I wondered how Dad would’ve felt if he’d known Mama threw all of them away.
Then again, lately it had been hard for me to believe she was the one who felt the way those letters felt.
A part of something divine.
Recently she seemed the complete opposite of all of those things.
Lonely all the time.
Mama became a whore after Dad died. There weren’t many other ways to put it other than that. It didn’t happen right away, even though down the street Miss Jackson had been flapping her lips to everyone who would listen, saying Mama had always spread her legs, even when Dad was alive. I knew that wasn’t true, though, because I’d never forgotten the way she’d looked at him when I was a kid. The way Mama stared was the way a woman gazed when she only had eyes for one man. When he’d go off to work at the crack of dawn, she would have his breakfast and lunch packed with snacks for the in-between hours. Dad always complained about getting hungry right after he was full, so Mama always made sure he had more than enough.
Dad was a poet and taught at the university an hour away. It wasn’t surprising that the two left each other love notes. Words were what Dad drank in his coffee, and he tossed them into his whiskey at night. Even though Mama wasn’t as strong with words as her husband, she knew how to express herself in each letter she wrote.
The moment Dad walked out the door in the mornings, Mama smiled and hummed to herself as she cleaned up around the house and got me ready for the day. She’d talk about Dad, saying how much she missed him, and would write him love letters until he came home at night. When he came home, Mama would always pour them both a glass of wine while he hummed their favorite song, and he’d kiss her against her wrist whenever she grew close enough to his mouth. They would laugh with one another and giggle as if they were kids falling in love for the first time.
“You’re my love without end, Kyle Bailey,” she’d say, pressing her lips to his.
“You’re my love without end, Hannah Bailey,” Dad would reply, spinning her in his arms.
They loved in a way that made fairy tales envious.
So on that sizzling August day years ago when Dad died, a part of Mama left too. I remembered in some novel I’d read the author said, “No soulmate leaves the world alone; they always take a piece of their other half along with them.” I hated that he was right. Mama didn’t get out of bed for months. I had to make her eat and drink each day, just hoping she wouldn’t fade away from sadness. I’d never seen her cry until she lost her husband. I didn’t show too much emotion around her, because I knew that would only make her sadder.
I cried enough when I was alone.
When she finally did get out of bed, she went to church for a few weeks, taking me alongside her. I remembered being twelve and feeling completely lost sitting in a church. We weren’t really a praying kind of family until after bad things happened. Our church trips didn’t last very long, though, because Mama called God a liar and scorned the townsfolk for wasting time on such deceit and empty promises of a promised land.
Pastor Reece asked us not to come back for a while, to let things smooth out a bit.
I hadn’t known people could be banished from a holy temple until that very moment. When Pastor Reece said come one, come all, I guessed he met a different kind of ‘one’ and a special kind of ‘all’.
Nowadays Mama had moved on to a new pastime: different men on the regular. Some she slept with, others she used to help pay the bills, and then some she kept ‘round because she was lonely and they kind of looked like Dad. Some she even called by his name. Tonight there was a car parked in front of her little house. It was a deep navy blue, with shiny metallic silver frames. The inside had apple red leather seats, a man sitting with a cigar between his lips, and Mama in his lap. He looked like he’d walked right out of the 1960s. She giggled as he whispered something to her, but it wasn’t the same kind of laugh she’d always given Dad.
It was a little vacant, a little hollow, a little sad.
I glanced down the street and saw Ms. Jackson surrounded by the other gossipy women, pointing at Mama and her new man of the week. I wished I were close enough to hear them so I could tell them to keep their yaps shut, but they were a good block away. Even the kids who were tossing a ball in the street, hitting it around with a few broken sticks stopped their actions and stared wide-eyed at Mama and the stranger.
Cars that cost as much as his never traveled down streets that looked like ours. I’d tried to convince Mama she should move to a better neighborhood, but she refused. I thought it was mainly because she and Dad had bought the house together.
Maybe she hadn’t completely let him go yet.
The man blew a cloud of smoke into Mama’s face and they laughed together. She was wearing her nicest dress, a yellow dress that hung off her shoulders, hugged her small waist, and flared out at the bottom. She wore so much makeup that it made her fifty-year-old face look more like a thirty-year-old. She was pretty without all that gunk on her cheeks, but she said a little blush made a girl turn into a woman. The pearls around her neck were from Grandma Betty. She’d never worn those pearls for a stranger before tonight, and I wondered why she was wearing them now.
The two glanced my way, and I hid behind the porch post where I was spying from.
“Liz, if you’re planning on hiding, at least do a better job at it. Now come on over and meet my new friend,” Mama shouted.
I stepped from behind the post and walked over to the two of them. The man blew another puff of smoke, and the smell lingered around my nostrils as I took in his graying hair and deep blue eyes.