Our Broken Pieces
by Zarmeen Hasan
by Daphne Wong
To my mother, smoking is like breathing. My father used to say God took a long sigh from a cigar and blew it into my mother’s soul. Cigarette smoke litters all of our furniture like stains we never took the time to get rid of. Everyone else knows it’s there; sometimes we forget.
Picture frames don’t hold a smell, I think that’s why we have so many. Most are the kind you find at a garage sale: First Christmas and I love my mommy and stupid stuff like that. Most of them are propped up on window sills and the staircase. There are so many, sometimes I almost forget about all the envelopes that say FINAL NOTICE sticking out behind them.
Once, there were three store-bought frames that stood on their own, one for each of us. They were the nicest things we had.
Travis’ frame had three felt soccer balls that have been glued on the border, and his big buck teeth stuck out in his uneven smiling picture. My mother always said that his teeth would move right and fix themselves when he got taller. Travis is 17, and he hits his head on doorways now. His teeth aren’t ever going to fix themselves.
Jacob’s frame was wooden but it had a woven border, like a little basket. He’s shorter than Travis, but you wouldn’t know. Something about him makes him seem taller. I’ve noticed lines of tattoo ink running down his arms, like messy rivers, every time I visit him. Jacob doesn’t like to talk about the frames when I visit; they were kind of his first strike. Now he’s locked up.
My frame was silver and shiny, outlining my first baby picture. I used to spray it with water when I was seven, to get all the fingerprint marks out so it would look clean. But then the hinge started rusting. The orange dust left over made my mother angry.
“Nothing ever is stay good if you just go around tryin’ to fix it all the time,” she said, shaking her head and brushing the rust off the mantle. She locked my spray bottle back under the sink.
I couldn’t ever stop thinking about all the fingerprints on my frame. The sun pulled them forward every morning, along with a layer of dust that covered every frame in our whole house. One Saturday morning, my mother left to get baking soda from the store. I waited until I heard the door click, I heard the three rrrrv noises it took her car to start. I heard her drive away.
I ran a Kleenex under the faucet in the bathroom, and I climbed up and I scrubbed at the dust and the fingerprints and all the bad things on my frame. The tissue started to break apart, so I wet two more, and wiped down Travis’ frame. The soccer balls on it started to get blurry. Jacob’s frame turned a dark brown when I ran the tissue over it. Like it was brand new. There were little white pieces of tissue on every picture. I stood back to look at my work.
I didn’t hear Jacob come in. But I felt his big shadow swallowing me up. He was still pretty tall back then, even at thirteen. His voice climbed down through my ears to that pit of my stomach reserved for feeling guilty.
“Hope, Mama don’t ever let you touch the frames, Mama don’t EVER let us touch the frames.” His voice sounded like it might break in half. I dropped my tissue on the floor, and watched him try and dry off my frame with his shirt.
“Water makes it rust, Hope! These are the nice ones, we not supposed to touch the nice ones, Hope, Mama says she’s gonna stop buyin’ us the good cereal and peanut butter if we ever touched ‘em. And she said she gonna know if we did, even if we didn’t leave no mark. Oh Hope, we not ever supposed to touch them!”
I wanted to say I was sorry, but my words got all balled up in my throat and I couldn’t swallow. His feet were tracing circle patterns across the rug. The tissue pieces started to stick to his shirt as he wiped the frames off. Something about him was more scared than mad. When Jacob was scared, it meant things were going to be worse than if he was mad.
“I gotta get us some more frames, I gotta get us nice ones like these. Mama won’t be mad if we get new ones. I gotta get us them new nice frames.” He put up the hood on his sweatshirt and his sneakers were running out the door. My fingers were cold from the water.
I waited on the sofa for a long time. My heart was beating so fast I thought my heart was gonna fall out when I heard my mother’s car settle into the driveway. I took deep breaths and sat straight up. My mother said girls should always sit straight and look at their hands if they didn’t want any trouble. I didn’t want any trouble.
The car door slammed hard, and her footsteps were heavy on the stairs. She was humming a lazy song that dipped low and high. She didn’t notice the shiny frames, rusting by the second. She didn’t notice even me in the living room. Or maybe she saw me sitting up straight and was so proud of me she couldn’t speak. I like to think she noticed me. But for her, smoking is easier than noticing, or loving.
I sat on the sofa until lunchtime, when Travis came home from his job. He didn’t notice anything about the frames either, and we had peanut butter sandwiches at the table. He asked if Mama was upstairs, I said yes. He asked what I was smiling about, I said nothing.
The sun started to get blurry behind the trees when there was a big knock on our door. I smiled, thinking it was Jacob carrying frames so big and new and shiny that he couldn’t even open the door by himself, they were taking up all of his arms. But instead it was a tall policeman man. He had dark glasses on, and his dark car had bright lights on. I couldn’t see inside of the car, but I could see a shadow in the backseat.
The officer started tapping at the glass. He said something, asking to talk to my daddy. I shook my head. He said to get my mommy. I don’t remember who went upstairs to get her, Travis or me. But I remember the floaty high voice she had when she came downstairs.
“Officer, I am so sorry, is there a problem? I was just taking a rest from this heat, it ain’t ever gonna let up!”
All I remember is the feeling of my mother’s cold hand on my collar when the policeman said they had a young man in the car. A young man who said he was her son, who was my brother, who lived here. A young man caught trying to steal picture frames.