Without notice and without much effort on our end, things began to break like precious china – piece by piece. The night that I watched as my mother almost died in the middle of our dingy grayed hallway was only the third time in all of my seventeen years that I had experienced a slowing of time. The first was the first time I had come near to death myself, but I guess that doesn’t count because black people aren’t supposed to swim anyway. The second came when a group of five teenaged boys kicked in the back door in an attempt to ransack the house with only my sister and I present. It all caught up to speed when the lookout was fended off with an appropriately confused “hey you”. A trail of delinquents ran out of my home like marching black ants. The only things that were harmed were French doors, a wicker chair, and my father’s ego, so I guess that doesn’t count either.
Jasmine had come running into my room aflame with the latest news of her little life. By this time, I had grown accustomed to these manic outbursts.
“I found a rare and precious rock in the backyard.”
“Look, I drew a llama.”
“If we don’t call now, we won’t get two for the price of one.”
“I know what I want to be when I grow up. I want to be a driver like Daddy and a rapper and a builder.”
Tonight was no different.
“There’s something wrong with Mama.”
What was I going to do about that? There had always been something wrong with our mother at least since that bout of postpartum depression she fell into after spitting me out. We had all gotten far too comfortable with apathy and stale eyes. No one even bothered to ask if she were okay anymore because we all knew what the answer would be and so my mother’s depression settled into our home along with the dinge on the carpets: beige and benign.
“She’s on the floor.”
“Well, then tell her to get up.”
Sarcasm as dry as Texas heat; it’s a cultural thing.
I slinked off of the tiny day bed that my mother insisted on purchasing a few months prior for no particular reason, sure that I had been baited into some nonsense in which I would want no part. In my emotional absence, my mother and sister had become comrades – almost besties – whose favorite pastime was annoying the living daylights out of me. I was sure that my mother would be waiting on the other side of my bedroom door to surprise me with an old joke or familiar criticism. No such luck.
I found her lying on the floor between the room that she shared with my father and the main bathroom like a painting. A Venus of the south with bloated stomach and ashen face hidden beneath cheap scarves, loosely wrapped in an impossibly tiny second hand robe. My mother’s agony was unrecognizable, something to be learned about in textbooks and in the sterility of museums.
“Get me my wig.”
I had regarded the command with about as much gravity as I regarded anything in my life that didn’t immediately impact me – very little, if any at all.
“Crystal, go and get me my damn wig and hurry before the ambulance comes.”
Half of my gene pool was lying on the ground and for all of her troubles, for all of the toil that comes with living, the only thing that she demanded of me and of this world and of her god was a wig. She was a woman who had prayed so hard that, according to her, her knees hurt. My mother was a woman of faith for God, weed, and all of the good stuff of life. I’m sure that she must have been cute, almost pretty once, but there’s something about the heat of the Deep South that dries all of the fluff right out of your pores. All of the southern belles in waiting who smell of fresh talcum powder are figments of Mark Twain’s imagination. My mother’s appeal was in the evidence of her existence, the fine lines and folds of her complexion. Cocoa – that’s what they called her skin. Cocoa. Maybelline, Revlon, L’Oreal – they all named her cocoa like an exotic delicacy from beyond South Carolina. Cocoa: born of dirt and heat.
A wig. For all of her prayin’ and church-goin’, she’d accept a wig as just compensation. A wig. A cheap stringy-looking thing to mask frayed graying braids. It’s a wonder that on our deathbeds we do not ask for the riches of the world or the fruit of our labor but instead we ask to be covered by the sin of man just one last time. Who had taught her to be so ashamed of her own flesh and that cocoa-colored coating that held it all together? At the age of forty-two, there was no telling; the rap sheet was too long, probably filled with the names of cousins, school bullies, and old boyfriends that had long been lost. A wig. What a peculiar thing.
As I solemnly watched my mother wither in pain, without notice and without much effort on my end, I remembered her elation at the idea – a mere glimmer – of flying back home in one of those big planes to Latta, and I remembered how small her world could be. Then the sirens came.