Poverty sometimes leads to frustration, then regret, and later, understanding.
“Put on your shoes. I need you to go to the store for me.”
Ah. Back in the day. Neighborhoods had local grocery stores within walking distance. The streets were reasonably safe. You could have your eight-year-old child walk to the store by themselves without fear. Neighbors watched out for each other.
I found my shoes and tied them on. Too slowly for my mother’s tastes.
“Hurry up!” Accompanied by a swipe at the space between my shoulder blades. I already knew enough to duck. She shoved two dollars in my pocket and a list. A short list. She didn’t trust me enough to remember. It was a long time ago, but even then two dollars only went so far. “Don’t let me hear you were where you weren’t supposed to be.”
I plodded down the steps and onto the sidewalk. The summer sun wasn’t at full blaze yet, but it soon would be. The sooner I got back, the less heat I’d have to endure.
I followed the sidewalk down our street, across at the corner, and turned left. “Hurry up,” I heard. “Before your daddy gets back.”
Before my daddy got back. That was always key. The less he knew, the greater the chance there would be peace.
I made my way to the store, being sure to keep my hand in my pocket. She’d kill me if I lost the money. List in hand, I made sure I got everything she sent me for. Just as I was about to check out, I saw them. A shiny, yellow and green box of twelve crayons. I stood there, holding the box, dreaming.
“Those are on sale.” said Miss Audrey, the cashier, who saw me looking. She’d known me for years. I trusted her. She rang up the purchases and checked my mother’s list. She knew it was best if I got everything as well. “You have more than enough left.” I smiled and nodded. She rang up the treasured box and added it to the bag. “Hurry home.” I thanked her, made sure the change was deep in my pocket and skipped out of the store.
My mother was at the door, waiting, when I got home. “What took you so damn long? Store’s only two and a half blocks away.” She snatched the bag from me and looked inside.
“I got everything.” I dug my toe in the floor. “Here’s the change.”
She stared at the fifteen cents in my hand.
“Where’s the re–” Her voice dropped. She took out the loaf of bread, the can of soup, the carton of Morton’s salt. Then, at the bottom of the bag, the crayons. She slowly pulled the box from the bag. I’d seen that look before, plenty of times in my short life. I took a step back, then two.
“They were on sale,” I stammered. “Miss Audrey told me. She said I had more than enough.”
“Miss Audrey? Miss Audrey told you? Since when is Miss Audrey your damn mother?”
Right on cue, my lip started to quiver. I knew this would not go well. My only chance was for my father to come home. Of course, there was no rumble of a yellow Chevy station wagon motor in the driveway. No gate opening. No possible salvation.
“He’s not here. It’s just me and you.”
Quivering lip turned into a quiet, choked sob. She closed the door, and locked it. There would be no escape today. I saw her looking around. Her jaw tight, her lips nearly invisible. She searched for the implement of my destruction. No switch today. She’d already closed the door. My father’s belt was with him, so that was out. Her eyes stopped near the lamp. The muscles in her forearm tightened.
Please, God. No.
She carefully unplugged the lamp, and then the extension cord. I cowered in a corner. What to do? I couldn’t run. I couldn’t hide. So, I cried.
“Shut up.” Her voice was low. That was always more dangerous. “I’ll give you something to cry about.” I can assure you she meant it.
I slid into my room. Maybe the closet. I dreamed of an escape hatch, a magic trap door. I’d drop onto the neighbor’s driveway and run. She wouldn’t see me, and I’d be safe. I’d stay away until my daddy came home. By then, she wouldn’t be so angry.
They say you never hear the one that kills you. I might wish for death, but it would not come that day. The whoosh of rubber encased wire reached my ear just as the first lash caught my legs. I tried to reach down, to cover my bare legs, but she caught me with her left hand. My arm jerked upward as she spoke, each syllable accompanied by a lash.
“You don’t spend my damn mo-ney on no damn cray-ons.” Several lashes. “That’s all the mo-ney I had.” More lashes, while she breathed. “Now I got to ask Lois to give me mo-ney for the bus so I can get to work.” More lashes, more screams. Some mine, some hers.
Her face was contorted with rage, but even a child saw something else. Something profound. Something sad. She let go of my arm and I lay there, bawling. I certainly had something to cry about. She collapsed on the floor next to me. She cried too.
Later, after I put on long pants to hide the welts from my daddy, I heard her on the phone. She was speaking with Lois. Mrs. Hayes to me. She was her best friend, one of the few I knew her to have.
“Yeah. Okay. Just until tomorrow. Mrs. Hansel will pay me and I’ll be able to give it back to you. Just bus fare. Just fifty cents. No. Robin spent my change at the store. Crayons.” She stopped, listened. Her hands fidgeted. She would usually smoke a cigarette, but she’d been out for a few days now. “Lois, I don’t even have money enough to let my baby buy crayons. I couldn’t send her back. Them white folks would know why. Besides, her daddy came home pretty soon.” There were tears, but no sound. My daddy would hear her if she sobbed.
Now, all these years later, I know why Momma cried that day.