Ashes

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December 21, 2018 by The Citron Review

by Linda G. White

 

With shaking fingers, he reaches for the unfiltered Camels in his shirt pocket and strikes a match to light his cigarette, hoping to quell the nausea, but the pain and the nausea only get worse.

“You poisoned me!” he says, holding his stomach with one hand and pushing himself from the table with his feet, increasing the pain as he does so.

“How could I? We both ate da same t’ing and I’m not sick.”

Mom’s broken English is devoid of sympathy and delivered with a tinge of sarcasm. She doesn’t believe he is sick, not until he starts throwing up and demanding, between successive waves of nausea, that she confess. Within the hour he is driving himself to the hospital, because he never taught her to drive.

His appendix bursts on the operating table.

Even though my father doesn’t die, it heralds the end of everything.

*

Dad strikes up a friendship with his hospital roommate, and it isn’t long before they and their wives establish a foursome for playing cards that soon morphs into two parties meeting on the side, two friendlier-than-they-should-be companions huddling in darkened corners of unsuspecting alleys half-hidden by clouds of cigarette smoke, and two people longing for something they think is missing from their lives, having drinks and sharing intimate conversations in out-of-the-way places. Dad and his new friend’s wife, Lena, become lovers, securing the leads in an age-old story titled Marriage on the Rocks while their respective halves are reduced to inconsequential extras.

*

Awakening to the sound of my mother’s angered voice late one evening a few months later, I hear the screen door creak. Stepping inside, my father is pulled into a fierce eddy of accusations.

“You were wid her, weren’ you?”

Standing in my bare feet beside my parents’ empty bed, I watch my father pull a couple of heavy gray work pants and a pair of faded jeans from the closet, bending their wire hangers in the process. They squeak, swinging back and forth. Grabbing some underwear, socks, and several white t-shirts from the dresser, Dad leaves my mother’s neatly folded slips untouched and shoves the ill-fitting drawer back into place. Picking through a basket of dirty laundry in the corner, he removes three plaid flannel shirts and stuffs them into a brown paper grocery sack along with a handful of other necessities – shaving cream and razor, a toothbrush whose bristles no longer stand tall. Panic rises in the straining timbre of my mother’s voice.

When she turns and sees me, she demands I do my part.

“Tell him he can’t go!”

I can’t find a voice to counter hers, one not buried under the weight of her low self-esteem and unrelenting pain. I can’t locate the voice that might alter the course of this chain of events. But I have a nascent understanding that the man I adore is about to walk out that wood-framed screen door for the last time.

Mom grabs my arm, pressing her fingers into the flesh above my elbow. Yanking me in my father’s direction until I brush against the thick-ish brown paper of his makeshift suitcase, she pushes me in front of her, releasing her grip. My arm registers an ashen dent that quickly flushes.

“Make him stop!”

Her words scrape my cheek, whizzing past my ear before she turns her attention, once more, to him.

“You have t’ree girls to take care of; how can I feed dem? How can you do dis to me?”

“Daddy?” I whimper.

He stoops down, leaning so close I can feel his breath on my face and taste his cigarette in the air that hangs between us. Tapping my cheek with the middle three fingers of his right hand, he says, “It’s okay, Sugar,” his voice firm but reasonable.

Mom seizes his arm to keep him from turning his back on her, but he shrugs her off as easily as a piece of lint. Making his way the few steps to the living room, his fist closes over the top of his suitcase-bag, scrunching it into a pseudo handle. An ever-present Camel dangles from his lips. Looking beyond him through the dark screen, I see his ’50-something Chevy waiting on the rocky path in front of the house.

Someone is sitting in it.

Someone who doesn’t care that I am only eight—and my two sisters, barely six and two. Someone who causes the hopelessness in my mother’s voice to spread through her limbs like wet cement. Someone whose eyes tell me, when they meet mine, that things are going to be different from now on.

Pushing the door open, my father stops midway to look back. The door’s rusty hinges strain and protest as this film approaches its denouement. My parents’ eyes lock for one, long second—one in which my mother’s despairing situation expands fully.

Ashes swell with firelight as my father presses his cigarette between the fleshy pads of his thumb and forefinger, puts it between his lips, and inhales deeply. Its length shortens; its light expires. The lifeless ashes left on its tip rise slightly on my father’s breath before they are sacrificed in the darkness. They waft to their doom in the silence.

Dad removes the stub of his cigarette and drops it on the sidewalk, crushing the remaining life out of it with the sole of his work boot as the screen door bangs shut.

 

Linda G. White was awarded the 2015 Calyx Journal’s Margarita Donnelly Prize for Prose for her story, “Photograph.” Her work has appeared in Drunk Monkeys, Recovering the Self: A Journal of Hope and Healing, and Colored Chalk. She garnered two Honorable Mentions from New Millennium Writings, and was a Finalist in NMW’s 43rd contest. She authors a blog at www.lindagwhite.wordpress.com and is currently working on a memoir called Poisoned Apples.

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