by Marcy Dilworth
apple juice with a gin kick
Mama said, “I’m keeping you safe, stop that fidgeting.”
We stood on the corner, hand-in-hand, and all I could see were bottoms in cotton dresses and work pants, bare legs and scuffed heels caked with dirt.
“Hoo boy, the city’s in full stink today,” Mama said.
Strangers nodded, fanning their faces with their bare hands. When the light turned, the whole crowd got moving, but slower than they did in winter.
She held my hand tight so my arm stretched up and my feet skipped over the street. My pink tank top scooted up my belly, and every step whammed me into the bristle of her leg. My belly got red and sore that day.
We walked and walked, over steaming tarry blacktop, across cracked sidewalks with spurts of grass here and there, and over potholes. When we crossed the fourth pothole, the biggest one, my feet left the street while my head jerked down.
I said, “Ow, Mama.”
She said, “Hush your fussing, I’m keeping you safe.”
I was thankful she didn’t drop me in the pothole, since kids said the big ones went straight through to caves or the subway or China, but it hurt a lot so I couldn’t help some tears getting out.
We finally got near home, which I knew because I saw Sal’s, the store where we shopped. Mama let go of my hand and smushed me against the bricks with her thigh as she studied her purse. She thinned her lips for a second, then said, “Come on.”
The carts at Sal’s didn’t have an extra spot in front for me to sit like the carts in Grandma’s fancy grocery store. Mama plopped me in. The giant silver fans dried my sweat, the metal cart cooled my bare skin, and Mama pushed me through the fruits. They were beautiful and red and green and yellow and so close that I could touch them. Which I did.
Mama said, “Don’t touch! You break it, you bought it!”
Could fruit break? And I didn’t have any money. But the slap was all the reminder I needed to keep my hands to myself. Mama weighed some onions, got a bag of carrots, and chose some old-looking cans from her special rack in the back of the store. She handed me the first few things, then dumped the rest in without looking. A can dinged my knee with the scab on it, but it only bled a little.
After she tapped the receipt with her fingernail to make sure the cashier had added it up right, Mama picked up the full-stuffed bag.
Out we went. I stepped on a tatty poster with words in big red letters and a picture of my kindergarten friend James. I’d asked Mama all summer if he could come over and play, but finally she gave me the “no” with the squinty-eyed look that said “I mean it.” I missed James. She grabbed my hand again and pulled me towards home.
With that heavy bag on her hip, she waddled like the ducks I’d seen on TV. Every time the waddle took her to the bag side, she yanked my hand up higher. My tippy toes barely touched the sidewalk, and I tried to wriggle free.
“Stop that squirming,” Mama said. “I’m tired, and I’m keeping you safe.”
I looked up to see a skinny boy on a bike whipping around the corner right at me, even though Mama and I were close to the building. Mama swung me out of the way. My head hit the grainy brick wall at the same time my arm loosened and everything went blurry.
Next thing I knew, I was lying on the couch and could hear Mama and Daddy in the bedroom. He said, “I’ve seen it done a hundred times at basketball games. I could do it in my sleep.”
Mama said, “Let’s ask that nurse down the hall.”
Daddy said, “Naw, give me a chance.”
I stood up. The edges of the room wavered. One arm looked longer than the other, and my shoulder burned and ached every time I moved.
Mama pressed me on her lap. I crumpled into her clammy baby powder smell.
Daddy lifted my arm and squeezed my shoulder. He said, “I’ll have your arm back in the socket in a jiffy.”
Before everything turned gray, Mama whispered, “I just wanted to keep you safe.”