J. C. Penney used to have a store right on the Circle in Indianapolis. The front was curved around from one corner to the next like all the buildings, a hundred windows facing the street. I counted them, but I could be wrong. Mommy wasn’t sick that day when we rode the bus downtown to the Circle. She had clothes on, clothes to go outside in, not the long gown she kept on all day. And she did not have on the old corduroy robe she wore in the kitchen. We had breakfast that day. Mommy cooked boiled eggs and made buttermilk biscuits. The table was wiped clean that morning and the place mats had not a speck of food anywhere. The ashtrays were empty, and the vodka bottles were pushed down deep into the bottom of the trash can.
My little sister Josie sat next to me in her own chair. The big ugly men hadn’t come in the night before to take up all the chairs, to take up all the room. There was no hurry. We had enough food to fill our stomachs-hot cocoa, not warm water in our cups. The neighbors stared at Mommy and me and Josie. Cissy was with us, but not yet born. She was in Mommy’s big stomach.
Doors opened quickly soon as we stepped out on the porch. There were so many curtains pulled back so the old women could watch us on our way to the bus stop. The only one who said hello was Mr. Dombrowski. His wife was dead a long time ago from a disease that ate her brain. That made me feel scared every time he told me. Every morning, he’d stroll by our house and yell to me, “Tell your mother she’s pretty!”, then he’d keep on going. He never came into our house, never slammed glasses down hard on our kitchen table, or never talked so loud that I couldn’t fall asleep. Mr. Dombrowski didn’t play the record player loud and he never dropped cigarette ashes on me or my sister. He never burnt us accidentally when we passed him in the hallway with a lighted cigarette sticking out of his fingers. Our neighbor never drank all our orange juice or left stinky whiskey bottles out on the counter. I never had to push his drinking glasses away or the ice-cube trays just a bit so I could use the toaster. I didn’t have to spend many minutes listening to his stories as he clenched my elbow. He had not made Mommy spend all her money for those things they needed for their parties.
I never had to search on my knees for any of those shiny black capsules dropped on the floor from Mr. Dombrowski. He didn’t enter our home, so he couldn’t do anything stupid like that. Josie thought the pills were pretty and swallowed three of them one morning that some other man dropped on the floor. That morning, Mr. Dombrowski held the door open for Mommy as she rushed to throw Josie in the back seat of the station wagon. He sat with me on the steps outside, brought me butter and bread with lemonade, and then a thermos of soup later on for dinner. He made a bed for me on the porch swing with a pillow and blanket until Mommy brought Josie home.
But that other morning when Mommy took us shopping, he winked at us three girls going downtown to Monument Circle. The old women in their aprons carefully watched us. When we got to the corner, I turned around. Two of them with their tightly-permed curls whispered and pointed in our direction.
The driver smiled because he didn’t know us. Mommy had on lipstick and I carried my little white purse from Easter. We three were quiet until the bus finally pulled up on the Circle.
“Watch your step young ladies” the driver called out to us, then we were caught up in the middle of a crowd. They were waiting to get in to the doors of J. C. Penney’s Back to School Sale. Mommy let us choose our favorite candy. She let us eat it in the store even though we were not supposed to. The sales lady measured our chests, our waists and shoe size.
Mommy said with authority “My daughters each need two new uniforms with slips, underwear and everything. They need new shoes also. And where is the Infants Department?”
We had more food for lunch in the coffee shop with all the turkey and dressing we wanted. I asked for extra mashed potatoes and gravy. There was chocolate milk and butterscotch pie. The men and women in the other booths talked nice to each other. They told jokes, laughed and grinned at us in a friendly way.
Our last stop was the sewing department. Mommy bought fabric for new living room curtains. Josie and I sat at the tables flipping through page of patterns for dresses. Josie hadn’t cried all day. I left her for a minute. Those little spools of thread caught my eye. I chose pink, my favorite color and a package of shiny gold safety pins from the display tables. I opened up my little purse and put them inside. Then I returned to Josie still sitting and looking at pattern books.
Mommy got each of us by the hand. The bag of fabric dangled from her elbow. At the door, she let us buy gum balls from the penny machine. We stood in the crowd waiting for our bus, the one that would carry us back to our neighborhood. Father O’Brien came up and tapped Mommy on the shoulder.
“Fancy seeing you ladies downtown! You’re looking fine. God bless you.” He said he had business at the government building, and then he hurried away. But then he turned around, came a little closer to us and smiled.
“Hope to see you, Mrs. O’Brien, and the family this Sunday.” And he blessed us again.
It was nearly dark, almost supper time when we stepped off the bus at the corner. Mommy had made meatloaf in the morning. Now all she had to do was pop it into the oven. None of the neighbors saw us come home. I begged to peel the potatoes. Josie sat at the table with her coloring book.
“Mommy, shouldn’t you take off your hat to cook supper?” She came over to me and gave me a great big hug.
My mother was the best cook in the world.