I smiled and sat on one of the kitchen chairs near her. Mama had a glass of bourbon on the table but I didn’t see the bottle. I looked into her eyes. I could tell she was stone cold sober. “Are you feeling okay?” I asked her.
“Oh, just a bit nostalgic, honey.” She reached out for my hand. “You know, when I think of everything I had in my head at your age, it just tears me apart. You know why?”
“Because I believed I’d always be young and capable of following my dreams forever. I never thought I’d grow old. I imagined myself sitting on top of the world, having people stop me and ask for my autograph.” She laughed softly and held onto my hand.
“You’re not old, Mama.”
“Do you know that I was a very serious young woman? Did you know that, honey?”
I shook my head and she stared at me a bit before she started speaking.
“I felt deeply about the world around me. I wanted it to be compassionate…to become compassionate. I didn’t want anyone anywhere on earth to feel pain. I believed in putting up a good fight against oppression—so many people are oppressed, sug.”
“I know, Mama.”
“I believed in the right side of the law and in my political party—Democrats, of course. I beheld in my dreams the possibility of a perfect world. Then, after Kennedy’s assassination, I guess I lost hope. We’re living in crazy times, sug. We’re writing history, though. A better world will rise from these ashes. Oh, yes, I was so full of passion when I was young. My heart was so alive then, so much more accessible than it is now.”
“Life is still good, Mama,” I whispered, but she didn’t seem to hear me.
“Did you know that your mama believed that one day the universe would become a warm and welcoming place where the poor were given comfort and the hungry did not suffer? Did you know that?” she asked, and I shook my head.
“I honestly believed that all human suffering would cease. I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to do good things. Oh my God, what I could have been, the deeds I could have done because I cared so much, so very much about the whole damn world and every living thing in it.”
“I think you’ve done good, Mama. You’ve done good by Tommy and me. You done good by Daddy, too.”
She laughed and put her head back. “Love is not enough,” she said. “Loving a man, loving your children. It’s not enough.”
I looked at her. I’d never heard her say that before, and it made me so sad I wanted to cry.
“Oh, don’t be upset, honey. All I mean is you’ve got to have something for yourself. You’ve got to have some part of you that has nothing to do with your man or your children. You’ve got to care about the world.”
“You’re going to New York City, honey. It’s the only place I know of where things are so damn crazy and mean, so miraculous and exciting, so painfully alienating that you just might find yourself amongst the confusion. You can’t find yourself in Hixson, honey. They’ll stamp a soul for you, right on your forehead if you want, and they’ll tell you who you are. But in New York City, you get to tell the world who you are because you have fallen into a finer paradise, and when your star is burning bright—that’s when you find your soul, that’s when you can return anywhere on earth with the knowledge of your truest self.”
I looked into my Mama’s eyes. I was surprised that I understood her.
“Yes, I married your daddy. I loved your daddy, but he can’t do that for me. He can’t show me enough ugliness. He can’t show me enough possibility. He can’t mirror mindless indifference or interminable hunger. He can’t reveal the rotten stench of the vapid or the brilliance of the gifted. He can’t scar my soul like New York City. He’s too kind and he’s to adoring of me to mirror my enormous discontent. You’ve only got to get there, honey. Walk those streets and know that desire, feel that city in the very fiber of your bones. You’ll crave the energy so much you might think you’re high as a cloud, but then, you’ll discover who you are in the loneliness of your room, and in the comfort of the friends you make, and if you so choose to return, you will return with the most important gift of all. You will never want again. You won’t even ache. Darling, your cup will overflow.”
“Yes, Mama,” I whispered. I wasn’t even thinking about Lenny Bean at that point. I just wanted to make my mama happy.
She stood up and walked over to the piggy bank. “Behold, my daughter. You are my shining moment. You are my love, my priceless creation!”
I stood up ’cause I noticed that Mama had picked up a hammer, and it came down fast on the big, old, fat, pink pig we put our pennies in, and his poor little body shattered into pieces and went flying onto the floor.
“Mama, we never have any money in there.”
“The Lord works in mysterious ways, isn’t that what that old bastard tells us?”
I couldn’t believe it. There were so many bills rolled up on that kitchen counter now that I wondered if I was seeing things. I also wondered how in the hell she ever shoved so many bills into that pig.
“Your daddy’s winnings, darlin’.”
“How much money you got there, Mama?”
“Why, I do believe that there are fifteen one hundred-dollar bills in my hand.”
“Why now they’re in your hand. I do declare.”
“I can’t take Daddy’s money.”
“Oh, yes you can. Hide it under the mattress, darlin’. Keep it safe.”
“I can’t, Mama.”
She squeezed my fist around those hundred dollar bills and she looked into my eyes.
“You’re going to New York City to find the devil and when you strip him of his lofty ways you are going to find your truth. What do you believe in darlin’, besides Lenny Bean?”
I stammered a bit. My mama was looking at me so hard, and she searched my eyes and wouldn’t let go of my hands until I answered her.
“I believe in…shit, Mama, I don’t know. I believe that the sun is going to come up tomorrow morning and set tonight. I believe I am bruising under the grip of your hands.”
“Not enough, sug, not enough.” She let my arms go.
“I believe in God, Mama, but not in hell. Why, I do believe that Granddaddy Ellsworth is all the devil I wish to know.”
“Your Granddaddy Ellsworth is a useless pervert, darlin’. He isn’t showing you heaven or hell, just perversion.”
“I believe in you, Mama,” I said and put my arms around her.
She hugged me so tightly that I felt her enormous strength. Then she stepped back and looked at me long and hard.
“You’re a beauty,” she whispered, “blessed by God with good looks. New York City loves good looks. You’re going there, honey. The streets are lined in dog shit and gold. The nights are filled with music and yearning. The days are worn by toil and disappointment. Dawn is filled with hope and taunted by despair. Dusk carries the weight of success and the drowning pool of failure—you’re going there, darlin’, going to the land of the corrupt and the compassionate, going to the land of the chosen, going to laugh and to weep and to dance with the lighthearted. You are going there to love and you are going there to grieve. You are going for the euphoria of an evening under the street-lamps of New York City where everything you touch is blessed, and everything you desire is a heavy weight on your back. There is your heaven, daughter. There is your wondrous hell.”
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