by Shelagh Smith
Mama always said he was a bad man, bad enough to make a good woman do bad things, but I never saw him that way. To me, he was just Pa, just the old man Mama had married “way too young.” At least that was what she always said.
I’d come to love him as best I could, even when his face got red and his hands balled into fists that were sure as shit coming toward me. I’d been knocked down a time or two, and pretty soon I learned to stay down because getting up only made him madder. If I stayed down, eventually he’d say, “Aw, Charity honey, why’d you go and make me so goddamned mad,” and I never had an answer for that. I figured it was because Mama had taught me to be still and silent and let the red rage flow out of him until it was gone.
Shame it was never gone for good.
*** *** ***
“Charity, get your ass in here.”
Mama’s voice cut through the noise of the car chase on some old detective show playing in reruns on some oldies channel. I knew right away she was mad, but her mad was a lot different than Pa’s. Her mad was sneaky like a snake, waiting and hiding, and ready to spring up when I least expected.
I crawled off the sofa, picking red pills of fabric off the faded flowers as I went. I trudged into the kitchen and found her sitting at the table. An empty beer bottle sat by her hand and her eyes were tiny slits. My backside started to sting in anticipation.
“What you been doing after school?” she demanded, and I felt heat come up into my face.
“Don’t you ma’am me. You been running around with that Charlie boy?”
“No, ma’am,” I said, not because I hadn’t wanted to, but because he was a full year older than me, a junior, and had older girls – faster girls – chasing him. He didn’t know I existed.
Her hand rummaged through a pile of laundry, half-folded in a stack on the chair. She pulled out a pair of my underwear, white cotton with tiny blue flowers. They were far from new but still had some wear left in them. She shook them at me.
“There’s nothing you want to tell me? Nothing at all?”
The words choked up in my throat, and my face got hot.
Why’d you go and make me so goddamned mad?
“Oh, Charity,” she whispered, and her eyes turned shiny. Her lip trembled, and she covered her face with her hands. “What have you gone and done?”
I shook my head. “I ain’t done nothing. I swear it.”
“Fast girls go down bad roads. You know that. You know that!”
But I’m not a fast girl, Mama, I wanted to say, but those words jammed up inside and they were a lie too, I supposed, in their own way.
“Get outta here,” she muttered, and her voice was high and tight. “I need to think on this.”
I went back to the living room and stared at the TV until Pa came home, and when he walked through the door, Mama called out, “Paul, get in here. We need to talk.”
His eyes rolled up to the ceiling as he put his toolbox down near the door, and with a sigh like a man going to his execution, he went to Mama in the kitchen.
*** *** ***
I heard them in the night, mostly because the walls of our trailer were so thin, but also because all the windows were open against the sticky night air. Their room was next to mine and if they tried to hide what they did, they did a bad job of it.
The mattress groaned under them and I rolled away from the sound, staring at the old ragdoll my nana had made for me when I was little. I never knew my nana, but Mama said she was a hard woman with no love of Pa or her or even my original dad who was long gone to parts unknown. I didn’t know if it was true, because the doll’s smile was as sweet as any I’d ever seen.
“What is it?” I heard Mama ask.
“Aw, shut up,” he answered, and a minute later I heard Mama crying. I heard the bed creak again, heavy footsteps in the hall and then the bathroom. When he came back, Mama had stopped crying.
“If you’re not getting it from me, you’re getting it somewhere.”
I felt my guts twist, heard Pa’s words and felt the sting of his belt.
Why’d you go and make me so goddamned mad?
“I’m not getting it nowhere. Jesus, woman, I don’t want to come home to this every night!”
The sound of a slap cracked through the night and for a minute I thought he’d hit her, but then I heard her panting and struggling and knew it was her who’d struck first. I listened to them tussling, felt the shaking of the house under each of their blows, and then it was over with the thick meaty sound of a fist against flesh.
“Goddamnit, Lyddie, why’d you make me do that?” shouted Pa.
She didn’t answer. She didn’t have an answer.
But I did.
And it made me ashamed.
*** *** ***
Mama’s face was swelled up like a balloon the next morning, only it wasn’t a happy balloon like you get on your birthday. This was an ugly balloon, purple and blue with green around the edges. I tried not to stare at it as she handed me foil-wrapped pastry for breakfast.
“You get home right after school,” she ordered, and of course I did, but when I got home, she wasn’t there. The house was empty.
I sat on the sofa, turned on the TV, and waited.
Pa came home first, his face dirty and sweaty from a long day on the site, and his eyes narrowed when I looked at him. I supposed I looked guilty.
“Where’s your Ma?”
“Where’d she go?”
“I don’t know,” I answered.
He went down the hall and I heard the bathroom door shut and the shower come on. I had just opened my book, a dog-eared story about a girl and her horse I got from the second-hand bin at the library, when the front door opened. The smell came in before Mama, stinging my nose and making my eyes water. I wondered why the red plastic can in her hand didn’t make her eyes run too, but was afraid to ask. She had a grim set to her mouth, like she was about to do something she didn’t want to do, like hanging out the laundry, or talking to the landlord about the bad running water or the leaky ceiling. Didn’t seem right that the water came in so easy through the roof, but so hard through the pipes.
“Go on outside,” she said, and the way she said it made my throat close up before I could ask why. I took my backpack and my book about the girl and her pony and went.
I stood in the shade of the old willow tree near the driveway, looking at Pa’s old truck and wishing I was old enough to drive away. A few minutes later, Ma came out, but this time her hands were empty. She stood beside me and together we heard the whoosh! from inside the trailer. I thought I heard her make a sound, a tiny little cry, but it was hard to hear over the sound of flames chewing up all we had, and over that was the sound of Pa’s voice, yelling for me, for my Mama, for anyone.
I took a step forward, not sure what I was going to do, what I could do, but Mama’s hand was on my shoulder, nails digging into me like bird claws.
“Mama,” I said, and she shushed me with one word: “No.”
Soon Pa’s hollering faded into nothing, and the only sound left was the crackling of our old lives being eaten up.
“He was a bad man, Charity,” she said. “And I guess I’m no better.”
I looked at her then, thinking I would tell her it wasn’t true, that she was a good Mama, but I guess deep down, I knew it was a lie, and there’d been enough of those.
Tears leaked down her face, over bruises she’d tried to hide with make up too thick to be natural, and she lifted her hand to wipe them away with my white cotton panties speckled with red that had gone brown as dirt.
Shelagh Smith teaches writing at Massachusetts Maritime Academy and Bridgewater State University. Her previous publications include Tales of Sleigh House 2022, New England’s Best Crime Fiction 2017 and 2018, Embracing Writing, Don’t Forget About the Adjuncts, and Tempest. She is the winner of the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery award, and lives in a tiny village on Cape Cod with her husband and two ungovernable dogs.