STAINING ALL THE WAY DOWN Women.Period. (This anthology is available at and Barnes and Noble.) Note: “Staining All the Way Down” is a chapter from Below the Heart. She bangs on Otto’s door, something she has never done. She cries for help. Otto opens the bathroom door wide and swirling air rushes over her. He’s wearing red pajama bottoms and his black hair is sticking up, like their Hoover sweeper has vacuumed his head. Otto never wears a pajama top, he’s told her, because all the hair on his chest keeps him warm. “RJ! Whatsa matter?” Otto takes the tearful girl by the shoulders, looking her over. Moths are not flying around her head, and she isn’t crying about a burn. He holds her tight, and she cries into his fur, mumbles that she does not feel good, not knowing how to explain to a man. But she has not flushed the toilet, or put away the box of sanitary napkins. “You don’t feel so good, huh? There’s my girl,” he says, tearing off toilet paper for RJ to dry her eyes and blow her nose. She is gasping wet hiccups, her shoulders lifting with each one. “It’s okay, I know what to do. What I do for your mother,” soothes dark-haired Otto. He kisses the top of her head and takes her hand. She calms because Otto has always taken care of her. He drove her mother to the hospital so that she could be born. Back in the sunny kitchen, the Coca-Cola has stopped fizzing. “Did you have lunch?” She nods yes. Otto draws a glass of water from the faucet and takes the bottle of Bayer aspirin off the window sill. “Here. Take two.” RJ has never taken more than one adult aspirin, but she follows Otto’s direction. “Go get into your pajamas.” Puzzled, she hesitates. He gives her a soft nudge. “Go, now, put on your pj’s.” She exchanges her shorts for pink-flowered pajamas and walks back into the kitchen. It is disheartening that walking is not the same. It will not be possible to run at recess anymore, and that brings to mind other things her mother, Lucky, has complained about and RJ has never fully understood until now: no swimming, no tub baths, no tight slacks. RJ cannot believe that shaving her legs will make up for what she gives up. Otto is dribbling some Mogen David wine into a Flintstones glass with Baby Pebbles on it. The wine is an inky shade of purple and RJ anticipates her tongue will turn the same shade. “Take a couple sips.” He touches the rash on her arm. “Did you wear your mother’s sweater today?” She nods meekly and sips cautiously, the rich grape liquid spreading sensations from the back of her throat up into her nostrils, down her throat, staining all the way down. “Okay.” Otto puts the bottle back into the refrigerator. “Did you make me some Jell-O?” When she smiles, he tells her, “Thanks, sweetheart. We’ll eat it later. Now let’s go.” “Go?” “To my room.” “Is this what mother does?” “Not every time. Just the bad times.” “Every time isn’t bad?” “I don’t think so.” Otto makes his bed every day, but right now it is rumpled, full of action, the covers thrown back to answer RJ’s knock. It’s sleepy dark in the room because the shades are down and the draperies closed, but Otto does not pull the string by the light in the ceiling. Yawning, Otto motions RJ into his bed, and she obediently crawls in and covers up. His bed is familiar because she and her mother change it every Saturday. They like Otto’s smell on the sheets. Lucky calls it “Otto’s Essence.” She says it’s Old Spice after-shave mixed with the man smell that comes from the hair on men’s bodies and the mystery of their dreams. RJ watches Otto as he lifts the orange lid of the record player, takes a 45 from the stack on the shelf, and puts it on the turntable. He leaves the arm off to the side, so that the record will play again and again. When the needle touches the 45, fuzzy scratching comes from the well-worn grooves. The record is not perfectly flat, and a rhythmic beat, like a heartbeat, separate from the song’s beat, blends with it nonetheless. Smokey Robinson’s voice whispers to them. He sings that he doesn’t like some girl, but loves her anyway. It makes no sense to RJ, but the song is her mother’s newest favorite. Lucky comes into Otto’s room when he’s at work and plays it. She never stays long because Otto does not allow smoking in here. Otto gets into bed with RJ. It surprises her but does not alarm her. They share the pillow, and he pulls her toward him, so that they are together, her back to his chest. She inhales the security of an unspoken promise when he adjusts the sheet over them. His arms slip around her, and he fits his hands over the flat of her stomach, hot, pressed hard and close, transferring heat to where she is creating blood, the place where her mother says babies grow. “Sssshhhh, just sleep, little girl, sleep,” Otto croons, and Ritzie Jane feels herself loosen. She lies there in Otto’s arms, pain dissolving under the warmth of his big, square hands.

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