Traditions

Jay Nunnery

I thought I saw his spirit ascending.  It was like smoke from a candle you reckoned could never go. 

   

 Momma held out her hand.  Almost before I knew it was there, I grabbed it.  She said, “Bow your head, close your eyes,” and I did and her weak fingers, loosening one moment, tightening the next, shook and were sweaty. 

 

She addressed the Lord after that like how you would someone whose name you remember but whose face you can’t quite recall.  Then she began on this prayer she couldn’t have ever repeated.  Then it was like she’d never do anything else, the way she dropped onto the couch and sat there, staring out into the room, not expressionless, her eyes seeming to take it all in, and not knowing what to put together, I could only stare at her.  I wanted to move.  But I thought she’d have looked at me and I didn’t want that. 

 

She breathed in, an abrupt, deep breath, and stood.  She went to the kitchen.  I heard her in there, opening and closing the one cabinet, opening and closing the other.  I heard the bottle being picked up and dropped steadily.  She came back and I guess if I hadn’t known her and known exactly what she’d end up doing, I wouldn’t have been able to tell a thing. 

 

Once she got back, she sank onto the couch and she said, “Momma’s gonna have to lay and rest her little eyes for a while,” and she laid back, her arms overhead and her eyes closing as she fell.  She told me, “You my child.  You my only child.  And you always be my only child.  Oh, yes, you will.”  I could see when she was asleep from how her stomach went up and down and then I just couldn’t help myself.  I went to the kitchen and I took some swigs.  The only other time I’d ever drank before that was with my old man. 

We drank gin and he took me for a drive.  He said it was tradition—driving your boy around the back streets with his first taste—and my old man explained how his father had done the same thing with him when he was my age and his grandfather the same with his father and how I had to do the same with my son.  He told me stories about when he was a boy growing up here and how he’d get in fights.  On our way back, he told me about his first kiss.  “Her name was Lucy Taylor, an older girl, and she was actually the one that kissed me,” he said, the road empty on every side of us, his dull eyes twinkling in the dusk.

 

I don’t know why I did it or when I decided I would.  It was like that moment was supposed to be a certain way.  I was supposed to go and open that door.  My throat and stomach burning, I was supposed make my way down those steps.  The night wobbled like it had when we got back home from our drive and were going up those same steps, unaware of how late it was, off-balance, laughing about everything all at once.  I watched my shadow appear and disappear depending on the streetlights.  Nothing happened until I made that first turn way at the bottom of our street.  What happened was I saw this woman bundled up in an army jacket.  The clothes she had on besides the jacket, a white tee shirt and jeans, fit her loosely.  She was right at the corner, sitting on the curb with her legs hiked up in front of her like someone who’d accepted a long time ago that this was all there was going to be. 

 

She asked for some change and when she saw me digging into my pocket, she stuck out her hand as I dug deeper.  I gave her all I had without looking at what it was.   She said, “Thank you, sweetheart.”  She said it loud too.  But I didn’t know what I was supposed to say back.  All this time later, I still wouldn’t.  I just ducked my head and put my hands in my pockets and turned the other way and kept on. 

 

After a while, I finally looked up at the stars.  I found one that seemed memorable and tried to convince myself that it was the right one, ours, and then I convinced myself that it didn’t matter and made a wish.  I closed my eyes when I did.  It was like everything was spinning when I closed them and when I opened them, I felt the air newly and I ended my wish by saying, “Please, please.”  Then I made a promise that I wouldn’t make another wish until whomever I had wished to and was making the promise with granted my wish.  I whispered the promise part.  Everything before that I’d done in my head, these thoughts that began in the middle of the last one or with two running parallel just as outbursts that’d flash so bright only to fade, about where you go after it’s over, thoughts better suited as wishes. 

 

Once I was done, I noticed my breath, the light gray clouds it was forming.  It didn’t feel like it’d gotten any colder.  I might’ve been breathing harder.  On the other hand, I could’ve just been getting more used to the cold. 

*

I reached that park on Mulberry, somehow, as though instinctively.  I pressed my body against the basketball court’s fence, squinting at the court.  I was going to go inside.  But then I didn’t know what I’d do when I got in there and I wasn’t willing to chance it either.  That’s why I just sat down at one of the metal picnic tables.  I sat facing the court.  Different parts of it lit up because a car passed.  The car’s echo remained even after the car I felt was too far gone and the parts of the court that its headlights had made visible seemed visible for longer than they should’ve been.  I gazed at those parts as they faded into the more permanent darkness, thinking I could shape from them and from what I knew the rest of the court.

 

We’d play all the time.  I was just starting to get good.  We’d usually play until a little after the streetlights came on.  A few times though, we’d still be out there when the streetlights were all we had.  Those were the best times.  He’d tell me things that I don’t think he’d have told me if there were more light, things that you don’t want your boy to see you struggling to express but that are nearly impossible to make clear since you’ve got to start telling him before he’s even capable of understanding it all anyway. 

One night he showed me the constellations and the North Star.  He said as long as the sky was there I’d never get lost.  We picked our star that night. 

I did wind up going onto the court and having no idea what to do.  I just walked around and I threw my arms up like I had a ball in my hands and I held my follow-through like there was actually a ball arcing in the air and some game was on the line. 

That was it.  Then I left. 

I knew my way back home.  The whole time, I wondered where you looked to get lost.  I took a shorter way, cutting through the park, the school’s parking lot, a few backyards.

I remember I didn’t open the front door right away.  Eventually, I did and saw everything the same as when I’d left.  Surveying the house, wiping my shoes on the entryway’s rug, it was like no time had passed since I’d left and I stood there, absorbed in that sense of no-time, believing that if I moved not only time but also all those other things that go along with it would start again.  Of course, I had to move. 

I went upstairs and ambled through the hall and from room to room just delaying the inevitable, which was me going into their room.  I’d seen the door, open slightly, whenever I wandered the hallway.  I pushed it with my fingertips.  I saw the pictures first, leaning in their frames on the dresser.  They always would be up on that dresser across from her bed, their frames’ wood finish darker and smoother than the dresser’s ornamental and dinked and engraved wood.  I saw us smiling.  She’d have awoken to that every morning. 

The only place I could go next was back downstairs.  I had to at some point, anyway.  I went through the kitchen to the room where she was, laying as she’d been, and standing on the other side of the room’s opening, I reached in and switched off the lights.  She must’ve heard it or felt it or something because she woke up.  Her head’s outline, dark and frazzle-haired, rose and turned from side to side, all the while nodding as if to rhythms her dreams had left her.  She grabbed the couch.  Failing to get up even halfway, she scraped her fingernails against the leather and the leather made this faint squeaking noise and then she sank into the cushions, which seemed to sigh under her weight.  She adjusted herself some and said, “Baby.”  I turned the lights on.  “Baby, is that you?” she said, her eyes closed, falling asleep, and I turned the lights back off. 

Jay Nunnery is a writer, teacher, and musician, who calls many places home: Wisconsin, New York, Louisiana, and California. Recently, he completed his short story collection, Alms, Louisiana, a collection of twenty-one, interconnected stories. Currently, he is working on a screenplay called The Circuses when he is not teaching high schoolers or making music.

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