Lately she’s going back to the two tall
sisters in their white choir robes standing next to the box she
put her mother in, looking at her, not like somebody you pass on
the street, but staring into her, eyes marching right inside her
like she’s just a house with the doors flung wide open. The
two of them like any other women in her church, wide-shouldered
and big-busted, black hair and honey-brown skin shining, the way
she’d look someday, she thought then. The women stood there
while Reverend Earl was preaching by the grave, robe hems lifting
in the hot air, moving like someone sighing, only no one heard them
and no one saw them. And it wasn’t no dream. It was what happened,
Lennie holding the paper bag one of the women had handed her, the
bag gone soft and furry with the sweat of her hand, a bag full of
cash, which she used to pay for the box and then the hole in the
clay and some flowers, too, even though her uncle, her mother’s
own brother, said her mother didn’t deserve flowers. A
whore like her.
Storm coming up now, air heavy on her forehead. She rolls over,
pulls a pillow to her chest out of habit so she won’t feel
the flatness, the breasts gone and now just bone and ribbed, scarred
skin. She rocks and cradles the pillow and tries to remember what
the women were telling her without moving their red shiny lips,
that everything was going to be fine, she had her whole life ahead
of her, the past didn’t matter. This was what she knew she’d
heard that day, and she’d believed it. She was sixteen, small
for her age, small like a child, and men loved that about her, the
way they could put their hands around her waist and touch their
thumbs and middle fingers without squeezing. Only they did squeeze.
The first crack lights up the room, everything bone white and then
black, even though it’s only late afternoon. Another thump
like it’s in her own walls and she’s on her feet, down
the short hall, past the row of Cedric’s school pictures,
past the State Farm calendar, finding the ash tray and cigarettes
on the coffee table in the front room. The rain starts, fat, slapping
drops. Another thump and she screams. “Gimme that fucking
lighter,” she commands the room, and then she sees its metal
tip glinting next to the stove; she had used it earlier to light
the gas, she remembers now. She lights her cigarette on the third
try and stands by the kitchen window, shaking and watching the storm
mix up the trees.
Another thump and she pounds the counter to keep her fear and her
rage at the fear, after all this time, in the bottom of her throat
where it belongs. Then she sees what’s making the sound, not
really the storm but a little man coming out of the apartment next
door, screen slapping the outside wall as he hurries down the back
steps and tugs at a mattress in the back seat of a long, green Chevrolet.
The sight of it makes her laugh, his skinny body jerking back and
forth as he pulls, shaking his head to get the rain out of his eyes.
She wonders how he can reach the pedals in a car like that. Finally
the mattress gives and one corner splashes into a puddle before
he can stop it. Lennie puts a hand over her mouth because she feels
like laughing but she knows it isn’t right.
She watches him stagger as he pulls the skinny mattress to his shoulder
and makes his way back to the door, rain rolling down the bedding
like from the side of a roof. She steps back from the window, even
though she knows he won’t see her. He’s Asian; she can’t
tell what kind. The last family that lived next door was Vietnamese––four
kids and so noisy she prayed they’d be deported. She heard
they got evicted for cutting a hole in the floor and using the basement
for a toilet. She doesn’t know if this is true, but it did
take four months to get anyone new in there and a lot people looking
at it. Meantime, she had gotten used to the quiet.
The man makes one more trip to the Chevrolet and comes back with
two bulging garbage bags. He grimaces against the rain. “You
go on and make a face,” Lennie whispers to him. “Ain’
no one want you here anyway.”
Sometime during the night the storm clears and the claws unhook
themselves from Lennie’s stomach. She wakes up on the couch,
the sun already high and sucking the blue out of the sky. Another
hot day. Sunday. Her birthday. She sits up, presses her fingers
to her forehead and thinks of fifty years. Born May 5, 1950. Five-five-fifty-fifty.
Some numerology type would get all over that. “Maybe this
my year,” Lennie says, pushing herself to her feet. She makes
coffee, scrambles an egg, toasts and butters some white bread. She
eats at the kitchen sink, gazing at the trees lining the gravel
parking lot, their leaves glossy and deep green, still wet and heavy
from the storm. She thinks about propping her door open to catch
a breeze, then thinks better of it. Then she’s glad she waited,
because the little man comes out the back door, walking fast, screen
slapping against the outside wall. Her wall. She’ll have to
talk to him about that. He rolls down his car window and backs out,
and she gets a good look at his face as he turns his head to see
behind him. He’s older than she thought, maybe fifty, maybe
older than that. Hard to tell with men, with Asian men especially.
Lennie finishes her breakfast, showers and dresses for church. As
she pulls her hair scarf from her purse and checks the lock on her
back door she sees the green Chevrolet; the man is already back
from wherever he went. She goes out the front door, squinting in
the sun, locks up and starts down her steps.
Lennie hears the voice and the accent and knows it’s her neighbor
before she turns to see him standing at his open front door. He
is smiling, nodding at her as if they’re already friends having
a pleasant little conversation. Small talk is for small people,
Lennie thinks. Who had said that to her once? She presses out a
close-mouthed smile. “Hello,” she says.
The man steps onto his stoop, and Lennie steps off her last step
into the warm, wet grass. He sees this and stops, puts a hand to
his chest. “Duc Li.” The sound in “Duc”
is something between “oo” and “uh.”
“Duke?” Lennie says.
“Duc Li,” the man says again, nodding.
“Duck,” Lennie says.
“Yes,” the man says, although Lennie knows she wasn’t
even close. Why do those people have to talk up in their nose like
that, she wonders.
“And, you, name?” Duc Li says, the last word swinging
up in his throat like he’s just remembered he’s asking
“Lennie,” she says. She takes another step away from
him, wet grass brushing her ankles and marking her hose. They need
to take a mower to this place, she thinks. She sees her bus turning
the corner. “Nice to meet you,” she says, although this
isn’t true, it isn’t nice, but she doesn’t want
to miss her bus.
Lennie walks quickly to the curb, watching the bus, which is waiting
to make a left turn onto her street. She hears Duc Li sing out,
“And you!” in a thin, reedy voice that sounds like a
sick child’s. She throws her arm up in a quick wave but doesn’t
This isn’t the church she went to as a child, where her mother
was buried. That church burned down while she was in Atlanta trying
to get clean, her small son left with her Aunt Olivia, who was actually
her mother’s aunt. She heard they moved the bodies before
they built the shopping center, but her mother’s grave never
had a marker except a few stones, so Lennie figures she’s
still in the old churchyard, under all that concrete, where it’s
cool and quiet and no one can bother her.
The church Lennie goes to now is beige brick with thick beige carpet
and long, blond wood pews, a far cry from the splintered folding
chairs that cut into the back of your thighs and nothing but packed
dirt for a floor. And no organ, not even a piano. And no air conditioning.
When she went to that church all she could think about was getting
out, first so she could play with her girlfriends, and later so
she could get with the boys who were turning into men, who couldn’t
be made to go to church anymore, and if they did, they sat in the
back so she felt their eyes moving over her neck and arms like a
Today the sermon is about Jesus turning the water into wine, and
Lennie thinks of when she joined twenty years ago, having just come
back from AA in Atlanta, still shaky, her son ten years old and
not sure who she was. The preacher is saying the wine is a symbol
for something else. Lennie sits up straighter in her pew to see
where he goes with this. He says the wine is a sign for the joy
“Not that you got to drink it to be happy,” he says,
and people laugh. He’s young, round-faced. Most of the brothers
and sisters are gray-headed.
A woman moans an amen to Lennie’s left. She doesn’t
think this preacher is going to last––he’ll go
on to bigger churches that put their services on TV––but
his hoarse, microphoned words make her think of other signs: Her
mother’s death a sign of sin’s punishment, her burning
house a sign for starting over, her breasts cut away a sign that
she would no longer be the woman she was.
The preacher’s asking people for prayer dedications. Over
the years Lennie always called out her mother’s name, Celia,
because it’s true, she was a whore, at least for one man,
who kept her in drugs until he got tired of her, then beat her unconscious
one night and dragged her into the road and drove back and forth
over her until she was in pieces. Broke Lennie’s father’s
heart in pieces, too, because he died soon after that. If she’d
had a daughter, Lennie would have named her Celia, and raised her
to become the kind of woman her mother might have been, if things
had been different. Instead she had Cedric, and then she left him
when he was only four and didn’t come back until he was ten
and then he looked her in the face and said his mother was dead.
Pray for me, Lennie wants to say. But nobody ever asks
for that. So she doesn’t either.
On the bus home she thinks about taking a trip, maybe to the ocean,
which she has been to once, when she was a child. It was before
her father’s heart attack, the one that put a scar up his
middle and the end to his working. It was before her mother left
them for Dag, who always had money and rings, thick gold on every
finger. Lennie remembers not believing her father when he said they
were going to the beach, because the ocean in her mind was so clean
and blue, she didn’t think whites would let coloreds near
But they did drive to the beach, right onto it even, sand stinging
her arm where it hung over the side of the car through the open
back window, sand spraying the wheel wells like rain on their tin
roof at home, sand flying in the windows, sticking in her teeth.
She collected the grains with her tongue and swallowed them, and
thought about where’d they’d been, where they’d
had to travel, to land in her belly. In the water, she opened her
mouth to the warm salty wet, closed her eyes, let wave after wave
roll her body into the surf, water rushing in her ears, drowning
out her father’s warning calls and sounding like somewhere
she’d been before. And the most amazing sight: chocolate and
coffee and caramel skins of other children, of men and women, shining
wet in the light that came from every direction, everyone laughing
and walking as if this was all there was—sun, water, sand,
and brown people in their own paradise.
The bus chokes to a stop at the curb in front of Lennie’s
apartment building. She takes her time getting off, crossing the
street and the lawn, glancing at the apartment next to hers, trying
to judge if her new neighbor is watching. She doesn’t want
to try to make conversation. Inside she splashes water on her face,
changes clothes, waits to check the red light on the answering machine
in the small bedroom until she has nothing left to do.
The light is blinking. She holds her finger just above the button,
listening, as if she might be able to tell the voice before it starts.
There are words and then there are the words behind the words, her
father used to say, especially when she started staying out late
with men, and he sat up waiting and watching for her, knowing that
getting angry would’ve done nothing but drive her away, like
it did her mother. What did he think of women, how they left him
when he was too weak to even argue?
Cedric. Like she hoped. “Mama, Nina and me wanna come over
and take you to lunch, OK? Maybe over to Herbie’s. Guess you
at church. Call me.”
So nice to be called. So right. She walks through her house and
inspects it, straightens a rug, smoothes the bedspread. Opens all
the curtains. She spritzes the couch pillows with her favorite cologne,
sits down and lights a cigarette, watches the bluish ribbon rise
and spread and curl like a storm cloud, like a woman’s hair,
loose and flowing, underwater. She thinks of her little-girl braids
standing around her head for the seconds she could stay under the
waves, all that water and deep around her and she wasn’t even
scared. She walks back down the hall to call Cedric, who’s
a good son even though he’s had his share of turnaround changes,
and as she dials, she thinks she might look into a bus ticket to
the coast. Maybe Myrtle Beach.
Answering machine. Probably they’re outside with Nina’s
kids. She tells them she’d love to go to Herbie’s. “Hi
Sally,” she says to Nina’s older daughter. “Hi
She hangs up, stubs out the cigarette, changes back into the dress
she wore to church, and smiles at herself in the bathroom mirror,
even though she’s feeling the first ache of worry in the soft
space between her ribs, the way she feels when the clouds gather
over the development down the hill and lightning winks behind the
trees. She can hear the man moving around in the apartment next
door, rustling like a small animal behind the walls. Then she hears
his back door open and she steps to the side of her window, where
she can see. He leans out with two plants, pink impatiens and some
kind of a cactus, both in green plastic pots with the price stickers
still on. He leaves them on the stoop, proof he’s there to
She stretches out on the couch, balancing her feet on the arm. Passing
cars sigh on the road, and she thinks of the two women in their
choir robes, the air around them alive somehow, looking at her in
a way that moved through her, telling her: you gonna be OK.
But asking, too. She thinks of her job at the nursing home, turning
all those poor bony bodies, wondering who will turn her someday.
“Stop it,” Lennie says to the air, and right after that,
she falls asleep.
When she wakes up, it’s nearly five o’clock, sun in
her eyes. She knows it’s late without checking; she could
always tell time within ten minutes by the light, the way her father
taught her. But she looks anyway at the black lines on the clock,
and she walks slowly to the smaller bedroom, her hips stiff, to
check the answering machine, knowing she wouldn’t have slept
through any rings.
Red light steady as a stare. “Fine,” Lennie says to
the room, to the dust floating in the sunlight. “Fine.”
She smoothes her hair, finds her purse and keys, heads for the bus
stop on the curb before remembering Sunday bus service cuts off
at five. She decides to walk to the Kentucky Fried Chicken a half-mile
down Church Street next to the gas station. She’ll take herself
out to dinner and pick up some cigarettes, too.
She’s stepping off the curb, checking to make sure she’s
remembered her wallet, starting to cross the street, feeling around
in her purse, looking down, and then there is a metal flash and
sound so great she can’t tell the two apart, and she feels
not pain, really, but weight, like the waves rolling her down into
heavy sand, and she can’t tell where her body is, and then
there is nothing.
Someone is crying. Lennie tries to comfort her, but the more she
tries, the louder the moans.
“You steal,” a voice says, right above her head somewhere.
“No,” Lennie says. She’s done a lot of things
in her life, but she never took anything that wasn’t hers.
She tries to respond, but she is too tired, and it’s too bright
to open her eyes.
“No! No move!”
“Oh my god,” a woman’s voice says. A voice she
She hears scraping footsteps near her head, fading, then returning.
And her back and arms are hot, so she tries to roll on her side,
but someone gently pushes her back, “Goddamn you,” she
mutters, and she opens her eyes and there is a face above hers,
a boy’s face she thinks, but the sun is behind it. Cedric?
She thinks or maybe says. Then she’s being lifted and the
pain moves through her like a wedge of hot metal from her leg to
her shoulder, and then she passes out.
There’s no reason to be confused, she keeps telling herself
every time she opens her eyes, sometimes when a nurse comes in to
check on her, to change one of the bags dripping clear liquid into
her arm. But she is. Once she sees herself tearing out the needle
and getting up to leave, but when she looks again, it’s still
there, and she doesn’t know whether it was a dream or not.
Then she thinks it’s her breasts again, the doctors telling
her they were poisoning her body and they would have to take them.
She laughs at the word take, like they’re children she can’t
control, like they can be brought back once they learn to behave.
But then she looks down at her chest and it is flat as a girl’s,
the white gown like a field of snow, like the choir robes the angels
wore. Well, they were angels, weren’t they? Meeting her in
front of the church like that, and she only had five dollars in
her pocket. Wasn’t even enough to have the hole dug. They
handed her a paper bag, twisted tight at the mouth like around a
wino’s sack, only it was so light it felt like there wasn’t
nothing in it. They handed her that sack and walked away, leaving
her in the dirt churchyard like this was the kind of thing people
did every day.
How did she know to walk to the back of the church and find Sarylee,
the secretary, and dump that sack all over a chair? Money falling
out and tumbling to the floor, damp and folded. Almost five hundred
dollars. She had always said she’d remember the exact number
forever, because that would be her lucky number for the rest of
her life, but then she’d forgotten it right away, almost as
soon as the money was spent. Enough for the hole and the preacher
and a pine coffin. And flowers too. And even some left over, which
she had promised herself she would put down on a grave stone, a
big white marble one, but then she had spent it on a dress for getting
married to Tony, and it was that dress she wanted to save when she
woke up one night in that drafty country house he stuck her in,
the fire heat holding her down on the bed, its sound like people
whispering, laughing. She thought of the dress even before her own
It was lightning that started it, turned that house to black bones,
as if to say this is your heart, this is what it looks like.
She wants to get on her knees and pray about it, even now, but she
can’t move, can’t even think of how she would bend to
Then there is the policeman, his chest a gray wall, the loose pink
skin of his neck wagging as he asks her what she remembers. She
remembers a lot of things, things she’d rather forget, and
here they are lined up in front of her like judgment day. The policeman
asks if she can tell him anything about the car.
“The car?” she asks, her throat surprised at its sound.
“That hit you?” Metal pen tapping a clipboard. Clock
hands clicking in their circle. Ticking her to sleep.
“You got a nice young man here to see you,” the nurse
says. “You gonna be fine.”
“Who?” Lennie says. Then she sees her son in the doorway,
looking at her with a smile that says he’d rather be somewhere
else. His church smile. His good-son smile. The one that seems to
hurt him from the way he squints. Shifting from one foot to the
“Hi Mama,” he says. “How you feeling?” He
jingles some change in his pocket.
“She a lot better, ain’t she,” the nurse says
to Lennie. She wheels a chair to the side of the bed and presses
a button to push Lennie upright. Lennie can feel her insides folding
hotly as she rises.
“No,” she moans.
The nurse peels back the covers. “Gotta start somewhere,”
she says. “You gonna be OK.”
Home. Right leg broken, five broken ribs––two on the
left and three on the right. Contusions of the left shoulder. Upper
extremities they called it. Where she threw herself against
the door of her burning house. Where she burped her son. Now she
can’t even think about lifting that arm. The car hit her leg
first, then flipped her over the hood onto her shoulder. Then left
her to die. The worst part: scrubbing the asphalt from her skin,
the palms of her hands where she had evidently tried to break her
fall. She had cried like a child during that.
Nurse coming twice a day. Aqua-blue uniform, skin so white it’s
almost blue, too. Nancy. Wears her hair in a ponytail with a rubber
band and no makeup. No wedding ring either. Lennie wants to tell
her she could fix herself up a little, probably find herself someone,
but then what does she have to say about men? Chasing after Tony
with his almond eyes and the muscles in his shoulders like something
molded, not flesh, two tear drops that slid from his neck and fanned
over her in bed. How she loved his size, she loved men who towered
over her, and most did, but she loved the biggest, the ones who
made her feel like a little doll. Thinking of him, if she lets herself
go into that first year, the year Cedric was born, can still make
her thighs twitch and tighten with the heat. That year, before his
drinking set his anger on fire, before he started accusing her,
asking her to prove that was really his son and how could she do
that? He was the one that was cheating, and she started drinking,
too, because it was something they had in common, and because sometimes
when he was drunk he got slow and soft, usually after he’d
gotten paid and the money stretched out in front of them like a
long velvet cushion until Tuesday of the following week, when there
was only beans or those yellow noodles in the crinkly sacks to eat.
That first year they lived in that country shack of a house with
nothing, and he was happy she was pregnant, telling her she was
so beautiful, that first summer the fireflies were thick in the
trees and some nights when it was too hot in the house they lay
down in the grass and made love with crickets shrilling all around.
One time she looked up, past the blue-black sheen of Tony’s
hair, past the swell of his back and the twin slopes of her drawn-up
knees and saw a plane sliding silently across the sky. She had never
been in a plane, and had always wanted to, but that night she felt
sorry for the people inside, that they could not know the pleasure
that ran down to her very fingertips, so much of it she thought
she could die right then, never even get to see her baby, and be
happy enough to let go of it all.
Nancy sponges her down in the morning and helps her dress and eat.
This morning Lennie’s in her recliner in a slip and underpants.
A nylon bandage buckled around her ribs like the tightest girdle
she’s ever had. The hospital doctor told her Medicaid would
cover fake breasts to put in her bra; but she said no. Who is she
going to impress?
“Which one?” Nancy asks, holding up two dresses, one
red with white flowers and one a yellow check. Lennie looks at them
but doesn’t see them yet; she’s not quite ready to get
up off that dewy grass, to give up all that roundness––her
breasts and belly, Tony’s buttocks and the tip of his purple-brown
Lennie sighs, lets go. “I don’t care.”
Nancy hugs the dresses to her like limp children. She cocks her
head to one side like a schoolteacher. “Ms. Williams, would
you like me to help you do your makeup today?”
“What for? Huh? Where am I going?” Lennie asks. The
itch under her leg cast is hot sandpaper on her skin. She claws
it anyway, knowing it won’t help. She doesn’t know why
she likes being rude to Nancy. Maybe because she will take it; she’ll
just be more and more polite until she freezes in place, all that
blue skin and pale brown hair still as death.
Nancy gives up. “OK, the yellow one.” Lennie lets her
arms go slack and Nancy gently lifts the hurt one first, her fingertips
like cold little stones, then the other. Then she helps Lennie stand
so that the dress falls down her back, and Lennie buttons it herself.
Nancy sits down on the couch across from her. “Are you sure
there isn’t anything more I can do for you?”
“Don’t you have your next appointment?”
“You know, it’s OK to take help right now. You need
to let people take care of you until you’re better.”
Lennie tries to lean forward in her chair, but the pain stops her.
She grunts out her words, using her best white talk to try to get
through to the woman. “For your information, my son is coming
over in just a little while. I am not some charity case. You look
at me and you think you know what you see. But you don’t know
Nancy’s lips get straight and thin; Lennie can see she’s
made her point. Nancy stands, gathers her brown purse and her white
notebook. “See you tomorrow, Ms. Williams.”
Front door pulls closed, and Lennie sighs. She nods to her father’s
picture on the wall, next to it her parents’ wedding picture
in front of the courthouse, her mother wearing a stiff white dress
with lace at the wrists and throat, looking serious, her father
in a dark suit, sweat shining on his high forehead, smiling. Their
features narrow and spare. She wishes she could step into that picture
and touch their soft faces and warn them about everything, tell
them they can save themselves. But what about her? She doesn’t
even have a picture of Tony––all that floated into the
air the night of the fire––and after that they moved
in with his parents since hers were already dead, and he was never
there, and when he was there he hit her or sometimes they drank
together until she couldn’t even wake up when her son was
crying. And then she left Cedric, left him with those brown stick
arms wrapped around her aunt’s leg, his shoulders capped with
those teardrops of muscle just like his father’s, except small
and nowhere near as strong.
Maybe an hour passes, her just thinking, waiting for Cedric to come,
until she’s sure he won’t come, and she starts crying,
thinking of that day two weeks ago in the church when she wanted
to ask everyone to pray for her. Please, she says into the quiet.
The knock wakes her, and then the pain comes first to certain places,
and then everywhere at once. “Mama, it’s me, open up.”
She has to unlock it herself. “OK,” she tries to say,
but she can barely whisper with the effort of pulling herself onto
the crutches. She crab-steps past the coffee table, then leans against
the back door as she turns the lock. She sees her son’s sagging
white truck next to her neighbor’s Chevrolet and wonders why
she hasn’t heard the little man lately. She steps away from
the door. “You can open it now.”
Cedric steps in and she’s hit with the smell of him––sweat
and cologne and smoke. He follows her slowly back into the living
room. She tries to sense his mood while he’s still behind
her––she’s always been able to tell more about
a person if she closes her eyes and listens to them. She can tell
he’s tired, maybe worried about something, from the way his
feet shuffle and his breath comes out too fast from his nose. “Help
me back down in this chair,” she says, and winces as he grabs
her too strongly and lowers her. “Now, there’s a tall
bottle of white pills, and a smaller bottle of blue pills on the
sink in there,” she says, pointing at the bathroom. He comes
back with the pills and she doesn’t bother to ask for water;
she just swallows them as quickly as she can, waiting for the slicing
pain in her arm and ribs to subside. He puts them back in the bathroom.
“Mama, you don’t look too good.”
“No, I mean it. They feeding you?”
“Yes, they feed me nasty crap and I eat it. Got me a white
nurse named Nancy who don’t know how to fix her own hair,
not to mention mine.”
This makes Cedric laugh. He slaps his knee and falls back against
her couch cushion. “Mama, you a mess.” And Lennie feels
a warmth that starts in her chest and spreads into her neck and
then her face. Her son, a grown man right in front of her, laughing
with his wide mouth that turns up at the corners just like his father’s.
I made you, she thinks. She smiles. She goes through the things
she won’t ask, like where he’s working now, or if he’s
working, or whether he’s talked to his father lately. “How’s
Nina and Sally?”
“They fine, they fine. Listen, I got news for you.”
Cedric’s face looks serious and Lennie pulls in her breath
to steady herself. The pain medication is flowing over her, and
she knows she can live with it if he’s going to ask her for
money again, because he’s alive, and as long as he’s
alive, she is too. Cedric sits forward, folds his long fingers.
“Nina’s going to have a baby.”
“You?” is all Lennie manages to say, and then she flings
her arms out to him, never mind the stab in her shoulder, and Cedric
comes around the coffee table to her and kneels between her cast
and her good leg and she pulls him to her and rocks him like she
used to do when they lay awake in that leaky house, listening to
the rain splashing in all their pots and pans. She can already see
the baby, slick from just being born, being handed to her, and it
will be light-skinned like Nina but wiry like Cedric. She can hear
its thin mewling, oh and see the head turning, rooting for milk.
She knows she will be there.
Cedric pulls away and sits back on his heels, looking down to check
the beeping pager clipped to the waistband of his baggy shorts.
The bands of muscles in his arms roll over each other and Lennie
allows herself to think of Tony, how he kneeled, asking her to marry
him, except he almost fell over because he was so drunk, and they
both laughed because they were so young, and it was so, so funny.
They were young and black and poor and the world had nothing to
give them, but it didn’t matter because they didn’t
need anything then; they would have laughed like hyenas at anyone
who thought they were good enough to pity them.
Cedric’s on his feet. “Let me use your phone, Mama.”
While he’s down the hall, Lennie is listing all the questions
she has to ask, but when he comes back he’s jingling his keys.
“I gotta go.”
“Wait, now,” Lennie says. “You gotta tell me more!
When’s it due?”
Cedric’s shifting his feet now, finding the right key. “I
don’t know. Nina just took a home test.”
“She going to the doctor, ain’ she?”
“I guess so. Look, Mama, I gotta go.”
Lennie wants to get to her feet but can’t. “Was that
“No.” Cedric bends to kiss her cheek. His lips are dry,
quick. “You want me to bring you some dinner?”
“OK, if you can,” Lennie tries to act like it doesn’t
matter either way, but she’s hopeful.
“You want some fried chicken?”
Lennie gets her purse from under the recliner, hands him a twenty.
“Why don’t you get some for yourselves, too, and bring
Nina and Sally over?”
Cedric smiling, pushes the bill into his running shorts. “OK
then.” Then he’s out the door and all that’s left
is his smell and the heat from where he was standing.
Lennie closes her eyes, thinks about the baby, which is carrying
a little bit of her inside it, unfurling inside Nina. She liked
Nina before; now maybe she can love her. She lets herself slide
into a light sleep. Then she’s seeing the women by her mother’s
grave, telling her she would be OK, meaning there would be a day
when all the pain she had felt and made for herself would somehow
come to something good, and on that day she’d find her way
to something like grace. She drifts on this, waves swelling underneath
and lifting her salty body to the sun, and she is sleeping lightly
when there’s another knock on her door. She opens her eyes
and listens. “Cedric, that you?”
“Hello,” a man’s voice says, but not Cedric’s,
“Who is it?” Reaching for the crowbar she put under
her chair, next to her purse.
“Duc Li. Next door?” That swinging upward at the end
of his voice, like he’s always surprised.
Lennie lets the air out of her tight chest. If not Cedric, then
at least it’s someone to help her pass the time. “Come
She hears her screen slap, and she wants to ask this man if anyone
ever explained to him about not letting doors slam. He comes into
the living room where she can see him, and he’s holding something
white in both hands. She squints to see it better. It seems too
dark all of a sudden––did she sleep later than she thought?
He bends and places the bundle on the table, and then she can see
that it’s actually a package of candles, bound in twine. He
points toward the ceiling. “Stome tonight,” he says.
“What?” Then she understands. Storm. And as soon as
she understands the word, she’s looking out the front window
down the hill toward the development, where the weather always comes
in, and even though the sun is still shining on the street, the
sky down there is a bruised gray, low and heavy. Her chest gets
tight again. She can hear the air moving in and out of her lungs,
feel the gathering pressure at her temples. Duc Li is watching her.
He is so short that he only has to bend a little to get to her eye
level. “You OK?” Words halting, like a waterbug zigzagging.
Lennie nods. “Thanks for the candles.”
“In case the lights go—” he makes a slicing gesture
with his hands. “Bad,” he says, shaking his head. Lennie
looks at the clock. Two hours since Cedric left. She thinks about
calling about dinner but doesn’t want to beg. She’s
too old for that. He said he was coming back. He’s a man now,
and his word has to count for something.
Duc Li is cutting open the package with a pocketknife. “You
want?” he says, miming putting a candle in a holder.
Lennie shakes her head. “I don’t have any.”
“OK,” Duc Li says, smiling. “OK.” He holds
up one finger signaling her to wait and goes out the back door,
screen slamming, making her jump.
“Goddamnit!” Lennie yells at him. She’s hungry,
her son isn’t going to show up––she knows this
even if she wants to pretend otherwise––and the sky
is going to crack open any minute. Truth is, after the fire she
never liked candles. She keeps a flashlight by her bed, but didn’t
think to put it in reach since the accident.
Duc Li comes back with a roll of foil. He tears a piece and makes
a mound of it and presses the base of one candle into it. Then he
makes another. Lennie doesn’t try to stop him. “You
see?” he says, and Lennie nods. She sees. She’s going
to sit in this apartment alone, waiting out the storm, hoping the
lightning doesn’t burn her alive like it almost did the last
time. She’s going to sit here until her body knits itself
together again, and then she’ll go back to work, and when
she can’t work anymore she’ll go back to sitting again,
and then she’ll die alone. Yes, she sees.
“I made,” Duc Li, pointing to the candles. “Carter
Candle Factory.” Except he says it “Carteh Cander Fahctree.”
Lennie wants to laugh at him for his cartoon talk and jerky little
gestures, the comical grin on his face. She wants to laugh at him
for thinking this country would be so much better for him, that
he’d ever belong here. But then the first thunder hits, and
she hears it pushing through the air almost before it explodes into
sound, but she can’t stop the yelp that tears itself out of
Duc Li jumps back, and for some reason she sees no point in not
telling him the situation. “I’m scared. Storm,”
she says, pointing at the ceiling like Duc Li did, and feeling ridiculous.
He nods. “You stay steal,” he says, and goes out the
back door, screen slamming, and she keeps hearing the word “steal.”
She knows he means “still.” But where did she hear it
before? She closes her eyes and what she sees is a boy’s face––maybe
a man’s––looking down at her, sun behind him so
she can’t make out the features. She’s on her back and
the pavement’s burning her, and she’s thinking someone’s
accusing her of stealing. Then she realizes he’s the one who
found her. He saw her get hit.
Duc Li comes back with two bowls of steaming rice and vegetables,
one fork, one set of chopsticks. “Here,” he says, holding
one out to her.
“No, that’s OK,” she says. “I’m not
hungry.” She isn’t. She’s angry––at
her fear of mere weather, the picture of Duc Li standing over her
in the street, the stupidity of not seeing the car coming, the pain
that’s coming back. Duc Li places the bowl on her coffee table.
She reaches for the two bottles of pills, the pills rattling like
ice in a glass, all those glasses of gin she drank, toward the end
with no ice at all. No glass even. She opens the tall bottle and
finds that most of the pills are gone––a lot more than
earlier today. Cedric. Always nipping a little here, and a little
there. She squeezes the bottle and shakes her head, tears dripping
off her nose. What did she expect?
Duc Li takes the bottle from her. He reads the label, counts out
one white pill, two blue pills. He takes a glass from a drainer
in the kitchen, fills it with water from the tap, hands her the
glass and the pills. He sits on his heels where her son was sitting
just hours before, telling her about a baby, filling her with hope
even as he was stealing from her. Duc Li takes the glass from her
and offers her the bowl. “You eat.” She shakes her head,
but he leans forward and pushes the bowl into her hands. “Eat,”
he says. He sits back on his heels again, prepared to wait.
Lightning now, turning his face gray, then darkening it. No more
sun on the street, just the dark air, the waiting stillness. She
holds the warm bowl, holds her breath, listening for thunder. Duc
Li picks up his bowl and begins to eat. His fingers are narrow and
long, like a woman’s, his chopsticks click lightly against
the bowl. The thunder rolls into the room and he looks up at her,
smiles while she grips the chair arm with her free hand, bearing
down on the urge to scream. Alone, she could let it out into a throw
pillow, but not with him here. Do you think this is funny? Lennie
wants to ask him. Me, trapped with you? But Duc Li is back to shoveling
in mouthfuls of food. He is almost finished by the time Lennie manages
the first bite. The rice is sticky and warm, and the vegetables,
bell pepper and snow peas, crunch loud like the thud of blood in
her ears. She keeps going until her bowl is empty. Duc Li takes
it, stacks it into his own. “Thank you,” she says. He
nods, rises fluidly to his feet, heads for the back door.
“Wait a minute,” she says. “Do you remember my
Duc Li seems to think this is funny. “Len-nie,” he says
with a pause in the middle. “Like my wife. Li Ni.” No
“Where is she?”
“Gone. Long time.”
Lennie doesn’t say anything to this. The medicine is loosening
her muscles, relaxing her jaw. She barely twitches at the next roll
of thunder. The room is almost dark; normally she would turn off
all the lights and unplug her radio and television and smoke cigarettes
until the worst had passed. Tonight she doesn’t even have
the energy to ask him to hand her the cigarettes. He stands in the
shadow of her doorway, waiting, she thinks, for her to say something,
but she can’t. She’s thinking of her mother now, her
broken body nailed into the pine box, how only a week before Dag
killed her she was standing on his rickety front porch yelling,
“You ain’t my daughter! You get outta here, you little
bitch!” The drugs had carved deep holes under her eyes and
cheekbones. Lennie’s thinking that’s what death is,
not being known. She’s thinking of the quality of the brown
sisters’ voices, like breath over a bottle, telling her not
to worry––weren’t they saying she could one day
live in grace? She lifts her hand, reaches, waits for it, the dry
pressure of Duc Li’s hand closing over hers.
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