What I know: She had mouth cancer and hadn’t eaten for days. I saw her once take a hot dog cold out of the fridge and eat it standing in the corner of the kitchen, facing the wall. It made her gag.
I know she had been quietly waiting for his return. I know it in the way she went about her work, calm and fidgety at the same time. Peeling potatoes, gouging out the eyes, scrubbing the dining room floor, hauling the neighbor man’s laundry up the alley, a wicker basket swaying on her hip.
I know it in the way she pulled my ponytail too high and tight, until my temples ached, and said, come straight home after school. I need you to watch Boggy. She wound the ponytail into a knot at the top of my head, asked, why are you still standing there, looking like a Chinaman.
You should have seen her bottom lip, then, outsized, the color of raw steak, as if it had been punched every day of her life.
When I got home, Boggy was in his high chair, wailing, pounding the tray with his fists. Bits of mashed carrot flecked the wall. When I pulled him out of the chair, his diaper hung like a sandbag to his knees. Boggy smelled like floodwater, like worms, like the ammonia she used to clean the windows.
Boggy and I sprawled on her bed watching the Democratic National Convention and the neighbors in the next apartment were watching Green Acres and I ate Bugles wearing my baby doll pajamas and the curtains lifted and brushed my cheek and Boggy stuck his finger up my nose. I wanted to marry Bobby Kennedy and have twelve or thirteen babies with him. Like Ethel did.
I know she left her cigarettes behind. An open pack of Virginia Slims— menthol—on the kitchen counter. After I put Boggy in his crib, I sat on the stoop, watching the rain, and taught myself to smoke, one cigarette at a time.
What I don’t know is where she went that night. Who she saw, what she did, if she ever found my father, or if she was even looking for him. I don’t know why she abandoned our Ford Falcon somewhere on Fourth Street, so far from home. Maybe it was only a matter of wanting to see for herself, of wanting to get just a little bit closer, to find out what raindrops do to the soft flowing surface of a river.