I'm feeling young and sexy. I just got a manicure and a pedicure and I'm wearing a pair of cut-off jean shorts that belong to my daughter but fit me just fine. I’m cutting across the cemetery on my way home from the salon when my flip-flop breaks. And there I am, leaning against the mausoleum of George Washington Duke, which is bigger than my two bedroom apartment in Lakewood, when a rainstorm breaks out. I’m not talking some soft Southern rain that carries the scent of magnolias or some romantic bullshit like that. I’m talking a straight downpour, a sky cracking open, dark-as-midnight, fire raining down from the sky kind of rainstorm. So I give up on the flip-flop and I sit down on the stoop of George Washington Duke’s place, and I wait.
It’s a half-mile at least to my apartment, and I walk the path in my mind - through the cemetery, across the four-way intersection where people are always blowing the stop sign, past the fancy place that used to be a panaderia, and then down the hill and up the cement steps to our place. Georgia’s almost thirteen now, old enough to be left home alone, and she's probably sneaking a smoke under the eaves, leaning back agains the metal rail and risking being struck by lightning. She thinks I don’t know. Same way I thought my mother didn’t know about the drugs and the booze and the boys. They were men, really. At least, Georgia’s father was. But that was a long time ago. When I think of my mother now, I remember how small she was - wrists like little twigs - and I wish I’d hugged her more.
People wouldn’t guess it looking at me and Georgia, but I was raised bougie. Fancy cars, big houses, books all over the damn place. My father read the Washington Post. Shit, I wore a plaid uniform and penny loafers to school. The Saint Cecilia Academy for Girls, where we all learned to play an instrument for dear Cecilia, patron saint of music, and I chose the flute. People at the shelter used to ask me, what’s the thing you regret most, thinking I’d say the drugs or Georgia, or leaving home, but I always said, the flute. It’s a pathetic little instrument, weak and flimsy and silly, and I can’t help but think my life would’ve turned out differently if I’d picked the trombone instead, or the saxophone. Now, that’s an instrument.
Thing is, I never was very good at picking things out for myself. My mother did that for me. She bought me pink jumpers and so pink was my favorite color. She ordered me chicken but never beef, she taught me that a smile was always better than a scowl, that dragging your feet was unladylike, that to be loved, you were to keep quiet and still. This all made sense, of course, until it didn’t.
But the rain was stopping, and I was tired of always thinking of my mother. I tossed my broken flip-flop out into the sodden grass and felt the mud rise up between my toes. I’d had other mothers, too. It was Sister Lynn who taught me to use a ruler — or a stick, or whatever was handy — on any boy who tried to touch me in an unwelcome place. It was my grandmother who taught me how to laugh. And it was Sister Edith, with the statue in her classroom of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus in her arms and stepping on a snake with her bare feet, who taught me that there is more than one way to be strong. “You keep on picking the harder way,” she told me, and I just bared my teeth at her, or turned over the desks in her classroom.
When the sun comes out from behind the clouds, I step out from under the shadow of the mausoleum. And there she is, above a grave I never once saw in hundreds of trips through this cemetery, in the shadow of magnolia I never noticed, Mary herself, holding her baby up to the sun and not hushing it or telling it to be still, just letting it be the sweet and simple thing that it is, all flesh and faith and loveliness. Mary’s toes are exposed beneath her robes and the words “milk and honey” float into my mind unbidden. I wonder how the ancients keep their feet clean, and if the Virgin Mary knew what it mean to feel desire, or if the desire she felt was all pale belly and baby fat and the smell of milk. I consider this until I feel the wet of my clothes against my skin, and then I start walking for home, steam rising up from the mossy earth beneath my feet. Maybe when I get there Georgia will be sleeping on the couch like she sometimes does, her hair loose on the cushions, her body slack and secretive, the soft raspberry scent of her tinged with tobacco and sweat.