"Here, John. This will make it all better." My mother swiftly scooped a piece of pie from a disposable tin and placed the plate in front of him. Lonely Chicago Pie. Sweet strawberries, tart blackberries. Semisweet chocolate. Nothing is only bitter when mixed together with sugary flavors that cover the sour and the seeds.
But my father doesn't know that. He just sees that she still isn't using the fancy pie tin he bought for her, that there are still dishes in the sink even though she's been home all day long. Measuring cups and spoons and eggshells and the tops of strawberries.
"Hellen, I still don't understand why you don't just go out and get a job in a restaurant if all you wanna do is this kind of shit all day," he murmured under his breath, fist tightening around the fork. "You certainly aren't taking care of the home."
I halt with my broom over by the front door. Daddy hasn't seen me yet. Maybe I have time to make it upstairs before he gets angry.
But then I see the look in my mother's eye. The same look when there's a rabbit caught in a trap in the garden, that wide, glassy look masking terror sending tremors down the rest of the body. She deserves better than a daughter who will just walk away from her.
My father grips her wrist, and I'm shooting up the stairs before I can remind myself to stay and fight for her. She deserves better than this. He's going to hurt her while you're hiding upstairs like a child! You're not a child anymore, Jenna. He could hurt you too.
My hands shook as I reached for the home phone on the table. I could barely dial the number I memorized from the first time he scratched it on my palm with a dollar store ballpoint pen.
I kept it pressed against my chest and stretched the chord into the bathroom. I closed my eyes and sunk down to the floor, waiting for that voice to fill me with more comfort than that Lonely Chicago pie.
"Earl," I whispered, pressing the phone closer to my cheek as if it could bring him to me. "Earl, talk to me."
"Is it your mama again?" He asked, his voice distant as if he was holding it between his shoulder and face while doing something else. He was always so busy. "Baby, you know there's nothing I can do about that one."
I swiped at the tears streaking down my cheeks when I heard my father's voice rise in rage. "No, I know that. I'm not asking you to do anything about her. Just talk to me."
"Well, what am I supposed to say, baby?" His voice was finely coming through clearly, and I could imagine him in his own kitchen, heating up a leftover casserole in the microwave instead of doing it proper in the oven.
It never mattered what he said as long as he was saying it. "Will you sing to me?" I then asked. Earl was always better at coming up with lyrics than words. He had such a talent for that.
There was a faint smile in his voice when he spoke next. "You bet. What do you wanna hear?"
"Sing me my song," I whispered, squeezing my eyes shut as if it would block out the sound of my father's palm connecting with my mother's face.
"Aw, that sad one?" He asked, voice distant again. "Girl, I swear you like feeling sad."
"I like it because you wrote it for me," I offered, even though it wasn't a complete truth. It was like that Lonely Chicago pie. Bittersweet. It still held love and promise but didn't lie about the fact that it held tart blackberry and more cocoa and less milk and sugar.
Earl's voice warmed me from the top of my head to my toes when he started to sing just for me. When he reached my favorite part, he whispered, "Sing it with me, baby."
"No, I can't sing like you can."
"Jenna, sing," he urged.
I struggled to whisper the line through the lump in my throat. "Till the sun don't shine. You will still be mine."
"That's it," he replied, voice too bright for the sound of my father's bellows. "Good job, honey. Now is that good enough? I'm supposed to be meeting Todd at the Taco Bell."
Then he couldn't have been heating up one of his mother's casseroles in the microwave if he was going to the Taco Bell. I don't know why it hurt so much, to find out that what I'd been picturing in my head wasn't the truth. "Oh, okay," I whispered.
"I could pick you up if you'd like," he offered. But I knew they wouldn't talk to me if I went, I'd just be something pretty to sit by Earl when he hung out with his guys. I learned that lesson quickly. He was just trying to be nice to me.
So I gave the answer that both of us wanted. "No, it's okay," I whispered. "I need to help mama clean the kitchen. She'd be upset if she had to do it herself."
I'd never seen my mother upset a day in my life. But Earl answered, "Okay, baby. I'll see you tomorrow then. Meet me outside the cafeteria."
"Okay," I whispered, pausing to hear if he was done yet. "I love you."
"Love you too, baby."
I managed to close the door behind me and set the phone in its cradle. When I looked up, my daddy's face was two inches from mine. "Jenna, how was school?" He asked. His voice was horse from hollering and he had that strained look he always had when he was coming down from an angry spell.
"It was fine, daddy," I murmured, my hand clenching and releasing the fabric of my skirt. I couldn't look him in the eye.
He lifted my chin with a crooked finger so I had to meet his gaze. "I'm proud of you," he whispered. "You're a good girl."
He didn't say anything else before trudging toward his bedroom, left leg still stiff from the accident at the factory that happened before I was born. My mother always talked about how brave he was, how we worked so hard to support us. I never understood why that bravery and hard work mattered if it locked my mother in the kitchen baking her Lonely Chicago pie.