One Last Thing Before Sunrise
by TaKaylla L. Gordon
Loretta sat at the table in silence, her hand wrapped almost protectively around the piping hot mug of coffee. She welcomed the heat coming from it. A steady stream of steam zigzagged its way into the dimly lit kitchen dissipating as it hit the air. A cigarette dangled in the fingers of her left hand poised over a tin ash tray. In the center of the tray was a picture of him smiling. He held a large heart with the words ‘I love you, Mom, love Danny' written out in his first grade scrawl of jagged lettering. His two front teeth had absconded by the time this picture was taken leaving him with a set of pink arches at the front of his mouth whenever he smiled.
The sun hadn't yet come up, but there were hints of azure fading in through the kitchen window. She'd have to leave for work in another hour. She took a drag from the cigarette. She had given up smoking but somehow today seemed to call for one more for old time's sake, but only one she promised herself.
Loretta could hear the water from the shower cut off in the bathroom. She took her second drag, this time holding it in for a three count before spewing white smoke into the atmosphere, relaxing her lungs once more. It won't be too much longer now, she thought to herself. She sipped from the mug tasting but not really. She had been doing that for much of the morning; seeing but not really seeing, thinking but not thinking, feeling but being completely numb. It was apparent that she was in a daze. She knew that she was seated in the kitchen wearing her white fluffy robe and worn matching slippers, but that was the extent of it.
She knew this day would come—at least she hoped and prayed that it did—and it had. But now a day that should have been marked with celebration was filled with fear and reservations. She heard the door opening and pressed firmly to the mug making the blood rush from her fingers as the tension increased. He rushed from the bathroom wrapped in a towel and a blanket of steam followed behind him but was halted by the bedroom door as it quickly shut.
Black coffee, stale bitter cigarettes and mental anguish mixed with the bile in her stomach and was slowly rising to her throat. She swallowed deeply washing it back down with another gulp from her mug. Wasn't it just yesterday that he sang along with Big Bird and Mr. Snuffleupagus on Sesame Street, she thought? Hadn't they just made pretend cupcakes in the dirt together? How many times did he ask for just one more push on the swing? And now those days were gone; a distant memory but memories all the same, ones that she would cling to.
The door opened with a slight creek as it swung back making contact with the wall, boom. A heavy thud pounded in her chest. The sound of his purposeful stride as he neared the kitchen caused her to stir. Another puff was needed, this one deeper, then a gush of smoke rushed over her parched lips in a frantic escape to the outside. She wanted to stand but she was suddenly weakened by the reality. There was no turning back, the moment was here.
"I'm ‘bout to go," he said standing over her. Loretta looked up. He must have grown three inches over the summer and another two in the time it took him to emerge from his room. Summoning strength from the table, she pushed herself up to her full five-five height and stared up into his man-child face. He smelled of toothpaste, body wash and a healthy dousing of Axe.
She reached up to run her fingers over his perfectly coiffed fro that she was certain he'd spent the last fifteen minutes perfecting in the mirror. He cringed and his hands came up to inspect the damage to determine whether he needed to make one last dash into the bathroom to repair it. Satisfied that he could live with the minor infraction, he gave his hair a light pat. He then gave a goofy smile, the one she'd come to love and depend on more and more over the past few years.
"Have you got everything you need?" she asked, giving him a mother's once over.
"Wallet with your ID?"
"Yeah," he said getting irritated. She continued.
"Bus card," she repeated.
"Yeah Ma. I got everything."
"I'll bet you don't have any money."
"No, that's why I'm here," he said quirking his brow and holding out his hand. She reached into the pocket of her robe and placed the ten dollar bill in his hand. He inspected the denomination before quickly putting it in the pocket of his khaki pants. He lifted up the rim of his shirt slightly revealing his waistband.
"And I've got my keys," he said smugly, showing her the key chain riding his belt loop and going into his front pocket. For added measure, he reached in and gave a jiggle so that she could hear them allaying her concerns.
"Well good. Sounds like you're all set," Loretta said studying him from head to toe. Then upon close inspection she furrowed her brow.
"Is that what you're wearing?" she asked.
"Mom, I have to wear this, it's the school uniform. Whatcha' talkin' ‘bout? Beige khaki's and blue school shirt. I didn't pick this out. I wouldn't have picked this out."
"I was talking about the shoes. Do you have to wear those? People might see." She stared at the gleaming white Nike Air force Ones before looking back at him.
"You bought ‘em for me and now you don't want me to wear them? Aw, come on Mama. I have to wear these," he whined. "The other ones are tearing up and plus they don't hardly fit anymore. They're eleven and a half, I wear size twelve now."
"I know," She said pensively. She'd only wished that she didn't have to have this conversation, but maybe if she had it some years ago, things would be different, she thought.
"Ma, can I go now? You gonna make me late."
"You have time," Loretta said. "I could drive you."
"No thanks. I don't need my mommy to drive me to school anymore. I'm good."
"I know." She flicked away lent from his hoodie and sighed.
"Can I go now?" It was more a statement than a question.
"Yeah." He turned to leave but she held to his sleeve keeping him there. She was not ready to say goodbye.
"Ma!" He huffed clenching his teeth. In that moment he looked like…Loretta shook her head.
"I'll let you go, but first I need to say some things to you." She ignored his heavy sigh and the smack of his protruding lips. It was a teenage thing to do and rather than reprimand him, today she decided to let it slide, but only for today.
"You're going to be in high school now, a step away from manhood. Things will be different. You're going to experience a lot of new things, changes.
"Girls." He grinned cocksure.
"Girls too, but that's not all that I'm talking about. You're older and the stakes are higher. Which means that you'll have to be mindful of things more so than ever because you're not going to have me or anyone else standing guard over you."
"I know Ma."
With that said, you have got to be careful out there."
"Out where, school?"
"Not just school. I'm talking about out there." She pointed towards the back door. "I mean out in that world. That world out there doesn't see your value. That world out there doesn't know you and won't always see your beauty the way that I do. It sees you as just another Black man. You're a threat and when people feel threatened it could mean a world of trouble for you. So you have got to be careful. Do you hear me?"
"I guess," he said hunching one shoulder and then the other.
"Try and hear me son." She reached for his hands and held on to the warmth she found there.
"You gotta be smart now. Pay attention to things."
"Like what Ma," he asked rolling his eyes.
"Your surroundings. Keep your head up. Be cautious when you walk these streets. Evil's lurking everywhere. But you've got to watch out. Keep your head down and your nose clean. Don't bring attention to yourself."
"Uh, okay Mama."
"And watch out for gangs. I know that some of your friends aren't all on the straight and narrow, but I've known them since they were children. But I'm telling you to steer clear of trouble."
"And remember be proud of who you are and protect what's yours, your values. Don't lose sight of your goals because life can get in the way and make you forget what it is you're after. It's easy to do."
Loretta looked around the modestly decorated kitchen with its bric a brac on the walls and cozy feeling and felt far removed knowing that she'd always aspired to do better, but she too had gotten side tracked by life. She reached up to cup his gangly shoulders but had forgotten to estimate his height and settled for latching onto his arms instead, holding them tightly.
"Sometimes you'll have to fight for what you want; you'll just have to. But I want to say that there's no shame in walking away from a fight from time to time."
He scrunched his face and she knew that she was losing him.
"I want so much for you baby. I want you to be a leader, be your own man. Don't be a follower. Never compromise your beliefs, but you'll need to fit in as well. The difficulty comes in knowing how to do that without selling yourself short." "Okay Mama. Is that it?" he asked impatiently. She searched her mind trying to see if she'd left anything out and she was sure that she had. There were too many more things that she had yet to think of, but the thoughts were slow to come.
"Just do your best, that's all you can do," she added. "You're on your way to being a man." She looked into his innocent boyish eyes. She had aged a million years remembering the very first day they met in the delivery room. He was fourteen now with so much ahead of him. There were things that he needed to know and it was her job to teach him, hers alone. There just never seem to be enough time. His life was on the line and she couldn't afford to fail, not this time.
"Yeah, yeah you can go now," she said conceding. He quickly pivoted on his heals before she could finish her last word, and headed down the hall for the front door.
"Danny wait!" she yelled running after him in a dead panic. He stopped abruptly and she barely escaped colliding with him as he turned around.
"Ma, I'm Jason," he said staring blankly at her. Danny's gone. He's gone Ma."
Loretta hugged herself tightly trying to keep her soul intact as his words echoed off the walls of her mind. She needed a moment, just one. She bit her bottom lip to stop it from trembling. Breathe deeply, a voice said, she listened to it taking the air into her nostrils and out again. Danny was gone. Today marked the three year anniversary of his death. He was taken from the world far too soon. Another senseless killing, the news reporter said. Senseless.
She hadn't prepared him—Danny, her first born. She hadn't the chance to fortify him with all of life's lessons. She just sent him off to school on that day trusting that he'd return, but he never did. Maybe if she had this talk with him, he'd still be alive. She let her hands fall slowly to her side and gave Jason a reassuring smile.
"You'd better go. You'll be late."
He began his slow walk to the door. Loretta stood riveted to the floor as her legs had grown too weak to follow after him. She heard the locks disengage and the door open, but still she could not move. It was out of her hands now. The world was waiting. Her head fell to her chest as the name Jesus fell pleadingly from her lips. "Thy will be done."
When she raised her head Jason was standing before her once again sans the impatient attitude of before. His eyes were kind and understanding. He held out his wiry arms to her like he used to do whenever he wanted to be picked up or held, but this time he was offering comfort. She fell into his embrace. He held her like she was newly spun glass and she wept silently into his chest. When the sobs silenced into a faint whimper, he gazed intently into her eyes wiping away the last of her tears.
"Ma, I'll call you when I get to school. I'll send you a text on my lunch break and I'll see you when you get home. I'll be right here waiting for you. You'll see. I'll be back. I promise."
She looked to him and wondered what happened to the awkward flippant teen of a few minutes ago. She gave him a light pat to his arm and began walking with him to the door.
"Okay Jay, I'm holding you to that. She was pleased that she had regained her strength if not her unwavering faith.
"Have a good first day at school," she said smiling for the first time that morning.
"I will," he said. He kissed her cheek and in an instant he was gone. She held the door open long enough to see him reach the corner then he was out of sight. The sun was finally up shining down on the sparsely populated city block. She gave a silent prayer before going inside closing the door behind her.