The dark red pores of the worn leather chair looked wet, looked like blood soaking in, looked like red wine ruining an otherwise perfectly easy white grape evening. The cowboy was chewing, the cowboy was chewing and his cheek was distended with tobacco and spit. Dana, Danalynn, Delaney Marie, depending on when you asked her, what age what incarnation, shuddered and considered the implications of spilled wine, drunken cowboys, and her mother coming home in the middle of what might be described as a another bad judgment phase of her life. Delaney, Laney, Dana Marie, my little Marybell, I am so disappointed in you, mama would say. Laney wiped up the spilled wine, emptied the ashtrays, and put mama to bed. Cowboy too, if she had to.
But Ma, guess what I got in my hand? Laney would say and would hold out a wad of tobacco, a wad of wrong living, a wad of judgment that her mother would chew on for months in the informal group that passed for therapy after the money was all gone.
Ma, what I got in my hand is the future, Laney would say. She’d been doing this since she was little, since the first time Laney realized that the moving, the dance, the constant changing from place to place all meant something about loneliness and terror, the loneliness and terror of her young mom. Laney held her mother’s fear in her hand like a sphere, a round smooth ball of palm-warmed glass. There was peace and rest in mama’s fear, a vocabulary of calming that she spooned into mama’s mouth like warm milk to a kitten’s mew.
Laney had a cat once, a little cat who lived under the front steps of a trailer house down the street. Little cat had kittens, even though she was barely grown herself. Laney crawled under the steps with a can of food bank tuna, which was greasy and smelled of diesel oil, but little cat went for it and came with her, kittens and all, in a box with an old cotton dish cloth. She quickly became a tame kitty with babies that tore at her adolescent nipples and sucked her thin and dry, even with all the canned tuna Laney could divert from their own weekly supply. Laney personally hated food bank tuna and even the smell of it made her gag, but there were things she would do for baby cat that she was not willing to do for herself.
The kittens grew into cats and ate like cats and ate and ate until their belly skin was tight and round. Laney realized that each little mouth was going to generate more little mouths and that her own regenerative capacities as regards tuna would probably not be able to keep up with demand. About that time, mama packed their bags, taking Laney and little cat but leaving the kittens, the furniture and the cowboy all lying in tobacco spit and tuna juice, and they moved someplace clean and new.
The clean new place was small, in a biggish city that started with a vowel. Layney was pretty sure the name of the city was an Indian name, a first peoples name, and she got out her book about first people and the story her first daddy had told her about his people, we are from this people and that, all the way back to the turtle clan and the very first people of all. She imagined herself riding on the turtle’s back for hundreds of years, never being bored at all. Turtle time is very different than people time, she can hear her father’s voice telling her in the voice of his people, his old turtle clan. She thinks the name of her first father is George, but this is not something she can talk to mama about, even on the best days, even when there is no stinking cowboy buying the beer and helping ma lose her job again.
When she was liittle, Laney thought, didn’t they go to the zoo sometimes? She thought they went to the zoo when she was young, and at the zoo her favorite time of day was when the zookeepers brought out the different kinds of food for each different kind of animal. Hay, pellets, seeds, mangoes, beef, smelt, lettuce, tiny mice with pink eyes. Everybody eats something, mama said, and gave her some pellets to feed to the ducks. The ducks fought and bit each other. Laney preferred the flamingos, standing steady on their backward elbows, and the otters, who made every bite look like a fantastic joke, no matter who they were eating.
In the imaginary jungle where Laney wandered at night after sleep took her out of the very small place, the cowboy lived far away, and the animals who shook and rattled her sleeping cage were drawn broad, some of them even in crayon with little glitter bits filling in the details where she wasn’t exactly sure how a rhino’s tusk should be drawn. The imaginary jungle did not have a smell, not at all like the zoo or the apartment with the burned carpet and the molding beer smell, or the motel with the scented dispenser that shot springtime freshness out into the room automatically every twenty minutes. Laney lay in bed some nights, listening to the scent dispenser release like clockwork, a springtime disinfectant bouquet that sat in the back of her throat. Mama came home late, smelling like smoke, roulette nerves and fried food, and that mixed in with the springtime and tobacco spit memory. Those smells made Laney think of luck and the cowboy. The cowboy had liked to play the lottery, punching in Laney’s special numbers, telling her Laney, you’re a winner, you’ll see. You’ll see.