My daughter looks old older than I can believe older than I can bear when she says Mother what’s wrong but I can’t answer because I’m stuck. It keeps happening where I’m going along and all of a sudden my body freezes and my heart bangs hard in my chest like a wild caged thing and all because I’ve felt that old familiar fear lurking beside me like when I was a girl and the year was nineteen-thirty-something and the north part of town wasn’t town yet but still the country with its unpaved roads and the forest all around and I’d walk down to the little shed barn my daddy nailed together for the old sway-backed pony named Peanut who our neighbors gave us out of desperation when they couldn’t pay to feed him and I’d be tromping through the leaves and hear a rustle not made by me and know for certain I’d disturbed a sleeping snake.
Of course I know my fear in this white-lit doctor’s office with nurses chattering fast and mashing their words together into some new language I can’t decipher isn’t a real snake beside me but it feels the same feels like I’ve heard the whispered movement of a sleek cord of flesh and bone and cold tiny heart draw itself up into a shape like a white frothy river winding between high green mountains.
Mother is this another episode Susan says and I say Hush honey gimme me a minute but that’s not what Susan wants to do so she says Momma they’re calling you back to see Doctor Simmons so let’s try walking this way and she leads me by the elbow gentle and sweet and my feet move but every step hurts me every step sends a rushing through my ears like I’m fixing to plant my heel down upon something venomous.
Susan holds a door open and pulls me through it and sits me down in a room with white walls and white linoleum floor and two red chairs to wait for the doctor who walks in asking And how are we today Mizz Ruth asking all manner of questions for Susan to answer because I cannot right now.
It’s as if I’m not even in the room with them like I’m walled off alone or more like they’re just a couple of folks in black and white on a television set with poor reception and the scratchy static’s louder than their voices but just as quick as the fear came on it disappears and here I am snapping back into focus answering Doctor Simmons myself acting normal just grinning and saying Real nice to see you again Doc.
Susan and I make our way out and I climb into the passenger seat of her shiny red Mustang and once we’re both in she says I don’t understand what these episodes are Momma and because no other way of explaining it has ever gotten through to her I decide to tell her exactly what’s going on when I balk and panic.
Tell her everything.
My fear is serpentine I say and she says Mother what in the world does that mean and I say My fear feels like I’ve spotted a snake or haven’t so much spotted one as sensed its mean evil self beside me sensed its weight mashing down the grass and its breaths and that forked tongue flicking out and its nostrils and slit eyes and if I move it’ll strike so I wait quiet and still honey still as a stone until I know that snake has uncoiled and slid away and then I too can move along.
Susan stares at me with her own fear in the dark eyes she got from her daddy. The skin all around those eyes wrinkles up making her look old old so terribly old and she says fast Mother what are you talking about what are you scared of?
I look at her real hard and say Honey I’m trying to explain an unexplainable thing and she says I’m so confused and I say Me too but all my life I’ve had this fear that creeps up whenever the world starts moving too fast around me and I don’t know how to slow it down or when I don’t know how to answer a question or when I can’t figure the series of steps I need to take to get a thing done and my body just freezes.
Susan says How long has this been going on and I say Long as I can remember and she says But I don’t think I’ve ever seen it ‘til recently.
Here’s where I know I’ve got to be careful explaining.
Ought to be careful but I’m not sure how so what I say is Why do you think the sound of ice clinking in a lowball glass reminds you of me and why do you think I’ve kept three fingers of gin and five ice cubes clutched in my palm any hour of the day and she says You’ve been self-medicating all this time and I say Cut it out with the lingo sugar and she looks away.
Once she’s done sulling up at me she turns back and says You’ve been self-medicating and I poured all your gin down the drain and now but I cut her off to say Yes and now that old fear’s coming through full force instead of foggy and whispered and damned if it doesn’t seem a thousand times worse this way but I’m not blaming you honey I’m not blaming you not entirely.
She says Momma how many drinks do you really have every day and I figure I may as well tell her the truth.
Tell her everything.
Four on a good day but maybe eight on a bad one maybe more if I’m being real honest.
I’m getting worked up again feeling that snaky rustle in my ears that electricity down in the roots of my teeth and the jangling rhythm of my poor old heart so I press my palms together like a prayer braid my fingers press until my arms shake and quiver and Susan’s saying something but I can’t hear her over the roar of that serpent crashing through brown dried leaves and pine straw just writhing around and raring back fangs dripping . . .
Susan wipes her eyes and looks away looks out at the dogwoods blooming white across the parking lot with her hands shaking there on the steering wheel and I know I’ve gone and done it I’ve gone and shown her just how crazy I am and for sure she’s going to run straight to management and tell them it’s time to move me to the wing of this old folks’ home where they put you in a diaper and lock your door from the outside like putting you in the looney bin like Mother and Daddy did to Johnny back in 1939 when he was freshly a teenager and I was just a girl and he’d try throwing himself in front of cars trucks busses anything big and hard and fast and all these years I’ve tried to hide my own crazy behind a booze haze but here I am pushing ninety and the truth’s finally coming out but I just can’t get locked up like that even if it’s God punishing me for being so secretly glad any time Johnny got put away because it meant Mother and Daddy and I could sleep all through the night and not be woken up by Johnny screaming nonsense into the dark and I say Susan don’t you dare lock me up over there don’t you dare.
Susan says Mother nobody’s locking you up and I say You act like you were born yesterday born a fool born something because everyone knows how quick they are here to lock a body up if it doesn’t act the way they think it ought.
I’m getting worked up again feeling that snaky rustle in my ears that electricity down in the roots of my teeth and the jangling rhythm of my poor old heart so I press my palms together like a prayer braid my fingers press until my arms shake and quiver and Susan’s saying something but I can’t hear her over the roar of that serpent crashing through brown dried leaves and pine straw just writhing around and raring back fangs dripping and finally I hear something over the din and it’s Susan saying Momma Momma shhh and she’s got a hand on my arm not moving just placed there so gentle and I snap out of it and say I’m sorry baby that one came on quick and hard.
She takes me back to my little room full of my favorite pieces of furniture from the house where she and Slim and I lived all those many years until Susan moved out and Slim passed on and I got too damn old to keep rattling around in it all by my lonesome.
That tall wiry sliver of a man I married at seventeen.
I made one living baby with him but before Susan it was four babies in a row who grew awhile and then fell right out of me just little bunches of cells but Slim never was mad just black dark sad right along with me like he’d been the one to pass those unformed bodies from his own body until finally we both said No more but then here came Susan our miracle girl who I didn’t treat like much of a miracle most days.
Decades decades all the many decades with Slim by my side holding my hands when they shook helping hide what I am from little Susan and everybody else in this big fast hard world until those damn Marlboros turned his lungs black as coal and the doctors laid him up in the hospital and pumped him full of killing chemicals and his hair fell out and I held his hand and Susan’s too but there wasn’t a damn body left to hold my hands so I held the bottle and the glass tighter than ever before and then it came time to put my Slim in a box in the damp dark ground and I threw my body across that box and wept and acted a fool in front of the whole funeral and they had to pull me off and wrap arms around me to make me stop beating against the air screaming Slim don’t you leave me take me with you I can’t be here all by myself I can’t do any of this without you.
Susan squeezes my shoulder and I realize I’m standing in the dim entryway just swaying with my face all wet from crying and she says Momma were you thinking about Daddy and I say I sure was honey I sure was and she says Why don’t you lay down and I’ll run grab something to fix for dinner and I say That’s good sweetheart and she takes my hand and pulls back the white covers on my bed and I sit on the edge while she takes my shoes off and then I lean and fold my old body up and shake my head against the pillow when she says Now hang on don’t you want to get out of those clothes?
No ma’am I say I’ll sleep fine just like this and Susan says Alright Momma you rest here and I’ll be back in half an hour.
She’s gone and I’m laying abed waiting to drift into sleep and what do I hear but Slim’s voice calling me saying Come on out here and sit with me you pretty thing so I rouse myself and untangle my feet from the covers and put them on the carpet which is blue like the sky in summer the day after a storm and then I don’t know what’s happening.
World’s gone black.
Now Susan’s hollering Momma Momma can you hear me and I say Of course I can you’re hollering right in my ear and she says Oh thank God you fell and hit your head and we’re gonna have to get you to the hospital now and I say You’d better take me to the good one.
I did not know how much they strap you down on that bed to roll you on an ambulance.
I did not know it would feel like a straightjacket like the one they put on Johnny the time he came flailing at our mother fit to crack her skull open and screaming words that were not words and me cowering in the corner while the nurses and guards held him tight and stuck his skinny arms down in that white jacket and tightened the buckles and after a while he whispered It’s like giving myself a hug then he smiled cold at me and said You little bitch you get to walk out of this place and I cried and cried like a baby in my ignorance so Mother and Daddy quit making me go see Johnny until the next time he felt better and came home with his tail between his legs so sorry for his wildness and here I am now the one restrained crazy strapped to this bed with the wheels on it and these men watching me and I ask where my Susan is and they say Right behind us in her car ma’am.
Then I hear the faintest crackle and I go stiff and push against the straps around me but then I see the restraints are snakes all over me so I scream and beat against them but I can’t hardly move and the men are holding me down now and the snakes are ringed around my waist arms legs squeezing squeezing squeezing to kill me to punish me for Johnny for the babies I lost for every cigarette I let Slim smoke for the times I slapped Susan hard across her face and told her she wasn’t too bright I’m sorry sorry sorry I’m so sorry for all my meanness I yell and then I whisper Tell her everything.
I blink once it seems and I’m in a new place.
A square room.
White walls white ceiling stagnant air scent of bleach machines beeping and humming all around the crook of my elbow itching and a woman says Mother don’t scratch the IV and I look at a face I do not know and ask it Who in hell are you?
Woman smiles mournful saying Momma it’s me it’s Susan but I don’t know a Susan never met a Susan need to get this strange Susan away from me.
Help help fire I yell over and over until a new face appears this time a dark one saying It’s alright now Mizz Ruth there’s no fire here and a hand touches my arm wraps around my wrist dark against my skin another snake Lord another one so I dig into its middle until I draw blood saying Get off me you old snake get off and don’t come back you mean old thing and now it’s all people shouting and hands holding me down and some shrill woman saying I’m so sorry I’m so sorry she doesn’t know what she’s doing.
My eyes close and all I see is black with spots glowing faint until I don’t even see those anymore.
Susan honey is it daytime or nighttime I say and Susan hops up from her chair and says You recognize me Momma and I say Of course I do honey just tell me if it’s day or night and she says Daytime and I say Coulda sworn it was dark out but then I have no idea how long I’ve been here wherever here is and I say Day or night doesn’t matter I’ll always know my own baby girl but now I recall meeting a woman named Susan who was not my daughter but a stranger and I begin to wonder why that new Susan came to see me and then I figure out the whole damn thing.
They’re watching me plotting roaming the halls.
They stare in while I sleep gathering evidence to put me away and if I don’t do something about it they’re gonna lock me up for sure so I’ve gotta leave this place before they put the jacket on me gotta walk out of here while I still can so I ease my feet over the edge of the bed and stand but I can’t stand I’m on the floor again a whirlwind of bodies voices lights above me arms lifting me back in the bed where my eyes close again again again.
Momma I’m so sorry.
Momma I love you.
Momma come back to me.
Who’s saying these words?
My eyes don’t want to open.
I make them.
Susan I say and she lifts my hand kisses the palm and her lips are warm her eyes red-rimmed and she says Momma hey Momma how you feeling?
I’m alright I say.
I’m sorry I say.
Susan says What for Momma?
Lord honey all of it Johnny and Mother and Daddy and Slim and all the mean times between you and me when the gin flowed thin through my veins and for all the many ways I’ve been bad and wrong for ninety years I say.
She leans over me lavender smell brown hair leans tells me to rest doesn’t forgive me just tells me to rest so I do I do I close these eyes I see pictures on the backs of them like a movie I see Slim and I see Johnny and Susan and Mother and Daddy and the four babies my body broke and smothered but these babies I see are not broken not smothered but whole beautiful pale grinning singing Momma Momma Momma I take them in my arms the babies and all the rest Momma Momma.