Monday, August 14, 2006

hard candy

Her mother's words echoed in her mind. "I am the mother, you are the child." Nevermind the porch or that child, Arlene wanted some time to herself in Nyla's little room, in private, with the freedom to sit with her legs wide open and forget for a moment the circumstances that placed her back in her mother's house. Time enough later to deal with eviction and the loss of her rented rooms, the loss of her part-time job at the luncheonette, the loss of her man, the loss of her baby...

That child don't know nothing about going through nothing, Arlene thought. Ain't never been hungry or without attention. Never had to do whatever she could to keep a roof over her head. Never been shamed to walk to the store 'cause of what people got to say about your life and how sorry it turned out to be. All she know is love and comfort, Mama's food and Kevin's company. Bet she think she mad at me for not being the one to raise her, 'cause she too young and simple to know she's better off that way. Matter of fact, it's probably better for her to hate me, and wish I wasn't her mama, and think I'm crazy, and want nothing to do with me. Better that than to be disappointed in me like Mama, 'cause I sure can't deal with it coming from both ends of me.

Arlene remembered the tone in her mama's voice when she heard her testifying right out loud in church about how she needed the Lord's help to raise this unruly child. Even now, her face got hot with heat up from her neck, up around her ears, creeping up into her temples. She took a baby doll dress from the trunk at the foot of Nye's bed and dabbed her forehead like her mama did that first bad Sunday in front of the whole church.

It was just a kiss. Something so sweet and so innocent compared with the places her lips went later on after the shame compelled to act out even more.

Dennis was always there. Mama had an old picture of Arlene and Dennis at their Tom Thumb wedding, all dressed up in a little white dress and a little white suit. Arlene stood pin-toed, holding a little sunflower, but she was too caught up in the petals to look at Daddy behind the camera. Dennis was the model, grinning and preening, sticking out his six-year-old bird chest like his own daddy did on Sunday mornings. That day Arlene was his girl, and though he was, in his innocence, indifferent to marriage or love, he had always liked her pretty face with the long eyelashes and and her toothless grin. Among the children, these cater-corner neighbors ran and jumped and played for years from Radio-Flyer wagons, to string tops, to dodgeball. Could the children help it if over time, their natural affinity for each other's banter and teasing turned into flirting?

Dennis' hands became wonders to Arlene's eyes. She traced the paths on the insides of his palms with her fingertips, driving him crazy. His crooked front tooth that she once teased him about became charming. She liked the chewing-gum smell of his breath. He liked to buy her hard candy so he could watch her pretty eyelashes go up slow and happy when she looked up at him. She let him touch her once, on her new breasts that were soft and squishy, but just that once. They would walk home together after school with the group of other kids, but once they grabbed hands, it was like they were all alone. For three wonderful saccharine weeks, their Tom Thumb wedding seemed like a vision of times to come, when they would grow up and get married for real.

Then Mama walked into the backyard with a basket of her little brothers' denims one Saturday afternoon and saw Arlene and Dennis under the clotheslines, using their preteen tongues to probe and lick, and using their hands to search and grab. As a shocked Dennis ran out of the yard in the pregnant moment of Mama's shock, all three discovered his shame when his hands shot down to cover the bulge in his pants.

Not long having buried her husband, Mama was not trying to have another mouth to feed. To Junior's dismay, he was enlisted as a chaperone and sentry (and tattletale). Arlene walked to school with a sore behind the next day, and her sullen eyelids sagged with the weight of eyelashes that had always scared Mama to death, and which had suddenly become the heaviest burden. Hemlines dropped. Ace bandages bound what lumps and bumps as best they could. Outings were forbidden. And church became the only place besides home where Arlene was allowed. No more trips to the store for cornmeal. Girlfriends had to come by the house to see her, and the visits got less and less often. At school she could barely look in Dennis' direction.

Arlene's will could only take so much.