It is a weary day in late July and the wisteria is a rash across the town when my drunk mother asks me to drive her to the store. I’m 13. The windows in the house are down and the fat flies come in for a few laps and go out again. I put the baby down because there’s no use arguing with her and grab the keys from the kitchen counter, being careful not to cut through Dontae’s room, even though he doesn’t live here anymore. His bed is still unmade from the last time he slept in it, and the sun catches the Air Jordan on the wall. He put it up a few weeks before he left, with a stencil he printed off at school and a can of gold spray paint he got from I don’t know where.
The sun in the sky is like someone raring their fist back to beat you. Everyone who rides by looks faded and crinkled, like they were cut out of a wet magazine and dried out on the dashboard. Mamma’s head is slick with sweat as she climbs into the passenger’s seat of our black Durango. I’m embarrassed how she’s always more or less in her pajamas, but what am I going to say to her? She falls asleep all the time, and when she does, I carry the baby through the house, picking up all her empty glasses and being careful not to trip over all the extension cords. In the Durango, all I can think is how hot it must be in those flannel bottoms.
She asks “What day is it?” and I tell her I don’t know, cause I don’t. School let out a couple weeks ago, so the days tumble by at whatever pace they feel like, paying us no mind.
“You put your brother up?”
“Yeah,” I say, cranking the Durango, the hot, dusty air from the vents blasting us.
“Don’t you think you oughta say ‘yes ma’am’?”
“Yeah,” I say, stretching my legs to get the clutch. My legs are long enough to reach, but only with the tips of my toes. I’m tall for my grade. Everybody tells me so.
The Durango heaves forward and bumps out onto the street. Momma lets out a big sigh and closes her eyes against the sun blasting us through the permanently rolled-down windows. I ask Momma what store she wants to go to before she can nod off. There are two right up the street, but she wants the one “cross town.” Our town is really two towns next to each other that have grown together, so when she says “cross town,” she really means across two towns. “Shirley’s working,” she explains. I’m not surprised. Shirley lets momma take things for free. They’re friends, I guess.
The Durango feels loose curving around the school, the fenced-in houses that have security cameras as small as my hand. We cruise up Green Street, across the bridge over McCullough Boulevard, past a man pulling a wagon and carrying a big tree limb over his shoulder. We pass liquor stores, the yellow gas station with the blue bars over the doors and windows. Some of the older boys are sitting on the ledge of concrete by the pump, drinking beer out of cans. Sometimes when I go over there to get a Coke, they ask me how many boyfriends I have, and if I want one more, but I just roll my eyes and don’t give them nothin’.
Up up, down down, back, forward, back, forward, Dontae used to mutter when we played the Mortal Kombat machine in the Wal Mart entryway. Moving around town feels like that, everything kind of does. Or maybe it’s more like Pac Man, where there’s only two ways to go, and a ghost around every corner.
Back when Dontae was still here, Mamma’d bluster through the house like a big bad tornado, and it didn’t take anything to cross her path. We were scared of her, and since he’s gone, that’s all she’ll ever be to him. I want to ask her how it feels to be remembered like that, from wherever he is.
Riley Manning lives in Tupelo, Mississippi, and has an M.F.A. from the University of Tampa. His work has been published in Bridge Eight Magazine.
image: Lindsay Hargrave