I always find her this one way, it seems: sitting on her bed, high on her knees yet hunched at the shoulders as she bends into her project of the day and fixes it with her hard, Catholic glare. She has been known to work up a sweat, just hunching and glaring. Peeking at her through the door-crack, I try to imagine what kind of exertion roasts her so from the inside out, but apparently, it is something not I nor the world can see.
What busies her hands on this occasion is nothing grander than a rectangular cut of cardstock, socked through roundly in the top center by a hole punch. Beside her on the bed lie glossy slips of stickers which portray police cars, hats, and weapons. I find guns and handcuffs in stickers to be grotesque. By all accounts, there is next to nothing Mama finds to be.
She matches the stickers with the rectangle slabs and then marks each slab with calligraphy—beautiful black letters resembling the name of some soon-to-be-thankful lawman. Done with everything, she fastens red tassels through the punched holes and, ta da, she has invented a bookmark. She has invented fifty or so, actually, by the time she snaps her head up to remind me of my presence and explain how asinine it would be to deliver bookmarks without books; we will be removing ourselves to the bookstore where we will obtain fifty copies of Fantasia Mathematica.
She gives no explanation for the significance of this book, and I do not pester her for one. We have been through this circuit enough times for me to recognize explanations for the unwelcome baggage they are, much as it is with worked-out plans. For example, if our little bookstore with the cats roaming fenceless has one copy of this Fantasia Mathematica, they most assuredly will not have fifty, and Mama will take hearing it as she’d take a days-shortening diagnosis. And then who knows what.
Before she manages to spirit us off to the bookstore—where the clerks, I gather, are familiar with and amused by her—Gran comes in, brushing around me. She tells Mama, “That’s enough. You go on to bed and I’ll bring you in Relaxing.”
Some time ago, I ascertained that Relaxing, with its great scramble for anonymity, has to do with the glass of foamy orange juice and the pinched pills Gran brings Mama when she’s been in a wide-eyed way for a while. Mama does not like it, does not smile, does not pout, but with her narrowed eyes nearly translates the space around her into ashes. More often than not, Mama yields. And she does relax.
I have thus far failed to calculate what makes Mama her unique way, though I’ve tried many times to culminate a sum from her individual parts: her mercurial appetite and her mismatched bead jewelry, ink-colored hair, her admiration of Elvis Costello which before has provoked her to decorate my bedroom with him having run out of area in her own. Not entered into my investigation is what all people say about her, but that owes to the fact that what they say is normally no better than what the one said when she stopped me right in the middle of things—me walking toward some end with I-don’t-remember-what in my arms and talking to Becka—to ask me “Isn’t your mama …?” and then to say to me, in front of Becka with her big unlocked mouth, that Mama was one troubled teenager whose child this lady did ever sympathize for.
It is not that I’m unwilling to hear Mama called “troubled.” It’s that Mama is twenty-one years old.
This woman has shown herself willing to exaggerate to prove her thoughts and others like her have shown themselves willing to altogether leap from reality: claiming she is a circus-animal-minded person known to home-make cardboard satellites she tries to fling past heaven and onto the free unknown beyond and transmit to and fro with whatever aliens live there. Here is what I will say answering that one day when they are not the adults leaning over me like streetlamps: I will say: if you knew half what my mama really does, you would feel foolish making up things and exaggerating and making her out to be younger than what she is.
They will take to holding their breath around me the way they do around Mama but because they will know I’ve said something true.
The nuns, particularly, have apparently always held breath around Mama. From the way it’s told around me, they resigned to holding that breath until they were puffy and discolored in the face if need be after they visited her on the eve of my birth. Gran says they came proselytizing and saving and toting baking goods. It all went fine and well, as legend keeps it, until the Sisters reminded Mama that a life sprung in a bad way is one of disadvantage from the start. Gran, just like I have not heard Mama storm at people with great bolts of f-words and s-words, will tell me a dressed-down version of what Mama said by reply.
Gran reports that after the nuns stormed away smarting from Mama’s mean mouth that Mama plopped her swollen body down on the kitchen floor and ate up every snack the Sisters had brought as though she hadn’t consumed a crumb through her pregnancy. Gran tells me this is close to the truth, and that she attributes what meager birth weight I managed to steal off Mama to that one eating Mama performed, hours before I showed myself. And then Gran winks at me to assure me this is not her true theory.
Mama continues to eat poorly then ravenously even now. Even as we abscond into the night, leaving Mama’s labor-of-love bookmarks strewn on the floor as we sputter off in a car she is not supposed to drive.
Before I know it, she is perched in her lacy underthings and a t-shirt on the bed of a hotel room, a lamp on her right side in these razzling blue evening hours as she admires her own pristine silhouette on the wall opposite.
She has not eaten a thing but Skittles and diet colas for one week.
Tonight, she lays out a feast of chocolate-lined waffle cones, glistening fried chicken, seven bags of Halloween-type candy, French fries dressed with chili and ketchup and cheese, buttered English muffins, two frosted Danish pastries, a pallet of chocolate and strawberry ice cream balls, curls of fatback, barbecue and slaw sandwiches and a tub of cottage cheese with a plastic spoon sticking out from it like a flag. Mama carried out orders from restaurants and grocery-shopped and heated all that required it in the hotel room’s microwave.
I bound the room, digging into the feast with my bare hands. Knowing better than to trust these endless-buffet moods of hers but by the same token hungry. When Mama finishes showing off her profile to herself, she looks at all the food, and one of her eyes takes on a lazy quality. She downs a swig of something clear, then starts on a drum leg. After biting into it, she chews with the drum leg still pressed to her lips, greasing her face. Then, she basically falls into her stash of food, sadly and slowly staining her face with juices and drippings. Her sadness, in the face of absolutely nothing else, seems logical to me. She hasn’t eaten in a week. Nothing can fill her up now.
Halfway through her intended dine, Mama starts crying. My hands fill with cement, and I cease rummaging through the containers. Mama wails before she screams.
When they come, they are lonely, damaging screams—the kind you hear from the sea at night and wonder what kind of injured creature could make that cry. I feel I should rescue her, and believe that my indecisiveness over what to do, more than fear of some terrorist lurking in our room, causes me to scream in tune with Mama. And there we remain, frozen and belting our lungs out until a hotel orderly breaks his way in and searches Mama’s discarded pants for identification and looks up Gran to come get us. We haven’t even left town, but I gather Mama meant to.
At home, Gran gives Mama Relaxing before wrapping me in her own sweet arms at bedtime. I confide in her that I feel the need for Relaxing, too.
She considers me in a way that does not dismiss me as a little girl wanting to be her mama. Outside of replacing when Mama says “shit” and things like that in recounting an old story to me, she does not dismiss me in any sense—she looks square in my eyes and saying something akin to this: “That’s because you’re feeling mighty wound up, I imagine.”
I bob my head up and down, up and down. She asks me these petite questions starting off: do I remember the hotel orderly’s name, did we have much gas in the car, did I see anything exciting from the hotel’s window—these three answerable by a “no.” Then she asks what I thought of the kingly spread of food Mama’d ordered.
I don’t think a thing of it at first except it was foolhardy and I find the territory about my eyes waxing tender and warm as I think of just that.
“Why so much, do you think?”
Gran and I will do this. Right after or quite a ways after Mama’s fits and also times that don’t strike me as directly tied to her fits whatsoever. We will hold up each odd moment to the light and together squint at it.
After one of the first escapades in memory wherein Mama ended up brewing and badgering her way out of a store, I had narrated to Gran that it made sense the grocer didn’t have on hand the watermelons Mama wanted, particularly in the quantity she demanded, watermelons being scarce to unheard of in November; and Gran had nodded adult-to-adult at me and said
Similarly did I tiptoe back through the echoey, already haunted memory I’d just made until I suddenly knew a truth that needed expounding on. Gran expressed she would appreciate some explanation, so I told her about Mama’s intense shopping trip, picking up cold things for…I did not know. And that assuredly she had no more set down and around the grocery bags whose handles cut regular-spaced red dents into her arms than she recognized that this enormous peck of food would not fit in a hotel refrigerator no more than half the height of herself.
Gran says nothing more than “Hm,” but with eyebrows peaked and her hand placed a pensive way on her jaw.
A wiggle goes through me then as I land on another thought I rush to explain to Gran. That, sure as daybreak, Mama had hunkered down with the goal of sparing no food, the two of us mowing through acres, because she had established the problem was too much food and nowhere to put it but had not gotten so far as detecting our two all but fist-sized bellies could not, would not all at once gawp open to quite literally swallow the problem. I even, being silly a moment, pointed out to Gran a solution of this nature would’ve been a fine solution for camels.
Her smile indicates she perfectly welcomes my silliness. Touching my nose, she says, “But not for humans?” I tell her, nope, not for humans, and then we continue, drifting in the rocking chair, to talk ourselves so drowsy that, right there, I lay my head on Gran’s shoulder and I rest.
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