“It’s hot enough to taste the air and eat the summer,” Nana said. She settled herself onto the stoop’s top step. “Don’t worry child, he’ll be here soon enough.”
I was sitting a few steps below her, wearing my new dress. A neighbor’s daughter had turned my unruly hair into bouncy curls. I kept reapplying my lip gloss every few minutes, kept adjusting my purse in my lap. I felt beautiful.
Nana came and went. She stopped sitting on the stoop, settling into the rocking chair on our porch instead. We neighbor-watched. Mr. Wilson was mowing his lawn, using a dingy cloth to wipe his sweat before stuffing it back into his pocket. (“Now he know he need to burn that rag,” Nana said.) A family from down the street drove by in their minivan, the kids wearing bathing suits, towels draped around their necks. Nana waved. (“Prob’ly headed to that dirty public pool. Come back with ringworm.” Nana again.) We watched an unknown woman, high heels in hand, walking barefoot to her car, her sparkly dress riding up her thighs. Standing in the doorway of his house was our recently divorced neighbor, a thin robe tied loosely around his middle. I turned to Nana for a reaction. (“Hussy.”)
I sat all day on those steps and waited for Daddy in the heat of the summer. Sweat puddled in my underwear and my curls went limp. I moved once, rushing to use the bathroom, sure that he would arrive the moment I was gone, top down, music too loud, cigarette behind his ear. Or maybe he’d be blowing smoke rings, one hand draped behind the passenger seat headrest. He would pull off his sunglasses when he saw me, and his eyes would light up, and he would smile, showing all his teeth, and say “Baby girl! Let’s go. We got streets to burn!”
At some point Nana hustled by me.
“Let’s go see your Mama.” It wasn’t a choice. She never looked back, just got into the car. I followed reluctantly.
I opened the air conditioner vents on my side and placed my face close to the chilled air, doing my best to hide my tears. When we arrived at the cemetery Nana gestured for me to go ahead. I made my way through the maze of headstones and stopped at the one that was my mother. I sat down in the dirt, not caring about my dress. I picked up handfuls of rich soil, let it run through my fingers. I remembered a song my mother used to sing to me: My mama used to rock me in the cradle, in them old, cotton fields back home-
It’s Saturday so she’s washing and braiding my hair for church and I hate Saturday evenings, the comb’s teeth tangling my kinks and I can’t keep still, don’t position my head correctly, don’t hold my aching arm high enough for her to smear the grease resting in my palm into my scalp and her calloused fingers bruise my neck, pushing my head forward until my chin rests awkwardly on my chest and doesn’t she smell like cotton candy at a baseball game, doesn’t she smell like picnics at the state park, doesn’t she smell like rain behind the glass pane, her hand resting on my shoulder, she’s saying sorry you can’t go out and play, let’s watch a movie together, whatever you want, she’s always singing and humming, snippets that play in my dreams, what’s the rest of it-
I heard Nana before I saw her, leaning heavily on her cane, grunting her way toward me. Her fingers were gnarled but her grip was still strong.
“Pressure can bust open a pipe, but it can also make a diamond.” She said this every time we were graveside.
Once home I took my seat on the stoop again. At dusk I moved to my bedroom upstairs. Darkness settled. Nana opened my bedroom door, watching me as I stared out the window.
“Not your fault child,” she said. “Your Daddy couldn’t keep a job tasting pies at a pie shop.” She made her way to me, favoring her left leg, wincing, and placed a dry kiss on my forehead. “Take off that pretty dress and get in bed.”
She didn’t leave.
“Your momma loved to sing to you. Her favorite was this one.” Her voice emerged, strong and steady.
My mama used to rock me in the cradle
In them old cotton fields back home
Cause when them cotton balls get rotten
You can’t pick very much cotton
In them old cotton fields back home
In about a decade I’ll flee to university, halfway across the country. Nana will call but I’ll rarely answer. One day there’ll be a message from my father. It’s summer and I’m spending it with a boyfriend and his complete family- a mother who bakes, a father who takes out the trash. I’m on the first plane home. I’ll see him at her funeral. He’ll have gold front teeth, a Narcotics Anonymous pendant on a thin chain, and a penchant for quoting Bible verses. I’ll look so much like him, except he’s brittle where I’m strong. I’ll hear my mother’s voice, airy, unable to pin down. Nana taught me to bend but never break- pressure busts pipes but it also makes diamonds.
Back in my room, Nana stood up slowly, brushing tangled curls from my face. Suddenly she leaned over, pulling me tightly into a hug. I cried into her shoulder, loud, angry sobs that filled my darkened room. We sat that way for a while. Eventually, Nana pushed me away from her. She grabbed my chin and forced me to look at her.
“My beautiful child. One step toward him should’ve been enough.”