Her fingertips were pressed against the cheek where Johnny’s hand had caught her. Beth didn’t know which hurt worse: the blow itself, still smarting so much her eyes were watering, or the wasted gravy. Gravy wasn’t supposed to be on the wall. Certainly not hers, a recipe from her own mother, and certainly not gravy that had, only a minute before, been in the cherished antique gravy boat she’d gotten at a garage sale but was now nothing more than ceramic shards strewn about the kitchen. The water in her eyes, or the wall playing tricks on her, made the gravy appear alive, like it was shimmying down the cheap yellow wallpaper.”Mama, oh my god, Mama. Are you okay?”
Beth turned to Desiree, her eldest daughter. “What?”
“Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I’m okay. Everyone else?” she asked, searching the faces in the kitchen. The faces nodded solemnly, their eyes downcast.
“What’s wrong with him, Mama?” Desiree asked, and repeated the question quieter, as though to herself.
“Desiree, take the kids in the living room. You all go on now, I’m going to clean this mess up.”
Desiree turned to her sister Jessie Ann, younger by a decade but a mother twice over already, and asked her to take them. Jessie Ann nodded and herded the rest of the kids, those who hadn’t already fled the kitchen or had finished eating, off to watch TV. “Mama, sit for a minute. Put some ice on that,” Desiree said, stepping to the refrigerator.
“It’s okay,” Beth said. What a Thanksgiving. Far and away the worst yet, and all because of Johnny, her only boy, the only man in the house.
Desiree leaned against the counter and looked sadly around the kitchen. “Well, at least we know he won’t be around for a while.”
“I suppose,” Beth said. Johnny always just up and disappeared for a few weeks whenever he’d do something awful to her or his sisters. It’d been this way since his twenty-first birthday, when she’d refused him the money he thought was rightfully his. Those disappearances were the only calm times around the house. She worried more over him when he was gone, but in a way, Johnny had never really been all there. “Come on, let’s take care of this mess.”
She and Desiree threw away Johnny’s beer bottles, labels all scratched and peeled by his restless hands, along with the food gone cold on everyone’s plates. On her knees in front of the gravy, Beth thought the cracks in the linoleum floor seemed large as veins. His raw, almost feral scent still lingered in the kitchen. Who knew the last time he’d had a bath. “Happy Thanksgiving, Mama,” Desiree said, and Beth laughed because she knew her daughter was joking, trying to make them both feel better.
A few hours later, Beth sat watching the clock click round. Something terrible was going to happen to Johnny. She just didn’t know when, didn’t know how she was supposed to stop it. The kitchen was almost back to normal, but the walls seemed to throb with the abuse they’d suffered. A heavy lump of pain had settled in her stomach, one she’d been trying to shake for weeks, months, years, but hadn’t noticed at all for the couple hours before Johnny had blown up (over what no one was exactly sure). He’d been killing himself for a long time, though the calendar hanging on the wall gave notice to a minor miracle: his twenty-fifth birthday two weeks away.
The clock ticked past midnight. It felt a hell of a lot later than that. Jessie Ann had taken her kids and gone home. In back, Desiree tended to her three kids and Beth’s youngest, Simone. That was her given name, but as the last child everyone had just called her Baby and the nickname stuck. Beth hoped to God her capacity to have children was finally finished at forty-seven. Baby knew she and Desiree were sisters, separated by twenty five years and two fathers, but she wouldn’t let the ‘Auntie’ business go, kept calling Desiree that.
One of the little girls squealed. They should have been in bed already, but Beth found herself saying that most nights. Maybe that’s why they were so stubborn in the mornings. Beth, too, had grown less and less inclined to crawl from the warm covers, even though she was by nature an early riser. Going back to school at her age played a part, but she looked forward to classes almost as much as coming home to her daughters. Thirty years had passed since she’d last been in school, when she got pregnant with Desiree at fifteen. When her belly got too big she’d dropped out, thinking her and Will were going to live together and raise a family. She’d been wrong about that, of course. Will was better at starting a family than raising one. The years had taught her that this was as much her problem as his, since she’d made the same mistake with five different men. It had always been just her and the girls. And Johnny.
Beth tried to focus on the stern fatherly face of Charles Darwin staring from the pages of her book. The Biology 101 class had started evolution the week before Thanksgiving break. Professor Morehouse had told them that evolution, and Darwinism in particular, was his area of expertise. She could see it in the old man’s face, the gleeful smile behind his graying beard and moustache – so clearly an imitation of the great scientist’s. Origin of Species, he’d said, holding up an ancient copy of the text. Survival of the fittest. Darwin’s crowning achievements. The professor hadn’t been nearly as excited rambling about asexual reproduction the week before. The class just sat there, uninspired by his exuberance. Your final paper, he said, is going to be about Darwinism. Remember, I’ve spent my whole life studying him, so you’ll have to be on your P’s and Q’s with this one, which sounded an awful lot to Beth like he was saying he knew everything there was to know about the man. If that was the case, she wondered now, why the heck did he need to hear from her about it?
She closed the book. Desiree stood in the doorway. “Mama,” her daughter said. “You can’t seriously be trying to learn anything right now.”
“I’m not. It wasn’t sticking.”
“Thinking about Johnny?” Desiree asked.
She was. Her own fears etched Desiree’s face, creased by wear and worry at thirty-two. Beth could only imagine how she looked.
Desiree came and started kneading her back. “I can’t believe he hit you. I just can’t.”
The bruise on Beth’s cheek throbbed. “He didn’t mean it,” she said. “You know him. He doesn’t know what he’s doing when he’s like that.” The pressure her daughter applied to the knots made Beth cringe.
“But,” Desiree said. Her strong angry hands pressed harder. “What are we going to do about him?”
“I don’t know, child,” she said. “I just don’t know.”
She had loved him fiercely. Not any more than she loved the girls, just different, him being the only boy in a family desperate for men. The girls, especially his oldest sisters, had coddled him, protected him, made him the center of their lives. Dawn and Desiree had never needed dolls for Christmas, they had Johnny. Maybe that was what had turned him, when he grew old enough to realize his place and at ten or eleven started acting out. You could see it in his face, cheeks lit red like the bulbs strung from the family’s plastic white Christmas tree every time Beth or one of his sisters pulled him close. Maybe it had all been too much, what with everyone calling him their ‘little man’ all the time.
“Well,” Desiree said. “You know what Dawn thinks.”
Beth’s shoulders tightened.
Dawn was second oldest, one of the four kids who hadn’t moved away. Of the girls, she had taken it the hardest when he started pushing them away. His name alone screwed a scowl onto her face. When Beth had told her Johnny was coming to Thanksgiving dinner she stared. Who? she asked. Beth played along. Your brother, silly. I don’t have a brother, Dawn replied. Then she said she wasn’t coming – a good thing, too, as it turned out. Who knows what Dawn might have tried to do to him for that nonsense.
“She thinks we should just cut him off,” Desiree said. “Like she’s done. He isn’t even allowed over at her place. I can’t believe her sometimes.”
Beth bowed her head. “That feels good, child. That spot right there. Press a little harder for me.” Desiree had found the largest knot. Pain seared through Beth’s body, pulsing all the way to her toes. She shivered. The pain felt good.
Beth awoke with a start, the small bedroom shrouded in the darkness of a late fall morning. Three days after Thanksgiving and her cheek still pulsed. She waited as the shadows came into focus. She’d been dreaming about Johnny, that he had died, and felt his presence in the room with her. She’d awoken before to him rummaging through drawers or searching the house for valuables. A few months ago it was the slapping of cupboard doors in the kitchen. She’d crept into the hallway. From the darkness came the steady dialogue Johnny kept with himself, muttering, “where’s it at, where you hiding,” as his shoes scuffed across the floor. Then, his voice, clear, flowing as from an apparition in the corner. “Mama, where’s the fucking money?”
Beth put a hand on the wall to steady herself. A glass shattered on the floor and she flicked the light switch. Johnny blinked, breath rasping from his chest, face sallow. “I’m not giving you the money,” she said. He took a step toward her, his giant hands tightening into fists. A second glass clenched in his left hand snapped under the pressure, the pieces cascading to the floor. She stepped back, clutching the robe around her throat. Johnny stared at the blood running down his wrist. “I’ll be back, Mama,” he said. Long after he’d gone, the words hung in the kitchen like a ghost.
But this morning the townhouse was quiet. On the dresser perched the lamp, hiding the money she’d been saving for him since childhood. She’d done the same for each of her children, two or five or ten dollars at a time. Sometimes there wasn’t even enough for food so she couldn’t save anything. It was never much, a couple hundred usually, when she finally gave the sums over after having exchanged the small worn bills at the bank for crisp larger ones. When she gave the money to her daughters they almost couldn’t take it. Desiree had actually said no, told Beth to keep it. But she wouldn’t let them give it back.
Johnny was the only one who hadn’t gotten his yet. The money would’ve gone right into his veins. She couldn’t have that. So she’d continued to save even after his twenty first, hoping he’d turn the corner.
She got up and stood in the bathroom, her feet alive on the cool tiles. She turned on the light. Johnny’s bruise was yellowing around the plum-colored center. Why she’d tried to grab hold of him after the gravy was already running down the wall she couldn’t say. Didn’t help anything. She was taller, and heavier by at least thirty pounds, but when he shrugged her off his large hand caught her face.
In the kitchen she put coffee on and opened the book. This Darwinism assignment was the last of her first semester at the community college. Her professors put comments of praise on her papers, but it seemed to her they were surprised. The faces of her classmates said it all, a raised eyebrow here or there as she gave answers that only forty-seven years of living could provide. It was no different at the mall, where people would look at her with a kind of pity she hated, a woman who had once been pretty now hidden under a tough layer of skin and fat. Perfect strangers would stare at a life wasted as she led her gaggle of kids through the Northland Mall like a junior United Nations delegation, but without the dignitaries. Her kids were mostly brown-skinned like their fathers, and people wondered what had happened to that sad woman as she walked by holding the hand of a feeble little boy with the same milky complexion as hers.
She couldn’t stand it. She’d never asked anyone for anything. So when Desiree moved back in and could help out, Beth finally went back to school. She’d spent years taking her children to the county health clinic, researching their coughs and rashes because she distrusted the county doctors’ care. When she saw Pre-nursing in the community college bulletin, the decision was really no decision at all. Now, after almost two weeks of procrastinating, she had to turn in a five-page paper later that day.
She scrawled a few sentences in her notebook. The house was hushed. Desiree and the kids wouldn’t be up for another couple hours. Up until he was ten or so Johnny had been like most children in the neighborhood. He played the same childhood games they did with the fierce intensity required against combatants always bigger and darker. In a neighborhood that was almost all Blacks and Hispanics, Johnny would often come home bruised and bleeding. Don’t worry, the doctors at county health said to Beth’s questions about why he was so small and why he couldn’t sit still for more than ten seconds. He’s perfectly fine, they told her, just let him grow into himself.
He had grown into himself all right. It had started, or perhaps she had noticed it first, with his hands. Johnny had always had large solid hands. On a man they would have been comforting, protective. On a ten-year-old they looked comical. Protruding knuckles and long fingers, a profusion of veins, constant motion – thumping the table, turning over the salt and pepper, tugging at his sisters’ hair.
As a child of eleven he had come home from school one day with blood on his hands. Beth dropped the knife she was holding and ran over to him. “Johnny,” she said. “What happened, child?” His hands were sticky and red and smelled of iron. She shook him. Hard.
He looked at her. “What, Mama?” His eyes were vacant, searching. Beth held one of his bloody hands up before his face. “What is this?”
“Oh that,” he said.
“Of course that! What did you do?”Johnny balled the hand into a fist and then opened it, waggled the fingers. “I found a cat,” he said.
“What?” she shouted. He’d found a stray just hit by a car, picked the creature up and cradled it as blood poured from its small body.
“I thought I could save it,” he said.
Her son just shrugged. Beth finally dropped his hand. A chill ran over her scalp and puckered the loose skin on her arms. What was her son doing playing with a dead cat? “Go wash your hands,” she had said. Then, almost an afterthought as he went down the hall, “and throw that T-shirt away.”
Longhand, Beth wrote on the primacy of survival in animal behavior and dynamics. Those weren’t her words; she’d found them in one of the dusty books she’d checked out from the library. Everything an animal does, everything an animal is, it seems, is designed for the sole purpose of survival, both individual and species.
She looked at what she’d written. She wanted to throw it away and start over. In an hour the kitchen would hum with bodies, and shortly after that was work. What she had started would have to do, but when she put pen to paper again she found herself going in another direction. Humans, she wrote, defy this notion. We as a species speak to the fundamental breakdown of Darwinism, a species which has overcome its fate, can in many ways rewrite it.
She was a prime example, she thought. How she’d managed this long was sometimes beyond her. And if she wasn’t necessarily fit for survival, God only knows what so many others were doing. People who couldn’t even tie their damn shoes were having babies as she had. People with genetic defects and terminal illnesses were wheeled up ramps they couldn’t climb with their own two feet. People who couldn’t procreate in nature could do so in the lab, and pass their DNA on whether they should or not. There was even talk on the news the other day about a pill soon to be available that would let everyone live until they were ninety years old. No, this was not like any of the Darwinism she’d read about.
She mentioned the video the class had watched last week about lion prides in the African savanna. When an injured or sick member of the pride could no longer contribute, it limped off into the sunset alone, to die. Females mated with the dominant male, the one who had shown himself bigger and stronger than the others. Ironic. The lions who had fathered her children had almost all been large, strong and violent. Their contribution to species survival had ended with insemination, which to her didn’t seem the best way for ensuring survival but sure as hell was working for the lions. Afterwards they went about their way to lie in the grass and lick themselves, or find other males to fight or females to have sex with.
In a way Beth was thankful; her children were all hearty and robust. Except Johnny. His father had been a lonely man, quiet and unpredictable. Later, Beth would find that he’d never lived in any one place for longer than a year, including Detroit. Silent for days, evil burned behind his watery blue eyes. Johnny’s hands were his father’s – too large for his small frame and feminine shoulders. Hands that moved quickly and with dexterity. With them Robert had given Beth great, quivering pleasure as they rolled around in bed naked. One more than one occasion, they had also found their way to her throat.
Beth finished her paper on an image from the video that had been hanging on her for days. In the final scene a blind cub had been born. The mother cared for it at first but seemed to understand that the cub was crippled. The narrator remarked that researchers did not know how exactly, or when, the mother realized the cub was blind. She had some sixth sense. The mother took her cub out into the rippling grass far from the pride. The faces of Beth’s mostly female classmates, women of a different generation, flickered in the screen’s glow. Anguish pulled at their mouths. One woman with short blond hair and the face of a bird and who turned every class discussion into an argument on feminism, simply covered her eyes. Belt had felt part of what they felt, but watched the lioness with empathy, not sympathy, for she understood, but knew most human mothers would do no such thing. They would fight and scratch and claw, like lions, to do the opposite, to save something that perhaps they had no business saving, but couldn’t help themselves.
Beth turned back to the screen. In the distance the female was heading back to the pride. Slow plodding steps, a red sun large on the horizon above. From the abyss behind her the cub’s bleating rang across the plains. She did not look back.
Beth could understand that too, but that’s as far as it went. She’d kill over her children. She’d let herself die before she let anything happen to them that she could prevent. She put the pen down, exhausted but satisfied. Darwinism had been rankling her since they started the unit, and she felt better now that she’d washed her hands of it, even if the grade was probably going to be poor. She didn’t care. It seemed off to lump people in so completely with animals. Leaving children behind, she scoffed to herself, that’s just ridiculous.
Quick footfalls slapped down the back hallway. Baby stopped at the door, blinking in the yellow light, before hurrying up into Beth’s lap.
“What’s wrong, love?” Beth asked. Baby trembled, tiny fists clutching at her old nightshirt. Beth tucked the child’s head under her chin. The scent of sleep rose from her, and Beth stroked her hair.
“Mama’s here,” she said.
“I went to your room,” Baby said. “You weren’t there.”
“I’m right here. You have a bad dream?” The little head nodded between her breasts. “You want to tell me about it?” The head said no.
By degrees the trembling stopped and they sat in the quiet kitchen, the periodic click of the cheap clock marking time. Beth’s chest grew hot where her daughter’s warm breath collected in her shirt.
“Mama,” she said, face still buried.
“What is it, Baby?”
“Is Uncle Johnny gonna die?”
Beth exhaled. “Baby, he’s your brother, not your uncle. You know that.”
“I know. But is he?”
“Of course not. You know better than that.”
Her daughter tensed and Beth felt her little mouth open to ask another question. Exhaustion weighed on her like a wool coat. Even in his absence Johnny was having an effect. A seven-year-old, haunted by nightmares of her brother’s death. How had they gotten here?
Desiree came in, sleepy-eyed and yawning, thankful for coffee. Baby slid off Beth’s lap when her older sister said it was time to get ready for school. At the kitchen door she stopped and ran back. She reached her hands up to Beth’s face.
“It’s gonna be okay, Mama,” she said, a defiant child’s smile on her lips.
Beth kissed her and sent her to get dressed. While Desiree woke and fed the other kids, she got ready for work.
She’d had so many jobs over the years she couldn’t remember them all. She’d driven a bus for the city and later for the local school district, cleaned offices and delivered packages for DHL, held countless temping jobs, and for years had run a small unlicensed day care. But nothing had ever really allowed her to give up the government aid – chalky cheese and food stamps. Eventually she had to start hiding the food stamps. Johnny would steal them and sell them for twenty cents on the dollar to go buy drugs.
Today was the pet store, where she watched the register and cleaned cages, over on the East side near the community college. Outside, the remains of a fallen Detroit greeted her at every halting stop of the bus. Plots of land large enough for subsistence farmers held sprawling and abandoned houses captive behind rusted fences, unchecked weeds. The decay blurred together, and Beth dreamt about days when she could work for the first time as a professional, when she’d no longer have to clean up reptile shit to make ends meet.
Beth opened the store and got to work. Seven hours later she asked her boss to leave early. With a reproachful nod he agreed, and she went to type her paper. When it came time to hand it in, her walk to the front was slow. She avoided Professor Morehouse’s eye when she laid her paper on the pile with the others.
At the door to the apartment Beth stopped. The angry voices of her two oldest daughters clashed and tumbled out into the hallway. Should she just turn and go to the bar around the corner? Let them finish what they’d started? They were arguing about Johnny, same as always. As she walked into the kitchen the girls quieted into an uneasy truce. Dawn’s olive skin beamed crimson, Desiree’s seemed pallid. So much like twins when they were younger, the two couldn’t have been more different now.
“Hi Mama,” Dawn said first, her eyes still on Desiree.
“Well, it certainly is good to come home to my loving daughters.”
“You’re not going to believe this,” Desiree said. “But my sister just said she wanted to kill Johnny. And not in a joking way either.”
“Because of Thanksgiving?” Beth asked. Dawn vented often, and no one believed for a second that she meant it. But something in Dawn’s face hit Beth like a blow. She sank into the chair between them and touched the bruise. “Dawn wasn’t even here, and I told you all to just forget it,” she said quietly. “Johnny didn’t really mean it. It was an accident.”
Dawn snorted. “An accident. Right.”
“It’s got nothing to do with Thanksgiving,” Desiree said. “Tell her, Dawn.”
“He broke into my fucking house yesterday! While the kids were home. Scared the shit out of both of them. When I came home they were hiding in a closet.”
Beth sighed. Johnny was back already. Somehow she wasn’t surprised, but it made her want to just close her eyes all the same.
“But why would they hide in the closet?” Desiree asked. “They know Johnny.”
“Desiree, get a clue. They didn’t know it was him – none of us know him anymore. And that’s beside the goddamn point.”
Her eldest paused, studying her hands before talking again. “I understand. Lord knows I do. But Johnny isn’t right. Something’s wrong in his head. He needs help.”
Beth listened half-heartedly as her daughters tore into one another. Part of her left her body and rose up in the kitchen, looking down at the three of them separated by impossible distances in the tight room. The last time she’d ever held her son in her arms, he was fifteen and had crashed her car. At the hospital, Johnny swathed in bandages and sedated, she was able to cradle him in her arms. The doctors said he had a chemical imbalance, which was why he never seemed to sleep, always roaming the apartment at night like a spirit. They gave him medicine but he almost never took it, saying that the pills made him feel dead, and bloated, like a corpse fished from the river. After that he started to find his own medicines.
“What are we going to do?” Desiree asked.
“What can we do,” Dawn said. “We’ve tried everything. He’s been to jail three times, rehab. He’s crashed five damn cars. Seriously, five? Fucking unbelievable. He won’t take his medicine, quit the drugs, or go see his counselor. He’s made Mama broke trying to help him, and for what? She hasn’t had a car in years. She’s gotta take the damn bus everywhere.”
“Well, you certainly could’ve helped with that,” Desiree said. “You could’ve tried to do something.”
“I did try, just as hard as you. But I’ve got my own family, my own problems. I’m done trying.”
“He’s still your brother.”
“No,” Dawn whispered, “he’s not. I wish he’d just die already.”
“Are you out of your goddamn mind?”
Dawn’s head dropped. Beth’s heavy body shuddered. “Desiree, let your sister have her own opinion.” She put her hands on the table. “She’s got a right to that.”
No one spoke. Even the kids, who were probably hiding right around the corner, didn’t make a sound.
Dawn was the first to speak again, her voice echoing in the kitchen. “I just don’t understand. Why does he keep doing this to his own family? Why couldn’t he just do it to strangers?”
The next morning Beth’s heart pounded irregularly in the silence. She’d been having the same nightmare for years. She was lying on the beach, naked. Behind clouds the sun inched from east to west. A wave of cool water breaks over her toes and recedes. She starts to sink. Far along the beach a lone figure walks. Each wave breaks higher – kneecaps, then thighs, hips, stomach. The figure draws closer. A weight presses on her lungs as the water, now frigid, crashes down and submerges her – the rush of water in her ears and nose, faint taste of earth and iron at the back of her throat. Lake water. The wave recoils and rises again, towering at its highest point, then barrels down so quickly she has only a moment to scream before water fills her mouth. Then back in bed, awake, clutching at her chest.
She’d started having the dream around the time Johnny disappeared, two days after his twenty-first birthday. He still lived with them then, and when she came to the kitchen the morning of his birthday ready – like a fool – to bake his favorite German chocolate cake, he was asleep at the table. His face looked pummeled. Chances were good that under his jacket the shirt was blood-stained. She went to stroke his hair but stopped; something seized up in her chest and made her gasp. Later, he opened the envelope she gave him for his birthday to find a gift certificate to DJ’s Electronics. He’d seen all four of his older sisters get the money on their birthdays. She braced herself for fury that never came. The next night he vanished.
As far as she could tell he took nothing with him, and for the first few days she just figured he’d gone to a friend’s place. Within a week she was hovering by the phone, waiting as the police searched disinterestedly, endlessly twisting around her finger the old silver ring from her mother or cleaning the house over and over like a maniac until one of her daughters flipped. Mama, the place is freaking clean, she’d said, let it go! A month later the phone rang. One of the girls had poked her head into the kitchen and then picked it up, staring pensively at her. “Mama, why didn’t you pick up the phone?” Beth stared out the window until her daughter stopped asking. The next day Johnny was asleep on the porch, half frozen. He never spent another night in the townhouse.
Now he hadn’t even left town after what happened on Thanksgiving. He throws a bowl of gravy and hits his own mother, then breaks into his sister’s house while his own niece and nephew hide in the closet. It was almost too much. This, more than anything, made her want to stay in bed – all day.
Throwing back the covers, she creaked out of bed, brewed coffee and sat in the kitchen staring at the calendar. Desiree came in, filled her cup and sat across from her. “Jesus, Mama.”
Beth studied her oldest daughter.
“You look like you didn’t sleep a minute.”
“Why don’t you go back to bed? You’re off today, right? I’ll get the kids ready before I go to work. You rest.”
“Desiree, I’m fine.”
“Just get those kids up. It’s time they got ready for school. I’ll fix the lunches.”
Desiree hesitated, but her reluctance meant little to Beth. After breakfast, Desiree left with the kids. She was alone in the apartment. The walls seemed to close in, her heart forcefully resuming its irregular beat.
A knock at the door. It was Johnny, like clockwork. She tried to rise from the table, but her leaden limbs wouldn’t allow it. Johnny could let himself in. He always had.
“Hi, Mama,” he said from the doorway behind her.
Beth didn’t answer and he came around the table and sat next to her. It took a long time to get up the courage to look. Johnny was motionless. Even his hands had grown dull. They rested on the table, large skeletons of bone and sinew. He’d never really grown into them, but now they seemed lifeless, skin draped loosely over the knuckles, pockmarked with scars and scabs. Fingernails chipped and split and grimy. Veins that had seemed on the verge of bursting when he was younger were all but collapsed. Beth followed the dead tracks up his arms. Did he even have a jacket to protect him against the brutality of another Detroit winter?
She looked him in the face. He stared back from eyes hooded behind drooping lids.
“Mama, I need the money.”
She wanted desperately to believe this was not the voice of her child, her only son, a flat monotone run aground by traces of malice and desperation.
“Mama,” Johnny said again. His hands moved sluggishly over the table. “I need the money. It’s mine, you saved it for me. Please.”
There wasn’t an ounce of shame in his face. How could she have not at least taught him that? “Jonathan.”
She fought to control her voice, but it was no use. “How can you do this?”
He looked down at his hands.
“Look at me. I’m your mother. Look at me dammit! How could you? After all that we’ve been through.” She was screaming now. “You’re destroying us. You hear me? No, of course you don’t.”
Her son raised his head and their eyes met. Beth gasped and took a step back, her hand over her mouth. It wasn’t her son. His body resembled her son’s, so did his hands, the crooked slant of his mouth. But it wasn’t him. His eyes, oh God those eyes, were empty, soulless. He didn’t even recognize her. Nor she him.
She turned and went back to her bedroom. Johnny’s “where’re you going” trailed her down the hall. “Mama, I need that damn money,” he yelled. At the lamp she unscrewed the bulb socket and lampshade. In the recessed cavity the money had stayed hidden so well it was about the only thing Johnny hadn’t been able to steal. More than five hundred dollars in fives, tens, and twenties rested in her palm. The money didn’t seem like much balanced against the years.
In the kitchen she held the money out to him. For a moment the haze covering his eyes cleared and she could see surprise. “Take it, Johnny. It’s yours.”
He took the money gently. Once it was in his grasp he jumped up and wrapped his arms around her. “Thanks, Mama, thanks. Thanks, thanks, thanks. I won’t do nothing bad with it, I promise,” he said fiercely, his mouth next to her ear. He believed it, too.
“Mama, I gotta go meet some people. Thanks for this.”
“You’re welcome, Johnny.”
“Mama,” Johnny said. “I’m really sorry about hitting you. I don’t know why that happened. I didn’t mean it.” He put his hand to her cheek.
She thought she saw genuine sorrow in his eyes. For a moment she feared she’d given him the money too soon.
“I gotta go. I’ll be back soon, okay?”
Beth nodded faintly, her chin coming to rest on her chest. “Johnny,” she said quietly. He stopped. She walked to him and took him in her arms, rested his head against her chest and held him. Her lips found the top of his head as she stroked his hair. She held on as long as she could against the nervous energy swelling in him. With a final squeeze she let go.
Johnny walked to the door and stopped. “Bye, Mama.”
Then he was gone.
Monday two weeks later Beth sat in class, staring off into nothingness as Professor Morehouse droned on with his final lecture. Afterwards, his teaching assistant handed back the papers. Beth had forgotten. Hers felt heavy in her hand. Flipping to the last page she read Morehouse’s comments, scrawled in ink the bright red of oxygenated blood. He praised her work, and this praise was reflected in her grade, the highest, he said, of anyone in the class. It was clear, he said, that she understood the concepts of Darwinism as it related to evolution. Despite the praise, Beth couldn’t muster even the slightest sense of accomplishment. On her way out she stopped at the garbage can near the door. She held the paper in her trembling hand for a moment, then changed her mind and put in into her bag.
At home Desiree sat in the kitchen. “Hi, Mama. How was class?”
“Okay.” Beth eased herself into the chair at her daughter’s side.
“I guess Johnny forgot his birthday,” Desiree said quietly. “We won’t see him for a while, will we?”
“Probably not, child.” They hadn’t heard anything from him, and she hadn’t really expected to. Desiree sighed, and Beth reached out, put a hand over hers and squeezed.
“Mama, look,” Desiree said, nicking her chin at the clock. “Damn thing just stopped.”
Beth turned and gazed at the old clock, purchased at one of those dollar stores years ago.
“Batteries must’ve died,” Desiree said. “I’ll pick up some new ones tomorrow.”
Beth stood and pulled her chair over to the wall. Stepping up she gently took the clock off the wall. Dust and stickiness from years of kitchen grease had accumulated everywhere but the back. The dust covered her hands as Beth turned the clock over and smoothed her fingers across its face. She stared at the timepiece.
“Mama,” Desiree said. “What are you doing?”
“Forget it, child,” Beth said. “When I’m ready we’ll buy a new one. When I’m ready.” She walked over to the garbage and dropped the clock in. She ran her hands, gray and covered with dust, under water in the sink. The grime swirled round and round and down the drain. Bits of wet dust clung here and there to the chipped white porcelain. Not everything could be washed away.