Ellis straightened the picture of her youngest daughter Ayala, that hung just a head above the less than gently used tan pleather couch Ellis had purchased a month before.
She moved about the front of her modest home, adding vibrant purple and yellow flowers just bought from the dollar general on her way home from work, to translucent vases that sat squarely on one of the two black and mirrored end tables on either side of the tan couch.
The children would be home soon and she wanted everything to be just right.
Ellis thought Ayala might like the doll that was perched on the pillow in one of the bedrooms. Or maybe she was too old for that by now. Ellis shook the thought from her head before she really considered the possibility that her baby child could be too old for a doll.
The boys would surely enjoy the footballs, basketballs and bicycles that occupied the closets waiting for them.
Ellis moved through the narrow hallway and surveyed her preparations throughout the house. She paused facing the corner where the eating table was positioned. Five places were set with empty plates and cups. A glass pitcher with melting ice anchored the setting from the center of the table. Dinner would be ready soon. As familiar anxiousness began to flutter behind her navel, Ellis glanced at the clock on the wall. The dimming natural light from the window told her it was at least 6:00 PM and the clock confirmed. 6:02.
They could be there any minute.
Ellis peeked through the plain cream colored Venetian blinds out into the empty dusk. The neighborhood usually went silent at this time. Parents came home from work, children washed their hands, mothers made dinner and fathers listened to the news of the school day. The laughter that had danced freely up, down and across the neighborhood was now contained behind the safe walls of homes, embraced and shared only with those privileged enough to be in the presence of family.
Ellis sank onto the couch feeling her body slump into the plasticky smoothness of the material. She kicked off her shoes and flexed her toes before grabbing one foot then the other for a brief, yet intense massage. She placed her thumb in the arch of the foot and pressed down holding tightly with her other fingers, her thumb moved up then down several times. She then bent the toes back gently and moved to the right foot. After she had paid herself some attention, she leaned her head back and closed her eyes.
The tears reached her collarbone and slid beneath the gray stripped hard cotton shirt given to her as her cleaning uniform at the rehabilitation center. She imagined if someone loved her, they would have undone the buttons to that ugly shirt and drank the tears from her flesh. But no one did and no one did.
She raised her hand to her temples and pressed back determined strands of hair.
The children weren’t coming.
The flash of her lighter was faster than the clink of ice in the empty glass. She inhaled then exhaled the sting of bitter white smoke from a 305 menthol cigarette and turned on the stereo full blast. Etta James had gotten it right long before Ellis was born. Etta sang like she had carried and birthed Ellis into her blues. Everytime a song ended Ellis felt betrayed—longing. She hit replay a dozen times for “Come Rain or Come Shine” before she listened to “Sunday Love”. The sounds of “At Last” played in her subconscious tilting her between a dream and her own reality of an “At Last”. Most people thought that song was about lovers. But if you really listened—really, really listened, you knew it was about being a mother.
Dreams raced over the chips of ice resting in the glass of joy Ellis had consumed. She counted the time by the songs. Reality said it was nearly midnight. But Ellis could see the sun starting to go down again. Neighborhood laughter echoed. She could not see the children’s faces or their upturned mouths sending sound from smiles. It wasn’t their laughter. It wasn’t their childhood or even their neighborhood. She tilted between time watching herself ready for bed. Extra socks—two pair, panties, shorts, pajama pants, training bra, t-shirt, night gown and bathrobe. She was ready.
Sneaking through the hallway from the bathroom she edged into the bedroom she shared with her younger sister. Almost to bed, almost safe.
But she could never protect herself from her father. He always made a show of making fun of all the clothes she packed on. As if he didn’t know why. He made her take them off in front of her mother, commenting on the waste of laundry detergent. Mama always got mad. Mama always started fussing. Daddy always said “Go to your room and think about this, I’m going to come talk to you after I calm your mother down.
He gave mama her tea. Quieted her fussing and then he came for Ellis.
She could not protect herself from her father. Later, she could not protect her children from herself.
The dream tilted to reality as a pounding on the door woke Ellis from a rum-induced nap. She opened the door without thinking and faced the officers standing there. “Ma’am, another noise complaint. You gotta turn it down.” His face was kind, forgiving. He had been on her steps before. Once he sat with her for two hours listening to her music and her musings. “I ain’t got nothing better to do,” he had said. In the morning, she had felt covered in shame for sharing with a stranger. Embarrassed because she could not remember which secrets she had shared.
Exposed. She wanted to retreat to a space of nothingness. His partner was new. The annoyance showed on his face. That one time when the ambulance came she’d secretly hoped she wouldn’t survive. Desperately she was trying not to kill herself , but to cease feeling. Mute life.