It was that five o’clock quiet. That near dinner, husband-isn’t-home-hush that Mary drew close to. She was working flour through her fingers, kneading gluten into a biscuit dough and hoping for an even rise that Ed might even compliment if she kept the oven steady and hot. There was a familiar taste of Mississippi pollen on her breath and a yellow day of work under her fingernails.
She held the storm door open with a dusted Mary Jane, its match cleaned by a fresh breeze. Without the lulled hum carrying from the kitchen, it would seem no one was in the steaming home. Wind brought Spring in from the porch, with the dewy smell of honeysuckle and St. Valentines Day. There were framed portraits on a table by the wall. Three of her children when they were young: Charles at twelve with a cheeky grin; Jane Ellen almost grown, with her dark curls and doe eyes; and Missy, seven, lips already sweet as sugar. Mary kept in the drawer beneath them the photo of her angel, in a coffin at three. Over doilies stained yellow, pictures of her grandchildren. In the center was a photo of a little boy with a cap-gun Ed had passed down against Mary’s wishes. A boy so young could hardly hold the truth of a bullet in his thoughts. He sat in a child’s rocking chair on top of the couch cushion, grinning at Jane Ellen through the lens. Each frame carted memories in the afternoon light.
The dough was stiff and clung to her warm hands in the humidity. Mary rolled it thick and cut circles with the lip of an empty peach jar. She washed her hands and covered the tray with a damp cloth to rise until supper. Her mind wandered down Depression tracks as they always did before evening. She counted her blessings again. The one nice brown dress with pink ribbon on the hem, the record Jane Ellen and her husband had brought on their last visit, the beef she and Ed could afford again. She hummed the melody of In the Ghetto and thought of the still fresh babies her Jane Ellen had at home. Her youngest grandson and his sweet kisses captivated her mind a moment. His hair was blonde as sand and fine as talc powder, but his mother’s had been too. By sixteen he’d have a full head of dark horse hair.
A truck crushed down the gravel drive. Three footsteps echoed up the porch stairs, disjointed. Mary busied herself with collard greens, halving and dousing them in fat on the stove in a choking simmer. The figure in the doorway turned her in panic, and hand to her chest, she exhaled relief and hugged her son. He held himself against the doorway, like his shoulders held the weight Almighty.
“Now Charles, you know better than to scare an old woman!” She rubbed his cheek with her thumb. She could smell the habitual alcohol on his breath. She spared him the loss of her temper. “You go and wash up if you’re staying for supper. It’ll be ready before your father gets home.”
Charles left the kitchen in mud-caked boots. Leaving a trail on the mopped linoleum, he ran his fingers along the wall and balanced his weight against the wallpaper. He paused at the photos and turned them down on their faces. He felt too old to cry, too broken to be home. Tile kept the bathroom cold and the water colder against his cheeks. Flushing himself with the chill, he began to sob. He closed the door.
Mary continued to cook, adding a third helping of collards to the simmering pan. She worried not, but rejoiced at Charles’s return. Her heart was near to bursting with tremors of a filled nest.
The biscuits continued to rise. Her husband would walk in any moment, hungry and distracted. There was leftover chess pie from the church group in the fridge that she’d been saving for Valentines’ Day, but she could serve it as a treat for her two men. She smiled to herself and washed a floured bowl.
“Charles, bring another set of napkins for yourself when you come.” She spoke to the sink and herself, “I would have folded them real nice if I’d known you’d be home. Such a shame I’m already behind.” She looked over at the counter. “Why, the biscuits won’t even be ready in time.”
She waited for her son to respond and took the tray of dense dough to the oven. The creaking door flooded the warm house with the evening chill. She called again – “Charles? What’re you doin’ back there? Your father will be home soon and he’ll wanna know what you’re doin’ back- Charles?”
She sighed and worked her way down the hall, kicking over the shoe and letting the door swing to a close. Two fingers all veins and knuckle closed the latch. She looked over the fallen frames. A cough cut the hall in two. Mary turned. Her son was leaning against the bedroom door frame, his eyes red and hands shaking. His eyes still held tears, years of them. They twinkled like a movie star’s – that’s what Jane Ellen had always said, that Charles was handsome as a show horse – and something was missing. Mary held composure and spoke again,
“Charles, what’s going on?” She held herself but her tone slid cussedly. “Why did you come home tonight?”
Her son’s demeanor shifted again, becoming anxious. Charles’s voice crumpled beneath his throat and a sob rippled back. “Mama I never, Mama I- Mama I didn’t want to hurt anyone.” He had lost his grip, as he’d done when he was younger. She had been sure he’d outgrown it, having watched him hold Jane Ellen’s little baby the previous Christmas Eve.
She prayed to Almighty that Ed might walk in the back door and took her son by the shoulder. It was stiff and knotted. “Charles, what have you done? Answer me- why did you come here-”
Charles swung back and forth along the door, exposing his arm and the sawed-off shotgun from the linen closet. “Mama-” He lifted the arm and lowered it, staggering in breath and stance. The house settled into its covers, and Mary began to ache, aware of every closed curtain and private space in their little home. “Mama-” he crooned, a small boy again.
Mary held her necklace and released a prayer with her tears. The house was quiet. A stormy wind cracked against the latched door and pleaded for entrance. Mary hushed it with will, praying that silence would hold until Ed’s truck pulled in. She damned herself for the smell of collards boiling over. Her movie star little boy cried to himself, ‘Mama, Mama, Mama.’ She remembered the days when he sang to her and brought her bracelets of wildflowers, the days when she couldn’t feed them more than the previous evening’s leftovers- if there was a serving left. Days when he still loved to run amuck with Missy and get into more trouble than Mary had the energy to manage. She kept in her mind the little grandson she wanted to hold. She held only herself.
The fat from the collards rushed in rivers over the edge of the pot, the greens simmering down to a green syrup. A smoke flooded out from the oven, stones of flour calling out for safety. The house was hot and loud, festering wounds of the evening. “Mama, Mama, Mama-”
It was just one shot. Then the world kept its quiet.
Zoe-Aline Howard is a Kernersville, NC local and Early College graduate entering her college years with an Associate of Arts and high, high hopes. Beyond studying forms of poetry and reading fiction, she enjoys creating digital zines. In the fall, she will declare herself a Pre-Creative Writing major at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and begin her literary journey in full force.