I once heard Dad say that the bear who ate my mother did him a favor by saving us the cost of her burial. Perhaps, in a strange way, Dad did me a favor, providing some image, at least, of the woman who gave me life. You see, I never got a chance to know her, so I make her up. The black and white photo, hidden in Dad’s desk drawer – the drawer where he keeps his whiskey shows a woman with short dark hair and freckled arms. I never saw anyone like her until that day at the Stop & Shop.
She bought something small enough to fit into a quart-sized, paper bag. It wasn’t heavy; it swung in her fingers as she walked. I decided it was a birthday card; a special one – for me. In fact, there were ten birthday cards in that bag; one for each of the birthdays I had celebrated without her. I wondered what she would write on the cards.
“To my dearest daughter… Love, Mommy.” I couldn’t imagine what would go in the middle, between dearest daughter and love. That was why I followed her; so I could watch her write the messages in beautiful long-hand script, slide each card into its envelope, lick the shiny glue edges, seal them, and drop them into the mailbox, kissing each one before she slipped it through the slot.
She walked fast. I had to skip to keep up. Her skirt swayed left, right; swing, swoosh; it was a very pretty skirt with wide pleats of brown, beige, charcoal and gold – earthy, autumn colors. Her blouse, short-sleeved and crisp, with no wrinkles bunched at the edges of the collar, revealed her skill with an iron.
When she stopped at a corner to look for passing cars, I waited a few yards behind. I didn’t want to stand next to her just yet. She crossed the street. Two blocks down, I crossed as well, and skipping fast, caught up to her shadow. It stretched grotesque and crooked, while skimming over sidewalk cracks in the afternoon sun. I carefully avoided the cracks.
I wondered if she kept lipstick and powder in the handbag that slung over her shoulder. I decided the lipstick was called Romance. I imagined her removing the tortoise-shell cap, twisting the gold tube, and a rising bullet of smooth dark crimson appeared. She would apply it to her lips with skill, and finish by pressing her mouth on a tissue, leaving a paper smile behind, cracked with tiny rivulet patterns in a passionate, blood-stain kiss. I would ask if I could keep the tissue.
She turned up a drive and walked to the side of a clapboard house, removing a key from her purse. She stopped, pulled open a steel-framed, screen door, and hesitated, with the door resting on her back as she inserted her key into the lock. All I could see was her screened silhouette, except her ankles – clearly exposed, in brown leather pumps, beneath the door frame. Before I memorized the density and curves of those ankles, one by one, each foot stepped up, and forward, and out of sight, until nothing was left, except the sound – a screen door – slammed – like the slap of a grizzly’s paw.