Excerpt from Almost Crimson
CeCe couldn’t remember when her mother became too weak to carry anything but tears. When the Sad started to come,
pressing her mother to their bed, her mama cried slick, silent tears for a long, long time. Longer than a game of hopscotch.
Longer than singing the alphabet I her head five times. Longer than a nap even. The Sad made her mother cry all the time.
CeCe wasn’t big enough to pry the sad away from her mama. Instead, she started to remember for them. After the building
lady fussed at Mama about their overstuffed mailbox, CeCe remembered to pull the letters every day, even though Mama seldom
opened them. When she snapped the last roll of toilet paper on its rod, CeCe remembered to pull the bills with the 20s on them
from the bed stand and tuck them in her shoe for her walk to the store. When CeCe could see the Baker family through their
apartment window leaving in their dress-up clothes, CeCe remembered to gather Mama’s underwear with hers and cover them
with soap bubbles in the bathtub.
CeCe remembered to make sandwiches and open cans of fruit cocktail for lunch; she snapped rubber bands and barrettes around
thick handfuls of her hair; she whisked their floor with the broom; she sniffed the milk; she wiped the dishes; and she arranged
her small troop of dolls into their corner each night.
CeCe’s mother was slender with elfin features, to include a spray of cinnamon freckles across her light brown skin. She was not
an animated woman by nature, but her density filled the house. When her mother was filled with air and words and winking,
CeCe loved the way everything about her mother would soften. There were still exceptional days, like today, when her mother
tickled and ate sandwiches
with her. CeCe didn’t hope for those days anymore, though. Hoping made her ache on the inside of her skin.
“I think there’s extra sunshine out there today,” her mother said, pulling her hair into its usual ponytail. “Let’s go outside to
CeCe hadn’t noticed any extra sun, but nodded in agreement anyway. She watched her mother at first. Ever since the flowers
started to push up from the ground in the courtyard, her mother’s light might only last a few minutes, instead of the whole
morning. Definitely not the whole day anymore. Sometimes, her mother wouldn’t last for a whole game of jacks.
CeCe counted to a hundred, listening to her mother chatter while she floated about the apartment—bedroom, kitchen,
kitchen again. When she reached 101 and her mother was dressed in jeans and a button-down, CeCe allowed the giggles to
spread down her elbows and knees. She kept smiling as her mother snapped two Afro puff ponytails on the top of CeCe’s head.
They decided to drag their two kitchen chairs out onto the porch slab to eat Cheerios with extra sugar. They watched the sun
pull itself above the wall of their apartment complex. The residential building had been converted from a senior citizen
community to low-income housing the year before CeCe was born. Some of the elderly residents remained, like Mrs. Castellanos,
the second-floor widow who befriended CeCe. Most of the residents were young veterans, some with wives and preteens, some
with screaming girlfriends,
and many with only bottles and brown paper bags.
The building was fashioned like an old motel, an open rectangle outlined with all their front doors. CeCe had counted twenty-
four doors on the first floor one day and twenty-four doors on the second floor. She knew a little something about the
households behind every door. For some, she could peek past their curtained windows when she walked her imaginary pet
dragon or chased a toy. Others she observed from their porch slab or the window.
CeCe didn’t know most of their neighbors’ names, but she recognized all of their faces. Sometimes, the grown-ups said hello to
her when they passed, but most had learned she would only reply with a stiff wave. She would have asked their names, but they
were strangers. Speaking to them wasn’t allowed. Waving, on the other hand, was different.
Her feet swinging beneath her chair, CeCe scooped her cereal and listened to her mother coo about fresh starts and bright
and healing wounds and buried shadows and such. CeCe didn’t know what these words would look like, but her mother had
been waiting for them to show up for a long time. She was about to turn up her cereal bowl and drink down the sweetened milk
when her mother took the bowl from her hands and declared they were going to pick some flowers along the courtyard square.
“You walk that way, and I’ll walk this way,” her mother said, standing.
Between watching her mother flit along the other side of the courtyard and searching the sidewalk cracks for flowers Mama
called “Danny Lions,” CeCe hadn’t noticed one of their neighbors waving through the window. Mr. Big Mole on His Chin tapped
on his windowpane to get her attention. CeCe liked Mr. Big Mole. He had thick auburn sideburns, sparkly eyeglasses, and the
coolest bell bottom colors ever. CeCe thought there must be music playing inside his head when he walked, the way he bounced
and bumped along their walkway. He didn’t have children, but he did have a girlfriend who wore earrings so big, CeCe imagined
them as Hula-Hoops. CeCe saw them kissing all the time.
Mr. Big Mole had his thumbs tucked under his armpits, flapping in a funky chicken dance. CeCe burst into tickles of laughter.
CeCe looked over to see if her mother was laughing, too. She had rounded her second corner in the courtyard and was moving
toward her daughter. Her eyes were cast to the ground, but it didn’t look to CeCe like she was looking for flowers anymore. As
CeCe got closer, she could see the light in her mother’s face being consumed, once again, by textured shadows. When their
eyes met, CeCe saw no trace of the smile that had greeted her an hour earlier. The inside of CeCe’s skin began to hurt again and
the small clutch of “Danny Lions” seemed woefully misplaced inside her hand.
“Let’s go inside now, CrimsonBaby,” her mother said. As CeCe took her mother’s hand, she looked over her shoulder to wave
goodbye to Mr. Big Mole. He waved back, but his smile and funky chicken were gone.
While CeCe placed her small clutch of dandelions into a small a Dixie Cup filled with tap water, her mother retreated to their
room. CeCe could hear the mattress groan its familiar embrace while she put away the kitchen stepstool. CeCe brought in their
chairs, rinsed and put away their cereal bowls, played with her toys, made lunch, walked her dragon, and came back inside to
settle herself on the couch with one of the picture books Mrs. Castellanos had given her. CeCe fell asleep there. When she
awoke from her nap, CeCe saw her mother next to her, folded into their old armchair with damp knots of tissue scattered
around her like spent bullets.
CeCe said nothing, just rose from the couch to wrap her small arms around her mother’s neck. Her mother didn’t respond to her
tight embrace. She never did. Not this version of her mother. CeCe kissed her mother’s hair and went into the kitchen. She
began her evening ritual of dragging one of the kitchen chairs to the fridge, reaching into the freezer for two frozen dinners,
and climbing down to spin the oven dial to 4-2-5. Pushing the chair back to the table, CeCe noticed tufts of yellow winking at
her from the garbage can. CeCe’s skinned ached again. There was their sunshine morning, tossed in the trash.
Sitting at the table, CeCe finished her dinner while her mother picked absently at the plate compartments. Her mother had
begun eating less and less.
“Why were you sad today, Mama?”
“I just am, CrimsonBaby. I just am.”