Mama was a stranger. Mama was a taxi. Mama was Papa’s.

Mama knew that I sat on the edge of my seat, waiting to see her come in with the other Mamas here to read to us. Mamas came one after another, but not my Mama.

“Mama is coming,” I told my teacher when she reached out with concern, and I ducked backwards to sit away. “Mama is coming.”

Mama was on her way, the stumped van surely lurching along the street.

Mama always was. Mama, on Sunday, had sped down the road and cowered into the chapel, slipping into a pew beside me. Mama had released musty fish odors from the car fifteen minutes late on Monday afternoon. Mama sang operas and stomped across the house Tuesday night. Mama didn’t wake up in time for school yesterday. Mama was on her way to Reading Night today.

Mama was coming.

Mama comes and when she does, I don’t stand. Mama comes around the classroom, greeting my teacher, and sits with a huff beside me, purse banging against metal table legs. Mama’s hair is fluffy in the back like a duck tail, and her eyes are wide with a shadow.

Mama says, “Sorry, sorry. Mama’s here to read with you, Thomas.”

Mama takes the book from my hands and squints more than Nana ever did before she died.

Mama hasn’t looked at me yet, but I look at her. Mama’s neck, pulsing pink with a mark, makes me wonder how heavy Papa’s head really must be when he tucks his head there. Mama notices my look and pulls her sweater towards her chin in a concealing motion.

“Mama’s reading now, so you ought to listen.”

Mama never sounds very serious, though, towards me—the way she never shouted at the dog that ran away or the cats who got hit by a truck last winter. Mama’s voice goes on and on, like the buzzing of a car engine on a long drive—the kind where legs start to go numb and everyone just wants to be where they really want to go. Mama used to be a dancer, but when I look at the shape of her bare shoulders, I only see the impression of stained couch cushions and deflated muscles.

Mama snaps the book closed in the middle of a sentence when the hour is over. Mama hands it back to me and stands, heading for the door with a pleasant nod to the teacher before leaving. Mama seems always there and in a rush for Papa, rather than just coming and on her way.

Mama has read to me but fewer words are in my head than before. Mama didn’t suck up everything though, and with the words left—and if I were older—I should have pointed at her neck where Papa gave her that young bruise and said something like “Me or Him” or at least “Do you love me at all?” because I know Papa already has more of her.

Mama, then, might have heard what I really meant: “I just want you to love me on purpose.”

Creative Nonfiction

A.R. Hansen

Author of Battle of the Mind