Story appeared in Confrontation Literary Magazine Fall 2003
Sonny is sprawled across the scratchy beige wool carpeting in the dark hallway. Stretching until she is completely flat and her muscles taut, she peers through the gap beneath the bathroom door. She’s relieved to see her mother’s large feet, actually one foot, planted in front of the toilet bowl just inches from the shell pink bathtub. That foot magically disappears as the other one slides across the tile and takes its place. Sonny closes her eyes and presses her nose into the sliver of space as if it were a window, cracked open, promising a gulp of fresh air. She breathes, deeply, inhaling the pungent odor of polish. Nail polish. Looking under the door again, she counts her mother’s toes. Her mother has painted them a brilliant shade of coral the exact color of the Flamingo perched on the front lawn, the set of unbreakable breakfast dishes, and the plastic tulips sitting in gray water on the dinette table.
“Mommy, I’m sorry. Please open the door,” Sonny cries. But not a single sound escapes the bathroom where her mother hides out tonight, and so many nights. The house is still shrouded blue black in the evening light. The only noises Sonny hears are the high-pitched hum from the Fridgedare and the hypnotizing drip from a leaky kitchen faucet. Upstairs, Sonny’s two brothers are fast asleep, wiped out from their nightly punching match. And her father is away again, on one of his road trips down south, peddling his fabric line. She likes to picture him on a bicycle carrying his sample case in a basket, even though she knows he’s really taken the car. When Sonny was very little, three or four, not a big girl of eight, like now, her mother would let her spend the night sleeping beside her in her sprawling king size bed. Sonny always slept on her father’s side and could smell his smoky whiskers in the soft down of the pillows, and on the sleeves of her mother’s satiny nightgown.
Sometimes, before morning, Sonny might awaken and find her mother missing from the bed. With a web of sleep veiling her eyes, she’d tip toe into the bathroom and catch her mother staring at her pale reflection in the medicine chest. Unaware of Sonny standing in the doorway, her mother practiced strange faces in the mirror. She talked loudly to people who Sonny knew were absent from the room. With butterfly fingers, her mother would pat layers of rouge onto her sunken cheeks, and dab sparkly shadows to her eyes reminding Sonny of the Indians who painted their faces before going to war.
If she happened to notice Sonny, her mother might motion her to come sit on the potty so she could run a hairbrush through Sonny’s long, tangled auburn hair. Sometimes, she’d stop brushing, right in the middle, like she’d remembered something terribly important. Sonny would stand perfectly still, afraid to breathe, while her mother, grasping her hair tightly, fanned her hot soured breath against Sonny’s neck.
Sonny jumps up and taps on the hollow door with all her knuckles. When there is no response, she collapses against the floor wiggling her body like the worms she and her brothers collect in their backyard after a hard rain.
Her mother’s toes move. They perform their own silent tap dance routine against the black and white tiled floor. Sonny emits a giggle, but stops, afraid this might make her mother angrier.
“Mommy, please open the door. I said I was sorry.”
Sonny struggles to stay awake, worried if she doesn’t see her mother before going to sleep, she may never see her again. Her mother could disappear suddenly just like Aunt JJ had done, exactly one year ago, without ever saying good-bye. It happened just days after JJ got married to a quiet man who had smiled, faintly, when Sonny touched the steel blue numbers tattooed on his arm. She loved Aunt JJ, more than God, more than Grandma, sometimes more than Mommy.
Sleepiness hangs like a cottony cloud over Sonny’s head. She can’t remember why she is sorry or what she might have done. Had she coughed her peas and carrots into the embroidered dinner napkin before rolling it in a ball, or spilled her mother’s My Sin on the vanity again? Maybe she’d left her Betty and Veronica’s scattered across her bedroom floor.
“Mom-meee,” Sonny stands and kicks the door with her bare foot. Her cries are interrupted by a sudden gush of water. The bathtub? The sound is so loud it drowns out her kicking, her crying, the fist-fight inside her chest. It seems as though it will never stop, but then it does, abruptly, just like the duck and cover drills at school. Sonny’s breath mimics a deflated balloon, spitting air as it escapes a room.
A steamy mist creeps under the door and stings her eyes. She smells an awful smell, like vinegar in salad dressing, and she knows her mother is using that pink rubber hose tied limply around the showerhead.
“It makes me clean” her mother would whisper, whenever Sonny asked what it was and why her mother used it. But she hated the looks of that thing and remembered that cousin Francie had said Aunt JJ hung herself on something inside the bathroom. Maybe Aunt JJ had a rubber thing. Maybe she, too, needed to get clean.
“Mommy,” Sonny begs, one last time. She lies on her back like a broken doll, arms and legs twisted, her thick lashes sealed shut. The door creaks open, and she feels the lacy hem of her mother’s nightgown as it brushes over her face. Turning over, she grabs her mother’s large painted foot, holds on as if it were the one log afloat on a turbulent sea. Sonny travels the thick pile of beige carpet, squirming like a squishy worm stolen from the haven of the deep dark earth. For three more days, until her father returns, until once more she feels safe, over and over she will hear the puzzling madness of her mother’s words: “Let me go Sonny. Just let go.”