Odette wakes up parched. She’d been waiting for Saul to bring her iced tea, plenty of lemon, light on the sugar but it hadn’t arrived and finally it’s the grey kitten that rouses her, scrambling up the counterpane, landing with a plop at her side. Insistent, sweet-tempered little thing, purring like a stream, running his triangular nose against her knuckles. The best thing for this litter would be the bucket but Silver would be a pretty name, if she planned to keep him.
‘Now you quit that,’ she chides, ‘Can’t you see I’m a busy woman!’
Her next conversation’s with the radio, though strictly speaking, she’s talking at it, not to it. Damn those politicians with their lies and promises. She fills the kettle, makes camomile tea. Pours herself a glass of water but only takes a sip. Water is good for blood pressure, arthritis, depression, for just about everything she can think of and yet she leaves it to warm on the countertop, grow ascending bubbles. Last thing before bed she’ll tip it on the weeping fig, so it won’t be wasted.
She fixes her breakfast, takes a cool shower, dresses carefully then loads a box of assorted books into the car. After today’s event she’ll go over to Mama’s and make her supper. Mama insists there’s no need but Odette worries because she’s lost all appetite, grown so thin.
Once such a powerhouse, it’s painful to see Mama like this but at least she’s hanging on to her independence, has a girl come in each morning to make her tea, help her to the bathroom, assist her dressing. After that, she likes to sit out on the porch swing or in her old easy upright, if it’s too cold outside. Odette’s brothers call by sometimes but it’s only she and Francine who make the time to stop and talk.
Mama raised six children, not all of them blood, worked all the hours the Lord sent, yet still found time to teach them their letters, the pleasure of reading.
From a young age Odette embraced that pleasure, then started to write her own stories and poems. So much so that by the time Odette was eleven, Mama took her to one side and told her God had given her a special gift and that Odette’s prize-winning poem about racial hatred down in Alabama was proof that she had a particular purpose on earth. Mama urged her to step into those shoes without fear and make her voice count.
The Freeway’s moving well this morning. Odette winds down the window. The air con is broken, another chore she’s been meaning to attend to but hasn’t. At this speed there’s a breath of coolness, though it’s already tipping thirty. Tracey Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’ comes on the radio and straight away she’s back in the old Buick Saul drove in the eighties. She smiles, recalling the thin dark plait he sported for a while, a dark comma against his white vest, the definition of his muscled arm, snaking across the seat to stroke her neck, ‘Quit distracting me!’ she’d chide but Saul was always distracting her. My but that man could move and not only on the dance floor. Course he wasn’t her first; she’d been just sixteen when she got caught with Leroy but Mama wasn’t one to apportion blame and when Odette told her, ‘Ma’am, I intend to raise this baby,’ she’d nodded like it was the right decision and said she’d help out all she could.
Still those years before Saul appeared and decided to love that child as his own, were truly hard. Leroy’s real Daddy, a white boy with no fathering sense and a nose for trouble found it quick enough, ended up wallowing in jail. And praise the Lord, because Saul was way and by far the better man, with a rumbling laugh like you wouldn’t believe.
True, he was fifteen years her senior but that never jarred in all their years together. Still the diagnosis was a shock. He’d always cleared his throat like that, said it was stuck dust from the sawmill, all the men had it. Of course the owners denied any connection but a year after he passed and after much noise on her part, three extractors appeared, so something good had finally come of it.
Odette turns off the Freeway. The University building is well signposted and she parks in the Visitors bay. Gayle is waiting there to greet her, a young lecturer with honey-coloured hair and willowy limbs, her long fingers slightly damp, her pale unmarked skin so different to Odette’s own.
Gayle is chatty, excited, filling her in on numbers. The theatre is already full. She reminds Odette that she’s a ‘Legend’ then blushes crimson, ‘I sound a total sycophant. I guess you get that a lot?’
Odette smiles gently, ‘No, no,’ she says, ‘you’re too kind. Please excuse me, I was just wondering whether I left the stove on.’
It’s true she can’t remember, though it’s easy to cancel out Gayle’s chatter, her soft confiding tone makes her feel a little sleepy. She thinks back, sees herself flipping the omelette, something to keep herself going on this long hot day. Did she turn off the stove? Probably she did.
Her throat aches, it’s so dry. She would drink that glass of water right now if she could but Gayle offers her coffee and she accepts, even though it will make her heart race and thirstier than she already is. Right away she knows it’s a mistake. The coffee is instant, thick and bitter, served in a plastic cup that trembles in her hand, the creamer leaving oily tears on the surface.
Her sleep’s so poor these days she’s been limiting her caffeine but it’s a sacrifice and so far, making little discernible difference. Odette thinks longingly of her old coffee grinder, recalls the feel of the metal handle with its smooth wooden knob, the resistance of the beans against the blade, the nutty scent as the grounds fall into the little drawer below.
The grinder’s old-fashioned, hand-painted with scenes on two sides, a boy on a horse approaching a ranch and a woman paddling a boat across a lake. Leroy loved those pictures and sometimes, to send him off to sleep, she’d describe how it felt out there, the sun going down in a blaze of gold and orange, the oar dipping in and out of the still waters.
Before this stupid self-imposed drought, she’d always made time to take her coffee out onto the stoop and watch the morning going about its business. She likes it with full milk, steamed and frothy, strained to take away the skin. If she’s feeling strong, she’ll use the blue and white striped china cup, reminiscent of the T-shirt Leroy had when he was seven. She sees his snaggle-tooth, the way he hung from a branch, so light and limber. He loved that shirt so much she had to wrest it from his body to put it in the laundry. Each time she brings that cup to her lips she thinks of him and the pain in her heart rears up fresh as day.
One hell of a decade. First Saul, then just as she was beginning to recover, Leroy got himself stabbed in some stupid quarrel over drugs. After Saul died, Leroy ran a little wild but he was always good to her. True, he wasn’t cut out for work at the Mill and with Saul gone, he soon left. Too much time on his hands maybe, but did she know he was dealing?
‘Hush Mama, I just smoke a little reefer, is all,’ was what he’d said. Hell, there’d been times that she and Saul weren’t averse themselves.
After his murder, Odette lost her voice completely. There was a lump in her throat big as a peach stone and she could barely swallow. A slow anger burned in her until her limbs and heart felt shrunk away. Leroy never made his thirtieth birthday and left a hole inside her that won’t ever be filled. She would give her whole world and all her success to hold that boy just one more time, ‘Why don’t you write about Leroy, honey, keep him alive in words?’ Francine asked her once. But there are no words for a broken thing. She’s dried up like an old riverbed and after three years and despite her Agent’s pleading, not one new poem’s surfaced. The death of her men has doused the fire in her belly and her campaigning’s stopped too. What use is changing the world when those she loves most will never see it?
Mama was hit real hard too. Leroy was her first grandchild and never lost that special place in her heart. Before his death she’d grown stringy and her joints ached in the morning but her mind was clear, her will strong. Now she mostly sits gazing at the trees, a mirror of Odette’s own sorrow. These last few months, those gazes have lengthened and sometimes Odette has to call her back from far away. She returns confused and sometimes cries a little.
Gayle taps her arm gently, ‘You okay?’ There’s concern in her eyes as she leads Odette to the rostrum. The students rise in a great tide from their seats, applauding loudly, some hooting their welcome. It astonishes her that people continue to take inspiration from her work but the constant mail sacks prove it.
She reads a selection of poems from her last collection and a couple of old favourites. When she announces ‘Stronger’ someone roars out, ‘ALRIGHT!’
Odette smiles, notes as she always does, the many mouths reciting her lines. Mama had been right, her words had brought about change and that was the miracle of it. She reads passages from three of her novels, marvels that even as she does so, her mind drifts like a balloon released above the earth. She wonders if that’s how Mama found a little space for herself. Or perhaps this is what it’s like when the soul finally leaves the body, a kind of lightness and freedom? She’d like to think it’s so, for Leroy’s sake, for Saul’s.
It’s hot in the theatre, the glass roof panels channelling fierce sunlight. A carafe of water with a chunky glass sits just out of reach on the table in front of her. It taunts her being so close and her throat dry from reading, gritty from the open car window. It’s still cool, condensation clouds the base, but she would need to stop reading, walk that little distance and then the spell would be broken.
What she’d really like, she decides, is an ice-cold beer; to run her finger up the stem of the bottle, have the drops cool her swollen fingers. She imagines that first sip, bitter and fizzing softly in her throat. Sadly, Gayle doesn’t look the type to suggest it. Besides, Odette has to drive.
When the lecture ends she signs a stream of books, the students smiling shyly as they leave, calling their thanks. She wonders what they see beyond the obvious, a middle-aged black woman sweating in the heat, a writer who no longer writes.
Odette reaches forward for the carafe but Gayle stops her, ‘I’ll get you some fresh,’ she says but that never happens. Gayle has a lecture to get to and excuses herself shortly afterwards. Odette thinks she’ll buy a soda at the student café but the line is long and she risks being recognised.
Before she knows it she’s back at her car, the beginnings of a migraine swimming at her ears. It’s hot as hell inside and she winds down the window, searches beneath the seat. She has to drink something before it gets out of control but there’s only an old bottle with an inch of water, greening slightly. She unscrews the plastic cap and sniffs. Such things can make you real sick, but she takes a sip, just to wet her tongue. The taste is worse than the smell and she spits it quickly onto the sizzling tarmac, the famous writer gone a little crazy, taken to hawking out of windows.
She cranks the window wider still. Eases off her pumps, places her swollen feet on pedals that burn like a griddle. She should move away from this heat right now but instead she sits back a moment, shuts her eyes. Out of the darkness, Leroy’s face swims up to greet her. The day he was born, miraculous and perfect, the blue bruise at his spine the hallmark of his heritage.
She recalls how her insides felt outside and so pulled about she could barely sit. She remembers gazing at him in wonder; the strange new feeling that flowed into every cell of her body. And how when she looked up, there was Mama, her face alight with the same fierce love for the both of them, ‘You done a beautiful thing there, Odette, honey. Drink deep of that well.’
Chloe Balcomb’s poetry has appeared in Butcher’s Dog, Under the Radar, The Interpreter’s House and elsewhere. ‘Black’ was shortlisted in the Artificium ‘Dark Matters’ Flash Fiction Competition and her short story ‘Flamenco Tat’ is due to appear in issue 24 of The Cabinet of Heed.
Chloe’s debut poetry pamphlet, The Waney Edge, was published in May 2019 by Green Bottle Press. She lives in Sheffield, England. Her website: https://chloebalcombwrite.com.