Mama had a police whistle. She kept it near the phone on the bar that separated our kitchen from the den. The whistle was not a toy. It was official. A gift from her deputy sheriff boyfriend. It was meant as a weapon. As protection. As a threat. I don’t think police whistles even exist anymore. But back then, before I had reached an age of double digits, the whistle Mama had was beautiful.
I held it in my hand, which I was not allowed to do but did anyway. The weight of it gave away it’s importance. The silver reflected the world in a crisp swirl of distortion. When I turned it upside down, the brass ball, just big enough to remain forever trapped inside, would rest against the rectangular slot. It was not smooth, not a perfect sphere. It was hammered and worn with slight divots and peaks that I was certain gave it it’s own special sound whenever anyone blew into it.
And blow, Mama would. She’d blow it loud and long, right into the telephone. God forbid some poor sucker hesitate too long before responding to Mama’s hello. God forbid they be taking a breath or swallowing food while waiting for their call to be answered. God forbid they not be on the ready when Mama picked up that receiver. Their eardrums could be blown out so quick it’d make their heads swim.
Mama had requested the police whistle with intended targets in mind. The main intendeds were our next door neighbors, the Truetts. According to Mama, they were out to get us. She had convinced herself, and anyone who’d listen, that they were committing “perpetrations” against us. They were crank calling her. Us. They had smeared fingernail polish on her brand new Chevy. They had keyed it. They had egged our front door. When we woke up one morning to find hundreds of caterpillars covering the ceiling of our porch, Mama was convinced the Truetts were somehow responsible for that too.
One night, during the phase where I snuck cookies after everyone was in bed, I headed for the kitchen. Curtain shears on the living and dining room windows, let in enough light from the street lamp to help me make my way through the furniture. As I slipped past the pocket door, I saw her. Mama was standing in our kitchen with all the lights off. She was watching the Truett house for signs of them spying or plotting against us. “That bitch!” she said under her breath. “That friggin’ bitch better NOT f*ck with me.” In her left hand, she was worrying the whistle, over and over with her thumb. I wasn’t sure Mama saw me come around the corner. She didn’t turn to look. She just stayed staring out the window behind the formica table. The blinds were tiny wooden slats, open only enough for her to peak out without being seen. “I will crack her ugly ol’ pumpkin skull.”
Frozen in place, I closed my eyes. I let the purest part of me go inward to the secret spot in the center of my chest. I slipped through it and out the back to my field of bluebonnets and one-eyed Susans. I floated over to the lighted tree. A boy I didn’t know, but loved and was linked to, straddled the lowest branch and laughed. I swam through the air and allowed myself to feel the shower of light and for a moment I didn’t want to cry.
My eyes opened. I reached for the Flintstones jelly glass in the cabinet next to the place Mama stood. I pretended to need water so my cookie thievery could remain safe.
I didn’t want to think that Mama might be the crazy one. It was best to believe that maybe Mrs. Truett had painted our new car with fingernail polish and had somehow gotten all those caterpillars onto the ceiling of our porch. It was best to believe there were bad guys on the other end of the phone that got their due for trying to mess with our fractured home. And it was best to believe Mama was a hero. Best to believe that she and her whistle would not lead us into temptation but would deliver us from evil. That was what I decided was best.
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