Poor Girls’ Palace

Our mother had been gone now for eleven days. Her longest recess yet. Recess is what I’d nicknamed her time away. That’s what it felt like to me: She’d be in the middle of being a mother, caring for us, and she’d stop—take a break. Much of my time was spent trying not to trigger her leaving: keeping my younger sister, Renee, quiet, laying out her clothes for school, cleaning without being told. But it wasn’t enough. When my mother would recess was out of my control, maybe hers too. 

Shortly after Renee was born, I’d gotten used to my mother’s absences. Some nights she’d return after a couple of days, apologetic and with a purse full of fruit-flavored candies. Her auburn hair, which had been wild and glorious the last time I saw her, would be stuffed under a scarf that hung along her back like deflated wings. Renee was usually sleeping. I’d stay up with my mother, an apple-flavored candy under my tongue, savoring the sourness that made my jaws tense, as well as my time alone with her. Those nights almost made her leaving bearable. I loved feeling like it was only two of us in the world. She’d let me paint her toenails while she polished her fingernails. I was careful of the nub on the side of her left foot where a sixth toe had been. I wish I had one, too, just to remind me that I was hers. 

“Renee give you any trouble, Clarissa,” she’d said, pronouncing my first name the way she did when she was happy, letting it trail off her tongue like a note to a song. And no matter how many hours it had taken for me to get my sister to eat or stop her from crying, I’d always say no. My mother never told me where she’d been, and I’d never ask for fear of her speaking the words that would take her away from us again. 

When my mother went on recess, I’d learned to check her closet to gauge how many outfits she’d packed into her overnight bag. Most times she would take enough clothes for no more than a few days. But this time her closet was nearly empty—the hangers faced me like a row of bare shoulders. She’d tossed her overnight bag and had taken the one Samsonite suitcase she owned.  Atop her dresser was an envelope. She’d stuffed several dollars inside and scribbled “for emergency” across the front, then smacked a scarlet, lipstick-stained kiss in the corner like a stamp. No way to reach her, no word when she was coming home. She’d slipped out while we were sleeping, so we couldn’t ask any questions. That was just her way. 

Whatever I had to do, I wasn’t going to panic. I would keep everything in order and wait for her. It was summer, late June. Maybe she needed time to herself more than ever since we were home most of the day and she was out of work. I held on to the thought of her being on recess to keep from being scared. Everything that I remember about recess was a happy time. And like all the recesses I’d known, it would be over soon. 

I was fifteen and had long since weaned myself from missing her. Or so I thought. But not Renee. She was only six and hadn’t quite learned the duality of our mother. The side Renee was privy to was a flurry of wet kisses, whispered “I love yous,” her breath a whiff of coconut rum. Even if the secretarial pool called her in, she’d phoned us a few times a day and tell us how eager she was to get home. In the evening, the three of us nestled on the couch. We were appendages of her, stirring when she stirred, drifting asleep next to the warmth of her skin, the three of us amidst the television’s starlight.  

Then there was the other half that I knew too well. That I tried to distance from Renee. The woman who sought her salvation in men. More than once, I’d looked on as she’d collapse into the arms of a man as if she was lame and he alone had the power to make her whole. In the morning I’d discover her naked on her bed, her body shrouded in a thin, cotton sheet, her hair cobwebbed across her face. I’d close her door and fix Renee and me big bowls of cereal. We’d eat in silence, trying not to wake her.  When she came to, she’d go about her morning, barely acknowledging we were there. “Her girls,” as she sometimes called us, were afterthoughts. If we tried to talk to her at all on those days, she’d just stare at us—especially me—and shudder as if she’d seen the end of her life in our eyes. Then, within the next day or so, she’d be gone. 

I prayed that my mother’s absence wasn’t a sign we’d have to uproot again. She often spent our rent money when she was away. We’d moved six times in two years. Twice to apartments on the same street, one block down. My mother and I carried our clothing from one place to another. Aunt Ida, my mother’s older sister, and Uncle Larry came to help. All the while, Aunt Ida didn’t say much, just shook her head every time my mother was in her sight, like she’d do in church when she’d catch a glimpse of a woman with a wig too bright, slit too high, what she’d call a “wayward woman.” The times that we’ve stayed with Aunt Ida, she’d told my mother she should leave us with her and go “get yourself together.” My mother always smiled and kissed Aunt Ida on the cheek, thanked her for the concern, then kept us away from Aunt Ida for weeks, forbade us to utter her name.  

Before our last relocation my mother predicted to me, “You’re going to love the new house.” And she was right. I was besotted for a few days with the large yard, fresh paint, and windows that flooded in light.  Then only to find the new house was full of the same broken things as the last: the pipes clanged and spit droplets of water; the secondhand refrigerator barely kept food cool and leaked puddles that welted the tile. And in the center of it all, the living room possessed a silver, asthmatic lung of a radiator that Renee eyeballed as if it were alive. But when my mother’s mood was right, there was a happiness surrounding us that filled every crack in the walls. She’d crank up the stereo, putting on her favorite song, “Respect,” and Renee and I were her backup singers as she out wailed Aretha Franklin. Or we’d all be The Marvelettes taking turns on a verse of “Mr. Postman.” Renee offbeat trying to imitate the cobra wind my mother and I had to our hips. During those moments, Renee and I were content. We wanted nothing more than to harmonize with our mother, have her melodic voice cocoon around us, live within our walls so we wouldn’t miss her as much when she was away. 

A few days into her eleven-day absence, I had tucked Renee in bed with lies about where our mother was, and when she’d return. The only bedtime story Renee requested was the one our mother read to her—Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go. I’d sit on the corner of Renee’s bed, reading, but trying not to taint the lines with my mother’s Lena Horne sexiness that was only appropriate for whispering naughty words in a man’s ear, something my mother did all the time, and I, at fifteen, had done more than once. Sometimes the prickly feel of that beard against my lips would overtake me, and I’d stop whatever I was doing and wait for the sensation below my navel to pass.   

As I read to Renee, every few seconds I glanced up at our window, hoping to spot the headlights of my mother’s lime-green Buick. All I could think about was what I’d say when she came back to us. The only thought that scared me more was what I’d tell Renee if she didn’t.  I’d never prepared myself for that, but maybe I should have. I tried to act as if her leaving us in spurts was normal when it was anything but. 

For a while Renee was mouthing along with me. It’s opener there in the wide open air. When she fell asleep, I stopped reading and envied her slim frame floating in my old pajamas, her dark hair and lion brown skin inherited from her father—who was different from mine—clashing against the white sheets, and wished I was her. That I could soundly sleep in a house of make-believe.

Then I wished something even worse—that she was never born. 

Renee had cracked my mother. Or maybe I had done it. Maybe I was the one she never wanted and Renee just added to her weight. 

 

Later that week, Aunt Ida called, and I told her my mother was at the grocery store. It was killing Aunt Ida to take my word for anything, and she would have popped over if she and my mother hadn’t fallen out about her habit of dropping by unannounced. Soon, it wouldn’t matter. Aunt Ida would stop over, patent leather purse in hand, feather church hat cocked slightly to the left, and sit on the couch and wait. 

The last time Aunt Ida had done that, my mother stumbled in around two in the morning and cursed her out for treating her like a child and me for allowing her in. 

“If you can’t come home at a decent hour, I’m going to notify the state, and see what it’ll do,” Aunt Ida shouted. 

“You wouldn’t dare do that! You wouldn’t dare!” my mother screamed, tugging at the belt of her white jumpsuit, her makeup running, and what I’d later learn was the smell of sex seeping from her.  

“I’ll do it just as sure as my name is Ida Mae Calhoun. Just as sure as there is a God who sits high and looks down low…” She was serious then. 

“I do the best I can. I’m tired of you thinking you’re better than me. You act like you don’t remember what it was like. You remember, don’t you? You remember!” my mother shouted, then she dropped to the floor. I stood still, waiting. Waiting for Aunt Ida to answer her. What was what like? But she turned and shooed me away, hovering over my mother, rubbing her back, and then cleaned her up like spilt milk. 

 

When I’d all but given up my mother was coming home, her Buick hissed. I peeked out and there she was, auburn cloud of hair, body crouched in her seat like she was hiding from God. Thinking that she’d come inside soon, I wedged myself in the corner of the sofa. Our living room was sparse. One bulb out of three flickered in the ceiling light fixture, and there was a constant buzzing as if it were brimming with flies. The couch and the dining room table came straight from my Aunt Ida’s basement. Unlike the first couple of times we moved, my mother hadn’t bothered to hang pictures. 

For years she had a painting of the Last Supper that followed us. Some evenings I saw her standing in front of it, head bowed, praying underneath the feet of Jesus. When we moved the last time, I waited for her to hang it but she didn’t. She’d left the Jesus picture behind and something told me Renee and I were next. 

But maybe I was wrong. She’d returned. More than ever, I wanted her to believe I was keeping up with my studies. Once she said, “I love you, Rissa, but if I had to do it over, I would have waited to have you. Or at least I’d have stayed in school. Big belly and all,” she said and feigned a waddle. “Don’t let no boy get in your head. No matter how much you love him. He’ll leave you one way or another.” I promised her I wouldn’t, hoping she’d tell me more about her life, more about my daddy, but that was as deep as she ever wanted to go. 

 

After close to thirty minutes, my mother hadn’t come in. I was wishing she’d be proud of me. I’d kept Renee clean and fed, Aunt Ida at bay. All I needed from her was some reason why she’d stayed away so long. But the more I thought about what she was doing to us, the angrier I got. What if she decided this wasn’t where she wanted to be again and took off? 

I threw on a sweater and scurried to the car. It was a little after ten p.m. and people were still milling about. The shoebox homes surrounding us were aglow with porch lights. Greensboro had hit almost ninety-two degrees that day and heat was hiding in the breeze. My sweater was only to avoid hearing my mother say, “You flounce around with too much skin showing.” Standing in front of her passenger door, I could tell the lock was up, but the door often jammed and had to be opened from the inside. I knocked on the window, then jiggled the handle several times before she leaned over, lifted it, and I slid in. Not knowing what to do with my hands, I plowed them under each thigh, then stared at the yellow rabbit’s foot hanging from her rearview mirror, its tiny claws peeked through the fur.  She switched radio stations two times, flipped the glove compartment open and rifled through it. 

“You okay, Ma?” I asked. 

Her lips didn’t show the hint of color, which meant she hadn’t worn lipstick at all that day. She didn’t believe in letting it reside in the cracks of her lips or corner of her mouth. Her lips were either call-girl tempting or Holy Roller bare. She hadn’t been in the company of a man in the last few hours. No scent. And if there was a whiff of anything, it was only Ivory soap. Perfume was the standby gift from her male friends, and she told me she couldn’t remember which one gave her what, so she rarely wore any. Regardless, she’d tote the bottles with her every time we moved and align them on her dresser like tiny misshapen servants. 

Not bothering to turn toward me, she said, “Things didn’t go the way I planned.”

“What way was that?”

“You wouldn’t understand.” 

I resented being treated like a child after she’d left me for days alone with hers. But still I wanted to rub her back like Aunt Ida would do. 

“I might understand.” 

She flicked a strand of hair that was creeping across her eyes. 

“I had money for one thing, and I used it for another.” As soon as she said that, the thought of uprooting again made me nauseous. With every move, we lost more of her. I couldn’t stand one more story about how the new place would really feel like home. Couldn’t tolerate her breezing through another rundown apartment, telling me to imagine how it would be. How the three of us would enjoy fixing it up. And we would. For the first week, maybe the second. She’d even plop a few plants in the dreariest corners of the house. Religiously, at first, she’d water them. Then she’d depend on me to do it. Hating that the plants were reminders we couldn’t be stable like other families, I’d let them die. 

“You don’t have the rent, Ma?” 

“I had it. I don’t no more.” 

“Maybe Aunt—” She held up her hand so quickly the words I was about to say backed up. I swallowed hard, staring straight ahead at nothing.  

My mother had been able to stave off eviction as long as she was letting our landlord, Mr. Thomas, do his personal business with her. A couple of nights a month, he’d stopped by to check on things. I’d take Renee into our room and hike up the TV’s volume. What he needed to check on was in my mother’s room. Even if I didn’t see Mr. Thomas go in there, I knew it was him because as he came he shouted, “Oh, Jesus! Oh, Jesus!”  I could distinguish most of my mother’s male friends that way. Sometimes I listened for any sound from her. A moan or sigh that would tell me that she was enjoying herself—that when I had sex I was to enjoy myself—but either she didn’t make noise, or the men drowned her out.

“Go wake up your sister. It’s best we leave here tonight.”     

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“To my friend’s house.” 

“Which one?”  

“Don’t you worry about that. Unless you got a few hundred stashed somewhere, just do what I asked you.” At that she dropped her head to the steering wheel. She wasn’t crying, but gasping as if she was too tired to breathe. I leaned in closer and put my hand between her shoulder blades and rubbed her. She quieted, and for a few seconds, I believed everything would be okay. I should have been better prepared for that night. The spell my mother had over our landlord didn’t resonate with his wife who’d popped up at our door to collect the rent last month, dismissing my excuses the first time, and returning the next day, paying no attention to my mother’s freshly shaven and oiled legs—what she called her showstoppers—her high heels, and her skirt that was way too tight and short to be worn for sitting around the house. My mother’s hips were weapons. 

The Thomases invaded our house. Mr. Thomas didn’t speak, just slunk back like he’d never been a wet spot on our sheets. Though I’d seen Mrs. Thomas once or twice, I didn’t acknowledge her. 

“It’s good to see you, Mr. Thomas. It’s always a pleasure when you stop by,” I said and stood next to my mother. His shoes became his focal point and his wife, now a little more irritated, declined, for her and her husband, my offer of a glass of water. She said “late rent” so quickly that it might as well been a name, “Larent.”  

When my mother tired of Mrs. Thomas’s rant, she yelled, “Rissa! Go get me my purse.” After rummaging through it she said, “Oh Jesus! What happened to that money I had in here?” 

That “Oh Jesus” didn’t shake him. While my mother was pretending she had money, I eased out of the room. 

When I reappeared, I said, “Mr. Thomas, when you stopped by to repair the faucet the other night, I mean day, you must have left this.” I dangled his Timex. 

“Been looking for that. Thank goodness you found it,” he said. All his wife’s attention was on him. “I didn’t want it to get scratched whilst I was working,” he said to her. “To show our appreciation, I’m sure we can see fit to give you more time,” he said as he fastened it to his wrist.   

But our time had run out. 

My mother had raised her head, and my hand was still warm from touching her. 

“What friend we going to stay with, Ma?” 

Before she answered, a station wagon parked next to us. Even through the darkness I knew it was the chubby jaws of “Aw Fuck.” If my mother had a steady man, he was it. 

“How’s school?” was the extent of his small talk whenever he was waiting for my mother. Sometimes he’d leave the latest Jackson Five record on the dining room table. But living with Aw Fuck wasn’t what I was going to do, especially not with Renee. 

What if he was just playing nice and he turned out worse than the one who’d never shut the door when he peed. It wasn’t until my mother saw the bathroom as open as a barnyard while he was taking a leak that she started hurling anything she could at him. He didn’t even bother to zip up, and Renee and I looked on as his dick flopped right by us. I was twelve, and it was my second time seeing the privates of a grown man up close. My first time was a few years before. The odd thing was that my mother was there then too.  

“With him, Ma? That’s where you’re taking us?”

“You got someplace better?” 

“Aunt Ida’s. I’m calling her,” I said and started out of the car. My mother grabbed my arm and clawed her nails into me. If not for the sweater, she would have broken skin. 

“You listen here. If I thought that was best, I’d call her. I’m the one taking care of you and your sister. It ain’t the other way around.

“How you taking care of anything? You haven’t even been home in days.” My voice cracked. All I wanted was to ask her where she’d been. Why she’d stay away so long. Hear her tell me she’d never leave again. I stopped talking and snatched my arm from her. My hand smacked the rabbit’s foot. She reached to steady it as I dashed out of the car. 

“Just get your sister up like I told you and start packing,” she shouted. 

As soon as I got into the living room, I ran straight for the phone. Aunt Ida’s wasn’t where I wanted to go. Even though I’d have to deal with her convent house rules, Renee and I would be safe. Her husband, Uncle Larry, had been around now for five years. Tall and gangly, he was the night manager at Piggly Wiggly and always looked swallowed by his shirts, with his narrow head sticking out. Unevenly spaced teeth, an overbite, and crooked ears stopped him way short of handsome or even good looking.  Once when we were staying with them, he opened the bathroom door and there I was in my bra and panties. “Sorry, Ris. Sorry. ’Scuse me,” he said and blew back like he’d been sprayed with Mace, not linger like my mother’s peeing friend.  

I trusted Uncle Larry, and I could tolerate Aunt Ida. Most of all, Renee, wouldn’t be living with a stranger. That’s all that mattered. 

Before my mother was at the door, I only had time to tell Aunt Ida to get over to our place. I slammed the phone down and sprinted to get Renee. If my mother was pissed off at the thought of me calling Aunt Ida, I didn’t know what she’d do when she found out I’d done it anyway. Renee was up when I got to our room. Swaddled in her favorite shirt spotted with gold fish, she had already dressed herself, cuffing her jeans at the bottom. One of her ponytails was freckled with lint. The zigzag part in her hair was also her doing. 

“Mama’s taking us with her this time?” she asked.

“She wants to, but Aunt Ida is coming.” 

I told Renee to get what she wanted to keep, and she only grabbed her Raggedy Ann. She was used to leaving things behind. 

My mother lit into our room. Renee bolted to her, but I continued packing. My mother picked up Renee and kissed her in pecks. I turned away. After telling Renee that everything would be okay, my mother told us she’d have a place in a few weeks. 

“You had to go away for work, Mama,” Renee said. I’d even forgotten I’d told her that. 

“That’s exactly right, baby,” my mother said.  

“Rissa was like the mama when you were gone.”

“Well, Mama’s back now. And the three of us gonna be as happy as ever.”

“You mean four,” I said. 

She tussled my hair and gently massaged my scalp the way she’d do when her lap was my whole world. 

“Just for a while, Rissa. I promise. Then it’ll be the three of us again. That spell she had on men? She must have had it or me too. She brushed my hair with the palm of her hand then pulled me closer. Not much taller than me, the side of my face rubbed against hers. We shared the same coarse hair that grew twice as thick and long as most. My breasts, my hips, touching with hers, nearly as developed. The soft blue-blackness of our skin glowed under the bedroom light. Someone was supposed to love me, take care of me. I had to believe it was her. The three of us stood there and the only audible breathing was my mother’s, as if she were breathing for us, living for us. 

“It’ll be just you, me and Renee again soon. I promise.” I didn’t say anything at first. “You believe me?” she asked. 

“Yes,” I mumbled.

“We’ll give it about a month, no more than two,” she said. That was all I needed. I tightened my arms around her shoulder, burying myself into the suppleness of her.   

Then the police-like banging at the door interrupted us, broke us apart.  

“Who can that be this time of night? I know my friend wouldn’t knock like he’s lost his mind,” my mother said, eyeing me as she spoke. 

I’d forgotten I’d called Aunt Ida. 

“That better not be who I think it is, Rissa,” my mother said.

The courage I’d had in the car was gone, so was the moment we were sharing. The fact that I didn’t say anything, told her everything. She grabbed Renee’s hand and they hurried to the front door, leaving me standing there alone…barely able to breathe. 

I was losing her—again. 


Image Credits: Giuseppe Andretta