DOGWOOD • by Carol D. O’Dell

When I’m good, Mama says it’s because I come from fine stock, that my birth mother’s a college graduate. When I’m bad, Mama says it’s all because my mother’s crazy and my daddy’s a drunk.

So which one is it, Mama?

My fourteenth birthday is in two days. I beat Mama to the mailbox, for once, hoping for another birthday card with money in it. If I don’t get to it first, Mama will take it all and put it in my savings. Not that I’d know for sure. It’s not like she shows me anything.

I open the mailbox and slide out this yellow envelope addressed to me, Carol DeVault, postmarked with a tiny stamped red circle: Daytona Beach, Florida. I stand still as if the air has been snuffed out of the whole world and all that’s left is this bright blue sky and one cloud just hanging above me not moving.

I’ve got to hide this. I don’t even have to open it to know what it is. It’s from my birth family. I turn away from the house, back toward the mailbox so Mama can’t see what I’m doing. My fingers slip the envelope into the waist of my shorts, then cover it with my T-shirt.

I knew this would happen, that something would happen, but now that’s it’s here, I don’t know what to do. There’s a picture inside. I can tell by feeling the stiff square. I can’t think. Every thought I have is jumbled on top of each other, my life here in Atlanta, my life back there in Florida.

The first time I saw Mama, I was four years old. I stood on the sidewalk of my grandmother’s Daytona Beach boarding house and watched Mama’s long legs emerge from the shadows of a black Cadillac. Her blue high heels pressed the broiled pavement, the sky a white hot haze. She stood and kept rising and rising, her bright red hair teased and piled high.

Mama looked around at me, my sister Rosie and Grandma Stella, like we needed her help and she had arrived from Atlanta just in time to rescue us from our pitiful lives. She pursed her lips, squared her shoulders, walked right up to Grandma Stella and shook her hand hard and fast.

“It’s nice to meet you. I’m Noveline DeVault.”

That’s the story, the way she tells it, and she tells it all the time. Only I’ve learned she skews things to her benefit — or squeezes the life out of them.

That’s why I’m not about to let Mama get her hands on this birthday card. She’ll go ballistic and get on her rant about me being from trash. Why would I want to contact them? They gave me away. I get reminded of that a lot.

Mama can’t find my card. She just can’t. We have a little game going. I hide things and she tries to find them.

“Here’s the mail, Mama,” I holler. “I’ll set it here on the kitchen table.” The yellow envelope jabs me in the ribs, but I have to act natural.

Mama opens the laundry room door. She’s big, five-feet-eleven and a half, she says, but I swear she’s over six feet and just won’t admit it. She scares everybody, she’s so big. She has giant hands and calls them her “piano hands” because she can reach ten keys or more. Mama grabs a dish towel and wipes the suds left on her arms, then wriggles her fingers in my direction.

“Just hand me the mail. I’m expecting a Social Security check.” She brushes back a strand of hair, slips it into a bobby pin and tucks her fingers into her French twist. Reaches again for the mail. I swallow hard, hand her the mail minus my card and step back. My arms wrap around my waist. The envelope crinkles.

“I’m going outside to play.” I back up, bumping the oven door.

Most people can’t remember much before age five. I do. I’ve always known I was adopted. Someone must have told me Mama was coming to get me because I cut my hair the night before. Picked up my bangs in one big fistful and whacked them off, then snipped at bits of the rest. I’m not sure whether I cut my hair to make myself prettier so Mama and Daddy would like me, or uglier so they wouldn’t. I don’t recall feeling one way or the other. Just flat.

I run to the front yard and climb my favorite tree. That way, if anybody’s coming, I can see them before they see me. Daddy took two kinds of dogwoods — a pink one and a white one — and wove their trunks. The branches twist, go out like a seat and then come back in. It’s my sitting spot. Always has been. No one’s out today, not even a car, just the buzz of a bee and an explosion of pink and white blossoms with baby leaves over my head. Underneath a quilt of flower shadows I take a breath, lift my shirt and pull out my envelope.

As much as I want this — have always wanted this — my heart holds back a beat. I don’t care what the card people wrote; I open it and read, “Happy 14th Birthday, Sis!”

I want to memorize the way Rosie wrote the “S” in sister, to sear her words into me so no one can ever take them. I look at my house and my street. This is home and I don’t know what to do with this. I don’t know who to be.

People don’t realize what it’s like not to belong. Not to have anybody who looks like you. Acts like you. Throws their head back when they laugh, like you. I notice these things. I notice families and how they use their hands when they talk like their brothers and sisters or aunts and uncles or mothers and fathers. I notice.

Carol D. O’Dell is the author of Mothering Mother: A Daughter’s Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir. Her stories have appeared in International Short Story Collection, Redbook, Atlanta Magazine (fiction edition) and the Pisgah Review. Carol is the founder of the Chat Noir Writer’s Circle and she teaches for the Osher Lifelong Institute at the University of North Florida.

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Every Day Fiction