I slip out onto the dock as my husband begins the long ritual of putting our daughters to bed. He will comb their wet, tangled hair, slide their tender feet—through pajama legs, and read them to sleep, before making us gin and tonics. He will meet me by the water. I used to do this with him, each of us taking a turn with the shampoo, the comb, and the books. But with each passing year, memories of my mother burn brighter in my mind’s eye and I find myself drifting from the present moment more and more. I wonder if our eldest’s laugh sounds like hers or if the youngest sucks her cheeks in the way she did. I worry what my mother might have left in them—might have left in me.
Every year I sit out here and consider that last year with my mother. I watch the currents of the muddy brown water churn and disappear. I reach into the water and dig my hands into the silt. My husband’s voice, soft and deep, drifts out of the open window, through mesh screens and mosquitoes. I have plenty of time before he rolls the limes across the cutting board and slices off a curl for garnish.
I start with church, because back then our life always started with church. Sometimes it feels as if all I remember are the Sundays of that year. One Sunday morning when I was twelve-years-old, Mother was up at dawn as usual, with two eggs over easy waiting on the kitchen table. My khaki pants, seersucker jacket, and a white button down shirt, ironed and hanging on the back of a chair.
“Jasper, stop,” she said as I began the prayer. “We do not fasten our clothes while we speak to Jesus. You’re telling our Lord and Savior he deserves as much attention as your button.”
I started the prayer over again, giving Jesus my full attention. Then I finished my eggs, secured all of my buttons, and waited for Mother’s final once-over before we left. But after breakfast and before the once-over, came my favorite part of the day. I’d stand behind her bathroom door and watch through the crack as she applied her makeup.
First, she dabbed witch hazel across her face, massaged in cream, and dusted on powder. She traced a half moon of black liner on her eyelids. Finally, she brushed mascara, quick and light, on her short lashes. The large cabinet mirror had three sections, so when she had the outer mirrors open I could see three different versions of my mother blotting her lipstick, pink as the inside of a conch shell. I counted the careful kisses she blew herself in the mirror. This morning it was seven.
From the bus stop to church, Mother gave one of her impromptu etiquette lessons.
“What they teach young men nowadays, nothing but opening doors and holding—” her voice dropped to a faint whisper, “— in a fart.”
“But none of the other boys, or girls, wear gloves.”
I yanked on the white cotton gloves she made me wear that morning. It was too hot for gloves in South Georgia any day of the year. Sundays included. I hope it goes without saying that I was the only twelve-year-old boy wearing gloves. We were the only ones wearing gloves, period. Half of the boys my age got away with band T-shirts under their navy blue blazers.
“And would Jesus want you to dress and act like a heathen?”
I sucked in my lower lip and stuffed my hands deep into my pockets for the entire service. I don’t think anyone ever noticed, except for Cuba who sat with his family a few pews over. The Samuels were the most laid back family at our church, but I never questioned their good intentions. That has proven to be true through the years.
Most of the etiquette Mother taught me I liked to be honest: Impeccable grooming, neat dressing, when to sit, when to stand, and when to take off your hat. Even if it’s a baseball cap. Even if it’s Denny’s. My favorite lesson was what she told me to do if I had to go number two in a public toilet: cough as soon as it hit the water so no one would hear the splash.
Not every day was so routine. A week before, I saw her through the window of my Sunday school classroom. It was raining and she sat on a bench without umbrella or jacket. Her pale-pink cardigan was slick against her body. I ducked out of the classroom and ran.
I held a service program over my head that dissolved almost immediately. “Mom what are you doing?” I yelled over the rain.
She was smiling and running her hands over her slick skin.
“Can you hear me?” I put my hand on her shoulder. She jerked but didn’t look at me. I grabbed her arm and pulled her back inside.
Everyone was in the sanctuary. The brick walls muffled the rain and I could hear the organ warming up. Women were chattering in the hall next door. They were setting up trays of pimento cheese sandwiches, deviled eggs, and divinity candy.
At the sound of their voices, Mother blinked and her eyes widened. She pressed her hands to her wet hair then down to her pleated skirt. She was soaked to the bone.
The opening hymn began. I pulled her towards the sanctuary door, but she wouldn’t move this time.
“I—I can’t go in there looking like this. They’ll—see me.”
“Let’s go help set up then.”
She jumped back as if I was leading her to shark-infested waters. She brought her hands to her face and studied the black paint she wiped away from her eyes. “Can’t see me. Can’t see me. Can’t—”
I led her to the ladies’ restroom, knocked twice, and then sat her down in a chair I moved under the hand dryer. I punched the silver knob and combed her black, bobbed hair that dangled around her soft jaw line. She stared down at her lap and smoothed out the hem around her knees. Once her face was clean and dry, I took her makeup bag from her purse. I even held my mouth open as I did the mascara, just like her. When I had applied her lipstick and blew her a kiss, only then did she seem to notice me.
She blew a kiss back, as if out of reflex. I stood her up in front of the mirror and she looked at herself.
The service ended as we dove into a back pew. I yanked opened a hymnal and shoved it into my mother’s lap. I don’t think we fooled anyone. Almost everyone gave us side-long looks as they passed by on their way to Caprese salads on toothpicks. I never understood why Mother didn’t have more friends. If she did have any, I never met them. The only people who stopped to speak to us were the Samuels. Their five children trailed behind them.
“Good morning, Miss Mary,” Mr. Samuel said. “How’s this Sunday treating you?”
“Been blessed to see another one,” she said in a chipper voice.
I turned to make sure that it was still my mother sitting beside me.
“Morning, Jazz,” Cuba said from behind his mother.
“Jasper,” my mother snapped. “Don’t make mince meat of his Christian name.”
I watched one of Mrs. Samuels’ thick eyebrows rise. Mr. Samuels chuckled, took his wife’s hand, and pointed towards the main hall. “We’ll be seeing ya’ in there.”
I watched with envy as they walked away. I had always wanted to be part of a big family. I would have just liked to go for a sleepover. Cuba might have invited me, but it wouldn’t have mattered. Mother never let me go anywhere without her. I might be snatched up by the sin that waited on every corner.
It was around that time that life began to change. Or at least, the change that had always been creeping over her like a vine was finally show itself to me. One morning I walked into the kitchen before school to heat myself up a Hot Pocket. Mother was standing in the doorway that opened to the patch of brown grass and a square of dirty concrete that made up our backyard. It had been green and swept clean weeks before. She was smoking a cigarette and mumbling to herself. I had never seen her smoke a cigarette but it didn’t look foreign in her mouth.
I put my breakfast in the microwave and sat. “Do you want to pray with me?” I asked. When she didn’t answer, I pressed my hands together and started, “Our Lord in Hea—”
She slammed my hands on the table. “Enough of that, Jazz.”
“Isn’t that what all your friends call you?”
“Jesus, it’s like talking to a well.” She pulled back her chair and it fell with a clatter. “I got things to do today, but I’m gonna pick you up early so be ready to scoot.”
She grabbed her purse and house keys, now tasseled with dyed rabbit’s feet, something she used to find disgusting, and left.
That whole day at school my stomach was in knots. I didn’t hear a word the teacher said but stared down at my lap counting the wrinkles in my khakis. When the principal’s aid came in to say I was being picked up, I didn’t move until Cuba reached over and nudged my elbow.
Mother was perched on the school’s large sign. She was balancing a cigarette between her lips like she’d smoked one every day of her life. The sun burned right behind her head so I could imagine that the light radiated from her shadowed face.
“What good has being good done us, Jazz?”
“What good has the praying, cleaning, the fucking neat clothes—What good has it done us? I mean, have you ever had fun?”
I picked up a dogwood blossom and picked it apart. “I like watching televi—”
She hopped down and pulled car keys out of her pocket. “I’ve never even taken you to the movie theater, have I?”
She skipped ahead of me, dropping her cigarette at the foot of the dogwood tree. Her once neat bob was tied in a greasy ponytail at the nape of her neck. She hopped into a sun-bleached gold car with two doors.
“Let’s go for a test drive, huh? I’ll introduce you to some of my friends.”
We didn’t make it to the movies that night. She drove us through parts of town I’d never known existed. At some point I fell asleep. When I woke up in the backseat, the car was in a near empty Waffle House parking lot. I was alone. I found her in a back booth with off-duty firefighters. They were splitting a giant plate of hash browns. Covered and peppered.
One Sunday morning she came home when I was stretched out in front of the TV watching Adult Swim cartoons. She had recently bought a very extensive cable package with whose money I don’t know. Her house key hit against the lock again and again as she laughed and groaned intermittently. I could have gone and opened the door.
She fell into the room when the door opened and a man caught her by the hips. She introduced him as Porkchop. She pulled him into the kitchen and started making breakfast.
I followed them.
She laid thick slabs of bacon in a cast iron full of hot grease. Porkchop turned on the boombox he was holding in his lap. I had never any like whatever music he played. It was loud and screamy. Mother rolled her hips left and right. She was wearing red leather pants and a top she called a wife-beater. I hated those pants. They gave me nightmares that red snakes were strangling me to death. What had happened to all of her beautiful clothes? By that point she had stopped wearing all of them.
Porkchop and I sat at the table drinking Mountain Dew. I took the strange moment to ask her something I hadn’t had the nerve to ask for weeks: Why didn’t we go to church anymore?
She looked at Porkchop and winked. He leaned back laughing and clutching his stomach. To my terror, he did not make a sound.
Bacon grease popped and landed on my mother’s arm. She didn’t wince, but put her arm in front of Porkchop. He licked it away.
I carried my Mountain Dew to my room.
No one brought me bacon when it was ready.
The last Sunday morning, I took the bus to the grocery store and bought groceries with the last of my money. Mother wasn’t home so I put the food away and made baked macaroni and cheese and beans. It was my favorite meal. It was my birthday.
When she came home later that night, she wasn’t alone. I pretended I had fallen sleep on the couch watching TV. I heard her and what sounded like at least two other people walk into the kitchen, then a tiny gasp.
“Don’t touch that,” she whispered to someone. “That’s my son’s cake. Look at what he can do without me.”
I heard a hard slap on leather then laughter. It was deep.
“Do me a favor,” she said to someone. “Carry him into his room.”
“Ain’t he a little big to be carried?” It was a different man than the laughing one.
“Bend with your knees,” she hissed.
I pretended to be a dead body in a movie as the man lifted me in his arms. He smelled like fresh laundry and gasoline. He laid me on my bed and was gone without covering me with a blanket.
I fell asleep listening to the three voices mingled with the sound of clinking glassware. I wanted to be angry she had missed my birthday, but I wasn’t and I don’t know why. I listened as they heated up plates full of my macaroni and cheese. A pack of cards was shuffled and dealt. Cards were slapped hard on a table.
Hours later the stillness woke me with a start. I moved through the house in the dark, feeling everything with my hands. I can see my young self, walking through the house, but I can’t make out the next scene. I have been that lost boy wandering in the dark for years.
A light floods the grass beside the dock then goes out. It’s my daughters’ light. I hear heavy, soft footsteps, the sound of cabinet doors opening and closing, glasses set out on a marble counter, a knife hitting a cutting board with a small tap.
I lean over and pluck a long piece of grass, shred it, hold it just like he taught me once when we were kids and I stayed at his house for two weeks after my mother disappeared for good. You could say now that I never left. I close my eyes, and blow. It whistles loud and clean.
I close my eyes and put myself back in my mother’s house and keep walking.
I pushed her door open. In the bed were two men I didn’t recognize. The kitchen voices. Their bodies were curved towards each other like halves of a shell with the pearl missing.
She was standing by the window. I couldn’t tell if it was open or closed. I studied her nightgown to see if the wind made it ripple across her legs. Like the night had been holding its breath, a rush of wind came. The flood of movement shook a fine dust from the room. The capped sleeves and argyle cardigans hanging in the closet revealed their moth bitten holes.
She turned and looked at me.
Ice hits glass and there is a soft swoosh of liquid draining from a bottle. Cuba will be here any minute. There is the soft click of the back door and his light footsteps on the grass. He is trying to surprise me, as if I don’t strain to hear every sound he makes, as if I don’t lie awake some nights just to listen to him and our girls breathe, to remind myself they are real and they are mine.
Her lips are moving but I can’t hear anything. I step closer until I am past the men on the bed. As I reach for her I make out what she is saying. Her lips make the words, “I tried.”
Cuba steps up behind me and kisses me under my ear. He brushes grass from the arm of my chair and sets down the cocktail. White light reflects off the ice. I look up and study the moon’s leathery surface. I wonder if the dark side is as scarred.
“Jazz, you awake?”
“Yes. All done now.”
Cuba asks raising one eyebrow, looking just like his mother.
“I never pray and tell,” I say.
Cuba plucks a lime wedge from his drink and squeezes a spray of juice across my face. “News to me. C’mon, what are you wallowing over out here?” he says.
“Nothing, really. Just saying goodbye to old ghosts. But also, what about etiquette classes for the girls?”
M.M. Kaufman (she/her) is a fiction writer based in Augusta, Georgia. A Fulbright Scholar, she also earned an M.F.A. in the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. She is currently the managing editor at Rejection Letters. Her work is published with Slush Pile Magazine, Memoir Mixtapes, Tuck Magazine, The Normal School, Hobart, Shift, Metonym Journal, Sundog Lit, Orangeblush Zine, Our Name is Amplify, Daily Drunk Mag, and forthcoming from Olney Magazine, (mac)ro(mic), and the Miller Aud-cast. Find her on Twitter @mm_kaufman and on her website mmkaufman.com.
Image: “The Kachina Krew” by Bill Cawley