by Tyrel Kessinger
Papa tells us we can take only necessary things. A toothbrush, toothpaste. A few changes of clothes. He hands my brother and me a black nylon string bag and tells us to have them ready. We ask if we can bring anything that means anything. Mama’s favorite coffee mug with the hairline crack like a black lightning bolt down the side or the quilt her grandmother made her when she was born. But Papa only shakes his head like a dark cloud ready to cry.
The weight of all those memories will only slow us down,” he tells us, patting our heads, cupping our chins. I think he is probably sadder than we are that we can’t bring any pieces of Mama with us.
Papa sells the last of our goats to a man driving a yellow Datsun truck with a missing passenger door. I wave as they bounce away from me because I don’t want them to know they are saying goodbye. Later Papa drives us into town and tries to sell our own to a man who is clearly less interested in buying it than Papa is selling it. They eventually shake hands and Papa pockets a sorry stack of bills. I know he is not happy but is as satisfied as he can be which is what he always told us is the most we can expect out of life. That we should be grateful for it when it comes. That it’s better than most people can ever expect to get.
The heat tries to melt us as Papa herds us to another section of town. We pass an ice cream stand and my brother asks if we can have some. I know this is not a time to ask for things like ice cream but I secretly hope that he says yes. I can already taste the mint chocolate in the air, on my tongue. The hope heats quickly, like the sun rising, in my chest. But Papa shakes his head again, gathering us closer as we make our way through the crowd. My brother scowls and kicks at the dirt and keeps glancing back. But I am wiser. I know better than to look back at what you have to leave behind.
Papa knocks on a door wedged between a pawn shop and a bar where old men sit outside and drink sweating beers and talk about whatever it is old men talk about. We are led in by a smiling woman with hair as black as the space between stars. She shows Papa to a room where a man with an eyepatch is waiting, then shows us to some seats next to her desk. The smiling lady is still smiling when she offers us a strawberry-shaped dish filled with candies that are wrapped to look like strawberries, but that taste nothing like a strawberry. When my brother tries for a second piece I frown a no at him but he asks anyway. The smiling lady smiles and says we can have as many as we want. My brother grabs a fistful and I think about what Mama would say about being so greedy but Mama isn’t here and what she doesn’t know can’t hurt her anymore.
Through the window on the door, I see Papa and the man with the eyepatch stand up as Papa hands him a roll of bills and they shake hands. At the door he pats Papa on the back as if they are old friends and tells my brother and me that we look just like our Papa. Which is true. Our mother always said the same thing, sighing as she ran her fingers through our hair. He winks at us with his good eye and tells us to make sure we take care of our Papa. The smiling lady of course only smiles and waves goodbye. I’d like to ask her just where in the world she’s finding all these smiles.
Two sunsets later we wait in our darkening house. It’s mostly empty now except for whatever ghosts aren’t smart enough to see that there is little left to haunt. Papa is quiet and stares out the window as if something outside it is calling for him. He has been a nervous shadow of himself since meeting the man with the eyepatch and his phone never leaves his hand. My brother watches a football match — on the small black and white TV that Papa hadn’t been able to sell — even though the picture is mostly snowy static. I touch all the things in my room and wonder what is going to happen to them. My clothes, my books, my little guitar with the string that Mama broke the last time she played it. Last night I buried her coffee mug in a corner of the yard and asked the earth if it could somehow get it back to her. If I can’t have even these small parts of her, then no one will.
Not long after dark Papa answers his phone. He stares at me and my brother, his face heavy with worry and fear but maybe also some relief. He hangs up and it is time, and we shoulder our little nylon bags that contain everything we’re not leaving behind. Outside it feels like a jungle despite the sun’s absence and we move fast to keep up with Papa. So as not to slow us down, I don’t look back. I don’t think about anything other than how when tomorrow comes we will be gone.