Jada stares at the slices of bacon crackling in a tiny pool of hot oil. Her mouth waters as the smoky scent travels up her nose; it’s been hours since she last ate. The half tuna sandwich she had for breakfast did nothing to satisfy her stomach, but it was all she had. Jada sighs. Payday is today, which means she needs to stop by the grocery store after picking Milani up from school. Happy Meals and frozen dinners get old fast; her child deserves a nice, home-cooked meal. Jerry—the short-order cook—flips over the brown waves of pork on top of the griddle; they sizzle.
She takes a step back and stretches her neck to look at the clock above her. Four fifty-nine. Jada grabs a white plate from the stack beside her and on it she places the cooked bacon. She then reaches for the pieces of bread that she toasted minutes earlier. Light dances off the silver knife in Jada’s left hand as she cuts the square pieces into triangles. The knife scrapes against the blackened bread slathering butter onto each. She pairs the meal with syrup and strawberry jelly before handing it to the eager customer.
The bell at the entrance door chimes. “Welcome to Waffle Hou—” Jada pauses. Sarah—her coworker with the bleach blonde hair and silver-capped teeth—saunters in. Finally, her relief is here. In one swift move, Jada unties the black apron from around her waist and throws it across her shoulder. She sprints over to the swinging door at the end of the kitchen and heads for the time clock. The machine scans her fingerprint, clocking her out for the day. Jada reaches into her cubby and grabs her purse; the worn material scratches at her fingertips as she searches through the bag looking for her keys.
Car keys jingling in her hand, she pushes the swinging door forward and walks through the kitchen past the bar and tables seated with customers and finally out of the building having said nothing to no one. The southeast Texas heat causes beads of sweat to form on Jada’s forehead as she rushes towards her car. She approaches the driver’s side of the broken-down piece of metal she calls her transportation. Though, Jada can’t discredit the hooptie too much because—by some miracle—it manages to get her from point A to point B. Once upon a time, well before she ever paid that sketchy car salesman a thousand dollars cash for the piece of junk she recognizes today; it was a decent vehicle. The paint job was a shiny cherry red color and not the ashy, chipped-up mess she sees now. There wasn’t a single scratch or dent. The Mazda emblem was not missing from the rear, and on days such as today when the sun rays are beaming down and the humid air feels suffocating; there was crisp A/C waiting to be blasted.
Jada inserts the key inside the silver keyhole, twisting and turning until she hears a click. She removes it, jerks open the door, and plops down onto the cushioned seat. A throbbing pain forms in her arches. She feels like she’s been on her feet for years. Jada looks down at what used to be white Sketchers but are now yellowed and creased. Holes gape where her big toes rest.
She shakes her head and slams the door. Jada reaches over and presses her fingers on the buttons beside her; they’re scorching to the touch like everything else in the car. All the windows begin slowly rolling down, stopping halfway. Jada groans. She’s sure that, long ago, the windows used to work properly too.
On the highway, Jada’s foot presses the gas pedal, and the speedometer twitches up to eighty miles per hour. The wind whooshes through her eardrums and slaps her across the face; it doesn’t bother her much because it feels too good. In her rearview mirror, Jada notices thick black clouds of smoke billowing from the sides of her car. This is a normal occurrence, especially when she rides the freeway.
What isn’t normal is the Newport dangling from her mouth. Smoke escapes her nostrils as she exhales. Jada quit smoking six years ago whenever she found out that she was pregnant with Milani, but when she saw an eviction notice hanging from her door last month; she’s ended up with one between her fingers every day since.
Jada is no stranger to eviction. At sixteen, her mother told her to pack her bags and go live with her boyfriend since she thought she was adult enough to have premarital sex and disregard curfew. So, Jada did just that. Not long after leaving home, Jada discovered she was pregnant and, suddenly, the love of her life and his family no longer wanted anything to do with her. If it wasn’t for her best friend’s mother allowing her to crash on their couch, she would’ve been pregnant and living in shelters throughout the city or worse— on the street.
Seeing that eviction notice triggered her. After years of hopping from friend to family member to coworkers’ couches with her daughter by her side, she was finally able to snag a one bedroom, one bath apartment. It wasn’t much but it was the best she could do with a section 8 voucher. Now, a year later, she’s fallen behind on the rent, and Ms. Jackson— the landlord—doesn’t care about other bills or about Jada’s below minimum wage job as a server, or the fact that Milani desperately needed clothes for the new school year. Ms. Jackson wants her money by next week or else it’s back to house hopping for Jada and Milani.
This is no way to live. Jada takes another long drag.
Grey ashes whip past Jada as she flings the cigarette out the window. She blows out the last puff of smoke she had been holding in and exits the freeway. Jada glances at the clock. Five forty-five. Poor Milani. Always the last one picked up from the afterschool program.
Jada’s 1990 Mazda hatchback skirts into the driveway of Milani’s school. She presses her foot on the brake and the car screeches to a stop. Before hopping out of the car, Jada examines herself. Food stains mingled with sweat spots all over her work uniform, hair matted into a messy bun under her hat, and a face flushed from the heat. She has always envied those moms who could easily pick up their children on time in pantsuits and high heels or even those stay-at-home moms in their cardigans and air-conditioned Nissan Altimas.
Jada swipes her hands across her face and uses her T-shirt to dry off some of the sweat dripping from her neck and forehead. Slamming the door behind her, she skips towards the double doors, and cool air that chills her from the inside out greets her as she walks in.
“Mommy!” Milani screams. Her unicorn shaped backpack drags behind her as she runs happily towards Jada. Jada’s tired eyes brighten up at the sight of her daughter’s orange curls bouncing wildly against her shoulders. Milani rams into Jada and hugs her hips so tightly as if to keep her from floating away.
“Hey, my baby,” Jada whispers. She bends and plants a long kiss on top of Milani’s head. Looking up, Jada catches the eyes of the afterschool teacher. The dark-haired woman gives her a half smile that reeks of sympathy. Jada hates those kinds of smiles. She responds back with a wider smile of her own, highlighting her pearly whites. Taking Milani’s hand into hers, the two of them wave goodbye and walk out of the air-conditioned building and back into the humidity.
The clouds above begin to darken, giving way to slightly cooler winds passing through the car. Stopping at a red light, Jada’s knee bounces anxiously to the rhythm of the music playing from the radio. She’s doing everything she can to fight the itch to reach over towards the passenger side, grab a Newport, and stick it in her mouth. She promised herself, though, that she’d never smoke in front of Milani.
“Mommy, my clothes are sticking to me,” Milani whines. Jada peeks at the rearview mirror to see her daughter picking at her clothes. Her freckled scattered nose scrunches up as she squirms in her car seat. Milani doesn’t like sweating. When she was a newborn, Jada could never successfully swaddle her because, after a few minutes, she’d be red all over the face and fussing uncontrollably. She’s like her father in that way—well—Milani is like her father in many ways. From her ginger hair and light brown eyes to her quiet demeanor and intelligence.
“Baby girl, I know you’re uncomfortable, trust me, I do,” Jada responds. She makes a swift left turn and pulls into the grocery store that’s five minutes away from their apartment. Jada turns the car off and the roaring engine dies down to a quiet hummm. Unbuckling her seat belt, she looks back and flashes Milani the sweetest motherly smile she can muster.
“How about cupcakes for dessert?” Jada entices. Milani’s sweaty face creeps into a cheeky, gap-toothed smile. She quickly unbuckles herself and jumps out of the car. Jada rushes after her.
Inside the grocery store, Jada multitasks by moving swiftly through each aisle, gathering the ingredients for tonight’s dinner, and making sure Milani is distracted enough by her cell phone not to notice the candy or toy aisle. Once in line, Jada watches the items move their way up the conveyor belt: a half-priced pack of ground meat, a bottle of Ragu that is a dollar off with the purchase of two bags of store-brand spaghetti noodles, a single yellow onion, a single green bell pepper, one box of frozen garlic knots, a jug of fruit punch, and the promised case of sprinkled cupcakes. At the tail end of everything lies Jada’s allergy medicine; something she’s been deeming as a non-necessity until now.
Beep! Beep! noodles, tomato sauce… Beep! Beep! Beep! With a juxtaposing speed, the nonchalant cashier scans each item. Beep! Beep! Beep! The mechanical sound puts Jada into a trance. Her disassociation stops once she hears the cashier plainly say, “thirty dollars and ninety-six cents is your total.”
Jada takes a deep breath and pulls out her card.
“Oh, our card system is down right now,” the cashier mentions. “Cash only.”
Jada’s heart clenches. Cash Only? All she had in her purse was the 20 dollars in tips she earned today. She’d hoped to spend it on gas (and cigarettes). Jada doesn’t have the time or energy to go to another store, so she surveys the belt for items to put back. The ingredients for the spaghetti must stay; that’s their dinner for the next couple of days. Jada’s eyes land on the sprinkled cupcakes and then gravitate down to where Milani stands beside her clinging onto her leg humming her ABCs.
The cupcakes are staying.
Jada continues looking over the items. She takes a second to glance at the cashier who is growing impatient and then at the young couple behind her pretending not to be in her business. Finally, Jada picks up the allergy medicine she’s been needing for the past few weeks and hands it to the young girl.
The cashier removes it and the price drops. Jada smiles brightly as she forfeits the wrinkled bills to the cashier along with some change she found at the bottom of her purse. She exits the store with Milani hanging gleefully from the side of the basket.
Outside, the clouds have completely greyed, and tiny droplets of water plop onto her exposed skin. Jada sighs. She’ll just have to come back and get the medicine she needs on another day.
Harsh rain pours into the Mazda. Damn! With wet fingers, Jada reaches over and pulls at the tabs to roll the windows back up. Nothing happens. Jada does this several times over while keeping a consistent eye on the road. “Come onnnnn,” she hisses. In a matter of seconds, the rain grows into a storm and the droplets hitting Jada in every direction feel like hail. Jada uses her right hand to steer and her left to repeatedly pull up the tabs. She keeps trying and trying despite realizing minutes ago that she was out of luck. Piece of shit! She bangs her fist against the panel.
“Mommy! Mommy, the rain!” Milani screams above the thundering rain. Jada calms herself at the sound of her daughters’ alarm. Their apartment complex is just a few feet away. She turns her torso slightly to look back at Milani, searching for her eyes amidst the severe weather.
Once found, she spreads a huge smile across her face and pokes her tongue out. “It’s just a little rain, baby girl. Don’t it feel cool against your warm skin?” Jada asks. Milani’s worried frown relaxes and the tip of her pink tongue peeks from her pursed lips.
Jada swerves into a parking spot right in front of their apartment and hastily grabs everything from out of the car, including her soaking wet daughter. With her clothes clinging to her body, Milani bouncing on her hip, and bags of groceries dangling at her fingertips, Jada rushes the two of them into their apartment leaving the intense storm and inevitable car damage behind.
After showering and changing into dry clothes, Jada stood at the stove for an hour with her damp hair twisted up in a towel. The mother and daughter sat down at their table and ate while an animated movie from when Jada was Milani’s age played on the tv in the background. The spaghetti turned out decent and Jada figures it should stretch for the next two nights. She erupts in a loud burp that leaves the aftertaste of garlic and tangy tomato sauce in her mouth.
“Ewww, Mommmy!,” Milani playfully whines.
“Excuse me, baby,” Jada chuckles out before grabbing the dirty dishes from the table and bringing them to the sink. Just as she is about to begin cleaning, she hears a faint clearing of the throat. Jada turns around to see Milani standing behind her looking up at her with Eeyore eyes. That painful squeeze at Jada’s heart returns. “What’s wrong?” She questions.
“Here,” she says before shoving a thin piece of paper Jada’s way. Jada skims over the sheet; it’s a flyer from Milani’s school promoting a father-daughter dance. “I guess I won’t need this since I have no Daddy.” Milani comments.
“Baby girl, you—you do have a Daddy,” Jada says.
“The girls at my school have their Daddies come pick them up and eat breakfast with them. They make fun of me Mommy because I have no Daddy, and that makes me….” Milani pauses. She drops her head, and her voice grows quieter. She continues, “….kinda sad.”
Jada feels like a boulder has dropped onto her stomach, clearing her of all the air in her body. She’s speechless. Her daughter’s been getting teased, and she hadn’t even noticed.
How could I have missed this?
Jada doesn’t know what to say. A part of her wants to tell Milani the truth; that her father begged Jada to get an abortion because he couldn’t give up his full ride to Texas A&M to take care of a baby. That he never showed up at any doctor’s appointments or at the hospital the day she was born. Jada wants to confess that Milani’s father couldn’t care less where his daughter was or how she was doing or even what she looked like.
“Baby girl, I’m so sorry,” Jada’s voice cracks. It’s the only response she can think of. Pathetic. “Look, have a cupcake, and go hop in bed. Mommy will join you in a minute,” she says before handing Milani a cupcake. Milani perks up a little at the sight of the sweet treat in her hands. She runs off into the bedroom, her orange curls disappearing in the dim light.
Jada turns around and stares at the piles of dishes in the sink. She sighs and leaves the kitchen, turning the lights off on the way out.
Jada stares at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her knuckles begin protruding as she grips the edges of the sink. She feels lightheaded. She feels sick to her stomach. She feels drained from the tip of her head to the soles of her feet. Jada releases her hold on the sink and reaches behind the toilet to grab the pack of Newports and the blue lighter that she’d taped there a couple of weeks ago. She prays that Milani won’t be able to smell anything as she places the cigarette between her quivering lips. Fingers trembling, she flicks at the lighter, attempting to ignite it.
“Shit. Come on,” she murmurs into the cigarette trying her hardest to light it. Jada looks at herself struggling in her reflection. A single tear cascades down her warm cheek. Come the fuck on! Growing frustrated, she twists at the cold-water knob; it pops off and falls onto the floor. Water flows from the faucet uninterrupted.
Jada gasps as she looks down at the clear knob rolling around on the white tiles. Her body shakes. First, a gruesome eight-to-five shift. Then, the heat. Milani’s afterschool teacher and her stupid smile. The grocery store and the raggedy Mazda and the windows that wouldn’t roll up and the pouring rain and Milani’s absent father and the little girls who bully her about it and the eviction notice and the stacks of unpaid bills on her kitchen table and the cigarette that she can’t get to light and—and now this.
The cigarette drops from Jada’s lips as her mouth hangs open. Nothing escapes her. Not a single sob or whine. She’s perfected the art of crying in silence because that’s what mothers do. Her face drowns in tears and her entire body caves in as she tries to suppress her emotions. Jada looks at herself. Flushed cheeks. Dark circles. Sunken shoulders. She drops her head toward the sink allowing her tears to fall and mingle with the ever-flowing water. In the sink, the now shriveled and soaking cigarette stares back up at her, taunting, floating above the small puddle of water.
Angelica Williams is a twenty-four-year-old aspiring author and current freelance writer from Beaumont, Texas. In 2021, Angelica graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University with her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing. At a young age, Angelica discovered her love for reading books of various genres, and soon, that love for reading blossomed into a deep passion for writing short stories, poetry, and more. She has been published or has forthcoming publication in The Blue Route and BULL. Angelica strives to continue to emerge as a writer and hopes to obtain further publications in the near future.