Illustrated by J. Michael Walker
Car doors slamming. Just dawn. Albertine saw the faint shadow of bougainvillea on the wall. She made her bed every morning. Every morning. She pulled the yellow-rose printed sheets tight. If she didn’t make the bed when she was a child, Grammere Marie would chase her back inside the house with a fig-tree branch stripped of leaves, stinging the backs of Albertine’s legs. Every day. Even Sunday. More car doors slamming, and voices. The music. Trumpets. Mexican music. Albertine froze.
In the other bedroom, the quilt was smooth. The bed her daughter Cherisse had refused to sleep in last night. The bed Cherisse had slept in all her life until college. And the bassinet was still against the wall. I only had a dresser drawer for Cherisse. Back in 1970. But a bassinet this time. She moved to the dim hallway, listening. Car doors slamming, slamming. He had left her there. Amina. He had gotten out of the car and slammed the door and left her there. The police said the driver door was closed. Amina would have heard him leave her there in the other seat. If she could still hear. Voices speaking Spanish. A child calling, Papi! Papi! Josefina’s perpetual yard sale, across the street.
Then she heard the drumbeats. Faint. Coming from Central Avenue. Then closer, so loud and boom boom boom that the vibration shook the walls. She put her forehead against the plaster. The dull explosion over and over. The metal of the car. Pernell would have shot them. He had a rifle. Her heart throbbing against her breastbone. A car with speakers. Boom boom boom. The drums so loud the plaster trembled. A spooling of words from the deep voice. Boom boom boom Girl. Boom boom boom World. The same song as three nights ago, when pounding drums sped past and she hadn’t heard anything else. Or she would have run outside. She might have found them in time. They sing Boom boom girl and Boom boom world and then they shoot.
She lay on the hallway floor. The narrow long rug like a dark red river that had been there for thirty years. She curled herself like a pillbug. Not on her back. Not like a coffin. Like the baby had been curled inside the water of her mother. My granddaughter. Amina was having a boy. Had he drowned? How did they breathe in the water? When she was pregnant with Cherisse, no one knew anything. She carried a heavy weight of baby, of kicking and feet pushing out the skin near her navel, and all was mysterious. No grainy black and white pictures of something curled inside a silvery space. Stop, drop and roll, Mama! That’s what they said to do. If you’re on fire.
Albertine rolled onto her stomach. She had cried for three days. Her eyes burned as if someone had put embers there. Inside the holes. The eye sockets. Cherisse showing her the skeleton in the science book, and then the muscles. Then Cherisse coming home from school saying Stop, drop and roll, and collapsing onto the living room rug like her bones had dissolved.
You can put your own fire out, Mama.
By sixth grade, Cherisse had said, They always say, Your mama the lunch lady. Her face pulled back like a turtle. You don’t want something?
You just gon serve the lunch and come home and clean the house?
What you want me to want?
I want my baby to be happy.
I’m not a baby.
Her eyes were dry and swollen hot. No tears. When you were young, there was more water inside. She hadn’t cried like this even when the men showed up on the porch with medals like candy gum and said Pernell Johnson had been killed in Vietnam. She hadn’t let herself go hysterical because she was pregnant with Cherisse, and the old women back in Louisiana used to say, Cry and cry, that baby water fill up with salt and they drink it. Them tears make a baby sad the rest of they life. They feel you shakin and they scared before they come out in the world.
But Albertine hadn’t been in Louisiana since she was 20. There was no one here to explain anything. She was 60 now. The last branch on the tree.
When the bullet went into the brain, did the heart forget to beat? Is that what the TV show said? If the bigger heart stopped beating, how long did it take for the baby heart to slow?
Revella would let herself in. At the kitchen door. She had a key. She would find Albertine lying here on the hallway floor like a – Albertine pushed herself up with her elbow. Hands and knees. In her robe. The muscles in her back complaining when Amina was little, wanting to play. I’m too old to play like that, baby. Mama, you’re not that old. She’d still gotten up every morning and made her bed, told Amina to make her bed, and cooked eggs, grits and coffee before Amina went off to the college.
She was in the first year of the nursing program. She’d met this boy – Jhamal – after a football game. He’d come over a few times – perfect smile, scalp so shorn his hair was like a lace net over his skull. Polite. “He run with them fools?” Albertine asked Amina after that.
No, mama, he’s a baller. He’s careful. Big universities are looking at him. You see his skin? Like the Dove bar.
But Albertine had heard him from the kitchen. Why you have to be so fine? I’m not supposed to get caught up, now. But look at you. She leaned forward and put her forehead on the rug. Like those men praying five times a day. What would the Lord think? Prostrate. Crawling.
Pernell would shoot them. But he wouldn’t even know who to shoot. In Seven Oaks he’d crouched in the canefields when they burned. He’d shoot rabbits, and Albertine had pulled off the skins. She crawled toward the doorway. Her knees. Revella would let herself in. Revella would be wearing her brown velour sweatsuit. She had bought Albertine a black one. She would talk to Albertine again about moving to Fontana, to a condo near her pastor and her church, where it was safer. She would find Albertine crawling.
Silence. She crawled up the wall and stood, put her palm on the cool plaster. The dark narrow hallway, where Cherisse’s fingerprints had been like faint black ladybugs on the white paint where she steadied herself with her hands, coming to the back bedroom when she had a bad dream.
Cherisse had bad dreams forever as a child, the fingerprints at hip level, and then she went to school and fell in love with insects and grew up hard and said things like, Beetles have more of a moral compass than anyone around here. Then she went to UCLA and studied entomology and specialized in wasps and never came home though it was only ten miles and there were buses. But during her junior year, when she was 20, she came home pregnant.
She never said the father’s name. She named the baby Amina. Then she went back to UCLA, graduated two years later, and went to Washington DC to work at the Smithsonian, cataloging insects. Albertine imagined her in wood-panelled rooms with hundreds of drawers, pulling out cases of wasps with their tiny abdomens pierced by pins. But she had no idea what the rooms looked like. The Smithsonian was like a red-brick castle when Amina showed it to her on the computer.
When Albertine saw wasps hovering around the rose bushes in the front yard, so thirsty in August in LA that they would land right on the hose, waiting for the right drop on the right leaf, their beautiful elfin faces looked human, their legs dangling like gold chains broken from around someone’s throat.
Someone knocked on the kitchen door. “Miss Albertine.” A boy. Not him. Not the boy who had left Amina there. “Miss Albertine?”
She made her feet move down the hallway. The chifforobe. The bowfront glass case her Grammere Marie had sent with her to California, when Pernell was being sent to the base near Los Angeles. The kitchen empty and clean. The casserole dishes washed and stacked up on the counter. Revella had brought gumbo. Dolores had brought string beans and potatoes cooked down with sausage. Josefina had sent a pan of chicken enchiladas.
The face at the window in the kitchen door was Josefina’s middle son. Miguel. He’d been about seven when Josefina bought her house ten years ago. He held up a small pink box. His hair brilliant black needles glistening in the sun.
She told him once, “You look like a porcupine, baby.” And he’d said, “What’s that? We didn’t have no porcupine in Oaxaca.”
“You okay, Miss Albertine?” he said when she opened the door.
“Yes, baby, I’m okay.” Her eyes felt like coals.
“From my mom.” He put the pink box into her hand, and she nearly dropped it. “I’m sorry.” He put it on the counter. The heart-shaped pastries from the Mexican bakery. To apologize for the cars along her curb. The way Josefina did every Sunday.
Albertine looked down the driveway. Josefina’s chain link fence was hung with men’s shirts on one side, and baby dresses on the other. Women bent over the card tables along the driveway, holding up men’s shoes and asking how much?
The baby dresses were like small pink and yellow ballerinas tied to the wire. Miguel went down the driveway. Albertine’s driveway was empty. The Regal had been towed away by the police. She wouldn’t look down toward the corner, toward Central Avenue, where the yellow tape had blocked off the street. The corner of the cement step under her foot was chipped off. It was the last thing Pernell had done before he left – he’d been trying to fix a car part, and his hammer hit the step. Cherisse used to put her finger inside the hole until it was smooth as though a snail had lived there.
She touched the corner of the chifforobe. Inside the top drawer was her life. The deed to the house. The insurance papers from when Pernell had been killed. The medal. The pink slip to the Buick Regal she’d bought in 1978. The one she still drove until three days ago. Burgundy.
The shelves behind the curved glass held Cherisse’s diploma from Jefferson High School. The picture of her in cap and gown. And Amina’s diploma, too. Jefferson High. Class of 2007. Her hair straightened, flowing into two points from under her cap. Both of them with Pernell’s eyes. Slanted and tilted and black. He looked nearly Chinese himself, and when he came back from the first tour he said, They got me shootin’ at dudes look like me. But I try not to get close enough to see their faces. Back in Seven Oaks, when they were kids, everyone called him Chan.
Cherisse’s palm print on a round pink plate, from kindergarten. And her baby shoes. Bronzed baby shoes.
The second shelf was crowded with useless small things. Three fancy teacups from Revella, two glass ballet dancers someone had given Cherisse long ago, and little plastic things from teachers and students. Birthday cards and graduation cards and a metal plaque from the Science Fair. Cherisse used to refuse to wipe them off, on Saturdays when Albertine made her spend the morning cleaning.
Why you gon make me dust em off and the dust fly up in the air and come right back down in an hour? For reals, Mama.
But this dust was different from the particles of earth Albertine had swept up in her mother’s wooden house near the cane fields. She said, This my dust. When I was little, somebody else dust flyin round, and this my dust. You wet that rag and get them cups clean.
When Cherisse wiped off her own bronzed baby shoes, she’d roll her eyes and say, Cliches collect dust, Mama. All they do. But Albertine had first seen bronzed baby shoes when she was nearly a baby herself. In Mr. McQuine’s house. Seven Oaks. When she and her mother were called in from the field to help clean for a party. On a shelf built into the wall near the fireplace mantel – three pairs of bronzed baby shoes. The two daughters and one son of Mr. McQuine’s mother. The inheritors of the plantation.
Shelf painted white. The room big. A chandelier.
She had been barefoot. She remembered her first neighbors, Revella and the others, saying, You get that baby some Buster Browns? You go to the shoe store? Get that baby some Buster Browns. So her foot shape right later. You get them shoes with support, so she walk like a queen when she get to be a big girl.
A black and red heat bloomed in her head. Like a drop of food color in a glass of water. Twisting, moving, then threads of hate. She swung open the closet door and got a box. She opened the latch that stuck on the glass front and bent again and again to put the cups and dancers inside. The mug that said her name. The china dolls and the pretty gold-rimmed plates she had bought when she got married.
No need to wrap the figurines in newspaper because she was taking them to Josefina for the tables. Mexican women could have the glass dancers.
She left Seven Oaks for California when Pernell was sent to the base, and when he came back after the first tour of Vietnam he was home for six months. They bought the house at 39th and Central, and then he went back to the war.
They stood in front of this small house with white plaster like frosting, and red tile roof with half-moon holes like a million dark eyes when Albertine looked up from the green-painted front steps. Pernell said, Damn, we got a house. A house. Look at this! Two bedrooms and a big old window in the front.
But you leavin, she said.
I’ma be back here in a hot minute. My job – shoot em. You know. They shoot me and I shoot them. I better be good. Your job – be here when I get back. Cause some them girls don’t wait. They find somebody else. Don’t go. Don’t go.
Even when Cherisse told her to go. Even when Cherisse refused to come back for Amina’s birthday parties. The three of them at the W Hotel in Westwood, in the lobby where grass grew in cement planters and the restaurant was lit by tiny lights like fireflies.
Cherisse said that there were fireflies in Washington, DC, and Amina had asked if it was true, if you caught them in a jar they died, and Cherisse said Everything dies eventually, and Amina said That’s when you stick a pin in it to make it important and Cherisse said People have no idea how important it is to catalogue the world.
Amina said, I want to be a phlebotomist. Cherisse. If you take out the blood and figure out what’s wrong with it, and you give people the right drug it gets erased.
The bottom of the box was full. Her eyes burned. She headed down the hallway for the baby Nikes. But Revella let herself into the kitchen, shouting, “That boy comin across the street. Them Mexicans. I told you, them Mexican boys down the way had to been the ones shot the car. We in a war. I told you, my pastor done found us a condo–”
“Yes,” Albertine said, stepping onto the linoleum. “We can go to Fontana.”
Revella was silent for once. For a moment. She wore the brown velour. Her hair was freshly pressed, the curls shining like Cherisse’s toy. The Slinky.
Then Revella said, “What you doin with that box? You not dressed yet? You sure you okay? When Cherisse comin for the viewing?”
“She called. She’s not comin.”
Albertine went down the two kitchen steps with the box. She hadn’t been outside since the police brought her back. The grass was dry and stiff. She was near the edge of the yard. The lantana bush. Covered in pink and yellow flowers. Miguel was sitting in his car across the street, working on the speakers. Josefina was helping an old woman close the trunk of her car. Josefina lifted her hand the way the Indians did in the old movies. But she looked like a tiny African queen. Darker than Albertine or Revella. Her braid a crown. Her housecoat covered with pink orchids. She had seven boys.
The lantana bush smelled sweet and oily. It had been there when they bought the house. There was a picture in the chifforobe drawer. Black and white photo with scalloped edges. Someone had left it behind. A white woman with glasses, pigeon bosom and tight-belted dress, standing on the lawn. “Lucille and Lantana – Our Home 1952.”
Pernell laughed, held the photo. She had to been dead to sell it to us. The glint of something in the bush. Albertine put down the box. A cell phone. Black and heavy and small in her hand. Like a piece of sugar burned to black shine in a pot. She must have cried out, because Josefina ran across the street.
Josefina said something in Spanish to Miguel, and he took the phone. “Dead,” he said softly. He waited until a truck passed and then bent inside his car, plugging the phone into something.
Revella said from the driveway, “You don’t need no more mess. Come on inside, Albertine.”
But Albertine looked down the street. Six houses away, just near the corner of Central. Where there were still jazz clubs when she and Pernell came. Now there was a recycling center, and the Mexican bakery. The yellow crime tape gone. The Regal gone. The asphalt empty.
Miguel said, “It’s his phone. The guy.”
Josefina took Albertine’s arm. They waited for a van playing Mexican music, trumpets swinging. Albertine opened the passenger door and sat down. The bottom of a well – dark seats, and sinking.
Miguel looked up from the phone, deep in concentration, as if from a book. He held it out and she looked at the letters.
“You want me to read them?”
“Jhamal, right? Nobody seen him again?”
Albertine pictured him running, throwing the cell phone into the bush, and passing right by her house, her door, never screaming out that Amina was in the car, bleeding.
She held it and he pushed a button. He moved the lines down and read softly as if from the Bible.
“Yea. Wit this girl.”
“No. She aiight. Not the 1. But coo 4 now.”
“She came to tha game. I scored 2 TDs.
“Nursin or sum shit like that.”
“Sum fools from tha party seen us @7-11. I-ballin me. Where u from; like that.”
“Idk. She half sleep.”
“Jus dropping her off. Ill be over 2 ur place. ttyl.”
Miguel looked up. “That’s what I heard them say. Where you from?”
The sun moved on the windshield. Cloudy smudges of handprint like ghosts. “Where were you?”
“Sitting here. The window was open. I was texting this girl. I seen a black Escalade down there. Somebody yelled Where you from? And then they started shootin.”
“That’s all they say?” Albertine asked.
He nodded. “I ducked down and they went past.” His hair was blinding and silver in the sun. “They were black. They yelled something like 60s.”
The boy had been driving her car. Amina was in the passenger seat, half sleeping because it was about midnight and she was five months pregnant. But he didn’t know that yet. She hadn’t shown him the shoes.
I bought some little Nike Shox. I didn’t want to tell him yet til I knew it was a boy. She had the ultrasound the morning before.
I was sleep. I had the fan on cause I hate hearin all them cars, all them drums.
Brain. Belly. How long did it take for the baby to die?
She had sat there in the car, Amina, as if resting, until the sun came up and a man pushing a shopping cart filled with recyclable cans saw the blood on the window.
She walked past Revella, who was speaking – her mouth open, her red lipstick moving, her arms folded. She went back into the bedroom for the baby Nikes.
Cherisse crying last night on the phone. Why didn’t you move? I told you to move years ago. I would have given you money.
What did the baby do? She’d spent hours lying in bed seeing him curled in the water. You’re telling me one coffin or two? That’s what you’re telling me? The boys. Pernell shot the men in the jungle. But he didn’t shoot at men from behind the lantana. Or the bougainvillea. Amina. Amina. Her cheekbones so high, her eyes nearly hidden when she smiled. Cherisse calling near midnight, Albertine half asleep on the couch. I can’t do it. I can’t come down there. I went to the funeral home an hour ago and they wouldn’t let me in at first. They said I wasn’t family. They said they’d seen the mother and it wasn’t me. And when they let me in I saw the other casket. Why couldn’t they just leave him with her? He was so small.
They didn’t even see Amina in the car. She was nothing. Nothing. They wanted each other. Every night they hunted each other and wrote numbers on walls. Every wall she passed was covered with numbers. Their hands in the air with fingers curled and numbered like old arthritic hands back in Louisiana. So that the baby’s heart could be stopped by a bullet bigger than his toes.
Revella was talking and talking. Albertine went down the hallway. The bedroom dim and still. Amina’s clean clothes stacked in the laundry basket. Smell of cocoa butter lotion from Target. Where they’d bought the bassinet.
Portable rocking bassinet with the toy box base. The screams rose up inside like barks. Barking in her throat like metal sponges.
Look at this, Mama. “Tadpoles basic green Moses basket.” A Moses basket? That’s what they call it?
Albertine picked up the shopping bag from Foot Locker. Inside was a six-pack of sleepers Amina had bought because she couldn’t wait, and the shoebox. She didn’t open it. The baby shoes were black and red and white. Gangsterish. But Amina said, For a little baller. Look at the bottoms. Red rubbery things like suction cups. So he can jump!
She put the bag inside the bassinet. They bought it early because it was on sale. She pushed the whole thing across the floor, bumped the doorway again. Albertine pushed past Revella in the kitchen, hit her in the knee. Soft velour. Revella shouted, “Albertine, you can’t do that.”
Down the two steps gently. More cars cruised past Josefina’s yard. Tubas and trumpets. Boom boom girl sleeping until dark. Pernell would shoot them, but he wouldn’t know who to shoot. Shoot them all. A branch on a tree. She pushed the bassinet across the street.
Past two women pushing strollers, plastic bags tied to the handles like lumpy white fruit. Don’t look. She stopped in front of Josefina’s feet and kept her head down, crossing back blindly.
But Miguel stopped her on the asphalt. She looked at the lantana flowers. Tiny pink and yellow umbrellas.
“She says you should keep these. She says she seen the other shoes in your cabinet. You should keep these next to the other ones.” Josefina said something else. Now her hand a tiny dark starfish on Albertine’s wrist.
“She says if she sells them, it’s like he wasn’t ever here.”
She handed the box back to Albertine. Nike Shox. For my baby baller, Amina said. Like he would have bounced into the air with his very first steps.
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