Daddy died a long time ago when Mama was still young and pretty. I was so little when it happened that I can’t even remember anymore what he looked like. Mama used to show me photographs taken when they were first married, a couple of years before I came along. I think she was trying to keep his memory alive, but it didn’t work. Sometimes today I look at those old faded black-and-whites and for a fleeting second there’s a spark of recognition. I’m never very sure though whether I actually remember my daddy or just remember the last time I looked at those photos. Every son should remember his father with great fondness, it seems to me, but I just can’t recall a thing about him. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
I feel pretty bad about that, too. I can only wonder what he was thinking, laying in that hospital bed over in Oklahoma City, laboring furiously just to suck in another breath of air. He knew he was dying and that must have been hell for him. On top of that, imagine how he must have felt going from this world to the next knowing that there was no possible chance that his only son would ever remember his father. Imagine that! He knew that I would never remember him. It must have been hell, that’s all I can say. It must have been hell.
One of the earliest memories I have was when Mama took me to my first day of school. Nineteen fifty-eight seems like such a long time ago, and it was, I suppose. But the memory is still so fresh it feels like only yesterday that I was wailing hysterically, watching Mama slowly inch her way out of the classroom. All the while, I was pleading, “You said you wouldn’t leave me! Don’t leave me! Please, Mama, you promised!” It probably broke her heart to hear me sounding so desperate, but I couldn’t help it, and I guess she couldn’t either. I suppose she had to do what she had to do.
Anyway, since we never had much money, the first thing Mama did after Daddy died was to start looking for a job. Finding work in rural Oklahoma back in those days wasn’t an easy thing to do, especially seeing as Mama had no real skills to do much of anything. Like most women then, my mama got married right out of high school. She worked at the library in town for a while, until she got pregnant with me, and that ended that. Without any real work experience to speak of, she didn’t know what to do or where to go.
So she went everywhere. Mama applied absolutely everywhere, but the response was always the same, especially when they found out she had a little boy to care for. Nobody wanted to hire her, not even down at the library. The head librarian told her curtly that they already had enough people to return books to the shelves and didn’t need anyone else.
Mama couldn’t beg, borrow, or steal a job, because everybody knew full well that if I got sick or had some kind of emergency, she wouldn’t be in to work that day. No employer wanted to run that risk, so by the time she’d filled out her fiftieth or so application, Mama was getting pretty desperate.
And that’s when she met Mr. Wilkie. Jim Wilkie ran the payroll department at the tape factory over in Greenwood. He’d been with the company so long that the owner had complete trust in him, and whatever Mr. Wilkie said, went.
Mama and Mr. Wilkie bumped into each other one evening, literally, at a church social, of all places. It’s all a little hazy and the only reason I still remember is because Mr. Wilkie spilled punch all over my nice white shirt, which as I recall made me kind of mad. After that, it just stuck with me. Otherwise, I might have forgotten the whole incident just like I seem to have forgotten most everything else. In any case, after Mama got me cleaned up, she and Mr. Wilkie introduced themselves and got to talking.
“I don’t see your husband,” he said after they made a little small talk. “Is your husband with you tonight?”
Mama told him that Daddy died a while back and that we were having a pretty rough go of it. “I’ve been lookin’ for a job it seems like forever,” she said innocently. “Just can’t seem to get a break.”
“Well now, Charlotte,” Mr. Wilkie drawled, reaching out and running his fingers slowly along the inside of her arm, “if there’s anything you ever need… If I can ever help you with anything, anything… you just call on ol’ Jimbo and we’ll see if we can’t get things straightened away real nice. You know where to find me, if you ever need anything, I mean.”
Mama suddenly seemed real uncomfortable around Mr. Wilkie, because she got all fidgety and nervous and began to hem and haw and even perspire a little. I don’t think anyone ever touched her like that, except for Daddy I suppose, and it was pretty clear that she didn’t like it very much.
Mama set her punch down right then and there and grabbed my hand and a second later we were out the door, on our way home. The six-block walk was pretty quiet, me doing a little talking and Mama doing none.
“What’s the matter, Mama?” I asked, as we walked up the front porch steps. “You mad at me?”
“No, Jimmy, I’m not mad at you,” she sighed. “I don’t feel well, that’s all. I think I’m gonna be sick to my stomach.”
As soon as we stepped inside, Mama said, “Go brush your teeth and get ready for bed while I open the windows.” She’d closed them all up tight before we left, as we were expecting a rain that never came, so the house was hot and stuffy. “And do a good job, Jimmy, not like last time. I’ll send you back a hundred times if I have to!”
I promised to do a good job, and I did.
A little later, I was in bed, waiting for Mama to come and tuck me in. I always loved being tucked in. The tightness of the sheets made me feel a little safer, a little more secure.
No more than a minute or two went by and in she walked, ready to work her magic again.
“Real tight, Mama, okay?” I pleaded.
Mama just smiled and started pulling the sheets tighter than a sardine can, exactly the way I liked it. I remember thinking that she was just about the best sheet-tucker in the whole wide world. No sooner had she finished when Mama plopped herself down on the edge of the bed.
“Jimmy, there’s somethin’ I’ve been meanin’ to tell you,” she began slowly. “You know of course that I’ve been havin’ trouble findin’ a job, and because… because we don’t have much… well,” she stammered, “what I’m tryin’ to tell you is that we might have to move in with Uncle Cameron—that’s all I’m tryin’ to say. Rent’s due and we just don’t…” Mama’s eyes drifted toward the window. “I just want you to know that we’ll be movin’ in with Uncle Cam,” she said quietly. “Prob’ly real soon, too. It’ll only be for a while, though, ’til things get better. Just for a while. Then we’ll find a place of our own. How does that sound?”
“Okay, I guess,” I answered, not really certain what to say.
I looked around my room and thought a moment about what she’d told me. Then I asked the only question that seemed to matter. “But where am I gonna put all my stuff?” All I could think of was where I would put my ball glove and roller skates and my other things.
“Don’t worry, baby,” she reassured me. “Uncle Cam’s got a bedroom just for you, just like here. It’ll be alright, you’ll see. I promise.”
Then she kissed me on the forehead and whispered, “Sweet dreams.”
“G’night, Mama,” I said.
“Good night, baby.”
It took me a while to fall asleep that night because I was really worried that my new bedroom might not be big enough for all my things. Mama said it would be, and I hoped she was right.