A little boy carries the head of a doll he calls Henry. Chocolate brown, bald, with big blue eyes and a perpetual smile, Henry is this boy's guardian. He translates what is going on in the boy's life. The boy's name is also Henry. But, he doesn't call himself that -- he is merely The Boy. Even to his mother.
The Boy and Henry have moved many times in The Boy's five years of life. It is because his mother, Ruth, can't take care of him. She is not a child herself, so to the rest of the world it appears that she should be able to take care of him. He is, after all, tiny. Ruth is soft and warm when she remembers to hold The Boy. However, that is not often. It is all she can do to open her eyes each morning. It is all she can do to put clothes on him, to give him an occasional bath, to fill a bowl with dry cereal at dinner time. She tries to work but more often than not, she forgets to go to her job.
Ruth, The Boy, and Henry live in a room in the back of a falling-down house. There are boxes stacked everywhere, clothes given by people with good intentions. There are also boxes of small appliances that just need new plugs, new cords. The good-intentioned people give them to Ruth. The Boy used to have a father, also named Henry, who fixed these things and sold them. Old toasters, shaken free of crumbs, cleaned, and given new life. Electric frying pans, degreased, scoured, legs tightened, and given new life. Coffee pots, soaked in bleach, toothpicks jabbed through the holes to loosen accumulations of greasy grounds, and given new life.
The Boy carries Henry everywhere. He is always in his hands, cradled in his arms. No one has heard The Boy speak, ever. But he gets along okay. When his clothes become too torn and dirty, he rummages through one of the boxes, pulls something out, and tugs it on. He is as neat as he can be in this world. He folds his torn and dirty clothes, spattered with food, and puts them in a box, away from the clothes he has yet to wear.
Henry and The Boy sleep under a card table. On top of the card table are more boxes. The Boy has made a pallet from good-intentioned donations of ratty quilts. He has rolled up dish towels for Henry's bed. Ruth sleeps on the couch. Sometimes, when she looks at The Boy, curled under the table with the ripped green cover, the rusted legs, a paper tag hanging down, she wonders where she will put The Boy when he gets too big.
Right now, though, Ruth has combed her hair, washed herself at the kitchen sink, and put on a sleeveless blue knit top. It is the blue of Henry's painted eyes, pale, soft, distant. Cloud-like. The Boy has never seen her wear this color and he likes it. He brings Henry to her, slides into her lap as quietly and gently as he can, and breathes in all the Ruth smells of his mother -- a little sweat, a little powder, a little something fried. Henry tells him, "This is what clouds smell like. Your mama is a blue cloud."
Ruth tells The Boy that they have to pack up some of the boxes. The Boy is going away. To a New Life. Where someone will feed him and help him speak. The Boy clutches Henry in one hand, a piece of his mother's soft knit top in the other. Without words, he cries. Tears run down his thin cheeks and fall onto Henry's chocolate face, wetting Henry's eyes so he, too, looks as if he is crying. Together, Ruth, The Boy, and Henry look through the clothes of good intentions and pick out:
one pair of red Keds, both shoelaces intact;
one pair of Incredible Hulk Underoos, almost new;
one pair of red shorts with only a tiny tear in one pocket;
one blue shirt, Brand New With Tags, with a baseball mitt and bat embroidered over the heart.
Henry says, "Your mama thinks you can be a baseball player. In this New Life, anything can happen."
Ruth carries The Boy to the sink which she has filled with bubbles from the pink bottle of dishwashing liquid. He is tiny and fits into the sink easily. The Boy lets her wash him -- every part of him -- all the while looking into her face, trying to find her eyes. She starts with his hair, telling him to close his eyes. She scrubs him hard. The Boy wants her to stop but Henry says, "Let her do it. For your New Life."
She, Ruth, scrubs at his neck, his bird-like shoulders, between his legs at his little sex, shriveled from the cold water. She pushes the pink wash cloth, one she found in a box of good intentions, between each and every toe, tickling The Boy. Henry says, "Don't laugh. Don't let her see you laugh today."
She hands The Boy the washcloth and he soaps up Henry, getting him ready, too, for their New Life. Henry tells The Boy to let the water out of the sink; Ruth has moved away. She sways ever so slightly, The Boy, forgotten in the chipped and stained sink. Henry says, "Turn on the water," and The Boy does. He rinses himself, watching the bubbles slide down the drain, then slips to the floor.
He dries himself on his bed quilt, and dresses in the good intentions. It is time to begin his New Life. He clutches the chocolate brown doll head and moves to Ruth's side. She faces the corner, and he does, too. She is somewhere else now, far away. The Boy will remember this moment always, even when he is no longer tiny. Even when he is grown and he calls himself Henry. He will always remember her like a soft blue cloud.
About the author:
BIO: Lisa Chewning, MFA, Creative Writing, University of Pittsburgh, has published over 35 short stories and short short stories in literary magazines and anthologies incluidng Walking the Twilight, Feminist Studies, Beloit Fiction Journal, and Mudville Diaries. She teaches creative writing in various venues in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.