NETA had a hard time talking about her childhood without saying thank you. Thank you to her Nana and Papaw who finally took them in. To Lottie and Isabell who pampered her, to Henry who kept her warm. She could even thank her father for leaving. The only person she couldn’t thank was her mother.
Sometimes Neta forgot she came from her. She closed her eyes, pressed her strained fingers against her temples and imagined her mother didn’t exist. Then, blaring in from the side angle of her mind, she would see Mama again. Skinny, strung out. Her hair hanging in matted tendrils. Her arms skeletal, unable to provide cushion or warmth.
The picture that most accurately portrayed her childhood wasn’t a glossy family of six in matching Christmas sweaters. It was Lottie and Isabell stacking drugs on flat surfaces. Her two older sisters, their hair and clothes neat despite the squalor inside the house, organizing rows of powder into straight lines. It was her mother’s angular frame hovering over the powder, sucking it up with a rolled dollar bill if she could find money in her change purse. When there was no cash, she used errant paper—flyers found in trashcans, fence posts, mailboxes that weren’t theirs.
“Don’t ever start this shit,” her mother would look up at each of them, pointing an accusatory finger. “This isn’t good for you.”
She remembered Isabell shaking her head, her braids ugly and lopsided because she’d done them herself. No one shielded their eyes, not even Lottie. Though, Lottie’s optimism and loyalty to Mama was a direct juxtaposition to Neta’s hatred and Isabell’s indifference. They all watched their mother slink into a hazy satisfaction, eased and soothed by the drugs.
Neta couldn’t remember a single parent-teacher conference her mother attended. Not a church meeting, even though she and Henry would go, sitting in the back so they could pilfer donuts slick with a shimmering glaze. Isabell helped Neta with homework while Lottie cooked supper, boiled baked beans loaded with hot dogs and salt and packets of ketchup. Her mother was a peripheral blur in her childhood while her siblings were the focus.
She was so engrossed in her memories, when the phone rang, she jumped. Neta’s therapist said she had PTSD. Her memories were triggers which lived alongside depression and loneliness. She bashed the power button on the cordless phone and heard a familiar automated voice informing her it was Henry. Then, with a subtle click, her brother’s voice—buoyant and energetic—pierced through the line.
“Netty,” he said. She thought she could hear his smile. This was her favorite time of the week. “How is my sister?”
Neta popped one finger after another until she got to her thumbs. She stared at the short knobby squares. The same stumpy thumbs as her sister and her father and Henry. She wondered how they were all still chained together. She wondered if her mother was some form of karmic punishment for a past transgression. Then she heard Henry’s whistle, low and patient, calling her back.
“I was just reading,” Neta lied. “How are you?”
Henry was serving three to five in a minimum-security prison in southern West Virginia. It wasn’t his first stint. Neta listened as he tapped a rhythm against the black, plastic pay phone. Henry could’ve been a wonderful musician. He could pick up an instrument and play.
“Let’s talk about Mama.”
The two of them let the sentence linger between them. Henry broke the silence.
“You need to go see her, Netty.”
She resented Henry for asking her, though Neta knew she wasn’t really allowed to resent Henry for anything. The gratitude rose to her lips again, but she pushed it down, suffocated under a feather pillow in her comfortable home. She rocked back and forth, hugging her knees and lightly humming to herself, the phone sandwiched between her ear and her shoulder. Henry’s side of the line was surprisingly quiet. Neta glanced around her apartment. In one corner, there was a tall bookshelf with all the books she didn’t read as a child. Everything Judy Blume wrote. The Ramona series, Roald Dahl, Nancy Drew, Shel Silverstein. She stood and crossed the room. She ran her hand along the spines. She counted the books, holding the figure in her head. She wondered what it would have been like as a child to crack the spine of a new book, smell the crisp fresh paper.
“Mama did nothing for us,” she said, a sigh pushing against her gut. “Nothing.”
“She’s our Mom, Netty,” Henry said. “She gave birth to us.”
Neta wondered if that was positive or negative. Four kids. Who had four kids in the coal fields? Who had four kids when they couldn’t afford one? she wondered for the hundredth time. A woman’s voice echoed through the line, announcing they had one minute before the call would be disconnected. Neta opened her favorite book, Where the Red Fern Grows. It was the one Henry bought her for her thirteenth birthday after she had gotten angry with him for not letting her check it out of the library. Henry’s handwriting, crooked and messy, was on the inside cover.
For the girl who wants more. And deserves it. Love, H.
Neta thought of Henry in his orange jumpsuit, sitting in a jail cell for breaking and entering this time though he’d done time for selling drugs too. Just a fuck up like Mama, he’d claim, but she didn’t see it that way. Mama made her decisions. Henry didn’t have a choice in the matter.
“It’s family day,” Henry said. “Have a heart, Netty.”
Neta listened to her brother’s faraway voice. Static crackled over the line as he spoke.
“Okay,” she said, resigned.
Then, she heard a click as the call disconnected. Her breath was ragged and uneven. She took her pulse, counting the rhythm as it banged aggressively inside her chest cavity. She tried to calm herself, reading the first few pages of the book. When that didn’t work, she imagined the beach, the one Henry had taken her to as a child.
It was right before his sentencing the first time. Henry was nineteen and she was six. He drove her in a friend’s car to the North Carolina shore, the engine making a loud banging sound the entire way like pennies rattled in a jar. Kitty Hawk. She remembered saying the words over and over and over again to herself. Kitty Hawk. Kitty Hawk. Kitty Hawk. She said it in a sweet little whisper as they drove. It was the song repeated again and again. The two words together sounded exactly right and entirely absurd.
Neta hadn’t seen anything like sand dunes. They were like snow piles in the mountains, rising and falling in an endless, colorless expanse. But sand was better. Her toes sank into it easily, and immediately she felt warm all over as the sun inched its way across her bare skin. The ocean looked as if it went on forever, married to the sky in its vast endlessness.
Henry rolled up his pants when they reached the shore. He took hers off. He was going to allow her to run through the sand in her hand-me down panties, but he said they looked so sad, sagging in the bottom with pearl-sized holes eaten in the sides. He put Neta’s jeans back on and carried her to a surf store at the top of a tall mountain of sand and sea grass. The sign above it was shaped like a surfboard.
“Pick the one you want,” Henry said, opening his arms wide. There were rows of stretchy nylon suits in every possible color and pattern. Blue, green, purple. Yellow polka dots. Pink stripes. She ran her hands over the curved hangers, the metal cool beneath her palms. She slid her child-sized fists towards the middle of the row, enjoying the scraping sound metal against metal made as she browsed. She pulled one from the rack. It was red with ruffles down the center, a bundle of roses at the hip. It clipped around the neck. To this day, it’s the prettiest swimsuit Neta ever owned.
Henry reached into his pocket, extracting some of the money he’d saved from selling Mama’s drugs. He bought her the tiny suit. He used their bathroom to help her change, peeling the sticky strip from the crotch. Neta looked at herself in the mirror. She was thin, could’ve probably gotten by with a smaller size but tags and stickers had already been removed. Plus, she was used to clothes being two sizes too big.
“When you were a baby, not even two, I told you I would take you to a real beach,” Henry said, hugging Neta’s lithe body to his own.
As they exited the store, she ran headlong towards the ocean, her toes burning slightly in the sand. She stared at the water, afraid to enter. It was the color of beer bottles. She allowed the waves to lick her toes. Henry plowed forward, splashing her as he went. The water was salty and delicious as it grazed her upper lip. He held his arms wide, so wide he nearly blocked the sun.
“Netty,” he cried and she ran to him. He picked her up, dangling her legs into the water so the spray ricocheted off their arms. Henry rubbed his nose against Neta’s. They were the same noses, round buttons that turned up at the end. Freckles speckled across the bridge. “Netty, this is the beach,” he yelled.
He put her down and for a moment, her legs were unsteady. Wobbly and uncertain, as if her appendages realized she couldn’t support herself without Henry’s arms. Henry sat in the waves and Neta curled into his lap, resting her head in the pillow beneath his chin.
“Neta,” he paused. “I have to leave for a little while.”
She looked up at him. He was pale, so pale she wondered momentarily if he was a ghost.
“Lottie will take care of you,” he said. “Isabell will send money.”
She tried hard not to cry. She sang her song, Kitty Hawk Kitty Hawk Kitty Hawk, to herself. She didn’t want Henry to go. She thought of her grandparents’ home were they’d recently moved. The way the tiles in the kitchen were so badly chipped that she tripped on the unsteady terrain. The way Henry would tell her stories or read from magazines to fill a void, his words sinking into the crevices of the night the way the whizzing swish of coal trucks used to in their old house in the trailer park. Neta made a fist and threw it into the glove of Henry’s hand.
“No,” she said. It was the only word she could muster, so she said it again. “No.”
Henry picked her hand up. He kissed her knuckles.
“I messed up Netty,” he said. “I messed up good this time.”
Neta noticed cigarette buds floating in the frothy waves. She stared, watching the water digest them. Pelicans swooped low, skimming the shallow water and emerging with wriggling fish. She watched one bird, hungry and eager. He dove into the glass bottled water again and again, never catching a fish.
Henry continued to talk. To explain. He sat her in the sand, and, for the first time, she felt the uneasy itchiness sand produced. She shifted uncomfortably, digging her crescent nails into her thighs. Henry kept dipping his head low, angling to look into Neta’s eyes. She avoided him.
Now, Neta stared at the phone. She willed it to ring again. Praying for one more moment to explain herself to her brother. She knew prison didn’t work that way. Still, she hoped.
“Kitty Hawk,” she said into the air of her empty apartment, wishing she could taste the balmy ocean breeze as it exfoliated her skin. Wanting to breathe in the freedom that had once permeated her brother’s skin, a smell that was now permanently erased.
The entrance to Four Circles Rehabilitation & Care Center was beautiful and upscale with natural stone stairs and a fountain in the circular portico. The visitors’ center was a wide log building with a green paneled roof. It reminded Neta of the Lincoln Logs she played with in preschool. Children and adults, all a little wary, waited in a long security line for admittance. She hadn’t seen her mother in years. She was uncertain she would recognize her. She fingered the buttons on her cellphone, flipping it opened and closed with a muffled snap.
A small girl in front of Neta ran circles around her father’s legs. She was engrossed, captivated by the child’s lopsided pigtails. The way her clothes hung in a precarious angle from her, as if her father had dressed her without taking a moment to shift the shoulders of her shirt back. As they neared the entrance, the girl’s father carried her through. A tall guard dressed entirely in black waved a wand over the girl’s shoulders. Neta followed them, pushing her compact black purse through the x-ray conveyor belt.
The little girl carried a small paper sack. She shook it up and down, and Neta heard something softly flicking the side of the paper.
Neta was now very near the girl, following in a slow progressive line that admitted them into the waiting room. She was drawn to her the way people say they are called to look directly at the sun during an eclipse despite warnings. The girl smiled, the action revealing perfectly round, apple cheeks and a missing front tooth.
“I lost my tooth while Mama was at camp,” she said, holding up the paper bag. “I’m going to let Mama put the tooth under her pillow. She doesn’t believe in magic but I do.”
The child said this in one big breath, a confession of sorts.
She smiled, shirking back a little. The girl was so sweet and talkative. Neta wondered if she had ever been so irreproachable. The father put the child down, her Mary Janes making a squeaking sound as she sashayed around the room. Nurses were lined in crisp white uniforms in front of a desk. She smoothed her black dress and twisted her grandmother’s ring around her pointer finger. The gold dug lightly into her skin.
“Please check in first, get your visitors’ badge,” the nurses suggested to those waiting. Each of the attendants held clipboards with lists attached to them. Neta assumed it was either a list of pre-approved visitors or a compilation of patients participating. She wondered if her name was on a list? If Henry or one of her sisters had attended to that? Or perhaps her mother, in a hopeful moment of delusion, thought her youngest child would come and sit by her bedside? Did she know Neta lived so close, twenty minutes away?
There was a line of chairs against the back wall of the room. They were heavy, wrought iron, with floral patterned cushions. She sat next to the father/daughter duo. She wanted to ask the father, a handsome man with a broad smile and dimples and thick brown hair, whether his wife was addicted to oxy or heroin or coke. Those were the big three in places like this one. The little girl made her think better of her senseless questioning, though. She shook the bag again, bringing it close to Neta’s face before her father could reign her in, pulling her back against his chest. The girl wore a long-sleeved shirt with a Peter Pan collar and a corduroy skirt with thick, sweater-like tights underneath. She had curled wings around her temples, hair unwilling to be tamed.
The nurses were walking laps around the room, gathering people in the center where they had laid cookies and a punch bowl.
“My mommy has been asking to see me,” the little girl said, interrupting Neta’s thoughts as her father hushed her.
She touched the father’s forearm. “She’s okay,” she reassured him. “My name’s Neta.” She extended her hand to the child. The little girl punched it, her fist fitting perfectly into Neta’s palm. The father shook his head, a resigned kids will be kids look on his face.
“I’m Sage,” the little girl said. A nurse approached the father, and his forehead crinkled with worry. Around them people were being taken into the bowels of the facility, balancing their cookies and miniature cups of punch as they walked.
“Do you mind?” her father asked, turning and placing Sage delicately in the padded chair next to Neta. The father and the nurse stepped to one side.
“Do you want to see my tooth?” Sage asked, her eyebrows wiggling together in a mesmerizing dance. Before Neta had time to process the question, the little girl was unrolling the bag, sliding her tooth from it. She held it in her palm, extending it to Neta for inspection. She took the tooth, rolled it between her thumb and pointer finger. It was a perfect ecru square except for one thin line of curled white enamel, the root. Neta could no longer remember if it hurt or not, having your tooth pulled. From the corner of her eye, she could see the father’s hands flailing aggressively. Had anything been near them, he would’ve knocked it over, but Neta couldn’t hear what upset him.
“Did it hurt?” she asked Sage, partially as a distraction to the observant child. Partially as a distraction to herself.
“You’ve lost teeth before,” Sage said. “You remember what it feels like.”
Neta didn’t but she refused to say as much. The father stopped talking to the nurse and sat, his head in his hands, next to Sage. He scratched his neck, unwilling or utterly incapable of making eye contact. The nurse approached, asking Neta’s name and her mother’s.
“I’m Neta Daines. My mother is Elsie.”
The father was talking to Sage, but the girl kept pushing him from her, shoving with tiny, resistant, useless fists that weren’t made to harm.
“You can follow me,” the nurse said.
She stood. Sage was crying loudly now, her adorable face made ugly with pain.
“You promised,” she whimpered, her lower lip curled in a pout. “You promised I could see her today. I need to show her my tooth. To give it to Mama.”
She meant to walk away. She meant to glide down the hallway and do one of the only things her brother had ever asked her to do. One of the hardest things he could’ve requested. She stopped though, pivoting on her heel and kneeling before Sage.
“I’ll take your tooth to your Mom. What’s her name?”
“Mama,” Sage said slowly, unwilling to recognize that as a title, an honor, rather than a name. She’ll learn, Neta thought.
“What should I tell her?” Neta asked. She spoke slowly, more slowly than her natural cadence, accentuating each syllable.
“That it’s from me … Sage,” the girl said, pointing forcefully to her own chest. “That it’s a piece of me.” She bit her lip and Neta knew she was trying very hard to stop crying. She locked eyes with the father, trying to pen an agreement. Please don’t bring her back here. Please don’t let that woman hurt her anymore. Neta’s eyes bulged and the contacts within them slid to the left. The father couldn’t speak, and he didn’t draw his eyes back up to Neta’s.
Sage slithered the tooth from the paper bag, placing it in Neta’s hand. She folded Neta’s fingers over it, a firm fist protecting the enamel.
“It’s a part of me,” Sage said, her message resounding and defiant.
Neta nodded, allowing the nurse to lead her through a pair of sliding doors. She thought of all the things she wished her mother had done. All the things she wished she knew. All the things she wished she fought for. She opened her fist, staring at the perfect square. Remembering what it felt like to be so proud, so hopeful, and then, suddenly, so disappointed. She pinched the root, remembering Sage’s words.
It’s a piece of me, she had said.
How many pieces of herself had she broken off and handed to her mother? How many sacrifices had they made for Mama’s habits?
She pictured Isabell’s lopsided braids. Lottie standing in the kitchen cooking dinner, never stopping to complain. Henry caged in a jumpsuit and then, his spinning frame free on the beach. The tooth felt small but purposeful in her hand.
She passed the tooth from one hand to the other. Sage couldn’t tell Neta her mother’s name so there was only one that could be given. She signaled the nurse to stop, her nails biting into the woman’s fleshy bicep.
“Please give this to Elsie Daines,” she said and turned to leave, knowing it was the last piece of innocence her mother would get from her.