I try not to make eye contact, squeeze into the crowded elevator. Fasten the last button on my trench coat to conceal my naked breasts. Poncho whimpers as I attach the leash to his collar, so I kiss his round forehead and murmur, “We’ll make it, buddy. Almost there.” He trembles and licks remnants of still-damp vomit splattered down my sleeve.
Pee dribbles down my wrist before we make it outside. As I fish a crumpled tissue from my otherwise empty pocket, Poncho squats between two overgrown shrubs. He refuses to meet my eyes, so I soothe, “Don’t be embarrassed, Buddy. It’s my fault.” I exaggerate my wiping and force a wide smile. “See? It’s all cleaned up.” Stuff the tissue into my pocket.
My empty pocket.
My heart sloshes into my stomach.
No keys or cell. Nothing. My mind is as blank as the drizzling sky. I want to lie on the damp grass and disappear. Instead, I kick Poncho’s turd behind the bushes and retch. After I wipe my mouth with the pee-damp tissue, I tuck Poncho’s shivering body into my coat and start walking.
I have no idea where we’re heading, but Poncho needs me to figure this out. We pass New Bethel Baptist Church, and a man steps out to take a call. The choir’s voices spill out, “Return to the one who loves you unconditionally…”
It’s Sunday morning. Ma’s likely in the church basement, trying to save people like me from themselves. I tie Poncho to the bulletin board outside the front door and promise to be back in a jiff.
Sure enough, Ma’s smiling and scooping scrambled eggs onto a stooped man’s wobbling plate. A few hashbrowns fall to the floor as he shuffles towards the sausages. I wonder if the shaking is from age or addiction, search for tremors in the hands I’ve stuffed into my pockets.
When Ma sees it’s me next in line, her eyes brighten for a flash. Then the muscles in her jaw grow rigid. She clangs the vat lid shut and angry-whispers, “You smell like a brewery. Thought you were one of the regular drunks coming in for free grub.”
My cheeks flush and the blood glugs harder against my temples. Really, I don’t blame her. She suffered Pops’ struggle with sobriety — his good-husband Jekyll transformed into his monstrous Hyde. He’s been gone a decade, but I feel him inside of me sometimes.
Ma’s hands flutter to her neck. She says, “I’m sorry,” and closes her eyes. “It’s just hard to see you like this. It reminds me of your dad, and the good Lord knows how that turned out.” The gold cross on Ma’s chain gleams beneath the fluorescent lighting. She asks, “Are you doing alright?”
I force a sheepish grin and shrug. “I guess you could say that.” I’m morning-drunk and half-dressed, but Poncho and I are safe. I’m on probation at work, but I still have a job. I’ve got a place to live, unless I drink away next month’s rent.
Ma gives me a sidelong glance. She sighs and adds, “I won’t ask. The Lord don’t judge. Neither should I.” Her eyes soften, and I wonder whether she sees Pops when she looks at me. I look down to avoid the answer — think of how many times I’ve let her down. Like him. I notice my mismatched shoes.
“Ma — Poncho’s tied up outside. Can I get my spare key?”
She picks up the almost-empty vat of eggs. “Locked out, huh? Good, a reason to pay your old ma a visit.” I picture her sitting alone in one of her matching floral armchairs, drinking tea from the silver pot, scouring her worn leather Bible for answers.
“It’s not like that.” It really isn’t. “I’ve been busy.” Though I can’t remember most of it.
Can’t picture the last time I saw Ma or whether I’ll find a stranger passed out in my bed.
She eyes the trench coat. “Too busy for laundry?” She shakes her head and sighs. “And it’s time for a better bra.” Her hand flutters back up to her cross.
She returns with coffee, a tin-foiled plate and my key and says, “I’ve gotta get back to feeding the destitute.” Before she turns away, I take Ma’s hand, press it to my lips and whisper, “I’ll be better.” I don’t tell her I’ll visit more or sober up, but as I tuck Poncho back into my coat, I note the time for this afternoon’s AA meeting.
Rachel Laverdiere writes, pots and teaches in her little house on the Canadian prairies. She is CNF editor at Atticus Review and the creator of Hone & Polish Your Writing. Find Rachel’s latest prose in Longridge Review, Burningword Literary Journal, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Five South and other fine journals. Her CNF has appeared on Wigleaf’s Top 50 and has been nominated for Best of the Net and Pushcart Prize. For more, visit www.rachellaverdiere.com.