Her skin always reminded me of midnight, endless, black and holding together the night with mystery. If the sun touched her in just the right way, it revealed an almost perfect smoothness that fell along her body like silk. She always spoke with a thick tongue, forcing each word through her teeth with anxiousness, AH-THEEN-AH.
Everyday after school, I would run from the bus through the field to her house. Her mother always knew I was coming, she would pull the bed from the couch and put out blankets and pillows. She would pull a small twin size mattress into the living room and plop it in the center of the room for Athena.
After we rushed through our homework, we helped Athena’s mother in the kitchen. Old 70’s funk music always played from a small CD player that sat on top of the refrigerator. The air in the kitchen always tasted of burnt hair from Athena’s mother using a small, rusty straightening comb to press Athena’s hair into place for school that morning. I pace around the bar of the kitchen waiting patiently to be handed a bell pepper to cut or some peas to snap. Athena knew what to do in the kitchen, she grabbed large bowls from a cabinet here, or a pan from a cabinet there. She tossed salt and pepper over chicken, or whatever meat her mother wanted us to have that night, cracked eggs into a bowl, and used a large wooden spoon to mix things together. I had never seen a child move with such ease in the kitchen.
Athena’s grandmother was a large woman, with snow colored hair, she was missing two teeth from the top row of her mouth and four from the bottom. Every night, while everyone ran wild in the kitchen, she sat at the kitchen table with her legs spread open to make room for her stomach, coughing and barking out orders at Athena and her mother, “Hey now!” She yelled. “Make sure them biscuits ain’t burnin over there in that oven Thena!”
If someone dropped something on the floor she pulled the broom from beside her and swept it up under the table, never leaving her chair. The times she caught me standing at the bar staring at her, she sucked on what teeth she had left, “Come here girl.” I left my spot at the bar and shuffled to her side. “Pick up something and do something!”
One night, in the kitchen, “September” by Earth, Wind and Fire, flooded the room while Athena’s mother danced around in a blue apron, and whipped together the frosting. I stood at the bar, watching Athena pour cake batter into a small silver pan. The sweet joyful smell of honey and lemon permeated the air. Athena’s grandmother sat in her usual chair at the table in a black dress; her legs wide, and eyes peering at me.
“Come here girl,” She motioned with her finger for me to come. I stood next to her waiting for her usual, find something to do.
“Go to that refrigerator over there and get me that white paper bag in there.”
I left her side and scooted around Athena to the refrigerator. I opened it and sitting on top of a butter container was a small, white paper bag that looked like one of the bags my mom would come home with from the pharmacy. I handed the bag to her. She took it from my hand, heaved herself up from her chair and walked over to the bar dragging her left foot slowly behind her. I followed closely behind her, cautiously, like she was a big bear I was afraid to get too close to.
She dumped the stuff in the bag onto the bar; a small clear bottle fell out first, then a long slim syringe landed next to it. She picked up the small bottle and syringe, pointing the tip of the syringe down into the bottle, then pulled on the plunger end of the syringe, sucking liquid into the slim part of its body.
“Here,” she handed me the clear bottle. “Hold this girl,” she said. She put the needle in one hand and with the other she raised her dress and slightly pulled down her underwear. I stood there frightened by what was happening. The loud music quickly became muffled, and everything around me except for her puddle of flesh illuminated by the kitchen light.
She sat the needle down and used both hands to lift the bottom half of her stomach onto the bar. She grabbed the needle, jabbed it someway into the doughy half of her body and pushed the plunger down, and quickly, the liquid in it was gone. I looked over to see if Athena was seeing what I had seen; the music still muffled, suddenly, I started to feel sick.
Athena’s grandma pushed her stomach back into her underwear and pulled her dress back down. She snatched the bottle from my hand and threw everything back into the white paper bag. Without waiting for her to tell me, I took the bag and put it back in the fridge. She lurched back into her chair and I took my place back at the bar.
The music started coming back to me slowly. The smells of the kitchen danced around me, the smell of burnt hair was fighting its way through the sweet smell of the cake. Athena’s mother was dancing again swaying back and forth. I looked over at Athena’s grandmother, she had the broom in her hand gently sweeping a piece of paper under the table.
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