Her Mama, up to her elbows in morning’s afterbirth, scrapple and toast crust floating in dishwater, leaned onto the sink’s edge with bruised forearms. ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if that were true?’
‘I will—,’ Adele said and watched her daddy’s barren field fade into the riverbank through the window, ‘—I’ll write.’
‘How long it gone take to make you feel like you won? Like you beat him? And when you come home? S’your home too.’
‘Since when?’ His house reeked of coal, sweat, stale cigars and boiled eggs. Each room tasted like the poison that rotted him from the inside out. Soot stains smeared on the walls, on the carpet, on her mama’s flesh.
‘You feel sorry for me girl?’
‘All they do up ere is drink and worship the devil. Aint nothing but soldiers up ere—you know what soldiers want when they aint fighting? You know what they go and get when they on leave?’ Her spine gave into a hunch and her weight fell forward onto her bruises. ‘Gone then—he be home soon.’
‘I love you.’
‘Careful—the truth is something desperate.’
‘—send word when I can—‘
‘Don’t start smoking—and happy birthday, girl.’
The basement windows mute daylight while she sips poison with men wearing Church suits on a Tuesday. She raises the glass to her lips between smiles and curses and leaves when the lamp hanging above the pool table falls still, when the men slink home with wrinkled slacks and jackets.
Morning breaks with a steady pulse of rain and her mouth sticky, her flesh still warm, the stale stench of beer and strangers lingers on her and she clucks her tongue twice before smiling with her eyes shut. Teetering, she catches herself before tripping off of the curb and then pulls a kerchief over her head, knotting it beneath her chin.
Each block brings heavy sheets of rain and wet wind whips across her face in gentle, loving slaps as the gutters fill, rising above their concrete lips. She tongues the names of intersecting street signs in silence. She obeys traffic signals, pausing at red lights while her feet stand still in vomiting sewer drains.
Ducking underneath the bloated awning of her hotel, she shoves her clutch underneath her arm and lights a cigarette.
‘You old enough for that?’ He tips his hat and smiles. His suit is loose with fabric collecting in fat folds at his joints and his nametag reads ‘DICKIE.’
‘That your daddy’s suit?’ Her hands are wet and she flattens her palms against her soaking dress, pressing the transparent fabric into her thighs. The damp cigarette hangs from her bottom lip.
He laughs showing all of his teeth and brushes rain from his lapels. ‘What’s your name girl?’
‘You got a French daddy who gave you a name like that?’
‘Frenchmen don’t work in mines.’
‘None I know,’ he says.
‘I don’t live with him no more and I won’t be there when he dies. He voted for Eisenhower.’ She takes a drag then chokes on a wet cough.
‘If you plan on staying here better get yourself a coat.’
‘My mama used to say things like that.’
‘Mama’s ought to say things like that.’
‘Mothers ought to say and do a great many things—don’t mean they do,’ she says.
‘And girls ought to mind their folks.’
‘—or girls find out all they are a pretty trap. All girls a trap, a pretty trap—‘
‘Men expect them to be,’ she says.
‘Careful girl—don’t let them claws show yet.’
She sheds her sopping skin and stands naked in the middle of the room knowing she’ll never meet the strangers whose beds she’s sharing. ‘You should always be good to strangers,’ her mama had said, ‘you never know whose kindness you’ll need—never know what a man can do to help unless you let him.’
She lets the kerchief fall onto the floor and traces the dog-eared edge of the unopened telegram with a wet fingertip.
WRITE YOUR DADDY TELL HIM YOU SORRY TELL HIM YOU COMING BACK DO THEY GOT BIBLES WHERE YOU ARE HAVE YOU BEEN TALKING TO SOLDIERS AND SATAN AGAIN YOUR DADDY DON’T LIKE WHEN YOU DO THOSE THINGS
Wouldn’t it be funny if that were true?
Lindsay Parnell’s short fiction has appeared in 3AM Magazine, Underground Voices, The Prague Revue and Black Heart. Her debut novel, DOGWOOD, is forthcoming from Linen Press in 2015. Additionally, she shares a birthday with Meryl Streep.