Later we're on the dock, painting, hammering and tying this to that, music so loud it's like the house is bending its knees, dancing to Louis Prima. Mom says, "Can't you feel that bass in your chest?" holding her breast like her heart's in there. Mitzy grabs herself with both hands where her breasts would be if she had any, turns to Randy, arches her back and slides her hands down her sides and over her hips. He gives her a fake smile, showing every tooth. I say, "Gross."
We sprint to the shed and the woodpile, finding things, then jump into the lake because it's eighty-five degrees and we're sweating like pigs. Having a blast. We race across the sizzling sand--Mom says it only burns if you think about it. She holds up a finger that means stop! We wiggle our fingers in the air and shake our bottoms while we sing the chorus: "So Chattanooga Choo-choo, won't you choo-choo me home? Whoooo-whoooo." That's the Andrews Sisters.
Mom says, "Drag two stools out onto the boat." We ask, "What's it going to be?" She shouts, "Screwdriver," holding her hand in the air for it. "Mommmmmm." We eat an entire package of Oreos. Mom shouts, "All the snow goose decoys!" Pepsi-Cola, Frosted Flakes. "You kids won't know what I'm creating until it's done." We feed ripple chips to the dog, cookie crumbs to the sunfish that live in the shadow of the dock.
I'm wrapping railings in white crepe paper, Randy and Mitzy are cutting cardboard hearts, when Dad appears on the lawn in his baggy black swim trunks, carrying a tall glass of tomato juice. We're hoping he's out of his mood. Otherwise he'll sit in a lawn chair all day shouting, "Marion, why can't you sit here with your husband for a while?" If Mom's awake, she's working on something.
Dad walks hard on the wooden dock, barefoot, heel-toe, thud-thud, pigeon-toed like Mitzy, and thin all over except for a potbelly like a bowling ball. He has a scar across his middle too, a giant frown where the doctors cut out seven-eighths of his stomach because we gave him ulcers. He still pushes there with the heel of his hand when we upset him, and Mom whispers, "Must have been the wrong seven-eighths."
She's standing in the shallow water behind the boat, a paintbrush in her hand, her face paint-speckled white. She's beautiful.
Dad steps to the edge of the dock to look, and his mouth falls open like she's running naked down Main Street. "What in creation?"
She dabs at the motor, lifts her chin. "Tah-dahhhh!!! Tomorrow we're going to win the Fourth of July float contest!"
Randy whistles like a train and we all clap except Dad who points his finger at her like otherwise she couldn't figure out who he's talking to. "For Chrissake, Marion. You don't paint motors."
Randy and I move toward her, but she tilts a hip, cocks her head and winks at Dad. "Darling, later I'll paint your motor any color you want."
After a long drink of tomato juice he smacks his lips. I hate lip-smacking. "After dinner?"
With the tiny tip of her paintbrush, Mom circles the top of the motor again while he watches.
"Heh," he says finally, smiling now, shaking his head because he can't get over how cute she is.
Randy shouts, "Camouflage. Mom, you could paint it camouflage for duck hunting. Gray and green and brown. All swirled together. I could show you."
Dad walks back toward the house.
Mitzy's finger shoots out toward Randy. "Drop dead. It's not a duck-hunting float. Don't be stupid."
Me? I'm hoping for yellow. Mom's favorite color and mine. We paint everything yellow.
We're moving like the wind. We work straight through until dark, when Mom strings extension cords all the way from the house to clamp a spotlight on a dock pole. We can't stop for dinner, but Mom slows down long enough to lift her arms to the sky and twirl, saying in a voice like she's praying, "Star light, star bright," while tiny waves kiss the pontoon floats and the crickets are the loudest you've ever heard.
Excerpted from A Brief History of the Flood by Jean Harfenist Copyright© 2002 by Jean Harfenist. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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