Mama opened the can of salmon and dumped it into a glass bowl. She began to take a fork and dig out all the bones and brown pieces and toss them back into the can; the can had a picture of a large fish smiling up at me. “Girl, go get me an egg out of the refrigerator. Go on now.” She pushed her shirt sleeve back up to her elbow. I scooted down off the stool and dragged my feet all the way to the icebox. My feet were still a tad too big for my body, and I hadn’t quite grown into them yet. I knew when Mama made the smelly fish cakes, she and Daddy would be fighting. Having fish always meant we weren’t eating real meat for a while because Daddy had drunk the grocery money.
“Go get me a can of peas, Jade, and don’t shuffle.” I knew that meant to pick up my feet and quit dragging them. I focused on picking them up all the way to the cupboard, which was painted white but chipping away to reveal a much prettier yellow color underneath. “Get two cans, Jade.” “But Mama, we don’t got two cans.” “We don’t have two cans,” she repeated, correcting me as she chopped onion on the cutting board. “What about corn, Jade?” I reached up to the second shelf where the corn sat and grabbed a can. “When is Daddy coming home?” I was trying to mentally prepare.
“How long though?” Mama ignored the dread in my voice and continued to order out chores so that there would be less for him to find fault with. “Jade, you run along now and sweep the porch, and have Johnny bring in some wood.”
Mama crushed saltine crackers in her hands and tossed them into the bowl. I could tell she was worried. I tried to think of how to help her, but nothing much came to mind, and being a teenager, I had enough problems. This school year, my body seemed to change overnight, right about when I began to get my monthly visitor, as Mama called it. I found myself wanting a little more privacy than what I was accustomed to getting, and I was closing the door to my room all the time now. All I was doing was homework, but shutting my door just made me feel better.
I watched Mama stir the can of corn and add a dash of salt to the cast iron skillet. Her hair had come loose and was all sweaty from bending over the stove. No matter how hard she tried to put it up in a bun, it came out, and strands fell all around her neck and earlobes. She never wore jewelry anymore except her plain gold wedding band.
Lately, she had become very thin. It was as if one day, the weight suddenly slipped down her thighs and fell through the cracks of the wooden boards of our kitchen floor. I thought she had grown pale too, but the changes in her appearance hadn’t seemed to weaken her. I still got tired, just watching her work.
I walked outside and grabbed the broom and began to sweep the dust and leaves, wondering which daddy would come home tonight. If he had been drinking or had a bad day at work, we knew. All you had to do was look into his eyes, and they told you whether it was a night sighing from relief or if it was a night of not speaking and barely even breathing. I watched the dust kick up from a row of gravel as his truck pulled up at the side of the barn. I saw his gait and focused on his eyes as he drew closer and felt the color drain out of my face.
“I swear, Jade, you get uglier every day.” He reached his hand under my chin and smiled down at me, and an evil chortle escaped his mouth, coming from the dark place deep inside of him. I lowered my head and waited for the screen door to bang shut before I let the silent tear slip across my cheek and released the breath that I had been holding.
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