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Parthenia M. Hicks

Fire


     She can't remember how it started. It happened so fast. Mama put on her stone voice and for no reason (she hadn't done anything; she always did what Mama said, there was no reason), told her to take the kids upstairs and "don't come down 'til I tell you. And don't but-why me right now. Just do it." And she did, just like Mama knew she would.

     From the window in Lena and Bottom's bedroom, she could look straight down onto the porch and Mama and Mrs. Gaithwaite. At first she could see only the top of Mama's head and the smooth pink bald spot, the size of a dime, right at the crown, right in the middle of all that thick black hair that Mama got from Nanny, on the Cherokee side. That's how she knew it was really her Mama, sitting naked on their front porch in Williams Court.

     Maybe Mama had been crying before she went outside, before she took her clothes off and started asking, "What's wrong with me? What's wrong with my body?" Standing in the sunshine, turning round and round slowly, like she was in a contest. She could hear Mrs. Gaithwaite saying, over and over, the way you talk to a baby, "It's all right. It's all right, Ruthie. It's gonna be okay." And Mama's little tiny white body just shaking and shaking.

     She could also see Christa Bently, who lived in the same building and was supposed to be her best friend, slink around to the front porch, all bug-eyed and holy, her voice slithering just like a grass snake through all the open screen doors in the project.

     "She's naked. Mrs. Abernathy doesn't have any clothes on."

     She watched all the little kids come running and snickering like dogs wallowing in a mudpuddle. Then one by one, the Mothers came and every last child shut up without having to be told. The Mothers didn't say a word, just looked real fast at her Mama, then looked down at their feet, just like they were in church, and pulled their kids away.

     And all the time, Mrs. Gaithwaite saying "Ain't nothin wrong with you, Ruthie. Why, you're the best lookin woman in this neighborhood. Ain't nothin wrong with you! Anybody'd kill to have your looks, that little body and all. It's gonna be alright. You just sit down here now. I'm gonna be right beside you. It's gonna be alright, little Ruthie."

     Mama finally sits down with Mrs. Gaithwaite. It's quiet now except for the grieving sound of Mama's crying and the trilling of swamp sparrows hiding in the brushy field to the eastern side of the project. She didn't really know that grown-ups could cry like that. Mama never cried before. Well, Jessie said Mama cried, but she didn't believe her. How could Jessie know about Mama when she got to go home with Nanny and Kelsey every night? She didn't even live with them—how could she know anything about their lives?

     Now she notices that her own face is wet, just like so many mornings when she wakes up and finds her pillow soaked. On those days, Mama always says, "Looks like somebody's been crying her eyes out all night. That's good. Better get all those tears out in the other world cause there ain't no time for tears in this world." After a while, Mama brings her a mug of black-tea-no-sugar and if Daddy is gone, they sit in the living room and talk about Edgar Allen Poe or Emily Dickinson, before the kids get up. Now here she is, crying in the daytime. Her nose is running and someone has vomited, but she's not going to let Mama out of her sight.

     She doesn't know how long they sit there like that. She fades in and out, watching Lena and Bottoms jump on the bed, taking full advantage of the situation. Louis rolls his russet potato under the bed and then crawls after it, laughing when he catches it. She should be the one sitting with Mama, not Mrs. Gaithwaite.

     If her Mama is going to make supper, she would start about now. If it's still stifling hot and humid, she might make a cold supper—maybe egg-salad sandwiches or leftover fried chicken. Open a can of hominy on the side. Cherry Kool-Aid. Later, after dark, pinwheel cookies for the kids, pecan sandies for Mama. If Daddy comes home and is all right, he might go get a quart of High's vanilla ice cream. On a real special occasion, her Mama might make vanilla wafer pudding. Once or twice a year, cherry cake with pink icing and real cherries, cut in half and carefully placed an inch apart across the icing. A pretty-girl cake. But this isn't going to be a supper night. Daddy has come home and nobody is studying food.

     His voice is low like Black Dog's. First, he makes her Mama come back in the house. She wants her Mama to come in the house too, put her clothes back on, get better, stop crying, talk to her. But she doesn't think the one who made her Mama cry has any right to make her Mama do anything else. She knows this won't be the end of it, either. She thinks it's gonna be the same old thing. But something is different this time. His voice is deeper, more guttural, like the German shepherd's that jumped on Bottom's head and sank its tooth between her eye socket and the bone of her face, locking her down like a nail in a soft piece of wood. This is a mean voice, low-down and hateful.

     "What do you mean embarrassin me like that? What do you mean goin outside neckitt? What kinda woman are you, anyway? You not even thinkin bout your chidren? What do you mean doin this to me?"

     All the time, she can hear him moving through the downstairs, closing all the windows. Snapping the lock on the front door. She can tell he's been drinking. She can smell it just like he was breathing on her. And there's that other sound—Mama crying, sucking little sounds, soft and then hard and jerky. Her own shoulders shake as though she were the one crying. She has to be real careful now not to make any sound of her own. And not to let the kids make any sounds. She's glad that his visit overlaps their naptime. Lena and Bottoms, bored with jumping on the bed and getting by with it, bored with Ree-dee-dee-I-see-something-you-don't-see, are asleep. Louis is in his crib fighting sleep, chewing on his potato and grinning when she looks at him.

     Soft swish of a match being struck. Smell of sulfur. Smell of cloth. She thinks of all the flowers in the house. The pink brocade rose petals on the couch, the marigolds on the oilcloth in the kitchen, the cream-colored orchids on the lace curtains at the front door. Put this out. There must be a hundred flowers downstairs. She imagines each flower in its own separate fire, each petal burning slowly from its outside edge, a fire path from petal to stamen to pistil, just like she learned in the fourth grade. Put this one out. How long will it take for each flower to disappear?

     She hears the parakeets and pictures them, green and blue, in their cage by the living room window. Put these out, bitch. She thinks of how she has hated them for their cunning escapes at night. How many times they have flown straight up to her bed, walked the length of her body all night while she covered her head with the white chenille bedspread and tried not to have an asthma attack. Go on, put this one out, too.

     She thinks of the Welch's grape jelly glasses that Mama has been saving. She thinks of the sack of potatoes under the kitchen sink and sees Louis dragging it out each morning so happy to get his potato. She thinks of the scrambled eggs that taste like popcorn that Jessie makes when she comes to visit. She thinks of her drawings hidden in the chest of drawers and of her stories that Mama loves for her to read out loud.

     She looks out the window, trying to measure the distance to the top of the chokecherry bush. She sees her cat, Baby, lounging on the bottom step of the porch and wonders if what Dennis Bently said is true, that cats can cross over and visit the dead? Let's see how long you can keep this up. Here, get this one, too.

     She can move through a room so slowly and quietly that no one can remember she was ever there. They all say that Baby taught her this, but she prefers to think of herself as a Cherokee scout. She uses this skill now as she eases down the stairs just far enough to see and not be seen and sees what she already knows. Her naked Mama running behind each fire, slapping her hands onto cushions, grabbing at curtains, pounding on the Indian rugs, saving their lives over and over again. Here, put this one out. And this one.

     She wakes up on the floor upstairs. Lena and Bottoms are on the bed playing with Louis, tickling him and hiding his potato under the pillow. Except for their laughter, the house is silent. She needs to find out what this means, but can't move at first. Instead she watches the arms of the Chinaberry tree moving slightly against the window, a sign that the heat is breaking; maybe there will be a thundershower. The sun is still out, but the light has changed. She thinks about being outside in the grass on her back, staring up at the sun through squinted eyes. She likes to watch all the colors change behind her eyelids, the cherry reds, the deep violets and blues, aqua and cerulean sky, just like the names of crayons. She remembers the day in first grade when Mrs. Garrett picked her for the Roses Coloring group. She got a coloring book with a dark red rose that had a baby's smiling face in the middle of it. The inside was filled with outlined colorless roses and colorless babies, which frightened her, but she would never tell this to Mrs. Garrett.

     She has listened long enough to know that he is gone. Her gut tells her that this is over, for now. She wants to be with her Mama so bad that she holds her breath and slinks down the steps again. Her Mama is sitting, still naked, in the chair at the foot of the stairs, her back to her daughter.

     "Mama?"

     Before she can take the next step, her Mama's stone voice reaches out like a slap in the face, hits her with such force that she freezes on the stairwell. This isn't what she expected. Not the "get back upstairs and don't come down 'til I tell you" voice again. This can't be what Mama really means. She tries again.

     "Mama?"

     Here comes the "I'm not going to tell you again" part. This can't be right. Mama can't mean this. She wants to touch her Mama, find her clothes and help her put them back on, check her hands to see how bad they are, sit together and talk about how down and out, how lost in alcoholism Edgar Allen was. How humiliating it was for him to die that way. They could recite The Raven together—Mama loves this—or reread The Tell-Tale Heart. They could get out Emily's picture and stare at it, try to find the place where the words started or figure out the mystery lover. Mama must know this. Mama must want to be with her as much as she wants to be with Mama. She tries again, this time following Mrs. Gaithwaite's lead.

     "Ruthie?"

     But it isn't Mama who answers. It is something that has gotten inside her by accident or mistake. Something with sharp teeth and a slithering red tongue. Daddy must have brought it in on his feet, let it loose in the room and it has been waiting in the corner all this time, during the firestorm, waiting for its chance. Maybe entered through the burns on her palms. She remembers the preacher at the Calvary Baptist Church talking about how we all had to watch out for it and now she knew what he meant. A clingy, sticky thing that could steal you from yourself, eat up your fine singing voice, scrape off your beauty sleep, chew up your body, expose your teeth.

     Upstairs, she stands in the bedroom door, watching the kids and remembering her Uncle Lloyd, how the two of them would listen to Nat King Cole after she got through babysitting her cousins. How he turned the lights way down and turned the music up so loud that it went inside her, vibrated through her blood and bones. How Aunt Margie came in and said, "She's more like your own than any we had." How Uncle Lloyd couldn't stand still listening to Nat. Said no white man could sing like that, from his soul. Said it was impossible because white men had no souls. Told her to read Dr. Zhivago.

     Louis can't say peanut butter yet. He holds up his potato and says "nutter." He and the girls laugh. She laughs, too. She goes into the bathroom, pulls down her cotton pants with the miniature bluebells, and pees.


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