I DON’T KNOW WHERE THE MEN COME FROM. How they know to drive to 49 Wessex Street and park their cars in the shadow of the eating house. I don’t know how they know to walk the three cracked steps to the front door and stand under the bulb that never stops flickering. Or how they know to take the rusted brass knob in their hands and let themselves in. They were, perhaps, men who my mother knew in her former life. The life in which she wore pleated skirts and pantyhose, and caught the bus to work every day.
She briefly went to church in those days, lifting her hands during the music like she was catching God’s blessings in her palms and letting them swim there. Smiling teary-eyed when the pastor told the congregation that God would not forsake us in our darkest hour. And when our darkest hour came, and she lost her job, I’d come home from school to find her speaking in tongues at the kitchen sink, buried to her elbows in soapy water, her eyes shut tight during her onslaught of prayer. When she’d seen me standing in the kitchen doorway, my book bag slung over my shoulder, she’d smiled through her tears and beckoned me toward her. “We are under a spiritual attack,” she’d said, grasping my hands. “We need to pray against Satan and his demons.”
I’d latch on to her cold hands, squeezing my eyes shut like the quality of my prayer depended on how tightly I closed them, and prayed with her, our voices filling the eating house in a cacophony of urgent appeal. My voice had been aimless, blasting up, up, upward without any belief to keep it there. I preferred Destiny’s muted Catholicism where they ate body parts like decent, faith-driven zombies to this loud, demanding behavior my mother had adopted. God, give me! Give me! I’m your child and thus you must give me!
She doesn’t believe in God anymore; she left him somewhere between losing her job and the first man she invited into her bed. I always thought her faith was flimsy—like paper—useful until you get it wet. I’ve heard her talking about religion with one of the men who comes—the one who laughs so boisterously my mother, who hates loud noises, is constantly shushing him. “If there is a God,” she’d said, “then I believe he’s more insulted by religion than he is by atheism.”
I do not believe in God either; I never have, not even when I’d squeezed my eyes shut and prayed with her in the kitchen, the soap from her hands running down my elbows. My mother doesn’t know that we share this similarity. She would know if she asked, but she never does. I believe in loneliness so deep and profound it has a physical presence. I believe in choices—hard ones that people in charge seldom seem to get right. I believe that everyone needs something: a woman’s touch, companionship, money, forgiveness. And to acquire those things a person will accumulate as much sin as they need to. I often look at my classmates and wonder what it is they’ll grow up to want, and what they’ll give up to have it
The men come two a night. It’s all a perfectly planned dance with never a moment of overlap. I don’t know if they know about each other, or if they believe themselves to be my mother’s only companion. She meets them at the door, her voice lilting and friendly, her red silk robe rippling around her like blood water. It is a fake her, not the blank-faced woman who stares for hours at the scratched, wooden floorboards, tilting bottles of pills down her throat. She asks how they are, then leads them up the stairs. They speak to her with familiarity, old friends, who call her Wendy and laugh at the things she says. I match their cars with their voices: the cornflower blue Volvo with a dent in the front bumper, a yellow Corvette with the disco ball hanging from the mirror, and the most frequent visitor, an old Mustang—not a beat up clunker either, but the restored kind, with bright, cherry red paint and custom plates that read LWMN. I never see his face—the Mustang guy, he’s always looking at the ground. Once I caught a glimpse of the back of his head as he was leaving my mother’s bedroom. He was bald, shoulders broad and curving forward. He left cigar smoke and the smell of cedar wood lingering in the hallways. On one occasion he left his watch behind on my mother’s dresser. A heavy thing with the symbol of a crown behind the glass face. I snuck into her room to look at it when she was asleep. Wondering how someone could stand to have something so heavy hanging from their wrist. Like a ball and chain. Where did I hear that? Must have been at Destiny’s house. The next night, when I went to look for the watch, it was gone.
I tell Destiny.
“The Mustang man probably came to get it while you was at school,” she tells me. “You know what that was right?” She has her hand on her hip, and her head is tilted to the side while she wears her signature you-don’t-know-shit face.
When I don’t answer her she continues.
“It was a Ro-lex,” she says. “Probably real. My uncle wears a fake one. You could have stolen that and pawned it for a bike or something. People will pay at least a hundred dollars for sumpin’ like that.”
“I don’t want a bike,” I say. What I want is my mother.
Destiny rolls her eyes, and then her hips as she turns away and walks to her dresser.
“I have to go,” I say, standing up. I feel anxious … devious for telling Destiny about the man and the watch.
“I thought we was gonna watch a movie.”
I sit back down. I can never say no to a movie. And there is always popcorn at her house. Her mother buys the value pack because she knows we like it. Destiny tells me that the popcorn in the movie theater tastes a million times better than the stuff she makes in her microwave. “And your fingers get all greasy from the butter…” she says.
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