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  • Looking at the photo now, I should have known. Arletta looks so lost and sad. How could I not have noticed? I was about 4, I guess, and she would have been around 20. Probably, I was just too young to figure it out. I was simply her pesky baby brother, and though I tried to get her attention, she paid me very little mind. She told me I made her nervous.

    It's odd how homely this picture makes her look. She was actually quite pretty. She never lacked for boyfriends. As strict as Mama was, Arletta still managed to get out one way or another. In fact, it wasn't long after this was taken that she ran away and got married. I cried and cried, because I missed her so much. There was a special bond between Arletta and me that I never could let go. It was as if a special light had left my life.

    After Arletta left, it was just Mama and Aunt Celia and me, and much as I loved them, I still felt lonely Aunt Celia worked, and Mama stayed home. She had diabetes, and she had lost a leg. I still remember helping her to get around. At a very young age, I had become the "man of the house." Daddy had died before I was born, and it was my job to do the masculine "stuff". I had no idea at the time what that even meant, but I knew it was important, and I felt scared. When Arletta lived with us, she helped out. Now, all of a sudden, there was a lot on my shoulders.

    I never lacked for love or affection, but money was another story. Living poor in a tiny town in postwar Maine was not uncommon, but it was hard to be the kid who wore raggedy clothes and had shoes with holes in the soles. Many a cold winter day, I shivered for lack of a warm coat. Many times I was the object of teasing from other kids. I learned to be a pretty good fighter with my words and my fists, and I sometimes found myself telling stories about a life I wished I had, instead of the life I really lived. In short, I added lying to my long list of shortcomings.

    Arletta, meanwhile, had married well, and I was thrilled when they finally moved back to town. They had three children, and I was their very young uncle. It was a role I truly enjoyed. Even though I envied their clothes and toys and home, I welcomed any opportunity to be closer to Arletta, even if it meant giving her free babysitting or helping with household chores. I sometimes wondered why I was only invited over when her husband, Mac, was not around, but I sensed that he didn't like me and let it go at that. By that time I was used to being rejected for unknown reasons. Arletta and her kids, though, gave me lots of love and attention.

    As soon as I was old enough, I enlisted in the Army and left my home town. After that, I only returned on leaves or vacations. I knew that Mama and Aunt Celia missed me, but the town had been a continual source of pain and rejection, so I just couldn't bear being back there for long. It wasn't until Mama died that I began to realize why I never felt safe and secure there.

    On the evening after Mama's funeral, Aunt Celia and I were sitting around drinking coffee and talking. She handed me a large, weathered envelope and explained that now that Mama was gone, it was time for me to have it. Inside the envelope was my birth certificate. Tiny little footprints were pressed in ink at the bottom. It was hard to believe my feet had ever been that small. I thanked Aunt Celia and started putting it back, but she touched my hand and asked, "Did you read it?"

    Actually, I hadn't. I don't know why. Maybe it was fatigue from the emotional day, or maybe it was a dark subconscious desire to avoid further pain. Whatever it was, I pulled the paper back out and read it. Oddly, I didn't recognize the father's name, but the mother's name was plain as day.

    Name of Mother: Arletta Bowen

    My life would never be the same.


    (Written from the photo prompt for Cowbirders Poetry and Flash Fiction Group #7. It is based on a true story.)
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