by Pietra Dunmore
Elizabeth did the best she could to make ends meet. There were times she’d pay the light bill and times the lights went out. Sometimes we had a place to stay, other times we had to flee in exodus. Those times, I could never bring more than I could carry. We’d get to the apartment of some new artist boyfriend of hers that I had to call “uncle” so and so, and he was gonna take care of us, but it never lasted for more than a few months. We always outstayed our welcome.
I always assumed my father was one of the many artists she had lived with. I had no pictures or physical description, just the drunken ramblings of my mother yelling in an ear-piercing tone that I “looked like that motherfucker.” I remember going through a phase where I studied every brown-skinned man on the street and wondered if he was my father. His name did not appear on my birth certificate, so all I could do was wonder.
When I was around eight, she settled with Fingers, a pianist and singer. She followed him from gig to gig, usually stumbling home in the early twilight hours. A tap at my feet would signal their return, and I’d awake to see his tall, dark figure standing over the bed. All I could see were his eyes in the moonlight and the red-orange of his cigarette dangling from those curving dark-colored lips. I was forced to sleep on the couch in the living room.
I used to share the same bed with my mother, sleeping on her right side, while her night guest laid to her left. Until one evening, Fingers got mad and shouted, “When is he gonna get a bed of his own?” Ever since then, I was forced to sleep on the lumpy old couch in the living room. I hated laying there alone in the dark while he enjoyed the comfort and warmth of the bed and my mother’s affections. Watching from the crack in the door as their bodies merged in the moonlight, I’d see how he held my mother, and how she looked at him. Fingers would call her “Baby,” and he’d sing to her.
In the morning, I’d have to tiptoe past their sleeping half-naked bodies, with the fragrance of cigarettes, liquor, and sex stinging my young nose. Forging my way to the bathroom and stepping on their carelessly flicked cigarette butts, together with empty bottles of Night Train lining the threadbare carpet. This became a part of my morning routine. Fingers would usually stir a little when I closed the door after having used the bathroom. He’d rub his eyes, smile dryly, and say something like, “Hey little man.”…