The dead just ain’t what they used to be.
Down in the alley, Chitlin Sandwich sat wide-legged on a fifteen speed racer, fifteen himself, a schoolboy, dressed like somebody’s granddaddy, a wide fedora slanted across his face, tall skinny frame entombed in a wide double-breasted blazer, diamond pin centered in a fat red-and-white polka dot tie, flashy argyle socks, and two-tone patent leather shoes like two shiny puddles of mud beneath his cuffed baggy slacks. He was sipping from a can wrapped in a brown paperbag and drumming his fingers on a burlap newspaper sack that hung over one shoulder. Sheila was certain that the bike belonged to Hatch—her little brother—his or an exact replica, its twin. She pressed her face hard to the windowglass and cut her eyes at him. He regarded her with frank indifference, still as an owl. Then he tilted the bag and drank long and deep. She felt hot anger rising and spreading in her face, elongating fingers of flames. His diamond tiepin caught the sunlight. He took one final gulp, crushed the wrapped can like a mosquito between both hands, and sent it clattering over his shoulder into an open trash barrel. He pulled a Daily Chronicle from the burlap sack, drew back his arm like a pitcher, only to toss the newspaper underhanded like a softball. It soared in early morning air and plopped like a dead bird onto Sheila’s porch, inches from her window. A spasm of rage gripped her throat. I’m twenty-four and educated and Assistant Human Resources Manager at the growing East Shore Bank and I will not put up with this. She went out onto the porch.
You’re lucky that didn’t hit my window, she said, fists clenched at her sides.
Ain’t nobody tryin to hit yo window.
What are you doing here in the first place?
He narrowed his eyes cunningly and grinned. Only later would she realize that this was the first time she had seen him mirthful in seven years. Can’t you see? Here to deliver yo paper, baby.
Look, I don’t play. She swallowed and breathed more easily. If you want to play, go to a schoolyard.
His eyes flared up with hate.
Shoo, boy. Shoo! Her hands brushed at him, brushed him away, dirt.
He started off on the racer, his eyes still watching her. I’ll be seeing you, ba-by! He blew her a kiss.
She exploded. Felt her hair singe and crackle. Boy, I’ll slap the shit out of you! She started down the porch steps.
His eyes glinted back with rage. Pedaling, bike and boy disappeared.
That’s right. You better run.
She turned back up the steps and went into her apartment. Paced the room. In her anger, she had forgotten to confront him about the bike. She had purchased it a week ago as a gift for Hatch when she learned that Lucky Green’s Groceries had hired him as a delivery boy, his first job. She was so excited, so excited that at age fifteen he had finally set his athletic-shoed feet on the road to maturity. She went and purchased a red, fifteen speed Zurbo Turbo Urban Assault Professional Racer. Now Chitlin was riding the bike.
She halted. Composed herself for work. One must be prompt. She moved into the bedroom, checked herself in the mirror and liked what she saw. Long black braids with neatly spaced colored beads flowed away from her brown face down to her nape, trawl lines on night water. A gray knee-length dress fit close on her tight and toned curves. I will marry when I find the right man. The thought died as suddenly as it had arisen.
She quit her apartment, secured all six locks, and descended scrubbed stone porch steps both nimble and heavy as if drawn by some unknown underground force beneath the grassy lawn. She made her way down a short cement path to a speared wrought-iron fence and gazed out at the quiet streets, geometric lawns and hedges, prim flats (like her own) and houses of North Shore, gazed, searching for signs of Chitlin Sandwich. Nothing stirred. Disappointed, she opened the fence, closed it firmly behind her, and walked the few feet to her lime-colored Datsun 280 ZX. She descended into the car’s interior. She was tempted to search for Chitlin Sandwich but the bank came first. The groan of ignition. She handled keys, gears and buttons with the skill of an astronaut.
She eased the car onto the highway. Watched the road through the windshield and the windshield watched her back. Buried reflections. Fifteen years ago, Mamma had gotten so disgusted with fat greedy chicken-eatin’ wing-robed preachers—with each word, shout, hum and grunt of his Sunday sermon, Reverend Ransom examined her with knowing eyes—that she stopped attending church altogether. A ghost began to plague her family. He would nibble Sheila’s toes or fart above her bed—anything to prevent her from sleeping. She grew restless and dizzy. Bumped into objects like a spun cat. The ghost made comical faces whenever she sat on the toilet. But he soon tired of these games, tired of Sheila, and began to frequent Mamma at night, singing low down blues all the while. (His blues-toned laughter still ruled her dreams.) Mamma found both prayer and potions ineffective. She sought the advice of her medium, who suggested that she change the direction of her bed. This worked. Then her belly began to round. Nine months later the ghost made a final appearance. He hotwired a car, drove Mamma to the Cedar Sake Hospital and set her down on the curb outside the emergency room. One hour later Hatch came quietly.
You haven’t finished them files yet? Petite, smooth and beautiful, a fairy, Angela spoke from the opposite desk. Files were scattered over Sheila’s own desk like stones from a felled wall.
I’ll have them done by the end of the week.
I hope so.
Yeah, girlfriend. Niece spoke from the desk right of Sheila. She was dark as a tree trunk and just as round and promising. Angela on her left, Niece on her right, and Sheila trapped between them. Better hurry up. You only got two days.
Two days is plenty of time.
If you say so.
I say so.
She don’t know what she saying.
Sheila trained her eyes on an application and read it a third time.
You sure are sluggish this mornin, Angela said. Why you so slow this mornin?
Oh, that big strong long man musta kept her up last night.
Niece and Angela shared a foul laugh.
Lift both yall minds outa the gutter.
Nawl. Why don’t you come down here wit us.
The three women worked in silence for some time.
We’re going to have dinner after the demonstration Saturday, Angela said. Maybe do some dancing.
Frank told me to ask you.
Let me think about it.
How bout the Sugar Shack? Niece suggested.
That new club?
Yeah. Dinner, dance, drinks, dudes. All a good girl need. Niece flicked her tongue fast and nasty.
The car rocked roughly over some potholes. Roofs lay in a crazy jigsaw against the sky. Muttered curses, sounds of struggle. South Shore was a decent neighborhood, but Sheila searched long and hard to find a parking space in sight of Mamma’s living room window. She roared into the spot, like a professional test driver, and quit the engine. All had gone well at work. Troubled, preoccupied, she wondered at upheaval. Disorder. She decided to visit Mamma and report the morning’s events, even if her words fell on deaf ears.
She was about to place her key inside the lock when she heard voices on the other side of the door. She stood quietly in the hall and listened.
Now, I never minded yo playin guitar.
It kept you outa trouble and yo grades ain’t never suffer. I didn’t even mind yo going over this nigger’s house to practice cause I thought them other musicians might improve yo sounds. But I ain’t gon let you play at no bar.
Please, Mamma. This my chance.
As God is my witness.
Please, Mamma. I’m beggin.
The only way you can go to that bar is by kickin my ass and I don’t think you qualified to do the job.
It’s Miss Wardell.
Miss Wardell, please allow me to interrupt. Salamanders is not a bar but a disco and a prominent establishment, I might add. I can assure you that it is frequented by decent and well-educated individuals like yourself.
It is located in East Shore area.
Mister, my son ain’t but fifteen.
Yes. I can see how that might trouble you. But let me stress that I’ve been in the music business for fifteen years and have encountered few problems. The owner of the disco is a close friend of mine. He is a professional man like myself.
I thought you drive a truck.
I do. A fourteen wheeler but… Anyway—the owner understands the situation. He understands my concept. That is—
Let me ask yo one thing.
What kind of an establishment opens its doors to teenagers?
Not to contradict you, ma’m, but it doesn’t open its doors to—
Let me ask you this.
If you been in the music business fifteen years how come you ain’t a star? Where’s your video?
Ma’m, it’s like this—
I’ve lacked marketability. Now, Sound Productions has just that. Give me a moment, ma’m. You see, all of the members of my band are youngsters like your son. Also, my engineer is an enterprising young man. My own son is the drummer. Ma’m, do you think that I’d take my own son into any establishment where his life would be in danger?
I tell you what. Hatch can go. But let me say one thing. If anything happens to him I’m coming for you.
Hatch. You grown now. You defy my word. From now on you save all the money you make from yo route and the next time you need a flanger or a phase shifter or octave divider or synthesizer or ring modulator or wah wah peddle or fuzz box you better not ask me.
Don’t do that, Mamma. At fifteen, Hatch was already taller than Porsche, equal in height to Chitlin Sandwich, equally thin, with big boyish ears and a hairless face.
Sheila. What you doing here?
Sheila smiled. They had not heard her key turn in the lock. She closed the door behind her. Oh, I jus dropped by.
Mamma watched her, unbelieving perhaps. Mamma was forty and gorgeous. Tall—a good five ten—she stood out in her nice dresses and clean stockings and decent pumps. She wore her hair pulled back in a ponytail to accentuate her large eyes and high cheekbones. Her smooth dark skin, full breasts, small waist, big butt and shapely legs drew comment. She thanked anyone who complimented her, even scandalous men. Sheila thought to kiss her but decided against it. Never kiss her when she’s mad. Never.
I was jus talkin to yo brother here. Hardheaded.
No I ain’t, Mamma.
He think he grown now.
No I don’t.
Go on and be grown. She spoke into Hatch’s face. And spend yo grown money.
Sheila saved her money when she was your age.
Both Mamma and Hatch looked at Sheila for support. Sheila said nothing.
Go on Mr. Grown with yo grown self.
I said all I’m gon say. Come on, Sheila. Help me wit dinner.
I’ll be right there. She waited until Mamma went into the kitchen.
Mamma on yo case huh?
She’ll calm down.
I hope so. Crestfallen, Hatch watched the floor, doomed.
Cheer up. She’ll change her mind.
Hatch said nothing.
She was secretly satisfied with Mamma’s tough stand—was it enough? would it halt what was already in motion?—but she was careful not to show it. Guess who I saw today?
Hatch continued to watch the floor.
And you know what else?
He was riding your bike.
Hatch raised his head and looked her in the face with protesting eyes. It wasn’t my bike.
Looked like it.
Couldn be. My bike’s in there. Hatch pointed to the closed patio.
Sheila weighed his words. She did not go to the patio to look. No need to. He was lying. She was sure of it. Convinced. She could see it in his eyes.
A white Jaguar bounced and swayed through nervous traffic. Animate ill will. Chitlin’s wrath seemed to buoy him up. Bent and cramped, he floated in the space between steering wheel and hood. A relic.
Her rearview mirror drummed with the sight. Witness, her eyes recorded, vision hurrying like venom through her body. She gunned the engine with a hoarse roar, turned at the corner, turned again, made several more turns until she was back where she had started. Car, boomerang. She curved to the curb. Engine running, she sat quiet behind the wheel. Her head was numb. Lost him. So now he’s following me? O.K., I got something for him. Wait and see. He’ll think twice about messin wit me.
Boy, what’s wrong wit you? Roused from sleep in her yellow housecoat with white flowers, Mamma watched Hatch from her reclined position on the couch, the cords in her neck tense as if straining to contain some great force. Her red house-shoed feet crossed. Ashy ankles like gray fish eyes. Lips puckered from toothless gums. She was no beauty without her fake teeth. She’d lost her real teeth as a child in the sippi south when a reckless car struck her on a lonely dirt road. Specialists fashioned her a new set, which she had a hard time keeping track of. Once she’d left them on a friend’s dashboard and sojourned an embarrassed Sheila to retrieve them. Speak up. She switched her gaze to Sheila for a moment, the eyes like stones rubbing Sheila’s skin.
Head down, Hatch cried without wiping his eyes, tears running. A swell reddened his brow, a small red knob. He attempted to speak between sobs, bubbled words and saliva.
Boy, speak up.
Chitlin Sandwich bit me wit a sock.
Chitlin Sandwich hit me wit a rock.
Mamma let the wet revelation soak in. Her eyes slowly found Sheila’s face. She had been put in charge of Hatch. They shared a two bedroom apartment—she and Mamma one bedroom, Hatch the other—on the top floor of a three story brick courtyard building, broad high picture window overlooking the Stonewall Projects, a single playground the center of three seven story steel highrises that bloomed into city sky. Flecks of waste. Free floating rage. It was Mamma’s desire to spirit out of the neighborhood first chance.
Mamma rose from the couch, shuffled to the kitchen, houseshoes slapping the bare floor, and returned with two potshards. She took Hatch’s hand and raised it, palm upward, beggar fashion. Placed the potshards inside. Don’t let the serpent of hatred rise in yo heart, she said, but I want you to go back out there and bust that Chitlin Sandwich side his head.
No, ma’m. Hatch was eight and tall for his age, threatening even, but he was clumsy—Mamma forbade him to handle delicate objects—gentle and would wrap crooked Band Aids around the broken wings of dragon flies. He would thank Mamma when she whupped him—her blows and words synchronized, his body jerking to avoid the rhythmic belt—and promise to do better.
You backtalkin me?
Then get out there and do what I told you to do.
I would prefer not to.
What? Get! She shoved him stumbling out the door. Stood looking at Sheila. What are you standing there for? Go wit him.
It was a day of filtered sunshine, half-cloud, half-sun. Chitlin Sandwich waited before the gray shape of the building. Chitlin Sandwich waiting. Dark, red, sparkling, the child of unmothering and unfathering depths. Anyone even remotely connected to the Abraham Lincoln Elementary School knew that his mamma dressed him from the Goodwill. She ran the streets in glossy hiphuggers, a new man on her arm every week, and she aided and supported two grown brothers, Snake and Lake, criminals in hiding, pursued. She cooked every Sunday and used the leftovers for the remainder of the week. Her specialty was the chitlin sandwich: chitlins on white bread with hot sauce, onions, lettuce, pickles, and tomatoes. Chitlin rose a full three inches over the tallest kid in the neighborhood. (Perhaps the sandwiches fed his strange growth and behaviour.) But he instinctively understood electronics. He could repair a toaster and a computer, a television and a cellular phone with equal ease. Word claimed he never used tools.
He walked, the hinged arms and legs of a cardboard Halloween skeleton. Hatch closed his eyes and whirled both potshards. One caught Chitlin—he made no attempt to defend himself—squarely behind the earlobe. Hatch opened his eyes to red sight. He ran back into the courtyard. Halted. Sheila knew what he was thinking. Stand his ground or answer to Mamma.
Chitlin crossed the street for Stonewall, blood trickling between fingers stopping his wound. He did not hurry. Steady and calm. Sheila watched from the courtyard, drawn by the clean power of curiosity. She had never seen such stoicism and determination in a child. A rarity. She caught one last glimpse of him before Stonewall swallowed him.
Did you see that? she said.
Did you see that?
He bleedin. He gon beat me up.
You didn’t see it? As this thought weighed on her Chitlin Sandwich reappeared, walking with swift firm steps, and dragging some object that scraped the concrete behind him like a fallen muffler. The hazed-over sky did not allow her clear sight. She held up one hand to block the sun though there was no light to block. Sight revealed as he came closer. She felt a violent knocking in her stomach, neither fear nor anger. Comic disbelief.
That Chitlin Sandwich got a sword.
The sword was better than three feet long, the dark brown handle embedded with tiny red stones like mosquito bites. The blade itself was even sicker with pockets of rust like sores on a mangy dog. Boy and sword were less than a yard away now. She burst out in a spasm of giggles.
Look at that ole silly sword!
Hatch tripped over his own feet making it behind her. He encircled her waist with his arms and hugged her tightly. He gon cut me up! Don’t let him cut me up. I’m sorry, Chitlin!
He peeped out from around her waist.
Let me go. She tried to shake him loose. Couldn’t. He ain’t gon cut nobody.
Using both hands Chitlin raised the sword above his head like a sledgehammer and brought it wildly down to the sidewalk. She was too swift, even with Hatch hugging her waist. A taste of gall rose up inside her. She pried Hatch loose. Chitlin readied the sword. She ran right up to him and punched him in the face. He fell straight backwards, a domino, and narrowed the concrete.
The sword fell. Clanged. Nothing moved. Silence. Time.
Why you hit my baby! A lady under a helmet of pink curlers was running toward her from across the street. She moved with incredible speed, flabby thighs bouncing and balancing on skinny bird calves. Why you hit my baby! Black dots peeped through her faded green T-shirt—cut above the navel—and genital hair crept up her belly over bluejean shorts panty-small and tight.
Yo, slim, someone yelled. People were hanging out windows, watching from the playground.
Tell her, shorty.
Yall get it on.
You ain’t got no business puttin yo hands on my child, the bird-slut said, close now. How’d you like me to punch you?
You ain’t gon punch nobody.
Sheila looked over her shoulder. Mamma. Malice. Still and angry in red house slippers, her hand on something inside the pocket of the flowered housecoat. She’d snapped in her dentures.
Hatch was gripping her free hand with both of his.
Hey, there go another bitch.
This should be good.
Gon party, ladies.
The bird-slut fixed Mamma with a hard cold squint. Mamma watched her back. Chiltin Sandwich managed to raise himself on shaky legs. Then he dropped back to the sidewalk cartoon-like, as if his bones had been liquified.
The bird-slut trained her eyes on him.
Sheila, get yo behind over here.
Sheila obeyed Mamma’s order.
Mamma and the bird-slut stood there, eternal, and traded cold stares, eyes flicking.
I don’t think no hittin will be necessary, Mamma said.
Mother Chitlin made no response.
I tell you what, since our children can’t play together we gon keep them apart.
Fine wit me. The bird-slut leaned from one thin leg to the other.
Mamma eyed Hatch. Now he ain’t gon play wit you and if I find you playin with him, I’m gon beat yo ass.
Chitlin, get up from there.
Now if he bother you, come see me.
In one motion Chitlin Sandwich arced to his feet fast and stiff like a stepped on broom.
Get yo sword.
He retrieved the sword.
Mamma stiffened. Hatch lowered his head. Chitlin staggered over to the bird-slut, his shirt-collar soaked with blood. He watched Sheila, his powerful will packed into his stare.
You heard what she said. The bird-slut eyed him, her voice unfaltering. He ain’t gon play wit you and you ain’t gon play wit him. Find you some new friends.
He watched Sheila. The slut snatched him around. They started across the street, the sword dragging behind, sparks showering, crowd parting. He swirled round on one foot and shook his fist at Sheila, slow and stiff. She rolled her eyes. The slut snatched him forward. He craned his bloody neck and threw his eyes back over his shoulder at Sheila. The bird-slut slapped him upside the head.
A week later she watched the Stonewall playground through the all-knowing third story picture window. Swingset. Two small figures at either end. Vast space between them. Chitlin Sandwich swinging in one direction, Hatch swinging in the other.
That thing is done, Mamma said.
But Mamma. I saw them. I—
Stop botherin me. That thing is done.
She braked suddenly to avoid tail-ending the car in front of her. Cursed softly in anger.
Hey, lady. Don’t you know how to drive?
Do yo mamma! She put her mean foot on the gas like a roach. Jerk! saying it out loud.
Bubbled in, she drove, all silence and substance. Random contact these past seven years. Casual mentions. Hey, you remember Chitlin Sandwich from the old hood? Well, I ran into him at… Oh, guess what. I bumped into Chitlin Sandwich at… Listen to this. I saw Chitlin Sandwich at… Easily explained perhaps. Similar circles: Hatch was a musician—he plunked away for hours at a time, his slow clumsy fingers moving on the strings like earthworms—and Chitlin, producer engineer technician stage manager promoter in local music circles and CEO of Green Wig Productions. Easily explained but for her actions denoting more.
Recent signs. Hatch on the corner. Awaiting her arrival. White Jaguar pulling away from the corner. Slow. Taking its time… Hatch passing through a fenced in (caged) basketball court. Shapely guitar case like a sarcophagus at his side. White Jaguar slowing down to greet him.
As in olden times, so now. But why had Chitlin Sandwich suddenly launched an open assault after years of latent wickedness? Mindful of traffic, she snatched the telephone from its cradle and pinned it between her raised shoulder and slanted ear. The loud electric buzz taunted her, raising doubt, mocking her effort. Should she call Mamma? Could she awaken her? Were her ears willing?
Hey, Mamma. It’s me.
What you doin?
Nothin. Jus gettin ready for bed.
In there wit that guitar of his. I made him put on those headphones. I ain’t tryin to hear that noise.
He never stops.
Does a thief.
She is thinking about what to say. You know, I need to tell you something.
Well, you know….
It’s very important. Very very important.
Jus tell me.
Well, mamma… You got to do something about Hatch and that Chitlin Sandwich.
You know, Chitlin Sandwich.
Chitlin Sandwich. You remember him. From Stonewall. Him and his nasty lowlife mother.
Why are you bringing all that up?
Cause I saw—
I mean, that was a long time ago. How many years has that been now.
But you don’t understand. I saw—
Didn’t I say I’m through wit all that? Why can’t you listen? Did I not say that I’m through wit all that?
She returned the buzzing, powerless phone to the cradle. It was a matter of great sorrow that Mamma could be so naive about the clandestine friendship between Chitlin and Hatch. Left to her, Hatch’s low-flaming soul would evaporate through his skin. She did not understand the resilient life of evil. Snakes keep a reserved set of fangs. Given charge she would set things right.
She honked a car from her path.
She was fording a river of steaming greens. Hard bacon stone under her feet. She rose with the river. Air. A green wasp flying through sweet heat. She smoothly landed on a wide tree trunk. Disemboweled it with her stinger. Green viney guts exploded out the tree’s solid interior like coiled toy snakes. Extended in all directions, trails, tracks, traces.
Advice from the wise, slice them pies.
Yeah. Get all you can get. And then some.
That’s why Frank and I are saving all our money to open up this coffee shop. Angela licked a gum-backed stamp then thumbed it on a long envelope. It’s gon be the bomb. Computer surfing. The Internet. CD rom. Virtual reality room. Game room. Video room. Pool room. Chess room. You name it. And a good old fashioned coffee shop and some slamming good coffee.
Sounds good, Sheila said. She grabbed a file and spread it on the desk before her.
You should invest.
I’ll think about it. Let me think about it.
I’ll invest, Niece said.
You ain’t got no money.
Niece grinned, proud.
I don’t believe it, Sheila said. Sight surprised.
Out in the main banking area, a teller passed Chitlin Sandwich a stack of crisp bills across a marble counter. Have a nice day. Smiled. He did not move from the window. He stood counting the bills, slow and careful.
Counting done, he slipped the bills inside his blazer near his heart. Turned and saw Sheila and the other two women watching him. He walked in their direction, casual and unconcerned.
He better not!
What’s going on?
He stopped before the glass door that opened into the office and stood there sullenly, watching Sheila. He was so tall that he would need to stoop under the doorframe to enter. His wide, baggy suit could not hide his puny body. No muscle. His bones lay loosely in his flesh. He studied Sheila a moment longer and moved on.
Who was that?
Call him back, Niece said. He’s kinda cute.
Girl, can’t you tell. He’s jus a boy.
Don’t matter to me. Them young boys never get tired.
You know him?
Not really. Sheila pulled up his account on her computer.
Girl, what you doing? You better finish those files.
I’ll get to them. In a minute.
So you still coming to the march Saturday? Angela snapped for the waiter.
Yes. Sheila veiled her knees with a green cloth napkin.
You know I’m coming, Niece said. And you better introduce me to some men. I like the political type.
Girl, please. A towel would get you wet.
Niece grinned. Proud.
The waiter arrived, leather-covered pad and pen at the ready. How are you ladies this afternoon?
Fine. Angela spoke for all of them.
Something to drink?
I’ll take the house wine.
He wrote on his pad. And you, madam?
Had he asked her a second or two later, she would have muttered shit. Chitlin Sandwich was lunching—broiled lamb and asparagus—alone at a large round draped table, four green triangular edges like arrows aimed at the carpeted floor.
Who you lookin at?
She didn’t let on. Nobody.
And you, madam?
She sneaked a peek and caught Chitlin Sandwich blowing her a kiss.
Give me dark. Your best.
She wheeled the caged cart and placed the items she needed inside it. She had not been shopping long when she heard him lewdly cracking his knuckles in the next aisle.
The nexus of speakers blasted out the current chartbuster, “Dating Mr. D.,” the brainchild of hip hop Uranium 235.
Saw the death of billions
what could I do?
Sent a message to you punks and bitches
couldn’t get through
From her recessed booth she watched dancers shake their hips, little space between the bodies. She shook her head, astonished. How can they dance to this music? Rowdy. She finished her Pepsi. It was hot in her throat, then hot in her stomach. She had been in Salamanders a good hour having entered it with her eyes wheeling about. Her first time. Angela and Niece came here often but she had always refused to follow. Too loud. Too many young fools. And that dim, eye-hurting light. But purpose had drawn her here tonight.
She would bypass Mamma and attack the evil at its source: Chitlin Sandwich. She had a dim idea how. But her love for her family would serve as both her dagger and her shield.
These were the last dances before the live music. Sound Productions was scheduled to appear at 9:00, ten minutes from now. A small stage had been erected perpendicular to the dance area and parallel to the bar but the band had yet to appear and set up.
A black couple—young man, older woman—entered attached to each other’s waist laughing and keeping time to the music. The woman pointed (pride? curiosity?) to the stage. The man nodded. They danced their way to the bar, found stools and ordered drinks. Silver pants the lady’s big horse behind spread over the barstool. They sipped their drinks quietly looking into each other’s eyes. The woman set down her glass, flicked its edge with her finger, then leaned over and kissed the man on the tip of his ear. Mouth close, he whispered something. Her soft laugh floated back. She pulled firmly at his tie. Sheila fumbled with her empty glass. The lady turned her head and looked Sheila full in the face. Her shining eyes seemed to come straight at their target.
Sheila took cover behind her raised hand. Yes. Recognize her anywhere. That’s Chitlin Sandwich’s mother. The bird-slut.
Sheila lowered her hand and turned her eyes to the dance floor jammed with waving arms, wiggling bottoms and shuffling feet. The speakers blared “Tea with Mr. B.” by the Sam Hill Roughriders.
Oh woman with a sky in yo thigh
Oh bitch wit that dip in yo hips
Oh woman wit yo ass way up high
Oh bitch wit those dick lips
Call me Mr. B
Jump my bone bone
Call me Mr. B.
Come over to my palatial home
Put that high ass way up on my throne
And let me jump them bones
The floor lit now by clicking light and the dancers showing up green black green black beneath it.
At 9:00 the music abruptly ceased and a dapper and nervous announcer took the stage. Look. I’m sorry folks but our scheduled band won’t be appearing tonight.
The interrupted dancers seemed indifferent.
A traffic jam or something. Sorry. Drinks on the house.
There, in the solitude of her bedroom, she took the phone from its cradle, the keyboard blinking square light in the dark.
I am the light, I am the load. Skee-dee-skee-dop-ba-du-re-bop-pop-mop-shop-pow! I am the light. I am the load. Ske-dee-slop-pop-be-hop-dop-pow! Born of the cross, birthed on the cross. Died in the bush, dead in the bush. Push. Push. Dead in the bush, red in the push. Cush. Cush. Skee-bop-zop-uh-pow! I am the light, I am the load.
With each sip of her morning mint tea, she drowned all past days and nights and resigned to dreaming eternity. She neither forgave nor forgot, longed nor lingered. Out of her hands now. The simple necessity of faith.
Guess who went to the doctor?
Niece, not again?
Uh huh. Niece closed her eyes with a wide grin.
So how many will that make? Four?
You should be ashamed.
Alone on the sofa, Sheila did not share what she was thinking. She had not the entire evening.
I already told Frank I ain’t never having no babies. He ain’t gon stretch out my coochie. Though married, Angela was fond of a halter and miniskirt and stockingless legs, fond of long strings of pearls that hung from her neck to her knees and a cloche hat that hid her eyebrows.
You can have a Cesaerian. A bikini cut.
Ain’t nobody cuttin me.
They put you under. And they only cut you a little.
No way. Angela shook her head slowly like a wronged child.
Simple or not simple. Ain’t nobody takin my boo-boop-a-doop away.
From the couch, Niece kicked her meaty legs in laughter.
What about you, Sheila?
Yeah. How come you ain’t saying nothing?
I’m listenin that’s all. Nothing to say.
Bat got your tongue?
Question. Niece squeezed her face into a serious expression. Do you know how to Mexican kiss?
Don’t ask her that. You know she saved.
I never said that. When did you hea me—
Saved. Saved. Angela clapped her hands and made a song of it.
I’m saved too. Niece tongued her lips.
Many evenings like this. Shades open. A cold wash of stars. Niece had reported her latest fuck while Angela demonstrated the latest dance. Sheila watched them now with flying longing and compassion, for she saw deeper than they could see, deeper, to the indestructible element.
I think Mr. So and So at work got a crush on you.
Not on me.
Speakin of work, why you ain’t finish those files?
I know. I should have.
Well, why didn’t you? Gon be hell to pay come Monday morning.
I ain’t worried.
You should be.
Sheila pulled her knees to her chin and chest. She sat silent and wondering and staring into the night.
Let’s wait a little while longer. Frank Poor was squat. We’ll be moving along shortly. No taller than Angela. No need to rush. Shorter perhaps. We should have a good turn out. His pot belly. A thousand people. Drooping, anchoring him to earth. Or more. Darker than her, black and shiny like a button. We did extensive canvassing. He published his own newspaper, MAKE THE RICH PAY!. In fact, did some last minute canvassing last night. Taught firewalking on the weekends. Is this your first?
No. Sheila lied. She had once given to the NAACP. (Or was it the United Negro College Fund?) All told this was the extent of her political involvement.
Glad to be here.
Fifteen or twenty people formed a broken, lop-sided sphere on the road. Dressed in athletic gear as if prepared to run a marathon. Sheila. Clothed in the extremity of summer color. Her shoes new and enduring. They patiently waited, conversating, exchanging victories and defeats, tales brought to life again. Sheila listened to it all, speaking when spoken to.
Glad you came out.
Glad you could make it.
She felt her anxiety lift. The touch of harmony.
Play this one by ear. Frank roused the group. Don’t think about past experiences. Every leaf is different. Let’s remember what we are here to do today.
She joined the line, military formation. Allowed herself to be propelled forward. Posters waving.
The sky was clear after a morning rain. Beads of water glistened in the rain-washed road. Both sides lined with thickly leaved trees, green and still heavy with rain, their top branches and boughs tangled in the sky.
Shall never be defeated!
Shall never be defeated!
Spectators, white and black and otherwise, came out to observe the procession. Laughed and shook their heads as if at some corny circus act.
The hallmark of stupidity. Frank frowned. This nation was founded by men who hid behind barns and smoked cornsilk. And if those lumberjacks, he nodded, are any indication, this is still a country with shit in its boots.
Some ways down the road Chitlin Sandwich stood in the driveway of Bingo Bob’s Car Repair. Chitlin Sandwich. The stiff brooding materiality of youth.
Hey ain’t that the boy who was at the bank?
Yeah. What’s his name? Pig Ear Sandwich?
Fedora pushed back on his head. Stooped, his knees jutting out from under his body. Thick-winged eyebrows which seemed to be drawn down by his open mouth. Heavy eyelids, narrow light in the pupils. His dark (gray? blue?) blazer draped over one crooked arm while the fingers of the free hand toyed with a gold watch chained—half-loop—to his vest. Sunlight and a diamond tiepin. Sunlight and patent leather shoes.
Just left of Chitlin Sandwich, a small boy emerged from the shop and climbed atop the white Jaguar fender to get a better view of the procession. Chitlin gave the child a hard look. Grabbed him, lifted him off the fender, kicked him swiftly in the rear and shoved him back into the shop. That done he turned and shook his fist at Sheila.
She made no response. She would not give him the satisfaction. A cool brew blew from the trees and carried the smell of damp earth and leaves. Set branches moving and covered the road with long flickering shadows.
They crested a hill. Niece dropped behind to seek a man. Sheila found it fitting, elemental. The shrouded road wound off before her almost lost among the trees. Footfalls peppered the silence. Now a new faint noise. She stopped and turned. The white Jaguar descended the hill like a fly down a distended belly. She continued.
She followed the Jaguar’s progress by the roar of its approaching engine. She did not turn to look. She was tough, tougher than expectation.
Air punched her skin. She turned to see Niece rise rocket-like into the sky, only to have gravity snatch her rudely back to earth. Before she fully landed, her male companion catapulted into the air, exploded, a clay pigeon. A scream awakened still disbelievers. Frank tackled Angela into the roadside ditch. Others sought quick refuge in the ditch or the forest itself. Sheila dropped and rolled, her face buried in tufts of grass. The Jaguar sped past with a hot gust of wind, spraying dirt and gravel like buckshot into the ditch, and leaving behind the smell of hot metal and gasoline. White exhaust fanned and covered the road, phosphorous.
From her place in the ditch, she could no longer see or hear the white Jaguar. Dim screams. Coughs. Gags. Feet trampling branches and brush. The smoke thinned. Someone gave a shrill warning cry. She watched it all, both immediate and remote, tactile, a Viewfinder picture. Face rimmed with light, Chitlin Sandwich was bent over the steering wheel, both hands gripping it, eyes almost touching the windshield, teeth tight in a pained smile.
He looked ridiculous. She smothered an impulse to laugh. He speeded past, every eye watching, peeled and crucified.
The Jaguar turned, tires crying. She pushed herself up from the ground. The car came gunning forward, half-slanted in the ditch. She dusted clean her bright summer dress and presented herself to him, memory and substance, mission and will. The car flipped over, rolled down the ditch and slammed against a tree, then half-rolled back up the ditch and fell on its hood, all four wheels top-side like a trained dog’s paws. Without pause red hands edged out of the cab and searched the flattened grass. Hands and body, Chitlin Sandwich crawled from the cab and turned on his back, still, breathing, opposite the Jaguar’s spinning wheels. Sun slanted into the ditch. Chitlin Sandwich. Breathing and bright. Like a lollipop, the gold watch had broken from gold vest chain. Nowhere in sight. The brim of his fedora directed at the treetops.
Damn. Angela said. Damn. Motherfuck!
The wind carried a blend of dust, exhaust and blood. The motor’s hum in her ears, Sheila approached Chitlin Sandwich with fists formed. Tractile, he rose in circles from the folds of his baggy slacks. Mouth open. Pieces of fractured windshield embedded in his cheek. In one motion, he removed his now shapeless fedora—his eyes squinting in the sun—and swung it in a wide arc. She watched it beyond time, counting the revolutions, aware of the exact moment the sharp brim caught her forehead. More startled than hurt, she sighted what she could of his eyes and gave him her meanest look. He held his hand up for the fedora’s return. Caught it. At the ready. Like crude professional wrestlers Frank and Angela tripped and pinned him to the ditch.
It’s O.K., Frank said. It’s O.K.
The Poors were kneeling over Chitlin Sandwich like priests attending the dying. He pedaled his legs like a trapped fly. Mouth gurgling.
Are you alright? Frank speaking—to Niece? to her?—and holding Chitlin Sandwich in place.
Numb, Sheila touched her forehead. A dab of fresh warm blood on her finger.
Are you O.K.?
She raised her dress hem—blinded, exposed—and cleaned blood from her forehead.
Are you O.K.?
She let her dress fall. Yes.
Are you sure?
Yes. I’m fine.
You know him?
She know him! Angela said. Damn right she know him! She slapped her cloche with a blast of dust against her hip.
Conviction, Sheila moved forward in their direction. She did not rush. Her feet could not feel the ground. She seemed to be walking on her ankles. She came forward on currents, smooth motion, to where they knelt. She bent at the waist and picked up Chitlin’s fedora. Cleaned it on her bright summer dress. Reshaped the crown between her fingers. Stiffened the brim. Empty gestures. Indulgent. Vain. Taunting perhaps. Challenging. In sum—she judged herself—too little too late but telling all the same. The Poors seemed to understand. Synchronized, they took to their feet—twins, reflective forms—leaving Chitlin Sandwich unattended. Eyes wide, unbothered by sun, he did not try to rise.