It was the third time that year Teesha’s mama almost died. Teesha got called out of her fifth grade class to the Principal’s office. The cab was waiting outside to take her to Jersey City Medical Center. The Principal pressed a ten dollar bill in her hand. It was Friday, he expected to see her in school Monday, he said.
When Teesha got to the hospital, she knew the way to the emergency room. She found her mama in a wheelchair, nodding off. Band aids pockmarked her mama’s arms where the nurses tried to find veins but couldn’t. Her mama lost so much weight over the past year since she went back on the pipe, her sweat pants barely stayed up. Teesha wheeled her mama to the door and her mother leaned on her to get to the cab. Although her mama could hardly walk, she was already crying for her medicine.
“Baby, let’s go see Ray Ray.” Her mama’s head lolled from side to side.
“Mama, you need to rest.”
“I don’t need no rest, I’m fine. Please baby,” her mama said in the little girl voice she used when she wanted something real bad.
They pulled up in front of their door and Teesha helped her mama out of the cab. Her mama was as limp as a rag doll. Teesha opened the deadbolts and as the door swung in, the smell of their apartment wafted out. It was a mixture of burnt coffee, stale sweat and roach spray.
Teesha walked her mama inside and positioned her to fall onto the bed. Once she was on top of her blanket Teesha grabbed the other half and folded her mama into it. She took off her mama’s sneakers and threw them on the floor. Wisps of black frizz poked out where her cheek mashed into the pillow.
“Baby,” her mama croaked. “Get me some water.”
Teesha ran the faucet in the kitchen until the water got cold. She carried the cup to the bedroom and stood in the doorway. Her mother was crumpled by the bed trying to put her sneakers on.
“Mama, what you doing?”
“T, I got to have my medicine. The snakes is coming, they crawling under my skin,” she wailed. She scratched the inside of her arm. “I got to get them snakes out.” Her fingernails raked her skin, ripping off band aids and leaving bloody trails in their wake.
Teesha knew what could happen next, like the other times things happened. Like when her mama threw a beer bottle and Teesha needed stitches. Or when mama brought a homeless pit bull in and told Teesha it was her birthday present but it wasn’t her birthday. Her mama tied the animal to the couch but didn’t think about the dog’s need to eat or pee. And when her mama left the house to get more drugs, Teesha untied it and opened the front door. The dog ran away fast; Teesha wanted to follow it. Mama beat her later for what she did. She didn’t mind, at least one of them was free.
“Okay, mama, we gonna see Ray Ray.” Teesha put the cup of water on the top of the television in the living room and knelt by the couch. The pit bull rope was still tied to the back leg. She freed it, stuffed the coil into the back of her pants, and pulled her shirt over it.
“Baby help me get my sneakers on.”
Teesha pulled her mother back up and got her to sit on the edge of the bed. Teesha slid the rope out of her pants and pushed her mama to lie down. Her mama was so weak her body fell back. Teesha made a loop around her mama’s wrist and tied it to the leg of the bed.
“Get off me. You gonna kill me!” her mama screamed. She hit Teesha with her free fist. Her mama struggled, but she couldn’t put up a fight.
“Stop, I ain’t gonna hurt you.” Teesha straddled her mother’s chest and grabbed her other wrist. She rolled off her mother, and pulled the rope toward the other side of the bed. Teesha tied the loose end to the other leg. Her mother swore at her. Teesha went into the living room and closed the bedroom door. She didn’t want to listen to it.
She turned on the television. A show came on about poor people who won the lottery. It made Teesha sad. She lay on the couch and watched the newly rich family go on vacation until she fell asleep. When she woke the sun was setting. The television cast flickering images in the darkened room. She turned off the TV and listened; no noise came from the bedroom.
She opened the door and went inside. When Teesha pulled back the blanket her mama’s body was slick with sweat. She was shuddering and barely conscious. Teesha put her hand on her mama’s forehead; she was burning up. Teesha went to the bathroom and got a wash cloth. She soaked it with cool water, then ran back and wiped the sweat from her mama’s face.
“Baby,” her mama wheezed, “if I don’t get my medicine, I’m gonna die.”
Teesha stroked her mama’s hand and rubbed her thumb over the coarse rope binding her mama’s wrist. “I seen you when you on your drugs mama. You might hurt me.”
“T, you my baby girl. If you want, keep me tied so nothing happen. Just reach into my bra and take the twenty I got. Take it to Ray Ray and get me two rocks.”
“I never bought no drugs.”
“You ain’t buying drugs, you getting medicine for your mama. That’s what you gonna say. Hurry.”
Teesha put her hand on her mother’s chest and slid it down into her bra. The padding was drenched with sweat. She felt the limp paper bill sticking to her mother’s breast and peeled it away. She jammed the folded bill into her pocket.
“Thank you baby,” her mama said, and closed her eyes. Her body was still shivering.
Teesha pulled the covers over her mama. Her mama’s arms stuck out of the blanket at angles where Teesha had tied her. Teesha didn’t want to buy her mama drugs, but she believed her mama would die without them; the withdrawal was killing her.
When she locked the apartment door, Teesha knew where to find Ray Ray. Everybody in the neighborhood knew where he lived.
She knocked on the gray metal door of the ground floor apartment. She heard lock after lock being undone. The door opened and a woman with long braided hair stood there.
“What do you want?” the woman asked and looked at Teesha hard.
“I’m here to…” Teesha felt her throat close up. “My mama sent me for her medicine.”
The woman rolled her eyes and told Teesha to step inside. The woman re-bolted the locks. “Wait here,” she told Teesha and disappeared. As she stood there Teesha smelled hamburger cooking. Her mouth watered. She couldn’t remember the last time she ate.
Ray Ray seemed to materialize out of the darkness. His head was shaved; a tattoo of a cross branded his cheek just beneath his left eye. Another tat on his neck spelled his name in graffiti letters.
Ray Ray looked her up and down. “You Shiree’s little girl?”
Teesha craned her neck to look at him, he was so tall. “I ain’t no little girl,” she blurted out.
Ray Ray laughed. “That right? You look like her. What you need shorty?”
“She say if I give you this,” Teesha said and pulled the still-damp twenty from her jeans, “you give me two rocks.” She pushed the bill into his hand.
“She do, huh?” Ray Ray said, pocketing the money. “In my house twenty don’t get you two rocks. Your mama using you to get over on me…trying to anyhow.”
“Can I maybe get one?” She was afraid of Ray Ray, but she was even more scared of what her mother would do if she came back with nothing.
“Tell you what…” Ray Ray pulled two vials out of his pocket and put them in her hand. A chunky white rock sat at the bottom of each tube stoppered with a bright red cap. He closed her fingers around the vials and held her hand inside his. “Because you a new customer. When you done with this, you gonna come back to get more good stuff, right?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Teesha said. She thought I’ll never come back here. She pulled her hand away and put the vials in her pocket.
“Next time we gonna work out a real good deal,” Ray Ray said. He traced his finger down the side of her cheek. “When we be alone, you gonna let Ray Ray teach you something new.”
“I got to get home to my mama,” Teesha said. She couldn’t move. It was like her legs were stuck to the floor. She could hardly breathe.
Ray Ray unbolted the door. “Come back anytime shorty,” he said. “Day or night. I got everything you need.”
Teesha pulled the blanket back from her mother’s face; her mama was still burning up. Teesha shook her shoulder. “Mama, wake up.” Her mama’s eyes fluttered open half-way. Teesha brushed the hair back from her mama’s cheek with her fingertips.
She felt one of her mama’s hands still tied to the bed. It was cold. Teesha leaned down and untied the rope from the bed leg closest to her and unwrapped her mama’s wrist. There was an imprint on the skin from the coil. Teesha rubbed the mark with her thumb; her mama moaned.
Teesha turned on the bedside lamp. She took one of the vials out of her pocket. She slid her fingernail beneath the bright red cap and pried it away. It popped into her palm. She looked at the white rock sitting at the bottom. She wondered how something so small could make her mama crazy. It didn’t look like much of anything; it was like a flake of blackboard chalk, or a piece of sugar candy.
Teesha opened the drawer in the bedside table. She pulled out her mama’s lighter and glass pipe, with its scorched bulb end. She put them in her lap and looked at them. She never lit a pipe before. She picked up the pipe and tapped the open end of the vial against the side of the pipe until the white rock came out and fell to the bottom of the bulb.
The tapping of glass on glass stirred her mama to open her eyes. Instinctively her mama reached for the pipe and put it in her mouth. Teesha offered her mama the lighter, but her mama shook her head. She pulled the pipe out of her mouth long enough to say, “You do it T. Put the flame under the rock.”
Teesha watched as the flame began to cook the crack inside the bowl. It made a popping sound. The vapors rose from the white chunk and her mama inhaled as much as she could. When she couldn’t hold her breath anymore, her mama blew the smoke to the side of her mouth. Teesha was sitting so close she couldn’t help but breathe some in. Teesha felt dizzy, her heart began to pound so hard she thought she might pass out.
“T, keep the lighter going,” her mama said, her eyes wide open now. Teesha lit the bowl again, and her mama inhaled a wheezing breath and held in the smoke. Her mama’s body began to shudder, but still she held it in.
Her mama exhaled the smoke into Teesha’s face. “I’m free at last, baby girl. Free at last…”
Her mama’s head fell back onto the pillow, her eyes fully open, as if she was really seeing the world for the first time. Her hand opened and she let go of the pipe. It fell onto her chest. The glass bulb sizzled as it hit her skin.
Teesha grabbed the pipe and put it on the bedside table. A raw welt burned into her mama’s chest. Teesha looked at her mother’s blank eyes. “Mama?” Her mother was a still and heavy weight.
Teesha’s head pounded from blood pumping hard through her temples. She felt sick. Teesha pushed her mama over so she could lay down beside her. Teesha closed her eyes. She hoped the bed would stop spinning.
But somehow, inside the spinning, inside the pounding blood, inside the insides of her eyelids, Teesha felt something strange. Something new. It felt like an angel came down from heaven and touched her. Her hunger and sadness disappeared.
Teesha’s body relaxed. The pink rays of dawn lit up the spaces between the broken slats of the window blinds. She felt a love for her mama so deep she began to cry. She nestled against her mama’s warm body and thanked her for this joy. And if this kind of joy was possible in life, Teesha knew, it was only the beginning.