I was sleeping, flying, snoring when I woke up in the middle of the air. Mamma tossed me like straw. Her temper was up and I could see a river of sweat pouring down her face. Her eyes were dark from an ugly brown mascara, and I could see the spit on her teeth, hissing at me like she was a bobcat. The house smelled like overcooked bacon, or maybe that was her smell… greasy and damp and musky.
“I been calling you for the past five minutes, Charlie Kitten,” she yell. Only when she yell, it came out hoarse and thick, like a hunk of cabbage was jammed down her throat. “Your Daddy’s gonna be home in five minutes, and you just layin’ there.”
She threw a dirty ashtray at me, and the ashes hung in the air like a dirty sheet. I could almost see the cigarette butts casting shadows on the linoleum.
The sun baked the whole house, even the summer kitchen where everything was s’posed to stay cool.
“Do as I say, or I’m telling your daddy to drown you.” She turned around to leave the room, then stopped. Sometimes Mamma just stopped whatever she was doing and looked at the walls. Sometimes she hummed something sweet, but it always come out muddled and off-key.
Chuck Berry was playing now, something about riding around in his automobile, and Mamma woke up from her little trance. “Did you clean your plate like I told you? Betty’s in the garden, picking me some peas.”
We didn’t have a garden, didn’t have one for nearly two years, but that was Mamma’s way of saying she didn’t remember where Betty even was, even though she been dead three years.
Sunlight came through the windows all slanted and prickled my eyes, I could see the dust motes in the air, drifting down like little angels but I wasn’t sure if I was seeing real things or if my head was still confused from hitting the wall. I didn’t feel headachy, just wanted to get out of the heat and find a cool pond to soak in.
It was too hot, anyway… the pond was already mostly swamp. There was no running from the heat, or from my Mamma. She would run me down like a she-cat. She’d done it before, chase me down the road, a broom in one hand and an old ax handle in the other. She never caught me, not once, and by the time I got back home, Mamma had forgotten her reasons for chasing me.
Sometimes the neighbors complained, but mostly they didn’t. People didn’t like to tell in those days.
Daddy, though, he could be nice when he wanted, charm all the neighbor ladies and make friends with all the neighbor men, talk stuff about cars and carpentry and drywalling. When he yelled, though, it was serious. He didn’t like to yell. Mamma would use a broom, but he would bring out a baseball bat or, if he was into his whiskey, a thirty-aught-eight to teach you a lesson ‘bout who was in charge.
Daddy once chased me round the cemetery with a crowbar in his hand, and a big sassy crow landed on an angel tombstone and gave ‘m pause. “Liftin’ Jesus,” he say, and stood right there, watching the crow nip at its own wings, prettying its feathers. The sunlight slanted on the crow and on Daddy’s brow, and I stop running and watched them both, eyes wide. I could feel my heart under my skin and it boomed like Daddy’s voice.
Daddy closed his eyes and I think he wept salty tears that I wanted to lick away. He was thinkin’ about Betty, I could tell. How she was runned down in the middle of the highway, how her guts bled out of her throat and the rain bled from her hair. I saw her get hit, and I heard the thud of the car hittin’ her hip and how her body twisted under puddles of water.
Betty weren’t buried underneath the angel tombstone, she weren’t even in that cemetery. She was in the old backyard under a grove of jack pines. She had a little rock over her gravesite, one that spelled her name and such. Daddy remembered Betty every time he saw that angel, even though he beat her like he beat me, but sometimes memories get shifted and dusted after awhile, so he prob’ly didn’t see any harm in remembering the sweet stuff about her.
My Ole Mamma licked my feet and washed my neck after Betty got runned down, I was shakin’ so bad. I liked to watch the rain ever since, but it’s been a long time since it rained, so long I can’t remember when, ‘cause it’s been a long time comin’ and I just sit in the summer kitchen and listen for Daddy.
But it ain’t all bad ‘cause I don’t bother nobody and nobody bothers me ‘cept Mamma and Daddy whenever I be bad like don’t listen to them or cry out in the nighttime when I’m s’posed to be sleepin’. I don’t remember my Ole Mamma much no more ‘cept when I’m so bone tired that I want to cry out I miss her so bad. I remember her nursing me and I remember that one time when she licked my feet and washed my neck after Betty got runned down, but that’s all I can remember, and to me that’s sadder than anything else, even sadder than Betty.
“You’re not mindin’ me, Charlie Kitten,” said Mamma, and I realized that I been daydreamin’ again. She come toward me with an open hand, her face all grimy and grim. She swat my nose and bat my ears and when I yelp, she nods and calls me a good boy like I don’t know nothin’ at all ‘cept my own name. She pour herself a glass of buttermilk and pour me a cup too and the glass in her hand is sticky and cracked but she don’t notice that it probably ain’t been washed in days. “Daddy’s gonna take you away from here one day and you ain’t comin’ back. Shoulda raised us some dogs ‘stead of the likes of you. Least dogs fetch and chase rabbits. You just lay around all day collectin’ dust and eatin’ our food.”
Mamma sounds sad and I feel sad, and I want to tell her that I do more than collect dust and eat food. I do way more than that, but it don’t matter, ‘cause Mamma, she ain’t really here again, same as she ain’t been here for long spells of time since Betty.
“One day your Daddy’s gonna pick you up by the scruff and throw you in the car and just drive you away from us and you can fend fo’ yourself.”
Mamma’s sad now and I see tears foamin’ from her eyes, like that’s just about the saddest thing she could ever imagine, and I know she love me, I really am a good boy, she never let nothin’ like that ever happen, ‘cause I’m all she got after Betty got runned down like a animal.
Sunlight starts to tarnish and get all sticky and gray and Momma’s eyes close shut. Her arms tremble and I see all the hurt bein’ sucked into her from that awful colored light. I look outside and the sky looks like a bed of gravel, gray and mottled and ready to crumble.
“I wish the Lord I was strong enough. I wish there was a magic pill I could take, make me forget the things that need forgettin’. Instead, I’m forgettin’ the stuff I want to remember. Don’t that make sense to you, Charlie Kitten? I’m forgettin’ the wrong things and I don’t know why, any more than I know why it weren’t you that were taken and our Betty saved.”
I was gonna tell her I knowed what she were sayin’, I knew everythin’ she was meanin’, cause I couldn’t ‘member my Old Mamma very good but I could ‘member Daddy’s beatin’s and I could ‘member Betty layin’ dead on the stretch of road and I’d prob’ly ‘member this very second when Mamma’s hurt was bein’ sucked right into her from the clouds.
Then Mamma’s still for a moment, like her whole self bein’ emptied and clean, then she smile at me like she ain’t smiled in a long time.
“You’re a good boy, Charlie Kitten. Sometimes I’m scared that your Daddy’s gonna beat you too much and you’ll end up in a pit in the back field, bleedin’ and struck blind and cryin’ to the Lord Jesus for His tender mercy. But mostly I gotta worry about what to cook for supper and how I’m gonna get through cleanin’ dishes and doin’ laundry and flushin’ the toilet when I don’t barely got enough strength just to climb outta bed ever mornin’. Your Daddy has his liquor and his friends to help him climb through the bad stuff, but I don’t got nothin’ but you, and you mostly just sleep in your own shit and ain’t much good to me. I don’t think you a bad boy, just useless.”
She sipped from her glass and smile at the ceiling. “Maybe it be better if your Daddy did drive you away. Least I know you be safe and happy and not so beat up. Cause I just ain’t very good at actin’ strong no more. I feel like I’m fadin’ away from everythin’, like at the end of a movie where all the lights go dim. Now, that ain’t your fault, but sometimes I wish it were your fault so’s I know who to blame. It’s hard to blame when there ain’t no blame to be had, ain’t that so?”
I feel like my head’s all full of tears and sadness and ready to burst with grief, and Mamma starts to sing, “Drive, drive, drive, drive,” at the top of her voice ‘til I don’t hear the radio no more, talkin’ ‘bout my girl. “Drive, drive, drive….”