“This the last time Ima tell y'all,” Mama yelled from the kitchen. "Outta that bed. NOW!"
Soon, we’d hear her six-foot bulk lumbering down the hallway like a tornado across Midwestern plains. Her open housecoat its floral pattern faded, would flap like a wind-whipped parachute, revealing fleshy knees and a threadbare slip that barely contained two 44 double Ds. An odor of sweat mixed with cooking grease and tobacco would reach us before she slammed into our bedroom, her ratty size-10 slippers thwacking the cracked linoleum.
She’d have one of her ever-ready switches, plaited branches I brought from the nearby park, in hand. Gathering them was part of the punishment, and any that didn’t have the proper spring or snap meant extra lashes. Mama delivered punishment with the same fervor she displayed at our storefront church. I carried a mental image of her blessing each switch before pressing it into service.
No one intervened when, at the peak of Pastor’s fiery sermon, she shot out of her seat into the narrow aisle, a high-stepping, arm-flailing soldier of God, her “hallelujahs” and “praise the Lords” nearly drowning him out. When Pastor finished and the Holy Ghost finally released her, she collapsed onto the front pew. As the choir launched into “Oh Happy Day," she tilted her sweat-streaked face toward the pulpit, where Deacon Baker rewarded her with a broad smile.
I reached over and tickled Cilla, curled up next to me.
“Get going, girl. Want to make Mama late for work and us late for school?”
When my squirming seven-year-old baby sister opened one eye, I playfully snatched off her head wrap, freeing a mat of thick braids.
“I get to pee first,” she giggled, bouncing out of bed and peering out the door. She wanted to be sure Mama wasn’t between her and the bathroom.
After Mama left for her 7-to-4 shift, we got ourselves ready for the fifteen-minute walk to school.
Mama’s temper was getting worse, her flare-ups happening more often. For the past six months, she’d been like a jack-in-the-box: You never knew which turn of the handle would cause her lid to pop. At fourteen, I figured being older was the reason I was the more likely target of her outbursts. Anything—an unswept floor, dirty dishes, even my presence it seemed—could set her off. Last week, I left the bathroom door cracked while drying myself after showering. I didn’t realize she’d been standing at the door until she spoke.
“Gal, you never too big for a whipping. There always be a bigger switch with yo’ name on it. God testing me somethin’ fierce with you,” she muttered before slamming the door shut.
She’d never been like the Mamas you see in magazines or movies, smiling and hugging her kids or reading bedtime stories. We weren’t one of those families with a special closeness because only one parent was present. Mama made sure we knew where we stood.
“I feed you, put clothes on your back and keep a roof over your heads. Somebody else got the blessings. I got y’all two.”
Most worrisome, she was drinking more and Jack Daniel’s had become her constant companion. On weekdays, by the time she got home we’d eaten, cleaned up, and were doing homework in our room. She’d poke her head in to check on us before eating alone and spending the rest of the evening in her room with a bottle. On weekends, we did chores and attended church on Sunday. Cilla and I made up our social circle, thanks to the wild looks Mama gave anyone we brought home to visit. Twice a week she attended prayer meetings, returning after we’d gone to bed.
I loved school and enjoyed helping my sister with her studies, because Mama never did. She’d dropped out of high school, pregnant with me. When I was old enough for day care, her mother sent us to live with Mama’s married older sister. No one talked about my daddy; all I knew was that he died before I was born.
When I was five, we moved upstate where, two years later, she married a man who worked at her plant. Cilla came along four months later. Mama and Dwayne worked different shifts and swapped off taking care of us. For two years, we were the closest thing to family I’d known, right up to the day Dwayne left for work and never came home. Before she was thirty, Mama was stuck with a dead-end factory job, a nine-year old, and a two-year-old.
When I was sure she was passed out, I’d go into her room to check for burning cigarettes. Sometimes I watched her sleep fitfully or waited for her to breathe again between drunken snores.
I got my first period six months ago while at school. Thanks to my eighth-grade hygiene class and Ms. Evans, my gym teacher, I didn’t freak out. When she came home and I told her what happened, Mama looked like someone who woke up to find a stranger living in her house. I wasn’t used to seeing fear in her eyes.
She shambled down the hallway and returned from the bathroom with a box of tampons, tossing it at me on the way to her bedroom.
“Well I guess you a woman now.”
That was all there was to the “special time” we’d learned about in my hygiene class.
At that moment, I envied the way Cilla’s second-grade teacher, Ms. Beecher, clucked over her like a brood hen, wiping playground dirt from her face and straightening her hair after recess. Mama called our thick hair a low-down hot kinky mess, attacking it as if battling demons. It was painful seeing my sister trapped between Mama’s thighs like a pebble between two boulders, crying without making a sound. One day, I made a mistake.
“Mama, I can start doing Cilla’s and my hair,” I offered.
A crooked grin spread across her face like a cloud blocking the sun.
“You that grown now? What else you can start doing?”
The following week, as she was about to leave for her prayer meeting, I told her I had to start wearing a bra. She wheeled around and glared as though she’d caught me committing a crime. Without responding, she stormed out, slamming the door. She took me bra shopping after the school sent me home with a note saying I couldn’t return without “proper attire.”
I trailed behind as she trudged through the mall; she looked like someone hauling rage like a pocketbook full of stones.
A few weeks ago, when Cilla was sick with the flu, I had to do the laundry alone on Saturday. Getting to the basement machines required navigating what tenants called “the tunnels,” a series of narrow, dimly lit passages lined with storage cages. That day I ran into Deacon Baker. When we weren’t in church we had to call him Daddy Baker. I was afraid to ask why. He was almost fifty, divorced and, as far as I knew, had no children. He owned several run-down buildings in our neighborhood, including ours, where we’d lived for three years.
Mama’s two friends, Ms. Cora and Ms. Lucille, lived nearby and attended our church. When they visited, they drank, played cards, smoked, and gossiped.
“I’m sick and tired of that asshole foreman ridin’ my back. He got the job I shoulda had five years ago,” Mama griped.
“Girl, you lucky to have a job at all. How you manage alone with two kids, I don’t know.”
“God always been testin’ me. Them gals be the death of me. Reva gettin’ too grown, and Cilla—”
“—I hear Baker might be buying another building,” Ms. Lucille cut in.
Mama bristled when anyone called him “Baker” and not Deacon Baker, Daddy Baker, or Mr. Baker. When referring to him, she instinctively lowered her voice as though invoking God's name.
“Who you s’pose he keep company with? Think he’ll ever get married again since he living in that downtown highrise all alone?”
“How much money you think he got?” Ms. Cora asked, her words slurring.
“He an untripeenoor. Ain’t none of it anybody’s business,” Mama snapped, putting an end to the subject.
The two women exchanged syrupy smiles while Mama appeared to concentrate on her cards. Then she saw me in the kitchen.
“Gal, you got nothin’ better to do than lurk, spyin’ and eavesdroppin’? Y’all see what I mean ‘bout this one?”
Turning away from the smoke-filled living room, I thought of something I’d read about hyenas: They have the amazing ability to detect the scent of carrion miles away.
Not long ago, while walking upstairs to our second-floor apartment, I saw two teenagers making out in the stairwell above. The boy had a hand inside the girl’s blouse, and they didn’t notice me.
“You better stop that,” she teased. “Daddy Baker’s around somewhere. He might see us.”
"Daaadddy Baker," the boy sneered. “Anybody not blind, deaf or dumb got that ol’ dog’s number."
If she’d heard this, Mama would have exploded like one of those mushroom clouds pictured in my history book.
Whenever Daddy Baker was working on or supervising building repairs, she wore lipstick, swapped slippers and housecoat for heels, and squeezed into a dress she’d never show up in at church. She flitted about as though any minute the phone might ring with big news.
In truth, it was an event when Daddy Baker stopped by.
“Your mama and I need to talk,” he’d announce, filling the doorway. “You girls go buy yourselves some treats.”
He’d stuff a wad of bills in my hand and grin at Mama while she shooed us out the door, cooing instead of barking. He was the only man we knew who made her appear smaller standing next to him. He was gone by the time we returned, and for the rest of the day Mama moved around the apartment like a mellow, ripe fruit.
Now Daddy Baker was blocking my way.
"Hey girl. Your mama sent you down here alone?" His deep bass rumbled like an eighteen-wheeler, and he was looking at me in a funny way that made the shadowy surroundings seem dimmer.
"'Cuse me, Daddy Baker, I gotta hurry. Mama's waiting—"
Before I saw it coming, a stubby finger hooked my collar and yanked me close. His other hand sought its way to a place I knew for sure it didn’t belong. I was thankful for the laundry basket between us.
My thoughts crashed into each other like bumper cars. What if Mama found I’d somehow disrespected Daddy Baker? Would he stop giving Cilla and me money? Would he be mad at Mama? At me? In a flash, my mind cleared long enough for me to realize any punishment by Mama was the lesser—and more familiar—threat. This wasn’t right, not for a church deacon. Without calculating consequences, I kicked him where I'd read doing so could bring a man to his knees, make him stop whatever he was doing.
I ran back through the darkness, leaving laundry basket and clothes behind. The last sound I heard was a single word squeezed out like someone gulping air; it was another name for a female dog.
Mama was in the kitchen when I burst through the door. I was afraid of Daddy Baker’s suspicious behavior and of Mama’s certain wrath, but between sobs I blurted out what happened. Sure enough, she sprang like a coiled rattler, but instead of grabbing a switch she slapped my face with all the power behind her muscled arm. Then, just as suddenly, she got that flat, blank look again, like she’d gone somewhere else and left her body behind. This time, I didn’t recognize her. Or her voice, a jagged shrill that ripped the air.
"Gaaaal, what you doin’? What you doin? You don't know nothin',” she howled.
She’d never sounded like this, not at church and not during her drunkest rants. She advanced, backing me into the refrigerator door. I couldn’t tell if my warm face was warm from her boozy breath or the sting of her slap.
"Never talk that way again. Not to me, not to nobody. Not in my house! I swear, you just like Cilla’s whorin’ daddy. An’ you just like your own good-for-nothin’ daddy. No wonder God sent the cancer that ate him alive!”
This was the first I’d heard this; I only knew he’d died. Cilla trembled in the doorway like a puppy kicked too many times, her thumb crammed in her mouth. The only time she sucked her thumb was when she thrashed in her sleep, which she’d been doing more frequently as Mama’s eruptions escalated.
Then, like an abrupt power blackout, Mama shut down. She went all empty-looking again, like water sucked down a drain. Surefooted even when she was drunk, she now looked like she might buckle under her own weight as she covered the short distance to the other side of the kitchen. With effort, she lifted the Jack Daniel’s bottle out of an overhead cabinet, cradling it as though afraid she’d drop it. Not yet forty, she stumbled like a frail old woman in the dark and softly closed her bedroom door. That was another thing: Mama was a door slammer; you always knew when she entered and left a room.
I got Cilla back to bed, holding her until she slept. I stayed in our room, listening for Daddy Baker and listening for Mama, afraid to sleep. I did sleep, however, waking the next morning long after Mama should have been yelling at us to get ready for church. Cilla was already awake and, I discovered, had wet the bed because she’d been too afraid to go the bathroom. I crept to Mama’s door and knocked several times. Getting no answer, I tiptoed into her room, Cilla close behind.
Wearing only a slip, the empty bottle next to her, Mama was sprawled on the queen-size bed. One foot dangled over the side, its frayed slipper looking defeated on the floor. The room reeked of something else mixed with the sweat, cooking grease, and tobacco: urine and the vomit that had curdled on the sheets. Her expression was the same one she wore when Daddy Baker smiled at her from the pulpit, the look of hopeful gratitude.
Our church helped pay for her funeral and for our relocation when Mama’s sister came for us.
Throughout the service, my eyes stayed locked on Daddy Baker up there in the pulpit. He never looked at me or directly at Mama lying there, peaceful, serene. Where others may have seen sorrow in his eyes, I saw fear. And I wondered if fear, like cancer, could eat a man alive.
Doctors said she died from something called acute alcohol poisoning. I know she died from an overdose of rage.