My mother throws a manila envelope through the car window, gets in slamming the damn door, making my old-baby—Bullet is what I call her, my old-baby Silver Bullet—to rattle like the bag of bones she is. I want to peel out of here now, make a mark, tattoo treads over the Spotsylvania County Correctional Facility parking lot. But, I’d probably have to pay for that too.
“Where you going?” I say.
“I got to get something from Ronny’s, then take me down Aunt Liza’s.” My mother rifles through the envelope with her name, Shelby Walker, on the front. She throws her worldly possessions on the dash one by one: Chocolate Kiss Victoria Secret lip-gloss, a pair of hoop earrings, a dead iPhone encased in pink fur...
“Bunny, you got a charger?”
“I got Samsung. It won’t fit.”
...a pack of Kool Milds, the O s resembling handcuffs, a cigarette lighter in the shape of a fist flipping a middle finger—she uses the last two, blowing smoke out the window that comes right back in.
“Ma, Ronny has a restraining order against you.”
“I need to get my shit.” The word “shit” sounds like “thit” with the cigarette between her teeth.
“What did I say?” Locked up for three days, she looks sleepy and wild, a feral cat hung-over. She hasn’t washed her face. Black mascara bleeds around her eyes as if she were the one beat. Chipped, dirt-lined nails clench her cigarette, the lit end circling near my bare shoulder—the shaking tip slowing, with each suck and blow.
This is a bad idea. But, whatever, if she wants to go back to jail, that’s on her. If she wants to keep fucking up, lose her job over some stinking-ass man just because he has a house and pays her cell phone bill, that’s on her. Didn’t anyone teach her she could buy her own house? Well, no. I guess no one would’ve.
Ok, here’s the plan: pull up LA-gangsta-drive-by-slow down the dirt road leading to the house, turn off the radio when we get to the graveyard, park on the other side of the trailer, next to the barn, make sure she doesn’t slam the goddamn door again, pray he isn’t at home, you, as in me, sit in the car, preferably smoking one of them Kools as you try to stay cool, then peel out of there when she runs back to the car, house probably up in blaze behind her, hair blowing in the wind with her “fuck ‘em girl” strut, flicking a cigarette back into the flames like Angela Bassett in Waiting to Exhale.
“Ma, you remember Waiting to Exhale?” I lean into the seat’s embrace. Might as well get comfortable.
“Whitney Houston was good in the movie.”
“She was alright.” A barefoot, big toe fancy with airbrush, is folded under her, tapping to Beyoncé’ on the radio. “Angela Bassett made that movie.” She turns up the radio and stares out the window. I see the mood is not a talking one.
The window is down, and wind whips my face. The air in my ears is softer than this silence. My arm is out, palm flat, working hard to stay stiff so it doesn’t bend from what’s trying to push it around. I miss country roads, only a ditch with a torrent full of trees on one side and a solid line on the other to stop you from running into oblivion. I miss lying in the grass behind Aunt Liza’s and seeing the sky leak gold through swaying branches. Trees are interesting—despite their bending; you never see them break. Not unless they’re struck by lightning or someone cuts them down, outside forces, right? I miss feeling unbreakable.
The middle of the day, twelve-oh-nine, and I just busted my mama out of jail. She’s lucky this is her first time. Aunt Liza always said that’s where she’d end up.
I inhale deep and let out all the air inside me in one long whoop. The cry is louder than the wind. Much louder than those howling voices that told me I should let her ass rot. Wilder than the thoughts claiming she deserved it, even when I reached Aunt Liza and she begged me, pleaded with me, then rebuked me saying God would punish me if I didn’t use everything I had to get my mother out. And it took everything I had. All twenty-five hundreds of everything I had. All twenty-five hundred dollars and eight months working in the English Department for full-time hours and part-time pay. All twenty-five hundred and six months taking double shifts, waitressing in the AM, bartending in the PM, every Saturday and Sunday fighting drunk sweaty palms off my tits. Twenty-five hundred dollars – storage fees, yes, and tuition for one more class—everything I have since she never taught me how to hold on to a dollar, or a man, or a job, or a college career. This sigh, my suffocated roar, would be alarming to most. Hell, it scares me.
My mother acts as if she doesn’t hear a thing.
“Ma, you know I came down here for something else.”
“Aunt Liza told you I was in jail and needed to get out. I know.”
“You don’t remember the storage auction, Ma?”
The radio DJ smears vinyl, winding one song into the next. And, she still has nothing to say.
“Ma, I don’t have money like this.”
“I’ll pay you back. That’s why we going to Ronny’s.”
“Ma, what are you going to do if he’s there?”
“Don’t worry about it Bunny, it’ll be alright.”
“Oh, my God! How are you going to say ‘don’t worry about it’?” She raises her thin overgrown eyebrows at me. I taper the hysteria by gripping the steering wheel tight, twisting my palms around as if it were her neck. Her cigarette is on the edge of newly shined chocolate glossed lips. A hint of sweetness puffs the wind, blowing hair wild over my forehead. Her mouth is tight around the speckled end so she can’t talk, changing the subject.
I sigh again, less ferocious.
She offers the open end of her soft-pack. I take a cigarette. I need a cigarette.
“We got into it. He told me to leave. I wasn’t going nowhere. So, he called the police. Domestic assault or some shit.”
My mother will be thirty-eight this year. October.
Her tank-top says, “Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me,” sans question mark.
My friends, my college friends, my Georgetown black student union friends trying to prove they are down, even though they went to private schools and drive BMWs like everyone else not cashing in on affirmative action and financial aid as I am...
well, was, I guess
—those friends and I laugh at women who look like my mother: fake hair, fake nails, fake eyelashes— “food-stamp fancy.” Us, the Afro-Punk intellectual bourgeoisie, with our naturals from the Black Power Movement, our Back to Africa, A Tribe Called Quest circa 1990 Kinte-cloth jeans, and our Talented Tenth loafers—The New Black Aesthetic—we’ve stolen our ancestors’ creativity with no real sense of what we’re doing with it other than wearing it on our bodies and pretending we know where it all comes from and what it all means. My friends and I, we laugh at women like my mother who have the misfortune of wearing ill-fitting factory made-in-Meh-he-co clothes and processed hair, because...oh, God bless her, she don’t know no better.
But, I’ve digressed.
She handed me a beer at my eighteenth birthday party. I tried to give it back, wrist limp with the weight of it. What kind of ghetto-trash mother encourages her under-aged daughter to drink? What kind of mother at all? I wondered if any of my friends, my high school friends, saw her. Though if my high school friends—girls just as poor as me, taking care of younger siblings or their own kids, with ombre burgundy tipped weaves and eyelashes grazing their foreheads, girls who knew out of us, I was different, knew come five, ten, fifteen years from now, I would be doing anything but being like our mothers (FUCK! I let them down)—if they had seen her give me the beer, they would’ve thought nothing of it.
Shelby Walker said I was “too cute” to drink with her. She knew I’d be around the corner, sitting on the hood of some boy’s car, smoking weed or drinking or fucking, so if I wanted her to ignore that, if I didn’t want her to “punish” me, then I needed to sit down, cross my legs, and have a goddamn beer with my mama. She laughed and pushed the can at me again, a few cold drops shocked the web between my thumb and forefinger. I laughed too, although what she said wasn’t funny, true as it may have been.
My mother’s ass crack smirks at me over her jeans. Her head is between her knees. The rest of the envelope contents are on the floor: A small change purse and a few dollar bills.
She grunts, “You need gas money? I got seventeen dollars. There might be a Walmart gift card in here somewhere. You can buy something for your new place.”
The radio mixes another long zip of pulled wax.
“Have you bought an outfit for graduation?” She says sitting up, wiggling herself straight. “Everyone has taken off work. You said anyone can come right? We don’t need tickets?”
I wipe sweaty palms over my thighs, turn up the radio, and shout, “Don’t change the subject, Ma.”
She lowers the volume. “I just want to make sure everything is straight.” She claps and says, “Okay,” getting down to business.
“So Aunt Liza is coming, of course. She gone want to see her baaayyybiiii walk across that stage.” I hear her smiling. I can’t look at her. “You should think about getting her something. Her birthday is that week. Be nice for you to show your appreciation.”
“Nettie can’t make it. Her part-time won’t let her take off. Kurt said he’d rent the van.”
Please, stop talking.
She’s so thrilled.
She’s smiling. Smiling so wide the sun is picking up the silver in the back of her mouth, glinting dots, like bullets, across the dash.
And now she’s chatting, chat, chat, chatting. Chatting so much all I can make out is the smacking of her lips, the flapping motion of her slick lips, smacking and flapping and chat, chat, chatting. It’s making my stomach hurt.
“Ma, how could you do it?”
I pull the car over so she’s slanted sideways in the ditch. Even with my face in my hands, I see her looking down at me, suffering me. “Why are you so damn dramatic? You’re like some fucking white lady,” she says.
No tears, though they’re stinging the edges of my eyes. “You let all my stuff go to auction, Ma. Everything I own. My TV, my journals, my clothes. I have nothing. You know why I came here.”
“Oh, that shit’s more important than your mother?”
“No, but Ma, you said you’d pay it. You said ‘don’t worry about it.’ They kick me out of school, housing, food, everything, in a week.”
“I didn’t have the money.” She blows smoke. Gray hovers in front of the open window, a blemish against the yellow-green perfection of the woods beyond it. “That was your bill,” she says.
“If you didn’t have the money, why didn’t you tell me? Why would you even offer?” She doesn’t respond. She never responds. “I should’ve known I’d be paying for it anyway – like the car insurance and everything else you said ‘don’t worry about it.’ When do you ever do anything right? All my money went to get you out of jail.”
A MoneyGram commercial mocks us.
“Come on.” She brushes the air with the back of her hand and looks out the window, “I don’t have all day for this foolishness.”
“It’s all gone now, anyway,” I say, turning the engine over. “The auction was at twelve.” With a little extra gas, I straighten out and get back on the road.
We ride in a welcomed yet hardened silence I want to bang my head against until it’s a bloody mess.
Daddy said the fighting is why he had to let her go. I can’t imagine them together in the first place, let alone tolerate one another long enough to make me. Friends talk about how their parents’ divorce fucked them up. Shit, I’m glad my parents were never married. What would that even look like? My father coming home every single day to the both of us, one an ex-convict man-beater, the other a college kick-out, instead of his bougie six-figured wife and her manga-porn addicted freak of a son?
Probably to do with my Grandma and how my Grandpa used to beat her...maybe how Grandpa started a new family and Grandma ran off and left Ma to be raised by Aunt Liza...that’s why my mother likes to fight her men. Or, she doesn’t trust herself to be happy. Or fighting is her way of exerting control and independence. Relying on someone else for everything—a place to live, a ride, a fucking life—she controls nothing but her men. Fighting makes her feel like a person.
Her boyfriend before Ronny, Marco D. Snopes aka Swagger D, the top of his head thick with waves so defined, looking at them too long would make you seasick, the type of guy who showered twice a day with Cool Water body gel, wore a silk wave cap at all times, even while he worked, even when at the store, unless he was going somewhere special: The mall, out to eat, church. They met at the carry-out. Swag had no chance. Shelby Walker is blessed with a body meant for catching cases. My mother’s ass moving inside skinny jeans is like two country hams fighting for space.
They were good together. Swag liked to drink. Not a drunk; it wasn’t like he needed a beer first thing in the morning, just pissy every evening after work. He’d come home falling down, they’d fight, my mother yelling he needed to be better around me; this wasn’t the example she wanted me to have. Example of what? A man? A relationship? A mother?
One night, the middle of the night, he burst open my bedroom door. His shape stumbled in and out a tube of light from the streetlamp outside the apartment window. His hand cupped his cock like a toddler holding in his pee. I laid still, not the first time one of her men came for me, as if they assumed we were a buy-one-get-one-free deal. Swag didn’t seem like the molesting type. I guess none of them did. But, there had been so many, first impressions didn’t mean shit. None of them had the balls to get their dicks wet. Instead one fingered me when I was five, another had a thing for putting me on his lap and bouncing me up and down, his arms around my stomach, his forearms right underneath my breasts as they bumped his bare skin, dick solid against my prepubescent sacrum.
But Swag just thought my bedroom was the bathroom and pissed in my laundry basket. Second time I saw her give a grown man a black eye, over a load of dirty clothes—more money at the laundromat. Now that’s something to fight about.
He drove us to Georgetown when I moved on campus. We were lost, kept going in and out of Virginia, mainly because my mother couldn’t believe we were in the right area. She screamed at Swagger to check his GPS, this couldn’t be it; this couldn’t be where Bunny’s going to school.
Mercedes, Bentleys, Land Rovers lined the outside of my dorm. We parked Swagger’s old Expedition with the rusted bumper in the loading area behind the building, next to the dumpsters.
We hauled cardboard boxes and black trash bags full of my life into the cinder-block cube that was my new home. That moment culminated of years of hustling, of convincing people I was smart and deserving, that I was “a role model for younger kids, fighting against the odds,” as the old white lady presenting my UpWard and Mobile Scholarship said. A full-ride. Five interviews, three sweat-stained suits, and hours of massaging my jaw muscles loose before they finally said I won. But, it’s easy being the best student in a shitty school, and liberal white people trying to make up for the fact their ancestors owned my ancestors love to give charity cases like me cash to assuage their guilt. Mama always said never turn down a free meal.
And, I looked forward to those meals. I looked forward to a bed that was going to be all mine for four whole years, one that wasn’t rotating, and didn’t move towns, counties, apartment complexes, trailers, every couple of years or months, every time she broke up with one man and found another. A bed I didn’t have to share with my mama and her fingering boyfriend. A bed at Aunt Liza’s when there wasn’t another for me anywhere else.
My mother didn’t speak. She and Swag unloaded in silence, comparing my trash bags next to my roommate’s Louis Vuitton luggage. She gave a limp hand to my roommate’s mother, a blonde white woman wearing sunglasses on top of her head, two super-imposed G’s for Gucci winking on the sides. She didn’t want to meet the resident assistant. She wasn’t concerned about partying and drinking, and what were the rules again about boys being in the dorms after hours? She didn’t want to help me decorate or go to the dining hall and have one last good look at me. She quit early and left alone.
Swag and I found her later by the truck. Shelby had bummed two cigarettes from the janitor, the only other black man in all of D.C., it seemed. She lit her Newport, closed her eyes and exhaled her own suffocated roar. She pulled me into her. She was soft. Her hair was cold against my face. She smelled of nicotined cocoa butter and oniony underarms. She held me tight, I tried to pull away, but she squeezed her arms around me, holding me until I relaxed and laid my head on her shoulder. I even closed my eyes.
She whispered, “Don’t believe you belong here,” then let me go.
Right now, she’s directing me by putting her hand in my face. “Ok, make a left right here.”
“Bunny, I don’t want to hear all this nonsense about that damn auction.” She’s yelling, “I am the worst mother. You’ve made your point. But, shit, you haven’t even asked me how I’m doing?” She’s hysterical, “I just got out of jail. Do you care about that at all? Shit’s always about you?” She facing the door jamb. I can’t see her face. Maybe she’s crying. I doubt it.
I should just tell her I’m not graduating. She can’t be mad. I mean, I just bailed her out of jail.
What did they expect? They sent me to Georgetown. What the hell was I doing there? There is an art to bull-shitting, she taught me that. So, I crushed Chaucer, slayed fucking African Cultural Modernity, butchered Elements of Political Theory. But ask me—for real—ask me for the concrete: Numbers, figures, real dollars and sense. There’s no bullshitting when it comes to Calculus. You either got the answer or you don’t. I never had the answer, not the right one anyway. The letter came too late to do anything about it, my last semester and all. And Ms. Coulter that basic bitch from Upward and Mobile said the scholarship covered me eight semesters, not until completion.
Twenty-five hundred. All I have. One more class.
Yes, my mother is indeed crying.
The car is quiet again minus the music on the radio. I take her hand, lacing our fingers. Our palms are sweaty, our fingers are slim and long, my complexion running into her complexion. We ride that way, regardless of how awkward it is to steer, until we reach the entrance of Ronny’s dirt road.
And I creep LA-gangsta-drive-by-slow.
The song on the radio reminds me of how pretty my mother is. It is, “If This World Were Mine,” and against my thoughtful plan, I let this song play at a volume others can hear. Alone, I sing the female duet using my cell phone like a hair brush or curling iron, eyes closed, of course.
My mother slow danced to this song at a cousin’s wedding. She was a bridesmaid and wore a gold silky dress matching the color of her skin and hair, “Honey Blonde” according to the box. She danced with some man who tried to grab her ass. She moved his hand, squeezing it so hard he shook his fingers out when she let it go. Her eyes were closed, red lips moving to the lyrics as if they were part of that slow-dance along with her legs, her hips, her shoulders. She’d taken her shoes off because the Payless twelve-dollar gold glittered heels had broken the skin on the back of her ankles and she couldn’t walk in them anymore. Her toenails were unpainted, raw and infantile. Even in bare feet, she stood up straight, back arched perfectly with a grace only a dancer or a truly beautiful woman has. Somewhere in the history of past lives, my mother was Cleopatra. I don’t have that. I will always have to pull my height up from the bottom, heels, calves, thighs, taut so people can see me standing in a crowd.
She finished dancing and sat down, pulling me into her by my waist. I smoothed back her hair from her face. I said I wanted to be her. I had to be eight or nine, no older than ten at the most. I know this because it was before I got angry, and I wasn’t tired of her immaturity yet, I wasn’t ashamed of her yet, and I had not yet figured out my mother was a real person and not my best friend. My mother hugged me, and said she wanted me to be everything she wasn’t.
I think I took that literally.
There she is, running to the car. I turn the ignition. This is it. I’m here for you, Angela.
But, she’s waving her arms above her head like she’s trying to hail a taxi or a runaway bus. She’s breathless, grinning like a damn fool.
She opens the passenger door, grabs her manila envelope and starts packing her worldly possessions one by one.
“What are you doing?”
“Ronny’s here. He ain’t mad. I’m staying home.”
She runs to my side and pokes her head into the window. She kisses me on the cheek and draws out a roll of cash from her pocket.
“I was saving this for you. You can use it for the storage. I didn’t know all that junk meant so much to you.” She can’t help but roll her eyes. She takes my hand and presses the cash into it, “there is a little more in there too. I think about six hundred. Should be enough. I’ve been saving to get you something nice for graduation.”
“Thanks.” I squeeze the cash until sweat molds the paper. I don’t even mention the bail money, her fine from the county, the cost of everything I had. I don’t want her to know she was right. I don’t want her to know I didn’t belong there.
I pull away using too much gas, my tires eat gravel rocks and the rear slips. The radio is playing some rap song with a repetitive sing-song chorus that then goes on to repeat over and over again in incessant idiotic loops.