A Steady Application
Mom always put on her red lipstick before she went to check on the noise. Almost every other night there would be a moment when the floorboards creaked on a spot in the dining room. I thought it was because the ground moves between seasons but mom would correct me, saying that there’s a burglar standing in wait.
We would both hear the noise and step out of our rooms, her with red lips completed and me gripping my teddy bear. She would pick up the steel bat leaning on the wall and walk briskly through the hallway. I would follow her to the stairs, crawling and then peering between the banister posts. I would watch in silence as she stepped down, her toes fanned out to keep her balance and maintain a slow speed. She never wanted to startle the intruder.
Each night the noise happened I anticipated that her pace down the stairs would match the slowness of my breath. Each time the memory from the prior night’s descent somehow left both our eyes, forcing us to readjust to the darkness. Like always, she’d turn back to find me perched on my knees. I’d look back and then squeeze harder on my teddy bear.
“Go back,” she’d whisper while tilting her head towards my door. I’d nod and slowly move out of sight. Then when I heard the floorboards creak as she moved a few steps down, I would reappear at the top of the stairs.
Those seconds felt like hours. I sat in wait praying to see my mother, safe, and not an intruder. I feared seeing something scary that would hurt my mom, forcing me to run and hide in the guest room floorboards, a spot that mom set up years ago. I would stare harder thinking it might bring her back faster, or give me insight into what the intruder wanted. Maybe it was an attempt to steal the fancy plates that mom got from Goodwill; she told me they were valuable, worth something, could be antique. I know to never question her nightly routine, so I wait on the second floor until she comes back around the corner. She always comes back.
“False alarm,” she would yell out from the living room before coming into the moon-lit foyer. Then I would see her red lips that were brighter than the apples she cut for me before we would go to the park, but darker than the stop sign at the end of our street. Her lips were like those on the movie star posters, but her bottom lip trembled when she spoke.
“It’s a good thing we are prepared,” she said while leaning the bat on the wall.
“Why mom? Why do you wear the red lips?”
“You always want to be prepared for the press. They’re the ones who snap a picture of your body,” she said while taking my hand. “Because when you’re lying on the floor, you want to be put together. Remember, sweetheart, no one likes an ugly victim.”
“Is that why some bodies are taken out in black bags? Because they’re not wearing any lipstick?”
“Yes, honey. That’s exactly it. You have to take the time to apply the lipstick and get ready for the camera because you never know who is waiting downstairs.”
She smiled and helped me into bed, trying hard to soften the night. She kissed me on both cheeks, leaving me to wake with stained pillowcases for the wash. Pillowcases left behind to match the concern in my heart when she left my room, forcing me to face each night. Where when today I lift that tube from my vanity and put it on my lips, I can look into the mirror at the steel bat along the wall and know, my mother has taught me well.
Trista Hurley-Waxali is an author and international poet. She has performed at O’bheal in Ireland, as well as at a Translate show for Helsinki’s Poetry Jam in Finland. Her work is published by Tayen Lane, Street Line Critics, and within various anthologies throughout LA. Trista is working on her first novel, At This Juncture. She lives in West Hollywood, California. Follow her on Twitter at @Tristaisshort.