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Blackberry Stains

Farm Gate road becomes a dirt road about a half-mile up, and about fifty yards beyond that, the dirt road narrows to a path and we stop. Dad puts down the kickstand, parking his bike, and unbuckles my little brother from the red plaid metal seat that easily folds down when not in use. Mom has stopped her bike behind him, and dad reaches for me as she kicks at the kickstand with her navy blue Keds. Daddy unbuckles the thin strap that anchors me to the seat, even though I could totally do it myself. I’m five, after all, but I love when he plucks me out of my blue plaid seat and twirls me through the air, over the honeysuckle and blackberry bushes, bursting with the scrumptious scents of summer.

Daddy and Mom have made buckets from Maxwell House coffee tins with wire coat hangers, and we each grab one off the handlebars and begin filling the cans with blackberries, the dark purple juice dripping down our arms. Mom knew this would happen so she made sure we dressed in our oldest clothes. My shorts have a hole in the crotch that isn’t worthy of a patch and my t-shirt is stained with last summer’s blackberry fingerprints from hands one year smaller. The smeared sweetness of a summer Saturday gone by.

My brother grabs a stick from a ditch and like Artemis Gordon, he takes on my James West holding a thorny branch of dead blackberry briar in a friendly dual. “If you’re not careful, you’ll poke your eye out!” admonishes our ever-cautious mother as she grabs plumb berries from the bursting vines. Mom looks like Jackie O. Her hair is perfectly coifed in a brunette bouffant, her pale blue shorts coordinate with her blue-checkered sleeveless top. She is graceful and refined. There was no berry picking in Brooklyn where she grew up. She likes this part of her children’s childhood in the south.

When we're home, daddy will make his famous flaky piecrusts using a big blob of Crisco and fill them with berries boiled with sugar. If there is a little leftover crust, he’ll make my brother and me each a tiny pie that we can hold in our hands.

But first we have to get there to get our berries in the pot. With our homemade buckets balancing on the handlebars, our parents steer down the rock-pocked path to the pot-hole-pitted dirt road, careful not to spill the berries, and we bounce in the back, holding on to the metal armrests, barely tethered in by thin plastic belts, squealing with delight with what feels to us like an E-ticket ride, then crying with dismay as the occasional berry flies out or a fistful of our pickins plop along the route.

It is less than a mile along the paved streets home to our cul-de-sac, where mom pulls into the driveway and daddy, inexplicably, parks his bike along the curb, pulling the buckets off the handlebars, maybe plotting the pies he’s about to bake, maybe forgetting his other precious cargo, maybe thinking the bike was sturdier than it was, leaning against a foot-long kickstand, propped along a curb. I am already in the house, ready for the required tic-check and bath before I get to stand on a kitchen chair and stir the pot of fruit and sugar. I am in the entry hall when the screen door slams behind me and I hear mom scream and I see her running across the expanse of our front lawn, which is only 20 yards but memory makes it 200 and it all feels like slow motion. And daddy is standing in the middle of the grass, immobile with pails of berries in his hands and he is looking at her quizzically while beyond him is a toppled bike and a little boy upside down, crumpled on a cement curb, like a rag doll, not moving.

And I step onto the porch, holding open the door because things are speeding up now and my mother is crossing the yard with my brother in her arms and yelling, “How could you be so stupid?” and daddy is explaining how he was heading right back after he put down the berries, and then mom is down on the rug in the den cradling my baby brother with his blackberry-stains looking a lot like blood on his t-shirt and daddy puts the buckets on the counter then reaches for the phone but he isn’t fast enough, I guess, because mom is already making the call and stretching the phone cord into the kitchen where she is rummaging through the freezer, eventually dumping a tray of ice into a dishtowel and, as she is talking to 9-1-1 describing the baseball-size knot on my baby brother’s head, now hidden by the mustard yellow towel. And my brother still hasn’t moved. He looks like Victoria to me, the Madame Alexander doll grandma bought me at Cameron Village. But Victoria cries when you turn her over and Billy hasn’t moved a bit. He hasn’t made a sound.

Now maybe all that took 5 minutes. Maybe it was thirty. At some point in time, while my mother is talking to the doctor, my brother twitches. He squirms. He gingerly sits up. Mom is cradling her baby over one shoulder with the phone in the crook of the other. “Ok. Ok. Well we’ll bring him in then,” I hear her say and she absently hands my father the receiver and shares what she gleaned from the call mixed with what she remembers about concussions from nursing school. The wet towel and a few pieces of ice sit soaking into the rug.

Eventually, the bump on my brother’s head goes down. There may have been stitches, maybe there was an MRI. My brother has no recollection of what happened to him, but the incident doesn’t go unremembered.

Every time my brother would come home with a behavioral note on his report card or a less than stellar grade in elementary school, “Well, if he hadn’t hit his head when he was three, surely things would be different,” my mother would say.

If he’d get moody or belligerent as a preteen, “Had he not fallen off that bicycle,” mom would admonish my father.

If he’d strike out in baseball or miss a critical basket in a basketball game and my dad would express frustration, mom would purse her lips and shake her head, eyes narrowly aimed in accusation at my dad as if to say, “He’d be the star player if only you’d not ruined his chances.”

When they were called to the principal’s office when my brother was in High School mom just knew it was dad’s fault.

And when my brother became a poet and musician and grew his hair long in college and my father threatened to sneak into his room at night with scissors to chop it all off during Christmas break, mom sat on the couch in righteous recollection of that afternoon in 1971, when the sun was out and the blackberries were ripe and the pies had to wait because my brother was limp on the floor and lucky because, really, in the end he was fine. But for my mother, it was a stain on my dad’s parenting record that she could never get out.

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