Mama was in what Nana called “a manic phase.” She paced around the yard, cigarette in hand, while my brother and I waited for our father with her.
“Three hours now I been waitin’ for your father to come back, get you and your brother and take you on down to Junie’s place. What am I s’posed to do with the two of you here up in this holler? Ain’t got any more food ya’ll eat or any ways to take you to get some or any money to buy no damned food with anyway, and your daddy, he knows that, but he goes off on his tears sometimes and there ain’t nothin’ can get him back where he needs to be, not me calling or ya’ll crying or nothin’, and we just have to deal with that, I s’pose. He doin’ a lot better these days, anyway.” She took a slow drag off her cigarette. It was her fourth one since we’d been sitting outside, the crumpled remains of her earlier efforts littering the ground.
“Maybe I’ll call up to Susan’s later and see if we can ride with her down to the fire department later this evenin’, I think the people are comin’ up from the food bank and we can maybe get a loaf a bread and some cans, at least. Your brother’ll be out o’ diapers soon, too, but since it’s summer, he can just go outside mos’ the time. That way they’ll last longer.”
She smiled down at me then, mouth closed; she didn’t like to smile so you could see her teeth, yellow and decaying, gaps punctuating the rows where some had been pulled. “You know, I ‘member when you was just a baby, too, not much bigger than him now, you used to love to run around without your diaper. Your daddy taught you to yell out “Free willy!” when you’s runnin’ around with your parts all out, but you couldn’t say it right so it sounded more like “reee-eally” like you was trying to convince us of somethin’. Reee-eally, Mama and Daddy, reee-eally.” Mama laughed to herself and took another drag.
“You know I was only sixteen when your daddy done knocked me up, and your daddy a year older. He was s’posed to stay in that program over at the tri-county technical school so he could get a job and support us but he went and got kicked out two months ‘fore you came along and had to go to work at the corner mart instead.
“Well, I worked hard to stay in school after I had you, you know. Wasn’t easy. Girls act all nice to your face but call you trash behind your back, don’t come to your baby shower when they say they gonna. Don’t even be nice after the baby’s come. But still I went to school every day you weren’t sick, and I walked ‘cross the stage the same as any o’ those other girls, and they didn’t have no baby at home.” Another drag. “You can go in the dining room and see my diploma anytime. I want you to remember that piece o’ paper. I was the first in our family to graduate, and you’re gonna do the same, you and your brother, and you’re gonna do better than your daddy and me.” Her words were toward me, but her eyes were elsewhere, caught somewhere between the trees, down the road.
“Not sayin’ we ain’t doin’ all right, we’re doing just fine ever since we got cleaned up and I got my job at the hotel, and since your daddy and Junie got together. I know she’s not the best cook and you don’t like her daughter much, but she’s been good for your daddy and you need to be glad for that. She been good to you, too. And her parents been good to you and your brother, too, taking you to the movies and the library. That’s real nice o’ them and they don’t have to do that, you know.” Drag. “You better be tellin’ them thanks for that stuff, and you make sure your brother does, too. You the oldest and you need to keep him straight when I’m not around.” She sat down then, laid what was left of her cigarette against the glass ashtray on the bench.
“I know it ain’t been easy on you, your daddy and I bein’ apart, but we was just plain toxic together. You know what that means? Well, you do whether you know it or not because you was there and you used to get so scared when we’d fight like cats and dogs. It’s good for you not to be around that, it’s a good thing even if it don’t feel like it sometimes.
“Well, anyway, your daddy does need to take you when it’s his days so I can go to work and then I can get the foods you and your brother eat and diapers, too. I want you to have the things you want, you know, just gotta take care of the bills first.” She gingerly retrieved her cigarette from the glass and divested from it what comfort remained therein.
“School’s still goin’ all right, isn’t it? They sent out your report card last time ‘cause it had a D on it and you know I don’t like to see that. I know you don’t like math, but you gotta try. Teacher’s note on there said you just ain’t turned in your homeworks. That’s just not right. You gotta do better.
That teacher seems to like you. Said you could make up the work and she knows you a sweet kid and you just need to try. It’s good she sees that in you.” A new slim, snow-white cylinder, pristine tobacco and paper, appeared as if by magic between her slim, yellowed fingers.
“You know, one of my teachers almost took in me and my brothers when we was in school. Grammy and your grandpa, they lost us for a few weeks ‘cause your granddad was beatin’ on Grammy and runnin’ from the law. This was back before he went to the prison the last time. He was meaner than a snake back then and gettin’ high off anything he could find or make. Your uncles didn’t seem to mind too much, they just stayed out of his way, but I hated it there. I wanted to get away so badly I’d a done anything. And this one teacher, she loved me. I used to call her “Mama” and I could make her laugh so hard, she’d get tears in her eyes. One Christmas, she and the other teachers there got us all presents and stockings, too, and filled ‘em up and came out and brought them right to our house when your granddad was in jail for a week. Your uncle Johnny started crying, he couldn’t believe they remembered him. He was older than the rest of us, you know, already dropped out of school, but they brought presents for him, too. Grammy took half of them and kept ‘em for Christmas so we’d have somethin’ to open that day.
“Anyway, this teacher, she told the social worker she’d take us in, and she was goin’ to, too, but Grammy and your grandpa had to sign off on it and your grandpa wouldn’t. Now isn’t that dumb as dumb can be? You gonna take kids away from the parents but they gotta sign off on it first. And of course your granddaddy wouldn’t let her take us, hateful man, so we got shipped up the road instead until they could go to court and get us back. Wasn’t nothing we could do to get away from that man until the police took him away for good.
“Some people don’t like the police and hell, I been scared of them myself from time to time, but let me tell you what, I never been happier to see anybody than I was that day the police came and took your grandpa away. All his sins finally caught up with him and we didn’t have to pay for them no more.” Fire flashed behind her palm, and her cigarette began its decay.
“After that, your Grammy did her best to take care of us. Things were a lot better without your granddad there. Wasn’t too long after he left that I got fat with you, and then everything changed. I was so glad you’d never know that man and the hate he carried around in his heart. He was like poison to all of us, and Grammy couldn’t tear herself away from him.
“Used to ask her all the time when he’d run off on one of his tears, why you let him come back here? I didn’t understand when I was a kid how you can believe things that ain’t true even after you find out they ain’t. Your grandma, my mama, she knew my daddy wasn’t any good, but she done been believing she couldn’t live without him so long that even though he kept showin’ her again and again he ain’t nothin’ but trash, she couldn’t believe it. Couldn’t believe the truth she kept seein’ even when she was seein’ it. And I didn’t understand how that could be growin’ up. Come to think of it, I wish I still didn’t now. Seems like kids get things right that grownups can’t sometimes ‘cause they don’t muddy it up with bullshit, just see it like it is. My daddy was dark on the inside, as dark as dark comes, and it didn’t matter how much o’ that Mama seen, she couldn’t put him aside. Thank goodness the police finally came and took him for good. Then we could finally breathe again. Was like she saw us again for the first time, too, like she ‘membered she was a mama and not just a punchin’ bag.” She paused for a moment, breathed in slowly the lifeblood of her cigarette, kept the smoke inside, and closed her eyes. When she finally released the smoke, it crept from between her lips toward the dirt road in front of our house, dissipating before it could make its escape.
“Anyway, you lucky you never knowed him. Wish I hadn’t, either, but it is what it is. And I’m doin’ okay now, and so is your daddy most of the time. He needs to show up now, though, we been waitin’ out here forever. Aw now shit, your brother’s gone and pooped in the yard like a damn dog. Come here, baby, let me clean you up.”
My brother cleaned, her cigarette abandoned momentarily, she pulled us both down onto her lap and wrapped her wiry arm around our waists. We looked out down the road together, the browns of the freshly bare November trees dominating the view of the mountains whose arms we resided in.
“You and your brother gonna do better. Your daddy and I both want that for you. You both going to go to school and get a trade and you gonna be okay.
“Just gotta get you out of this holler.”