In the beginning, there was me and Mama, just me and Mama. Then there came Daddy number two, then Junior (my brother), and then Daddy number three, then four... we are on Daddy number five now. I am not sure of his real name- I stopped asking what their names were after the third one left. They all leave eventually; after different lengths of time, but it's always the same. They always sneak out with a bag of their belongings the night before wash day. I am grateful for one less set of clothes to wash at the end of the week. We live frugally. "We don't like waste or extra labor," Mama always says. She always follows up by reminding us that God promises that the meek will inherit the earth. I guess Mama really wants her part of it someday because meek is not a strong enough word to describe our lifestyle. Some of the other kids at school, the ones that aren't like us, say that we "live off the grid" but I think it's really because we are poor. And I think we are always poor because our Daddies keep leaving.
Wash day is the one day of the week where we soak our clothes, our bodies, our home, and our sins away. Mama has me and Junior take the clothes and the few linens we have with us to the river that runs right past our place. We bathe in its murky, mud-water while washing the laundry in it at the same time. We never come out really clean- "clean enough", Mama says, but I still feel dirty. I lay the washed laundry out along the riverbank to dry in the grass and caked dirt clumps - it all just gets soiled again by the time we go collect them in the evening. Mama says she will hang a clothesline out there yet- she just needs to scrounge up some more rope to tie between the old maples out there. She never seems to have rope even though she buys gobs of it every few years. Where it all goes, I have no idea.
Junior and I lug pails of fish-scented river water back to the house to scrub the floors and walls. It always ends up smelling worse than when we started, but it fades after a few days of baking off in the sun. The water in the pails drops from a light gray to midnight black when we are done cleaning - usually. Daddy's leave quite the mess behind right before they abandon us. Here we are alone in the woods with only Mama and that old rotted shed that Mama prefers to call a cabin. I suppose we all just call it home no matter what it was actually created to house- it's homing us the best it could; if only one of our Daddies would set to make it better than when they first came to live there. But they never do. They actually leave it worse than before, trailing out mysterious cans of red paint and splattering it all over the walls and floor.
It's wash day again. Daddy number five took off in a hurry last night- so fast I didn't even hear anything. Where he found so much of the hidden paint is beyond me. I ask Mama where it's hidden, why, and who puts it there, but she always answers just the same, "No matter, Laura Jean, we will clean it up before it absorbs into the wood floors. We will get it all up so it doesn't stain. Don't put the weight on your wrists, girl- put your arms and back into it." '
I am confused about the paint. I am confused about why all my Daddies leave us. I am confused why I recall nothing from the night before. But I push it all aside because Mama says to and I scrub my knuckles bloody on wash day while Mama goes down to the river for her turn to "bathe with the Lord", as she calls it. She talks to God a lot down there. But she talks to the Devil even more when she is here at the house.
God talks to no one else in this household - Mama won't allow it. I think the Devil has promised her something she wants even more than the earth. Maybe someday I will scrub the answer out of these floorboards or maybe the Devil will just have to tell me himself.