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Chasing Lilacs

By Carla Stewart

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[ ONE ]

That June, right after I finished sixth grade, Norm
MacLemore’s nephew came to Texas for a visit. Benny Ray
Johnson brought home a new Edsel. And Mama tried to take her
life for the first time.

We lived at Graham Camp then—a petroleum plant with company
housing. A spot in the Panhandle of Texas where the blue of
the sky hurt your eyes and the wind bent the prairie grass into an
endless silk carpet as far as you could see in every direction. God’s
country, some people called it. While it may be true that God
created that corner of the world, it crossed my young mind that
he must have been looking the other way when it came to Mama.
Why else would Mama’s spells, as Daddy called them, drive her
deeper into her quilts? Lights out. Shades drawn.

Her spell that June had gone on longer than most, and she
seemed to be slipping farther away. I hoped my being out of school
might snap her out of it, and I had no trouble inventing excuses to
linger in the house and be of some use to Mama. Mostly, she let
me fetch her things. An ice bag for her headache. Another one of
those pills from the brown bottle.

I tiptoed in and out with her requests and studied her for signs
of improvement. With every smile or pat on my hand, my insides
lurched. Maybe today she’ll suggest we bake a cake. Or take a
walk down to Willy Bailey’s store. I would have settled for just
having her sit with me on the couch and watch television.

Please don’t get me wrong. Mama was the primary thing on my
mind, but a few days into the summer, I began to get restless.
Itchy. As I scribbled ideas for the newspaper my best friend, Tuwana
Johnson, and I planned to write, my mind drifted, wondering
what the next three months would hold. When the floorboards
creaked beside me, I looked up, startled to see Mama shuffling into
the front room. A little flutter came into my chest. Mama’s robe
hung limp on her thin frame, the belt trailing behind.

My gaze traveled to her face, searching for signs that the fog had
lifted. One look at her eyes and I knew nothing had changed. Flat.
Muddy. Looking at me, but not really seeing me.

“Hi, Mama. You want to watch Queen for a Day ?” I kept my
voice light, airy, and made room for her on the couch beside me.

She flopped down. “Not those wretched stories. It would give me a
headache all over again. No television.”

“You’re feeling better, then? No headache?”

She fiddled with the button on the cushion. “Not exactly.”

Her answer could have gone either way. Not exactly better. Or
not exactly a headache. A huge silence hung between us.

Before I could think of something else to say, the back door
slammed and Daddy came in. Even without seeing him, I knew
the routine. Hard hat on the hook by the back door. The plunk
of the metal lunch box on the kitchen counter. Then Daddy
clomped through in his steel-toed boots and appeared in the
kitchen doorway.

“Hey, Rita. Good to see you up.” He leaned over and brushed
his lips across Mama’s cheek.

She dipped her head away and pushed herself up from the
couch, whisked around the end, and pattered to the bathroom.
Not a single word.

When Daddy winked at me, I couldn’t tell if he was trying to
cheer me up or cover the disappointing welcome from Mama.

Mama came from the bathroom and stood, feet apart, robe
gaping over the same nightgown she’d worn all week. Her fingers
curled, white-knuckled, around the brown pill bottle.
“I’m out of pills.” She held out the bottle.

“You know, sugar, I could take tomorrow off. Take you into
Mandeville and see Doc.” He put his arm around her slumping
shoulders, but she shrugged him off.

“I don’t need to see Doc. I need my pills.”

“Seems to me they ain’t doing much good. Maybe Doc could
give you a different brand or something. . . .”

She shoved the bottle into Daddy’s calloused hand. “And what
am I supposed to do until tomorrow?” Her eyes darted around,
jerky little movements. “Please. Take Sammie with you. Just get
them.”

She backed up the few paces to her room, then turned and shut
the door.

Daddy thumped me on the arm. “You up for a root-beer
float?”

In other words, we were going into town to get Mama’s pills
and could stop at the Dairy Cream on the way home.
He didn’t say anything the whole twelve miles, just tapped
his fingers on the steering wheel, his eyes aimed straight ahead.
I counted rusty brown cows with white faces and wished Mama
had some physical thing wrong, like a broken leg or appendicitis,
so we could say, “Just two more weeks and she’ll be good as new.”
But deep down I knew it was something else. I just didn’t know
what.

In the waiting room, I thumbed through a dog-eared Highlights
magazine while Daddy went into Doc’s office. When they came
out, Daddy put the refilled bottle in his shirt pocket, and Doc
handed me a peppermint stick. “Take good care of your mother,
Sammie.”

I should have taken Doc’s advice.

But the next morning, Daddy told me Mama needed to rest.
“Go on and have some fun.”

Sunshine peeked through the window above the kitchen sink. It
didn’t really take any convincing on Daddy’s part. I slipped on my
Keds and took off. Sweet, dewy grass and a drift of rose scent gave
me a heady feeling as I walked the two streets over to Tuwana’s.
When she opened the door, the smell of peanut butter cookies
floated out. Delicate, sugary sensations tickled my nose. Tuwana
flounced into the kitchen and snitched us each a cookie. I took tiny
bites and let each morsel melt in my mouth.

I thanked Mrs. Johnson and licked my lips around a stray
crumb. She smiled through pink lipstick and told me it was nothing,
that she was glad to see me. Wiping her hands on a starched,
dotted-Swiss apron, she turned back to the cookies.
Tara and Tommie Sue, Tuwana’s little sisters, giggled above the
blare of the television. Through the organdy curtains that billowed
out from the window breeze, the sun scattered dust motes. I just
stood there, soaking up the clatter, until Tuwana dragged me out
onto the front porch. We painted our fingernails, then our toenails,
and between it all, talked about a lot of nothing.

When the noon whistle shrilled through every inch of Graham
Camp, it surprised me that the whole morning had flown by. Not
once had I thought about Mama.

Running into the wind, my hair streamed behind me as I cut
through the Barneses’ backyard, darted past a row of tin garages,
and zipped into the house. I took a second to catch my breath and
listen for Mama, but the hum of the Frigidaire was all I heard. I
went to the bathroom, flushed, and reached for the faucet to wash
my hands. That’s when I noticed the brown pill bottle on the back
of the toilet.

The lid lay off to the side. I picked it up to screw it back on,
thinking Mama had been careless when she took her last dose. The
bottle was empty. I scanned the bathroom. No other bottles. No
other pills laying around.

A tingle zipped up my spine. I raced into Mama’s room, shadowy
and stale, and squinted to make out her body curled under
her quilt—asleep, it looked like. I touched her lightly on the
shoulder.

“Mama, wake up. It’s time for lunch.”

She didn’t move.

I gave her a little shake, not wanting her to yell at me if she had
another headache.

Nothing.

A knot formed in my throat. Her mouth sagged toward the pillow,
her face ghostly white. I moved the quilt and lifted her hand,
but it flopped back against the sheet. Check her pulse.
I looked around, wondering if someone had said the words or
if I had just thought them. Check her pulse. How? What did Miss
Good from health class teach us? Which side of the wrist? Thumb
on the inside of the wrist. No, maybe it was the index finger.

Think. Think. Think.

Forget the pulse. Check her breathing. I leaned down close, hoping
to hear some air coming from Mama’s mouth. My own heart
banged against my chest, filling my ears with its thump, thump,
and I knew it was useless. Even if Mama were breathing, I would
never hear it.

I flew out the back door, ducked under the clothesline, and tore
through Goldie Kuykendall’s yard. Not even bothering to knock,
I ran in and yelled, “Goldie! Help!”

Goldie listened to my blubbering and picked up the telephone.
“We’ve got an emergency over at the Tuckers’. Get Joe straightaway.
. . . Tell him his wife swallowed a bottle of pills.”

She hung up and made another phone call. Then another. A
ticking clock in my head screamed “Hurry!” but the next thing I
knew, Goldie grabbed my hand and rushed us across our backyards
to my house.

Already, like some strange magic, neighbors appeared, whispering,
asking what had happened. I broke loose from Goldie’s grip,
and as I raced up the steps to the front door, I heard Daddy’s Chevy
screech to a halt. Red-faced from working in the boiler room at the
plant, he stormed past me. Goldie took my hand and whispered,
“Wait.” In no time, the screen door swung open, nearly knocking
me down. Daddy stepped out carrying Mama. He put her in the
car and ducked into the backseat beside her. Brother Henry from
the Hilltop Church got behind the wheel and roared off.

A sweaty, sick feeling came over me, and the faces of those gathered
on our lawn blurred. My thoughts jumbled as I caught the
words crying shame, poor Sammie, mercy sakes. I waited for someone
to say that Mama was alive, that everything would be all right, but
no one did. Then a horrible thought crept in. Doc told me to take
care of Mama. Why, oh why, hadn’t I done what he said? I tried to
swallow, but my throat had shut itself off, and I knew why.

It was all my fault.

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