by Jasmyne K. Rogers
Mama sat with her legs crossed on our porch and dragged on her Lucky Strike. The summer rain brought on dry humidity, so James and I sat in the front room in front of the metal fan to cool off.
“Ella, you think Lena will come back to haunt us?” James asked swatting a mosquito the size of a ripened chokecherry.
“Stop that foolish talk, boy. Lena’s in heaven and she wouldn’t come back to this world if she wanted to.”
James got up from our spot in the middle of the floor and went outside to talk to Mama. He asked her something, she nodded, and he took off down the road.
“Where is James headed?” I yelled over the loud fan.
“Where is Papa?”
Mama placed her cigarette butt in the tin can next to her feet and turned towards me.
“Tannie’s.” It was almost a whisper, but I had heard her.
She turned back around and looked down the road at the wooden house that was adjacent to the graveyard.
The woman wore a red, pencil-slim skirt that stopped shy of her knees. Knees that parted during the midnight hour when tired bodies found peace that stemmed from the triumphs that happened in a day’s life. No one had ever witnessed Tannie in the act of taking a married man to her bed, but everyone knew. It penetrated her spirit and seeped through her pores. She was ruined.
Her legs had learned to freely welcome entry due to having them forced and pried opened—red, the same color of the skirt she wore, dripping and spoiling her innocence many moons ago.
When in the company of other womenfolk, her words were few, her eyes were well acquainted with staring at the ground, and the visits were usually brief.
There was a certain aura about Tannie Johnson, but Mama befriended her anyway.
“She’s a churchgoing woman. She knows the Lord. So she’s alright with me.” This was Mama’s rebuttal every time someone degraded Tannie.
Mama sat silently and grabbed another Lucky Strike from the red and white cartridge. She lit the cigarette with a match and swiftly puffed. Soon, a train of white smoke escaped from her small and pretty lips.
Her eyes never left the site of the man and woman who danced to a ditty next to the graveyard where her baby girl was buried.
I looked as well and did not catch sight of James.
Mama’s silence was deafening.
Her hazel brown eyes gently studied the woman who gyrated her hips and the man who gripped the top of her pencil skirt with a hungry hand.
There was no actual music playing; it must have been in their minds or embedded in the dark liquid that the man gulped as they sashayed and danced a slow groove among the trees.
I watched and studied Mama intently. Her cigarette was out and her face was resting in the palms of her hands as the old rocking chair gently rocked to the same rhythm of the music that the woman and the man made down the road by the graveyard.
The man soon cackled and it was followed by a hearty laugh from the woman in red. The man wore khaki pants that were creased to perfection by Mama.
The man was Jean Calloway—my father.
“Mama,” I started. Before I could utter another word, Mama interjected.
“Go check on your brother, Ella. Sun is going down.”
“Yes, Mama,” I said obediently. I hopped off the bottom step and treaded down the dirt road.
As I neared the wooden house where my father and the woman in red danced, I looked back at my mama. She just nodded her head and I kept walking.
The woman in red swung her arms freely in the air as my father’s hand still gripped the top of her skirt and the other—his bottle of whiskey.
They did not notice me passing.
I kept on to the graveyard that was a mere hundred feet away from the wooden house.
Oak trees decorated the graveyard as scattered and rusted tombstones marked the gravesites of those who had gone on to glory. Most of the inscriptions were barely visible and plots of weeds grew around the sites.
In the back of the graveyard, I noticed a small boy lying on top of the block of the cement, gazing up at the sun that was going down.
“James!” I yelled and ran to my brother who was no doubt mourning the loss of our baby sister.
He never moved.
My baby sister’s tombstone was freshly new and her inscription would be different from the others—it was indelibly inked in our hearts and souls.
James lay sprawled out on Lena’s gravesite—in the same way she was the night she was killed.
I found a spot near the gravesite and sat Indian style; I did not say anything.
Tears were storming down James’ face as he painfully remembered the night Lena died.
It seemed like we were there forever, surrounded by a calming silence. Now I understood why James would venture to the graveyard and lay on Lena’s gravesite.
He could mourn freely here. Our father was not here to tell him to stop crying and be a man. He did not have to look at our mama silently mourn her baby girl. He could be his ten-year-old self. He could find peace here.
Soon, James got up and I followed suit. We walked out of the graveyard and down the dirt road back to our house.
I had my arm around my brother as we passed by our father who was still dancing and frolicking with the woman in red.
In that moment, I realized something that I had absentmindedly missed.
Papa and Tannie were not dancing with each other; they were slow dancing with the devil.
Then, I looked at my house and at my mama who was still rocking in the old rocking chair.
Her face was not resting in the palms of her hands.
She was praying.
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