None of the family was too surprised when Momma didn’t return from her trip to Las Vegas.
“Charlene always was a wild one,” Aunt Sadie said, making a small sign of the cross on her chest. “She don’t give a fig for those three young ‘uns. Dumps ’em on any critter that’ll take ‘em.”
Aunt Lou, shook her head, kinda sad like, and shoved a cookie at me. “Y’ all go out and play with yor brothers. No call for ya to be sittin’ there listenin’ to yor elders.”
I sat on the porch, and my aunts’ voices drifted though the open window.
“Member how she came home last time with two black eyes, and her lip cut so bad we had to get th’ doc to stitch it?” Lou said.
“When she took up with Billy Joe?”
“Yup — heard he did jail time. Took some woman for her savings,” Lou replied
“I’m hopin’ Charlene ain’t taken up with him again. I pity them kids of hers, they ain’t got no life.”
I didn’t want to hear no more, and clapped my hands over my ears. They was so wrong. When momma was home, things was good. Momma wasn’t into praying and washing all the time, like Aunt Sadie and Lou. We had burgers or pizza most nights. When uncles called an’ they went upstairs with Momma, her giggling fit to bust, why we had a fine ol’ time sitting in the crawl space under the porch, sharin’ beer we stole from the fridge. One time I took the truck keys from one of them big ‘ol boys momma was sleepin’ with — took me an’ Bubba an’ Chuck on a wild ride across the fields and we didn’t even get a whuppin’ for it.
Momma had been gone fer about three years when my thirteenth birthday came round. The circus was in the next town. I’d never bin to a circus so took my savin’s from the jar under my bed an’ caught the bus to where it was at. I guess my eyes was poppin’ what with the elephants and lions and the ladies in spangles tights spinnin’ from ropes way at the top of the tent. When it was over I bought a taffy apple and tried out the side shows. I won a doll on the rifle shoot, and gave it to a l’il ‘ol girl who was cryin’ fit to bust cause she had to go home. One of the shows was called sleepin’ beauty, although I wasn’t that interested I still had six cents left and thought I may as well go fer broke and spend the lot. It were dark in th’ tent save fer one light bouncing offa glass coffin. A shiver went up my spine as I walked up ta take a look.
I opened my mouth in a silent scream ‘cause there lay Momma all waxy and still. I knew straight off it was her, she still had the little scar on her lip where Doc had stitched it. I started hollerin’ and cryin’ and the side-show owner pulled me outside.
“What ya makin’ all that fuss for, boy?” he said.
“That’s my momma you got in that there glass case.”
I swear his hair stood on end. He put his hand over my mouth and whispered.
“Listen here, boy. She ain’t real, she’s made a wax — so I’ll give yor six cents back and a dollar extra to keep yor mouth shut.”
“You kin keep your doggoned money — I know that’s my Momma — I’m telling the sheriff.”
His fingers went tight on my shoulders and he said in a soothing tone. “Okay here’s the truth of it. She was sold to me a while back by some passing stranger. She was already laid in that airtight coffin, lookin’ pretty as a kitten. I didn’t want no one shoving her in some dark hole and shovelling dirt on her. Now, do you want that to happen? Cause sure as hell it will if you tell the Sheriff. This way you kin see her — fer free whenever we come to town.”
Well my legs was all weak and my head in a whirl while I thought about what he said. Always beautiful or moulderin’ in some grave, didn’t seem like a choice to me.
“Her name’s Charlene,” I said and walked away.
I go and see Momma every year when the circus hits town. The sideshow keeper lets me talk to her alone between shows. I tell her about the kids, how Bubba got hitched last year and has a young ‘un on the way, and how Chuck joined the Marines and is doing fine. She looks so alive, well, nothin’ that some face cream wouldn’t fix. Sometimes I wish she could talk — tell me what happened — if it was Billy Joe that kilt her, and sold her to the circus.
Maureen Wilkinson is a British writer, who starts with the idea of writing a moving literary piece and always seems to end up with a dead body. Ah well, maybe some day!