by Kate Small

Appears in Other Voices #31

I can hear pills scraping the space below your tongue. You have thought I am deaf because I keep words to myself. I push them around in my mouth, send them to my ear, hide them in my tonsils. My mother laid her hands over my ears, to keep out the sharp-edged ones-cretin, mute. I'd tuck my face down into the phonebook, my cheek resting on its humming names. Then, now, my tongue fizzes but stays in my mouth. She put her hand on my neck and tapped my throat. Words rested on her face like bees, I sipped them off the air near her chin. She read my eyebrows with fingertips, pulled my lips apart looking for my questions. She put my head next to the radio where it church-sang red, under the stove and out the door red, a big black red curling in a flood around the garbage cans.

You don't see me, so you think I don't see you, but I knew before you did. The nurse grasped your breast and propped it on a block of lucite. Say cheese, she said and clamped your flesh between cold squares. Your nipple looked surprised, flash frozen in a slab of ice. Put your hand on your head, the nurse said to you. The machine hummed. She squeezed you into a tube like ungreased dough. Hold that thought, honey. She gave you a breast self-exam card to hang in the shower. You didn't ask to see your x-rays, full of webs and branches.

I knew the day you carried the fish I cooked, kitchen tools strange in your hands, your two children considering whether to eat it. They said they would in a bargain, you agreed to extra cake. Your daughter's eleven-year-old hips impatient for the dessert. She balances the boredom on herself. She reminds me of a small malevolent pig, the kind that comes to understand he'll never be slaughtered but put to stud for the quirk of his snow-white coat. Those pigs like to bite. You held two platters, and beneath your angora one breast coned the wrong way. I swept the porch. Ornamental lemons tapped the screen, inverting themselves, more inside-out than the year before. Your little son offered me his cake in the driveway.

The goal is comfort, the doctor says, do you understand? We ease the way, do you understand? Pills slip down your throat. He leans too close. That's all there is. Do you understand?

Your nurse stares at his back. "I need a smoke," she says. She goes outside and leans on the garage. I follow her, I watch the clouds, we look at the lemons. She exhales. We check our watches. The moon slips through its slit.


Oh, your husband says, his mouth open, the word, his face, humid and sad. He looks back and forth, from me, to the basketball game snapping on the screen. They are downstairs, watching TV. Glossy black men bounce like fireflies in the box behind them. The play-offs, he says.


Doctors looked down my throat too, doctors peered into my ears. I was small when they put headphones around my skull. I heard bright pinpricks, a pollen explosion, a broken thermometer, a burned finger, a marble hitting the bottom of a pool, blood cells with red comet tails. I didn't say, on the left there is always an earache, figure-eight shaped, dark blue in color, it follows where I walk. I learned to make it go away.

Your gaze blooms open, peaceful and liquid, you are out cold.

"She's hanging on because of you," the nurse says. She rolls a cigarette.


A year ago, I came into your kitchen from the bloodbank, gauze taped to my arm. What is your bloodtype, you asked surprised. Red, I thought of saying. AB negative, that's rare, you say three times, as though I might forget those two letters which launch the alphabet. Absolve, abdicate, abdominal, I think, abrasion, abyss. All brown: it attaches itself to your ankle and trails behind you into your taxis across town to white spaces, it follows behind you up the stairs I sweep, it trails into the kitchen where I cook and the bath I clean, down the drain and back up again. I am here. Your house is half of where I live.

Gallons a year, I lay on the table and watch myself flow up, a shrug of red trundled in an airtight bag-blood caught in the act, blood with its pants down, a what-who-me-bag of blood. I like to think of myself in some other arm. Me, buzzing and pooling in the aquifer. I drank juice from a plastic cup and came here to serve breakfast to your visiting father reading the paper. Look at this, he said to your little son, tapping a picture of a white man with his arm thrown around the shoulder of a black man, his kidney donor. I'd rather have part of a corn fed pig sewn into my chest. Your son touched the print. The kidney lived in the back of the white man for sixty-one days, it held the other's shadow in the bean-curve of itself. No longer nested in lumbar home but black in the back of a white man like a handprint. Stone cold from its twin, it quit, the white man died. The paper never said what happened to the black man, but I dreamt he had a steam-train by a river tatooed over his long jagged scar, like mine.


Your throat is closing. The doctor says you are dying of thirst. The nurse sets an IV and sleeps on the couch. I put a straw to my mouth and suck some water in. I place my finger over the top of the straw to keep the vacuum, then insert the straw into your mouth. I am feeding a hurt bird with an eyedropper. Your son walks from room to room.


"I know, I know," your daughter says whenever she opens her mouth. Half her dinner flicked to the cat. She considers me over the table, I look at her but she tosses the food anyway. Her idea of servant is total, her reckoning sure. She watched when you gave me your last year's bony dresses when I was on my knees. Little shiny dresses when I am a tall, grown black woman, my arms too big and hard for the starved slits in the fabric. I washed the Christmas drinks off your floor, the floor I washed for you the week before that. Even now, with your hair burned away and half your chest carved out, you never look at me standing up. She won't either. I don't like this growing white girl with badly braided hair, the part lurching carelessly from scalp to the nothing at the base of her neck. She carries her little breasts like deeds of title, she leaves things places, your husband buys more of them. She will throw plates off fire escapes after you are gone, she will wreck cars, she will walk away from messes like they are forgotten tracts of land.


The doctor comes, surprised to find you hydrated, annoyed, you have not died.

"He's such an asshole," the nurse says.


Your skin is a little brighter. I make your husband uncomfortable so he talks too loud. He forces himself to make eye contact, it makes my face heavy. She's pinking up, he says. I let out my breath on the bus and push away the smell of disinfectant and Twisted lemons. Skin and wrong fruit.


I stay with you twenty hours, I feed you thin foods and clean your bed. Your daughter throws a ball against the house. Your husband reads and smokes and talks on the phone. Your son weeps behind the couch. You stare at my face, my mouth. You don't know, till now I've pushed a whole tornado down, of alphabet, that I keep and control the red part, I get the letters to march in the same direction. You don't know that I manage a storm that would break you. I wanted something more than my own name to write. I wanted to know what it says on the back of the aspirin bottle, what it says on boxes and jars. I wanted to know why I couldn't learn it, what it is that spins and twists the letters. Where do you think I went all those years when you closed the door behind me? You only see dark, and no bones, nothing inside, or below. The first word I spell is brown. Your only word for me, but it is long and low. I went to the library, I went to the bank, I wrote on the slips with lines. I read the side of the bus, and newspapers behind glass in front of the drugstore. I wonder how you think I cooked for you, how did I find Creole halibut and pan-fried catfish, where did I get cream-of-squash soup, did I just know pickled onions and corn relish? I don't just have steamed persimmon pudding and sweet peach pie in me, I learned sea bass with celery root and lemon bread, I learned hot slaw. I learned gravlax and liptauer cheese and mashed rutabagas and wild rice with Indian nuts. These are not in the blood, the food of my charming potois.


"You ever noticed," the nurse says, "the things they use, to describe tumors?"

"Grape-fruit," I say.

"Golf-balls," she says. "Fists, marbles, cherries."

"Lemons," I say.


Your fingers are purple. I remove your socks, your toes are black, your face is raisin-colored. Your hand moves to your belly and grips the folds of your abdomen, something comes from you like chanting. One arm flutters up and makes a circle back to the bed. Your husband flickers past, his hands in his pockets.


Sarah these are for you, your daughter says. You have replaced yourself. She's holding up the cast-off clothes because I didn't take them home. That muscle in her chest has dried up into something like your ankles in a bleached tennis dress. She grinds her teeth at night, she smells like toothpaste and cancer. Don't sell them, she says. Eleven years old and she looks at me like a bitchy pilgrim. I will feed her when you're gone, but I won't weep when she dies, surprised and without passage, like the pig who was slaughtered on second thought one winter because someone needed the fat. She has a soul like a jaw.


I am stuck with your husband in the kitchen again. I hear the fluorescent bulb, and the click of his adam's apple. Basketball, he says, the pastime of the urban poor. I'm not talking about culture, I'm not talking about chromosomes. He looks like he's talking to a dentist holding a drill. He puts his hands up like I'm going to shoot him. Upstairs your lungs are climbing out through your mouth. Black basketball, he says, it is the use of superb athletic skill to adapt to the limits of space imposed by the game. He turns the water on, watches it go down the drain. I open the dishwasher, I pour powdered soap into the detergent slot and snap it shut. The nurse's face flickers past the window. There is no room. Basketball is a struggle for the edge, the half step with which to cut around the defender for a lay-up. He demonstrates this, he looks like a straight boy in a college skit about cross-dressing. I am sorry for him, lifting and thrashing into middle age in the sauna without you, his body like pale dough perched on the cedar boards. I am quitting this job the second you die.


"Do we all do that?" the nurse says.

"Yes," I say.

"Because I've been meaning to tell you," she says, "I want to kill OJ."

"I know." She says things out loud that other people just think. It is because she has stood next to so much dying, without looking away. I lift my shirt and show her my tattoo. She traces the scar with her finger: it glimmers up white, like mercury, away from the dark landscape engraved around it.

"Train tracks," she says, "A river, shackles, a helix..."

"Yes," I say.


"Tebori-it means, to carve by hand"

She slides down to the ground and rubs her eyes with the heels of her hands. "Maybe if I could just grab him by the shirt and beat him until I am satisfied."

"Maybe he'll get cancer," I say.

"OJ?" she says. "If I've learned anything, it's that cancer doesn't care who you are."

But sometimes I look at it in the mirror: my scar like a clue, something come to the surface. Do you have any place to point within, and say, this: this gathers me. Did you watch what swims below? The nurse says cancer doesn't care, but I believe, things gather, things pool and clot to poison. I learned early on, how to locate the bad part within and squeeze down on it hard, I made the contagion out. I pressed down on it like bowels on a bone, a whole pelvis on a kidney stone. You were slacked to sleep when each of your children were born, your head so far away from the rest of you, and now it is too late to muscle up some dignity and bite back at that thing. You have no respect for the river underneath.


I tell the nurse about noodling: "Reach all the way down a catfish hole, and wait," I say. "The fish surges up, snaps your arm into itself, up to the elbow. Pull out bleeding, with dinner clamped on."

"It's got teeth?" she says.

"Feeds four," I say. We go upstairs, to you. I watch her minister and sponge, I watch her make herself a cenotaph, an empty tomb.


I know all this has surprised you-so many words, and not the kind you expect. You issue me one poetry only: 8-cent cotton, sharecropping, jute-bagging, dog-trot cabins and yankee banks, boll-weevils and dark-fingered hands hit with the stirrup strap. Until now I have given you the stylized short-hand you want. I have dropped the verb to be, I have added extra negatives. Less is more black, for you. Less is not a facsimile of what I think.


Your body is darkening from the toes up. I show them your hands, purple all the way down to the palm, darker at the tips. I drag your watery children to your bed. They are gone, there is one thing left to tell you. When he was smaller, your son asked to look at my hand, his own still a starfish, warm, not the ice on the curves of his sister. His fingers soft as beeswax over my creases, trying to get it, past it, to difference. I touch your arm now and ask you. Did you savor him when he was still sweet, when there was the possibility of keeping something tender in him, and safe? Because his fingers were like the voice of a boy soprano rising to the bright upper vault of a cathedral, pale steam on the high rose window. If I had said one word it would have been too much, though he traced the moons of my cuticles, our blood almost meeting in the lines of our palms. I watched his large eyes move without a particle of distrust, he tested the veins in the back of my hand for their give, the secret pink of an African's fist. I kept all the way down a million swallows trapped on the branches of my lungs. He looked from my hand to my eye to my hand, measuring something. I wonder where it is stored in him, the sameness of us, the bone and knuckle, of we.