This is the excerpt I read to you in class.
My first and only memory of my mother was the day she died. I tried for a long time to conjure up an image of her before that, just a sliver of something, like her tucking me into bed, reading the adventures of Uncle Wiggly, or hanging my underclothes near the space heater on ice- cold mornings. Even her picking a switch off the forsythia bush and stinging my legs would have been welcome.
The day she died was December 3, 1954. The furnace had cooked the air so hot my mother had peeled off her sweater and stood in short sleeves, jerking at the window in her bedroom, wrestling with the stuck paint.
Finally she gave up and said, “Well, fine, we’ll just burn the hell up in here, I guess.”
Her hair was black and generous, with thick curls circling her face, a face I could never quite coax into view, despite the sharpness of everything else.
I raised my arms to her, and she picked me up, saying I was way too big a girl to hold like this, but holding me anyway. The moment she lifted me, I was wrapped in her smell.
The scent got laid down in me in a permanent way and had all the precision of cinnamon. I used to go regularly into the Sylvan Mercantile and smell every perfume bottle they had, trying to identify it. Every time I showed up, the perfume lady acted surprised, saying, “My goodness, look who’s here.” Like I hadn’t just been in there the week before and gone down the entire row of bottles. Shalimar, Chanel No. 5, White Shoulders.
I’d say, “You got anything new?”
She never did.
So it was a shock when I came upon the scent on my fifth-grade teacher, who said it was nothing but plain ordinary Ponds Cold Cream.
The afternoon my mother died, there was a suitcase open on the floor, sitting near the stuck window. She moved in and out of the closet, dropping this and that into the suitcase, not bothering to fold them.
I followed her into the closet and scooted beneath dress hems and pant legs, into darkness and wisps of dust and little dead moths, back where orchard mud and the moldy smell of peaches clung to T. Ray’s boots. I stuck my hands inside a pair of white high heels and clapped them together.
The closet floor vibrated whenever someone climbed the stairs below it, which is how I knew T. Ray was coming. Over my head I heard my mother, pulling things from the hangers, the swish of clothes, wire clinking together. Hurry, she said.
When his shoes clomped into the room, she sighed, the breath leaving her as if her lungs had suddenly clenched. This is the last thing I remember with perfect crispness— her breath floating down to me like a tiny parachute, collapsing without a trace among the piles of shoes.
I don’t remember what they said, only the fury of their words, how the air turned raw and full of welts. Later it would remind me of birds trapped inside a closed room, flinging themselves against the windows and the walls, against each other. I inched backward, deeper into the closet, feeling my fingers in my mouth, the taste of shoes, of feet.
Dragged out, I didn’t know at first whose hands pulled me, then found myself in my mother’s arms, breathing her smell. She smoothed my hair, said, “Don’t worry,” but even as she said it, I was peeled away by T. Ray. He carried me to the door and set me down in the hallway. “Go to your room,” he said.
“I don’t want to,” I cried, trying to push past him, back into the room, back where she was.
“Get in your goddamned room!” he shouted, and shoved me. I landed against the wall, then fell forward onto my hands and knees. Lifting my head, looking past him, I saw her running across the room. Running at him, yelling. “Leave. Her. Alone.”
I huddled on the floor beside the door and watched through air that seemed all scratched up. I saw him take her by the shoulders and shake her, her head bouncing back and forth. I saw the whiteness of his lip.
And then— though everything starts to blur now in my mind— she lunged away from him into the closet, away from his grabbing hands, scrambling for something high on a shelf.
When I saw the gun in her hand, I ran toward her, clumsy and falling, wanting to save her, to save us all.
Time folded in on itself then. What is left lies in clear yet disjointed pieces in my head. The gun shining like a toy in her hand, how he snatched it away and waved it around. The gun on the floor. Bending to pick it up. The noise that exploded around us.
This is what I know about myself. She was all I wanted. And I took her away.