Momma took the hot water from the stove and poured it into the tub. My naked backside got splashed, and I tried to shield myself from Momma’s bad aim and evil eye.
“Ouch…That’s too hot.”
“Boy hush!” she said.
It really wasn’t that hot. I was cranky because she’d waken me up earlier than usual. She was in a foul mood this morning and grumbled about Mr. Hall and his trifling ways.
“Paying rent on time and I gotta deal with this bullshit.”
I was hardly affected by her bad words, distracted by make believe goblins in the bathwater. Momma washed her fancy outfits with Woolite by hand in this tub. This morning, she washed me. I felt special, and I kicked at the rising circle of bubbles that threatened to suffocate me.
“Momma, is Mr. Hall gonna fix the hot water today?” I wondered aloud.
I’d learned not to question Momma about such things, but the words just slipped out. I braced for her reply. She didn’t like Mr. Hall. She’d called him an old gray fossil, and when I asked her what a fossil was, she pinched my ear and told me to stay out of grown folks’ business. She was liable to do anything this time as I stood naked and helpless in the tub.
“You just worry about getting yo butt ready for school” she said. Her eyes were jagged little slits and she dried me off with my favorite towel.
Cloaked in blue terry cloth, I was a superhero, and I flew away from Momma’s dire mood. The sight of my school uniform, laid out and ironed on the bed, snapped me out of make believe.
I put on my school clothes and rushed back to Momma. I burst through the bathroom door to show her what I had done.
“Hold up little man,” she said. She spun around and her eyelids fluttered like butterflies. She fanned the air between us and stuffed a glass wand in the pocket of her robe. Her reflection was contorted, and I could see phantoms in the cloudy white smoke between us.
“Will you zip me up, baby?” She asked.
I was a good boy and happy to be Momma’s helper.
“Go get my black boots...”, she said. Her bedroom was a mystical place, and her approval to go and explore there sent me running. I almost fell headfirst in all the clutter.
I could barely see anything beyond the heavy purple drapes that barricaded the room. I smelt heavy traces of Momma in there, maybe from the wardrobe of clothes that covered the floor. I found her black boots and saw gray shadows that covered Momma’s linen like spider webs.
Had the lump under the sheets moved?
“Boy, what you looking at?”
Momma stood in the doorway. Her skimpy dancer clothes made her look like my big sister. She snatched the boots. A sudden whack upside the head dropped me to the floor.
I wanted to say I couldn’t find them, but I rubbed the growing welt on the side of my head instead. I choked back a floodgate of tears.
Momma navigated the ride to school in silence. She drove so fast that our neighborhood whirled by the car in dingy shades of gray. Shadows waved at me as we sped past. I wished for a chance to stay at home with Momma and never let go.
“Be good,” she said and covered my cheek with luscious kisses. I rubbed the wetness from my face and waved goodbye to Momma as she sped away.
I sulked across the playground to the swings beneath the school’s windows. Only a few children were here, and the school yard was quiet. Without the laughter of children and the eyes of chaperons, I wondered why I deserved to be there alone. I felt the tender spot on my head that Momma made.
“You want to fly like Superman?”
The monkey bars across from me were abandoned now. A man had been sitting there when Momma dropped me off. I had tried not to feel him watching me from behind his dark glasses. Now he was in the swing next to me. His shadow was like a grave on the ground.
“I got a cape that can make me fly,” he said, and I remembered my bath that morning when I ran through the house in my blue terry cloth towel.
“For real? I wondered aloud
“Will you show me how?”
When he grabbed my arm as if to say yes, his hands were cold, and he had a twisted little grin.
I heard Momma, her voice weak and listless like someone else’s.
“Officer, please call me,”
The closing door canceled her longing. Momma stood for a moment before she slid to the floor in a heap. She was crumpled, like a shattered doll, thrown against the ground. Softly I tiptoed to the windows beside her and watched the detective leave our building. He walked to his squad car and the trail of smoke and taillights disappeared like bloody footprints into the night. Momma paced from room to room and I felt helpless to sooth her. She already knew I was gone.
Her heavy purple drapes were open, and the room welcomed the twilight. Lamp light shimmered on sparkling new clothes that covered her bed. Toys and games lay in bags, unopened and waiting for my return to her.
She lingered in the mirror, her mind a million miles away and I watched her, trapped by her beautiful reflection.
“I love you, Elijah,” she said. My eyes locked on hers. When she smiled, I crept out of the shadows. Her love for me was the bond that kept my spirit near.
“Who they looking for Momma,” I asked. I was transfixed by the beautiful delicate things on her bed.
Her face betrayed a hint of fear as she waved away my voice in her head.
“Where my baby at?” she muttered to herself, over and over.
I sprung up to dance with the frilly tags and tissue paper that fell as she dressed and redressed in all the new outfits she had bought. She was the prettiest dancer I had ever seen.
The clammy basement under Momma’s apartment where Mr. Hall slept until noon smelled musty and dank. It stank of decaying fossils and dead things. The antiquated water heater still bellowed and moaned. It made awful noises that disturbed Momma and the dreams she had of me. She seldom had a restful sleep, disturbed by the guilt over her shortcomings.
I knew Momma’s restlessness would bring her downstairs.
She searched the clammy basement walls for a light switch, and fumbled in the darkness, as I stood right there watching her. She had a flashlight, but the sliver of light didn’t help much. Her face was streaked with salty tears and she was determined to find the source of the wailing. The low pitch grumble had ebbed and flowed and woke her up.
She froze when she saw what I had hidden. She hadn’t seen it, or me since that morning in the iron tub. But I was still with her. Her little man would never leave.
Pristine among the cobwebs and the filth was my favorite blue terry cloth towel. I folded it the way she taught me and spread the smell of bubble bath within the soft cotton fibers.