Gina Willner-Pardo

WHAT OLIVE KNOWS

I am Olive Marge Finley. Olive. Sometimes She calls me Olive Marge, but only in the middle of the night, when I am supposed to be sleeping. I live with Her and Benji. I am nine months and five days old. I know more than anyone thinks I do.

For instance, I know that the walls of the room Benji and I sleep in are yellow, and that there is a poster of a baby elephant taped over the changing table.

I know Benji wears diapers even though he doesn’t have to. She says he can go to school when he doesn’t wear them anymore, but he doesn’t want to go. She doesn’t know that Benji is tricking Her. I do, but not because he’s told me. I just know.

Benji makes me laugh in the bathtub, and sometimes he puts a blanket on my head and then pulls it off fast and says “Boo!” I always want to know where he is and be there.

I know that someone called Elliot makes Her cry. He calls, and I can hear loud talking coming out of the phone and sometimes She says “Jeez!” and sometimes “You fucking asshole!” and then She hangs up and cries. Benji and I hate when She cries, so we cry, too, and then She picks me up first and then Benji after I’m done. Most of the time, Benji doesn’t mind waiting his turn, but once in a while, he cries harder and then She says, “Oh, Benji, I only have two arms. Don’t be a bad sport.”

I know what it’s like to be hungry and not hungry, sleepy and not sleepy, happy and sad, wet and dry. I know when She pulls the curtains open, I can see dust floating in the sunbeams. I know that at night, She holds me at the window, and at first it is all just nothing, but after a while, I see stars and the scraggly palm tree and sometimes the moon.

I know I came from somewhere else. I don’t remember much: the brightness of colors, wings, the smell of lemons and fresh-cut grass and tree sap in the sun. I dream I am there, but when I wake up, it fades away.

I know there is something wrong, something missing. A hole, a blackness. She and Benji know it too. We all know and we don’t say. It’s a shadow wherever we are. Even when Benji says “Boo!”

***

She puts us in the car, and Benji and I fall asleep. Benji first, because I try to wait. If he is awake, I want to be too.

When we wake up, we are alone in the car, and She is talking to a man in a cap. She keeps looking at the car, at us. And then talking. Around us are trees—the kind in books, not a scraggly palm tree. No apartments. We aren’t on our street.

Benji starts to cry and She runs to the car and says through the open window, “Just a second, Benj. Just sit for a second and we’ll have our Christmas tree, okay?” And Benji rubs his eye with one hand and can’t decide whether to be happy or sad. She runs back to the man and opens her purse, still looking at us. Then the man takes a little tree and some string and walks toward the car with Her.

Benji leans toward me and whispers, “Olive! It’s going to be Christmas, and Santa is going to bring us presents!”

I laugh because he is so happy.

When She gets in the car, Benji says, “It’s almost time for Santa.”

“Yes, it is,” She says. “Did you tell Olive about Santa?”

Benji peers around the edge of his car seat and says, “Olive, Santa comes. He brings presents. Whatever you want.”

“How does he come?” She asks, looking at us in the mirror.

Benji thinks. Then he says, “The chimney!” I don’t know what that is.

She says, “Well, he comes in a sleigh. And if there’s a chimney, he slides down it. But if there isn’t a chimney, he opens the door and sneaks in and finds the tree. Right?”

“And that’s where the presents are!” Benji says.

“That’s where he puts them, yes!” She says. “Tell Olive who pulls the sleigh.”

Benji raises both arms straight up and yells, “Reindeer!” like somebody won something.

Then we are all quiet. I am almost asleep again. I can’t help it. I think Benji is, too, until I hear him say, “I forgot about not having a chimney” and then, right before nothingness, I think maybe that’s the hole.

***

The next day, She is nervous. She is rougher when She pulls the diaper off. She makes Benji sit on the couch with no TV when he spills water on the table.

That night, at dinner, She says, “Guess what?” And then, not waiting, “Daddy is coming over tomorrow.”

I don’t know who Daddy is, but Benji takes a careful bite of potatoes and says, “Why?” with his mouth full.

“To see us. To see you and Olive.”

“Why?”

“Honey, chew and swallow first.” She stands up and takes Her plate to the sink. “He misses you. He wants to see you.”

“Will he bring us something?”

“I don’t know. But that’s not why he’s coming. He just wants to see you guys. And maybe play a little. Maybe read to you.”

“Where will you be?”

She says, “I’ll be here.”

“Don’t leave.”

She says, “I won’t” and sets the wet dish on the counter without rinsing off the bubbles.

***

The next day, when I wake up from my nap, he is here. Daddy. He is thin, and his hair looks wet but isn’t. Also, he has hair on his face, so he’s all eyes. They get wet when he sees me in Her arms.

“Oh, wow. Oh my God, Jen,” he says, looking up. I bury my head in Her neck.

When I peek, he’s standing with his arms open, and She puts me in them. He smells funny. I start to cry.

“Maybe next time,” someone says, and when I get handed back to Her, I see there’s someone else in the room: a lady with thick black glasses and curly hair who says, “It might take a while.”

Benji is running from the couch into the kitchen, arms outstretched, pretending to be a plane. “That’s Olive!” he yells, and then flaps his lips like an engine.

Daddy says, “Hey, buddy, come sit.” But Benji doesn’t pay any attention. He just keeps flying.

“You have to be patient,” the lady says, and Daddy nods and says, “It’s hard. I’ve lost so much.”

“Oh, my God!” She says, madder than when Benji spilled the water. “Like it’s someone else’s fault?”

The lady says, “Let’s see if Benji wants to read a book. Benji,” she calls, “do you like books?”

“Yes!” Benji calls back, still flying.

“Well, come in here and sit down. And then we’ll read one of your favorites.” The lady looks at Her, and She takes me into the bedroom and finds Benji’s favorite book. The one with the moon. Then She kisses the top of my head and rubs Her cheek there. “My lovely Olive,” She whispers.

We bring the book to the lady, who gives it to Daddy. “Come sit with me, buddy,” he says, but Benji flies away. The next time he comes into the room, Daddy says, “Please?” and Benji stops flying and stoops over with his arms hanging down and stomps to the couch.

“Okay!” he says, like he’s too tired to fly anymore and that’s why he’s stopping.

Benji sits between Daddy and the lady. She and I listen from the doorway. When Benji leans up against Daddy’s arm and points to the cow, I let myself be lulled to sleep against Her neck, which smells like everything sweet I know.

***

Now, at night, She lets us stay up after our bath and look at the tree. She turns the lamp off and strings colored lights. She puts some glass dolls on a table. “Baby Jesus,” Benji whispers, and She says, “Yes, and Mary and Joseph and the Wise Men, but up here, so Olive can’t reach.” And Benji says, “And sheep!” and She smiles yes.

She plays music on Her laptop. I make out words: Peace on earth. So tender and mild. Shepherds quake at the sight. Friends are calling yoo-hoo. Santa Claus is coming to town.

“When?” Benji asks.

“Soon,” She says. “A week.”

“Where will Daddy be?”

She pauses. “At his house.”

“Why can’t he be here? Because. Because.” Benji rubs at his eye. “I think he wants to be here.”

She puts Her arms around him and tugs him closer. “He has to have a test first. To see if he can come back.”

“What kind of test?”

“A blood test.”

“Then he can come?” he whispers against Her chest.

“We’ll see,” She says.

***

Now it is nighttime early. The streets are full of angry cars, honking. Benji cries about little things: when She is out of Cheerios, the rules about saying please and thank-you. When She says Grandma and Grandpa want to Skype, he says no, and I can tell She feels bad, because mostly She doesn’t have anything to say, either, except thanks for the checks, which are really helping.

One night, we are sitting on the couch in the dark room, colored lights blinking, when there is a knock on the door. “Who can that be?” She says, her voice sounding different—full of pretending to be happy.

She opens the door, and a man I don’t know walks in. He doesn’t look like anyone I have ever seen. Benji’s eyes get big and then he ducks down and hides his face under a pillow.

“Benji! Look!” She says.

Under the pillow, Benji mumbles something. I put my hand on his leg. He still won’t look.

“Olive!” She says. She walks to the couch and picks me up. “Look! It’s Santa!”

“Ho! Ho! Ho!” Santa says. I push into Her neck, shoving myself close, in case She thinks She’s going to hand me over.

“Benji!” She says and finally he peeks around the pillow.

“Aren’t you going to come talk to him?” She says.

“Ho! Ho! Ho!” Santa says.

Benji sets the pillow down and stands up. He is different—careful with himself, all his parts. He is afraid of breaking. “Santa,” he whispers.

“Come here, sweetie,” She says, holding out Her hand, which Benji reaches for. Then he buries his face in the side of Her leg.

She stands back so Santa can come in, but She doesn’t close the door all the way. She says, “Why don’t you tell Santa what you want for Christmas?” and Benji finally uncoils himself.

“Where’s your sack?” he asks. “Where’s the reindeer?”

Santa squats down. “Well, Benji, I left them at home. I only need them on Christmas Eve.” Then he says, “Ho! Ho! Ho!” again, but it sounds sad this time.

“Tell him about the fighter jet,” She says.

“It hangs down on a string,” he whispers.

“And what else?” She asks.

“Candy.” Head down.

“And?”

“A stuffed raccoon.”

The air in the room is thick and hot, even with the door half open and the cold night air swirling in. I know all of them are not saying what they really want to say. I tuck myself under Her chin and breathe in deep.

“Well,” Santa says, “I think I got a stuffed raccoon around somewhere.” He scratches under his beard. “I think that can be arranged.” He stands up and looks at Her. “You think she’ll—?” he asks, holding out his arms.

She makes a small effort to loosen me, but I glare at him and hold on hard and She says, “I don’t think so.”

He shrugs, and his sad, fat stomach droops down. “Hey, Benji, I gotta get going. Gotta get ready for the big night.” He is trying hard to sound excited. “You and Olive going to leave me some cookies?”

Benji nods yes.

“Peanut butter chocolate’s my favorite,” he says. “Wanna give me a hug?”

Benji takes a step toward him. I am glad, because I am starting to feel sorry for Santa, the way he wants so much he can’t have. I realize Santa has a hole too. I think that is what Christmas is—everyone knowing about the holes and Santa trying to fill them with stuffed raccoons.

Benji will hug when I don’t want to. Always, he will be the one who rescues me.

***

Later, in our room, in the dark, he says, “Olive?”

I turn my head to see out the slats of my crib.

“Santa was here,” he whispers. “Do you think he’ll bring us presents?”

Over his head, the fronds of the scraggly palm tree move in the nighttime wind. I think of the starlings nesting there, warm in their twiggy beds, peeping quiet questions.

“He said he would,” Benji says. “He said he would bring me a jet.” I hear his sheets rustle from his turning toward me. “I think he’ll bring you blocks. And a house for Owl. And maybe diapers.”

There is a long pause. I think he is asleep and I start to let my eyes go soft. But then he says, “When he hugged?” And then he is quiet for a long time.

I wait.

Finally, he says, “He smelled funny.”

He knows what I know. He knows from the smell, and I know because I saw the lady with thick black glasses waiting on the front steps.

***

On Christmas morning, She makes hot chocolate for Her and Benji and blueberry muffins for all of us. Benji wants to open the presents right away, but She says we have to have breakfast first, because that will make everything more special, and also because I have to nurse. “Hurry up, Olive,” he says, but not in a mean way.

When She says, “OK,” we go into the living room, and the little tree is lit up in blinking lights, and there are boxes with ribbons and paper around them. “Presents!” Benji yells, sliding onto his knees. “Which is mine?”

She hands him a box covered in paper with red and green circles on it, and a glittery silver bow. He tears it open. “A jet!” he cries. “That hangs!”

“Wow!” She says. “We’ll put it over your bed later. How does that sound?”

Benji nods and then asks, “Which is Olive’s?”

She stands me on the floor and holds my hands over my head to help me walk, which is something I have been doing in the last few days. When we get to the tree, I sit down hard. She puts a box wrapped in silver paper and a red ribbon in front of me. “Help her, Benji,” She says.

Benji pulls off the ribbon and puts it on my head. “Like a bonnet!” he says, and we all laugh. Then we rip off the paper together, which makes me scream and laugh. I think if I could rip paper with Benji every day, I would never want to do anything else.

There are books in the box with thick, heavy pages that feel good in my mouth. One of them has a picture of a lamb on it. While I am looking at it, Benji opens more presents: a wooden puzzle, pajamas, more books. And then one more. “A raccoon!” he yells. He holds it close. His eyes are wet.

“Show Olive,” She says.

Benji holds it out but won’t let go. “You’ll get him dirty,” he says. “Just look.”

She stands up and brings me a pretty paper bag full of blue tissue paper. She rustles inside and pulls out a stuffed blue chicken. “Like Hen in the book!” Benji says, and I know that will be her name.

Then we rip up tissue paper until the happiness is so big that both of us collapse under the weight of it, gasping.

***

A lot happens after that. One thing is that after a few days, She puts the lights and decorations away and takes the Christmas tree out to the street. Benji cries, but soon there are strings of red and white hearts over all the doorways. Benji isn’t interested in what She says about valentines, but I like how there is always something to look forward to. I wonder if there will be tissue paper.

She cleans out my drawers so there is room for the new shirts. “Out with the old, in with the new!” She says, so it won’t feel like losing so much, but I know that only works sometimes.

Another thing is that I start walking without holding onto Her hands. She says, “God help me,” but I can tell She’s proud. It is different, seeing the world this way. Now some things are interesting, and some are not. Now I decide what to go see.

Benji stops wearing diapers. He says he is tired of them. The next day, She tells him She has found a preschool with an opening, and a few days after that, he starts going. It is just for a few hours two days a week, but while he is gone, it’s as if I’ve gone somewhere, too, and this person who is still here—who walks where she wants to walk, who carries Raccoon around even though Benji has said not to—is someone unknown, a stranger using my body until I get back to it.

At night, he tells me stories about someone named Julian, who likes dump trucks more than jets and thinks it is funny to put an upside-down pail on his head. I watch the scraggly palm tree while he talks and think this is happiness, too, but not the kind that is too heavy to breathe under.

The man named Daddy still comes, but not as often. The lady with thick black glasses sits next to us while he reads us books. Now Benji doesn’t fly away. She stays in the kitchen, sometimes making cookies for all of us, sometimes just sitting. She doesn’t say anything about blood tests anymore. When he leaves, he always says, “Thank you, Jenny,” and his eyes ask “When?” but She just looks away.

The last time, She put me down and I walked up to him. “Da!” I said. “Da!” Everyone froze, gasped. Benji said, “Olive talked!” Then everyone clapped and said how smart I was. She picked me up and held me close. She kissed the top of my head. “My brilliant girl. My Olive,” She whispered. Then She said, “Say ‘Mama’,” and when I didn’t, She put me down, and the lady with thick black glasses said it was only a question of time.

Then I decided to walk to my room, because the man called Daddy looked as though he wanted to grab me up and kiss my cheek, and I knew She wouldn’t be able to stop him, because it would look like She was being a bad sport.

***

Later, in the sleepy darkness, Benji whispered, “Olive, you talked!”

I nodded my head yes.

He said, “Olive, say my name. Say ‘Benji’.”

Above his head, the scraggly palm tree was still.

I didn’t say his name. Instead, I thought about how things are changing: how I can’t remember what the place I came from smells like anymore; how I am starting to like it when She—Mama—drops Benji at school because then we go get a muffin at Starbucks, just the two of us; how the hole is still there, but now it is more of a sadness than a missing.

Benji said, “If you talk more, we can look at books and I can point to a picture and you can say what it is. Like, if it’s a goat, you can say ‘Goat’.

“Or I can tell you jokes. Like Julian tells me. Like this. Listen, Olive. Where does the queen keep her armies?”

I waited.

“Up her sleevies!” he said, laughing so hard he screamed the end of “sleevies,” and when I screamed to keep him company, Mama yelled, “Keep it down!” from the living room.

After being quiet for a little, Benji whispered, “Maybe soon you can go to school with me. You can sit with Julian and me for stories. You can paint pictures. And play drums.”

Stories. Drums.

Everything that will fade away.

Out with the old, in with the new.

“There’s a sandbox,” Benji said, and I thought about digging holes, how they are different from the hole inside. You have a shovel. And the sand is right there, all around.

THE END

© Gina Willner-Pardo

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