Mama was newly single. The idea of going to church might have been her makeshift way to raise me after a messy breakup with a boyfriend named Roy who loved whiskey, dog tracks, and hitting. That year, she only drank on Friday nights. My breasts were budding. My too-small clothes embarrassed Mama in front of the pastor’s wife, so we went to the Goodwill for new dresses twice that year.
I loved the routine church brought to our small, cluttered home. Mama cooked breakfast. We dressed up nicer than any other day. Sunday school had lemonade and graham crackers with real sugar dusted on top. I learned Jesus loved Mama and me. The pastor said Jesus loved sinners; however, I doubted that meant Roy. After church, we went to Denny’s. Mama drank coffee and filled the ashtray, watching me eat my grilled cheese. She’d leave two dollar bills on the table, never quarters. That was laundry money.
The church burned to the ground on a Tuesday night. On Thursday, a volunteer called Mama to say services would be held at the VFW. Mama said thanks and hung up. That was the last I ever heard of church. She drank Friday and also Saturday. That Sunday, we went to Taco Bell in jeans. I watched her pick at her food and sip her Coke. It felt wrong not to be at Denny’s, but also exciting like the time I stole a pack of gum from ShopRite in the third grade. We’d been to Taco Bell plenty of times, but never when we weren’t supposed to be there.
Weeks later, I walked down Telegraph Road to the church. Only three blackened walls remained. The evergreen in front, which always seemed as tall as the steeple, was just a charred toothpick with spindly arms. It didn’t look much like the place I’d learned about Jesus. I remembered my dresses, now pushed to the back of my closet. Sunday school felt like a long time ago.
Mama drank more and smoked in the kitchen. I made my own dinners, peanut butter or cheese on white. When the bread ran out before payday, I just ate peanut butter. Sometimes there were orange prescription bottles in Mama’s purse. Once, I peeked. She cleaned pretty Helena Addison’s house and did her groceries, but I didn’t know why Ms. Helena gave Mama her pills.
Mama brought dates home. I read in my room those nights. Some nights embarrassed me, Mama calling out in a stranger’s sighing voice from her bedroom next to mine. I was ashamed that it made me feel hot between my legs. Sometimes there was yelling and broken things. Those nights, I sat in my mildewed closet with the door closed, or slipped out and went to the church lot, where weeds and wildflowers had begun to sprout among the charred wood.
I had four birthdays. Roy came back. “Look how much you’ve grown,” he said, arms extended toward me. “Come on over here.” His eyes roved from my face to my breasts to my stomach, exposed in a tank top and cut-offs. I froze, looked for Mama. Instead, I heard the ice tray cracking in the kitchen. My heart pounded. Her boyfriends acted this way, often worse when she wasn’t around. Their hands were rough on my skin. Every time I told her, she said I shouldn’t dress that way.
I ran down Telegraph Road to the church. The lot was now overgrown, more weeds and vagrant trash than stained glass and Sunday school, but nothing bad had happened to me there. I went to the lot when things were bad at home, but it felt different that day. It wasn’t enough.
I could pass for eighteen. There was birthday money saved from Gran and Pop. They didn’t know Mama or me at the Greyhound station in town.
My mother’s voicemail is hoarse but cheery. “Maybe you can come home for your birthday. Thirty is a big year.” She pauses, inhales. “Well, hon, I hope you’re doing good.” There is a click, then silence.
It can’t hurt, I muse. I’ve stayed away long enough, kept our calls infrequent. These days I’m all Helena Addison and no Mama, who is elderly and alone. I cancel my meetings and drive nine hours because it is easier to turn the car around if I change my mind than try to get off a plane.
She opens the door before I knock. “Look at you, baby girl. Come on in,” she says, smiling. I take in her yellowed teeth, graying hair, and the roadmap of lines on her face.
“Hi, Mama,” I say, stepping inside. The house is dim and smells like cigarettes. I shed this place a long time ago. It was a mistake to come.
We sit in our old places at the same kitchen table. I cannot recall her stream of questions or my noncommittal answers. Finally, she says, “I tried to be a good mother. You left me.”
“All those boyfriends–”
“That was years ago. I can’t do anything about it now.” She lights a cigarette, looking at me through the smoke. There will be no mea culpa. There has never been, but now, I have choices. I rise and turn to leave. Neither of us speaks.
A white cinderblock building with few windows stands on the old church lot. Pawn & Guns is stenciled on the front. Trees have been cleared for a gravel parking lot, and my tires crunch as I pull in. I can’t tell where the old church used to be. I think of the year I had Sunday school and Denny’s, then all those years my mother brought home different boyfriends. I think of my condo overlooking the river and the meetings I canceled to make this trip. I try to imagine the church in flames, and how things might have been different if we’d gone to the VFW that Sunday.