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Stepmama

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Her face stung from where he'd slapped her. But he still loved his Mama, even if he had called her a liquor guzzling gutter slut.

***

He was nearly nine when I first met him -- covered in filth and peering out a hole cut in a box. Whether he knew it or not Arnold Stokowski was going to be my way out of small towns and cow pats. That big ranch of his made money, a lot of it, and I was going to use the strongest muscle I had to make sure I got a big chunk.

But, Jimmy, the boy in the box, was a complication. If I'd known about him before we was married, I might have passed up Arnold and set my sites on someone more accessible, as they say. Meaning, less family, because any money should come to me.

The kid had big eyes and a way of looking right through you, though, and I thought, "Hell, it's just an eight year old kid, maybe I can use him."

Now the first thing I did was insist that his box get cleaned out more than once a week. I tried insisting on a bed, but Jimmy didn't want none of that. So, I found him a clean box, and made it just the way he liked it -- I even threw in a pillow and a blanket or two. Well, it wasn't any trouble.

Meantime, I run a bath and put some bubble stuff that the first Mrs. Stokowski must have left behind because I can't imagine Arnold ever using something called "Evening in Paris" voluntarily. Not unless he thought it was Paris down in Texas.

I call Jimmy in and, I swear, I see a bug move in that wild hair of his. I tell him to sit on the toilet, because I know I can get it clean afterward, and I explain I'm going to have to cut all his hair off to get rid of the things that are living in it. He looks a little sick at that, maybe those bugs are his only friends, I don't know.

At that, Jimmy says the first words I ever hear from him, "Can I keep it?"

Well, that just flummoxed me. I thought for sure the brat couldn't talk. "If I can figure out a way to kill the bugs, you can keep it. You know how to read?"

"No."

"Something'll have to be done about that." I finished close clipping his hair and pointed at the bath. "Now you soak in that for 20 minutes. I'll come back with a scrubber to use in the shower. Then we'll soak you again. You'll be clean in that box of yours tonight."

"Yes, ma'am."

I caught a good look at all of him when I came back with a scrub brush. It wasn't a good one because I knew I'd need to throw it away. Most kids that age, they're lucky if they have as much meat as you'd find on a dirty fork, but Jimmy? He was well developed. And even that young, boys sure seem to like rubbing themselves. "Drain that bathtub."

He looked a little confused until I explained about the plug, but I wasn't putting my hands in that dark mess. When the water went down, I leaned in and set the water temperature, made sure he liked it, and then I handed him the brush. "Now scrub. I'll come check on you in ten minutes. Soap's in the dish, and here." I handed him little hotel samples of shampoo and conditioner from the honeymoon I'd just been on with his daddy. "This stuff's for your hair. Use the clear one first. Twice. Then the cloudy one. You only need to use a little of it, and just once. It'll make your hair easier to comb."

"I didn't think I had any left."

"You got some, and the rest'll grow back in time. It'll be easier if you get in the habit. Habits are important. Good ones get you far in this world, and I aim for my best habits to get me the hell out of Oklahoma."

"Me, too?" He looked at me with those dark, serious eyes.

I answered him honestly. "Depends on how long it takes. If I can go soon, well, I don't need a young kid hanging around me. Looks bad for the men who might want to take care of me. But I'll call child services on my way out of town, get them to look in on you."

"And if it takes longer?" He still peered at me, water running down his little body.

"Then you could be an asset. If you can read and write and think, then you might be a good ally. So you learn all you can. Family helps each other, Jimmy, you know that?"

"My father doesn't." His face was too stern for him to be that young.

"Then we make sure he does help us. There are ways of convincing a man. You may need to learn them to while you're young. If you learn to please women, that will do much more for you when you're full grown. I can help you with that."

"If you're still here."

"That's right. Meantime, you learn to read and think and count. It'll be just as helpful."

He nodded at that. "Can you cook? The moms on TV all cook."

"It's not my greatest strength, but I know most ways to keep a man happy. Chicken and dumplings tomorrow night. Tonight I'll just fix something quick. The cornbread'll be homemade though. That good enough for you?"

"I should scrub now."

"I'll be back in five minutes, sugar."

When I came back, that little boy was shivering. He'd scrubbed himself nearly raw, and the water'd turned cold. I put on the space heater and handed him a warm towel. "We got to talking so long, I hadn't thought about the hot water running out. You stay here. I'm going to go boil some water so we can mix it with the cold and get you warm in the bath again, okay?"

He nodded and rubbed himself with the towel.

Well, I was as good as my word. I put the plug in and poured hot water into that tub. I added enough cold and asked him if he thought it was okay. I guess it was because he climbed in immediately.

Later that night, I gave him some cornbread, a leftover hamburger patty and a couple of slices of tomato that I hadn't eaten. He was wearing an old sweatshirt of his daddy's because I'd told Arnold seeing his son all naked all the time gave me the creeps.

Jimmy started looking a whole lot better real soon afterwards. I managed to get him some home cooking, and I gave Arnold the ride of his life. It was so good that he agreed to let me have a big new TV up in the bedroom and cable. I put the old one downstairs in the kitchen for Jimmy so that he could pick his channels with the remote now.

It was our little secret, like his daily baths and the books I got him when I went to the library. Our town might be the definition of hick, but our library linked with the big ones in Tulsa and I got him some right good books. Hell, after awhile, he started reading the romance novels I got. That boy learned.

***

Bobbi thought for a moment about Chas Gracen; she could go far by his side with Jimmy guiding her. And in return for guiding her, maybe she could guide him a little too.

After all, she was his mama.