Mabeline's Promise

(This is an excerpt from a novel I am currently writing.)
     Mabeline stared at the words in the book but the sounds of drunken laughter and music reverberated through her head like a muffled symphony of chaos. She couldn’t think straight let alone read. The words danced about the pages, a ritualistic dance that conjured frustration and annoyance. She’d never get through chapter nine with this ruckus. A quick glance at the clock told her it was 10:15 pm. The second hand seemed to tick louder as she looked away. Desperate to focus, Mabeline rubbed her temples gently and took a deep breath. The ticking subsided, but the all too familiar sounds of drunken stupor persisted, as did her frustration.

        This was a wonted aspect of Mabeline’s life, especially during the time government checks were issued. It was as though the ink the government used to print out the checks had a magical effect on its recipients. The gloom of being poor that usually hung over the neighborhood dissipated  and the projects seemed to liven up.  

     Mabeline’s life was effected by government ink as well. Her mother became very generous once her checks were cashed. There was food in the house and her mother had a positive attitude towards life—at first. She would unconvincingly lay out all of her dreams, vowing to work harder at getting Mabeline and her little brother out of the projects. Her promises used to envelope Mabeline with such hope and warmth when she was little. They guarded her from the wrongness that loved to torment their happiness; but it was only in her youth that she clung to them, for month after month, year after year those promises were always broken.

     She grew to realize that her mother was just an alcoholic with delusional promises of sobriety and betterment; that they would never make it out of the projects and the wrongness would never truly disappear, it was only temporarily shrouded by the joy these checks could bring, a joy that lasted only a few days. The third day issued the nuisance of noise, partying, and drunkenness that at present had issued Mabeline with a headache.

     On these nights she had grown accustomed to just turning off the lights, snuggling next to her little brother on their twin bed and falling asleep, but this time it was different, she had a major exam the following day, a test that would count for nearly eighty percent of her semester grade. She needed to get high marks on this test if she ever wanted to get to college. It was 1960 and more and more black students were going to college. She wanted to be one of them. They were, like her, eager to rise above their destitution and make their dreams of a better life a reality.

In the other room her mother laughed so hard she began to cough uncontrollably. Mabeline could hear two male voices through the muffled chaos. She just couldn’t tell whether or not anyone else was in the living room with them.  She sighed deeply once more and with a scoot of the chair away from the desk she decided she had to do something about the noise.   She looked back at her little brother asleep on the bed and wished him happy dreams, silently praying that she didn’t anger her mother or start anything by suggesting they quiet down their partying. She eased the thin wooden door open slowly, trying desperately not to wake Cornelius. The squeaky hinges cried out so she swung the door open swiftly to silence them. Johnny Mathis’ ‘It's not for me to Say’ blared through the living room. Mabeline looked over her shoulder and Cornelius lay still, unaffected by the creaky door and the music. One huge step out into the hall and then a quick swinging of the door behind her was done swiftly enough that it had no time to creak out another cry. 

     Unsure of what mood her mother or friends were in, Mabeline closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She used thoughts of college to motivate her steps down the hall. With each step she thought of her road to college. She would pass her exam with high marks. She took a step. She would get an academic scholarship. She took another step. She would graduate high school. She took another step. She would get accepted to college. She took the last step from the hallway into the living room.For a few minutes she watched as her mother took swigs from a bottle she had in her left hand, then a drag from a cigarette in the right. Her hair was tousled and the strap from her yellow tank top hung completely off her shoulder bringing the sides of her top down, exposing somewhat of her breast. Its flower print complimented her beauty and even though the smoking and drinking had worn down the brightness of her lipstick, her lips still had a stunning pink tint to them. 

She was a beautiful mess.

     Mabeline stared at her mother who hadn’t noticed her. Two men sat next to her on the couch. The one to her left was sitting but Mabeline could tell that he was short and stocky. Tucked into dark slacks his white button-up was in great contrast to his dark ebony skin. Framing the good looks of his face his hair pressed and slicked back with grease told he had set out to be on the prowl that night, it was more than obvious he was just looking for a good time.

     The other man sat to the right of her mother and his long legs stretched out in front of him, crossed at the ankles. He wore a silky blue shirt and black socks underneath tan slacks. Spots on his alligator shoes shined from the table lamp’s light reflecting their cheapness. He was moderately handsome but had that same vibe that all the men her mother brought home had—sleaze. They both reeked of it.

     Her mother liked men. She had always loved the attention her caramel skin, long hair and pretty face had gotten from men. But her beauty that curved down her hour-glass figure and fell down the length of her long legs, always attracted the wrong kind of man, not the sort of man she longed for—the savior, someone who would truly love her and had enough money to pry her spark from the eroding grips of poverty. She attracted those lust-filled men that misconstrued her flirtatious charms for being perverse invitation, and with no understanding of the true power beauty possessed, she would naïvely fall for any man’s delusive professions of love. A reason her and Mabeline only had 16 years between them.

     Mabeline didn’t know much about her father. Her mother rarely spoke of him. The pain in her eyes had said enough when she did and so Mabeline never pushed the issue. Besides, she was old and wise enough to know that her mother’s heart had been damaged beyond repair by her father, that he had to have been that life lesson which had broken her spirit and condemned her to live this liquor fueled life of promiscuity and inertia. It could never justify her mother’s behavior but it explained why week after week she wound up at home drunk, with the hands of strange men groping her.

     Mabeline stood there staring at her mother, saddened by thoughts of heartbreak and loss and the consequences thereof, and then her eyes shifted to the strangers who hadn’t noticed her standing there either and her sadness transformed into anger. She despised how they looked at her. How with each squeeze of her mother’s knee or caress of her mother’s bare thigh, her mother’s beauty and sobriety sunk deeper into an emotional abyss.

     The man to her mother’s left moved in closer and began whispering into her ear. Her mother roared with laughter, spilling her booze on the floor. The sight of this angered Mabeline.

     “Momma!” Mabeline shouted, then looked back over her shoulder towards the hallway. Her anger had made her forget momentarily that Cornelius lay asleep only a few feet away; it was one of the few reasons she had come out there. 
     They all stared at Mabeline for a split second before her mother tried to stand up but stumbled over her own foot and landed back down on the couch, half her body hanging off of it. With one hand on the edge of the couch, and the other on the coffee table, Mabeline watched as her mother tried to push herself back up.  She sensed her mother’s desperation but her inability to stand only infuriated Mabeline more. 

     ‘Doesn’t she get tired of this?’ Mabeline asked herself. ‘How can she stand being so out of control?
     “Well, well, well. What da we have here?” The man with the blue silky shirt got up from the couch, smiled at Mabeline and shuffled his feet to the music as he approached her.

     Her mother, unwilling to put her cigarette or drink down, struggled to stand up completely. Her inebriation aroused the stockier man who sat next to her. He laughed at her attempts to steady herself and stared at her breasts that had almost come completely out of her tank top. Eyes narrowed and glossed over with lust he waited for her to fall back down to the couch and use him to steady herself. He longed for her to touch him. As superficial as that touch maybe it would be deeply satisfying.

     “Wait, wait!” Her mother slurred at silky shirt. He was getting closer to her baby. “Mabie baby what are you doing out here?” She asked somewhat intelligibly. Her desperation was evident, and she’d finally gotten two feet on the ground.   

     Mabeline knew that her mother would reach her before she would have to defend herself from silky shirt’s drunken advances. She shifted to the left to get a better view of her mother letting the man know she couldn’t care less he were there.

     “Momma, I’m trying to study, and Cornelius is sleeping. The music is too loud.”

     “Ah c’mon little sweet thang, dance wit me.” The man said

     Just as he was about to reach for Mabeline’s arm, her mother stumbled into her and pushed him back towards the couch. The man laughed as he nearly toppled over and grabbed the drink out of her mother’s hand with one swoop. Her mother scoffed at him but quickly turned her attention to Mabeline.
     “Whatdya say honey?” She stroked Mabeline’s hair.

     Mabeline softly pleaded with her, “Mom, turn down the music. Please. I have an exam tomorrow. A real important one.”

     Her mother leaned in to give her a kiss. Mabeline wanted to turn her head away because the smell of booze and cigarettes permeated through her mother’s skin making Mabeline sick. A smell of welfare money wasted. But Mabeline just couldn’t do it. Her frustration and anger were strong, but she also pitied her mother. She leaned her cheek into the kiss, not to condone her mother’s behavior, but to somehow touch that tortured soul deep within her and let her know that she still loved her.

     “That’s my baby!” Her mother draped her cigarette free arm around Mabeline’s neck, turned to face the men now staring at the two of them, and bragged, “This here my scholar. She goin’ to college, ‘gonna take us up outta this here place. Ain’t that right, baby?”  

     “Mom, please.” Mabeline gingerly took her mom’s arm from around her neck. She was just as tall as her mother, but her mother’s inability to stand came creeping back, and Mabeline couldn’t hold her up, she wasn’t physically strong enough. Emotionally strong enough, yes; though she wondered if she should be the emotional crutch her mother clung to.

     Her mother’s actions warranted feelings of hopelessness and despair and enervated all hope, so maybe it would be better if Mabeline gave these emotions a voice, told her mother just how irresponsible she truly was and how much damage she had done to all of them. Maybe then she would look at her reflection and see disgust. Maybe then she would come to grips with reality and sincerely atone for her mistakes.

     “Mother, please!” Mabeline pleaded. She wasn’t interested in any praise that might come from these men. She could care less about them. Her mother wouldn’t even remember that they had been there a few nights from then.

     “Okay baby, okay!” Her mother said, backing up, hands in the air. The ash from her burned out cigarette dropped to the floor. “Dammit!” She bent over to rub the ash into the carpet and nearly fell over.
     “Woo baby doll.” Silky shirt came to her rescue, brushing his hand against her exposed breast as he lifted her to her feet.

     “Hey, stop that.” She smacked his hand. “Not in front of my baby.”  She looked at Mabeline apologetically and for a split second Mabeline saw the mother her love and tolerance longed for.

     Silky shirt put his arms around her mother’s waist, pulling her in closer. “I thought we were here to party girl, not babysit.”
He put the bottle he had taken from her up to her mouth. Her lips encircled the rim, and she gulped the booze down like a starving baby bird would a wiggling worm from its mother’s beak.

     “That’s it girl. Take it.” He caressed her back and moved his hand down towards her ass. His lips so close to hers he swigged from the bottle before it had even left her mouth. This aroused him and the other man that still sat on the couch watching. He lowered the bottle of bourbon and with his tongue he opened her pierced lips and gave her the swig of liquor he held in his mouth. This aroused him even more. He pulled her in closer so she could feel just how aroused he had become.  

     Her mother smiled and Mabeline knew by the way she closed her eyes her mother was savoring each drop, and was too focused on the booze sliding down her throat to realize that silky shirt had violated her personal space with his lips, his tongue. The alcoholic was back and all evidence of remorse that Mabeline witnessed only seconds before was washed down with one gulp.

     Saddened and angry at how quickly alcohol took her mother’s attention from her, Mabeline brushed past them abruptly and stormed over to the record player.  She turned the sound down so low you could hardly hear the dreamy, seductive voice of Johnny Mathis.
     Her mother opened her eyes and broke free from silky shirt’s lip lock as if awakened from a hypnotic trance. This angered him.

     “What the hell girl?! The party was just getting started.” He gave Mabeline a menacing look, grabbed her mother by the upper arms, swung past her and hurried over to the player turning the music back up. 

     Mabeline jumped back, frightened by his abruptness. Images of her wearing a cap and gown popped into her head and all fear vanished. She wouldn’t let anyone stand in her way, especially not some sleaze ball only out to violate her mother. He was a tumbleweed. Something you swerved out of the way to miss but if at all unavoidable you drove right over it, dispersing its arid existence across the torrid asphalt. She thought of those brave black students that climbed the steps of colleges, while the stretched out arms of police held back their opposition, those that tried to disempower them by screaming words of hatred.

     “I said I am studying!” She hissed through her teeth. She reached over to turn the volume back down but was greeted by the back of his hand.

     “Girl, I will knock you out!” His hand went forcefully towards her face. Mabeline flinched and backed away from his hand. Utterly disgusted and surprised she was dealing with this nonsense, she lost her footing and fell backwards to the floor.

     “Momma!” she cried.Her mother turned slowly to the sound of her voice but wasn’t much help. 

     “Uh? Wha?” She was drifting further into a drunken abyss.

     “Momma!” Mabeline yelled louder, hoping this time her voice was to her mother as a beacon of light from a lighthouse was to a sailor lost at sea. Her mother just gazed at her, swaying back and forth to the rhythm of her own subconscious beat.
     ‘It was too late.’ Mabeline thought. Her mother was gone. She had left Mabeline to defend herself. 

     To this Mabeline wasn’t surprised. She had left her and Cornelius alone to fend for themselves many nights when she went on her binges. This time she had left Mabeline to fend off a drunken stranger in her own home. She wasn’t sure she could forgive her mother for this one.

     Silky shirt leaned over, grabbed Mabeline’s arm, and lifted her to her feet. “Now listen, either you gonna play,” he licked his lips staring down at her chest, “Or…” His fingers seemed to dig into Mabeline’s arm insisting she make a choice.

     “Stop!” Mabeline protested. “You’re hurting me.” She jerked her body trying to get her arm free from his grip. He was too strong. She’d made her choice clear.

     “A’ight then, don’t wanna play, then why don’t you just go to bed little girl?”  He shoved her towards the hallway. She lost her footing and fell again. This time she grabbed for her mother to break her fall, her mother went forward a little dropping the bottle of bourbon. It bounced as it hit the floor breaking and splashing bourbon all over Mabeline who had also fallen hard to the floor.

Mabeline squinted to protect her eyes from glass.

     Her mother looked down at the sloppy mess and then at Mabeline. Mabeline’s watery eyes looked up at her with such longing but she refused to cry. And there it was, that beacon of light. Dimly it lit up the shore of her motherly bond, maybe not as much as Mabeline had hoped but enough to make her mother’s focus a little more lucid. Her mother quickly responded.

     “What in the hell? Baby!” She nearly dropped to the floor to grab Mabeline’s hand, but silky shirt caught her in mid-movement.

     “I say,” he squeezed her mother’s arm tight and picked her up to her feet, “It’s time for the kiddies to go to bed and the grownups to play. I thought you wanted to play?” He tried to kiss her.

     “Boy, you’d better let me go!” Her mother swung her free arm at him with every intention of knocking the mess out of him, but she lost her footing and twisted out of control instead. Once her right foot hit the ground, she landed on a broken piece of bottle.

     “God dammit!” She cried. 

     Still holding onto her arm, he slapped her mother very hard in the face. 

     That was it! Mabeline was furious. Watching her mother try to fight him off had given her the strength to stand up to him as well. She leaped up off the floor and charged at him.

     “Leave my mother alone!” 
He let go of her mother’s arm and knocked Mabeline back down on the floor with one hand. She hit her arm on the corner of the record stand. The pain vibrated in her elbow and traveled up her arm. It hurt. She wanted to cry, but did not. She needed to be strong. 

At this point, the stocky guy who had sat on the couch watching the entire confrontation rushed over to her mother’s aid. She had fallen to the floor bleeding from her mouth and her foot.

“You alright?” He asked.

She touched her busted lip and grimaced.

He wasn’t having fun anymore. The party was definitely over. Disappointed and afraid of where his friend might take this situation, he decided to end it.

“Hey man, let’s just go.” He walked over to silky shirt, patted him on the arm and tried to get his attention, to no avail. Silky shirt was fixated on Mabeline who had readied herself and was about to charge him again.

“Morris!” he shouted. “What’re you doing, man? Let’s just go!” 

Silky shirt turned his attention from Mabeline to his friend. “Yeah,” he said, “this bitch ain’t worth it.” He looked at Mabeline’s mother, straightened his silky shirt and spit on the floor next to her.

“Mommmmy?” The voice came from the hallway. It was the soft, sleepy sound of Cornelius. The commotion had wakened him.

“Oh Cornelius honey, go back to bed.” Mabeline rushed to his side. She had to protect him. She needed to protect him. She led her brother slowly back to the bedroom with her hands gently on his shoulders while her eyes stayed fixed on the scum exiting the apartment. Her mother had limped over to the couch, blood dripping from her foot. Mabeline didn’t even think she heard Cornelius come out.

The sound of the front door slamming made both Mabeline and Cornelius jump.

“Who that man, Mabie? Why’s Mommy bleeding?”

Mabeline gently directed her brother further down the hallway, closer to the bedroom— away from the wrongness that had crept its way in and awoken him from his dreams. She hesitated before answering. 

“He’s no one Cornelius. Don’t you worry about him.”

Cornelius stopped walking and turned his body slightly trying to look at her, his face squinting with confusion and concern, “But Mommy’s bleeding.”

“Mommy’s fine Cornelius. She had a tumble and scratched her foot is all. As soon as you get nice and tucked in I will take care of Mommy. Everything’ll be all right.”

Mabeline helped her little brother into bed, pulled the thinning blanket over him and rubbed his soft wooly hair. She could tell he knew something was wrong, but his innocence blinded him from knowing what it was.

“Now go back to sleep and in the morning I will make you some biscuits and gravy. You’d like that wouldn’t you?” She smiled knowing he would love biscuits and gravy for breakfast, it was his favorite.

“Mmm hmm.” He nodded. The tiredness settled back in and he tried to keep his eyes open. “Mabie?”

“Yeah honey?”

“That man won’t come back will he?”

“No honey. He won’t ever come back.” She promised. 

With that he put his defenses down, allowing sleep to overcome him and he drifted off. Mabeline kissed his cheek sealing her promise with love and sincerity. She had never said it out loud, but she was determined to keep her brother safe.

A promise she had made to herself along time ago.

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