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The Throwaway Piece

The beginning

By Jo Ann Hernandez
Published on LatinoLA: December 12, 2008


The Throwaway Piece


I didn't start out as a State Kid.

Name's Jewel.
Called puny by some.
Five one and small for sixteen.

I heard my mom complain that I was
four before she slept a full night.

I was a demanding baby, she told me.

Always crying.

Sickly.

Except, I think, all her boyfriends had
more to do with her not sleeping.

I didn't start out as a foster kid.

My mom banked on 'their situation'
getting better. Whenever their cash supply
grew smaller, her dreams became bigger.

At four, my mom and I lived
in an apartment complex with
an inner courtyard, where the
smells of everyone's supper mingled:
boiled cabbage,
roasted jalape??os, and
spaghetti sauce.

My mom and I squeezed into
two rooms and a kitchenette
with smoke-stained paint,
smudged fingerprints around the doorknobs,
and bars on the windows.

Neighbors became privy to each
other's lives through apartment walls.
People turned up their televisions
to drown out kids who screamed for mercy

or maybe love.

Families made do with what they had and
dreamed their hope-driven dreams of what could be.

~
"Mommy, where you going?"
"Out."
"Why?"
"Because."
"Cause why?"
"Because you're such a little question box."

I stand next to the dresser, my hands locked on the edge, barely able to see over the top. In my jean overalls and a yellow shirt, I watch my mother in the mirror lining her green eyes with make-up. "So you be pretty."

"Jewel, I've told you to stop speaking like the other kids on the block. We want our new daddy to be proud of us. You have to speak proper English." Mom smiles into the mirror and blows me a kiss.

I catch the kiss and pat my cheek, enjoying the game she plays with me. If I can keep Mom playing, maybe she won't leave me alone.

"You're the most beautiful daughter a mother could have." Mom's waist-length black hair shimmers as she bends forward to color in her lips. She smacks at her pale reflection and sucks in her cheeks.

I don't smile. The worry feeling leeches into my body as the stomps of the Dragon get loud. I saw him in a book, and now he haunts the nights when Mommy is gone.

When my mom is stronger, I'll be able to tell her about the Dragon. She'll chase it away. For now, I have to be a brave daughter for my mom. "I wanna go."

Mom tilts her head and winks at me. "No. This is grown-up playtime. Maybe tomorrow we can do something. Would you like to go to the park?"

I nod then crawl on top of Mom's double bed. The one place the Dragon can't come. Mom crosses the room and picks a dress from the closet.
"What about this one, honey bunch?" She holds the outfit up by the hanger. A scarlet sequined dress, short-sleeved, split up the side, sparkles in the light.

I smile. I like the color red. "You gonna bring me home a daddy?" This is Mom's favorite game.

Mom pulls the dress over her head, still talking. She pops her head out of the top, saying, "Tonight's the night, kid. The love potion is going to work. I've this strong feeling tonight is going to be magic."

I kneel and bounce on the bed, clapping my hands. "I like magic shows."

Mom struggles with the clasps on the back of her dress. "Yeah, your kind of magic's fun, but it doesn't pay the bills."

I hate the word "bills," even though I don't know what the word means. It makes the sound of my mother's voice change to sad and sometimes mean. "What would we be like with a daddy?" I flop forward and lie on my stomach, my feet in the air. I spy the face of the Dragon in the mirror, but the image is gone before my mother looks up.

She checks her watch, which has her name, Angela, spelled in diamond chips across the band. From the closet, she pulls out silver strap heels, sits down next to me, and strokes my cheek. "One day we're going to meet a magic prince. He's going to take us away, out of this tenement to live in a fabulous house."

I ask more to keep the dream going and my mother from leaving. "Will I have toys? And dolls?" I roll over, hang my head off the bed, and upside down, watch my mother strap the heels to her ankles.

"Yes, you'll have your own room, filled with toys, dolls, everything your heart desires. I'll have a room to do my art work. I won't have to work at the drugstore because he will be very successful. People will respect him. Every time they meet me, they'll treat me well because I'm his wife. Other fine ladies will invite me to their homes to play bridge."

"What's bridge, Mommy?" I knot my forehead. Is this new to the game?

"It's a game your new daddy will teach me. He'll like to teach me a lot of things so he can be really proud of me. I'll learn fast." My mother stands to check herself in the mirror and runs her hands over her flat stomach and her trim hips.

I feel the Dragon's hot breath on my legs. "Are you leaving me?" I search for magic words to keep my mother near.

"It's time, sweetheart." My mother swings me onto her hip. She steps out into the hallway and walks on a once blue, now gray, strip of carpet. It runs the length of the hallway with worn out spots in front of each doorway.

The hallway light bulb has been out since last week, and the paycheck isn't due for several more days. Light from my mother's bedroom fades into the dark by the time we reach my room. My ears fill with the snorts from the Dragon. I bury my face in my mother's neck.

She gives me an extra tight squeeze when she feels me tremble. "Silly girl. Mommy won't let the boogeyman get you. I promise. I'll never let anything hurt you."

My mother squeezes me too tight, and I feel my breath caught in my body. This hug is more for her than for me, so I wrap my chubby arms around my mother's neck. "I love you, Mommy."

She flips on the light of my bedroom. A small white bed comes into view. She sets me on the bed, helps me undress and slips my pajamas over my head. "When you get older, you'll be able to help me more by doing this yourself."

I grab and pull my pajama top down hard to get rid of the wrinkles and check if my mother notices.

She reaches over the bed, and I fill my nose with her perfume. She snatches a three-foot-long purple feather off the nightstand. I stand on the bed, and she waves the plume over me. "Evil spirits away with you. Only angels and good fairies visit my daughter tonight," she chants.

I jump from the bed and open the closet door; my mother shakes the feather at every corner. I shut the door and rush to lift the skirt of my bed. With the purple feather, my mother sweeps the floor beneath the bed and chants. I giggle as I stand at the door to the hallway. She wiggles the feather around the doorway then tickles me all over my body.

I run around her, and she chases me onto the bed. I bounce on my bed, and she replaces the feather into the jar next to the lamp.

My mother fluffs the pillow and slips the covers over my doll and me. I grip the ribboned edges of the blanket.

"Dream good dreams tonight, baby." She kisses me on the cheek.

I touch my cheek and feel the sticky lipstick. "I don't wanna be alone."

She stops at the door; her shoulders stiffen into corners. "If you need anything, you just go next door. Mrs. Flores will let you in, but she'll charge me if you go over."

I stretch my arms out to my mommy. "I'm sad when you're gone."

She stands at the doorway, sparkling in the light. "I know, honey. I'm sorry." She turns around. "Mommy has to go. You want Mommy to find a new daddy, don't you?" The whine in her voice is as loud as mine.

I wipe my nose with the back of my hand.

My mom sighs, goes to the bathroom, and comes back clutching toilet paper. "Wipe your nose. I count on my big girl to help me out. I can count on you, can't I? You understand why I have to go. I'm doing this for you as much as myself."

I bury my face in the tissue and blow. She takes the knotted wad from me and drops it into the basket next to my bed.

"I'm so very proud of you." My mom tucks the sheet around my shoulders. "The best daughter in the whole wide world. I love you, sweetie." She kisses my forehead. "You have to be the best daughter in the whole wide world to help your mommy. Okay?"

I watch my mother walk to the door then flick off the bedroom light.

"Look, I've left the light on in my bedroom. You'll be able to see if you want." She disappears down the hallway, the sounds of her footsteps disappearing with her.

I reach over to the lamp but stop. I sniff and smell the scorch of Dragon flames. Quick, I pull my legs up and strain for the light at the end of the hallway.

Light is where mommy is.

I listen to the sounds of leaving. The door shuts behind my mother. The best daughter in the whole wide world lies with her eyes bolted wide open and listens to the noises, picking apart the house-talking sounds from the Dragon sounds. The kiss on my forehead grows cold as the room fills with shadows that stalk and haunt.

About Jo Ann Hernandez:
Lives in San Antonio, TX. Teaching creative writing to young people. BronzeWord supports people of color writers to edit, sell and publish their work.
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