My father wasn't home. He had been gone for almost three days this time. When he came home sometimes he tickled me until I almost peed in my pants. But when he was gone, I felt calm. I stuck my tongue into the groove where my front tooth had been. It tasted good, kind of sweet and rusty.
My father had punched the tooth out. Nobody asked about it. They just assumed I'd lost it. Not telling wasn't lying. Your father has never told a single lie, my mother told me. As she said this she swallowed, hard, and looked straight ahead.
She said that loving a great man wasn't easy, but she knew, in her heart, it was the path God had chosen for her. Sometimes I sat on the stoop with her while she smoked. I liked the way she tapped the cigarette case against the steps. Her lips were stained Wine on Ice, a red deeper than blood. Lipstick was all she ever wore on her face. That was something her mother taught her, she said. Less can be more. Don't let them think you try too hard. I wasn't sure who she meant but I listened carefully. When she smoked she seemed different, not the lady she was when my father was home. "Everyone has their vices," she told me, "you don't need to tell Daddy about this."
It felt important, sharing her secret. She looked out at the road as if she was waiting for someone.
We had other secrets, too. Sometimes, on the Sundays when my father was gone and she was too tired, we watched Oral Roberts instead of going to church.
We'd decided together that I was going to be an angel for Halloween. The Littlest Angel. The Littlest Angel gave Jesus a collection of his most favorite things. A robin's egg, a tiger's eye marble, a catcher's mitt.
My mother told me the story of the Littlest Angel almost every night. "And what would you present to God, as your gift?" she asked me. This was a serious question and I thought about it for a long time.
I imagined the list of things I would present to God. There were the angel wings my grandmother had made for me three months before she fell down the stairs at Luby's, broke her hip, went to the hospital and never made it out again. The wings were white mesh with silver slivers all over and real white feathers around the edges.
The other things on my list weren't mine. A porcelain cat the color of orange marmalade that stayed over the fake fireplace mantle in the living room. Her name was Marmy and she licked her tiny paw as demurely as my grandmother used to pull off her driving gloves with her fingertips. A lavender brush that sat on my mother's dresser. It smelled of Tuberose perfume. I still hadn't decided what else should be on the list.
- - -
It was getting late. My mother sat watching The Lawrence Welk Show in the living room. I was hungry, but I knew she was sad so I turned on my Lite Brite and fed my pet doodle bugs and waited. After a long time I went into the living room. She was sitting on the floor in the dark. The television flickered bluish light across her face.
"It's dark in here," I told her.
"My head hurts, Laura. Can you go back in your room and play while I have a rest?"
"Okay. But I'm scared of the dark."
"Turn on your light, then," she told me.
I left her alone. My doodle bugs lived in a flowerpot in my windowsill. I pulled out the little cars from the Game of Life and put Cheesika, the littlest doodle bug, into the pink car. Rain pelted the window and the raindrops ran down in streams across the windowpane. They made a good lake for Cheesika to drive over.
Thunder clapped and sheet lightening struck. The Lite Brite went out. I was still. I lowered Cheesika carefully into the flower pot. I couldn't see her crawl into the dirt. I called out to my mother, but she didn't answer.
I walked slowly back into the living room.
She was still there, sitting Indian style on the floor. All the lights were out.
"The power went out," she said.
"I bumped my leg," I lied.
"You should have waited for your eyes to adjust."
"Can you write my list for me?" I asked her.
She sighed. "It's bedtime, anyway."
She stared at the dark television screen as if there were light in it. I didn't say anything. I walked over to the window and stood in front of it for a long time. I stared at the punched-out black night. Then I pressed my palms against the windowpane and felt its cool hard surface. I stuck my tongue into the groove in my gum. The glass felt just the way my groove tasted. Cold and hard, a deep, sweet ache.
About the author:
Claudia Smith's stories have appeared in Hobart, Pig Iron Malt, and Word Riot. She has stories forthcoming online in the Salt River Review and Zacatecas: A Review of Contemporary Word. She also has a story coming out in print this fall in The First Line. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, Nathen Hinson.