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As soon as they got inside, Mrs. Mention instructed Rowtina, "Lay out all your financial papers on the bed. That way we can see what you need to worry about."
Rowtina held her tongue and went directly into the bathroom. She locked the door, slammed the toilet seat lid down, and sat with her fingers in her ears as she'd done when she was seven. She hummed and tapped her foot - she'd called it the Drowning-Out Song when she was a girl - but it was as useless now as it had always been. The sound of Sylvia Mention could not be diminished. "If you tell me where everything is" - her voice rang out like a drill piercing the bathroom wall - "I'll start to sort it out for you. It shouldn't take long, if you've been organized at all."
Rowtina stayed inside until she assumed her mother had wearied of talking to the bathroom door. When she went out, though, she understood why her mother had given up her one-sided conversation about Rowtina's finances. Sylvia Mention had found a project she didn't need her daughter's help with. From the dresser Rowtina and Turtle shared, her mother had emptied Turtle's clothes onto the bedand was busy stuffing them into plastic garbage bags.
"Do you have any more of these?" Mrs. Mention held up one of the bags. "I've used up what was left in the box I found under the sink." When Rowtina didn't answer immediately, Mrs. Mention went back to her task. "Most of it can go to Goodwill," she said. "I left the uniforms separate. Maybe you can call UPS and have somebody come get them. Some other driver would probably be glad to have them."
Rowtina leapt toward her. "You have to stop, Mama. We can't do this."
"You can't, honey, and I understand. That's why I'm doing it for you."
"No. Stop. You have to stop!" It was almost a yell. Near enough, certainly, for Sylvia Mention to look up sharply into her daughter's face. If Rowtina had been ten or even fifteen, she might have been slapped for her insolence. But when her mother's eyes met hers, Rowtina was sure Sylvia Mention saw something that surprised her. She stared in the same way she had when Rowtina began to call out questions to Turtle in church. She must have seen the lines in Rowtina's forehead and the way her jaw kept moving back and forth involuntarily like it had come loose from the rest of her face. Sylvia Mention must have decided that there was something so unfamiliar, so unnatural about her daughter in that moment that it was obvious she was beyond reason. She watched silently as Rowtina undid the knots she'd tied so meticulously at the mouth of each bag. Pulling out all of the clothes, Rowtina padded back and forth to the dresser with them, placing them back into it as though she'd just washed and ironed them fresh for Turtle.
Softly, Sylvia Mention said to her daughter, "If now is not the right time for us to begin to get things in order, I suppose it can wait until you're feeling better. When are you planning on going back to work?"
Rowtina answered from her knees, where she was refolding one of Turtle's favorite shirts - a green and yellow plaid. "Monday," she said. "They asked me if I wanted to take some more time, but I said no."
Sylvia Mention reached for her coat. "Good. It's probably better that way." She stood for a moment, waiting. When Rowtina didn't move, Sylvia went to her. She leaned down so that Rowtina could lift her face for a kiss good-bye. Rowtina felt her there but didn't look up. She continued to stroke the collar of a burgundy sweater Turtle wore on cold days over his UPS shirt. Sylvia bent further and kissed the top of her daughter's head. "Come to my church, Sunday morning. I'll make an early dinner for later."
When her mother was gone, Rowtina sat back on the floor in front of the open dresser drawer. She stared at the shirts and sweaters, socks and underwear, picturing Turtle in them all, until the room was dark around her. It was then that she remembered one more bag of his things, one that her mother had not noticed - thank God - over in the corner on the floor of the bedroom. It was the bag the morgue attendant had given her. She went over and sat on the floor next to it.
Rowtina could barely get control of her trembling hands as she pulled the uniform out of the bag for the first time. She knew already that there was blood, but she hadn't thought there would be so much. She choked on the stench of it mixed with the odor of Turtle's sweat and the picture she had of strangers stripping his uniform off him with rubber gloves - leaving him naked on the silver metal table in St. Theresa's morgue.
She folded it again, placed it back in the bag, and folded the top over twice.
I'll wash this tomorrow. And I'll put it in the drawer with the rest.
She stood and went back to their bed. It had been nearly a week since she'd actually slept in it. Staring at Turtle's side, she thought, Is this the empty that's supposed to look like he'll never sleep here again? Why does it look the same as the empty that says he'll be coming through the door in an hour or two, as soon as he gets home from driving the late shift? There isn't any difference at all.
Sleeping next to, on top of, or under Turtle was one of Rowtina's favorite parts of being married to him. Whether they made love, sang old songs by the Four Tops or the Temptations, or held hands until they drifted off, she liked to pretend that sleep married them anew each time they lay down with each other. Turtle's favorite position was to sleep with his hand on her belly or between her thighs. One foot would roam up and down her leg until it found a comfortable place to rest. Rowtina would tease him, "Turtle Washington, if you wanna keep rubbin' up against me while I'm trying to get my rest, you'll get up and put some lotion on that old foot of yours. You're about to bruise my leg with that old tough foot." Turtle would chuckle and whisper into her ear, "Hush. I got one foot in love. And love is gonna soften that old tough foot up - tenderize it, baby. Make the other foot jealous it couldn't find no sweet leg to lay on for itself."
Then he'd chuckle, ease his hand a little higher from her belly to between her breasts, and nuzzle the part of her arm that was a half shade lighter than the rest of her. Soon he'd be snoring softly with a half hum and Rowtina would drift off a few minutes later, smiling. It didn't really matter what Turtle's feet felt like - rough and calloused or soft and damp, fresh from his bath - as long as one of them was there, resting on her calf.
I've got to try to sleep tonight, by myself. She went to her purse and pulled out Nelda Battey's flask. She still couldn't imagine what Nelda and that other woman were doing at Turtle's service in the first place.
Rowtina unscrewed the top and sniffed. "My God!" She closed her eyes tight, took a small sip, swallowed, and followed that immediately with a generous swig. Thumping her chest, she tap danced in place. Once she'd recovered, she turned the flask up again, only slightly this time, shimmied the heat around in her mouth, forward and back. I shouldn't be doing this. I've got no tolerance for liquor. Never did. None whatsoever. She announced to the empty apartment, "I've got to go to bed. That's what I've got to do."
Warmed by whiskey, Rowtina unzipped her dress and stepped out of it. She wobbled as she took off her stockings, balancing on one foot and then the other. I'm gonna sleep naked tonight. Turtle likes it when I sleep naked.
She pulled her panties down, but she was unable to step out of them for a moment. She wore the same shy blush as on her wedding night. That night, Turtle had caught her from behind, flicked the small of her back right down to her buttocks with his tongue. "I might have to keep you awake all night long, Rowtina Washington." At thirty two years old, she'd never slept in a bed with anyone but her mother, and she absolutely wasn't used to any of what her mother called "sex talk." But the things Turtle said didn't make her feel at all like Sylvia Mention said they would.
She slid onto her side of the bed, leaving Turtle's as undisturbed as possible. Curled like a crescent moon, looking off the edge, she was slow to stretch out the full length of her body. She slid one leg back toward where he'd been with her every night for eight years.
It wasn't really Turtle on that metal tray, smashed and broken. She'd lied at the morgue when she'd said it was her husband she was looking at. No certificate of death with the city's seal on it could make her believe it was Turtle she'd left in Brooklyn lying in a big ugly hole in the ground. Rowtina rolled over onto her back and swept her hand against the clean sheets stretched tight to the other side. Tonight, she was going to look up from their bed and see the real Turtle, think how she couldn't wait to feel all of him, as much as she could grab hold of, with as many parts of her as could take him in. And he'd be whole. No wounds, no bruises, no broken teeth or crushed bones. He'd be big and thick brown and some extra besides. She'd hear him grin when she finally let go of him, stretched her hands out to the walls, then around him again. Pinching, slapping his shoulders, his long, wide back down to his basketball butt. They'd laugh at how good they were together.
"Turtle," she whispered. "I want you to tell me you haven't gone anywhere, that you're still here."
She eased herself further down into the bed on her side, concentrating. Show me. Please, Turtle. Show me. She'd whispered these exact words on their first night together in this bed. Now, eight years later, she was asking him again. Show me.
Could she? Yes, she could. She could feel Turtle's hard, truck driver's foot on her ankle, then up and down her calf, as always. She was certain of it. "I got one foot in love. It's gonna soften up all by itself and make the other foot jealous it couldn't find no sweet leg to lay on for itself."
Rowtina held her breath.
I should give myself a test, pick out the shapes in the room I know to see if I'm drunk off that whiskey in the flask. Alright. There's the dresser. And the plant on the windowsill. I am in our apartment on 146th Street in Harlem, New York. I am not drunk. This doesn't have a thing to do with that whiskey.
My God, Turtle. Maybe it's a miracle, maybe it's not. But you're here.
She couldn't actually see him, and she was too astonished, too grateful to try to have a conversation with him. But she did feel Turtle's foot move up and down her calf, then stop, resting heavy and warm as it had ever been. Rowtina lay as still as she could and waited. After several minutes, neither of them had spoken or moved. Rowtina told herself, If he just wants to be here with me, quiet and peaceful, I should respect that.
One, then two, then several hours passed. Turtle's foot was still there, Rowtina was certain. And she was also certain when - without any warning - she felt him lift himself from her. Still, she couldn't bring herself to move right away.
"Turtle?" she whispered, but she knew he wasn't there anymore. Turtle was gone. Again.
Excerpted from One Foot in Love by Bil Wright Copyright © 2004 by Bil Wright. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted January 17, 2012
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