By Leona Charleigh Holman
In my earliest memory, you are in the center of the bed with an oval wall of blankets around your tiny body. Wisps of wheat-colored hair stick to your plump neck as you thrash about, crying and shaking. “Shush now, baby,” I say, placing the pacifier to your quivering lips.
In the next room, our mother is on the couch, staring at the TV console and waiting for our father to come home.
I do things to amuse you. I pull on my ears and poke out my tongue. I sing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” as it was taught to me. Your eyes follow the story: overlapping my thumb and finger, I scale an imaginary thread. My hands flutter, bringing down the rain and then willing the sun up from the horizon, drying it all away. When I finish the song, I show you all my toys until you begin thrashing about again. Then I tiptoe to the kitchen and return with a bottle.
In the next room, our mother is on the couch, staring at the TV console and waiting for our
father to come home. But he isn’t coming home; he’s being buried.
Outside, a transit bus clears its throat then pushes on, leaving a sooty trail halfway up Grand River Avenue. The box fan in our window sucks in the soot, rearranging it in tiny specks on the dresser. A gush of air collides with the tang of your cloth diapers and all at once the room smells of burnt asphalt, ozone, and ammonia.
In the next room, our mother is on the couch, staring at the TV console and waiting for our father to come home. But he isn’t coming home; he’s being buried, and there’s nothing she can do to bring back the night you were born. The night she went to Detroit’s Women’s Hospital where he met her in his work clothes, hat in hand, waiting to see you, his new son. Afterwards, he walked to the store for a pack of Chesterfields, and when he crossed the street, an unidentified driver in a two-door Pontiac zoomed through a red light. A police report was filed. And, three days later, our mother left the hospital—plus one, minus one.
I kneel beside the porcelain bathtub to collect clean, cold water and in go all your diapers. I scrub. And rinse. And wring. At first, the bleach-water is silky and smells of linen in winter, but after a time the smell turns pungent, and now I am dizzy. My nose is on fire and my eyes feel like I’ve poured lemon juice in them. My stomach ties itself into a knot so nothing will come up or go down, so I curl up on the bed and dream of Lake Michigan.
In the next room, clouds of crumpled tissue dot the floor. The shades are lowered. The
only sound is a small, steady whimper. She’s a slight figure on the couch. Alone. And
There’s a high, lonely feeling in the house, and I intuit our mother’s sorrow as a spongy tongue, licking all the color from every room, except here, where you are cosseted by a moat of blankets. The afternoon passes from white to gold to ginger and then, magically, with an amber flicker, the day is gone. It’s dark now, and I sit on the floor and play imaginary games until I am too tired to think up anything new or useful, so I edge in next to you on the bed. The sheets smell of baby powder, and land weightless on my skin. Then the idea catches me, and I am inexplicably aware of the scarlet stem on your belly that has turned black and hard. I think of its origin and wonder if you have been plucked unripe.
I’m still thinking when I open my eyes. The sun is streaming through our window. I turn to see our mother who has left the couch and is holding you, touching the soft place on your head. Her eyelashes, raven-dark and glistening, cuddle in the curve of your cheeks.
In the window, the box fan sighs and whirls, spinning the summer of ‘65.
Leona (Charleigh) Holman lives and writes in the Cherokee National Forest, TN. Her work has recently appeared in Gravel: A Literary Magazine and is forthcoming in Literary Brushstrokes. She is also the author of My Native Heritage Manifesto and blogs at www.myhybridtribeandi.com (My Hybrid Tribe and I).