Mama sings the blues: Out of the Woods (excerpt)


“Stacy, darn it, wait!”

I ignored my babysitter and ran down the sidewalk as fast as my five-year-old legs would take me. My house was in sight, and I had to go potty. I dashed up the stairs and found the front door locked. I danced from one foot to the other, then launched myself from the porch and pulled down my shorts. As I squatted on the lawn, the babysitter called out, “Your daddy’s gonna whip you!”

She wheeled my baby brother’s white carriage up our sidewalk. She stopped and put her hands on her hips. “Pull your pants up. Shame on you.”

I stared at her, pressing my lips together hard, like Mama did when Daddy went to the fridge for another beer. I stayed squatting. She’d been walking too slow, and I’d have gotten in big trouble if I’d wet my pants. At least this way I wouldn’t have to wear my underwear on my head.

She scowled at me, and pulled Paul out of the carriage. She propped him on her hip, pushing the carriage in front of her to the front steps of the house. She turned around as I was pulling up my shorts. “You know better than that, Stacy.” She shook her head at me, clicking her tongue.

I put my hands on my hips like she did and said, “You talked to too many people.” I added, “Mostly boys.”

“Watch your mouth or you’ll be getting some Ivory soap to go with that sass.”

I looked down, then gave her what Mama called my “eyebrow look,” where I looked at a person from under my eyebrows. “I like Ivory soap,” I said, although I didn’t like it at all.

She rolled her eyes and adjusted Paul on her hip. “C’mon. Put the carriage in the garage and get inside. It’s time to get cleaned up.”

When Mama and Daddy got home, she told them what I’d done, and Daddy laughed and ruffled my hair. I stared up at him in uneasy relief, wondering why I wasn’t in trouble. After supper and my bath, Mama was clanking dishes in the kitchen, my brother was asleep, and Daddy was in his easy chair, his beer can and cigarette in one hand. He waved me over and told me to kneel for my bedtime prayers. I knelt next to his chair and folded my hands. He put his free hand on my head, stroking my hair down my back.

“Don’t forget to ask for forgiveness for disobeying your babysitter today.”

“But I had to go wee-wee, Daddy.” I held very still because Daddy had stopped stroking my hair. He pulled on my hair, making me look at his face. His mustache had drops of beer on it and his blue eyes were mad. “I’m sorry, Daddy,” I whispered.

He squinted at me and let go of my hair a little. “Say your prayers,” he said.

“Now I lay me down to sleep,” I said, my eyes glued to his face.

Daddy moved his hand off my head. My back was cold and scared.

“Close your eyes,” he said.

I squeezed my eyes shut, terrified because I couldn’t see his hands, trying not to cry. I heard him swallow some beer and suck on his cigarette and I relaxed a little. I said, “I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”

I heard him set his beer can down hard, and the beanbag ashtray smushed as he put out his cigarette. I said, hurrying, “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” I hiccupped, holding my hands tightly together. Daddy’s chair creaked as he got up, and I heard his belt buckle clink and his belt snick slowly through the belt loops. Daddy wrapped his rough hand around my arm and yanked me up.

“Dave!” Mama’s sharp voice made Daddy pause. She stood in the kitchen doorway. “What’re you doing? Let her go to bed.”

“Shut up, Becky,” Daddy said, and dragged me into their bedroom. He kicked the door shut with the heel of his boot and shoved me to the bed. I clutched the bedspread in one hand, my eyes going from the black belt dangling from his hand to the lock he was latching at the top of the door.

“Dave! Open this door!” Two loud bangs on the door.

Daddy didn’t answer, only walked to me and said, “Pull down your pants.” His feet were planted wide apart, and he weaved a little.

Another bang bang bang on the door. “Open it now, dammit!”

“Now, Stacy.” Daddy folded the belt, and I slowly let go of the bedspread and pulled down my pants. Something crashed on the door, and we both jumped. Daddy grabbed my hand and held it up, and swung the belt. He’d gotten two licks in when I heard Mama’s muffled voice say, “You’re going back to jail.” She said it in a sing-song voice, and that made Daddy throw the belt down and stomp over to the door. He unlocked the door, his face mad. Mama burst in with a very big knife. Her long hair was tangled around her face and she was crying. Daddy stepped back a little. I scrambled around the bed. Yanked up my shorts and crouched on the other side, watching Mama over the top of it.

“What the hell?” Daddy reached out, laughing a little, to take the knife from Mama and her hand slashed down. He snatched his hand back, surprised, then moved toward her. “What the fuck? Give me that,” he said.

Mama swung again, her face set, and this time she cut him. He leaped back, and looked at his arm.

“You crazy bitch.” He lunged toward her and she swung at him again, panting.

“Get out, you bastard.” She swiped at her face with her free hand. “Get out now.”

Daddy backed away slowly, watching her face and the knife. Mama gripped the knife tighter and edged him out of the room. Daddy lunged one more time, and Mama sliced down with the knife. Blood dripped fast from his arm, and he yelled with pain.

“Goddammit, Becky! All right, all right, I’m going.” He bolted through the living room. Mama chased him till he was out on the front sidewalk.

I peeked around the bedroom door and saw her standing with the screen door open, knife clenched in her hand. “If you ever touch her again, Dave, I will kill you.” She didn’t yell it.

I could hear Daddy cussing outside, then Mama yanked the screen door shut and slammed the front door. She locked it hard, and banged it with her fist, then hurried around the house making sure the doors and windows were locked.

At my feet were white pieces of wood, splintered and jagged, and I realized she had broken my high chair against the door. I picked up a piece and hugged it to my chest.

Mama came in a few minutes later, holding Paul in one arm. He was groggy and whiny, having somehow slept through all the noise. She scooped me up into her arms and carried us both to my room and climbed onto my bed. She settled back against the wall, holding us tightly against her. I could feel her trembling, and her tears fell hot on my cheek. Paul squirmed and Mama shushed him with a jiggle.

I pushed away a little and held up the white piece of wood. “You broke my high chair, Mommy.”

Mama’s eyes were closed and her face was wet. She huffed out a small laugh and pulled my head into her neck. “I know, baby. I’m sorry.”

Paul snuffled a little, and Mama started to hum, then sang softly, “Hang down your head, Tom Dooley. Hang down your head and cry. Hang down your head, Tom Dooley. Poor boy, you’re going to die.”