Doris the Cloud  /  Nancy Sullivan

 

“Carla, Carla! Come back here!” Doris’s voice was tight and shrill like an old violin and she yelled from her bedroom. Carla tore down the narrow hall, her faded blue Keds moving as fast as they ever had. She smashed hard into Penny, exiting the green bathroom.  

“STUPID BUTTHEAD!” Penny took a healthy swing at her, missed, but added “I’M GONNA GET YOU!” and Carla managed to briefly turn her head, sticking out her tongue as far as it would go while still running full speed toward the closet at the other end of the house. 

“MOM!” shouted Penny.

            The TV was blaring the “Oprah Winfrey” theme song as Carla frantically yanked open the warped wooden door and flung herself inside. She pulled the door shut tightly and latched it, being careful not to catch any of the smooth material of the silky white slip

she’d absconded with.

She lay in the heap, panting hard, the cool of the soft material close to her face, comforted by the darkness and the musty smell of coats. She lay very still as she listened to Doris’s agitated, methodical footsteps moving closer across the house. She heard her name spoken at east three times before the stern rap came at the other side of the door.

The worn brown shag on the hall closet floor smelled like old cat pee and smashed grape jellybeans, but Carla didn’t mind. To her it was paradise, her clubhouse, her shrine.

With the door cracked open two or three inches, just enough light would stream in to illuminate her cozy cave, the only unclaimed three feet in the entire house. The upper space was occupied by an assortment of musty-smelling tweed overcoats and outgrown parkas, but the floor space was hers, all hers.

She’d shoved the rusted white box fan and broken Dustbuster over into the far corner, leaning it against the motel-style oil reproduction of “the Last Supper,” the one with the broken gift frame.  Her foster mother, Doris, must have had three or four of these scattered throughout the house. In every room there was a portrait of Jesus in an assortment of poses, serene with one hand raised, suffering on the cross, or supervising a gang of men at the dinner they called “the last supper.”

Carla had scrutinized the painting carefully before turning it completely around to face the wall. She had thought it might make a nice addition to her clubhouse, but rejected it on the basis of the types of food they were eating. No hot dogs, no chips, no cake with thick gooey icing.  Why have a party with no kid-food? Besides, it gave her the creeps the way the eyes in the picture seemed to follow her wherever she would move.

            In the corner lay a small stack of books her new sister Penny had outgrown. Pipi Longstockings, Yertle the Turtle, The Cat in the Hat, and Ferdinand the Bull.  Covers stained, bindings frayed, each title page had been hastily torn out, completely obliterating the sentence, “This Book Belongs to Penny.” Now every single page of each book bore the mark of its new owner in bold orange crayon. On the first page a big orange “C,” on the second, an “A,” the third an “R,” and so on. The name was spelled repeatedly throughout the book in letters so large that they covered the entire page…CARLA CARLA CARLA—

            She had also personalized the walls with letters stretching as high as she could reach. Only the wall left of the door had a blank spot to tape the picture of the “Hero of the Week,” and for the two weeks she’d been here it had been Lisa Simpson, proudly displaying her saxophone.

            But the focal point of the room was two empty boxes that had once held “Savannah” Girl Scout cookies.  The boxes were stacked on top of one another and covered with a frayed chiffon kerchief bearing a map of Minnesota. This was where the sacred objects lay. The emptied out Visine bottle containing her three dislodged baby teeth, the blunt stub of an orange Crayola crayon, the photo of her real father, Dan, touching a goat, and a rock named Rob.

These objects generally lived in the pockets of her overalls or cords, but one day a week, on Wednesday, they were to sit out on the top of this secret altar to be charged with “Super Sonicpower,” the power that guarded them from a fatal touch of other humans. A force so strong and so loyal to Carla, that anyone laying so much as a finger on any of the objects would instantly burst into flames.

            “Okay, Carla, open up. I’m losing patience with you.”

            “NO!” Carla shot out the word with all the volume her seven-year-old lungs could muster.

            “Carla, you open this door! What the hell are you doing with my slip? Open this door!”

            NO!!”

            Carla was pleased that she’d sounded particularly forceful, and added: “NO ONE COMES IN HERE! NO ONE BUT ME!”

            Doris’s voice softened a bit, and she let out a big breath.

            “Come on, Carla, I want to talk to you. I’m not going to punish you, just open the door.”

She then began to count to five. Carla screamed, “Six, seven, eight, nine!!!” and flung open the door with a force that made it go all the way back and crack against the ceramic mariachi musicians from Tijuana; the one playing the huge guitar landed right on his nose.

            There she sat. Arms and legs crossed. Doris’s slip draped over her head and cascading down her shoulders. Doris’s lips curled into an unintentional smile as she kneeled down to meet Carla at defiant eye level.

            “I like your hat.’

            “It’s not a hat, it’s a veil. I’m a nun. You must call me Sister Carla.”

            A quaking index finger was pointing inches away from Doris’ nose, and she stifled the urge to laugh.

            “I’ve never seen a sister without a cross. – Here.”  Doris reached into the depths of her blouse and emerged with a small silver crucifix on a chain. She unfastened it and held it out ot Carla. “May I put this on you, Sister?”

            Carla eyed the dangling chain suspiciously, but couldn’t resist reaching out to touch Jesus’ foot, still warm from Doris’s skin. She closed her eyes and nodded slow, sitting religiously still as she felt Doris reach around to fasten the clasp.

            “There we go, now you’re perfect. Sister Carla, will you come out now?”

            Carla shook her head slowly. Her skin began to tingle as she heard the strange forbidden word forming on her lips. “No --  but you may come in.”

            Confused by the words she had involuntarily spoken, she moved as though through Jello to the other side of the floorspace. Doris’ knees cracked as she moved inside, and Carla could smell her Jean Nate After Bath Splash as she reached up to re-hook the door. Carla climbed on top of an old red plastic milk crate with a picture of a smiling cow and felt for the dangling metal chain. She pulled it and the light of a single sixty watt bulb illuminated the shrine.

            “Wow, you’ve really fixed the place up.” Doris’s eyes scanned the graffiti-covered walls and landed on the makeshift altar, undoubtedly underestimating its power.

            “Would you like to see a picture of Dan, my real dad?”

            “Why yes I would, Sister.”

            She pointed, “It’s right there.”

            Carla’s cool eyes stayed unwaveringly on Doris’s benign expression as she watched Doris reach her curious hand toward the Savannah boxes for the photo of the goat and Dan. Little did Doris know that it would be all over in a flash, that she’d burst into white hot flames at the very touch of a finger.  Her left hand was a mere three inches from the snapshot when Carla suddenly shrieked, “WAIT!  I’LL GET IT!”

            Doris recoiled, startled, and shot Carla one of those bewildered wide-eyed smiles that adults often assume in the presence of children, confused, but harmless, like a crack in the sidewalk.

            Carla stared into Doris’ eyes as she moved the photo close to her tan, powdered face, staring hard, searching for reaction, anger, envy, something.  Something real.  Doris’ brown eyes wrinkled into a smile as she began to reach for the photo.

            “NO!” the word shot forth from Carla’s diaphragm at amazing volume, causing both of them to jump slightly.  “You probably shouldn’t touch it,” she added softly.

            Doris’ mouth smiled at the photo as well, then opened and said, “I bet that goat wants to taste your dad’s sweater.”

            An involuntary giggle burst forth from Carla’s throat.

            And Doris did that little snorting thing that always precedes her big belly laughs.  The closet became hot and stuffy as they continued to howl with laughter.  Doris snorting, Sister Carla nearly peeing her habit.  It seemed like they’d never stop.

            Carla wiped her nose on the slip as she watched Doris dab her eyes with a wadded up pink Kleenex.

            “Well thank you for having me in, Sister Carla.  I think I’d better go get some air.”

            “WAIT!” yelled Carla once again, this time intentionally loud.  “You have to have a snack.”  She reached a dirty hand into the front pocket of her overalls and produced a small, crumpled brown paper sack.  Opening the top, she shook it hard, and onto the linty brown carpet spilled two gummy worms, one red, one green. “Which do you want?”

                        Doris thought a long moment, then picked up the one near Carla’s leg.  “I’ll take the green.”

            Carla’s nose crinkled in delight as Doris leaned her head back and opened her mouth wide, dangling the lime worm over a mouth full of fillings and one big gold tooth.  Then she put her lips together and sucked the worm down noisily, the way grownups tell you not to eat spaghetti.

            Carla laughed out loud as she looked at those lips, those smiling, pink, worm-chewing lips.  For the first time, she longed to touch them, to feel them just lightly, gently, kissing her forehead good night.  Like a butterfly, like a moth, like a cloud.