Whenever Ella was feeling close to the edge, a hair’s-breadth from lunacy, she liked to shop for groceries. She went up and down all the aisles, methodically picking out food. She threw boxes and jars and bags and cans willy-nilly in her cart, always stocking up for the big one, the storm that would tear the roof off. It’s a habit, one she learned as a child. The women in her family were bony, starry-eyed drunks, with bad skin and lank hair, but by God, they knew how to grocery shop.
She was in this twitchy, nervous state because her mother had showed up again last night. She would never know if it was just a dream: she hoped it was. Ella opened her eyes and saw her mother standing next to the bed, almost touching the mattress. She didn’t smile or speak, but simply shook her head. Mama seemed angry; Ella could tell her mother wanted to hit her. Mama was jealous that Ella was still alive, driving Mama’s car, watching her TV, wearing her jewelry. Ella met her fierce gaze without moving, then closed her lids against the image like hurricane shutters.
The room was so dark, and her mother was like a column of gray smoke, rising over Ella. Meeting death hadn’t changed Mama’s face one bit. How was it that Ella still missed her? That was an embarrassing, childish pain, an overgrown mouth sucking a rubber pacifier. There would never be a second chance for Mama and Ella; Ella wished she could believe in heaven like she believed in hell. If her mother had loved herself, or Ella, even a little, maybe she’d have pulled through the dark waters. But poor Mama was so full of self-hate there was no room for anything else. Now Ella was afraid her mother’s habits were coming after her.
Ella confessed it; often she had hated her mother too, while she lived. She even killed her mother once, in a dream. She stabbed Mama many times with a kitchen knife, and it felt right, like it was the only graceful way out for both of them. There wasn’t as much blood as Ella expected, though there was still enough to soak her mother’s nightgown all the way through. When she woke, clammy and trembling, Ella hurried to Mama’s room to make sure she still breathed. Ella knelt at the side of her bed, watching her mother’s scrawny chest. At first, it didn’t stir, and Ella almost cried out. Then she saw movement, enough to know her mother lived. Forever after, she feared the terrible anger in herself. It was always waiting, a tiger with ivory teeth and steel claws — waiting for her to stumble, to lose her grasp on mercy, on forgiveness, and throw open its cage.
Wishing her mother was dead half the time didn’t keep Ella from breaking down the door in a panic when she thought she’d overdosed. After the first incident, Ella wasn’t all that worried, she knew her mother to be too much of a bumbler, she would screw it up, or not finish, like she did everything else. The door became only an excuse for Ella to use her rage, to make her hatred tangible, give it life, a physical existence. She used a heavy folding chair, swinging it over and over again, watching first the splintered crack appear, then the bit of light, marveling at how the door-frame itself gave way all at once and the entire door fell cleanly into the room. Mama sprawled on her bed, half-clothed, her knobby knees the bulkiest part of her, her huge, brown, doe-like eyes looking puzzled. Even with all the noise, Mama was so out of it, she couldn’t figure out how Ella had gotten in the room. Later, sober, she realized she’d underestimated her daughter, she hadn’t known what Ella was capable of. Much later, a couple of years after Ella left home, after a hundred false starts, Mama managed to finish what she’d begun.
Ella shopped hours for the perfect funeral dress; pulled grimly through all the racks, looking at everything dark. No, not dark, black. “Nobody wears mourning black anymore,” the saleslady said, but for her own mother, Ella insisted. In photographs, she appeared the proper, bereaved daughter. She spent three days wearing the black dress, feeling grimy by the day of the burial, and glad of it.
They buried her mother in front of a croton bush, God, how Mama had hated those things, crotons. Ella stared at the shiny marble urn where it sat in the little hole, the tacky brass plaque glued to the top. She couldn’t object to the shrubbery, not with the priest standing there, tall and lean and handsome like some Marlboro Man, chanting and swinging his billowy canister of incense on its copper chain, the black robes clinging to him under the harsh weight of the sun, his hand so big and hard when she shook it, her knees almost gave way.
That night, Ella left the house long after dark, she walked in shaky high heels down the street and around the corner, ruining the delicate heel tips on the asphalt. She decided to keep walking until she dropped; to walk forever if no one came running after her. She stopped only a couple of miles away, limp from the humid August air. Crickets vibrated, frogs exhaled, stars flickered; the glowing, yellow windows of strangers were her last comfort, her final safe haven. Nothing but love for those strangers kept her from leaving for good, nothing but fear of the anger-tiger kept her from going any farther after her mother; Ella stood alone in the velvet grief of that hot summer night, calling her mother’s name over and over again like a stupid, hungry baby.