Dreams for Breakfast
Doc pulled the aluminum lid off the can of Spam and used it to cut a slice of the pre-formed loaf. He placed the slice on top of three saltine crackers hoping his sister wouldn’t notice he dropped one in the grass and cleaned the dirty corner on his patched coveralls.
“Here Sunny. Eat nice so you don’t get dirty. We want to look our best when we get there.”
“I do look nice. Do you think I can wear my birthday crown?”
“Yes you do look nice, and I guess if you want to wear the crown you might as well.” Doc pulled the tallest blade of grass within reach and began chewing the stem with his head cocked back and eyes closed to the afternoon Georgia sun. Doc was anxious and felt unprepared to meet the person they might find at the address on his paper. He thought of his coveralls and Sunny’s crown but it couldn’t be helped now. They weren’t planning on this trip when they woke up this morning.
“Ain’t you going to say Grace with me?”
Doc’s eyes opened and lost focus in the field before him wondering who it was that he was supposed to be saying Grace to. What did God ever give him that he should be thankful for? All he had was Sunny now; God took more than he gave Doc thought. There had been happy times with his mother, but they are confused with what Doc wishes were his memories and those that really are. Their mother taught them to say Grace but that didn’t help her any. What God allows a mother to take her own life and leave her children to return to the life she wanted to escape?
When Natalie Tanner arrived in Rome, Georgia her tall waist concealed the baby growing inside. She checked into the hotel and waited on the shabby sofa of the lobby with a single suitcase at her ankles while her room was being cleaned. Willa Pope was a woman in her later thirties and had worked at the hotel cleaning rooms for the past year. She was making the rounds that morning and with one look into the emerald eyes of the frayed teenager before her, Willa would later recall how she recognized a girl who had set out to begin a new life and needed someone to show her where to go from there.
Doc was born the day after Christmas, 1956. The doctor lifted the newborn in the air and declared he never delivered a baby that had its eyes open as if waiting to see if this new world would impress him. Natalie cradled her new son and named him Doctor Stetson Tanner. Doctor because she wanted him to be somebody important and Stetson after his father. Natalie didn’t know love at first sight could happen twice. She whispered into her infant son’s ear that he was the best Christmas present she’s ever been given.
Doc and Sunshine knew two mothers; the first being the one that delivered them into the world and the second being the one that kept them living in it. Willa had been the one to give Doc his first taste of milk and Doc gave Willa his first smile. She taught Natalie how to wrap the baby tightly and rock him to sleep singing low gospel lullabies and how to pin the diaper without poking the child. Willa was, in a way, a mother to Natalie, too.
Natalie never stayed the night at that hotel. She went home with Willa and lived with her for the first three years of Doc’s life. Willa said her husband left to find a job in another city, and that’s all she ever said about the man. She was living alone with her baby girl who was born earlier that year and trying to make ends meet. Willa would tell of the time she first met Doc’s momma to him as a bedtime story at night. She said God moved them together like pieces in a game of checkers so Willa could kiss Doc on the forehead every night. Doc liked Willa’s bed time stories about God and checkers.
Natalie started waiting tables at Mack’s on the night shift. It was only to be temporary till she saved enough money to buy her and Doc train tickets to New York City where she would be a star on Broadway. Tickets to New York cost more than tips could provide and Natalie started to bring home side jobs. Doc stopped being startled when Natalie would move him off their bed in the middle of the night to sleep with Willa and Vidalia, so that another could lie in his spot with her till morning. Doc knew he could have his mother back in the morning but we worked at night.
When Doc was almost four years-old someone stayed for breakfast. His name was Heath Jones and he called Doc “Champ” and wore a leather jacket with patches of bones and birds on the back that he let Doc try on. It was too big but Doc liked the man that stayed past morning.
Heath was there for many mornings and soon every morning for a month. Natalie told Willa that she and Doc would be moving in with Heath a short distance away. The women agreed since Willa had been promoted to cleaning supervisor at the hotel she would be able to make it on her own now. Natalie could afford to pay Willa to watch Doc at nights and pick him up in the morning when her shift ended at Mack’s but Willa refused saying what mother expects cash pay to kiss her babies goodnight? She hugged Natalie with all the love of a sister and wished her happiness. She surrounded her soft brown hands around Doc’s cheeks and looked deep into his green eyes, which mimicked his mother’s, and told him he better be a good boy or he would get freckles. He told Willa he wouldn’t mind freckles but he promised to be good anyways. Doc made Willa laugh.
Heath was an honest and hard working man and he said Doc could call him “Dad” if he wanted to. He would take Doc for rides on his motorcycle to the drug store and buy him an ice cream cone. Natalie would come home in the mornings tired from a night on her feet waiting tables and on her back making over time. Heath would have breakfast ready and then take Doc and Sunny to Willa’s house so he could go to work and Natalie could get some sleep. It wasn’t long after moving in to their new home with Heath that Natalie started to feel a familiar dizziness in the mornings. Nine months later Doc had a sister named Sunshine Tanner. Heath chose the name of Sunshine because of the baby’s bright blond wisps of curls. He let Natalie give her the last name of Tanner because he said who the hell knew if the baby was his or not but for sure they knew it was Natalie’s. Doc adored the new person in his life. He helped Heath feed and dress her and at night he tucked her in with a kiss on the forehead.
Doc started school with Vidalia, and Willa changed her schedule at the hotel so she could take Sunny with her during the day while Natalie slept. After school Willa took them back to Heath’s house where Doc would feed Sunny dinner and put her to bed. When she would wake in the middle of the night Doc would prepare her a bottle and sing low gospel lullabies while she fell asleep next to him.
In the early hours of the morning, when Natalie thought Doc was sleeping, she would sit on the edge of his bed and sweep back his brown hair and whisper her promises to him. She made promises to leave and go to the big city where they would be really happy at last. At times she would cry softly and apologize for not being more because she said Doc deserved more. She would pray out loud to God asking Him to make everything good for them. If Sunny started to whimper Natalie would pat her back and make cooing sounds until she was calmly sleeping again. Doc listened, never stirring, because it was only when she thought he was asleep that she would talk to him like this. Sometimes she would come home after drinking and talk about her past that she never spoke of when sober. One night she told Doc, as he lay in bed with eyes closed but ears open, that his grandfather had died that day. This was the only mention of kin that Doc ever heard and the first time he knew he had a grandfather, he was already dead. Natalie would sit and watch her children sleep and lovingly brush her hand down their cheeks. She would leave them for her bed after leaning down low by Doc’s ear and softly spoke how he has been the best present a mother could ask for. Then he would fall back to sleep and dream of a big house with a garage Heath could use to fix motorcycles and a yard with a fence so Sunny could have a puppy and enough money so his mom didn’t have to work anymore. But Doc learned a long time ago dreams don’t stay for breakfast very often.
A day and a night passed without Heath coming to get Doc and Sunny from Willa’s house and she didn’t make Doc or Vidalia go to school that day. He had just celebrated his seventh birthday but he had understanding beyond the calendar of his age. He heard Willa on the telephone the night before telling the person on the other end she would keep the kids as long as she needed to. Willa came into the room where Doc and Vidalia were listening to President Kennedy announce the goal to land a man on the moon by the end of the century. Willa turned down the radio and picked Sunny up onto her lap. She squeezed her tightly into the softness of her bosom and closed her eyes. She didn’t let go of Sunny until she started to squirm and Willa let her down and she walked over to Doc. There was a fight at Mack’s last night, Willa said, an awful fight. Natalie was not hurt bad but Heath was. He was taken to the hospital but didn’t make it. Doc wanted to believe Willa meant he didn’t make it to the hospital because he got better on the way there. But he knew what she meant. He knew it was too good to last. Heath was dead and promises were about to be broken.
Doc and Sunny slept with Willa and Vidalia that night like he used to do when his mother needed their bed. Natalie didn’t work the following night but stayed with her children in the house that would be theirs now and gave them good night kisses herself. Doc thought that he was seeing a silver lining to the clouds formed over head. Looking back, he sees that this was only the calm before the storm.
Natalie went back to working nights and sometimes afternoons, too. She turned down Willa when she asked them to move back in with her. When Doc wasn’t at school he was caring for Sunny. Natalie started to sleep more during the day and Doc took over, at age seven, as the man of the house.
Doc prepared breakfast for his mother and sister the way Heath had done. He dressed Sunny so she was ready to go with Willa for the day and after school he made dinner and sang Sunny to sleep at night. This was the routine that survival carved in their lives for the next three years.
Natalie brought men to the house again after work. Sometimes two or three knocked on the door in the middle of the night. And sometimes they didn’t pay in cash money but in the form of new things Natalie had grown to depend on. Doc slept with his bedroom door locked and kept Sunny close to his side. Natalie played music that scared Doc and then it would be quiet and the silence scared Doc more.
When Doc came to school in November without a jacket his teacher started asking questions. She noticed his coveralls were two inches too short and his socks were threadbare. Willa had usually been the one to notice these things first but she only saw Doc very briefly when he rode the city bus to the hotel to pick Sunny up after school. Doc couldn’t wait till next fall when she would start kindergarten and they would ride the bus together, he knew she would love to see the stores and people on the streets. Doc liked to do things on his own, he was used to it and he had gotten good at it.
Two police officers came to the house one night after the New Year. Doc was reading a book to Sunny on the floor when they came in and asked if his mother was home. Doc had to lie and say she left for the grocery store, they were out of milk. That was another lie because he had just bought some yesterday. They asked if they could look around a little. Doc prayed, please God, don’t let them look in the refrigerator. He said it was fine, but maybe they should come back later when his mother was home. Doc thought yes, come later when he would have all the doors locked and wouldn’t let them back in. Sunny started to cry and Doc lifted her up to rest her head on his shoulder and comfort her. Something about this image softened the police officer’s motivation to search and question so they asked the young man to please tell his mother that they stopped by.
Doc locked the doors and turned off the lights. He told Sunny that everything was going to be fine. They were going to play safari and go on an adventure. He asked Sunny if she could be a brave girl and go on an adventure with him. Sunny said she would go if he was going. Doc said that they would always go together.
The only time Doc saw his mother was in the morning before he left for the day. Natalie would be curled in bed with covers over her head blocking the sun light. Now Doc would be the one to sit on the edge of her bed and pull back the covers and whisper in her ear. If he had extra time he would pause to admire her long dark hair and soft lips. She had gotten wrinkles over the hard years but Doc thought they made her look like she was smiling while she slept and he liked to see his mother smile. He would clean up empty glass bottles of alcohol and pills and belts and stockings from the floor and tuck the covers back the way she had them. Doc would tell his mother that he would always love her and after a kiss on the cheek, he locked the house and walked to the bus stop with Sunny.
Sunny started kindergarten and went to school with Doc in the mornings. Willa met Sunny after school and took her back to the hotel to play until Doc got done with his classes. One afternoon when Doc is picked up Sunny she stopped him with two strong arms on his shoulders. She pulled him into her embrace and kept him there for a time. Doc blushed thinking he’s too old for such long hugs and asked Willa what that was all about. Willa said it’s because she knew that life ain’t easy, but she still doesn’t see one freckle on Doc’s beautiful face. She said it was just for being a good boy like he promised. Doc felt his face get warm and he looked at his shoes. He decided to tell Willa about the police men that came by wanting to see the house a few months ago and how he’s seen a police car across the street lately. He said he’s worried but trying to be brave for Sunny. Willa asked him if they want to stay with her for a while but Doc said he couldn’t leave Natalie alone. He told Willa thank you then gave her a quick hug before he boarded the bus with Sunny.
The school year was coming to an end and Sunny’s fourth birthday was nearing. She asked Doc what he was going to give her for her birthday and he told her it would be a surprise. Doc didn’t have any money left over for the month and Natalie hadn’t given him any for the next month yet. The money she left out for Doc to buy groceries was less and less each month. On the bus ride home Doc thought about what to get for Sunny’s birthday and how they could afford it. Natalie was at work when they arrived home, as usual, but on the kitchen table neatly laid out was a ballerina tutu and matching crown. A simple note read happy birthday love, mommy rested on top. Sunny slipped the tutu on immediately and asked Doc to fix the crown over her golden ringlets while she squealed with joy. Doc stood filled with a temporary moment of hope that he grabbed onto like a life preserver and watched his sister twirl and spin forgetting the tempest he lived in.
Sunny woke early and wanted to wear her birthday presents to school. Doc remembered her dancing and didn’t refuse her wish. The door to his mother’s room was closed that morning when she usually left it ajar. Doc closed it slightly and helped Sunny with breakfast and her book bag. When they were ready to leave for school he went quietly into his mother’s room so he wouldn’t wake her when he said good bye for the day. Doc didn’t know that his mother would never wake again until he pulled the covers back to kiss her cheek and her skin was cold. In her hand he saw the empty pill bottle. Sunny waited by the front door and Doc thought quickly of how he could save her from this. He swept his mother’s hair from over her face and tucked it neatly behind her ears then took the bottle from her hand and dropped it behind the bed. He straightened the covers over her body and laid her hands to rest across her chest like a person finally at peace. Doc sat on the edge of the bed as he had done every morning, but as he would do for the last time. He had no words. He only looked at his mother and waited for her to wake up. If she could only wake up and tell him he was still her best present and how she will love him forever. Doc waited but her eyes would never open again. He tried to swallow the swelling lump in his throat before it could suffocate him. He could not cry he told himself. Sunny must not know. He looked around the room to gather the usual evidence a night of pleasure left behind but on the bed stand he saw only an empty bottle and an envelope that had been ripped open and taped many times and a folded piece of paper. Doc wiped his nose with the back of his hand and reached for the paper. The handwriting was his mother’s and on the top she wrote to my darling ones. She said she was sorry for failing them and for failing in life. Natalie allowed her pen in death to speak the words her mouth could never say while living. The note was not long and when Doc finished he slipped it with the envelope into his book bag and touched his mother’s hand and felt their coldness again. He moved her arms under the covers so Sunny wouldn’t know of their lifelessness. He told his mother he promised he would follow her instructions. Doc memorized her face and how relaxed she looked. This was the way he would remember her. He walked away and crouched at eye level with Sunny by the front door. He told Sunny that his birthday present to her was a day off from school. Sunny screamed in excitement. Doc hushed her so she didn’t wake up momma. He said the present went like this; they had to gather only the things that they wanted the most and leave the rest. This wouldn’t be hard, Doc knew, because they didn’t have many worldly possessions. Sunny ran to their room to think about what to bring. She came out with her book bag half way filled with her favorite book, her blanket and her only two dolls. Doc told her to go back and get her jacket and some clean clothes, too. Doc went to the table and took out his school books. He filled his bag instead with what food was in the pantry; two cans of Spam and a package of saltine crackers. He added a pocket knife that Heath had given him and a change of clothes. When he scanned the three rooms of the tiny house he felt good about what he brought and how things were being left. When the police come to find his mother’s body they would know that she kept a clean house. Sunny met him at the front door and Doc made her put the pillow back because it was a secret adventure and they didn’t want anyone to know that they might not be sleeping there tonight. Sunny said Doc’s birthday present got better and better. Doc took his sister by the hand and told her as he searched her innocent eyes that it was time to say good bye to momma. He said she can’t come with them but they would see her again. Sunny tip-toed to her mother’s bedside and told her thank you for her birthday presents. Doc stopped her before she could lean in to kiss her mother’s cold cheek and lifted Sunny so she could gently kiss the top of her head. Sunny spoke sweetly to her momma who looked as if asleep and said she was going on an adventure with Doc today but he said she couldn’t come because she had a long night but they would see her again, and not to worry because Doc said everything is going to be all right, momma.
They left the house only five minutes later than usual and Doc thought that could happen to anyone on any normal day. He locked the door and didn’t look back. They took the bus to the hotel where Willa was. Mr. Hopper at the front desk had watched Sunny grow up and was fond of the child. He gave her a candy stick to eat in the lobby while Doc found Willa in the courtyard. He told Willa what happened last night while they slept. Willa grabbed her chest and lost her balance. Doc barely caught her and with his arm around her shoulders moved them to sit on a nearby bench. Willa held her hands over her mouth and muttered dear God, dear God, and rocked back and forth while Doc explained the note Natalie left with the instructions that he and Sunny were to go to Atlanta and find his kin. Of course Willa said they would always have a home with her but she knew Doc made a promise to his mother that he needed to keep first. He told her of the taped envelope with money his mother left for him. The envelope had been his mother’s secret savings to buy them out of there but before her addictions had taken her life, they took her money. There was just enough to get them there and back again. Willa squeezed both of Docs hands as if to transfer her love into his heart like it was a substance thick and sweet as honey. He looked into the black eyes of the woman he owed his life to and swore he would come back. He asked her to please tell Vidalia good bye for them. Willa said she would and later that afternoon, once Doc and Sunny were on the bus bound for Atlanta, she called the police to let them know there had been a suicide.
Sunny said she was hungry and Doc said they would eat once they got to Atlanta, they were half way there. Sunny asked if they could have a picnic and Doc told her that would be a fine idea. Tired of looking out the window Doc shifted Sunny, who had fallen asleep on his right arm, to study the note his mother left. On the very bottom were the simple instructions “Find your father”. Under that she listed an address in Atlanta and the name Governor Harvey Stetson.
Molly Reynolds: "I am currently taking a creative writing class at Mesa Community College taught by Beth Staples. I signed up for the class because I felt like my life needed a little diversion. This is the second short story I have ever written."