She would lean over my school papers, and Daddy’s tax returns, muttering to herself, sometimes rubbing her eraser so hard she bore a hole right through. She felt she had earned the right to the title. She taught classes on weekends at the Fine Arts Center – a wide-load mobile home, transformed after it had been turned over to the city,
With expansive, theatrical gestures, she would encourage a roomful of smock-covered students to experiment with their brushes and pens – to be brave and explore. To not only attempt what the instrument could do, but what it might do.
Being seven and too young to be left along, I would be dragged down to the Arts Center every Saturday in the heavy heat. I would watch as the ladies in pastel polyester pants would arrive, one by one, in boat-sized Fords and Lincolns. They would wrestle with the supplies in the passenger seat, pulling and tugging, all the while fighting with their overzealous, pink-bowed toy poodles to stay in the car.
Most of the women would smile as they went by, first to me then to their reflection in the front door glass. Usually a touch to the teeth to remove some lipstick while the dogs yapped in the background. Mama always opened the door with a friendly, “Hey, how you doing?” letting the sweetness of her heavy Southern accent wrap around them.
Before the class would start, Mama would come out, slipping a slice of cold air with her. She would sit down beside me on the scorching concrete steps with a lemon tea, half-melted ice floating on top. She rearranged her shorts to keep from burning herself, knocking off loose gravel that collected on her exposed thighs. Time and again, she would sit beside me, brushing my hair back off my face, trying to convince me to come in the air-conditioned coolness of the fake wood rooms.
She wanted me to sit still for one of her classes instead of waiting for her outside, feeling the tiny pin-pricks of heat and exhaustion of being along – she wanted me to experiment and be brave like the others.
But I couldn’t. I always said no.
She’d shake her head and go back inside, hurt, positive I just did not want to be with her. But it wasn’t true. I loved Mama, but I admit I couldn’t bear to be in the same room with her when she was like that, her swooping arms and graceful movements, so different from the woman I knew. A fist grabbed my insides and squeezed when I would watch her.
Brave strokes were not what she made in front in front of her face when he thrashed his arms at her. Her wiry arms would instead wrap around her head. She would huddle in a corner while he stood over her, screaming her name, breathing out words I was not allowed to use, waving wildly, throwing his arms at her face, her arms, her body, anywhere he could hurt her. Sometimes with fists. Sometimes not. Sometimes his hand filled itself with the nearest instrument – a pillow, a book, a wrench. Wherever he could reach, whatever was nearest.
I could not move to help her. Instead, I would lay waking in the night, listening carefully, fingering the handle of the butter knife I kept under my pillow – I was not old enough to be allowed to use the steak knives even at the dinner table.
One night, I heard her, her voice different, more fearful, more desperate. I crept out of the bed and pressed my ear against the door. I could hear nothing then, not even her breathing. I pulled at the door slowly, making sure to not go further than an inch, otherwise I would wrestle awake an oil-hungry hinge.
I could see her, her back against the wall. Her hands were still sweaty from clenching them tight over her; matted hair clumping together. Light from the kitchen bellied under the door. She breathed in deep, wiping her hand across her forehead. He had left her alone.
I could hear him in the kitchen, clanking through drawers, the suck then pop as he opened the refrigerator. He would be hungry. Exercise always had that effect.
She was trying to lift herself up with one hand when he came back around the corner, a gleaming flash of light in his hands. He pushed her back to the floor and crouched in front of her, drops of spit on his balloonish lip. He pushed his face into hers, grinding his temple against her sticky forehead. The light flashed again and then in front of her face. He held himself so close to her the barrel almost toughed both of their temples.
“We’ll go together, baby. Isn’t that what you want? Huh? Be rid of me and you? Isn’t that what you want, hmmm?”
Her arms dropped like doll parts, attached only with rubberbands, useless, at her sides. She was so quiet.
“Please…,” she whispered to him. “Please.”
I was standing behind the door, nightgowned and wondering what it was she was asking him to do – to stop it, or to do it?
He laughed, a crack of sound in the darkness. He reached for her head and pulled it back, looking almost as if he were cradling her in his hand. He started slowly, caressing her neck with the barrel. He let it glide languidly across her dark skin, her strong collarbone. I saw her shiver from the cold metal. He smiled to her, then drug it between her breasts while he watched her. His fluid movements stopped with the barrel pointed down, directly into her belly.
“It wouldn’t take but one shot and I’d be rid of you both,” he said as she stared at the luminous flash of metal. “Just one shot.”
She closed her eyes, her shoulders loosened. I watched her as she breathed, carefully. Slowly, she raised her lids, trailing the barrel, his hands, arms, face, eyes; she stopped. Her filmy gaze looked past his black slits.
“Please,” she said again.
He watched her eyes go wide as he drug the pistol down, between her legs, resting his other hand on her thigh. But she didn’t move. She only looked forward, one hair to this side of him.
He wrapped his arm around her head and pushed at her face, holding it, pointing directly at his own. His meaty fingers were digging into her cheeks. A grin broke across his face.
A shudder went through her.
He let her head drop on the hardwood floor as he rose from the corner and laughed. Mama pulled herself up, her back against the wall now. Trembling, she had her eyes open, but still glazed and unfocused, still staring past him. His shadow engulfed her body as he glared down at her. With one swift movement, his foot flung out, kicking her where the gun lay between her legs. She crumpled into a ball, groaning, clutching her curving belly.
“Fat bitch,” he muttered as he left the room.
“Free yourself. Don’t be restrained by what is expected. Go boldly and daringly into your work,” she would still tell the blue-haired ladies who sat clinging to every word.
Broad strokes she would make, colorful, but without once ever leaving a piece of herself on canvas; so crippled inside and unsteady. Boldly and daringly, she told them as she heard the definitions of her life come from a man she would never leave.
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