Burt finished up with the lot, sweeping it clear of trash and leaves, even hosing off the back where someone had spilled a milkshake. As always, he took pride in his job, and paid no mind to the pestering kids and their teasing. He kept his head down and swept, gratified by the clean curbs he left in his path.
When Burt finished, Mama still wasn’t there. She wasn’t sitting in her usual spot, no car at the curb, by the gutted pay phone box. Usually she was there before three, when his shift ended, her gray Oldsmobile sitting like a storm cloud as Mama chain smoked Slims and stared out the windshield.
Burt looked up and down the road, unsure what to do now, since every day for ten years Mama had been waiting. He waited until four and then started walking.
Rita was tired of pain. For twenty years she’d lived with a knife in her side. It came and went, some days worse than others. At times it was faint—only the tip nudging her skin, only the threat of the blade ready to slip between her ribs when she shifted or turned in the night. Other times it made good on its promises, paralyzing her with sharp, puncturing bursts of terror.
Burt would worry. The youngest of six kids, Rita had known from that initial, delayed cry that he would never leave her. He didn’t crawl when the rest of them had crawled, didn’t speak until he was five, and even when he did it was simple grunts when he was hungry or had filled his diaper. Hank even said it, before he died, that after five healthy kids they’d pushed their luck with Burt. And now it fell on Rita to raise him through his forties and beyond.
She could have done it too, had it not been for the pain. The pain teased and agitated, it hid from doctors, went dormant during treatment only to return with a vengeance. She’d chain smoked for years, hoping cancer would finish her off. Death had become an attractive suitor, arriving in her dreams with a bouquet of flowers and a heating pad.
Rita sat in the dark, waiting, running her fingers along Hank’s .38 Smith and Wesson. Burt would be confused at what she would ask him to do, but he’d do it, she knew he would. What Burt lacked in smarts, he made up for it with blind loyalty. He’d try to nail applesauce to the wall if she asked.
The heavy steps hit the porch, Rita set her Slim in the ashtray and winced as she shifted. She’d wanted to do it herself, but found that her tremulous fingers, out of some primal instinct, disobeyed commands.
Burt stopped and stood in the living room. It occurred to Rita how he’d never get married or have a house of his own. He’d stay here, maybe talking to himself, or her, long after she found relief.
“Mama, why didn’t you…? His big, vacant eyes found the gun in her lap. “Mama what are you doing?”
Rita coughed gently, as though not wanting to wake the pain. “Hush baby. Mama needs you to do something for her.”
She started to sit up but the jolt in her side warned her against it. What she would give to take a deep, unobstructed breath. To move without fear. The gun sat heavy in her lap, too heavy to lift or look at. She could smell the metal, the oils, maybe the gunpowder in the bullet that would hurl itself into her head.
“Take it, baby.”
Burt shook his head. But Rita insisted until he plodded over and carefully picked up the gun. Rita had never let him touch before. When he did, Rita saw an eight-year-old’s eyes marveling at the instrument of death. She saw her baby, her helpless youngest child. She closed her eyes, stubbed the cigarette out and thought about him doing as told. Standing behind her, pressing the gun barrel to the base of her skull and pulling the trigger. She heard her own lifeless body hit the floor, a wizened grin curled into her face before she got there
But then there wast Burt, hovering over the discarded lump, confused and scared. Alone.
Rita managed a small, measured breath before she smiled at her son. “Go set that on the dresser sweetie, and fetch Mama’s heating pad.”
Burt nodded, eyes still set on the gun. She asked him again and he nodded, obediently, then turned and did as he was told.
Rita lit another smoke, allowed another dream of her date with death. Maybe tomorrow would be different.