Too Late


Mama pulled me by the hand, as we ran to the car,  “Hurry Baby, come on, we’ve got to get home.  I didn’t realize how late it was.”

We’d stayed at the park too long.  The sun wasn’t hot anymore. The slide didn’t burn my bare legs when I went down.  It was the best time to be at the park, but we couldn’t stay. It wasn’t a good time to be away from home. I didn’t argue. I wanted to get there as fast as she did. 

She started the station wagon and we lurched into traffic. Cars kept getting in our way, stopping at lights, or taking a long time to turn.  The mailman kept putting mail in people’s boxes and Mama banged her hand on the steering wheel.

“Dammit,” she said.

My Daddy’s truck wasn’t home when we got there and Mama let out a long breath.  “Let’s hurry,” she said.

Pork chops sizzled in the skillet and Mama was washing lettuce in the sink when the screen door squeaked. Our heads turned at the slide of the key in the lock.  It happened every time the key slid in, even if Mama was humming a song or washing a dish in the sink, she stopped, turned, and watched the doorknob.  The key made a scratching sound, then a click, and the knob turned.

When my Daddy came in the house singing or whistling or carrying a grocery bag, everything would be OK. He might pick me up and swing me around, calling me his doll baby, or kiss Mama and dance her around the kitchen.  It didn’t happen often, but when it did, we had fun. Even Mama looked happy.

When he came in quiet though, I held my breath.  Tonight, he was quiet.  The door of the trailer opened into the living room.  The sofa faced the kitchen and the TV was between the two.  I was sitting on the floor watching the Roadrunner outsmart the Coyote.

“Shut that damn racket off,” Daddy said.

I turned the knob on the set way down so I couldn’t hear the “meep, meep,” and backed myself up until I was sitting in the hole between the sofa and the green chair.  There was a space just big enough for me to curl into, if I pulled my knees up real tight, and held them with my arms.  I squeezed my eyes shut, and waited.

“Where have you been all day?” he asked Mama.

“Here mostly,” she said.  “It was sunny, so I took Maggie to the park this afternoon, for a little while.”

“Uh huh, sure you did,” he said.

I heard the refrigerator door open and the beer bottles rattle.  He popped the top off of one and the cap rolled around on the kitchen floor.  He kicked it, and it hit the wall under the window.

“Must have had fun today,” he said, “going to the park and all.  That why you’re all dressed up?  That why you have on lipstick?”  He asked Mama.

“I’m not all dressed up,” she said in a quiet voice with a shake in it.

She wasn’t dressed up.  She had on a dress, but it was an old one with a hole at the bottom where she got it caught on a nail outside one day.  She always wore lipstick.

“Can’t I give my wife a compliment, tell her she looks nice without an argument?” He said, his voice getting louder, as he slammed the bottle down on the kitchen table. 

“I’m sorry, Honey,” Mama said.  She said she was sorry a lot.  Most of what she said wasn’t right or didn’t come out like she meant it to.

“You’re sorry alright,” he said.  “I should have listened to my mother.  She said you were no good.  She said you’d run around on me and lie.  ‘Too pretty for her own good,’ she said.  ‘Don’t go and marry her, you’ll regret it,’ she said.”

Then their voices stopped. I could smell hot oil in the skillet, hear water splashing in the sink. My heartbeat was in my ears. I opened my eyes. 

Mama turned with the lettuce in her hand just in time to catch the back of my Daddy’s hand with her cheek.  She spun around on the floor, letting go of the lettuce.  It smashed into the kitchen window and bounced off the table and ended on the floor.  Mama fell in a heap at my Daddy’s feet.  She was curled up, holding her face, and crying.

“Don’t lie to me again,” he said, picking up his beer as he slammed out the front door.

I waited a few minutes, until I heard the truck roar, back up, and take off again, scattering rocks against the side of the trailer.  I crawled out of my hole and over to my Mama.  I sat on the floor rubbing her back.

“I’m sorry I made us late,” I said.  “I won’t do it again.”

I looked at the TV. The coyote was pushing an anvil to the edge of the cliff, waiting for the roadrunner to stop underneath.

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