fiction: Marla Cantrell
I was born on a day so hot shingles melted on rooftops, all across town. My mama is telling me this, has told me this a hundred times, and is telling me again because the story shows her at her most valiant, shows her in the kind of pain epidurals were made for, though she didn’t mind at all. “Not one bit,” she says, and licks the tiniest bit of icing from the bakery cake right off her fingers.
The way I would start is this: I was born on the Fourth of July, which is true and which is today, but this escapes my mama. She has never celebrated Independence Day. She has seen it always as a day that recollects war. She has had enough of war.
Instead, it’s this story. The shingles melting, the grass golden in its death, and my daddy passed out in the bedroom in the middle of the afternoon. “You remember our bedroom, Norma Lee. Those wool army blankets over the windows so your daddy could sleep. That’s what happens when you work the graveyard shift, when you work from midnight until who knows when.”
Mama likes this part of the story. It takes my daddy out of the picture.
I pick up a blue rose, made entirely of frosting, off the corner of my cake, and plop it in my mouth.
Mama’s eyes narrow. “You were such a small baby,” she says, as if to indicate her displeasure at my size now. She is a narrow woman who eats from my old baby plate to stay that way.
“So I left him in that bed,” she says.
I breathe out, tap the table with my fork. None of it stops her. I know she left him there. I know that when he woke and found her gone, he didn’t read the note she left on the kitchen table. I know that he headed to Tipsy’s Bar and Grill on Tupelo Street and drank beer until it was time to go to work.
He didn’t meet me until the next day, when I was almost an entire day old.
Mama pats my hand. “It’s not what killed the marriage,” she says.
Which is to say it is exactly what killed the marriage.
My birthday cake has white marshmallow frosting so shiny I can see my reflection. I pick up the knife and slice off another skinny piece.
“Norma Lee,” my mama says, her voice heavy with displeasure, which makes me cut off another piece.
“Y’all didn’t divorce until I was seven,” I say, like an attorney who’s just discovered new evidence.
“Wasn’t your fault, I told you that.”
I hear the first firecracker of the night, just as the sky is darkening. Chance and Chase, the kids next door, are wild for fireworks. Chance, the oldest, who’s maybe twelve, yells, “Chase, you dummy, don’t light ’em one at a time. Light ’em all up!”
Mama rises, goes to the kitchen window, closes it. “You like to have killed me being born. Doc Patton said I’d never have another child.” My mama touches her throat, pushes a stray lock of hair, dyed black as coal, back behind her ear.
I say nothing, so she says, “I only tell you this in case you’re thinking of having children of your own.”
At thirty-three, with no prospects for love, the thought of children seems like a broken promise.
A bottle rocket screams past the window, lands in the bushes. One of the boys calls out, “You got to shoot ’em in the other direction. Old Mrs. Hannah’ll call the cops sure as she’ll scratch her own butt,” and then laughter erupts.
Mama’s face goes red, then white, and then red again.
“They don’t mean anything,” I say. “Just boys being boys.”
“Their mama needs to get control. That youngest one can’t be older than six or seven. There is no daddy. Or there’s a different daddy for each of them, and neither one is around.” Mama waves her hand in front of her face. “I forget which.”
I look at the clock. It is almost eight. My birthday will be over in four more hours.
“My own daddy, now he was a fine gentleman. He treated my sweet mama like a queen. The war, though,” Mama says, twisting a dish towel between her hands, turning it into a rope. “He slept with a pistol underneath his pillow. If you got up after everybody had gone to bed you might get shot. We children understood that. Daddy pulled that pistol on your Grandmama Ethel when she stayed over once. She didn’t know the rules. I got up, and there she was in the hall, her hands raised like a bank robber. She was saying, ‘Jimmy, it’s me. It’s your ma. Put the gun down, Jimmy.’ She never stayed past dark again.”
All across town fireworks are going off now, the sky turning into a big color wheel of light and smoke.
“Daddy went to war,” I say. “He never talks about it. Not ever.”
“You wouldn’t want him to.”
“He told you, though. Surely he told you.”
“By and by,” she says. “By and by.”
I go stand by the window. Chase and Chance are in their backyard. They’ve brought out the big guns: roman candles, towering fountains, cherry bombs. The grass is the color of hay. There is not a mama or daddy in sight.
I watch for a while, but they don’t light a thing, just walk around their bounty like kids playing musical chairs, waiting for the song to stop. It is only after I sit down, after I finally turn away, that I hear a boom, and then whooping, and then dead quiet.
“We’re going to have to wear ear muffs before this night is over,” Mama says.
Not five minutes later, someone is beating on our door so hard it shakes. When I open it, Chase and Chance are standing there, white-faced, sweaty. They point to the fire they’ve caused. It is licking the air with its long fingers. It is snapping and sparking. Chase starts to cry. Chance croaks out, “Help us.” It is more like a whimper.
Mama rushes past them. She’s grabbed our jumbo water hose and she’s stretching it as far as she can. I’m right behind her, turning on the faucet. I run back inside and head for the linen closet. On the top shelf are the old army blankets. I grab three. Hand two off to Chase and Chance. We run like Olympians toward the flames and unfurl our blankets. Chase is saying, “Dammit, dammit, dammit,” and my mama doesn’t even shush him.
We are all water then, and fire, and beaters of the flames. Mama misdirects the hose and soaks the three of us. The flames seem to die down, seem to crouch for a second, but then they catch air and zoom back to life. “We may have to call the fire department,” I call out, and the boys both howl. They’re thinking they could go to jail, I suspect. They have faces that look like they understand incarceration. I push them behind me with one arm, and Mama keeps spraying.
“All y’all throw your blankets on the fire,” she says, and the boys hesitate. She points to three spots where the blankets should go. It doesn’t make sense to them, to give up their only weapons on this burning battlefield. “Go on!” she yells, and we do as we’re told. The fire reacts, sizzles, smoke rising from the edges. Mama stomps the covers down. She keeps the hose going, all across the thick wool, until they’re sopping wet.
Chance and Chase are the kind of forlorn kids you see in ads about hunger. Chance has a skinny face, eyes that are too close together, and dimples that make you forget everything else. Chase has front teeth that overlap, and ears that stick out, and brows that knit together when he talks.
“What were you thinking?” Mama asks, but neither boy answers.
We stand like this for maybe five minutes, vigilant, Chase holding onto Chance’s arm. “Let’s go inside,” Mama says. “If the fire spikes up again, we can be out here in a heartbeat.”
Chance and Chase follow us. Their faces glow when they see the cake. I grab towels from the laundry room and we dry off as best we can.
“We’re sorry as sin,” Chance says.
“You could’ve killed somebody,” Mama says, and then she looks at them and backs off. “It’s my daughter’s birthday,” she says, and points at me. “Norma Lee’s.”
“Sit down,” I say. “Help me finish off this cake.
They are happy eaters. They smile with frosting on their teeth.
When the phone rings, Mama motions for me to answer it. When I do, I hear Daddy’s voice.
“Hey, Honey,” he says. “Your mama been telling you about the day you were born?”
“Yep,” I say.
“Did she tell you you’re not responsible for our divorce?”
“Twice,” I say.
The line goes quiet, but then Daddy says. “It really wasn’t your fault, Norma Lee.” He coughs, inhales, says, “Wasn’t her fault, either. Figured it was high time I owned up to that.”
The static on the line ricochets between him and me.
“Well, anyway,” he finally says. “I wanted to say I love you both.”
Mama is wiping Chase’s face with the dish towel, and he is leaning into it like it’s the best part of his long, hard day. I’ve never imagined her the way she was before I came along, the way she was before her heart broke and daddy left, but I imagine it now. I did not ruin her marriage. I did not ruin her life. The war, who knows, maybe the war did it, but who can stop a war?
The city park is having their fireworks show, not a half mile from here. Great spiders of light arc above us, bomb the darkness, rush in through our kitchen window. Mama turns toward me, reaches out and grabs my hand, kisses it, suddenly, as if she’s stealing something. I have the telephone in my other hand, my daddy’s voice just barely a memory.
Chase and Chance are ready to head back outside. “Come go with us,” Chance says, and so we do, the four of us soldiering into the night, past the smoldering blankets, walking beneath a sky that is splintering above us, is coming apart, if you want to know the God’s honest truth. But right here, right now, we are held together. We are part of this night of a million shattered stars, fractured, sure, but filled with so much light, it hardly seems to matter.