Momma takes the tube of eyeliner, shakes it like a thermometer, and pulls out the long wand. Her hand is steady and she makes a thin line to the outside of one eye and then the other. After the eyeliner is dry, Momma looks me dead on and her eyes are even darker, which doesn't seem possible.
"Nice?" Momma says.
"Perfect," I say.
The finishing touch is lipstick and I always get to put it on. Momma gives me the tube of lipstick and I take a deep breath, hold my hand steady, and fill in her lips with the red color.
When I'm done, I let out my breath again and hand back the tube of lipstick. Momma pulls two tissues from the box on the nightstand, folds the tissues in half and then half again. She presses her mouth around the tissues and some of the red comes off in the shape of her mouth.
"Nice?" Momma says.
"Perfect," I say.
If it's a bad day, Momma puts her cosmetics away and stays in bed.
If it's a good day, she pushes her covers back and puts her feet on the floor.
Today is a good day.
"Can you get my robe, Sunshine?" Momma says.
Momma wears matching nightgowns and robes called peignoir sets and they are all different colors of yellow, pink, and peach. Today it's a creamy yellow lemon meringue and I hold her robe in my hands, the silk like water in my fingers.
One arm, the other arm, twist, shrug, and then Momma stands up so she can pull the robe around her legs. Momma shimmies a little under her own weight and I move close, help tug the silk so the robe falls right around her feet. She sits down heavy on the end of the bed and takes a deep breath.
When something's wrong, really wrong, my skin knows first. It's a prickly feeling at the back of my neck, over the top of my head, down my forehead, and into my nose. Feels like a nosebleed coming on.
"You okay?" I say.
Momma sits up tall, shoulders straight, chin tucked. She calls sitting that way the posture of a lady.
"I'm fine," she says, "just a little dizzy."
I look past her words and into her truth and I know it's not such a good day after all.
Momma clears her throat and blinks the truth away. She crosses her legs at the knee, adjusts her robe.
"Okay now," Momma says, "take a few steps back and see the big picture."
Momma sits on the edge of the California King and she's silky lemon meringue, Mrs. Kennedy, dark eyes wide open, with that special look she gets when I'm around.
"Good?" Momma says.
"You're bursting with style."
Momma laughs when I say "bursting with style" and it's music in her room.
There is no special time for taking pills, Momma opens and closes bottles all day. Mostly aspirin, but there are others too, yellow pills, red pills. Her pills are in brown bottles with white lids and there are labels on the front. Momma lifts the bottles and reads the labels, squinting and moving her lips without speaking out loud.
Next to her pills is a water glass and it's my job to keep her glass rinsed and full of fresh water.
Momma opens bottles, tips out pills, closes bottles. She holds all the pills in her palm, makes a fist around them, but I make her open her hand so I can see. I point to the five matching pills, each one with a red A in the middle of white.
"What are those pills for?" I say.
"For the pain in my back," she says.
"What kind of pain?"
"An aching kind of pain."
"What's the pain from?"
"The operation for B.J.?" I say, "the one for him being born?"
"The one after," she says, "for the cancer that's not a cancer. You know, I told you before."
Copyright © 2000 by Jennifer Lauck.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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