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“What were you doing up there?” My mother stands in my doorway, arms folded across her chest like she’s cold.

“Up where?” I shake out the clothes and hold them up to get a good look. I’m shaken by the fact that she’s talking to me, but I don’t let it show. I don’t hate her presence, just her lack of it.

“I heard you,” she says. “In the attic…”

I ignore her, spreading, holding things up to my chest to check the size. If she looked closely, she’d be able to see the tremor in my hands.

“What is that?” She steps around me and looks down at the pile. Shock registers on her face, the lines that tell her age cut deeper as she frowns.

“Put that back,” she says.

I spin around.

“Then give me money to buy clothes…” I hold out my hand like I expect her to palm me a fifty, but she’s looking at the Docs like they’re a ghost.

“You shouldn’t wear things like that,” she says, pulling her robe tighter around her shoulders. “Men will get the wrong idea. Even if you’re not pretty, they’ll think…”

“What are you talking about?” I’m holding up a T-shirt to get a good look at it. Nirvana. It still has the knot tied into the bottom. I glance over at her face and put down the shirt. My mother is the type who is always looking for a reason to be angry. She tsssked and huffed and stomped around the eating house over the slightest thing. Now she is angry I pulled her old clothes out of retirement. Like she could wear them anyway. She is a toothpick human, all bone and sharp edges, always buried beneath that robe.

“I was … my daddy, he—”

I lay the shirt down.

“He what?”

She shakes her head. “You shouldn’t wear clothes like that,” she reiterates. But I don’t want to let it go. She was going to tell me something before she decided against it, and I want to know what.

“Did he do something to you?” I press. I try not to look intense; I don’t want to scare her off. But my eyes are drilling into her.

She bites the corner of her lip, the most normal thing I’ve seen her do in years. It triggers memories of long ago—chilly nights under a blanket as we sat on the floor in front of the fireplace, it was her turn to tell a story; she bites the corner of her lip then starts. Helping me with my first grade homework at the kitchen table, biting the corner of her lip as she thinks of the answer. She snaps out of it, her old self.

“That’s none of your business,” she says.

“Who is my father?” I swear to God, this is the first time I’ve verbalized the question that plagues every child who has no memories of a father. The first time I care to know.

“That’s none of your business,” she says again, but this time she’s slowly backing out of the room.

“It’s my business,” I say urgently. “It is. Because I have a right to know who he is…” I follow her—a step for a step. She shakes her head. I’m becoming more panicky. I feel my palms grow damp, the increased lub-dub of my heart. This is my one chance to get answers. I am eighteen. There are but a few breaths left in our relationship.

“Tell me, goddammit!” I grit between my teeth. I don’t want to yell, but I’m not above it. My mother hates loud noises.

“Don’t speak to me like that. I’m your moth—”

“You aren’t a mother,” I say quickly. “You hung my childhood by a noose. You don’t even care, do you? Of course not. You don’t care that I graduated from high school with honors, or that I got a job, or that the best kind of man likes to spend time with me. You’re just an ugly, self-involved, guilt-ridden whore who refuses to even speak to the child you brought into this world. I can’t even find the strength to hate you, because I don’t even care anymore.”

Her hand meets my cheek. It’s an epic slap if I’ve ever seen one, and growing up in the Bone you see no less than half a dozen greatly administered slaps in a year. My cheek begins to sting before her hand even leaves it. My skin mars easily, so I can almost see the etchings of her fingers on my face. I begin to lift a hand to touch the spot where she struck me, but I don’t want to give her the satisfaction. I drop my hand, curling it into a fist.

“Who was my father?” I ask again. This time my voice sounds more like me—flat and calm. The slap, the declaration of my ruined childhood makes it official. We will talk tonight, probably not ever again, but tonight is for answers. The kind people aren’t usually willing to give.

My mother casts her bruised eyes to the scarred wooden floor. Her red robe is open, and her right breast has slipped from the material. The sight of it revolts me; the men whose hands have fondled it are on a carousel in my mind. Was one of them my father? I know it before she says it—the man who drives the restored mustang, the one with the LWMN license plate and the watch I’d now come to understand is a Rolex.

“His name is Howard Delafonte,” she says. “Come downstairs. I need a smoke.”

I follow her down the narrow stairs of the eating house and sit at the kitchen table while she lights a cigarette and pours a finger of scotch into a dusty tumbler she finds in a cabinet. She’s doing things: pouring, lighting, sipping. I haven’t seen her do anything but float from room to room in a long time. The movement looks odd on her, like a ghost mimicking flesh. When she sits on the only other chair across from me, she sighs.

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