2021 Write Now Winner - Adult
Though it is early, the humidity in Clarksville, Arkansas presses into my pores. Home hasn't changed in a decade's absence. A mourning dove's sorrowful call gilding the serenity seems fitting—Mama's dying; the first to grieve her passing have arrived.
Inside, the cloying cancer-sweetness takes my breath. I stand between Aunt Rae and Miss Neva from church, peering into the deep amber of the back bedroom at my frail mother, motionless in bed.
I bend low, kiss her papery forehead. Her eyes open.
"Mavis, child," she manages a shaky smile. "You doin' alright?"
"They say you a-singin' in Memphis. You any good?"
"I get by."
"Well then. I suppose I should, too. Rae, you open that window? I want to hear them doves cry when I fly 'way to Heaven."
She closes her eyes.
The dying is sudden. It feels like a cheat. Rae and the other ladies have been there since Mama's cancer got hard. They sent for me at the end, when Mama said little more than my name or Daddy's.
On the back porch, I find Daddy, his harmonica forgotten in one hand, the other covering his eyes.
I sit. He turns, wraps his skinny arms round me. I feel warm, as I have not in years.
"Play for me, Daddy?"
"Sing for me, girl."
Three days later, after services, Rae sits me down and says, "Mavis, don't leave mad at your mama."
"I ain't mad, Rae. I just...wanted warning, is all. Some time with her."
"She felt she done you wrong, Sis. She was 'shamed."
"Done me wrong how?"
"Couldn't get clean. Sending you away."
"Rae, you raised me right. You never spoke against her. Why'd she feel that way?"
Daddy's soft voice from the kitchen, "'Cuz she thought we made you be like us, and she wanted to save you, girl." He sits in the gathering gloom, guitar against his chest like a lover.
"What does that mean, Daddy?"
"You remember, don't you girl?"
"I don't, though."
"Child, I named you 'Mavis' 'cuz o' Miles Davis. I taught you to play, and Lord, you played. And sang, oh Honey. She come in that day, drunk as cats. She listen, then start howlin' and cryin'. She wanted to drag usÂ down to the church, pray the demons out."
I could remember being in diapers, sitting at his feet, watching his hands, putting together in my mind the sounds and positions of his fingers. I was five the first time he placed my own guitar in my arms.
'Don't tell your mama, she skin me an' you.'
I never knew why.
"Why did she hate the music, Daddy?"
"Oh, child, she din' hate it. She love it, just like you. Just like me."
"But—I do remember that night..."
Me and Daddy, playing and singing, and it felt just like fillin' my belly to beat hunger. Or sweet rain that breaks the thick heat of an Arkansas summer day. If I knew God as a child, it was through that music. And if I ever felt loneliness or want, the music came and soothed me down. We never played when Mama was around. She came home smellin' like men and booze. She'd feed me beans and cornbread, chide Daddy, and sleep.
But that night, she entered quiet. She must've stood for some time—listening, watching us—because the tears had run down her face, down her neck, wetting her blouse. Lord, so many tears. And when we slid into the last notes, her hand slammed on the table. The salt and pepper shakers jumped and rolled to the floor.
'How could you do it, Amos? How? You want this for her? Is that it? Gonna kill that child, gonna make her pay for your sins, and mine. And all's I can do is watch it happen. Well no SIR!'
There was more yelling, and hitting—she hit him, he pushed her, his guitar hit the ground. I picked it up, cradled it with my own, took them to the bedroom as my parents' war raged behind me. I fell asleep lying between our guitars. In the morning, Rae shook me awake. She already had my few possessions in a sack.
'Come on, Mavis, we have to go.'
'No, Rae! Where are Mama and Daddy?'
'They asked me to take you with me, for a spell. Just for a spell.'
The spell became fifteen years. I saw Mama twice and Daddy just a little more than that.
"Yes, that happened," Daddy says, his eyes tired and sad. He stands and walks away, but returns with a flat package wrapped in old yellow paper. He hands it gently to me.
I open the paper. Inside is an old vinyl record album. On the cover is a pretty woman, her hair smoothed down into a thick bun, head back, wailing into a big old microphone. Behind her, a man bends over his guitar, eyes downcast, the concentration in his hands and face a part of the music I swear I could hear. I stare, uncomprehending.
"Don't you know them?"
"I...can't say I do."
The faces are young, full of life and music. But then, I could see it. In the curve of her jaw, and the shape of her eyes. Mama. And behind her, my Daddy's fingers playing.
I see the rest of the story, written in his lined brown face, his sad eyes. I vaguely recall tracks on his arms, her shaking hands, strange men, and the music. I remember too few meals and baths before living with Rae. I know why she took me, kept me safe as they disintegrated at a distance.
Twilight descends, Daddy picks softly in the kitchen, me and Rae sit on the porch. The dove calls, and my heart knows it's Mama, her pentatonic cry a last desperate embrace. Daddy's notes swirl around us, rendering beauty from remorse; I sigh, then join my voice to theirs.