Are You My Mama?
by Judy Alexander
All the times I tried so hard to keep the growing babies inside me, even one time I was pregnant with twins, I always willed my body to hold tight to the growing infant. But it never worked, my body always pushed too early. But this time, when I will my body to push out the intruder, it refuses. I imagine my cancer ball, growing rounder and bigger like a baby, interfering with my internals. It eats all the food I need to survive. My neighbor Missie says people with cancer die of starvation ’cause the cancer eats up all their nutrition. She says if she gets cancer, she’ll just eat and eat so there’s food enough for her and the tumor both.
I try to do this, but the tumor’s wily. It allows me to eat a little, then it presses down hard, so my bowels turn to mush and all my undigested food comes out diarrhea. Then I’m so nauseous, I lose my appetite altogether.
That tumor’s a little monster with evil intents. It likes to eat off me when I’m fully conscious. That’s why it wakes me up in the middle of the night by twisting deeper and deeper into my bowels. Sometimes I can outsmart it. If I wait to go to sleep until eleven, an hour after my normal bedtime, when I’m so groggy I can barely keep my eyes open, then I can drug the monster with a dose of pain killer. The monster won’t wake me up again until three in the morning, so that I can get almost four hours of sleep at a time. Then I try to drug the monster again with another dose of painkiller. Sometimes it works, and I can sleep for another two hours, but most times the monster wakes up so angry that I deprived him of his night meal that he begins biting into my intestines with a vengeance. Those mornings I double up on my pain medication and scramble to my rocker before I collapse. I try to read my Bible, and if I can’t focus on the words, I just hug my Bible and cry, Dear Jesus, Dear Jesus. And sometimes Jesus answers, and I fall asleep again in the chair. And sometimes Jesus holds my hand but doesn’t silence the monster, and I’m still sitting in the chair when Tony gets up at five-thirty, and he makes me some breakfast, and I try to eat before the monster gives me diarrhea again and I have to wobble to the toilet.
I feel better when Tony gets up, after I’ve had a bad night, though I can’t tell him. When I see him, first thing I start complaining. I says, “How can you sleep like a rock? Don’t you hear me out here moaning?”
“You could have woke me up,” he says.
“You need your sleep,” I says, and the words should sound loving, but they come out harsh, like he’s too old to need that much sleep, like his sleeping is a sign of weakness, as if I’m Jesus, saying to the sleepyhead disciples, “Couldn’t you watch with me for just one hour?”
* * *
Laurelle picked up the phone at work. The soft, weak voice on the other end of the line caught Laurelle off guard. This was the first time Rhoda had ever phoned her. The voice didn’t seem to belong to the strong-presenced woman Laurelle visited one or twice a week. “Tony’s gone, and the birds outside the window is scolding me.”
“You mean your canary?”
“Them wild birds. There’s no food in the feeder.”
“Do you want me to bring you some?”
“Could you, darling? There’s the sparrows and mockingbirds, and one blue jay. I had a white dove yesterday. If I could just lay here and watch them eat, I’d be fine. I’d be more than fine.”
Laurelle left Alfonso in charge and headed for the grocery store. She knew the end was coming. How long Rhoda had, she had no way of knowing. She could see that Rhoda’s life wouldn’t wrap itself up neatly at the end. Rhoda wouldn’t get to see her granddaughter. Her dad would never call begging for forgiveness. Her son might never even walk twenty feet from the house to the trailer to visit her.
But there had to be something Laurelle could do to bring some closure at the end. She could at least let Rhoda know how much she was loved by her church family.
* * *
Laurelle could tell Rhoda was feeling better because she was fighting mad. “Do you know what kind of place that was they had me in for three days?”
“Hospice. That’s what they call it. Do you know what that is? The doctor told me I could get therapy there. He called it a rehabilitation hospital. But it was a hospice. You ever heard of one of those?
“Yes.” Laurelle thought it best to say less rather than more.
“It’s a place for people to die. The doctor should have told me that going in. I sure don’t want to die in one of them places. Who would?”
“It’s not your fault. At least they give me some new pain medication. Seems to be working better. I think it’s time for me to teach you what I know.”
“Great.” Which of life’s secrets would Rhoda reveal?
“Can you get me my bag of yarn over there. I’ll teach you to crochet.”
Laurelle retrieved the plastic bag that was wedged between Rhoda’s chair and the nightstand. She placed it in Rhoda’s lap.
“Seems like young women don’t know much about that anymore. Old women like myself have to teach the young ones. I taught Dwain to crochet when he was eight, he really took to it, but he got into the teen years and didn’t keep up with it. Here’s a pretty pink.” Rhoda held up a small pale pink ball of yarn.
Laurelle moved her chair closer to Rhoda’s. “I’ll show you, then you do it.” Rhoda let out a length of yarn. She rolled it in her fingers, and inserted a green plastic crochet hook. Despite her illness and medication, her hands were still dexterous.
“I didn’t see how you did that,” Laurelle said, when Rhoda held up a chain she’d made out of the pink yarn.
“First you make a chain, make it as long acrost as you want your piece to be.” Rhoda removed the hook and tugged, and all her stitches disappeared. She took the kinked piece of yarn and started over. “Wrap the yarn around your finger to make a circle, and tuck about six inches of the end of the yarn through the circle. Then insert your crochet hook and put the yarn though the center of the circle to make the first loop. You try it.”
Rhoda passed the yarn and hook to Laurelle.
“I’ve so enjoyed my crafts. There’s something so wonderful about finding a pattern that you like and laying out all the beautiful colored yarns and then beginning a piece and watching it grow and feel heavier and heavier hanging in your lap.” Rhoda looked at Laurelle’s work. “You can hold the hook like a pencil or a spoon, whatever feels most comfortable.”
“How far do I go?”
“For practice, chain twelve stitches. I so love to crochet. Some women rather knit. I was never good at that. I had to force myself to finish that sweater for my first husband. Laurelle honey, it’s easier if you turn the hook down.”
“I think I have twelve.”
“You don’t count the one of the hook. It was Sherman’s mama got me to finish that sweater.”
Laurelle lowered the crochet hook. “Sherman’s mom? You finally found out who she was? Was it Aden after all?”
“Chain one extra at the end, then turn around and come back. This next row works a little different, but all the ones after that are the same. Hand it to me and I’ll show you.” Rhoda’s hands slipped so easily into Laurelle’s work. “You insert the hook here, into the top yarns. Yarn over like you did before, then draw the hook through the chain. You try it.”
* * *
I told you how I got real wild after I left Jerral’s family farm. I’d taken to crossing the border into Mexicali, for Chinese food I told folks. But most times I went to the bars for a drink. I’d heard Sherman talk about the Toro Azul, the Blue Bull, so that’s where I went.
One night I was down there by myself. One of the older prostitutes kept an eye on me for a long time. Then she comes up to me and speaks in Spanish. She’s using words what Yesenia and her church-going friends never taught me. I finally caught on that this old woman was calling me a “stupid prostitute,” only she was using real coarse language. I corrected her, I says I’m not like that, I’m just having a good time, but the old woman says I’m just like her, only stupid, ’cause I don’t charge anything. She tells me to go home, I’m hurting her business. I don’t let her talk to me like that without putting up a fight, after all, I’d had a few drinks. And I’m yelling right back at her to leave me alone, who is she to talk?
Then she tells me to go home and take care of Sherman.
That stopped my yelling right there and then. I stared and stared. I looked at her skin color, her nose, her eyes, her lips. I even looked at her hands. Finally I started laughing. I’d been staring at men and women for years, trying to figure did they look like Sherman. And here, in this bar, just acrost the border, was his mother.
“He’s in military school,” I told her.
But the woman didn’t understand. She says in Spanish, “He’s only twelve. He’s too young for war.”
“It’s a school. He’s in la escuela.” I told her. “If you are his mamá, who is the padre?”
No sé means “I don’t know” but it sounds like “no say.” That’s what she really meant. I could tell by her eyes that she knew full well who Sherman’s papa was. But she would insist on “no say” unless I give her something. I ordered her a drink, then another. Finally, she says, “Señor Green.”
“Liar. He’s had the same girlfriend for years and years.”
“Por verdad. Señor Green, Señor Green.” She stood up, steadied herself against the table, then walked off.
I was so shocked by this news, I couldn’t make any sense of it. I never would a guessed Mr. Green. Other than Aunt Ione and The Gang, the only thing interested him was his work.
Aunt Ione was raising the child who was proof of her boyfriend’s infidelity. Why had she done it? Why hadn’t Mr. Green claimed his child? I couldn’t figure it out, I never really did.
But I stopped my misbehaving right then. I went home and drug a bag of knitting out from under my bed. I’d started it when I was living with Jerral’s family and all the women knitted. I could hold a crochet hook, but I couldn’t figure out those knitting needles, but I’d started a sweater for Jerral the day he left for war, and it was half done. So that very night, when I got home from Mexicali, I sat down and knitted. And I knitted every night after that when I got home from work, didn’t once leave my apartment in the evenings, and I finished that darn sweater.
* * *
Rhoda and Laurelle heard Dwain’s truck pull into the driveway. Laurelle paused her crocheting, waiting to see if Dwain would come into the trailer to greet his mother. She heard the laundry room door slam shut. He’d gone directly into the house.
“I wish he’d go to church and meet a nice woman,” Rhoda said.
“Hmm.” Laurelle knew all of the single women at church, and couldn’t imagine any of them taking an interest in Dwain, but she didn’t say this.
“He reminds me sometimes of Sherman, but he’s a good boy.”
“Did you ever tell Sherman who his mother was?”
“That’s not an easy story to tell.”
“I think I got a knot here. Do I break the yarn and start over?”
“Let me see it.” Rhoda reached for Laurelle’s handiwork, but she didn’t look at it. She stared at the wall behind Laurelle while her fingers ran over the top of Laurelle’s crocheting. “Laurelle honey, you’ve got loose stitches and tight stitches all mixed together. Which is fine, that’s how you learn. But if it was me, I’d take that knot to be a sign it’s time to start a new piece.”
Rhoda handed the crocheting back to Laurelle. Laurelle cut the ball yarn free from the flawed work, then began a new chain. “I’ll try for a small coaster this time,” Laurelle told her. “Just eight stitches.”
“Remember to add an extra one at the end for when you turn and come back around. Sherman was in military school from the time he was twelve,” Rhoda said. “I was twenty then, almost twenty-one, that’s the same year Jerral finally come back from the war.”
“You don’t need to dwell on the tough times. I think my stitches are more even.” Laurelle held up the new piece of handiwork.
“All it takes is practice. You know, after three years without a husband, I didn’t really miss him anymore.”
* * *
Sherman and me actually started getting along for a little while, after he got sent to military school. He’d look me up when he’d come home for vacations, and I let him stay in my apartment once when he had a fight with Aunt Ione. I felt sorry for him when he got sent to military school, I knew what it felt like to get sent away. The military school didn’t do him a bit of good, he just got wilder than ever. Some boys are like that. But I was going wild myself during that time, so we got on fine.
Jerral was still gone, had been for three years. He was away so long, I felt like I was waiting on a stranger. I felt nothing, except maybe a little fear at being expected to have married relations with a man I didn’t know. What would it be like to share my life with someone else? I worried that I must not really love him, since I didn’t feel like half of me was missing. I was whole and happy without him.
I kept trying to remember what he looked like, what it felt like to hold his hand. I couldn’t remember, and because I couldn’t remember, he stopped being real for me any more. He still sent me letters, but so did lots of young men. There was nothing to set him apart from the others. I felt guilty when I wrote I miss you and love you, ’cause I couldn’t feel the meaning of those words any more.
And then he was home. Just like that. One day he was gone, the next he was moving in. He’d decided to surprise me, and that he did.
Jerral looked like an old man to me, and I was young. The apartment was too small, way too small for a man to live in. He didn’t feel comfortable, I didn’t feel comfortable, he wanted me to move back to the farm, but I told him I couldn’t do that. So he spent the first night there with me. We’d just fallen asleep when there was a knock at the door, and he bolted right out of bed, the way soldiers do, and answered it. Ade was at the door, one of the Army men I’d met. Ade’d been drinking so he didn’t leave right away when he saw Jerral, he went on ahead and told Jerral to ask me if wanted to go dancing in Mexicali. Jerral said, “You’ve come to the home of a married woman.”
Ade said, “She wasn’t married last week.”
Jerral wouldn’t let me go back to sleep until I admitted that I’d been lonely while he was gone and had made some friends and yes, kept company with a few. He told me that his mother had told him not to come see me, I was like a farm dog what takes to eating chickens, wasn’t a thing to be done but shoot the dog. But he’d stood up to her, and come to see me, because he hadn’t believed her.
I should have told him I was sorry, but I was angry instead, especially when he called me a chicken-eating dog, and I says, “It’s your fault. You was gone too long. And your mama and sisters didn’t a one treat me like family.”
“Even if what my mother said was true, I came here willing to forgive. But you’re not even sorry.”
He left me then.
After he was gone, I finally began to miss him, the way a wife’s supposed to miss her husband. I knew he was a good man. I planned the next morning to drive out to the farm and apologize, and see if he could still forgive. I couldn’t sleep after that, and cried quite a bit, and realized that I’d have to do a lot of changing, and even if I did, there was no guarantee I’d still have a marriage.
The sun was coming up when someone pounded at the door, and I thought it was Jerral, and I was so glad. But it wasn’t Jerral. The person at the door was big as a man, and broad in the shoulders like a man, but it was my cousin Sherman, only twelve and a half years old but already looking all growed up. He wore a man-size uniform. He had Aunt Ione’s good posture. His face was squared off like a man’s. He was getting tall, too. He had his mother’s eyes and skin color, but now I saw that of course he was Mr. Green’ son. Just look at those long legs, that jaw line.
He was home for Easter break from the military school. He’d snuck out at night acrost the border, and when he was ready to come back acrost, the gate was locked, so he’d crawled under a hole in the fence, and ripped the shoulder of his military school uniform, what he’d worn ’cause it made him look growed up and the girls liked it. He wanted to know could I mend it before he went back to his mama’s house, he couldn’t stand Aunt Ione’s cold glare.
So I got out my thread and did the best I could, but I told him that he’d have to save his money for another jacket, anyone could tell it’d been mended. Was more than the seam come open; the cloth was ripped.
And then he said he wanted to drive around for awhile to kill some time. He’d go home after Aunt Ione was busy with patients, so he could sneak in the kitchen and up the stairs without her seeing him. I suggested he sleep on my couch for a couple hours, but he said he wasn’t a bit tired. So I asked him, would he do me a big favor and drive with me out to the farm, I had something to say to Jerral, but if he didn’t take it well, I wanted Sherman with me. He got all excited then, he always liked an adventure, and asked could he drive, even though he was so young he didn’t have a license, but he’d been driving on the sly for years, so I give him my keys.
I took that sweater with me, the one I’d made for Jerral. I planned to give it to him, to show him I’d thought of him while he’d been gone.
While Sherman was driving, I tried to keep talking so he wouldn’t guess how nervous I was about going out to the farm. I asked him how was everything in Mexicali, and he told me about the bars he’d been to, said he’d just been to the Toro Azul.
I asked him, “You ever see that old woman who works there? Salina, I think that’s her name.”
“You mean that old whore? How could a face like that ever get any customers? She doesn’t put any moves on me, thank God, she realizes she’s way too old for me. I’m nice to the old gal, I buy her a drink now and then, you can’t help but feel sorry for her, what’s left for women in that profession after they reach forty?”
“She seems nice.”
“I almost wish I could ignore that face and become a regular customer, give her a little steady income.”
I just couldn’t help myself. I yelled out, “Don’t ever talk like that!”
“It’s not like her body’s that bad. Maybe if I just didn’t look at her face, I could imagine she wasn’t so worn out.”
“When did you become so squeamish?”
“She’s your own mama, for God’s sake!” There, it had slipped out. But then the truth has a way of doing that.
Sherman laughed. He thought I was joking.
And maybe ’cause I was upset about Jerral and me, I didn’t wait to think was this a good time to tell Sherman.
I says, “It’s God’s own truth.”
“You don’t need to lie anymore,” Sherman says. “I know the truth, I have for years. You’re my old lady.”
I couldn’t believe he thought that. He looked like a man, but he didn’t think like a man. I told him, “There’s not but eight years between us. That makes it downright impossible.”
But he’d heard other people talk about it, and I said I’d heard the rumors, too, but they never made a bit of sense. He said I’d lied about my age, I was older. I’d proved that by getting married way before my friends did.
I didn’t stop to think, Sherman wants to believe I’m his mother. I didn’t think to hug him, say I only wish I was your mama. I was in shock, and real anxious to prove he’d got the facts all wrong. I says to him, “I talked to Salina. She told me the whole story, how Mr. Green was the father and paid for her to have her baby in California. It all makes sense now, why Aunt Ione never disciplined you. She was afraid if she laid a hand on you, Mr. Green would think she was spiteful.”
“You’re saying Mr. Green’s my father? He’s hardly ever talked to me.”
“Aunt Ione took you in to prove to Mr. Green that she forgive him.”
“You’re telling me some fairy tale, with a bad stepmother and all. You make up these crazy stories ’cause your own mama don’t want you.”
I slugged him then in the shoulder, couldn’t Aunt Ione whip me now if I give Sherman the spanking he’d deserved for years. But when I hit him, the car swerved, and Sherman had been driving faster and faster ever since I told him who his real parents was. When Sherman tried to bring the car back onto the right side of the road, he hit a patch of sand. Sand was always blowing up onto the road outside of town, and the tires slid, and the car landed in the ditch. My head hit the windshield, cracked the window. I had blood coming out of my nose and mouth and two front teeth missing.
Sherman pulled off his jacket, then his T-shirt, and give that to me to press against my face. Then he left me in the car and walked to the nearest farmhouse, what was neighbors of Jerral’s, and the farmer got the car pulled out by tractor. His wife must have called Jerral, ’cause she remembered me from when I did some farming with Jerral’s papa, and Jerral drove up in his papa’s truck. And he saw Sherman wearing that uniform and driving the car like a grown man, and he didn’t recognize him. He thought he was another one of my boyfriends. Sherman didn’t explain a thing. He was pure spite. He says to me, “You go on home to your husband.” Then he drove off, even though it was my car.
Jerral took one look at me and my bloody mouth and all, and told me he’d take me to the hospital, but I says I don’t want Aunt Ione working on me, so he drove the other direction, to El Centro. The doctor set my nose and sent me to a dentist, what said wasn’t a thing he could do, except have me come back when my mouth healed and he’d fit me with a bridge.
Jerral did all the right things, asking the doctor questions about pain medication for me. He acted like a gentleman and held the door open for me everywhere we went. But he didn’t touch me. And he didn’t ask me any questions.
Finally I says, “I’m terrible sorry.”
“I did wrong by you, marrying you so young. You weren’t ready.”
I could tell by the way he said it, he’d take me back if I begged him, but he’d always be like Aunt Ione, silent most of the time to keep himself from saying the wrong thing. Even if he did forgive me, he wouldn’t never forget.
I handed him the sweater.
“I made it for you.”
“When I was in the Pacific, wasn’t a day went by it wasn’t hot. Once the guys were all excited about a big crate we got from the States. They gathered round, hoping it’d be something they could use, like dry socks or shorts or T-shirts, or maybe something to eat like Fig Newtons or peanut butter. We worked ourselves into a sweat prying that crate open. You know what was inside?”
“I haven’t a clue.”
“Wool sweaters. Handmade wool sweaters, like this one.” He laughed.
I didn’t laugh. It didn’t seem funny to me at all. “I know a man what can do the divorce for us.”
He laughed again, but I could tell he didn’t think it was funny.
* * *
“Did you go through with the divorce?” Laurelle asked.
“I lost Jerral and I lost Sherman, all in one day. Sherman hardly spoke to me, either, after that. He stopped coming home vacation times. He finally settled down, but it took him another thirty years, four wives, and one burst appendix. Silvie was the Mexican nurse what took good care of him when he almost died, and she already had three little kids when they married, but he did right by them.
“I saw Jerral on the street a few times, after all, Calexico was a small town in those days, but we never talked. Just a year later he married a woman what looked just like Dorianne, but wasn’t family, and they had six kids. I heard he took up dove hunting for sport, so we wouldn’t never been happy together.”
Laurelle thought this seemed like a good time to change the mood. She had a surprise planned for Rhoda that would help her forget all the tragedy in her life. But it would work best if Rhoda could make it to church. “Rhoda, are you feeling good enough to attend church on Sunday? You wouldn’t have to stay for the whole service, just make it through the praise songs and the announcements. People have been asking about you. I told them I’d try to get you to make an appearance.”
“Laurelle honey, I’d sure like to. I dearly miss everybody. But I just don’t know from one day to the next how I’ll be doing.”
“Maybe I can stop by that morning and if you’re feeling up to it, I could help you get ready. Maybe I could borrow a wheelchair. I think your trunk is big enough to hold one.”
“That’s awful nice of you, honey. I’ll think on it. But I don’t want you to be disappointed.”
Laurelle stood up.
“Another thing, before you go,” Rhoda said. “You think you have time to do some reading?”
“I have to sit at the kitchen table most nights while the twins do their homework. Can you believe it, first grade and they’ve already got homework.”
“I’d sure like to have you read my play. You were too busy last time I asked.”
“It’s right here in the nightstand, bottom drawer. Can you get it?”
Laurelle opened the drawer and pulled out the three yellow pads. She gave Rhoda a kiss on the cheek and a gentle hug. She picked up her plastic bag of yarn and headed down the steps and back through the gate to the driveway.
The garage door was open. Dwain was sitting in the garage on a lawn chair. “What you been up to, Laurie Angel?”
“Your mom could use some company.”
“Yeah, that’s where I’m headed. Soon as I finish this.” He held up his beer can. “Or maybe after the next one. Or a couple after that. I haven’t quite decided.”
“At church, we’re working on a gift for your mom, a surprise. Maybe you could help us with it. We’ll do that right after the concert at church on Friday.” Laurelle felt stupid as soon as she’d spoken. She wanted to help Rhoda, but this might be going too far.
“The concert starts at seven. I could be here at six-thirty to pick you up. We’ll want to get there a little early to get a good seat.”
Laurelle was so full of the thrill of scoring a good deed, she imagined wings carried her back to her car.
Judy Alexander, a marketing communications writer from Santa Ana, California, was inspired by stories from Texas and California old-timers. Are You My Mama? is excerpted from her recently completed novel, Desert Medicine, which is under review at several publishing houses. Other excerpts were published in the spring 2001 issue of the Concho River Review, the Calvin College web site at http://www.calvin.edu/worship/em, and on her own web site at http://www.judyalexander.com