Another hot August night. Too hot to sleep again. I was sitting outside on the front steps smoking a Camel in my babydoll pajamas and clogs. Overhead, it was a full moon and the sky was clear, except for those million or so stars probably all dead now by the time I was seeing them. But their light sure lived on. Clear sky and no clouds meant another scorcher tomorrow, which was already today.
I hated the heat, always had. Hated the way the sweat formed that dirty black ring around my neck and then trickled and tickled all the way down my back until it hit the elastic in my shorts to leave a burning, raw ring around my middle. Couldn’t afford no air conditioning, just a coupla rattling old fans that didn’t do nothing but tease and push the hot air around like they were really doing something. Yeah, sweat and heat and me don’t mix. Didn’t help none, either, that I worked as a presser at the little laundromat and dry cleaning place two blocks from where I live. While anyone else might run home and hop in the shower soon as they got through work at the end of the day, there were weeks when I didn’t bother washing for two or three days in a row. With the steam rolling through that place, I figured what’s the use. Just gonna stink some more tomorrow. Might as well save on the water bill and wait until the weekend, or until some guy asked me out—which ain’t likely. Yeah, it’s been a hell of a long dry spell, and I sure hope the drought is over soon. It’s bad enough to be so hot, but to be hot and horny, too, just wanting to maybe share an ice-cold beer, a roll in the hay, and a few laughs with a guy, well that’s just about more than anyone should have to take.
I took another drag and looked up at the big old elm tree in the next yard. Not even a breeze tonight. How was I ever gonna get through this? Sweating all day and then sweating all night, too. Life sure ain’t fair. Then to be doing everything alone, no one to have my back. I hadn’t had a man in my life for going on seven months now, not since my last old man decided he’d had it with me and my broken down old house, my beater car, and my three bratty kids. Said he deserved better than this–and maybe he did. So did I, but like I said, life ain’t fair.
Pregnant at 15, married at 16, divorced when I was 20; together with my “ex” just long enough to poop out the three kids and to find out that I didn’t take much to being someone’s human punching bag. After the final drunken brawl, when I lost my two front teeth and got three busted ribs, and had to tear him off our youngest to keep him from banging her head into the wall, I’d had it. I grabbed the gun he had sitting on the table, and without even taking time to aim, I’d just fired it in his general direction. Took him by surprise and even took the top off his little finger. Scared the hell out of both of us. While he was still holding his finger, screaming and swearing, I’d grabbed the kids and made a break for the car, shoving them in and peeling out of there as fast as that ratty old Buick would take us. Left everything behind–not that there was much to leave in the first place. I didn’t even notice the pain in my ribs until we were about ten miles out of town, when I finally stopped to figure out where we were going. I never went back.
We had a few hard months in a shelter for battered women, until I found a job in a meat packing plant and we could finally afford to get our own place. It was a dump, but it was ours, and we didn’t have to be afraid of being killed every time we came through the door. Since then, we’d had to hightail it out of a coupla places in the middle of the night because my “ex” caught up with us, waving that gun around, and threatening to kill us all. We had finally just packed everything into a U-Haul and driven in that old Buick all the way across the country, from Oregon, to where we are now—Minnesota–where it’s either too hot or too cold almost all the time, but the air is fairly clean and the kids have made some friends. We ain’t had any trouble from him for over a year now (we never mention his name, maybe thinking that if we don’t speak evil we won’t attract it.) I hope that means he’s finally given up on finding us and will just let us alone to live in peace.
Upstairs, I hear my three-year-old start crying in her sleep. Happens almost every night, and it still hurts me every time it does. I know it’s because of all the shit she’s gone through already in her short little life. I grind out my butt on the step and go back in the house, where it seems even hotter than before. I stumble up the stairs in the dark until I come to the room she shares with her ten-year-old brother and her seven-year-old sister. I know Jimmy is old enough to have his own room now, but we just can’t afford it. Maybe next year, if I can find a better job.
Without turning on the light, I make my way over to Tina’s bed and scootch her over a little before sitting down beside her on the clammy sheet. She’s stopped crying for the moment, but I know she’ll probably start up again in a minute. She always does. I take a look around the room at the sleeping forms of my other two and feel that protective mother bear thing come over me the way it always does when they’re sleeping and the whole house is silent the way it is now. It’s times like this when I come closest to understanding the meaning of those words “maternal instinct” and realize just how much my kids really mean to me. But when they’re screaming and hitting each other and tearing up the house, the way they do almost every night when I’m trying to maybe look at a magazine or watch TV and relax a little on the couch, I swear I’d sell the whole lot of them for a penny apiece. And while I’ve never smacked them, I’ve come close sometimes because they sure can make me feel like I’m losing my mind.
Tina starts to cry again, then opens her eyes and sees me. She cries even harder then, reaching out to grab onto me. “Shh, honey, it’s okay. Don’t be afraid; mommy’s right here,” I say to her as I pull her into my lap and start to rock her back and forth. She pushes her thumb into her mouth and then pulls it out again to say, “Mommy, I had a bad dream. Somebody was trying to get me and they was going to hurt me. I tried to run, but I couldn’t get away before they got me.” I pull her head close to mine and make gentle cooing noises as I brush the tears off her lashes and hot little face. “Mommy’s not gonna let nobody hurt you, sweetie. You’re safe right here,” I say, feeling the sadness and guilt wash over me for all that they’d all been through. I’d been through it, too, but at least I’d had some part in all that had happened to me, while they were just little innocents forced to come along for the ride.
I keep rocking her tender little body until she’s back asleep, then ease her back down onto the bed, not even bothering to take her thumb out of her mouth. If it comforted her to suck her thumb, then the hell with it. We could deal with the buckteeth later if they came, not that I really believed that caused them anyway. Hell, if that was true, for all the years I sucked my thumb–even now sometimes when I was feeling low–my teeth would be poking out so far in front that I could open beer bottles with them, which I can’t, because I’ve tried a few times when I’ve been smashed.
I crept back downstairs, still restless and nowhere near to sleep. Even sucking my thumb wasn’t going to ease the load and comfort me enough to do it tonight. Instead, I pulled another Camel from the crumpled pack on the kitchen counter, lit up, and wandered on back out to the front steps to sit a while longer. Only good thing was that today was my day off. Maybe I could sleep in–if I ever got to sleep in the first place, that is. Of course the kids would be up bright and early as usual, but after I dropped them off at the daycare, maybe I could crawl back in bed for a while longer and just doze until I felt like waking up. This subsidized daycare was one of my few luxuries and I made full use of it, even using it on my days off since they fell during the week. I figured what with how hard I worked and how little fun I had, I at least deserved to have a little peace and quiet for a few hours twice a week. Besides, the kids liked it. They got to see their friends, and it was air conditioned. Even the older two didn’t seem to mind being there.
The air around me was so heavy and soggy, it felt like a hot wet tarp thrown over my whole body. The only sounds were the crickets rubbing their legs together and a siren off in the distance. It was kinda spooky, but also kinda nice. I didn’t often get to see the days from this side up. I kinda liked this being alone for once, just the three of us, me, the moon, and the night. I stretched my legs out and leaned back on my elbows on the steps, stretching my neck out and up like a turtle getting a good look-see at the starlit sky overhead, taking these few precious moments to let myself out of myself for a bit.
Then, just as I was really beginning to feel myself relax, the tension draining off my shoulders a little, enough so that I thought maybe I could snooze a little on the couch for a while if I tried, I was jolted back by the clicking sound of heels and the low metallic squeak of rusty wheels coming down the sidewalk from the other end of the block. Because it was so bright with the streetlights, the moon, and all, I didn’t have to strain any to see what was coming my way. It was one of those big old English pram kind of baby carriages, being pushed along by this tiny little black woman with big round kohl-blackened eyes, long fake eyelashes, fuchsia eye shadow with little gold sparklies, fat dimpled hot pink Kewpi doll rouged cheeks, full purple-pink lips, and a serious overbite. And out of the top of her head sprung cornrow after cornrow of crispy orange-red hair with deep black roots. For a moment my eyes betrayed me and I was reminded of either Ronald McDonald or one of those old fashioned court jester heads that used to pop out of the jack-in-the-box when you cranked the handle. It was like a little parade, her tottering along in these tiny Barbie-doll-type stacked heel strappy sandals in a little skintight leopard print mini-skirt and crisply ironed white peasant blouse with big flouncy low-cut collar where her glistening black cleavage was putting on quite a show by itself. The way the moonlight hit her head, it made her hair look almost like it was shooting off little metallic sparks in the dark, its own little Fourth of July display. The whole effect was more awesome than awful.
So when she came up even with me, her shoulder length clunky gold stars and moons earrings bouncing a cadence with every jiggling step, I half expected to see either a monkey or a seal pop out from under the hood of that carriage, squealing, or barking in time to some circus calliope that only it could hear. But no, the carriage was empty, except for a delicate crocheted soft–the softest seashell pink color I had ever seen–baby blanket, a pale pink plastic pacifier (I always called them “binkies”), and a rose colored baby rattle lying in the middle of the perfectly made-up little bed with the little white linen sheet top folded so neat and over it. I didn’t realize that I’d been holding my breath in anticipation until I heard the little whoosh of air that rushed out when I looked in the carriage.
For just a moment, the woman stopped. The earrings, the hips, the cleavage, the heels, they all came to a rest right in front of me as her big brown eyes– sad eyes really–met mine. In that singular shared moment, I saw that she wasn’t gaudy or brassy at all, not something funny or foreign in all that makeup, but beautiful, with a soft glow that lit up her whole face when she smiled, which she suddenly did, blessing me and bathing me in her radiance. It was one of those moments you sometimes hear about, but can’t really explain—like she could see right through me and knew that what I was about, she was about, and where I had been, she had been. It was a magical moment I would never forget.
I blushed a little under that forthright gaze, but smiled back, and almost thought I heard her speak. But no, it was only the sound of the carriage wheels as she went on by, under the next street light, around the corner, and out of sight.
Copyright Elaine Pedersen ©