And I Was Small
Clarence Rice # 63456
Waupun, Wisconsin 53963
AND I WAS SMALL
Neon sign blinking: GOLDBAR. GOLDBAR. On/off. On/off. On/off. I stood watching. Thinking. Almost hypnotized. Off/on Off/on Off/on GOLDBAR GOLDBAR GOLDBAR. The night’s chill reminded me of what I had come to do. As I looked into the big plate glass window, a reflection was casted. A small slight figure clad in a soiled too large tee-shirt. Jeans clinging crustedly without knees. The face carried day-old-dirt with an eye-red stare. I approached the glass and placed my grimy face against the unwashed window. The silky voices of the Diablos softly serenaded the occupants of the bar and strained through the plate glass as fine flour through a sifter. My eyes scanned the bar for the someone in my life. My eyes glanced downward. “Damn. God, please!” I thought almost aloud. The door opened. A man came out.
“Mr. Fat Leavitt!” I said excitedly. “Have you seen her?”
He looked at me. His eyes whiskey-glazed. Then smiled as he recognized me.
“How’s it goin’?” he said. “Yeah, she’s in there.”
My face immediately returned to the plate glass window. My eyes swept the bar—carefully. There at the far table. It’s her!
“Mr. Fat Leavitt, will you tell her I’m out here?”
“Yeah, Junior, I’ll tell her.”
He stood still staring. His gaze was not fixed on anything in particular. He abruptly turned and walked back into the bar. Suddenly the chill-cold night’s air seemed to disappear. I felt light inside. It seemed like a long time before they came out. It might not have been. They came out. Together. My eyes met hers. They were the same whiskey-glazed eyes as Fat Leavitt’s—only softer.
“Mama, let’s go home.”
She smiled. The same smile I knew so well. It made me feel still lighter. Warmer.
“Yeah, let’s go home,” she replied. Fat, I goin’ home. My son is taking me home.”
Fat said nothing and walked off. I clutched Mama’s hands. They were warm but not soft. They were a Southern woman’s hands. We walked. Her unsteadiness made it seem as if we were both a little tipsy. The streets were empty and the two-storied flats which lined them looked desolate. The farther we got from the bar, the quieter it became. We said little to each other as we walked.
“You got your key?” she asked.
“Yeah Mama, I got it right here.”
Reaching with my free hand into the neck of the dirty, stretched tee-shirt, I produced it and the chain on which it was connected.
“That’s my little man. I think mine is at the bottom of my purse, with all the junk I got in there, I wouldn’t have never found it.”
We walked some more. Them stopped. We were in front of the building in which we lived. Home. As we entered the darkened hallway, the stench of puke reeked. Why do they have to use our hallway I thought. Catching hold of the banister, I started to remind Mama to watch the first step. But she had taken it instinctively. We climbed the steps slowly. We stopped before reaching the top of the steps.
“Mama, these steps are something else,” I said, mostly for her benefit.
“They sure are Junior,” she said. “One day we goin’ to have a house, one with no steps—maybe one or two.”
She smiled. I smiled back.
“There goin’ to be some good days ahead, did you play your number today?”
“Sure I played it, got the slip right here.” She started to go into her purse.
“Naw, Mama, I’ll see it when we get inside.”
We continued to climb the steps. When we reached the top I pulled the key from under my tee-shirt. She leaned against the hallway’s wall. She said something softly. I opened the door.
“Come on Mama, let’s go in.”
“Just standing here thinking,” she said softly, almost wistfully, “you know, I’m getting’ on up in age.”
“You just talking Mama—you ain’t goin’ to never get old. And you know something? You’ve looked the same, every since I knew you.”
She smiled again. I liked to see her smile. I took hold of her arm and we walked into the apartment. I led her to the couch. It was an old couch, but it had an almost-new cover on it. She sat down. There was nobody in the house but us. My sister and brother had gone to spend the week-end with my uncle. My father had been long gone, ever since I was a baby.
“How your feet feel Mama?”
“They feel tired, son.”
I looked at her. The smile was gone. It was as though life had written a story in her face. You could almost read it.
“I’ll go fix some nice hot water and put in some epsomsalt,” I said smilingly hoping my smile would bring a smile to her face. It seemed as if she tried, but couldn’t. I took the foot tub off of the coal heat stove. The water in the tub was not scalding because the fire had been out for a while. Yet it could still stand just a touch of cold water. After adding a smigit of cold water, I put in the epsomsalt. I knew how much to put in. I had done this many times before. I got an old sheet out of the hamper, then took a clean towel and face rag off the rack. Putting the old sheet around my neck and the towel and rag across my arm, I picked up the tub and took it into the living room. She sat staring at the wall, as though she could see through it.
“Let me take off those shoes.”
I then started to take off her shoes. First the left, then the right. I spreaded the sheet on the floor in front of her. Then put the tub on top of that sheet. I stuck my hand into the water. I did this not so much to see if it was warmed, but more-or-less to assure her. She lifted her legs and placed her feet into the tub.
“The water is just right,” she said. It made me feel good inside to know I had done something for her that she liked. I looked into the tub. The epsomsalt had settled to the bottom of the tub, but as she moved her feet, it swirled and made the water hazy.
“Junior, I got a lot on my mind,” she said looking downward at me. “I feel kinda bad.”
“Mama, don’t feel bad because then I go to start feelin’ bad.”
“Son, have I been a good mother to you?”
“Yeah Mama. You know you have.”
“Son haven’t I tried to do my best for you and Carl and Jean?” she continued. “Have you ever been hungry or barefooted?
“Mama, I ain’t never been barefooted and the only time I ever been hungry is when I was somewhere and couldn’t get home.” Somehow. Someway. The tail end of that sentence never reached Mama’s ears. God knows the answer to her question should have been a simple “No”. Why did I have to say more?
“Junior you mean to sit there and say you been hungry?” she began to weep.
“Mama, that ain’t what I said!” I whined, “I said…”
“You mean to say that I ain’t been taking care of my kids?” she said cutting me off. The alcohol was taking, had taken over. She started to weep openly.
“Junior, God knows I’ve tried!”
“Mama you didn’t…”
“Son, forgive me.”
I was trying to explain but she and the lump in my throat made it impossible. I put my head in her lap still trying to get the words out. They would not come. She then took her feet out of the water and white doing so, my head fell to the seat of the couch. I did not attempt to move. My mind was numb. All I knew was that I had hurt my mother’s feelings.
“Junior, I’m leaving,” she said. Tears were streaming down her face. “I’ve tried my best. I have tried to be both a mother and a father to you.”
“Mama, you ain’t failed.” I had more to say, but it just wouldn’t come out. She had finished drying her feet and was shaking her head slowly.
“Mama, please don’t leave!” I wanted to cry badly. The tears would not come. “I love you. I love you Mama!”
“Son I’m goin’ for a walk. And I might not be back.”
“Mama, don’t talk like that. Me and Carl and Jean all love you!”
“Junior I ain’t no good to myself.”
“Please quit talkin’ like that,” I begged. I knew it wasn’t her talking.
“I’m goin’ to start walkin’ and I ain’t goin’ to stop.”
“Please Mama, get you some rest.” I was pleading. She stood up. She picked up her purse. Tears were rolling down her face. She looked at me. I looked at her. I prayed to God she would see the hurt in my face.
“Junior, don’t wait up for me.”
The tears came. I cried. I cried. And I cried.
I felt helpless. She was gone. I had nobody. I had not yet realized the love I had for my brother and sister. I remember walking out into the night. Everything looked so still, so lifeless—as a child’s toys are when he is asleep. I walked in no particular direction. My legs seemed heavy. Traffic lights served no purpose. I walked through red, through yellow, through green. I said a prayer, made all the promises, but I had no faith. I still walked. When I got to the bridge I stopped. It was an old bridge that precariously stretched out into the night. Indecisively I started across, imagining the concrete under my feet giving way with each step. I looked down, the moon-lit tracks shone like fluorescent tubes in a murky sea of darkness. I walk on. There it was. Extended infinitely until it and bleak-nightish sky became one. Calm, as if to acknowledge my hurt. I wanted to thank it. It would have been appropriate. I walked slowly along its edges, the rocks bit through the thinned soles of my tennis shoes. I had never seen it so still. I knew it would be cool and encompassing. I thought of Mama and Carl and Jean and why I was there. I didn’t know. I wanted to be home. I ran. Through the rocks that hurt my feet. Across the bridge that spanned the moon-lit rails. Through the lights which were irrelevant. To the concrete building I had so long taken for granted. Up the darkened hallway steps. I ran. After I reached the top of the steps, I stopped. I wanted to lay there. And wait. I knew home would be lonely. I placed my face against the wooden bannister. I would catch my breath then go in. Alone. Then the door opened.
“Where you been Junior?”
She had tears in her eyes.
“I been lookin’ for you.” I lied.
“Come here son. Mama was worried about you.”
“Mama, I was worried about you too.”
I walked over to her. Tears were in my eyes. She took me in her arms, hugged me and kissed me on the top of my head.
“Do you love your Mama, Junior?”
“Yes Mama, better than anyone or anything in the world.”
I did, She was a big woman and I was small and we cried—together.