It was the hottest day so far that summer, and Mama needed sugar.
‘Go on down to the store,’ she told me, squinting out the window. ‘Ask old man Bailey to let you have it on credit. You hear?’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ I said.
‘That’s my baby,’ she said, turning to face me, blinking the dusty path outside from her eyes. ‘Mama’ll make some lemonade, when you get home. Don’t hurry, now. I think I’ll go take me a nap.’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ I said, already running for the door.
‘Walk!’ yelled Mama as I thumped my way out into the day, the sun like the warm hand of God on my skin. ‘Ladies walk, Ella-Marie!’
Ain’t a lady yet, I thought as I skipped away from the house, my toes like bruised earthworms against the yellowish soil. My knees winked out at me from underneath my hem. I put my face to the sky and dipped my nose right into it, my mind already swirling as I thought about the Coca-Cola girl hanging over the register down at Bailey’s General Store, and how her white dress shone like an angel, and her skin looked like it tasted of ice-cream…
‘Well, hey there, Ella-Marie,’ came a voice, and my eyes popped open. I screwed them up against the sunshine, feeling like my air had turned to dirt. ‘How you doin’ today?’
‘Hey, Mister Hadley,’ I said, my pulse rusty in the back of my throat.
‘Your Mama at home?’ Mister Hadley smiled at me, his skin all nasty, looking like sour milk with flyblown strawberry preserve smeared on top. He clutched his hat in his pink-scrubbed hands, his knuckles like rotten teeth and his suit just patched enough to still be respectable. I chewed the inside of my mouth.
‘Yessir,’ I muttered.
‘Well, ain’t that fine,’ he said. His smile, like a dog dead in a gutter, didn’t move a muscle as he reached those pale fingers into his pocket. He took them out and there was a nickel entwined in them like a trapped bird, and he stretched them out to me like I had the key to its freedom.
‘Well, go on,’ he said, laughing. ‘Take it. Get yourself somethin’ nice.’
I reached for the coin, my own dark fingers hot and suddenly sweaty and covered in filth and his cool now, like iron, like ice. My own dirty and shameful and his strong and steady.
I snatched my hand back.
His smile sang a wrong note then, and his face fell apart. He frowned, and threw the nickel in the dirt.
‘Git, then,’ he said. ‘Go on! I got business to discuss with your Mama, so don’t you go disturbin’ us, now. Y’hear me?’
I had long left him behind before I remembered: Mama’s sleepin’. She said she was sleepin’! And my ears started burning with embarrassment not my own, imagining Mama disheveled, surprised, ashamed.
But I did not go back.
Old man Bailey looked at me over his spectacles as he wrote the value of the sugar in his book. The store was empty but for us two, and the air tasted like sweat.
‘You tell your Mama to come in and settle up, Ella-Marie, just as soon as she can. I ain’t got endless reserves of credit. Times are hard for everyone, not jus’ you colored folk.’
‘Yessir,’ I said, my arms already aching.
‘Get on home, now, child,’ he said. ‘And be sure to give your Mama my regards.’
‘Yessir,’ I said, the sack of sugar like a kicking piglet.
I scuffed my feet as I walked, trailing my toes in the dust and shifting the sugar from arm to arm. My fingers slipped around it, like a tongue struggling with an unfamiliar word, and my shoulders wailed like I was being nailed to the cross. Sweat trickled down my back.
I came upon Mister Hadley’s nickel eventually. It glinted in the sunlight like the eye of a buried monster, waiting. I slid the sack of sugar to the ground and propped it against my shaking, sticky leg as I bent to pick the coin up out of the dirt. I turned it over and over, buffalo-face-buffalo-face, wondering what Mama’d say when she saw it.
And eventually I hoisted up the sugar again, and I kept walking.
‘Mama?’ I called, as the screen-door thunked shut. My brown feet slapped on the browner boards as I crossed the neat parlor, Daddy’s rifle still in one corner even though the man himself was just a memory, just a word. ‘Mama?’ The door to her room was thrown wide, and I remembered – again – that she was sleeping, and a rush of sour shame washed all through me. I tiptoed to the kitchen and shouldered the sack up onto the table, and took a breath. My throat felt raw.
And the door to the back was standing open.
I crept to it. Outside, the laundry flapped in the breeze like a preacher mid-sermon, hands raising to heaven in hope and fear, before sinking, disappointed and despairing, to earth once more. The scrubland between our house and the Wesleys’, half a mile away, yawned into the distance. Mama wasn’t anywhere.
I turned, my ears throbbing, and crossed the room until Mama’s bedroom door was staring at me, dark as a crow’s eye. Everything was still. I dropped the nickel and it rolled, sounding like the top being torn off the world, until it fell between two boards and was silent.
Mama was lying on her bed like an unfurled flower, her eyes still full of the dusty path outside. Her mouth was open, nothing coming out of it but slow redness, ink from a broken bottle. Her dress gaped, like it was kissing me goodbye.
And all around her, dollar bills were scattered one after another after another, like confetti at the feet of a bride.