change like hail

Yesterday I went in to sign my new lease.

There was the woman who approved me for the apartment and we laughed (cackled, really) as she talked me through the thousand pages. The other employee came in and tactfully told her to get back to work.

Still, the woman told me about her mom who worked as a waitress up until she retired. She told me about the patrons who left her only change and I thought about the poem I had just shared with my students last week:

Like so many nights of my childhood
I lived
inside the fishbowl
of a one-bedroom
for my mother to come home
(from her second job). As a waitress
she wore orthopedic shoes for flat feet.
All the uniforms blur together: IHOP,
Red Lobster, Rainforest Cafe, Shoney’s…
This is how she tucked me in-
jingle and clack of keys
would turn the doorknob open
allow me to fall asleep.
She tucked me in-not with blankets
or a kiss on the forehead,
but with locking the door behind her.
My single mother would take those big,
boxy shoes off, unhook her bra
(too tired to take it all the way off)
and eat leftover pizza
I had ordered for dinner.
Television shadows flickered
her exhausted frame, smell
of other people’s food on her skin,
crumpled ones, fives, and tens
fanned out of her server book.
I heard the change from bad tippers
like hail on the kitchen counter.
Maybe for other children
the purr of the air conditioner, the sound
of a ceiling fan whisking the darkness,
or the steady neon glow of a nightlight
set their dreams ablaze?
But for me hearing those keys
slipped me under the wing
of my mother’s white noise.

(first stanza of The Frequency of Goodnight by Tiana Clark)

I realized, as this woman and I talked about raising two boys alone, that she approved me for the apartment not because I make enough money to be approved (I don’t), but because she believed in me making it on my own (I will). She told me that one day my sons will be protective of me and I realized she told me that as hope in the future, in the absence of anyone being protective of me now. I know she fudged the numbers on my behalf, thinking probably of her own mother and the change like hail on the counter, thinking of how we make it for our children.

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