Storyglossia Issue 9, October 2004.

Tangled Mind

by Angela Carlton


Mama's feet are swollen and blue. She's been roaming the streets again wearing that gown with the cigarette holes on the sleeve. I don't get school today. She wants to shop the A&P.

There's a button missing on her gown. Mama forgot to put on her bra, and you can see the milky roundness peeking out from her chest. She's in a phone booth now pressing numbers over and over: eight, nine and a five. The man at gas pump is giving her looks that make my insides turn. His uniform's nasty like his hair: yellow teeth, scruffy face and dark eyes. You can tell he does not have one good bone in his body. And when he turns my way, I will give him my own special look that says, Beware of the child. Will sink teeth into flesh if you come near us!

Mama cannot find coins for the phone. She is searching my pockets for silver. She finds two days worth of lunch money in my jacket while the gas man watches her move. He is sucking his teeth and flexing his dark muscles in the sun. Oh, he might be a tough one, but my Mama can scream.

He does not want Mama to scream.

Look out, the money is in Mama's hands, and the voices have told her to spend it! The sounds are clogging up her head. She keeps hitting the side of her temple as if the noises might shake loose out of her ear. Her greasy hair's hanging down in her eyes as she counts up our dollars in a rush. I cannot tell her that it's money for school food not to spend it. I cannot tell her to put it back up where she found it and get us on the right road home. I cannot tell her one thing. My Mama's miles away from her true self lost inside that tangled mind.

Her magic pills are down the toilet. They do not work for the head this way, but if you learn to play the make-believe game, you can fool yourself into thinking it will all be fine.

People at the A&P are watching her out of the corner of their eye. They act like their reading the cleaning labels as Mama empties the shelves into the buggy: five bottles of dish liquid, nine boxes of laundry detergent, one case of bath soap and bleach. Mama is grunting and groaning and laughing at her mixed-up self. No one notices her filthy feet. The people are fixed on her face and the darkness that spreads over it. No Mama, please, we need that money for food not soap, I want to scream, but she has already scurried away leaving me with an empty stomach that twists and roars and turns like the voices inside her head.

Bakery smells of honey buns, cupcakes and cookies float up under my nose, and I can almost taste the sweetness in my mouth. If I could only have a small bite, just one, I would try to make it last. Mama doesn't care if we eat. Since she's busy with soap, I've got my eye on the sugar rack: coconut, peanuts and chocolate in shiny wrappers before my eyes. Go ahead take the silver one with the bright blue letters. That's it-put it inside that pocket while they all study your Mama with pity.

Chocolate does not stick with you like eggs or grits with melted butter, but it does tend to slide down the throat nice. While Mama causes a fuss at the register, I stuff the goodies in my mouth and swallow them quickly so they can work on that hollow place inside. Mama slaps the cash on the counter and pushes it toward this chubby man who probably always gets the big egg breakfast. I watch him study her blood shot eyes and shaky hands. The ladies behind me are whispering "Look, at that nasty nightgown and Lord, she looks strange in the eyes." I pretend not to hear it as I swallow the last bite of caramel. I think this might be the best time to grab another goodie and run, until Mama gets me by the sleeve. She's throwing bags in the buggy, gritting her teeth and pushing me out the door so hard that nobody even notices the silver wrapper when it falls on the floor.

When the people in the other cars get to see her screaming fit, their mouths will hang open. They usually point, freeze up and glare. They do not stop to help the child by the car, but they will sit for a good while like they are waiting on the popcorn. They will shake their heads and cover their mouths and when they feel that they've had enough, they will drive on, for they need the happy ending.

They will not get one here.


Copyright©2004, 2005 Angela Carlton

"Tangled Mind" was previously published in slightly different form as "Blue Mourning" in the 2Q 2004 issue of the The Mid-South Review.