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Hamilton Stone Review #35 Fall 2016
Shelley Ettinger, Fiction Editor
Andria Nacina Cole
On The Blood
Say I wanted to know something about Lev—where he was at or what size his underwear was. Then I was gon call Juanita and ask her.
“Fuck you, Sorren. I’m setting here waiting on your funeral. I’m rubbing my hands thinking how I’ma shoot up the hearse.”
We talked like that half a year, at least.
I’d say, “Come on now. Don’t be like that, Juanita girl. Tell me where our man at. I got something I need to tell him.”
She’d say, “Bitch, choke! Choke on a chicken bone—please!”
And we’d fuss and fuss til she got sick to her stomach of me and hung up.
She wouldn’t never mean to tell me where he was, but I’d upset her so much she’d break apart, trip up. She’d say, “Soon as that big belly nigger get back from the market I’m gon remind him how much of a whore you are Sorren,” or something like that. And I knew to head over to Tops on Genessee. That ain’t work once, but always. You could bet the house on Juanita.
That was 1984. Me and Lev Beginning met February 16, 1984 in Tree’s Bar, middle of a Buffalo winter.
He said, “What you take?”
I told him top shelf gin, no stutter.
A drink wasn’t shit to me. I’da snatched it quick, hopped down off that stool and run.
He gon say, “But should I tell Tree cut it some?”
I thought, now what a sugar sweet man doing in this hellhole here? With these bums? A nigga I ain’t gotta run from? I looked him over. He ain’t have but a drop of color. And too much stomach.
I told him, “No, no thank you. I’m grown.”
But he yelled up the bar anyway. “Add a cap a club soda to that Tree.”
That’s a little stupid thing, but still.
He told me he was married right off, because he a wide-open liar—the sort that tell you everything but nothing at all. I said what you telling me for? He said that don’t bother you none? I said it don’t bother you? He said, now and again. Now and again it do.
Wasn’t nothing for him. He had everything against him. Old. Married. Stomach big. Not big, big, say, but it’d catch your eye. You might describe him by it. You might say, “Ole Lev live in the Fruit Belt with that getting there gut.” You might say he ain’t have not a stitch of hair til you was coming up on his ears, and what little there was was on the verge of gray. Knotty if he ain’t keep it cut low, which ain’t a thing, except if you bright, and he was. I can take knotty hair on a woman fine, but not no man, and especially, especially not if he light. No woman in the high-deep world want a high yellow man. He struggle making you think you safe. His mouth taste like Sweet’n Low. But here I said never mind to all of that and told him come on. He said, “My name Lev Beginning,” and the blood left my hands.
We went on back to my place and fucked that same night. Because I couldn’t help it. Something about a man got all the ingredients for ugly and wrong and he pull off smooth. Or something about him sliding them ribs back and forth through his mouth real quick, licking em free of everything, the meat and sauce, yes, but whatever was left too—vein, gristle. Something about leaving barbeque sauce hanging off his fingers. Then holding them up for me to lick clean. Making me lean in to do it. Expecting I would. And he ain’t even know me. Something about that and him drinking everything could be swallowed and not tipping left or right— holding the liquor—made me wanna split my legs for him. Then he kept quiet when every man in Tree’s was running his mouth, and I wanted to keep em split.
I told him pull the twin-size mattress out into the hall and leave the sheets.
That thing was thin as the breeze, a joke, but the hallway was the only space with a light above it, and I wanted to see everything on him. His fat stomach, everything. A lamp woulda meant shadows. And I couldn’t be up under no cover neither, because I needed to watch every move he was gon make. Everything he was gon do with me. Was he gon eat my pussy like he did them ribs? Hold my wrists so tight I wanted up? How big was his dick gon be? Lord Jesus, let it bust me open. Be big as a nightmare. Make me limp til Thursday. All those things, I needed to know, so I had to see. And he ain’t ask a single question. Not how come, not why not. He mighta said, “What we gotta fuck out here for when you got bedrooms all around?” I didn’t have to say because I wanted us to have nowhere to go. Because a bigger bed and you could roll there or there, outta my reach. I didn’t have to explain nothing to Lev.
He was a little rough, and a little not. I coulda stood a bit more mishandling, but I ain’t know was he too old to hurt me. I told him so. He said he was only waiting on the word. So then we fucked and fucked and fucked. But wasn’t morning before I thought maybe he was slipping.
It wasn’t the feeling that was new. Men fuck and get slippery—they leave. What was new was I ain’t want him gone. I ain’t never, never met a man I ain’t want gone the minute after. Never. They call that feeling there slut. I started to ask him, but where you headed? And here he was right there with me.
I gripped the fat on his sides. I tongue kissed him. I begged him in my head. And I thought he answered, but I couldn’t all the way tell.
Only thing I could think was to ask him for his phone number. But he bit his mouth shut. We was smoking a reefer by then. I kept checking between myself to see was my pussy all right. It was throbbing to be sure. A beating heart, boy.
“You heard me?” I said. I couldn’t say I loved him and I couldn’t tell him I just wanted to know what a woman married to a man like him sounded like. I was just gon call, listen for Juanita hello, and then hang up. But I couldn’t tell him. I couldn’t tell him, “Don’t go,” neither. So I said, “You heard me?
“I won’t call it when she there.”
He pulled on the reefer, but he wouldn’t say nothing. I felt my stomach turn. Like it do right before my period come. My stomach knot up and not two minutes later the blood rush, but I couldn’t move. I was watching him smoke that reefer and thinking how much he ain’t look a thing like Penny.
His chin was smooth, for one thing. Old man smooth, but smooth. Not one hair was he gon take my hand across and say, “feel that?” for. “It been too long since you loved me last, Sorren. My whiskers growing.” He wasn’t gon tell me nothing about his whiskers growing and how that meant I should get in his bed and open up.
Every other man before Lev I found something, one thing, that looked like Penny’s. The ears. The eyebrows, the way they bent. The pinky toe. The hands. Them motherfucking hands.
Not nothing on Lev reminded me of Penny. Even his dick was curved, where my daddy’s was a straight shot.
I put my hand between my legs fully expecting blood. Wasn’t none.
After the reefer, when he was talking how hungry I made him, I said it again. I said, “I ain’t gonna call it when she there.” My patience was wearing. He just looked.
We was mostly naked. Some socks, some sweat, my way, way too soon love. And there is some people who right off you can stand their eyes. It was a crazy, stupid thing to ask. To keep asking. I know that. It was out of place. I ain’t have no right. But it was there hogging up my mouth. I put desperation in my look, because I loved him already. And he gave it up.
I was gonna kill him if he didn’t. I swear. I was gonna put my high heel shoe in his forehead and plug the love up. It made me itch and already I ain’t have no blood in my hands.
But he held onto the number too long and then when he gave it, he said it too fast, and I know maybe I shoulda let that mean something. The seven hooked into the eight and the five into the one, so it seemed like a chain of nothing coming out his mouth, if you wasn’t listening. I caught em all, though. Not one digit got past me. I heard each one like it was my own name. Only reason I can think he entertained me was he was high. His eyes was half shut ‘time he said it. He was smiling like things was beautiful and kept. I took advantage.
“What’s your wife name?” I asked him. I had fed him. Grits and eggs and salmon patties. We was back there on that kiddie mattress still almost naked.
“I want to know the name of the woman make you love her.”
“It’s not something I can explain.”
“Juanita.” I could taste it.
“You a strange woman. Anybody ever told you that?” He musta knew.
“Yeah, but people tell me all kinds of shit. It’s people told me liver good and love is possible. What she look like?”
I thought he said wife a minute and fixed my mouth to say something back. I was gonna say, “Nigga, a complexion. Give me a complexion. Her hair—long? Short? She got a gap in her teeth? What color her eyes?” But then the L hit, and I shut up. A man tell you his wife look like his life, that’s your cue. But I don’t learn easy.
I was looking past him, into a bedroom nobody never go in, quiet. I was figuring shit out. I was all of a sudden wanting okra. Some brandy. I ain’t want to be a waitress no more. I ain’t want my daddy’s check come through the mail guilting me every 1st, every 15th. Why do women got to shave they legs? And he took his hand and dragged it all along me. I forgot them things.
“I never seen a woman look like you.” He told me. We was so close our breath had a rhythm. He sucked in. I breathed out. I could taste the onion on him.
Ankle to knee to ass to back to stomach then breast he touched me. Woke me. I had been dead a long, long time before Lev. And he was the sort of man to touch you like that not thirty seconds after he said wife with a L.
“You funny looking.” He said. “I never seen a woman look like you.”
I asked him what he meant.
“You the color of a yam, one.”
I said, “Well, that can’t be good. Yam colored is good for a yam. I’m a woman. A lady.” He was about to list all the things wrong with me. Then leave. I could feel it. I bit my tongue. Waited, like a gangster, on the blood.
“You look like you seen too much, two. Then your hair,” he said, “why you wear it like that? And your mouth too big. Where your teeth? They in there?” He leaned back to see.
“They right here.” My lips is big, sure, but I got teeth. I mean I had just fucked him eight times. My hair went with me.
He said, “I wanna know how you still manage pretty having all that against you?” And kissed me.
I loved him all the way, through and through. Forget that when I thought he was slipping, when I felt it in my neck, my knees, my toes he stayed.
I tested the number right off. I called Juanita the next morning. Saturday morning. Couldn’ta been 8 o’clock yet. He was still laying in bed, sleep, with tube socks on. I sat at the breakfast bar, same kinda naked. Wouldn’ta whispered if I could.
“Hello?” She sounded like butter, and sugar. She sounded young.
I wasn’t gonna say nothing back. I swear I wasn’t. But I think I got angry at the child in her voice. I said my own young hello.
“Is this Juanita?” I asked her.
“This is Lev wife, Juanita Beginning?”
“Yes it is.”
We was quiet long enough. She shoulda hung up.
“Ms. Juanita? Ms. Juanita, did you ever meet somebody and just know…just know you was gon need him forever after that?”
“What you mean?”
“You just know it. Right off. And it’s such a strong feeling you kind of wish you never laid eyes on him? You wish you never met him and you wish you knew him sooner all at once?”
“Who is this?”
“Lord Jesus, don’t tell me Lev sluts done got bold. Now they calling me on the telephone.”
We was quiet again.
“Miss Sorren?” Sugar.
“How old are you?”
She humpfed. “So you old enough to know better, but you don’t. That mean you stupid.”
“Could be,” I told her. I didn’t think things was gon turn so nasty so quick.
“You might think you need him,” she said, and my chest got tight. I looked backward over myself across the living room, first at Lev laid in the middle of my hall still sleep, and then at my high heel shoe by my feet, “but he don’t need you… Sorren, girl, Lev don’t need me and I pushed out four of his big head children.”
“I ain’t say nothing about him needing me. And I ain’t say nothing about him needing you. I was asking about me and your feelings.”
“Do you know Lev is 57? Going on dead?”
We laughed some.
“Lev is 57, drink like a horse, can’t pick his knees up high enough to leap the steps and got 14 false teeth. You is something for that nigger to do before he die. And he don’t do the same thing twice, mind you. Tell him pick up my dresses out the cleaners when you send him home, hear? And go to church, won’t you? You need a kind hand laid on you.”
She was wrong. He did me three times before lunch. Then a dozen times across that week. We didn’t leave each other side for five days straight. The snow came and went and came again. Lev ain’t run his cab not once all that time and I called out work til they almost fired me. I couldn’t tell he was none of 57. His teeth stayed put and we did some things shoulda moved em. Next time I called her I pointed all that out.
“He still here.” I told her.
“I see. He ain’t brought my dry cleaning neither. And you? Yousa nasty woman. Nasty. Put that low down dirty nigger on the telephone.
"Won’t you go wash while I curse him?
She was covering up shame. I didn’t know it then, but Lev never had the same somebody on the side. There was always women, sure, but never repeats. I shoulda told her, “Don’t be shamed, Juanita. I fucked my daddy this many years,” and held up all my fingers. I shoulda told her I had a dead son I was too glad to miss. I shoulda told her how many abortions I had.
But I hardly do what I should. My momma say, You wicked! And curl her lips. I say well if I’m wicked, what the fuck are you? A woman listen at the door while her daughter get fucked by her midget ugly husband got to be a hundred steps past wicked. You must be the devil herself if that’s the case. And she clear her throat. I say something about the apple and the tree and she walk out. If I had a beer, I follow her.
But me and Juanita was at war, so I told her, “Hold on. Here he come.” Set the phone down and called Lev to it.
“Telephone baby,” I said. Neat. Like he lived there. Loud to pain Juanita.
“Who calling me here?”
But I only heard his side of things. “Here I come…I’m on my way…don’t talk like that, girl…I’m headed there now…I’ma shovel it! What cleaners they at? Ours?”
I was frying fish. There was macaroni in the oven. Inside my head I was thinking, Don’t go. And, Split my legs just three more times. Hold my wrists too tight.
He hung up and gave me the evil eye. I felt it straight through the back of my head.
“What the fuck you do that for?” He said. “You sat up there and told me you wasn’t gon call it. You lied right in my face.”
A liar’ll list your lies quick. I heard him breathing, so I turned to answer.
“My momma said tragedy bring people closer,” I told him. “I made us a little tragedy. Speed the closeness along.”
It was time to flip the fish, but he was looking at me wrong. Like we wasn’t a inch closer. Not a inch. I almost said I love you my legs was shaking from wanting to be split so bad. He didn’t see or hear or think em, though. He was wondering about his life.
“I thought wives ain’t bother you?” He said.
“I thought so too.”
But I had been in his wallet by then. I had seen Juanita face.
I went on and let the fish burn.
I must’ve called Juanita 300 more times before I laid eyes on her. She had to tell me as many to let her be. I couldn’t help myself. She changed their number twice. I found it out both times and she cut that out. I took the phone bill the one. Me and Lev made love in they house Tuesdays, when Juanita read to the dying at the Deaconess Center, when he was supposed to be working (Lev drove that cab for no reason at all, except not to be in one place too long). The other time I stood behind him at a pay phone and watched his finger.
“What you love about him, Juanita?” I asked her the once.
I was on the toilet. Lev was in my kitchen, eating shrimp. We was together six months by then.
“You left your panties here?” She said.
I did, under her bed. And my picture. In her sewing drawer.
I had to see her face. I had to let it hurt me over and over thinking it. I wanted the feeling returned.
“I can’t remember.” I told her.
“Was your panties pulled up over your behind last time you left? That can’t be too hard to recall…I saw your picture, too. What you know about the drawers I open?”
“Lev talk about you. I know you sew. I know your favorite food.”
“What is it?”
“No it ain’t either.”
“That’s lima beans. I know your birthday. I know Lev the one took your virginity.”
“A shame.” She said. “I wanted so bad to fuck Melvin Roeher.”
“Melvin bout a millionaire now. His teeth straight as boards. My boys woulda been better off was it him.”
“I want to know what you love about him, though.”
“Who? Lev? Nothing at all. And everything…keep your hands out my sewing drawer.”
We was supposed to hang up then. But I had questions still. “Why you ain’t left him yet?” That was one.
And she spun off. We was friends not three seconds back.
“You got some nerve asking me that.” She told me. “You is one crazy, nasty bitch, Sorren. I might ask you your story! I might ask you what made you what you are, but I know what you gon say: your daddy ain’t love you or he loved you too much. You was poor coming up. You depressed. You slit your wrists five ways but ain’t never hit the source. You hung yourself and the rope snapped. But I don’t care at all. Not one bit. You don’t even pique my interest.”
She had to catch her breath.
“You could just not answer the telephone,” I told her. “You could just let it ring. But you answer. Every time you do.”
And we did that thing where we get quiet and listen for underneath. But then she laughed and took the moment. And laughed and laughed and laughed. She wouldn’t quit. I had time to wipe, to flush, to pull my pants up, wash my hands. To think, how she know bout Penny? And here she was still laughing. She wouldn’t stop. I had to hang up on her, because she wouldn’t.
I ain’t call her back for four days.
When I did, she said, “Where you been?”
First time I looked Juanita in her face I was coming apart over Lev. I practiced hating him every chance I got. Mornings, wasn’t nothing I could stand about him. Not his spaced out teeth, his big square feet, not his getting there stomach, not nothing. Evenings came and I still needed him bad. Because he could take me or leave me. I told her all of that.
She told me things too. She said, “His feet is square,” and “he’ll eat your fish, but he don’t like picking out the bones. Watch him when he eat it. Study his face.” But nothing that showed her tender parts and I was mad with her about that. I felt like, here we are, here in this place, doing this thing here, knowing each other how we do, for over a year now, and don’t we owe each other some softness? I asked her that. She said you. You owe. Me? I’m debt free.
We was sharing a cigarette in the corner booth at Gigi’s.
You got children? was the first thing she asked me, right after she told me that picture in her sewing drawer was a “lie, lie, lie.” She walked right up on me, like a thief. I was sitting, waiting on my food, drinking rum til it came.
I guess I expected something meaner. Here go Lev slut. Or whores eat too? I thought they laid on they backs all day? She coulda talked about my hair. It had to look like smoke or shit or mold, a web of something. It know it ain’t look no part of good. Hers looked like black water pitched down her back, a fresh perm. I ain’t have on not a brush of make-up and my polish was chipped. She had a manicure. A suit jacket. I was wearing my work uniform. Was more hamburger grease than blue.
She coulda jumped on any of that. She was put together so good. But here she wanted to know about Jude. Did I have any children acting like that? When I thought about it, she had been getting sweeter with me. Wasn’t no piss her in voice when I called her no more. She hardly called me names, except to play. But never mind the question. I was too happy to see her. To put my eyes on that face. I couldn’t answer.
“Sit down,” I told her. “I feel like I been waiting my whole life for this day.”
“Well, do you? You got children acting like this?”
Her own teeth was straight as boards. She took that risk making babies with Lev. She coulda been married to Melvin Roeher right then with better off kids. She coulda not known me. Coulda used that skin—it was a bright brown and tough and oily and good—to keep a man could actually be kept.
I said, “To be old as you is…”
And her face turned cold. “Now I ain’t hardly old, bitch. Don’t get smart. I won’t be fifty for a few years still.”
“You pretty as the day.” I told her.
She reached for the cigarette.
I had a son. And I never loved him. He was my father child and grandchild both, but I maybe wouldn’t have loved him if he wasn’t none of that. In the first place, his hair was knotty.
“My son named Jude.” I told her.
“Where he at?” She said.
“Dead.” He was.
“Be serious, girl. You ain’t but thirty-six. How you got a son dead already?”
“Thirty-seven now. Sons die before they first breaths sometimes. Still stuffed in the womb.”
“That’s the sad truth. How did he?”
“Car hit him.”
“And you still breathing?”
“What you mean?”
“I mean, one of my sons die, I’m dying too.”
“Naw, you won’t. Part of you will, sure. But some of you gon stay.”
I didn’t tell her I didn’t love Jude and all of me stayed, whatever I was left with after surviving my young life, because it would’ve broke her heart. Lev told me twenty million times Juanita stayed with him for they boys. Grown as they was. He could count on her for that. Children was serious business to Juanita and I wasn’t gonna break her heart that way.
“Happy Birthday,” she said.
“Lev on his way here,” I told her.
I was sitting there waiting on Lev and forgot. She walked in so pretty, old as she was. Skin tough. Some black water pitched all down her back. Hips wide as all outdoors. She walked in so pretty and sweaty with them look through you eyes I forgot about her husband.
“Lev coming here?” She said. Like I was lying. “Is he now? I couldn’t get that nigger to eat Gigi’s if I begged. Y’all do this all the time? Eat at old-hole-in-the-wall Gigi’s?”
“I love they pork chops and gravy. I’ll leave if you want.”
I couldn’t stand to look in her face for the answer. I lit a new cigarette and prayed. “No ma’am, I don’t either. It’s time for this here. I want my heart broke in person. I need a drink, though.”
Bunny brought my food but my appetite was gone. I asked Juanita what did she want. She said rum and coke. I wanted to point out us loving the same man, drinking the same drink, but I didn’t. I thought, don’t push it, Sorren. Fore she pack up and leave.
“I’m sorry about your son,” she told me.
I believed her, but I didn’t say nothing back. I was waiting on her to say, No wonder! Or, That explain things! But she didn’t. She swallowed her rum in a toss. Bit down hard on her teeth. I thought Lord Jesus. Here we go. I knew she wasn’t no drinking thing.
“Where you come from?” She asked me.
I stared at her. First because she wondered. Before that she got right high off not asking me nothing. And here, all in a space of what? five, ten minutes she already asked me two somethings. She didn’t want to know where I was from really. She wanted to know what sort of woman did the things I did.
“What make you so special?” I asked her. I wasn’t mad with her. I knew she deserved to know. I was just interested. I said the question not how you usually say it. Not, well what make you so special you hoity toity bitch? I just wanted to know what kind of woman thought like that. Where she come from? “What make you think a man got to be faithful to you? In this world here? You got the color red between your knees just like me and every other woman on the planet. You bleed like clockwork the same as all us, or you did…”
“I still do. And you might knock off the old lady jokes. They tired now.”
“Your husband got the same amount of truth come with every other nigga—none. Why you think you can’t bear none of that?” My words was heavy maybe, but I talked em easy.
“I act like I think that?” She looked around to make her wonder better. To show how stupid my question was. “I act like that? Setting up here with Lev mistress? Taking Lev mistress calls? Reaching out in the middle of the night to feel for Lev and…give me another cigarette. Tell Bunny come on here with another drink too. You talking too damn stupid now.”
That’s the little bit of feeling I got out of her, before Lev walked in. I think maybe that’s why I accused her of acting better. I wanted to know was she alive in there.
Lev was at the front door, letting the light in. Gigi’s is dark and smoky, no matter the hour. It wasn’t three o’clock, but it felt like eight. That was my first time knowing him I ain’t exactly want to see him.
He caught a look at me, from there in the light, and smiled. I lifted my chin for hello. He didn’t see Juanita because her side of the booth had a shadow cut across it. Plus he was wrapped up in me. I knew him so well. In and out. Back and forth. He was wondering about the nod. Where your smile at? I know you happy to see me. He was gon say something like that.
He walked up on us quick.
“What’s the matter with you?”
He wasn’t a yardstick off his wife and ain’t know it. If I coulda tucked my head in my shirt I woulda.
“Hey there, Mr. Beginning.” Juanita said.
He ain’t move a bit. He kept looking at me, like I hurt him. I can’t say the beads of sweat grew in that instant, but I swore they wasn’t there before Juanita spoke. He looked like a child. He was scared as a child.
“Have a seat.” Juanita scooted over. Patted the space beside her. “Unless you wanna set over there with your Sorren?”
I thought how cold my food probably was. And how cold the room was. I handed Juanita my cigarette. She was through with hers. I started scooping rice in my mouth, by the heap. It still had some heat to it.
“Look now, Juanita…” Lev put his hand up in a pleading way and started shaking his knotty head. He was waiting on somebody to interrupt him, but Juanita went on smoking, and I kept eating. I ain’t wanna come to his rescue at all. And Juanita wasn’t the type.
“Look now, Juanita, what?” She said when the silence got silly. “I said have a seat. We gon set here and talk this thing out, Levine.”
“Levine?” I talked straight through my rice. I ain’t know his name was no Levine.
He sat down.
“There’s plenty a things you don’t know, Miss Sorren.” She pulled on the cigarette (she hold her smoke a beat too long for me). “You don’t know he got a now and then problem with his hands, I bet?” Proud.
She hooked her pointer finger in her old lady mouth, like to bait her self. She tugged at her cheek and showed me a gap between two of her back (straight as boards) teeth.
“It used to be a good looking tooth there.”
It take something to stun me, Jesus. I was 16 holding Penny dick in my hand. Wasn’t the gap, though. I imagined Lev fist upside her head. Wasn’t that either. Was her tone.
“What happened?” I asked her. But I wasn’t worried for her one bit. I was sick of her.
“What you think?”
Juanita was all of a sudden tricky. Besides pretending tender, her back was straighter, for example. I looked at Lev to ask him something, with my eyes—something like why he ain’t ever find it necessary…why wasn’t it important…why it ain’t never occur to him to hit me? But I couldn’t read him. I wondered how deep inside him did I get? Why it was he could take me or leave me. I thought how good some brandy, a top shelf gin would be.
“Don’t do this here, Juanita.” He told her.
She said, “Where to do it then, baby? When I’ma ever catch the love of my life and the love of his life together in the same room? When I’ma have the chance to tell her you beat me up should I say Melvin name?” Lev head cut left and he looked at Juanita like to kill her. I caught a grain of rice with my tongue. And worked not to cry. She calling me the love of his life? “Bout all the venereal diseases you gave me and how bad you hollered when your granddaddy died, and your stroke a few summers back?
“When I’ma tell her you couldn’t wipe down the crack of your own ass, Levine? And you looked like pancake batter all down this side here?” She moved the hand holding the cigarette all along his cheek, then turned to me. “Like to gossip. He slobbed so much I quit cleaning up after him, Miss Sorren. I let the spit gather where it would.” She faked giving up. “And I kissed his slobbing mouth still.”
It hurt my feelings not to know him when he was like that. And it hurt my feelings not to know his real name.
“Then he took a shit…” She wasn’t never gon shut up. “And I took this very hand here, the one with my wedding ring on it, and I wiped his big, black, man ass. And you know what man shit is like, don’t you? Oh, it’s powerful! You can’t really stand it, but somehow you do. Still, I took this pretty little hand here, with my pretty little ring on it, and wiped his high yella behind two, sometimes three times a day (Lev shit a lot) for a month, til it was cleared of all its stink. Ain’t that right, Levine?”
She signaled Bunny and put the cigarette out. We waited on Bunny quiet, but we was different people now. Juanita was a fake tender and a fake proud. And I was undoing my lust for her, quick as I could. Lev was on his way on up to angry, holding his feeling inside a hard shut mouth.
Juanita said, “That Bunny is a mess.” And I hated her a little more. “She musta been a waitress up here since it opened. I can’t think of no other reason they ain’t fired her.” She was the only one had a mouth loose enough to talk with. “The men call her Big Butt Bunny, cause her butt so fucking big, but the women call her ornery, you know that, right? I don’t like her none, because she spiteful…and slow as shit. Then want you to tip her good! She taking all her time getting to us, huh?”
My answer was to eat the rest of the rice I ain’t ever get the taste for. And the porkchop, if I had to. Lev was getting back steady. Reading his hands. I wondered should I get brandy this round, or go head and stick with rum? From the back of my head, I heard my momma say stick with the rum.
Juanita ordered, so rum it was.
She ordered three shots and a breakfast platter to go. She ordered holding her head at a “I’m better than this shit, fuck this shit” angle. And I wondered was Lev gonna ever fuck me again, after this.
“You was in that rehab a year, Levine.” She was still better than us, but whispering now.
“I know that.” Lev told her.
“You was in that rehab a year and I knew you ain’t want them nurses washing you or wiping your shit, so I did that. Twelve and a half months I lived in that rehab with you. On a cot.
“When your brother drunk driving ass killed that whole fucking family out Tonawanda and walked off giggling, I went into my savings—the money my daddy give to me—and paid for his defense.”
She reached for the cigarettes. She went in the pack and dug her one out. Put it between her lips, at an angle, like a nigga would. She lit it, and I guess maybe tried to gather all the smoke ever was? She breathed in too big. I tried catching her eyes, but they was gone.
She said, “I breastfed all your babies, motherfucker.” With a mouth full of smoke. She said, “Here my titties swing to my knees if they ain’t tucked and buckled in this bra.” Still holding the smoke in.
Only cause her lungs had to kick did she blow it out. She blew out everything she was keeping—all the smoke and all her sorry feelings. She ain’t cough or nothing.
But come motherfucker I knew. Juanita was sitting there giving a farewell speech, for trifling whore me. She was saying shit Lev knew good as her. He ain’t need reminding. He knew her titties swing. You could bet the house on her Juanita was shaming me. I thought we was coming up on softness, but she was tricky.
Maybe she kept telling things shouldn’t be told. I don’t know. I ignored them past that. Sitting there with Lev and his wife itching to make a point wasn’t nothing too tough. When Jude was born, say, I ain’t hold him for two hours. I left him swaddled in that see-through crib, set far as I could manage away from me. Right after I pushed him out, they offered him up. I said clean him off. When they cleaned him off I said wrap him up. When they wrapped him up I said set him down. And I never, the whole time, was moved to feel. After a while a black nurse come over to me and told me, in my ear, “Now you gon have to hold this baby, girl, or these white people gon call the county on you.” I told her, “But I can’t.” She covered for me another hour at least. Kissed my hand. Rubbed my hair, when it looked like shit or a web of something. When I did pick him up I might as well have been holding my daddy’s dick. Now that’s shame. And ain’t a thing worse. Juanita trying to compete with your daddy’s grandbaby/baby getting his short bones crushed under a car and you kinda mouthing hallelujah cause you never loved him in the first fucking place. Tell me one thing worse than eating your own daddy private parts and your momma won’t inconvenience herself to know it? Not a wife hollering bout wiping her husband shit.
In between my daydreams Juanita saying, “Nigger, I cut your toenails when they just like wood,” and I want to slap her whole tough and oily and good-looking face. For having a hurt so small and so neat. I want to kill her. For being so deep down hurt over something so close to nothing—a old fat husband don’t come home now and then? So what? I can’t be made to bleed for her now. Not acting like this. I don’t want to be here with them in this silly little space. I don’t want to call Juanita on no telephone not never again. I want my panties and my picture back. I ain’t interested in her one bit. Next time I get pregnant by Lev, if he fuck me again, I’ma keep it. I ain’t too old. And I ain’t gon work at falling out of love with him no more, either. If he’ll have me, I’ma want him in a way worse than before. Even if he won’t, matter of fact.
“He recovered, though…” Juanita was saying. “Recovered too good. The doctors still ask him to come up there for interviews and such. They recorded him on video a few times. On the video he told them he felt just like he felt before. No different. He the same Lev. Still fuck like a rabbit. Drink like a young boy. The doctors said that drinking is what fucked him up in the first place, but still he is a miracle. Ain’t that right, Levine? You a miracle?”
She was back talking about his stroke, with a straight back still, but so weak-seeming. Lev was interested in the miracle talk. He looked over at her. Me? I could feel the blood running backward out my hands. Filling my old heart like a cup.
“You a miracle, and I’m a pair of mismatched discount shoes,” Juanita was saying. “You God’s gift, and I’m the opposite. I’m the motherfucking other woman. Go figure.”
She got her another cigarette and Lev turned back to his hands, let down some. I didn’t know what all she was talking about.
“I’m the other,” I told her. Because I was. And because I ain’t like her calling herself that. She was brave enough to be the wife, sure.
“No you ain’t neither,” she told me. “He with you five days out a week. I maybe get two…if you sick of him. The other woman get two, not the wife. That’s how it’s supposed to go. It’s supposed to be me he come up to Gigi’s with.”
I didn’t say nothing else, because I was measuring Lev, and because I officially ain’t know Juanita. I let husband and wife look backward at they whole fucked up marriage, if that’s what they wanted. I had a little bit of drink left. I sipped that some.
Seemed to me, up under Juanita’s faking tender speech was a whole lot of please stop this. And Lev’s whole wide body was saying go on home.
Then Bunny was there. Don’t know the definition of time, but all of a sudden somewhere when she ought to be. Holding a breakfast platter to go and three shots of rum on a cracked up, wobbling tray. I thought a second, a quick second, about tipping her. I thought longer bout reefer. And Me and Lev still pulling that kiddie bed in the hall to fuck.
“Let me up from here, Levine.” Juanita said, and pushed Lev. He got up out the seat, maybe a little too quick, because she studied him.
His head wasn’t low really. There wasn’t no beads of sweat or nothing. He looked strong to me.
Juanita grabbed her platter and headed for the door. I watched her hips how you might watch a good sky. Could just almost keep the smile tucked, but ain’t exactly manage. Something was tugging me. Wasn’t the rum; that feeling was fading. And it wasn’t the cigarettes neither. It wasn’t Penny, who pull at you whenever things is too good or too bad or too still or still new. Wasn’t a no count God. Of course it wasn’t Jude. Poor Jude. Wasn’t my conscience, no. It was love, I guess. Some strength in Lev stance, a quick jump out his seat, the not really telling, but telling his wife go…it was his never needing to knock a tooth out my head.
She bout cleared the Welcome to Gigi’s sign before she glanced back. She turned her head and studied me now. To see did I at least get the lesson. But it missed me, Juanita. It missed me long.
I let her watch if she wanted. I took all them three shots of rum. Drew on the cigarette one last (quick) time. Went on over to Levine. And stood up against him. I smelled him, figured out he was clean despite all them feelings he just fought. I felt the good heat between us. Then got up on my tip tip tip tippy toes. I kissed him on his high yellow shining head.
I told him, “Tip Bunny good, won’t you?” And dug in his pockets for the keys.
I passed Juanita on my way to the door. Was polite, of course. I told her, “Cuse me.” Ain’t hardly hear her grunt.
In the cab, I cut the radio on. It only get three stations—oldies, sports, and country music. I ain’t want to hear nothing old and was only hockey on. So I let some ailing white man do his best to prove it hurt.
I was just almost sleep off his aching when my stomach knotted up. Like it do when my period coming. I gritted my teeth to make it better. To wait on the pain to pass. To wait on sweet Levine. To wait, like a gangster, on the blood.
Getting Robbed Six Ways from Sunday
This was the fourth bank robbery in 13 months in which Michael had been involved. No, he wasn't a bank teller. Not a bank robber. Not a guard or law enforcement officer. Just a regular guy who didn’t even go to the bank that much more than you or I. But here he was again, face down on cool marble, holding his breath, hoping everyone did what they were told. From his experience in bank robberies, he knew that, indeed, if everyone just stayed calm and did what they were told, they'd all get out of this fine.
The first robbery transpired one day after his wife Alice revealed her affair with another man, the kind of man older women leave older men for. That is to say, young, muscular, square-jawed. Apparently, they had been having an affair for six months. People say that the cuckolded usually know but don’t want to admit it to themselves. Michael, 52, had no clue. He thought they were in love. Childless, but in love, approaching the decade before retirement. He did acknowledge that his then-wife was taking a bit better care of herself—tanning, getting her hair done more often, getting age-defying facials, buying more expensive clothes. He was flattered his just-turned-50 wife was doing this for him, until he realized she wasn’t doing this for him. The recipient of this new, improved Alice was Hanson, 25 years old, unemployed, but still somehow rolling-in-money boy (he insisted on calling Hanson a boy, because that’s exactly what he was).
After being robbed of his wife, of the love of his life, of the woman he thought he would spend the rest of his life with, he was getting robbed of 42 dollars and an ATM card he couldn’t remember the PIN for. The first time—when he lost his bank robbery virginity, you could say—he could barely breathe. Sure, those guns could have been plastic, and he was pretty sure he saw a brush mark of black paint over bright red on the one gun’s handle (indicating that the “perps”—this is what the police would call them later when he was being interviewed—were actually carrying toys), but he wasn’t going to take any chances. After all, if only one of the guns was real and if only there was one bullet in that one real gun and if Michael stood up to be a hero, that one real bullet in the one real gun would kill him just the same as if all the perps had guns with loads of bullets in them.
Hanson probably would have done something more than just hug the floor and don’t think that thought didn’t get thought by Michael. Hanson probably would have jumped up all action-hero-like and pummeled all the robbers, tied them up, and saved the day. Michael had to admit to himself that he would have liked to see that action sequence. Even if it turned him into an unnamed extra.
Of course, that action sequence was not to happen. The robbers came in, made everyone get on the floor, threatened some (although their ski masks made it really difficult to hear the muffled threats), pointed their real/fake guns indiscriminately, took the money from the tellers, and were gone. Michael was sure he could hear the thump-thump-thump of his heart against his rib cage. After the robbers left, all the people on the floor remained there for two or three minutes. After all, face-down on the floor, they couldn’t see well enough whether the bank robbers had actually left. One man eventually pushed up slightly and tentatively to look around (not Michael, lest you think he somehow gained an enormous amount of bravery), and he was followed by others until, eventually, everyone milled around the bank lobby, not sure what the they should do next. Five minutes later, the police came and began the interviews. Michael didn’t get home for another five hours after that.
The second robbery took place the day he witnessed Hanson moving his belongings into the house Michael had just moved out of a week prior. For the record, he had been sitting in his car a half a block away every day since he moved out. From a taxi, Hanson carried in several pieces of luggage filled with what Michael assumed was a combination of hair and skin products and designer clothes that Michael suspected he had unwittingly paid for. He drove away, furious, but remembering that he had an errand to run. Scared by the experience at his previous bank, Michael had moved all his money to another bank one town over (which resulted in his ex-wife accusing him of trying to hide his assets). In retrospect, this was silly. Of course the bank robbers wouldn’t return to the same bank. They’d pick another, probably one town over. So, there was Michael, spread-eagle on the floor, experiencing his second robbery.
This robber, dressed all in black, wore a Nixon mask. Michael, experiencing his second robbery and not even certain this guy had a gun, rolled his eyes at the choice of the long-noised mask. Really? he thought to himself. At this point, he was just pissed off, having seen his wife welcome her new boy-toy into the house he had paid for working long hours for a paper manufacturing company he hated. Come to think of it, he was in the bank to get a check to pay for the mortgage on the house that his ex-wife’s new boy toy just moved into. “Son of a bitch,” Michael inadvertently said to himself. This was not a good move.
The robber, a few feet away, heard him and lunged in his direction, getting on his hands and knees and sticking his pointy rubber Nixon nose into Michael’s left cheek. “What did you say, motherfucker?” he growled. “Nothing,” Michael squeaked. The robber got up and said, “I didn’t think so,” and went about his business scaring the blue-haired bank teller into putting all the money in his bright orange backpack.
It should be noted that, during their interaction, the robber was so close to Michael’s face that he could smell his breath, which stank of coffee and bacon. This fact, along with the bright orange backpack, was vital in apprehending the robber; he had had breakfast just next door in a diner famous for its coffee. As a result, Michael testified at the trial of the robber, who was convicted mostly due to Michael’s testimony.
If you can believe it, Michael’s third robbery experience occurred on his drive home from testifying at the trial of the second robber. He went back to the original bank, convinced that it would not be robbed twice within six months. He was wrong. This third experience was wholly unremarkable. The robber was in and out, didn’t make a lot of threats, and was very nonchalant about the whole thing. As soon as he left, Michael got up and announced to everyone, “It’s over. Get on with your lives.” He then left the bank, immediately making him a suspect, especially when taken into consideration with his being at the scene of two other bank robberies. After interviewing him for six hours the next day, the police came to the conclusion that Michael just had spectacularly bad luck.
But, “getting on with life” is easier said than done outside the context of a bank robbery; Michael continued to sit outside his old house observing Alice and Hanson build their new life right over the grave of Michael’s old one. He witnessed several parties—some just dinner parties with a few guests, other party-parties with many guests—and Michael and Alice’s joint friends (most of whom Michael hadn’t heard from after leaving the house) always attended. Michel easily picked them out from the other guests, presumably Hanson’s, young and loud, who often arrived drunk and left even drunker. Alice and Hanson had loud raucous sex after all of these soirees. Yes, Michael often got out of his car and hid in various parts of the yard to observe different rooms of the house.
After a few months of this behavior, he finally confessed it to his newly acquired therapist, a young woman with hair so red it was almost purple. She told him state law required she tell the authorities if any of her clients were a danger to others. This was the wake-up call Michael needed; the police didn’t need to be involved. Right before the one-year anniversary of the end of their relationship, Michael stopped sitting outside his old house and decided to move on.
On the one-year anniversary, though, he received a call from Alice, in tears, asking him to meet with her. Unable to say “no” to the woman he had loved for so long, he agreed to meet with her at the Coffee Bean in town. He fretted over what to wear, what his hair looked like, how he smelled, all while telling himself he had moved on and it was all behind him. But he hadn’t, and it wasn’t. As soon as he walked into the Coffee Bean and saw her sipping a steaming cappuccino from a large white cup, it all came back. When he sat down, it all came back even faster as she went through an obviously prepared speech about the mistake she had made and how she wanted him back. It turns out that being 25 meant that Hanson was a voracious lover, but also a voracious womanizer. He had met another married woman eager to divorce her middle-aged husband and move Hanson into their home. He was moving out of the house as they spoke and sipped their coffee.
“Will you come back?” she asked, not quite looking him in the eye.
Despite several voices in his head—including the purple-haired therapist—telling him to take his time to decide, he said, “Yes, Alice. Yes.”
And, so, two weeks later, Michael moved out of his apartment and back into the house he had shared for so long (minus one year) with Alice. On his last car trip from the house, he decided to stop in the bank. So, here we are, his fourth bank robbery, face down on the ground holding his breath hoping that everyone did what they were supposed to do. He knew that if everyone just stayed calm, they'd all get out of this fine. But, our actions aren’t always defined by what we know. Sometimes, they are defined by what we feel, what we hope, what we want to be. And, on the day that he moved back into his house after a year-long furlough, Michael was thinking about how to avoid having another, longer furlough from the life he had spent so many years building. While he wasn’t the one who cheated, he knew that he had made mistakes, that he had let the marriage go stale, that he hadn’t continued to be the man she needed. Hanson turned out to be a jerk, but Michael could not deny that there was something about him that had been attractive to Alice.
Michael thought back to the first bank robbery and to how he had imagined Hanson saving the day. For good or bad, Hanson got what he wanted. A man of action. It was then, surprising even himself, that Michael sprung into action. He didn’t do as the bank robber had said. It was a blur that the witnesses in the bank were troubled to fully describe—a cross between a lunge, a trip, and somersault. But, it was clear that Michael tried to tackle or otherwise subdue the robber. Unfortunately—and Michael didn’t really think this out—Hanson could have been a man of action at age 25, having spent the majority of his waking hours at the gym or in some other activity (sex). Michael, for what it’s worth, was healthy enough, but moving the boxes out of his apartment had tired his 53-year-old body, which wouldn’t have been a sufficient vessel for a man of action without having moved several large boxes. He made it three steps before the robber noticed, panicked, and shot his very real, very loaded gun.
Michael made it all the way to the hospital, but died shortly after arriving. Don’t feel too sad about it, though, because it’s not like things were really going to get better for Michael. The day before, Alice had met another muscular, square-jawed man. This one, though, was 30. Apparently, Alice had learned her lesson about 25 year olds.
The Luckiest Girl in Africa
I almost died in Africa. When I was pulled from the car, I felt my shoulder stretch then pop. I was seventeen and being an American I did not think that I was going to be killed on the side of the road. Instead, I was thinking that I would never swim again. That year I had trained seven days a week, as many as four hours a day, with one of the top youth teams in the country. My teammates were already planning for the Olympic trials. Because I was a mzungu, a foreigner, I could not really claim the spot in the national standing that my times should have granted me. On bad days, when the water was colder than usual and my times sluggish, I imagined giving up swimming. Just pulling out of the pool, toweling off, and never looking back. But I had been a swimmer too long to know what I would do next.
The shoulder is a complex, surprisingly delicate joint. Every swimmer has seen the diagram of the shoulder bones –a ball and socket joint, the scapula, clavicle, and humerus–knit together rather precariously. The muscular, bulky strength of the shoulders is misleading. Really, it is the webbing of ligaments that holds the ball joint under the blade. In my shoulder, the ligaments that not been stretched were torn apart. There were two fractures that would have to heal on their own and that was just in my shoulder.
Weeks later, as the doctors weaned me from the old-school morphine drip, pain radiated down to my fingertips and up from the base of my spine. I did not even know at first that part of the pain in my right hand was because of two broken fingers. The doctors claimed it was a miracle that neither my elbow nor wrist seemed damaged beyond the bruises. I couldn’t even cry, because I had three broken ribs and the deep, shuddering breathing crying required hurt too much. There was a deep cut on my hip that required twelve stitches, fewer stitches than it took to close my shoulder up after the operation. I lost my bottom left incisor tooth. And I was lucky. I didn’t get any infections. It could have been much worse.
Vikram Lall, who used his press pass and a red thousand shilling note to bribe and bully his way into my room when my parents were in a meeting with the doctors, photographed all of this. I think I remember him, but all of my opiate-tinted memories from those weeks have a hazy, underwater quality. Vikram, like a diligent doctor, tracked between the information on the chart and the patient in the bed. After he finished his second roll of film, Vikram copied down everything in my chart and drew a silhouette of me in his little reporter notebook, crosshatching my wounds. It was only when he was back home, in the bathroom he had converted to a darkroom watching the images surface in the chemical bath, did he realize that it was not some tragic news story. The girl lying in the bed, me, was the kid sister of his best friend. When Virkam visited my brother, he teased me with the affection of an older cousin. He had pinched my nose and pulled on my braids and now my nose was broken and the doctors had shaved my head so they could clean and bandage the back of my head where I had hit the ground. They picked out bits of gravel, the Nairobi road, from my scalp. I had a concussion, nothing worse. A growth spurt the previous summer made me an inch taller than Vikram but the fresh bandages blocked out bits of me like the censor’s thick lines over a text, leaving the rest of me incomplete, disjointed, and small in the hospital bed. It had been his job to report Jacaranda’s progress for the sports section, but he had followed my progress too, even if it wasn’t newsworthy. When he pinned up the dripping photographs he saw my clean, unharmed bare feet sticking out below the sheet. For the first time since he had been exiled to the sports section, Vikram missed the deadline for turning in an article.
It was Mr. Okotho who visited Vikram. I heard you took some pictures.
Who let you in?
Your mother, Mr. Okotho said. He gave Vikram a business card with the university seal on it. His official title was Associate Expeditor and Cultural Liason. She’s very worried for you.
Vikram would have fought if it was something his father had been a part of but he could never fight his mother. He knew she was standing at the foot of the stairs straining to hear the conversation. They aren’t very good.
Still, I’d like to see them.
When Vikram gave Mr. Okotho the first picture, he flinched before placing it face down on the table in front of him. The rest he looked at without reaction.
Mr. Okotho looked at the blank back of last photo for a long moment before saying, I think they have suffered enough.
People should know what happened, Vikram said.
And what happened? Mr. Okotho turned over the last picture.
Vikram had told Alex that he had a lead, but he was not going to tell this to Mr. Okotho. I am trying to find that out.
A young girl was hurt very badly, Mr. Okotho said, turning over at random one of the pictures of me. Vikram looked away from the picture. It was terrible.
Who did it? Vikram asked.
How will we ever know? Even she said it was too dark to see anything.
Vikram had more protests. He knew it was the journalist’s job to find the truth. To uncover what had happened. He wanted to be the one who found out what really happened and explain it to my family. But mostly he thought my story was the lead to the bigger story. To Jaki’s story. For a long time, I thought so too.
Did you ask the family for permission? When Vikram could not meet his eyes, Mr. Okotho said, I wouldn’t want my daughter to be seen like this…by the whole country.
Mr. Okotho had four sons. No daughters. He knew that Alex and Vikram sat across from each other every day at work, because he had been the one to help my brother get the job at the newspaper. He could remind Vikram that, I was the one who met them at the airport their first time. We are lucky, the girl is alive. Let us focus on helping her get better.
Vikram did not stop Mr. Okotho from picking up all the pictures and putting them into a file. You’re doing the right thing, Mr. Okotho said. Vikram heard him repeat this to his mother at the foot of the stairs. Your son is doing the right thing. The next day, Vikram missed the deadline for an article about me. Instead the papers reprinted an old yearbook photo of me and another reporter wrote three paragraphs that made it sound like just another carjacking of an mzungu –a foolish foreign child, who should have known better. Vikram never visited me in the hospital again.
After three weeks in the hospital, the doctors sent me sent home to continue convalescing. I had never heard the word convalesce before. It was a vintage word, belonging to women with mysterious conditions with doomed love stories in old movies. Mom was suddenly using language like prognosis and treatment plan that she had learned as an American-trained nurse but I had never heard from her before. I felt tired just thinking about physical therapy and rehabilitative care. I liked convalescence for the promise of being left alone with my own thoughts. When the pain in my shoulder was at its worst, I would imagine what would be different if I never swam again.
As soon as the pain medication started working, I would fall asleep again. Sometimes, I heard the voices of visitors–kids from school, friends of my parents, and, once, officials from the American embassy–but they seemed to come from far away. Like listening to the radio playing in someone else’s car, rising loudly than fading away. Jaki came every day. At first, I kept my eyes closed hoping she would leave quickly. When I peeked through my lashes, she would still be there, reading school work quietly for hours. It was more than I had ever seen her study.
Finally, I whispered, “At least you’ll get good marks this semester.”
“You’re awake!” She sounded so happy.
I wanted to be as happy to see her.
“How are you feeling?”
I would have shrugged, but I knew that would restart the pain in my shoulder and that my next dose of painkillers wasn’t until after dinner. “Sawa tu.”
It was easier to lie in a language that I didn’t really speak.
“Aren’t you supposed to be at practice?” I asked her.
“I was there in the morning,” she said. “I’ll be there on the weekend.”
“Coach isn’t going to be mad?” I asked.
“I don’t want to talk about practice,” Jaki said.
I wondered if maybe this was part of a dream, something that I was misunderstanding the way I sometimes got the questions the nurses asked wrong or how I couldn’t stretch my fingers flat anymore. Since the day we both joined YMCA team, it seemed that Jaki only ever wanted to talk about swimming. She never missed practice, as if attendance would someday guarantee her right to swim in the Olympics. Without swimming to talk about, I had to remember what friends talked about.
“I miss you,” Jacaranda said.
To Jaki, I should have said something like, I miss you too.
At the very least, I could have said that I missed swim practices or that I would return to the pool soon. This was the longest I had been out of the pool and though I missed practice and Jaki, it was also blandly peaceful at home, like the mashed potatoes and yogurt smoothies I was sucking from spoons because my jaw was still too tender to chew.
“Can you do me a favor?”
“Anything,” Jaki said, relieved and ready to be useful.
“Get me a mirror.”
Her hesitation was its own kind of reflection.
“There’s one in the guest bathroom.”
She suspected that bringing a mirror was as much against the rules as leaving me alone. It was like we were little girls again, having a slumber party. Our silent anticipation could have been part of a game of Truth or Dare. Jaki had always picked Truth. I preferred Dare. Anyway, I already knew the truth from how people looked at me and then looked away. Even Jaki had done it when she came in, her eyes darting away from me as her body sat on the edge of my bed as if at a slumber party.
“I’m not going to die while you’re gone,” I said because I knew this is what my mother feared. That I would die when she blinked. Jaki hesitated again, until I said, “I never ask you for anything.”
Nairobi Hospital was not the sort of medical facility that paid much attention to cosmetological details. Perhaps because it was built in an era when mirrors were still a luxury item in Africa. Or maybe there was a traditional tribal wisdom that did not allow patients to dwell on their external reflection. I had never been the type of teenage girl who spent hours in front of the mirror, applying lip gloss, trying out hairstyles, or modeling outfits from improbable combinations of clothes I already owned. It was because I was a swimmer and measured my body by its performance–race times and the length of my starting dive. However, there were full length mirrors in every changing room where I stood to check my swimsuit was not riding up and tuck all my hair into a swim cap. So I knew exactly what I looked like. And I had always known that in our friendship, Jacaranda was the pretty one.
“Are you sure?” Jaki set the mirror, face down, in my lap. Even worried she looked pretty, the lines in her forehead engaging and expressive. “It’s kind of soon. You could wait a week.”
“What’s the longest you’ve gone without looking in a mirror?”
Jaki, like me, was not given to primping. However, even she knew there was a difference between vain self-inspection and being withheld from one’s own face. For the record, I was not ugly. But at the time, I only measured myself to Jaki and knew I came up short. She was beautiful. The day we met, because I am inherently suspicious of pretty people, I almost didn’t talk to her. Jaki didn’t remember it that way. She remembered wanting to be my friend because we looked so much alike. Like sisters, Jacaranda had, even before I knew her name, and so many times since. She had not said it once since the accident.
“You look better,” Jaki said, resisting as I pulled the mirror from her.
I flinched when I saw myself. “This is better?”
Jacaranda took the mirror back. “Your hair will look darker when it grows back.”
“I don’t think my hair is the problem.”
My hair was about a centimeter long. A centimeter short. I knew they had shaved my head and I had run my left hand, my good hand, over the bandages that were just above the base of my neck. I had felt it start to grow in, prickly soft and then slick. It was the first time I had seen that new hair. It was exactly one curl deep and a startling reddish color that made me think of National Geographic photographs of tufted ducklings peering over the edge of a nest. A resemblance that was even more acute because the bruises had faded to a greenish yellow and, after weeks indoors, my skin was the lightest it had ever been.
Nowadays, I sometimes put an auburn rinse in my hair that brings out the red. I like the way it makes people look twice. The last time my brother Alex flew through town, he stared at my hair while we ate sushi at an airport restaurant. Dad’s hair was that color.
I wanted to inherit something from him, I said, meaning to be funny. It sounded sad and I touched my head self-consciously. As a teenager, I had always wished for Jacaranda’s straighter, darker hair. Sometimes, with all the scars hidden under my clothes, that reddish hair is my only proof of how far I have come from the girl who wished to be someone else.
My hair was not the problem. Not the biggest problem, anyway. A dozen times a minute my tongue pushed through the blank space of my broken tooth, but seeing it was different. When I pulled my lips back my reflection did not look like a smile.
“They’ll fix it,” Jaki said. “No one will know.”
“I’ll know,” I said, suddenly wishing Mom would come back upstairs and check on us. With other visitors she worried that they would tire me out and found excuses to get rid of them. She thought Jacaranda was a positive influence, keeping me in touch with the things that mattered to me. Instead, I could barely stand looking at her. People always said we looked alike. It was true in that vague way of two girls who are the same age, same height, and have the same general coloring of mixi-mixi kids who spend too much time in the sun. Even if she had not been prettier than me before, Jacaranda would have been prettier than me after the incident.
“You do look better,” Jaki insisted, trying to make me feel better about myself. “You looked really awful before.”
“Now I just look kind of awful.”
“I thought you were going to die,” she whispered. Everyone else thought I was too young to know they were thinking that. Jaki petted my hand and I did not tell her to stop even though each stroke sent shudders into my broken fingers. “If you died, I don’t know what I would have done.”
“You would go to the Olympics anyway,” I said.
“How can you say that?”
Of course Jaki would have grieved terribly. She might have even stopped swimming for weeks, maybe a month. But she would have returned to the pool–a better swimmer for the rest. Jaki would have kept swimming and because she is an excellent swimmer she would have made the national team and the national team would have taken her to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. This had been her plan since before I met her. It was, if you are the type that believes in destiny, what she was born to do. It was how we were different. Swimming was not part of my plan. Maybe I didn’t have a plan. I followed Jacaranda, believing in hers and glad to be part of it. It was a lucky accident that we met, both of us already strong swimmers and lonely for a friend. Now Jacaranda looked at my arm wrapped in a sling as if I had abandoned her and our plan.
“The doctors aren’t sure how long it will take for my shoulder to heal.”
“Just don’t forget how to swim while you’re lying here,” she said without knowing I had spent the morning squeezing a green rubber ball in my fist and that the effort left me more tired than the second hour of swim practice ever did.
“I may not be able to swim again.” The doctors had not told me that, but when I’d asked they said, We’ll see. You’re doing really well given everything. Let’s just see how it goes. You have youth on your side. Time will tell. Can you try raising your hand higher? I couldn’t raise my hand as high as my shoulder.
“You can learn all over again,” Jaki said. “I’ll teach you.”
I could imagine us standing in the shallow end, Jaki’s hand on my back as I bent my face into the water. Her teaching me how to hold my breath and blow bubbles out through my nose, breathing in through my mouth when I broke the surface. Jaki had the patience to be an excellent swim teacher.
“It’s not a question of learning,” I said.
“But I thought you’re getting better.”
“Better doesn’t mean the same.”
The week before I was carjacked, we had to do chin-ups as part of practice. Jaki and I had gotten into a competition, the only girls who could do more than five in a row. I had won by doing one perfect, one-handed chin up with my right hand. Now, when I reached up to untie the sling behind my neck, my left shoulder sent echoes of movement to the right shoulder. Without the sling, my right hand thudded into my lap. I closed my eyes as if pain were something I could see. When I was able to open my eyes again, Jaki was pale beneath her tan.
With my left hand, I unbuttoned the shirt I was wearing. It was my lucky shirt, the one I used to wear before every swim meet. Jaki thought it was hideous even before it had been washed thin and gray, but never said anything because she knew it belonged to my brother. The dead brother. Now it was the only shirt I could put on without rotating my right shoulder. When the buttons were open, I gestured to her, “Come here.”
I leaned forward as much as I could and with my good hand I slid it off my shoulders. Years of changing in the same locker room had stripped away any possible shyness between us. Jacaranda had seen my back more often than she had seen her own, but she had not seen it since the surgery. Carefully, she peeled up white tape and gauze that my mother had, just hours before, put on after washing the stitches with a disinfectant. It did not occur to either of us that she would ask if she could touch my shoulder. I could feel each of the black threads used for the stitches flicker like antennae under her finger.
“I’m sorry,” she said, pulling back her hand.
“No one is going to mistake us for one another again,” I said. “At least not from behind.”
“But the stitches will come out?”
“I’ll always have a scar.”
Always was a long time to think about. The doctor who had performed the surgery was the best in the country, Coach Samson made sure of that. He had called in favors and connections he had cultivated over twenty years of working in government. His wife, Wamboi Kahio, was the head matron in the maternity ward, but she was good friends with the head nurse in surgery. I had always thought she hated me, but she held my hand when they gave me the anesthesia. Before I succumbed, she told me that the doctor had been trained at Harvard and was on the President’s medical staff. Wamboi had told me that I was lucky to be alive, lucky that I had been found so quickly, lucky to be taken into Nairobi Hospital that night.
There were stories of other wazungu women not so lucky.
“Do you remember Julie Ward?” I asked Jaki.
“Does she swim with the International School?”
“She doesn’t swim for anyone. She died. When we were kids.”
Jaki looked at me a moment, not quite remembering there was a world beyond swimming. It was the only world I had now, because I doubted that I would swim again. Swim with the competitive, confidence of an athlete.
“That British girl who came to take photographs,” I said, prompting Jaki’s memory. After Julie had disappeared, her photograph ran in all the newspapers. The picture that ran most often, a close-up of her smiling taken with a professional telescopic camera tucked under her chin, made Julie Ward seem pretty, tragic. She had wide, deep-set eyes and a deeply dimpled smile. She was a wildlife photographer and she had dreamed of Africa since she was a child. She still looked like a child playing dress up in a khaki safari uniform at twenty-eight.
“She died in the game park,” Jaki said, remembering only the vague details.
“They never really found out what happened to her,” I said.
“Finding out wouldn’t have brought her back.”
“Forget it,” I said. “I’ll ask Vikram when he comes.”
“What does this have to do with us?”
“Nothing to do with us,” I said. “It has to do with me. My shoulder. My life.”
Since the accident, I had been thinking that Julie must have felt like me, driving alone in her car at night. One minute driving fast through the African night, a mythical darkness studded with stars, and the next being forced off the road into a ditch. I wondered if she had been pulled out of her car the way that I was. They only found her in bits–burned, broken bones. No one would say what had happened. It was either the government or bandits. Or government-hired bandits, or bandits in the government. The difference was not so great then. Or now. I wondered if her attackers had said anything, if they had masks. If she had wished, like I had, that she had never come to Africa.
“You’re mad at me,” Jaki said.
“I’m not mad at you,” I said. I knew it wasn’t fair to be mad at Jaki, because no one in her family discussed connections with a larger world and Jaki had learned to live the life laid out in front of her. For Jaki, everything in life could be like plunging into a pool, the water was around you and just as quickly gone when you came out and toweled off. I envied that ease of brushing off history as much as it bothered me.
It’s because you’re an American, Vikram had said to me. You and your brother are the same. Always looking for reasons beneath reasons.
You look for them too and you’re not an American.
I’m a journalist.
Are all Americans journalists?
Just all the ones who come to Africa, he said, and I’d known Vikram was making fun of me.
“You’re not listening,” Jaki said.
“Sorry.” She helped me button my shirt back up. “I’m having trouble focusing these days.”
“Will it get better?” Jaki asked, and I knew she was thinking that racing required as much concentration of the mind as it did of the body.
“The doctors say they will know more as my concussion heals.”
“I brought something to cheer you up,” Jaki said. “Everyone on the swim team is asking about you, so we made a card for you.” Jaki gave me an oversized envelope with my name written in her writing over the middle of it. My class, from the American missionary school, had spent an art period making individual cards for me. They were cheerfully propped open on my dresser, the vanity, the windowsill by my mother. It seemed like too much work to take them down, but Jacaranda had noticed them the last time she had come to visit. I had seen her pick up each one and set it down. It was not part of Kenyan culture. Nor was it the sort of thing Coach Samson would think of. So, Jaki had probably been the one who had bought the card, taken it to the pool with a pack of markers and insisted everyone sign it. “They all want to come and visit but your mum said it’s too soon.”
“Tell them I said thank you.” I took the card from her without opening it. I was not yet ready to face my teammates, with their strong shoulders, sun darkened skin, and chlorine stripped hair. It had been years since I could claim to have an encompassing desire to go the Olympics like Jacaranda did, but I loved swimming. I felt more myself in the pool than I did anywhere else. I would envy their access to the deep emptiness that came with swimming.
“You’ll get better,” Jaki said.
Unless I drowned, Jaki would never believe that I could not swim again.
“It’s okay,” I told her. “I’m just tired.”
“I’ll come back tomorrow,” she said, getting up reluctantly.
I could hear Jaki run downstairs and envied how easily she moved. I imagined her dragging her right hand down the banister, twisting on the ball at the bottom and trusting her shoulder to pivot as she took the corner a little fast. A thousand times we had followed each other down the stairs in the same way. My father had to carry me up the stairs when I got home from the hospital even though the doctor insisted there was nothing wrong with my legs.
I had to grit my tender jaw to stand up and lean against the window frame. Our gate squeaked open on its hinges and I watched how Jaki’s shoulders swayed, just slightly, naturally, with each step. An engine started and a car pulled forward to meet her. Mark. He had probably dropped her off and waited outside the gate the whole time. There was a time when he would have come in with her to greet me.
Jaki got into the car and slammed the door a little too hard.
As they drove away, Mark’s hand was pressed against the back of her head, buried in her hair. It was moments like that when I thought Jaki was the lucky one. Always prettier, always faster, always Mark loved her. She was whole, unharmed, charmed, and it wasn’t fair. I thought I was the unlucky one, broken and lost. But we never see our own luck until later.
I opened the card that Jaki had given me and noticed Mark’s signature before I looked for Jaki’s. He had just written his name. No Get Well. No Pole Sana. Just Mark Kahio. Even his father, Coach Samson, had added a sentimental sentence. Wishing you a speedy recovery. Jacaranda had written a paragraph about how I would be beating her in the 100 meter freestyle again soon but she would still hold the record for the 500 meter butterfly. She had used a purple marker and drawn a flower around her message.
The night I was attacked, Jaki had been the one to say, Let’s go out.
Because I usually thought “out” was pointless, Jaki had had to plead with me to go out with her. She and Mark were broken up again and she wanted to dance with a boy who did not know her name. I knew they would get back together again, they always did. But each time they argued, Jaki sounded like her heart was broken.
For her it was just another night out. She woke up in her bed, hung over, and dreading practice. I was already in surgery. When she found out, Jaki came to the hospital, telling the nurses we were family so they would let her into my room, and because we were the same blood type, she donated. She said it made us real sisters now, blood sisters.
It could have been me, she had said.
Now watching her in the car, driving off with Mark as if everything was the same, I realized that nothing had changed for her. She still had her perfect, straight-toothed smiled and long, thick hair. I wished that I had refused to go out with Jacaranda. As if it would let us switch places, me in the car with Mark and her alone with a broken shoulder, I wished that Jacaranda had been the one in the car they stopped. Jaki would have known that they had come to kill her.
Then, I realized that I was really wishing that my family had never moved to Africa. I probably would have never heard of Kenya. I would have never met Jaki and would have never been at Carnivore that night. I would have been in America. Safe. Whole.
John Warren Lewis
The Hog With No Head
I am four and Daddy has taken my six-year old brother Charlie and me to Goodman’s Saloon & Billiards in Crawfish Bottom. He is watching us while Momma is at her meeting. Daddy plays pool and us boys sit in a booth nearby. He is drinking bottle after bottle of beer and taking swigs from a whiskey bottle he keeps in his hip pocket. On the table before us are dirty plates with the remains of Coney Islands, half-empty bottles of pop, glasses of rusty-looking water—once ice cubes—a bowl of peanuts Daddy took from the bar, and several of his empty beer bottles. He is getting drunker and drunker. He is now more with his friends than with us. When he comes to the table to take a drink of whiskey and chase it with beer, it is as though we are not here. We are getting nervous.
Momma went to a meeting at Good Shepherd with Betty Jo, Daddy’s sister. These meetings are for people with drunks in their families. Betty Jo’s drunk is her husband Pliny, who has not had a drink for years. Momma’s is Daddy, who hasn’t, before now, had a drink for a few weeks. Sometimes, when she goes to her meetings she goes for coffee afterward. So, I think part of our nervousness is that we don’t know when she’ll be back for us. And, we wonder how she’ll find us. But then she knows Goodman’s is a place where Daddy can end up if he is not where he’s said he will be, and, Daddy has brought us here before. He promised her he would not get drunk, but I knew even as he told her that he was lying. I wonder about Momma. I wonder how she can keep on believing Daddy when I, a child, never believe a word he says anymore.
When Momma left we had been sitting in Daddy’s car on Broadway just in front of the State Capitol Building, and he had said, “Rachel, if we are not here when you get back, we’ll be someplace either using the toilet or getting something to eat. So, don’t get excited. Just wait for us. We’ll be right back.”
Momma had looked at him real hard, and said, “Will, you have not had a drink for some time now.”
He’d told her, “Rachel, don’t you worry about me. I’ll take the boys to the snackbar at Newberry’s. If we have to, we can go to the public toilet up at the Capitol Building. You just go on and meet Betty Jo at y’all’s Alanon get-together. Just take your time. We’ll be okay.“
Still worried, I could tell, she kisses us all bye, and leaves, hurrying up the crowded sidewalk.
So we sit here in a low cloud and stink of cigarette and cigar and hemp smoke, the reek of splashed old and new beer, the rotten smell of sour mash bourbon whiskey, cedar shavings covering the floor, and whatnot. You’d think the toilet, which is right near us, would smell to high heaven, but actually it does not. Liam and Judy Goodman, Jews from Brooklyn, New York, employ a man and all he does is mop and clean the toilets. The place is loud. A jukebox plays the kind of music Daddy likes, jazz, rhythm and blues, big bands, Hoochie Coochie. There’s no honky-tonk, hill-billy, here.
I look around. In this bar, since it is in Craw, or Crawfish Bottom, or the colored part of town, the people are mostly colored men, but there are a few white men. A lot of these men work on the L&N or the C&O railroads as Sleeping Car Porters or laborers or as bargemen on the river. Others work at the Post Office or at Pennington Bakery. All of these places of work are nearby. Many, like Daddy who is a trainer, either work with Thoroughbred racehorses up at Keenland Race Track or with Standardbred harness trotters or pacers over at the Red Mile in Lexington. The white and colored men sit close to each other. Some have their arms around each other’s shoulders. Every now and then a couple of men will go in the toilet together and not come out again for a time. There are round holes cut in the walls of the stalls where you can peek on your neighbor. One time I was peeing in the trough where water always sprinkles out along a pipe to keep the pee and its stink going on down the drain, and through the cracks of the stall door I saw a man put his peter through a hole and a man was sitting on the toilet in the next stall. I’ve gone into one of the stalls and the man in the next will tap on the floor with his foot. Once, the man in the stall next to me tapped, then caught my eye through the hole and said, “Excuse me, son, I thought you was somebody else.” When I came out of the stall, a man was standing there and went in right as I left, throwing the little latch on the door. I know about men like that because Daddy is a man like that, and his man-like-that is Winslow Thomas, or Red—Mr. Thomas, Daddy has told me to call him. His skin is the color of cocoa. Now, on their barstools, they sit close and whisper things to each other in between taking pool shots and drinking. Like other men around them, they are a couple. Mr. Thomas is in his Army uniform, and Daddy is sad because his friend will be going away in a few days to the new war in Korea.
Across the way behind some folding glass doors is another saloon. That one has both men and women, nearly all colored. Only a few men sit at the bar. Others, couples of men and women, sit in the booths and at tables. There are a few couples where either the man or the woman is colored and the other white. While all drink, more eat there than in the saloon where Charlie and I sit. That saloon is more a restaurant. No shavings on the floor. No loud and boisterous talking and yelling. No thick smoke and stink of sour beer and whiskey. The music is similar but played lower, softer.
This saloon where we sit only serves food off a big steam table, such as Coneys and hot dogs and hamburgers. Open-faced hamburger steaks and gravy and mashed potatoes and little wicker baskets of fried chicken or catfish and fried potatoes or baked whole yams cracked open and streaming with butter, corn on the cob, cornbread.
I should say Daddy is colored, but chooses not to be. He is generally suntanned color all over, not just his hands and face and neck. His family is from what he calls the Cumberland Plateau up near Corbin on the North Fork of the Kentucky River. Their people are Mingo Indians, black slaves, and white pioneers. Maw, Daddy’s mother, says her people have lived up there for “a thousand years.” He can claim to be a white man due to his light skin color and features and straight black hair and thin moustache. “A Clark Gable look-a-like,” Momma says.
Momma is white, and her brother and sister who have nothing to do with her anymore since she “took up with” Daddy, say, even though the three of them are orphans abandoned by their father after their mother died of influenza in 1910, that they are offspring of George Mason IV. This man’s father, George III, and Georges I and II were noblemen in Wales. George IV was a very rich Virginia slave owner and a signer of what they call “The Declaration of Independence.” When we went to Momma's brother's last, he and his wife had a framed copy of the declaration and showed Momma where our, what?, great-great-great-on-and-on cousin, or whatever he was, signed.
Momma told her brother, “Your George Mason-the-fourth and every other man in that family had children by their slave women. I am sure all those children were blacker than Will Coleman. We have colored people in our own family, so don’t talk to me about ‘marrying a colored man.’”
So, us boys are white, too. Daddy’s sister Betty Jo could be his twin. Of course, she is colored, but, not like Daddy, lives colored. She is married to Pliny, a colored man so black he has a purple hue. Their girl, my cousin Vivian, is much darker than her momma, but not as dark as her daddy. Pliny is directly from Liberia in Africa. His parents came here when he was six years old with a white man who had been a missionary in their country. He brought them here to be missionaries to Crawfish Bottom and they still run the Pentecostal Mission, set up like a Salvation Army but for colored, over on Hill and Mero Streets. Betty Jo and Pliny and Vivian, and Daddy’s Maw and most of his family, all live in Craw.
Daddy and Mr. Thomas come wavering, drunk, toward us. Daddy goes on by to talk to somebody else, but Mr. Thomas sits down in our booth, across the table from Charlie and me. I know him because Daddy brought him and another of their men friends to our apartment when we lived underneath the tombstone maker on East Main Street, just across from Frankfort Cemetery. Momma and us boys lived there, but Daddy did not. This apartment was very small, one room and a bathroom, and overlooked State Stadium and the State Office Building, the tallest building in Frankfort.
Mr. Thomas is drunk. I have only seen him drunk or drinking. When he came to our apartment that one time, Daddy and his friends and Momma stayed up to the small hours of the morning drinking and playing cards. Momma did that then. That was before she started going to her meetings with Betty Jo.
Mr. Thomas has two beers. He pours one into two glasses, then puts several quarters on the table. He pushes one of the glasses in front of Charlie and the other in front of me. He pushes a quarter by each glass and says, “I know you young fellas but I forgot your names. Tell me your names, boys, and you can have a glass of beer and a quarter.”
Charlie says his name.
Mr. Thomas pushes the beer and the money closer to him.
Charlie drinks the beer right down and puts the quarter in his pocket.
Mr. Thomas pours his glass full again, and says, “Good boy, Charlie Coleman!”
Charlie looks about half sick, but he takes the second glass and sucks the foam off it, takes a drink, and sets it down.
Mr. Thomas says, “And, what about you, young man. What is your name? Tell me your name, and I’ll give you these.” He pushes the glass of beer and the coin a little closer.
I try to say, but can’t. It keeps coming out, "Lililil huhuhbebebebit." Little Bit, what Daddy calls me.
Charlie starts to say my name is Johnnie, and Mr. Thomas puts up his hand, and says, “Wait, Charlie, don’t say his name or I’ll take my quarter back.” And says to me, "That’s not a name. What is your name, boy? Tell me your name and you'll get these." He points to the quarter and the beer on the table.
Daddy comes over to the table, slides into the booth with Mr. Thomas, who does move over, but they are sitting close, like Daddy sits by Momma. Daddy puts his arm around the shoulder of Mr. Thomas, takes a drink of whiskey, and hands the bottle to Mr. Tucker, who takes a long drink. They both chase the whiskey with beer. Daddy takes out a hemp cigar and lights it. He takes a deep draw, and gives it to Mr. Thomas. The man sucks deeply on it, holds the smoke, and then blows it out over us.
I can tell they are holding hands under the table, so they are half-trying to hide their affection for one another from Charlie and me.
Mr. Thomas says, “Will, these your boys, right?”
Daddy slurs, bobbing his head, “Yep, you got that right, Winslow, my man.”
Mr. Thomas says, “What’s that boy’s name. What’s wrong with him?”
I know he means my stutter.
Daddy says, "His name is Johnnie Coleman, and he's stuttered ever since—”And Mr. Thomas leans in as Daddy tells his version of the story of the “Hog with No Head.” Except he leaves a part out.
I’ll tell my own version.
One cold moonlit night when we first moved from the apartment on East Main where Mr. Thomas came, to the house out on Glens Creek Road where we live now, Daddy took me to the outdoor toilet. I’ll say, before we had moved out to this house Momma knew it had no running water and no bathroom. Daddy had stopped drinking again, started going to AA meetings again, and he and Momma decided they would live together again.
Momma’ll say about herself, “Sometimes I have no sense at all.”
Momma had loved that little apartment under the tombstone engraver. It was on a city bus line she could take to shop for groceries and whatnot in downtown and to work at the garment factory where she sewed hems on men’s drawers. And it, of course, had running water and a bathroom, tub and all.
The house out on Glens Creek Road is much larger, true, but it is not on a bus line and since she does not drive, she has to depend on Daddy for getting to and from town to shop and go to work. Plus, it’s heated by a coal and wood stove.
But Daddy wanted it and promised Momma this, that, and the other, and she went along with him.
I remember that night we were all sitting around the front room of the house. Daddy had been drinking whiskey and reading his Zane Grey. Once he got Momma to move “out in the middle of nowhere,” she says, it was only a short time before he fell off the water wagon, which is what he calls not drinking. Momma said to him a few times that night he might be drinking too much, but he told her he wasn’t, and to shut up.
Daddy could be mean when he drank.
She was ironing clothes. Charlie and I were coloring or something, maybe putting a puzzle together. He and I’d be going to bed soon. The radio was on, playing some big bands or jazz or some Hoochie Coochie thing that Daddy liked. When Daddy was not home, Momma played country music. Our house sounded like a Honky-Tonk, Daddy would say, and when he’d come in and that music was on, he’d turn it off or change the station.
So Daddy says he has to go to the toilet.
Momma says for him to take me.
He says to Momma, “Take Little Bit out of that girl’s nightgown or I’m not taking him.” Then he lifts it, sees that I have on girl’s panties, and says, “Goddamn, Rachel, you dress him likes he’s girl. This has got to stop. A gown is one thing, but girl’s underpants. Well, that’s a whole other thing.”
Momma says, “Come here, Johnnie,” and taking me by the hand leads me to the boys’ room. She says, “Honey, I told you not to wear those when Daddy’s home.” She pulls them down, I step out of them, and she helps me put on boy’s. We go back into the front room.
Daddy lifts the nightgown, sees that I now have on boy’s underpants, and says, “Take the nightgown off, too.”
Momma says, “Aw, Will, he’s ready for bed. Let him wear it to bed.”
He says, “Rachel, you’re turning him into a sissy, allowing that. He’s a boy.”
Momma says, “I know he is a boy. When he starts school I’m getting rid of all those girl’s things. That’s soon enough. Take him. He has to go, too, I’m sure.”
Momma puts on my coat, knit cap and matching mittens, and pulls on the white boots with furry insides.
Seeing me dressed, Daddy says, “Damned if he doesn't look just like a girl. I think—”
Momma says, “Will, it doesn’t matter. He’s too little to have wearing those mean anything, and he’s not even a bit sissy. He’s a boy and he knows it and so does everybody else.”
Out on the porch, Daddy goes to the big flowerpot and pulls out a little flat bottle of whiskey he keeps there. He opens it, takes a swallow, and puts the bottle in his coat pocket. He says he really has to go, so we hurry across the front porch and down the steps to the path to the toilet that goes by the garden the people who had lived in the house before us left. I notice the rows of cabbages with their outside leaves all peeled back. Frost glistens on them in the bright light of the moonlight, and they look like children’s heads needing a knit cap. The man-in-the-moon grins down on us.
We are not going fast enough for Daddy, so he picks me up in his arms and there’s his smell: aftershave, cigarette smoke, the raw whiskey he just drank, his rancid whiskey breath. But when I put my face to the collar of his coat, I smell mostly the cold on his coat.
He carries me high up, past the garden with its tilting scarecrow, one sleeve touching the ground, his big shiny hubcap glowing and tinkling in the withering cold night air. Past teepeed bean poles with pale brown and green vines whistling and rustling in the same cold breeze blowing by my ears.
We go past the old live oak trees with great shadows beneath them, dark space with splotches of moonlight shining through red and brown leaves that won't fall till spring when new buds push them off. What leaves have fallen, blow at random into deep luxurious piles that I cannot play in because thorns litter the ground beneath them. Giant ugly Locust trees that drop their thorns on the ground like hickory nuts, rise amidst the live oaks and spreading maples with low limbs that I can easily climb. I often go to their highest forks and sit. Sometimes I’ll climb up in one of the trees to watch for or hide from Momma when she’s sent me to fetch a limb off the peach tree in our backyard she intends to switch me with.
The hog pen comes into view. A line of gray boards and grunting always-hungry hogs and the strong stink of hog shit. The sweet vomity smell of the dregs of rotten corn mash slop their owner feeds them clings to the night air. The owner gets the mash leftovers by the barrelful from one or another of the several bourbon distilleries spread about Franklin County.
These hogs are big and fat. The old boars are monstrous. They weigh hundreds of pounds. When you butcher hogs that have grown fat on this slop, you have to put them up on a wooden floor and feed them clear water and corn so as to get the slop stink and taste out of the meat. And you have to keep them separate from the sows with little ones because they eat the little piglets. The sows eat them, too, just to keep them away from the boars.
From a perch up in one of the trees nearby, I have watched the owner feed the hogs.
He does not go into the pen. He drives his truck between our toilet and his pen, and bails the slop out of the barrels and dumps it in the troughs. If he does not dump the buckets of slop into their troughs as fast as they eat it, they look up at him with a smart look in their tiny black eyes. I’ve thought they were thinking they would eat him, too, if they only got the chance. And god knows, there are always stories of old hogs like these eating children and people who by accident fall into their pens. Hogs will even eat dead hogs, bones and all.
Daddy puts me down and quickly goes inside and closes the door. He says, in a teasing voice I have heard before and don’t like, “Wait there, Little Bit. I got to see a man.” He laughs how he does when he has had too much to drink.
Our toilet is right beside the hog pen. I hear the grunting, scary, ugly hogs as they push against the gray boards of the pen. That whole side of the pen shakes all along its length. It seems that it will come crashing down at any time. I imagine the hungry hogs running over the boards, coming for me. If they get loose there is no doubt in my mind they will eat me. The hogs are more than scary. They are angry, hungry, thinking creatures. Maybe like a dog knows something, but more like a person knowing something. Their black beady eyes catch the moonlight and glitter. The bright shining moon makes the yellow ones stark white, and the ones with large black patches of hair and skin look even worse.
It seems like they know it is me who teases them. And I have, by throwing sticks and clods of dirt into the pen, and then watch them push and shove each other, even bite one another, to get the sticks and crush them in their massive strong jaws, and gobble and swallow them, and do the same with the clods of dirt in huge mouthfuls. Except to go to the toilet with Momma, I have never been this close to the hogs at night. They may grunt and go on, but not like this. I say as loud as I can, “Daddy, there ain't no man in there. I want to come in with you.”
Daddy laughs his mean laugh, but pushes open the door, and says, “Come on in, boy.”
When I go inside, the hogs quiet some, but still sound restless.
He strikes a match and the sulfur fumes go right up my nose.
Outside, the hogs grunt and squeal loudly and push against the pen. They must see the match light, smell the fire and smoke, hear us inside the toilet.
They get quiet and I feel safe with Daddy even though he has just teased me.
He tears pages from the Sears Roebuck catalogue and makes a torch he sticks in the holes we’ll sit on and moves it round and round inside, chasing away spiders and granddaddy longlegs that might like a warm butt. He drops the torch on the floor. It burns the wood, and a new smell rises. It goes out. He makes another torch and takes the tobacco stick that stands in the corner and bangs it around the holes.
The hogs grunt and squeal at the banging. Though they quieten, they are restless.
The holes are ready.
He pulls down his britches and hikes up his barn coat—the one with the warm wool blanket inside that I like to snuggle up in when he’s not wearing it. It smells like him: aftershave, cigarettes, whiskey. He lights up a cigarette and blows smoke as the warm aroma of him going fills the toilet and mixes with the stink that is already there. His shit plops on the old shit below. It does smell, but everything is overwhelmed by the stink of the hog pen.
Usually Momma helps me get on my hole before she sits, but Daddy does not. I have to go, but I wait for him to help me. Momma helps me, but I am afraid to ask him.
He says, “O, there’s the pot.” He makes another torch and drops it into an old pot on bricks.
Momma usually keeps a fire of the catalog pages going in the pot while we are in the toilet. If a night is particularly cold, she’ll have brought a few sticks of cedar kindling to keep it going. I like the nice smell of burning cedar.
I stand next to him where he sits and love him.
Tearing off some pages to feed the fire, he says, “You have to go, son?”
I do. I pull down my underwear, hike up my gown and coat, and wait.
Momma put the seat from an old toddler potty on the bigger hole to make the hole small especially for me. Momma lifts and sits me on the hole before she sits herself.
Daddy says, “I’ll be damned. If I didn’t know better, I’d know you were a little sissy girl. Your mother beats all.”
I step back from him and just stand there. But having to go bad now, I try to get up on the seat.
Daddy says in that mean voice, “She never taught you how to pee, boy?”
I stand still again. And, even as I do, I can no longer hold the pee and start. I am all of a sudden very scared. Not of the hogs, but of Daddy. I have to shit, too. My bowels are loose and I know I cannot hold it much longer.
Daddy says in an even stranger voice I’ve never heard before, “Turn around this way, boy. Let me see your peter. Here, let me check and see if you even have one. I know you used to.“ He pulls me to him. He puts another few sheets of paper in the pot and the flame rises up and lights up the toilet inside.
The hogs grunt. A few squeal. They push against the boards.
He takes my peter in his fingers and says, “Just pee, boy. Just pee.“
I pee. I pee on his fingers and on my gown and on his britches leg. In a panic I feel a turd coming out of my butt. I make myself stop peeing. I squeeze my butt cheeks to stop the turd.
He keeps his fingers on my peter and pushes my peter back and forth with his fingers.
The flame fades and goes out in the pot.
With his fingers still on my peter, strips of moonlight coming through the cracks cross over him and me.
In moments my eyes adjust to the pale bluish light.
He now has his big peter stiff in his other hand and he is doing the same thing to himself with his fist as he is doing to me with his fingers. Directly, he pants, and breathes hard, then he gasps, and pee comes out of his peter and splatters on the floor. He continues to breathe hard for a few moments. Then, he lets go of my peter and says, “Pull up them underpants, boy. We’ll leave in a minute.”
I do, but relax my cheeks enough that the turd begins coming out again. I let it. It fills my underpants.
He pokes his limp peter back between his legs, lights a cigarette, and takes another drink from the bottle. Guzzling the last of it, he drops the bottle onto the shit below.
I watch the spirals of smoke pass through the moonlight coming through the cracks in the walls. The bluish light is now smoky. I am terribly alone and scared. It’s as though Daddy has left to another place. I want to leave him and run up the path by the garden to Momma. It is as though I am not there with him.
Ignoring me, he tears pages from the catalog, and balls them up to make them soft, like Momma has shown me. He tears out a page, wads it up, then un-wads it, and wads it again, then uses it. He does that a few times, looking at the paper with his shit on it each time. He stands up, pulls on his peter, pulls up his underwear, then his britches and buttons them. He fastens his coat. He staggers out the door, and starts up the path towards the house. He has drunk a whole bottle of whiskey in just the time we’ve been going to the toilet. He is very, very scary now.
I start to step down out of the toilet to follow him.
The hogs are grunting and pushing against the boards.
I call out, “Daddy.”
The hogs make their awful noise and push on the boards.
He turns and looks at me.
I raise my arms for him to take me.
He hugs me against his cold prickly face.
I wrap my arms around his neck.
He says, “What’s that smell? Boy, did you shit yourself?”
I say, “Yes, Daddy. I’m sorry. I—”
“Godamnittohell! Your mother—she’s never even taught you to take a shit?” He stands me down in the door of the toilet. He bends me over, pulls down my underpants, and pushes my gown and coat up over my head. He rips several pages from the catalog, but does not get them soft and wipes me roughly, probably gets most of it, but I know from when I tried wiping myself before Momma taught me how that the shit is only smearing all over and that my underpants will be streaked with it once he pulls them up. He is mad.
I take a step and feel the smeared shit in the cheeks of my butt. Momma has told me over and over that the slick catalog paper only works if you wad it, un-wad, over and over, making it soft, and then use it.
He picks me up and says, “Let’s go to the house, boy. But first I want to show you something.” He staggers to the fence by the hog pen.
We are right above the hogs.
They are squealing and grunting and pushing on the boards.
He stands me on the top edge of the boards. His strong hands encase my waist. He leans me into the hog pen.
A giant boar lunges over the others and plants his front hooves on the board only inches below my feet. He is so close.
I smell his vomity breath.
His tusks are very long and drip long strings of saliva. His small eyes are so bright and alive. He is so smart he knows who you are. Several other boars and sows lunge at the fence. The fence wobbles and weaves under my feet.
I scream and try to cling to Daddy.
He pushes me away from him, but still holds me in a firm grip.
I stand on top of the wavering board. Just under me the boar leaps and snaps his drooling jaws at me. I am certain he will snatch me.
Daddy pulls me back into his arms, laughing and laughing, hugging me tight.
When we come into the house I am bawling.
Daddy tells Momma what happened. He says that he said, “ ‘Look, son, that big ole hog only has one ear!’ ” He says that I said, ‘No, Daddy! That hog has no head!’ It must have looked to Lil Bit like that old white hog standing in the middle of the pen had no head. He said something about the hog having no head.”
Taking me from him, she asks, “What is that smell?” Holding me in one arm she bends me forward, looks inside my underpants, and sees the shit all over. “Will, why didn’t you wipe him or help him? Why is his gown wet with pee?”
Daddy says, “Well, I tried to wipe him. But the peeing—for god’s sake, Rachel, you’ve never taught him to pee like a boy. He wanted to sit down and pee like a girl.”
Momma says, “Sit down and pee? For goodness sake, he probably had to sit down to poop. You sit down to poop don’t you?”
“He didn’t say anything about shitting. He said he had to pee.”
“Well, if he only had to pee why didn’t you just let him go outside someplace. Like you do. Like Charlie does. Like all of you do?”
“I tried to show him how to pee standing up and he peed all over him and me.” Daddy shows her his wet britches leg.
“He's only a baby, Will. Why'd you try to scare him, showing him those old hogs for?”
“I wasn't trying to scare him, Rachel. I was just showing him that old hog with the one ear. It looked funny in the moonlight. That's all, Rachel. That's all. I just wanted to show him.”
“You’re a liar, Will Coleman. You’re a liar and you know it. You tried to scare him. You can be so mean when you drink too much. You were mean to him because of the girls’ clothes, weren’t you? You were mad at me for letting him wear them, and so you took it out on him.”
“That’s a damned lie. But it’s part true. He’s not to wear them anymore. I want it stopped right now.”
“Will, it don’t mean a thing him wearing them, and you know it.”
“Well, you heard me, Rachel.” Daddy takes another bottle from his bag and opens it, sets it on the table and goes to the kitchen for a glass.
When she has cleaned the shit off me and put clean underpants on me, she helps me put on a set of Charlie’s pajamas. Looking at me dressed a boy, she says, “Maybe it is time I threw all those girls’ things away. Maybe it is time.”
Now, sitting in Goodman’s telling the tale to Mr. Thomas, Daddy, trying to stutter and never too good at it, says I said, ‘Thathathat ole hahahahog haaaain't got one ear, Dadadaddy! He haaain't gagaagot nonono head!’” And, says Daddy, “He’s stuttered ever since.” Then he says, “Come to think of it, I got to see a man right now. He staggers to the toilet.
Mr. Thomas laughs and laughs. He gives us more quarters and more beer.