Mama was five the morning she discovered a frozen grasshopper stuck to a tobacco stalk on the family farm. Hands cupped to the cold, she cradled the tiny creature, blowing warm gentle air until fragile wings wriggled.
Go, she whispered, emptying her hands. Go forth and multiply.
Only too late did she realize the impossibility of what she'd done: the grasshopper had survived the first hard frost; there weren't any others to be found.
She told me how she cried and cried. And how, wanting to take the grasshopper inside and keep him warm forever, she searched all over until she found him next to the barn, flattened under the heel of a boot.
That's when I realized, she said, that anyone who gets close to me will eventually take leave, more often than not because of my own doing. This is my fate, and most days I accept it. I can only hope things turn out differently for you.
Now, I sit on the edge of her empty bed, savoring tobacco stolen from a pack of Newports after The Crazies came calling and she threw herself into the truck, leaving me to ponder this too-close madness while Daddy guns the hatchback up and down back alleys and parking lots, searching for our moon-lassoing hustler. Around here, we're accustomed to nights like this, but it doesn't always make it easy. Especially unhelpful are the times she calls home on the short-wave radio installed for occasions such as these, garbled reminders for me to clean the oven, not just the top but the inside, too, all the gunk gooped to the sides and bottom, or to put the milk back in the fridge before it spoils. What makes tonight different is the silence; I haven't heard a thing except when the phone rings and it's Daddy calling to see if she's come home. He gives me updates, too, like how there were twin mannequins dressed in tuxedos stuffed in the dumpster behind the old chapel over on Fourth.
My heart went cold, he said. Then I realized that's not how she'd do things, your mother. She'd make a bigger statement, don't you think? Plow headfirst into that huge window, slash her wrists with the shattered glass.
Sorry, he says, when it comes to him I haven't responded. Sometimes I forget who the grownups are around here.
He sounds sad--the chapel had been a safe bet. A lot of times Mama will squeal into the parking lot and sit quietly, drinking cold coffee and surveying how much has changed since the sun-squinty afternoon she stood in front of the plate glass window in a thrift-store sailor suit, holding a tattered bouquet of dandelions while Daddy, eyes missing the camera, tugged the too-short sleeves of a white suit borrowed from his brother. The picture sits on top of the television, and after she left tonight I took it out of the frame, stuffing it under my mattress for safekeeping, since the last time The Crazies rioted in her ear, Mama shredded almost every photo of her Daddy we had in the house. The only reason the one from their wedding day survived was because she passed out drunk on the bathroom floor, banging her head on the toilet on her way down. A purple bump sprouted on her forehead right after, but Daddy said to leave her be when I went to nudge her shoulder. The next day she didn't remember anything about her fit, and Daddy took her to a new doctor to get some meds, which worked for a while. But then she said they took away her love of knock-knock jokes and that was the end of that.
I'm lighting up a fresh cigarette, my packed suitcase sitting at the foot of the bed, when the phone rings.
She might be on the dunes, Daddy says, breathless as he rushes to make his point.
You can't drive on the beach after sundown, I say, dropping the cigarette to the floor. I stamp it with my slipper--one of Mama's, a beaded moccasin she made after a two-month “soul-finding” excursion to Arizona; Mama loses her soul the way other people lose socks.
When has that ever stopped your mother? says Dad. I imagine the lines between his eyebrows pinching in real thick and deep, the way they do when she flings beads across the room and screams for no reason. Mama designs jewelry—necklaces, bracelets. Silver earrings shaped like starfish or dolphins. Cute little critters that hide the chaos she feels inside, says Daddy. That bring calm to her nerves when nothing else works.
I'm here, I'm here. But then he drifts off again, and I can hear the waves pounding the shore where she might be, sloshing through high tide as his sigh rolls out over the top of the noise. Don't wait up, you hear? I have a feeling this one's gonna take a while. There's salami in the fridge.
What was that? But his attention is already on the next alley, the next bump of road marking the distance between where he is now and where she might be. I hang up.
Through the window the stars glitter hard and cold, Betelgeuse hanging low over the ocean. I flick a turquoise bead across the table at the same time the front door bangs open. Footsteps thud, accompanied by the hacking noise of someone clearing a thousand-year ache from compromised lungs. Wind kicks up in the bedroom; a deep chill takes hold. Clutching the handle of my suitcase I stand with frozen limbs, ready to wait out the coming storm.
BIO: Janet Freeman holds an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University. She has been writer-in-residence at the Julia and David White Artists' Colony, Dorset Colony House, and at Centrum. She has served as Membership Director at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and as an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College. In 2007 she founded Rough Copy, an online journal of creative arts. Visit her at www.janetfreeman.com.