“Well, she’s gone,” Daddy announced at my bedroom door. “Your mother has really gone.”
I turned slightly in bed and grunted, thinking, why did he have to wake me so early just to tell me that? Then, I peered at him through the slits of my barely opened eyes. He stood in my bedroom doorway, his head bowed and his hands on his hips. He was already dressed for work, wearing his gray suit and tie, looking as perfectly put together as a storefront manikin, as Mama would say.
“Right, Daddy, she’s gone,” I said, and pulled the cover over my head.
“No,” he said, raising his voice. “I mean it. This time she’s really gone, Phoebe.”
I lowered the blanket again.
“What are you talking about, Daddy? She’s really gone? Like this is the first morning you woke up and realized she didn’t come home all night?”
In the beginning they would have loud arguments about that, Mama crying that he didn’t consider how hard she worked and how she needed time to unwind. After a while Daddy gave up complaining and just ignored it, which was usually how he handled every crisis between them.
My mother worked as a waitress in a small jazz joint. Most of the time she spent what she made right there, or at least, that was what she claimed. Either that or she needed this and that for work: better shoes, nicer clothes, beautifying to make better tips. Whatever excuse she came up with, Daddy accepted.
With Daddy on the road selling tools to garages all around the Atlanta, Georgia, area, I was often home alone most of th
e night. Lately, he had to go even farther to bring in as much income as he had before. Because of that, he often had to sleep in a motel and I’d be alone all night, not realizing until morning that Mama hadn’t come home.
“She didn’t leave a good-bye letter for either you or me, but she’s gone! She packed most of her things and took off.”
I stared at him a moment and then sat up in bed. I was wearing one of his pajama tops, which was something I had done since I was four and was still doing at sixteen.
“What things? Her clothes?”
“That’s what I said.”
That was something she hadn’t ever done, I thought. I ran my fingers through my hair before getting up and marching past him to his and Mama’s bedroom.
Her closet door was wide open, and there were dozens of empty hangers dangling. Some of her less cherished garments had been tossed to the floor. There was only one pair of old shoes in the shoe rack. Now that the closet was almost empty, the gobs of dust were more visible. I stared at it and shook my head.
“She took all that and left,” I said in amazement, mostly to myself. Daddy was standing right beside me.
Mama was really on a fling this time. I was sure it was something she had just decided to do on the spur of the moment. She hadn’t given me any hints. I think I felt more betrayed than Daddy, not that Mama and I were all that close these days. She didn’t like being reminded she had a sixteen-year-old daughter. Instead, she preferred pretending she wasn’t much older than that herself, especially in front of men. I was absolutely forbidden to go to the club to see her when she was working, and she warned me that if I ever did, she would act like she didn’t know who I was.
“All her cosmetics, too,” Daddy said, nodding at their bathroom. The counter had nothing on it, no jars of her creams, no shampoos, nothing.
“Wow,” I said. “I guess she did take off for a while.”
“What time did you get home last night that you didn’t even know it, Phoebe, and didn’t even hear her do all this?” he asked. “I’m sure she wasn’t alone,” he added in a lower voice.
Anger didn’t darken his ebony eyes as much as it turned them into cold black marble.
“I was home early, but she was still at work and I was so tired I went right to sleep,” I lied.
Once again I had violated my curfew and come home very late, but I just assumed she was still at the club. I didn’t go to her room to look for her, and if I had and had woken her, she would have ripped into me good. The gin I had drunk at Toby Powell’s house practically put me into a coma anyway. I didn’t even hear my dreams.
“She was threatening me with leaving all the time, but I thought like you,” Daddy said, staring at the empty closet. “She’s always threatening. But this time, it’s obviously more than just a threat, Phoebe. I should have known. I should have expected something like this. I heard rumors about her and that no-account Sammy Bitters.”
“What kind of rumors?” I had heard them, too, stories about her being with him, but I made like I knew nothing.
“Not the kind I’d care to discuss,” Daddy said. “Anyhow, I gotta go off until late tonight. I don’t have any time to worry about this or care. I just wanted to be sure you knew to be home after school and all, Phoebe. No hanging out on any street corners or staying late at some friend’s house, you hear? You gotta stay good. Remember what that judge told you,” he warned.
Along with two of my friends, I had been arrested for shoplifting at a department store. Sylvia Abramson had one of those tools the cashiers use to take off the thing that sets off an alarm, and we used it to steal clothes a few times before we got caught this time. A saleswoman saw me go into the changing room with a blouse, and afterward she went in and realized I was wearing the blouse under my own. They let me walk out of the store before they stopped me. Meanwhile, Sylvia and Beneatha Lewis got caught stuffing panty hose into their jeans.
This was the second time I was caught shoplifting and brought before a judge within one year. If it wasn’t for Daddy, I guess the judge would have done something more than just sentence me to probation and impose a curfew. Daddy kept thanking him. To me it looked like he was begging for mercy, apologizing, taking the blame onto himself, and promising to try to do better as a parent. Before the session was over, the judge did bawl him out more than he chastised me, but he did tag on the threat of having me removed from our home and placed in foster care the next time I got into any sort of trouble.
“It’s easy to have children, but it’s a real responsibility to raise them,” he lectured from his high desk. Daddy just kept nodding. “Too many people have thrown and are throwing their obligations onto the state or society. The court isn’t here to take the place of a parent.”