One. Two. One—oops.
One. Two. One-two—oops.
Wait a minute. Let me get this hair out of my eyes. There, that’s better.
One. Two. One-two. Ha!
See what Mommy’s learning for you, Jemma girl? See how it’s going to be when you’re all better again? Boy, you should have seen that juggler on TV last night. Was he good! Under his leg, behind his back, mixing balls and pins. Not that I ever expect to do fancy stuff like that. Besides, all I got are these old tennis balls, worn way down and stained with something. No wonder they got left behind on the court.
One. Two. One-two.
Wish Jimmie’d come back.
One. Two. One-two.
Please, God, don’t let the telephone ring. Know I left the window open wide enough to hear if it did.
One-two, one-two. That’s it!
The funny thing is, I’d never have guessed the way to start is just two balls, crisscross from hand to hand. I’d have thought you had to go circular, passing left-right-up-left, so they made like a wheel in the air. But the juggler showed Johnny Carson two balls, crisscross, just like this…Damn! Don’t go bouncing off! Guess you ain’t got the hang of it yet, Juley girl. At least it’s sunny here. Back home—just rain, rain, rain. But here it’s bright and dry, and even this early in the morning you can feel the warmth sneaking in. Hardly seems I need this jacket. Who’d guess it’s only the first week in March? Who’d ever guess I’d be here in California?
‘Course, I didn’t dare try this in the room. Even besides the fact I might break something, I don’t want to cause the motel people any trouble. They been nice to us, even said don’t worry about the money for now. So it’s lucky there’s this little courtyard around back for me to try this out. Wouldn’t want people to think I’m crazy, standing here juggling these old tennis balls, waiting for a miracle.
One-two. One-two. One-two.
See that, Jemma? Not bad, huh? Yeah, but I can’t keep stopping between tosses. I have to keep it going, it’s got to flow. And it’s no use blaming it on the balls. A good juggler ought to be able to juggle just about anything, right? I bet that guy on Johnny Carson could juggle apples, bananas, china teacups. And he told Johnny: Half an hour, forty-five minutes’ practice, that’s all it takes to get that third ball in the air. Well, forty-five minutes is just about what I got before I can come to the hospital to see you again. Think they’ll let me bring these balls in to show you?
Was that—? No. No, it’s okay. Don’t panic. Try again. C’mon, Juley, make it flow.
One-two, one-two, one-two. Yes!
If Jimmie doesn’t come back, I’ll just have to go without him, leave him a note. It’s only about a mile walk. Boy, these neighborhoods are pretty. Folks must be rich. Knew it as soon as I saw them kids all in white playing tennis at that high school. So when that juggler came on I said to myself, Betcha anything you could find three balls down on that court, Juley, if you go down good and early. Betcha there’ll be three old balls them rich kids don’t want. And when I found them, just like I suspected, don’t you think it’s a good sign that maybe everything will be all right?
Hey, I can feel it, like there’s getting to be a gap after the second ball and maybe I could sneak the third one in. Got to figure out how to hold them, where to start. Does it make any difference I’m left-handed? Maybe not. Okay, now if I toss this first ball up from my left hand and the second one from my right, but before I catch either of them I got to get the third ball out of my left hand so it’s free when the right ball comes down…Wait a minute, where does the middle ball go? This is getting hard…
Don’t give up, Juley. I know you ain’t got a lot of brains. Leastways if you have, they sure never showed up in school. I can’t help thinking about that when I pass that fancy high school and see them kids with their books. You can bet they’re all going to graduate and go to college, get degrees and be doctors and lawyers and businessfolk and such. The doctors at the hospital must have degrees galore. They know I don’t. So they say everything real simple to be sure I understand. Hell, I want to cry at them, do you think just because I never graduated high school, do you think just because me and Jimmie come from where it’s poor, do you think just because we’re teenagers, we don’t understand our baby’s got something wrong with her heart and if we don’t get a transplant soon, she’s going to die? Why do you think Jimmie’s off drunk somewhere even now? Aside from the fact that his Daddy was the same, and that stuff runs in families, and I guess I should have known before I married him.
Go home and get some sleep, they said. We’ll call if your baby takes a turn for the worse. God, please…
Here, now. You stop that. Are you juggling or not? ‘Cause there ain’t no way you’re going to figure it out by thinking, girl. Just throw them balls and don’t be afraid.
Plant your feet, girl. Don’t go walking.
Not so high, Juley. Keep the balls close to you, keep them down. And get the damn bangs out of your eyes.
Maybe it would be better if I didn’t count. Maybe it’s hearing that three coming that makes me seize up. But I need something to keep a rhythm…how about names? Sure, look:
This ball is Jimmie, because at first sight it doesn’t look too bad. Then you see the split in it, not big yet, but growing. Growing faster since the day Jem was born and things didn’t seem quite right, but no one knew what. Then we got to hearing words like transplant and deteriorate. Jimmie loves that baby, just like I know he loves me, but he isn’t strong, and even here, where we don’t know anybody, seems he can always find someone to drink with.
Now this ball is Jem, the newest one, still got some fuzz on it. I thought I’d die delivering that baby, I thought she must be big as an elephant and weigh half a ton. But when I got her in my arms she was just this tiny red thing, and I loved her so much I knew my heart would break. And now she’s so beautiful, all that wispy brown hair floating around her head, little saucer pink tummy, little baby toes like pearls. But for all the tubes and tapes and beepers you’d hardly know she was so sick.
Last ball, this one that looks like a dog’s been chewing on it, that’s me. Guess I look about this scrawny myself by now. They keep telling me I got to sleep, got to eat, keep up my strength for my baby. Guess they don’t realize how slight I was to begin. But my size is deceiving, always has been, because I’m tougher than anyone ever suspects. I may not have a lot of brains, but I got courage, I got spunk. Throw them balls, Juley. Throw them, girl.
See what Mommy’s learning for you, Jemma? See how it’s going to be? You and me and Jimmie back home safe with your new heart ticking like your own special pocket watch. I’ll take you out in the sunshine in your bonnet and prop you up with pillows on a blanket by the tree, and I’ll juggle for you, Jemma, these very same balls, high, high in the air. You’ll be so amazed your little eyes will pop wide and your mouth will drop. Maybe I’ll get so good we’ll run away to the circus, you and me, ‘cause I have to do something to pay all these bills and I know in my heart Jimmie can’t. He’s sick, too, baby. He needs help. So I’m the only one can keep us together, high in the air like we were meant to be.
I got it! Twice around without dropping. See that, baby? Phone’s not going to ring. Because even though it was booze that got you started, you are the best thing in my whole life. Jimmie, too. Didn’t he stand by me and marry me so you could have your very own dad? And I didn’t touch a drop, not a drop, all the time I was pregnant. No booze, no cigarettes. Drank all the milk I could get. And when I held you in my arms, all squally and red, and Ma just sat there stone-like, mopping back my hair, I said, Don’t you worry, Ma. I know we got strikes against us. I know we made mistakes. But this is one thing I am going to do right.
So I can’t cry when I think about it, can’t cry when I think how some other little baby somewhere has to die so my baby can live. I’m going to burn in hell forever for saying it, but it’s true: some other baby has to die.
Now take a deep breath, Juley, plant your feet, lift your hands, make them balls fly.
Keep going. Don’t cry.
See how it’s going to be, baby? You and me, me and you, juggling on a sunny day. I’ll make those balls soar, so high, high, high! we almost can’t see them, they’ll be lost in the sun. For one golden moment, they’ll all leave my hands, going against gravity, beating all the odds. And I don’t hear, I won’t hear, that telephone ring.
(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1988)