Me and Mo
Me and Mo, we were just minding our own business after dinner. Just minding our own business. Watching TV in the living room. That’s all. The TV was this gray box that sat on four skinny legs, and it had the name Zenith in the upper right corner, and it had these antennas sticking out that reminded me of Martians invading from outer space. It took forever to warm up. That’s the way TV’s were in those days.
Dad bought the TV in 1955. He wasn’t happy about buying it, but Mom kept after him, telling him that this was the modern way, having a TV. “Just a damned way to sell us sh—er, stuff that we don’t need,” he said, shaking his head as if a relative had just died. Most kids on the block had a TV for at least a year or two before we did. I remember going over to the neighbors’ house to watch Howdy Doody. Can you imagine having to go next door to watch TV? Well, me and Mo did. It was like we were poor or something. Dad finally gave in to the Mom-pressure. The pressure like no other pressure in the world. At any rate, me and Mo, we were really happy now that we had a TV to watch.
Mo was only two years younger than me, which made her eight during the time that I’m telling you about. That wasn’t her real name, which you probably guessed but I’m going to tell you anyway. Maureen. That was her real name. The name she came out of the hospital with. But Mo was a lot easier to say, and it kind of fit the way she was. Mo’s face was round as a cookie, and she had a little pug nose like a terrier, and her hair was cut short, almost as short as a boy’s but not quite that short. Her eyes were ocean-blue, real deep-like because there was a lot going on behind them. Those eyes--they were constantly going back and forth, just taking things in. Mo’s favorite word was “Why?” Drove Dad crazy sometimes.
So at long last we had our TV! To me, that silver box was magical. It brought heroes and adventures into my boring, boring life. Especially the cowboys. I loved them—I just soaked them up. Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Wild Bill Hickok. They handed out justice and revenge. Those cowboys—they were my allies. I mean, I knew they were just TV actors, but even so, when I watched, I was right there, in the Old West, chasing the bullies and the bad guys. Capturing them. Sending them to jail. It felt so good to see those bad guys going to jail. It made me feel really really good, like I was as strong and powerful as Gene and Roy and Hopalong and Wild Bill.
So, there me and Mo were that night, watching TV. Resting after a tough day at school, laying on our bellies on the carpet with its kind of faded roses and vines, and we were watching the Gene Autry Show. Gene Autry--he was the singing cowboy. He’d sing a kind of dopey song and then he and his hilarious sidekick, Pat Buttram, would take care of the bad guys.
Meanwhile, Dad sat in his easy chair with the lump in the back that Grandma--his mom—gave us after she bought a new one at Sears. He was tall and gangly, with hair the color of wet sand. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and had long, skinny legs that reminded me of a grasshopper. He was reading the newspaper. No matter how horrible the news was, Dad’s face never changed. Khrushchev might be going crazy and close to starting a war against America. The Communists might be taking over the government. Didn’t matter. When he read the paper, he wasn’t happy or sad or angry. He was just reading, taking it all in. Once in a while, he’d read something and then say, “Hmm.” The world’s going to explode! Everyone’s going to die! “Hmm.”
While Dad was reading and me and Mo were watching Gene Autry, Mom was burrowed into the far end of the couch, which sagged in a way that looked kind of sad. She was sewing something—I don’t remember what. She had these thin lips, and her skin was white as vanilla, and she had spidery fingers. Her eyes were brown, and this was the weird thing—in the middle of one of her eyes was a small spot of green. I’d noticed it one time when she was giving my face a good hard scrubbing. She wore a dress the color of lime, and it spread around her like it was made of papier-maché. She wore pointy glasses that were real popular back then.
A commercial interrupted Gene Autry. Mo, she was hungry, so she got up to go out to the kitchen to get a snack. A minute later she came traipsing back in, and she was balancing a peanut butter and jelly piece of bread in her hand. She looked down at the floor while she walked. Her shoulders were slumped because she was so tired after the tough day at school. She slid her feet along.
Then, out of nowhere, Mom looked up from the world of her sewing. She said, “Maureen, straighten up! Pull your head up! Lift your feet when you walk!” Mom’s voice made me pull my eyes away from Gene Autry and look at her.
Mo—well, she just kept staring at the floor and slumping and sliding her feet along the carpet. Dad slowly put down his newspaper and stirred in the easy chair with the lump in the back. He looked at Mo with those blue eyes, which his wire-rim glasses made look bigger, like fish eyes. “Maureen,” he said. He sounded even more irritated than Mom because he had to interrupt reading the paper. “Didn’t you hear your mother? Hold your head up! Lift your feet when your walk!”
Mo kept slouching toward the spot where she’d been sitting on the floor next to me. She sat down. She started to watch Gene Autry again. She munched on her peanut butter and jelly bread. Gene Autry drew his gun and started shooting at some bad guys. Other than the sounds of the guns, the living room was silent.
Dad put down his paper. He folded it neatly and put it on the stained coffee table next to him. I looked at him and thought, “Uh-oh.” He got up real slow out of the chair with the lump in the back. He walked over to where me and Mo lay on the floor. He put his hands on his hips and stared down at Mo, who kept chomping away at her peanut butter and jelly bread and watching Gene Autry. Dad’s face—it was all kind of scrunched up. He looked like he was twenty feet tall. He looked at me. “Turn the damned TV off, Herb.”
“But, Dad, it’s right in the middle of the show!” Then I thought, “What a gyp!” but I didn’t say it. I knew better than that. I got up like a robot and switched off the TV.
“Hey!” Mo said , looking at me real irritated. “Whaddya doing?” She took another chomp out of her peanut butter and jelly bread.
Before I could answer her, Dad said, “Maureen!”
She looked up at him in this lazy kind of way. I felt my heart rattle like chains in my chest.
Mom set aside her sewing. She got up and walked over to us. She stood next to Dad and looked down at both of us. “Herb!” she said. “Go to your room!”
“But I didn’t do nothing wrong!”
“Go to your room!”
I obeyed. I mean, what was I going to do? My heart was beating at twice its regular rate. I glanced at Mo. She was looking up at them. She calmly chewed her peanut butter and jelly bread.
I hauled myself off the carpet with the faded roses and vines. As I walked through the living room and toward the stairs, I kept my eyes down. I wanted to stay as invisible as possible. I climbed the stairs toward my bedroom. Only I didn’t go to my room. I got to the top stair, turned around, sat down, and watched. I watched everything that happened.
Dad looked down at Mo, took off his wire-rimmed glasses, and rubbed the top part of his nose, where his glasses rested. He said, “Maureen, you need a lesson in how to walk like a lady! Get up! And put that damned piece of bread down!”
Mom stood next to Dad, and she had her hands on his hips. She didn’t say anything, but her mouth was real grim, like when you go to a funeral. She stared at Mo.
Oh my God, I remember thinking, as I sat there at the top of the stairs. Oh my God.
Mo looked up at Dad and then at Mom. She blinked like someone who was in the path of a speeding train but didn’t have time to get out of the way. She placed the peanut butter and jelly bread down on the carpet. She got up slowly. Her skinny feet looked like stick figures popping out of the bottom of her jeans.
“Maureen, look at me!” Dad said.
She stared at him. I was puzzled why they were making such a big thing out of the way she walked. That was the thing that puzzled me most.
Dad said, “Now, damn it, you’re going to learn to walk in the proper way! You’re going to learn to walk the way a lady should walk!”
Mom said, “That’s right. You need a good lesson, young lady, in how to walk properly!”
Dad said, “Now there are three things that you have to remember about walking properly. The first thing is to hold your head high, as if you’re proud to be who you are. The second thing is to hold your back straight with the proper posture. That way, you won’t be bent over when you’re old. And the third thing is to lift your feet gracefully when you walk.” Dad turned to Mom. “Bea, show her how.”
Mom turned to Mo. “Now, watch closely.” I had this feeling that they and we were enemies in a war. It’s strange to say something like that about your Mom and Dad, but that’s how I felt. I didn’t want to watch, but I couldn’t help myself.
Mom did what Dad said. She walked to one side of the living room. She straightened her back like there was a steel rod up and down her back. She held her head high. She started to walk, lifting her feet about three inches off the ground and swinging her arms. She looked like a soldier walking across the carpet. I almost laughed at how she looked as she marched across the living room.
Mo watched as Mom marched across the living room, her back straight and her head held high like a peacock’s. When Mom reached the other end of the living room, she turned around and relaxed into her normal posture. I’d never seen Mom walk that way before in my whole entire life. Not in my whole life.
Dad stared at Mo. “Now you do it.”
Mo stared at him.
“Let’s go!” Dad said. Mom stood next to Dad, her hands on her hips.
Mo muttered something under her breath. I don’t think Mom and Dad saw it, but I did. She hesitated. She stared up at Dad. Then she looked away from him and down at the floor. Then she held her head up, straightened her back, and pulled her shoulders back. She started walking like Mom did. She lifted her feet a couple of inches with each step and marched across the living room floor. She held her back as straight as if a giant nail had been pounded through her from her shoulders to her stomach.
“That’s much better,” Mom said. Her voice softened a little. She turned around to return to the sofa and her sewing.
Dad looked at Mom. “How do we know she’ll walk right unless she practices? I want her to do it again.”
Mom stared at Dad. “Arthur,” she said.
“She’s got to practice if she’s going to learn to walk right!”
I could hear the ticking of the old grandfather clock. Dad turned to Mo. “Do it again.”
Mo stared at him. She just kept staring at him. My heart was pounding now, like it would burst right out of my chest. Mo opened her mouth. She was going to say something. But then she closed her mouth. She started to walk. She was stiff, like someone had shoved a tree limb down her back. She marched slowly. She reached the other end of the living room. She looked down. She kept opening and closing her hands to make little fists.
Dad said, “That was better. But I still think you need more practice.”
“Arthur!” Mom said. She stared at him without blinking. Then she turned to Mo. “You did well, Maureen. Now go to your room.” Mo got up. She half-walked, half-ran toward the stairs.
I panicked, thinking that she and Mom and Dad would see me. I rushed to my bedroom, opened the door, and closed it most of the way. But I left it open a crack so I could see what was going on. Mo--she ran by me. She ran into her bedroom and slammed the door behind her, so hard that the whole upstairs shook.
In a few moments, I heard footsteps. I closed the door a little more, but I kept it open just enough to see what was going on. It was Mom. She rushed down the hallway past my bedroom to Mo’s. She knocked on the door. “Maureen?” There was no answer. She opened the door, went in, and closed the door behind her.
I closed my door and took my clothes off as if I were shedding skin. I was trembling. I climbed into bed and turned off the light. The darkness was like a thick, horrible blanket. The hands of the clock on the small table in the corner of the bedroom said five after nine. I shivered in bed. The sheets felt like sandpaper, scratchy against my skin. I put my arms around myself. The sleep wouldn’t come. I hated the rose-and-vine carpet in the living room. I coughed and choked. Silence.
Morning. I went down to breakfast. Dad was already gone to work. Mom and Mo were there in the kitchen. Mo sat at the kitchen table. Her eyes were red. Mom went through the motions of fixing us breakfast. She poured us Sugar Pops, and she murmured things to herself, over and over. I looked at Mo. She was quiet as she spooned the Sugar Pops into her mouth. The red floated in her eyes.
“Mom,” I asked. “Can me and Mo eat breakfast in the living room and watch TV?”
“Yes,” she said. Her voice—it was different than usual. “Just this one time.” We carried our cereal bowls into the living room. I turned on the TV and found the cartoons. Bugs Bunny. Me and Mo, we sat next to each other and watched. We both got caught up in the cartoon—the colors, the crazy sounds. The cartoon was stupid, but we both laughed as Bugs made a fool out of Elmer Fudd.
Mom popped her head into the living room. “Time to get ready for school!” There was still something wrong with her voice.
We collected our books, kissed Mom good-bye, and started walking to school, just like we did every day. We didn’t say much on the way, but we both tried as hard as we could not to step on cracks in the sidewalk. When we got close to school, Mo suddenly turned to me and said, “Hey, Herbie, you’re crowding me. Stay on your side of the sidewalk!”
“You’re such a jerk!” I said.
“No bigger than you are!”
We looked at each other. Then I did something that I never did before. I went up close to Mo, and I took her hand. My right hand and her left hand. I was her brother and all, and brothers and sisters aren’t supposed to hold hands. But something in me made me do it. And she didn’t pull away either. No, she didn’t. We walked, and I felt her skin, and I felt her squeezing my hand back. We didn’t say anything. We just walked. When we got close to school, I let go of her hand. You know, we were getting near school and all the kids and everything. But I was glad—I was glad I did it.