Rebecca Foust

Something Blue

           Not throw up. Not the mountain of all of it—just that one, small thing. It’s the heat making me sick, Ada tells herself. And the smell, close and ripe as the steam off the enamel slop pails Daddy made her dump in the woods out back when he was done dressing a deer.
Deep breath in. And out. I’m okay, Ada whispers. Butter-and-sugar on white bread toast. Cambric tea inside where it’s warm, and outside, snowdrifts ploughed into glittering walls. Momma’s cool hand on her forehead.
Now no one would ever know. Come spring, she could graduate and get married, unpacking the cardboard box she kept under her bed: the lilac suit Momma wore when she stood up with Daddy all those years ago, the silver pin John pinned on Ada’s cardigan last Valentine’s Day, and a tulle veil on loan from the church organist. Afterwards, Ada would pack her things into John’s old battered truck and leave the cottage for good.
“Cottage” was how she described it to the nuns but that was, Ada knew, like putting Sunday clothes on a scarecrow. Their place down in the Cove was more of a shack—tarpapered, roofed in green fiberglass, sided in weeping plywood, and separated from the neighbors by a width of muddy driveway. On summer nights Ada could smell what the Hewitts were having for dinner and hear every word they said while forking it down.
“Dog Patch,” was what Momma called the Cove, curling her lip, but never when Daddy could hear. Ada had never seen a real cove, let alone any ocean. Her Cove was a little town set smack in the middle of the Allegheny Mountains that heaved up diagonally through central and western Pennsylvania. The closest big city was Pittsburgh, and to get there the train out of Altoona had to climb half a mile and skirt the edge of a deep, wooded canyon. When the wind blew from the west, Ada and her sister Sara could hear the whistle’s long, low plaint rounding the Horseshoe Curve.
Thirty-two dollars each for train fare, then another fifty after they got to Pittsburgh. That was how much they figured they needed. “We’ll just keep going west,” Sara said, “hitchhike when we can. College is free in California. We’ll find a place to live, get waitressing jobs. Then you can learn geology, and I’ll be an artist.”
Anything to get out of the Cove, a ramshackle trailer park landlocked by mountains whose high limestone ridges—sometimes thick with trees, sometimes scraped raw—blocked the sun on all sides and cast a shadow so ancient and deep that lawns grew nothing but mud-slicked yellow crabgrass. Just one road in and out, through Homer’s Gap. As for the Juniata, what once was a river was now a dredged ditch, so fouled with mill runoff that no one dared to eat its fish, or even land one without a good pair of work gloves.
“When I was your age,” Momma said, “that river ran clear and jumped with trout sweet as candy.” She puffed on a Marlboro, the end pink with her lipstick. “We ate it for breakfast sometimes, cooked in tin foil over a fire.”
The memory of the fish she’d never tasted makes Ada’s mouth well up with hunger even stronger than the nausea. Her last meal, oatmeal slopped on a divided tray the color of lima beans, was hours ago.
To get her mind off her empty stomach, Ada thinks about the river her mother once fished and swam in, following it in her mind as it flowed southeast along banks heaped with coal dust sculpted by the wind into sharply-angled pyramids. Everything—trees, even the dirt—gummed gray, and coal tipples built right at the water’s edge. Mostly unused now, but in a few mines still being worked, coal clattering down the chutes into the river barges.
Ada rouses and sits up. The racket is from a row of industrial-size dryers lining the back wall.  Because it is winter, eight rows of clotheslines stretch the length of the large cellar laundry room. Her bed is between them, a nest of bedsheets pulled down from the lines.
She enjoyed her shifts in this room whose high ceilings and cool cement floors remind her of the caves she used to play in, small rooms opening into huge, vault-like spaces, silent and dry as bone. “You’re crazy to go down there,” Sara scolded when Ada came home with her hair powdered with dark dust. “Daddy will tan your hide! And what about those miners up in Claysburg last year? It’s not safe, Adie.” Sara was only a year older, but she took charge when Daddy was on a bender and Momma in bed with one of her sick headaches.
Ada tried to explain. “It’s nice down there, Sare, real quiet and clean.”  When she found the dead dog tied to the tree in the woods—people did that, Momma said, when they couldn’t spare the table scraps anymore—the cave was where Ada went to cry it out, and to think on what Momma said about the choice between bad and worse. The high scraped ribs of the rock ceiling opened up a tightness in her chest, the same space that bloomed anytime Daddy showed her something “purty”—a red geranium in a white plastic pot, the bare branches of a tree glowing against sunset like fingers cupped over a flashlight. Sometimes Ada found fossil clams that when licked, gleamed like black marbles.
The cave opened out into the stripper pits, moonscapes of loose scree that Cove kids joyously surfed to the bottom. While Sara built elaborate sculptures and collages from bits of slag, Ada collected slate chunks mickled on the edge like great, fat dictionaries that, when banged with another rock, separated into layers stamped with tree bark and ferns. And once, the imprint of a fish skeleton the size of her thumb.
Maybe I’ll end up a fossil, too, Ada thinks now. Just lay here till I melt and seep my shape right into the floor.
The pains are easing, letting up under a thick heavy quilt of drowsiness. Ada shifts her weight, remembering that lying on the left side helps ease the afterbirth.
It was Momma told her that. Momma, she thinks. After her water broke, she panicked, calling out for her mother as contractions wracked her in waves of blurred, sealed implosions. No one left in the building, but she crammed a corner of sheet into her mouth anyway, shocked by the sounds coming out of her mouth. And by the blood—she’d have to get those linens into a tub, fast, before the stain set.
Like Momma taught her when her first period came: “cold water soak, then bleach.” She put down the brush she’d been using to scrub Ada’s underwear, then looked her daughter full in the face. “You know what this means. You can get caught, now, if you go with a boy.”
The first time Ada stayed out past her curfew on a date with John, she came home to Momma sitting on the porch step, the round circle of her cigarette glowing like a red eye.