Pink Lipsticked Lips

Basketball was my favorite game until one scorching July in my tenth year after I’d watched my parents play their last one-on-one. My father loved basketball more than he loved cigars, and he was a man who was never seen without a cigar. Basketball was his idea of the perfect family activity and I was always willing to indulge him. Mama dutifully joined us when cajoled, but wasn’t enthusiastic about what was obviously a trial for her. She didn’t complain, but I could smell the resignation in her stance, something I’d already learned to take for granted.

Dad found me shooting hoops out back and suggested a game. Mama surprised me by not only easily agreeing but by twisting it into a game between the two of them, something she never initiated. I sat to watch with a growing sense of marvel mixed with caution.

Mama was quiet as she played. Although a large-framed woman she was no stranger to physical exertion. Sweat stained her shirt beneath the moons of her breasts, but she didn’t get winded. She played well on this day and the game quickly morphed into a contest for a prize I could sense but couldn’t name. A mystery was unveiling as expectancy was released into my heart. Could dad feel it as well?

It was if she’d been practicing, that’s how good she was. She played it like a challenge, showed dad no mercy. She beat him by two points, a phenomenon I’d never before witnessed. His eyes flared and his face went red and he insisted they play another. After mama scored her third point he almost knocked her over. She glared into him, a triumphant lioness targeting the jugular. I was lit with anticipation. She then requested a time-out.

“I need to go to the little girls’ room and do some business.” Mama was the prim sort, in direct contrast to dad. I couldn’t imagine the secret ingredient that drew them together. They were as different as a puppy from a snake. He mocked her creative impulses and threw doubts on her promise. When she sponge-painted the laundry room he had her paint it over. “It looks like a parrot threw up in here.” When she served oysters he said, “If I wanted to eat snot, I’d blow my nose.” Mama never challenged his indictments, she quietly acquiesced her territory. I used to wonder if he even liked her but then he’d play Blue Moon on the stereo and take her into his arms, making me gag on their giggles.

I sat in the shade while I waited, traced an ice cube over the freckles on my arm. Dad spotted a neighbor and stalked off. I marveled over the game, sensing mama was sending a message. Maybe she’d had enough, like grandma was always hoping. Maybe she had learned to love basketball. Or maybe, it was nothing special at all.

As I watched a crow soar a loud bang punctuated the air. I thought it was a firecracker but when my fingers tingled as my gut went numb I knew it was something much worse. Dad appeared and shouted, “What the hell was that?” He didn’t wait for an answer, simply looked at my face and bolted. Seconds later, across a continent of space that spanned from the past and barged into the future, I heard dad scream, “Oh my god, oh my god!” I imagined he rocked her in his arms, back and forth, just as she used to rock me.

I was already sobbing before I knew that mama had indeed gone into the bathroom, and she had done some kind of business but it wasn’t the kind usually done in that room. It was the kind that required her to take a detour through the den for dad’s rifle. It was the kind that led her to fold her body into the bathtub, place the barrel into her pink-lipsticked lips (she applied a fresh coat first), and pull the trigger. It was the kind that threw doubt on my promise.

Later, after the commotion died down, after the funeral and after the relatives left, I realized how considerate my mother had been, lying down in the tub. I first thought she hadn’t wanted to fall. But then I figured she had wanted to make it as easy as she could, in her way, for us to clean the mess. Mama never did like to be much trouble.