As he stood in the shower, lukewarm water running down his face
and blocking his ears, he realized he didn’t know a goddamn thing.
Seriously. Not a goddamn thing, he thought.
What he knew - or thought he knew - felt feeble and and untested.
Information accrued from a wash of random stimuli - like pond scum that gathers
along the banks of a rushing river. He knew fragments of parts of things people
thought they had once heard from some guy in a bar somewhere a few years back.
He couldn’t even remember if he’d already washed his armpits or
not. He lifted his arm and sniffed.
Nowadays you want something more darkly hot-blooded than a butterfly pavilion
but again you're disappointed - bats flap fingers, not arms, and won't
cause a distant storm. Simple rain confuses their echoes. You fear the
chalk screech of their blackboard world, their surprise fur and parched
membranes, the gust as they pass your cheek, the way bats feel moths pass.
Moths screech back to confuse. All you can do is leave through the
air-locked door, rejoin your parents who look so happy now, picnicking in
the sun where you left them arguing. They kiss. You could sneak up and
Ignacio Santo kicked his snake-skins up on the desk and tore open
a raucous, juicy, terrible fart. The stray cat he picked up the day before at
the 7-11, whom he named Muhammad Ali, looked at him and hissed. Ignacio's eyes
swam in the back of his head and his brown cheeks inflated as he laughed and
laughed and laughed at his flagellant and Muhammad Ali's hisses. Once his
laughing fit ended, he unscrewed a bottle of Texas hooch and took a sloppy
swig, spilling some on his tie. He normally wore a bolo tie, but not today, his
wife made him wear a regular maroon neck tie she found at the department store
where she was always buying towels and curtains and secular looking crosses to
hang on the wall. She told him bolo ties were for rich white men in Houston
sitting in high-rise offices built on the profits of black gold, not
construction foreman like Ignacio who's office is a trailer that is in a
different place every couple of months. She said his workers probably didn't
respect him when he wore a bolo tie. She said they probably called him a clown.
He didn't think his workers cared what tie he wore considering the majority of
them were felons who would gladly walk around with a syringe tucked behind
their ear like a cigarette if Ignacio tolerated that kind of thing. Oh well, he
thought, let his wife dress him, feed him, and shave his back, just gives him
more time to day dream and ignore responsibilities, he figured.
Ruth told the cook that
when she was growing up in Tennessee, her mama fixed turnips once a week.
Said this to the cook like she was Queen of the South, and the next thing you
know, we’re stuck with turnips on the menu.
Ruth, with the red, red
nails of a hussy, three diamond rings, and then to have to listen to her golden
bracelets clinking over the roll basket.
She’s the queen all right,
just ask deaf Will. Nearly always after ice cream he shuffles over to our
table, shouting to Ruth, “I love your beautiful face, why oh why don’t you come
to Bingo, darling?”
Then last night after three
nights in a row interrupted, when I merely say, “I’d like to get through just
one dinner without the paramedics,” Ruth starts in with how fortunate we are if
our blood’s thin enough, if our hearts can hold us up.
When they set the bed on fire the first time,
it skittered back--motored by their shimmying motion--toward the
closet, over some strewn-about candles she asked him to light to
set the mood.
“Saints alive!” he blurted out as flames
flashed, not knowing from whence that exclamation came.
He slipped out, grabbed the burning blanket and
beat it on the floor until the embers died. He dashed to the kitchen,
snatched an orange juice carton and doused the charred fabric.
“Honey, it’s okay.”
“Dear, you can’t be too careful. One little
lingering cinder can reignite a fire. A huge blaze could snuff us
out while we sleep. The smoke, that’s what gets you.”
After that, the candles went into hibernation
in the hall closet.
The second time they set the bed on fire, the
reintroduced candles were again the culprits. They drifted off into
the arms of Morpheus in their joint embrace with the wicks still lit.
One somehow toppled off the dresser.
Nostrils thick with a smoky stench, he soon had
every last candle in the apartment cinched in a trash bag.
“Hell,” he thought as he stood before the
dumpster. “I hope to hell this doesn’t symbolize a thing.”
He throws his arm around me, says, “You know what else
Bob and me got in common? We’re both still crazy about our wives. No kidding.
At the conference in Vegas where we met, other guys were checking out the
scenery, needling us to join them at some parties. We weren’t interested. No
one could believe after being married 30 years, we’re both still madly in love
with you ladies.”
I exchange a half smile with the woman beside me. He
removes his arm, turns away to continue discussion with Bob on the finer points
of some topic that never held my interest. There are things his partner and I
may have in common, but nothing we can freely share, waiving down the waiter,
empty goblets raised.
He was always above my
longing looks, never once thought that it might be a kindness to engage me,
instead of expending all his energy making sure any conversation I tried to
start promptly met its death.
It took me awhile, but now
I realize that his shoulder wasn’t the only cold thing.
He tugged at the hair
curling at his temples. She loved his curls like natural waves, kissing his
brow, but she knew that if she told him how much she loved them, he would get
rid of them, taking the scissors to his own hair.
“Do what you want with it,” she
said. “I trust you.”
“Why do you put me in these
situations? What kind of terrible person are you?”
She recoiled slightly, as
though an invisible hand had smacked her once, hard, across the face, feeling
the tide of blood clouding her skin, and she was ashamed; ashamed for
asking this of him when, actually, it was really all her fault.
He took her hand and looked
at her with eyes as wide and blue as oceans.
“Help me,” he said.
She turned away, and
in this simple act, she felt removed from him, from them, from it.
Cindy liked dope almost as
much as me. Liked to put out when high.
Brother had a fat stash, no
qualms sharing and their parents were never home. Nashville Skyline
dropped in April and I remember taking Cindy on her twin bed with “Lay, Lady,
Lay” playing low on her nightstand turntable. “Time of the Season” blaring
through the wall, her stabs of breath and Dylan’s jangling croons made it every
bit the big brass bed it wasn’t. That hadn’t been our first time but it might
as well’ve been for all the good I’s at it then.
For the all the good I’m at
Saw her the other day.
Picking out peaches with what must’ve been her grandkids. Great-grandkids,
maybe. Had this light in her face, looking down at the fuzzy fruits in the
tiny, upheld hands. Kids all shining eyes, open mouths, snotty noses. Red, red
cheeks. Cindy smiling like they do in those greeting-card commercials but hers
I didn’t go talk to her.
Don’t know why. I went on by, not hurrying, just my normal grocery store
stroll. Got the butter, bread and beer and made it home in time for kickoff.
It was Kenny who'd said the skull was cursed. We'd found it up on
Box Hill, inside a rotten tree, nested like an ostrich egg on a cushion of
We told each other that it was a hanged man's skull, that a witch
had put it there, and we set it on a mossy stump and found deadwood swords and
spent the best summer of our lives pretending to be pirates.
You've got to put it back, he'd whispered eventually. There's no
curse, I said, but I agreed all the same. By then he'd been hollowed out by the
chemo and was as brittle as dead leaves, so he couldn't exactly take it back
himself. It seemed like the least I could do.
Looking back, I can't say for sure whether or not there really was
a curse. But one thing I know for sure is that if there was, then putting the
skull back didn't lift it.
Nobody is singing our song, and
she falls asleep with her head on the radio. She hums to herself, out of tune,
out of beat, but her hums say more than the voice from the speaker.
“I want you,” I say, like I've
said before, but she's off in dreamland, laying in my bed with her arms around
my radio. Happened again. The other guys say I should kick her away—if you're
not in her pussy get her out of her head. But I can't disturb her dreaming when
I'm dreaming too.
Though I'm on my chair, watching
her chest rise and fall, and listening to some bullshit on the radio, I can
feel the freckles of her skin, the flush of her cheeks. In my dreams she holds
her hands to my chest, slides them through my skin like water, and uncoils the
rope around my guts.
The noise on the radio goes from
bad to worse. I wonder if I can lower the sound, but her arms are locked tight,
her face glued to the speaker. If I wake her the dream will end. I’ll keep the
pain so I can stay. She's my radio girl, yeah.
In the fidgety, rustling empty of what we'd just done, I asked,
How old are you? She answered, Twenty-nine, and asked me back. I said,
Fifty-two, is that going to be a problem? I don't know why I spoke in the
future. She didn't say anything back. Was the problem my age or was it the
future? Neither or both? I didn't know if she was thinking about my question,
four other things, or just being polite. Or moody. I felt an ache in my balls,
a drip from my dick. So far, so good, right? I said. She laughed. And then she
said, You're funny.
It would mean giving up Beth and the house and all of it. Beth
never said I was funny. Even when I made her laugh. Her genuine laughter always
choked into mocking. Expressions of exasperation. That was a good one, I'd try.
You really chuckled. That would stop that.
It would mean even greater uncertainty. But there was this, the
ache, the drip, the laughs. There were pills and drink and high bridges.
Natural limits. There was the fact that these things are never easy, and never
fully in our hands.
I am wearing the kind of practical skirt suit every
female social worker wears as she makes her rounds—gray, polyester, loose. My
hair is pomaded to my skull, combed as straight as it will go. There is no
color on my face, save for the purplish-gray bags under my eyes. If my binder
feels extra heavy today, it’s because I’m making calls in Sandtown, a pitiful
punch line inThe
Wire. My caseload is practically the whole zip code.
My co-worker, a new girl from the uppity part of
Towson, joked that I should wear sneakers so I could run. I think back to the
days when I ran drugs through these projects in my first pair of Jordans. Back
when I was responsible for whatever ripped out weave was blowing across the
sidewalk like a tumbleweed. My old posse would never recognize me now, with my
bleached skin and nude pantyhose.
When I approach Presbury, I shiver. Did Freddie Gray’s
ghost just run through me?
“Hey, white lady!” a dark-skinned boy of about 14 or
15 yells at my high yellow tail. I keep walking toward Gilmor Homes, wondering
if I’ll ever be black again.