Daddy’s Coming Home
My grandfather was a high school English teacher in New Jersey during the 1950s and 60s. He passed away recently. During the arduous process of going through his belongings, my brother found an old bank box, filled with thousands upon thousands of student submissions strewn throughout the middle of the twentieth century. He kept his favorite ones. Most of them are pretty tame – tests on the poignancy of Shakespeare, the dark quality of Poe, the mystique behind Lovecraft; you get the idea. But buried somewhere near the bottom of the box, there was a special, red folder, titled ‘Traumatic Essays.’ The topic for these prompts was pretty simple, though I’m not sure it would fly in modern schools.
“Write about something traumatic in your life.”
This one is titled –
Daddy’s Coming Home
“Wake up. Something’s happening.”
The first thing I heard was my mother’s soft voice. Mama always meant business when she used that inside voice. The first thing I saw was headlights. A beautiful, bright white luminescence dipped into my bedroom bay window like it were an open door.
“Jenny. You need to wake up. Do you see it? Tell me you can see it. I need you to tell me if you can see it.”
The light outside my window pulsated, bizarrely, as if in response to Mama’s question. The gooseflesh on my arm prickled uncomfortably. The thoughts in my mind raced from start to finish. I couldn’t argue with her this time. I couldn’t tell her she was crazy. It was undeniable. The light was there. And it was so damn bright that my bedroom looked like daytime.
I checked the watch on my nightstand just to be safe.
Was I crazy, now, too?
But it would not be the first time my mother shrugged me from sleep in the midst of one of her fits. And so I had to ask, though I did it with the most polite tone my tired mind could muster, for fear of the most brutal ass whoopin’ a country woman could offer.
“Mama… Did you leave your car on?”
I recoiled in fear of a slap. But my mother just laughed. I never remembered her laughing with her whole body like that. She laughed so hard she had to hold onto to her tiny, withering belly, for support. I thought she might make herself sick. Then she placed both hands on my shoulders, looked me dead in the eyes, and said –
“No, sleepy, it’s your father. He’s here. He’s finally home. Get dressed.”
And my heart shattered into all the old familiar pieces. I shifted my legs to the side and rubbed the remainder of what could be called sleep out of my eyes. I caught my breath. And I said;
“Mama… Daddy died. You know that. He’s ten years gone now.”
But my mother ignored me completely. She danced in front of the bed gleefully. She shrugged off her sweater and twirled it over her head. Then she sauntered off into the living room. She was singing one of her golden oldies. I hadn’t heard her sing it in years. I followed her with fresh tears on my face and a hand over my eyes.
The mystery light poured through the windows and illuminated our tiny little den like it were daytime. I tried to find the source. But that soon proved to be useless. The more I looked out the window, the more my eyes balked from the pressure. It felt like somebody took a giant floodlight and stapled it onto our front porch. I flicked the overhead switch a couple times just to make sure. The bulb in our house turned on. The bulb in the bedroom turned on. But you couldn’t tell the difference. The light had to be coming from outside.
“Mom…” I asked. “Who’s light is that?”
She ignored me again. Mama had entered full manic mode.
“They want us to play a song,” she ranted as she tore across our record collection. “You know, something to jog the memory. I was thinking Smokey. Oh, your father loved Smokey.”
The hope in my mother’s pale blue eyes made my stomach turn over. She stood and stared at me with one hand on her hip. Like she wondered why I wasn’t helping.
“I’m going to check outside,” I choked out. “You know, to see if he’s here yet…”
I tried to make my way to the front door in the living room. I figured some clown had to have parked in front of the house. My mother damn near tackled me on the way.
“No. NO. He’s here. He’s here. They said we need to play his song.”
She kicked and shouted and punched and cussed just to keep me from getting past. I turned around and tried to go for the phone, to call Dr. Wellington, but she blocked that too.
Then a flailing limb caught me in the mouth.
I threw up my hands, fell to the floor, and started to cry. I didn’t know what to do. I was confused. I was ashamed of her. I was ashamed of myself. I hated her. The next few words flew out of my mouth like a spit. It’s too late now to take them back.
“He’s dead. You know he’s fucking dead. You were there for the wake. You were there when they buried him. Why do you do this to me? Why do you torture me? Where is the light coming from? Who are they? Who are you? You’re not my mother. I want my fucking mother back.”
The slur of insults and questions fell out of me in my own release of pent up aggression. I thought the words would crush my poor mother. I wanted them to crush her. But she just straightened her shirt and pointed back to the shelf.
“Put on Smokey. Your father is coming home.”
I knew there were tears in my eyes. So did she. But she didn’t care. Mama’s finger still outstretched towards the shelf like I were her servant. There was nothing that could be said or done to convince her otherwise.
And so I wiped away my pride.
I walked over to the record player.
The album in question, a classic by the Miracles, stuck out on top. I pulled it from the sleeve, stuck it on the player, and set the needle in place. My mother’s haunting Soprano entered with the intro. She entered into a slow dance with herself as the light outside grew cautiously brighter.
“Ohh, la la la la…” she cooed. “I did you wrong…”
Then my mother paused. She looked like she heard something, so I listened.
A pair of footsteps rapped upstairs.
We lived alone.
I bolted from the room and rushed to hide in my bedroom. My mother followed suit. The two of us jammed into my closet, crammed underneath neatly hanging clothes while the echo of rushed footsteps worked their way through our house. They were on the second floor, now.
“Who’s here?” I whispered in a panic. “**Please, you’re scaring me. Tell me who’s here.*”
I didn’t notice the blood on her wrists until we were close. The color drained from her face like a bad reaction. She took the crook of her hand and stuck it under my chin. Thick red drops fell to stain my shirt. She pushed back my sweaty hair. Then she offered a sweet peck to my forehead. Just the way she always did. My mother looked excited for the first time in years.
“What did you do to yourself?” I begged. “Who is in the house?”
But she wasn’t listening. She didn’t say anything. My mother’s eyes closed as she became one with the music. Smokey worked his way through the second verse as the footsteps moved slowly down the stairs. I dug my fingernails into her shoulder as those horrible feet paused outside my bedroom door. The house started to shake as the light grew brighter. My mother’s smile grew wider. After a few moments, she became only an outline, obscured by the light in front of me. My head started to throb as my eyes and ears balked from the overwhelming shocks to my senses. White hot daggers of stress pulled at the front and back of my head like a tiny ice pick. But I kept listening. I kept looking into my mother’s eyes. Something inside of me knew… I needed to look into her eyes.
The ballad reached its final note.
“*I have to go, sweetheart, it’s time.” Mama whispered. “I love you. I love you. I love you.”
And those were the last words she said to me.
Because when Mama opened the door, the bright light went out. The footsteps went away. The house returned to peaceful, uninterrupted silence.
My mother pushed her wrists together in offering and fell to the floor.
It took a moment to realize she wasn’t breathing anymore.
Mama died that night. The ambulances didn’t make it in time.
And I still don’t know why.