful for ‘em. I reckon that’s the sort of thing Ma would tell us is easy to say, but ain’t so easy to do. Then too, a book with blank pages is more than Jesus ever wanted for a present, even on his own birthday.
I try not to wonder too much about things I don’t have no say over, and that’s a good way to think if you ain’t sure you’re ever gonna be in a family again. I try to picture Nettie smiling and laughing how she does. I do wonder if I’ll ever see Daddy again, or if me and Nettie might could be siblings again, and sometimes I wonder about them three jars of baby food I hid in that cubbyhole. I wonder if one day someone’ll find them three jars, just setting there, and say, What in the world ever happened here?
Scott McClelland is not comfortable in any home that has no pickles. Bartleby Snopes Literary Journal nominated his short story, “My Yellow Cup with the Tiger On,” for a 2016 Pushcart Prize.