Mama needed a ride home from work so I went for her. As I was pulling out of the lot behind the grocery store where she was a clerk in the deli, I said, “We gotta stop somewhere; Ray wants some cigarettes.”
Mama turned and looked out the side window.
Had she heard me? Maybe I didn’t say anything. I’d kept my voice low, tried to keep the words even like we were ordinary, but maybe I only imagined myself speaking.
“How you know?” she asked.
“He called me. Said if I was picking you up to get him some cigarettes.”
“You go by the house for money?”
“Nah. I was thinking you might—”
“I don’t have any.” She huffed. “I told him that.”
Moments passed. My hand left the steering wheel and danced around the radio buttons, but I didn’t turn it on. I wanted Mama to believe I was okay with this silence between us.
Pulling into the lot of a convenience store, I parked then tugged the
ash tray open, plucked out quarters, nickels, dimes.
Lifting the lever and pushing the door open, I asked, “He smoke the same?”
Inside, I handed my ID to the clerk and asked for a pack of Camels. There was a plastic container of jerky and I thought how Mama liked it so I snatched one up and laid it by the register.
Back in the car, I placed the brown bag on Mama’s lap before starting up and backing out.
“How you been?” she asked.
Minutes later, I was pulling up alongside the curb at the house. I didn’t turn the car off.
“You coming in?”
I shook my head. I hadn’t been in that house since the night my scream brought Mama down the hall, barreling into my room.
“What’s going on?” she’d cried out, flipping on the light.
I was in the corner, trembling, my blanket clutched before me.
Ray stood by my bed, glassy-eyed, feet planted but his body, swaying.
Mama looked from me to him, from him to me. Back to him and she studied him hard. When her arm moved, I was sure she was going to smack him upside the head like he deserved but she snatched his elbow and pulled him to the door. “He’s drunk,” she said. “He just got turned round in the hall and went into the wrong room.”
Pushing Ray out, she turned to me. “You go on back to sleep,” she said as she left the room.
I let the blanket fall. “Alright, Mama,” I said, ripping my pillowcase from the pillow and shoving clothes into it. “Alright.”
I called my aunt and then sat on the curb until she came for me. I’ve never been in that house since. It was two years before I spoke to Mama again, three before I’d listen to a word Daddy had to say, though I’d never call him that again.
Mama stood in the space of the open car door. The porch light came on and she glanced over her shoulder. She turned back to me. Her fingers tightened around the bag, the crinkling the only sound. She sighed. “You take care of yourself,” she said.
“Alright, Mama,” I told her and then she shut the door.
Gwendolyn Joyce Mintz is a fiction writer and poet. Her work has appeared in various journals, print and online, as well as in eleven anthologies. She has received several awards for her work, including the 2008 Glass Woman Prize. Her chapbook “Mother Love” is available for download at http://www.unlikelystories.org/07/mintz0607.shtml A mother of seven, Mintz is the 1st place winner of the Betty Crumrine Scholarship for the 2010 Antioch Writer’s Workshop.