I knew everything was different after that day – nothing would ever be the way it had been before the policeman knocked on the front door. Mama was standing one minute, the broom in her hand, sweeping all the papers Papa tore up and threw on the floor when he left for work, and then she was on her knees with her forehead pressed down in that pile of dirt and dust, her hands clasped below her chin and that silent scream filling the black hole of her open mouth.
Even at four I had the sense to see mama’s shell had cracked and all the sour truth of our future was leaking out of her into the light of day. Isn’t it a grace how you can see it all flashing bright in the air and know the story without the words. Just the hurt of it lighting up the world with its white hot certainty.
Mama sat up fast, and the policeman seemed so uncomfortable and asked her if he could do anything. She wiped her eyes and told him thank you, no, she would be just fine, just fine thank you. She watched him pass Mary and me in the yard, and then she stood, brushed off her skirt, and said you girls just stay outside, you hear? I thought surely that wasn’t Mama talking because it didn’t look like there was anybody in her eyes, and Mary squeezed my hand tight and told me to follow her to the back yard.
We watched Mama through the open window, standing in the shade of the maple tree. It was so hot and I wished for a glass of lemonade. Mary said Papa must be at the morgue. I didn’t know what the morgue was and I didn’t dare ask. I just watched mama take papa’s church suit out of the closet and hold it to her face, then twist the metal hanger to hook it over the top of the door. She raised her hands up and pounded her two fists on the door once in the middle of the suit jacket, right where papa’s heart would be if he were in it. Right where I would press my ear sometimes during church when mama had her eyes closed praying on her list of people she wanted God to help, like Grandpa Elias for his gout, and Mrs. Inverness across the street who was having another baby and that baby was sideways inside her belly and that wasn’t so good for being born, and little Joey Carter who fell off his tire swing that mama never let me ride because it left big black streaks all over my dress. Joey Carter broke his neck and couldn’t get out of bed and I thought I wouldn’t be so foolish to fall off the tire. I would hold on tight and fly through the air until it stopped and I would step off and put my feet back on the ground and walk home. Mama bent her head and squeezed her eyes shut tight and squeezed her hands together like pressing all of her wishes into a ball while the organist played Gathered In Thy Name, Lord Jesus.
Oh, how I hated the organ. I watched those pipes towering up the wall like great throats opening and filling the room with the terrible sound of the dead begging to come home. Papa saw me watching those pipes. I like to think he knew I was trying to get away from the sound, and he would put his heavy arm around me and gather me onto his lap where I could rest my head against his chest, pressing my ear closer to listen to his heart thumping there below the scratchy wool, drowning out the wailing. He smelled of lye soap and toast. Sometimes I fell asleep.
Mama turned from the suit and bent down to lift something else out of the closet, but I couldn’t see what until Mary said shoes as Mama placed them on the floor in front of the suit hanging black and flat against the bedroom door. Then I remembered the long boats of polished black leather with deep wear creases tapping softly on the church floor.
Mama turned and stared out the window and I couldn’t tell if she could see us there under the tree, so I held my breath and Mary took my sweating hand in hers and we held as still as we could, watching Mama look through us until she turned back so very slowly and left the room.