Her lips are red, too red. Her skirt, too tight. She’s different from the other mothers and I’m old enough to know different is bad so I tell my new friend, “No, my mother’s dead.”
That shuts her up. Problem solved. No one likes to talk about dead mothers.
My reflection in the window is smiling back at me as the snow dumps from the sky and I’m sure it’s God’s work. I wished for a snowstorm and a snowstorm arrives. I’ll never doubt his existence again.
She sits down next to me on the sofa, pushing the curtain to the side to look out. “Damn this fucking snow. Now your birthday party’s ruined. What will we do with all of that cake? Your little friends will be so disappointed.”
She wrote out the invites in cursive though she should have known in second grade no one can read cursive. But she doesn’t know that, like so many other things she doesn’t know. She put them in my school bag.
“Don’t forget to give your friends the invites for the party,” she shouted from the table as I left for school.
“I won’t,” I said, tuning back to where she sat at the table, an open beer in front of her, already waiting for me to come home from school.
I threw them in a dumpster behind the Piggly Wiggly, the one near the station, the one farthest away from school.
At night she searches my arms up and down. Bruises must be explained or I’ll be dead like her sister from leukaemia. It’s almost a motherly thing for her to do. She doesn’t want to be alone and I’m the last one left.
She spots a small one on my arm and points a red fingernail at it and waits. She wants an explanation. I tell her, “A boy at school, Geoff, the one that pukes in his desk, pinched me.” He didn’t.
“Really? What an awful boy? Where does he live?” Her eyebrows arch in indignation.
I’ve gone too far. “No, it’s okay. He got a terrible punishment from Mrs. Olson. Had to clean the erasers in the tiny storeroom with Mr Alexander, the janitor.”
She nods her head, smiling. She knows all about Mr Alexander so appreciates the severity of the punishment. Mr Alexander with the greased back hair. Mr Alexander with the match in the corner of his mouth. Mr Alexander who smells like fried cabbage. She’s never been to school, but she knows Mr Alexander. He once caused a big bruise on my leg when he accidentally on purpose hit me with his mop. Not really, but I needed a bruise story.
We hide in the closet. I hold the black cat, Panther, she holds the ginger tabby, Shire. She puts her finger to her lips. “Shhh!”
I can hear the church people. They knock on the door and call out. No answer. They knock again. We stay quiet in the closet. I like it there in the dark, under the clothes. We’re one side of a battle, the church people are the other. We’re a team together against them. Me and my mother.
They’ve brought the Thanksgiving food. The church collects food for the poor family. We’re that family. We wait until we’re sure they’re gone and climb out. My mother opens the raw turkey and puts it on the bare floor for Panther and Shire. She takes out the pumpkin pie and sets it on the table. The rest she carries out to the dumpster behind the complex. When she comes back, she takes two forks from the pile of dirty dishes in the sink, runs them under the tap, dries them and hands me one. We get to work on the pie.
“The rest of it was poisoned,” she says.
She’s at the corner and I can see from the statue way she sits she’s been there for a long time. Not moving, her hands on her lap in a way she never holds her hands.
“Let’s go back,” I say to my father who I really don’t know. He only comes when she goes and she’s gone now.
“No, we came to visit your mother. She won’t be happy if we don’t at least say hello.” He doesn’t know anything. He doesn’t know her. Hello will not make her happy.
When he calls to her, her head turns so slowly I’m sure it creaks. She’s wearing her own clothes but not in the right way. She’d never wear the pink cardigan with the red turtleneck. Never wear a pair of navy tracksuit pants when she knows men might be around. Her red lips are gone and her tight skirt too, but she’s different. She’s even more different than ever.
I smile and play my role of happy child. The nurses stop and say things like. “Oh Patricia, don’t you have a lovely daughter!” They think they’re being polite and jolly.
And my mother smiles though I know she never likes people saying I’m beautiful. She only likes when they say she’s beautiful.
My father’s talking to one of the nurses in soft whispers to the side and I take my opportunity. The nurse is giggling. I lean close to my mother like an informant to a journalist. “You need to get better. I don’t like staying with him.”
She nods in slow motion, like her neck is painful, and speaks in her measured hospital voice, “I promise.”
Though I remember it better than the others, it was not the first promise she broke.
Her face is lopsided. Not stroke lopsided, just life lopsided. She’s walking towards me at the airport and I hug her because everyone else is hugging their person.
“I’m glad you came,” she says. I see her lipstick is smudged.
I stay quiet I don’t want to lie. The whole way I wished I wasn’t flying through the air towards her. I’m leaving, for a long time, maybe for ever, and I should say good bye to her. Daughters and mothers do that.
We sit in the restaurant. I tell her I can’t stay long, there’s not time to see her place, I need to get back to pack, though I’ve done it already. I don’t need to see it to know it. Seventh floor, one bedroom in low income housing. Gang bangers hanging in the doorway. Empty syringes and dog shit in the stairwell. Her apartment smelling of Midnight Blue, her perfume ever since I can remember. Ash trays full of butts, all decorated red on the end. And it’s dark, the tiny windows looking out on too near brick walls. I don’t need to see it, I know it already.
“I’m okay now,” she says, her hand shaking as she reaches for her coffee. “I’m going to be just fine.”
“Sure you are,” I say trying hard to be sure.
We drink coffee for the two hours I’ve allowed for it and then I’m on my way. Gone.
“So will I get to meet your mother?” he asks, hopeful.
“Oh sure,” I say. Breezy. I’ve decided my new husband needs a breezy wife, so I’m breezy, free and breezy. A wife like that can pop in and see her mother with her new husband and everything will be fine. A-okay. That’s who I am now.
We move around America and the time crushes in on me and we’re almost there. I find it difficult to breathe when I think about my new husband with my old mother. Almost too late I realise I can’t do it. I can’t be free and breezy for him if I’m with her. I can’t go and see her because I’m not that person.
I lie. “She’s had a problem and asked us not to come. We’ll see her next time,” I say in my breeziest and freest voice.
My father, still a stranger, calls on Sunday, during the cheap phone rates. “Your mother died on Wednesday,” he says. “The state buried her already. No need to come home.”
I wonder if they dressed her right in the coffin, if they put the lipstick. Somehow it doesn’t hurt to see her lying dead, her lips bright red, her fingernails matching. But I know they didn’t do that. I know they didn’t get it right. I circle the bruise on my arm with my finger. I’m not that surprised, really, to find there is no relief when I’m finally set free.