by a contributor
Mama was two kinds of ugly. When she got mean and yelled at me, up close in my face, I could see the ruptured veins around her twice-broken nose, under her too-thin skin. Tiny red snakes she couldn’t shoo away. Mama’s demons began in her face. After Daddy was gone for good, they seeped down deep into her bones, invoking squatter’s rights. She had always known what she was. Daddy leaving us girls early on allowed her to embrace her true self. It took me longer to feel the hunger I was meant to inherit. I was born with Daddy’s face, but I was seventeen years old when I first felt mama’s ugly creep into me. Right after she got her nose broken for the third time, breeding more ugly for us to share.
Mama and her latest beau were sitting intertwined at the dinette.
“I’ve been thinking about getting us a motorcycle,” he said. He caressed her just above her knee, just below a section of purple- and green-tinged skin. Motor oil embedded his nails. Mama’s eyes twinkled in her teasing way. I sat opposite their lover’s knot, largely ignored. When Mama had a man over, I was part of the scenery.
“Why would you want to get one of those?” she asked in a high girlish voice. She wrinkled her nose and her veins resituated.
“I wanna feel the curves of the road. Lean into them. Real gentle at first. Then real swoopin’ fast.” He moved his hand to her inner thigh. She swatted it away.
“If you wanna fuck a road, just stick your dick in a pothole and be done with it,” she giggled. Mama was fluent in the crude language of the men she tried to seduce. His eyes narrowed and he whacked her square on her face. Her head snapped back and blood immediately started flowing from her nose. Her laughter stopped, but she didn’t cower. She just smiled and started singing. Then she lunged.
I could tell Mama was calling to the wrong kinds of people. She was singing her siren song to untamed men, swarthy, with thick leather belts and perpetual five o’clock shadows. Men who learned to take up more space than they needed. I started to make friends with lonely women, so eager to give a piece of themselves to a wide-eyed stranger with a sympathetic heart. Women who hardly took up any space at all. I met them on park benches, the late night bus route, the frozen section of the grocery store. Then I met them in more private places.
My first was Anne. Anne stood at a stooped 5'4" and wore a beige jumper. She told me she didn’t live alone; she lived with her two dogs. Her babies, she called them. We met in the bakery aisle. Her husband had left her, so she’d decided to indulge herself. We became fast friends in the harsh fluorescent light. She even gave me the recipe for Pearl’s Perfect Pie Crust.
“Pearl was my mama,” she later told me, through sobs. We had relocated to a dank motel room after she offered me a piece of her pie. She said her mama knew better. That she was always right about that man that left her.
“I know about men up and leaving. Same thing happened with me and my mama,” I offered. I finished fussing over my reflection in the dusty mirror and turned to face her. “You know… you can really only trust yourself these days.”
Anne pulled her hands from her face. Her eyes widened as her grief migrated into fear. She had realized she was alone with me. A stranger. She looked at me now, hard and awake, but I cooed and crooned to her the way I learned from watching Mama. Singing and swaying, I lured her back in with the promise of being fixed, feeling young, and standing tall. As I moved closer, the smell of dog on her coat grew stronger. I could feel the ugly coursing through, growing stronger as well. Tiny snakes in my veins that I welcomed in. I reached out and brushed back her hair as she calmed and murmured, “I’ve never done this before.” I laughed lyrically and beamed. I was new to this too. I licked my lips and wondered who would feed her babies that night when she didn’t come home.
Diana Mumford lives in Charlottesville, Virginia with her loving plant, Merle. She is currently working on a collection of multimedia and short fiction companion pieces.
See Diana’s list of 5 Things tomorrow in our ongoing contributors’ series.