There was love in the way she poured milk on my cereal. The plastic jug tilted by a fragile hand, filling the bowl halfway. Just how I liked it. A motherly wink when she prodded me to eat the banana slices sitting atop the sugary concoction like fibrous wafers of a solidified disease. I ate them for her.
The first of the month was our food jamboree. The bologna and tuna casserole were replaced by fresh ground beef, homemade tacos with a dollop of sour cream, and an unhealthy dose of raspberry sherbet. Food stamp nirvana, she called it, before vanishing for the graveyard shift. When she cooked, she seemed happy, like she was making up for lost time. Our kitchen was her aromatic church.
When dad was released from prison, mom changed. The kitchen changed. Pop would smolder at the table, chain-smoking unfiltered cigarettes while accusing her of cheating when he was gone. The neighbor, a coworker, anyone with testosterone. Eventually, she retreated to the bedroom, forcing us to survive on cheese and uncooked hot dogs.
Pop tried to get close to me at first. We threw baseball in the backyard and watched the games on TV together. He took me to the mall for a new glove. We went to see the occasional movie. He liked horror, I liked superhero films. Horror always won. He laughed when heads were cut off, when blood was spilled like oil from a leaking engine. He would smoke in the theater without regard for me or others. Nobody said a word to him. Maybe it was the muscles and tattoos, maybe it was this aura of toughness that surrounded him like dark smog.
Eventually, he stopped hanging out with me and instead went with his old friends. They drank and drugged at our house, in our kitchen. Four or five men gathered at the table, beer cans everywhere, telling stories about burglaries and brutality from the past. Pop said he once broke a man's face for looking at mom the wrong way. He talked about stealing jewelry from affluent homes and pawning most of it, but also how he gave mom a diamond necklace that she wouldn't wear because she knew how it was obtained.
I don't know why she stayed with him. When I asked her, she would only say it was for me. We're together because of you. She wasn't being mean or anything, but I took it hard. I wished I would hurry up and turn 18 so I could leave, then she could, too.
I always caught mom staring out the bedroom window, hands on her hips, as pop and his buddies drank. She looked past the yard, the neighbor’s house, the cellphone tower. She was transfixed by something I could never see. When asked, she wouldn't answer, she just kept staring at nothing. Maybe she was looking at her reflection in the window, counting the wrinkles and grey hairs. Or counting the days until pop was arrested again. Maybe she saw a better life through the glass. A man who respected her, a job that paid more, a son who didn't ask constant questions.
She soon dissolved after that. My father's insecurities turned her into a human stew of anxiety. She wasn't really mom anymore, she was just there. A body and mind that weren't connected. She slept like a cat.
She passed away when I was 25. Pop went back to prison when I was 29. But, decades later, I can still picture her in our kitchen, her hair in a blonde ponytail, barefoot, her luminous smile a bursting peppermint star.
Chris Milam lives in Middletown, Ohio. His stories have appeared in Jellyfish Review, Molotov Cocktail. X-R-A-Y, Lumiere Review, Lost Balloon, and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter @Blukris.