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the sweep of the brush


The smell of polyurethane meant she was in pain. Not the kind of pain where her legs weren’t working or she had to stay in bed all day, seeing double. Double, like seeing four of her children when she only had two. Two, like the number of years since she’d learned of her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and that there was a lesion on her brainstem. Two, like the number of years we had been living in the yellow brick house across from the city park where I learned to ride my bike. The drip of polyurethane meant she was working out leaving him and with each sweep of the brush, she plotted our escape to the sound of her babies singing. Singing the sounds of summer ’93 through the open stain-glass window from the porch out front, my fingers forever pinched by the chain links of the porch swing I pumped back and forth and back and forth.

No matter how many windows Mama opened all summer, that smell followed me. Lying in my bed running my four-year-old feet along the emerald green walls, the burning gas stunk up my doll’s hair and my bedsheets. A round oak dining table was Mama’s summer reckoning which she’d cleaned and sandpapered until ready for its honey maple stain. Petrochemical resin was as toxic as the voices downstairs at bedtime; voices we weren’t supposed to hear so my older brother told me stories. Mama worked most days of the week at the hospital. When she’d pick me up from preschool we’d nap together on the couch; her small frame slept on its side with my head nuzzled in the backs of her knees.

She took in a mother with two children and let them live in the attic one week. She checked on the young woman being beaten in the building across the street. She stripped and painted all the walls downstairs and fractured all the mosaic floors, released them and fortified new ones. We were never allowed to walk through the porcelain mess- the chaos of the scene, until, she’d released us from the yellow brick house and the marriage. Some odd houses, a degree and a new job later, she took us to Virginia.