“Why you looking for another job? Seems like the one you got ain’t that hard.” Gina, her next-door neighbor, wouldn’t let the topic rest.
For one thing, the money wasn’t great. Last month, she’d given plasma twice to make rent. Also, and probably weighing in more heavily, was the fact that she’d accidentally slept with An Dung, whose parents owned the Noodle Bar where she waited tables. He worked afternoons and she imagined them both struggling to break free of the shackles that life places upon the young and poor.
In fact, An Dung wasn’t poor, but stood to inherit all of his parents’ assets, which were considerable and included four restaurants in addition to the Noodle Bar, but she wasn’t one to get hung up on facts. Case in point - she told herself that the whole thing was his fault, even though that first time, she’d been the one to grasp his hand and lead him to the cooler with the dead fish eyes and bloody slices of animal. When his hand crept under her skirt, she closed her eyes and slid into it, thinking of rose petals and candles.
His name, after all, meant ‘peaceful hero’ and she wasn’t going to tempt the universe by ignoring a sign like that. She was so parched and dry, so bone-tired, not a hero in sight, and suddenly, there he was. Muscular to say the least.
It was easy to imagine them together in black and white scenes from late night television. The two of them reclining on a blanket, picnicking in the park, walking arm in arm, no words needed because love had bridged the gap between them. A silent touch on her wrist meant we are bound to each other forever. A hungry glance in a crowded room told her you’re the most beautiful girl in the world. His arm casually tossed around her shoulders told her I am yours and you are mine. When this last image flashed through her mind, she knew suddenly that she would fight anyone, face anything, to be with him.
There were other imagined snapshots, singular moments frozen in time. Red wine in glasses, stars in the sky. Her head thrown back with wild laughter, his eyes watching her with adoration.
The truth was much less lovely.
He rarely spoke, but communicated primarily by grunt or nod. The affair, if you could call it that, lasted only a month, during which time she single-mindedly pursued him and abandoned all that was important to her while he continued with his life much as it had been before, except that now it contained even more sex. She had no idea where he lived, just that he trudged off into the snow at the end his shift, silent and smoking.
Without any discussion or agreement, it was suddenly over. Weeks passed and when they finally did speak, it was a negotiation for money. She needed an abortion, and she needed it quickly. The realization that she’d mistaken his silence for gentleness, had incorrectly imagined him as a knight in shining armor despite the hoodie and tattoos, hit her square in the face. A knight probably wasn’t inclined to jamming his hand under the skirts of young ladies, stealing money from the register, or not answering his cellphone for days at a time. The truth, difficult to face, was that he’d been an asshole from the start.
He’d stopped showing up for shifts at the Noodle Bar and she’d been trying to track him down for weeks. During this time she barely slept, could scarcely breathe. She awoke with a start in the throbbing dark of the night and imagined that she felt the thrum of a tiny heartbeat trying to keep time with her own.
Meanwhile, An Dung danced at clubs, feigned incomprehension, and drank beer with his friends. She finally found him down at a bar he’d taken her to once on the other end of town. The afternoon was beginning to fade into evening, but it was still light outside when she stepped into the door, stumbling and hesitant while her eyes adjusted to the light. When they did, she was practically staring right into his eyes. He was sitting at the nearest barstool and looking in her direction, sneering.
“I need to speak with you alone.” When she’d practiced at home, the words had sounded less like a plea and more like a command, but it was too late to call them back now.
He gestured at the dimly lit bar with a jerk of his head, drained his glass, and knocked on the bar for a refill. He kept one eye on the television screen. “Say it.”
She knew places like this.
Here the disenchanted, lonely, and repeated makers-of-poor-decisions cloak themselves in mini-skirts more appropriate for their daughters. They wobble on heels of a height which dizzies the mind considering the piles of snow and ice crusting the streets. They don leather of all sorts and Harley emblems run rampant. Jack Daniels and Marlboro softly tiptoe about, wrapping the room in a cloudy haze of love and affection. Glasses clink, darts fly, laughter peals. Occasionally, the door opens noisily, admitting gusts of frigid air, stamping of feet, and an enthusiastic greeting from the merrymakers. The newcomer is magically absorbed into the tableau.
Time marches forward with steps that are increasingly less certain and not altogether linear. By the time the first glass is broken, the toilet in the ladies’ room has clogged up, a neighboring resident has called the police to complain about the music blaring from the juke box, the bartender is wondering why he didn’t take that call center job last month, and the faces in the room are beginning to involuntarily twist into masks of guilt, grief, need, and loneliness. The majority of them need just one more drink, and are utilizing their credit accounts to fund this activity.
By the end of the evening, grown men who, earlier as the sun dipped below the horizon, hugged one another with eyes moist with recollections of Little League coaching, are now tussling on the beer doused concrete floor over a five-dollar bill. Considering this, the fact that she is here to negotiate for money seems like enough to make anyone burst into tears, but she has exhausted all other options and it has taken too long to locate him, so she can’t be bothered with that.
She threatens to tell his parents. He laughs brutally, almost gleefully.
He finally removes some cash from his wallet and tosses it on the bar. He assures her that it’s all he can spare while stabbing at his teeth with a toothpick and ordering a round for the bar, which elicits a cheer all around. The bartender pulls a twenty from his tip jar, places it flat on the bar and slides it toward her.
“Now go on, honey,” he says, his eyes kind as two men in ball caps add bills to the stack without making eye contact. She folds the money into her wallet and glances at An Dung. His eyes are on the blaring television mounted in the corner and he doesn’t glance her way again.
When she calls the clinic to schedule the procedure, the voice on the other end quotes a price which is much higher than she’d been told originally. She tries his cell phone, but it is no longer in service and so she finally works up the nerve to ask his parents about him during her next shift at the Noodle Bar. They shrug and continue chopping cabbage.
Later that evening, she sits across from An Dung’s father, Huy, in the closed restaurant chopping cilantro. He is a small, quiet man and when he gently places his hands on top of hers, they are almost exactly the same size. For the first time she notices the flecks of gold in his eyes and the tiny wrinkles around his mouth.
“He a boy player, I think. He no good for you.”
Before she could answer, he rose and went into the kitchen, but in his place was a small pile of bills.
The procedure is accomplished on a beautiful, sunny day, exactly the kind of day on which she would have taken the long way to work with a book in her bag, breathing deeply. Today, it was not to be. An Dung did not accompany her, nor was he invited.
When she checked out afterwards, the clinic attendant punched buttons, made notations on a paper, and finally, agonizingly, awarded her with a receipt that she wanted to tear apart with her teeth and swallow bit by bit. The total on the bottom was $533. She had it, but not enough left for lunches the rest of the week.
In addition to the money she’d gotten at the bar and from Huy, she’d brought all of her savings, rolled and secured in the bottom of her purse with a rubber band. Evidently this had come undone, allowing the money to explode into her bag. She dumped the contents on the counter as the cashier sighed extravagantly and rolled her eyes to the ceiling. Scattered among the bills were bobby pins, lint, gum wrappers, bits of paper, and crumpled receipts.
She’d been meaning to clean out her purse.
As she sorted and counted, mostly ones and a few fives from favorite customers, she thought about transactions. What was life if not a series of barters and bargains? She liked the straightforward transactions the best. They were easier to handle, that much was certain.
-You want bangs, toots? That’ll be fifteen dollars and I’ll thank you to remove that magazine from your bag. It was here when you got here and it had better be here when you leave. Cosmo costs money, you know.
-Two cans of red beans and an onion. Three dollars and sixty-two cents, young lady.
Groceries. Gas. One knew what to expect from these predictable bargains. The price tag was clear-cut; no bewildering consequences would crop up decades from now, requiring the services of a therapist. It seemed to her that the less obvious ones snuck up on you and pulsed ever so slightly with trickery and imminent disaster. They required the use of craftiness, delicacy, and a crystal ball.
How was it that she came to be paying every dollar she had in the world to this callous middle-aged woman in order to kill her baby? While it was possible to retrace the myriad of steps that had led her to this Clorox-smelling strip mall, it was not at all pleasant.
In any case, she didn’t have time to think about it at the moment. Her shift started in half an hour and now she was really behind on the rent.
This is the world in my palm.
Sweet satisfaction. Full belly and overflowing
heart, strung like guitar strings whispering
lullabies and love songs on an endless loop.
This is dirt, twig, sunshine,
flower and bloom of hope.
The steady beating heart of humans
and the hum of hands holding across our whole history.
We have fed our children peas to make them strong,
their small spoons spilling emeralds
Monsanto, you cannot put a patent on life
because you do not own it.
Somewhere deep down inside of this seed,
roots are waiting to sprout ropes
as thick as galaxies which will
choke out pesticides and bottom lines.
Give the people what was always theirs to begin with -
sweet corn, rich tomatoes, kale the color of happiness,
early morning quiet, the ability to perform the magic
of bringing something from nothing
with love and love.
I am watching the soybean vines
bash their faces against the sun repeatedly
while following the shadow of a plane
delivering death to the third world.
You have corrupted the very thing that should
nurture, comfort, and heal. Twisted our food chain
into shackles and sharpened knives.
Debtors prison for those who, in good faith,
gave you every precious cent they could hold
into their dirty and scratched palms,
lying awake at night in the heat
dreaming of vines and leaves,
stem and stamen.
You murder the land and the people
just to hear the plink of your coffers filling
each day then rationalize it
with petri dishes, and poison.
No matter how many three pieces suits
you dress it in, this is still the same thievery it’s always been.
You steal the only things we have worth anything at all -
health, a place on this planet
in which to put our feet up for a moment,
to hold in weary arms those that we love,
to tip a glass of clean water to smiling lips
as we drink to the future, to watch our children grow.
Your lab coats and toxic test tubes have nothing to do
with feeding the world
and everything to do with big business.
We already have enough food on the planet to feed each other
if we could just sit down together
without legislature, trade sanctions. and stock indexes
but you keep knocking the plates off the table.
See this seed. We will fight for it.
My mama died today.
It was such a monstrous lie that silence seemed the only prudent choice. Everyone knew her mother and she wasn’t dead. Her name was Jazzy and at this moment, she was most likely balanced on a barstool down at the Come Back Inn & Tavern. She only came home periodically to pick up her welfare check, change her halter top, and fluff up her hair. I rolled my eyes and braced myself to run. Lisa’s freckles stood at attention, dirty pinpricks on pale white skin, but she didn’t move.
We had a history. When I was five, she’d leaned over the chain link fence and lobbed huge wads of spit into our sandbox. A few years later, she beat me so ruthlessly that it was hard to tell where the blood was coming from. My mother wasn’t home and couldn’t be readily found so the next-door neighbor dropped me off at the emergency entrance of City Hospital on his way to the evening shift at the foundry. It turned out that the majority of the blood was from my nose, which was broken. She was four years older than me and much stronger. I had scratches crosshatching my legs, arms, and face from the thorn bushes which grew along the sidewalk. She’d repeatedly thrown me into the thicket, yanked me out, and then pushed me back in, only to do it again. Over and over again, punctuated by vicious kicks to the crotch.
The years of our youth went along in much the same vein. She chased me, and then hit me as hard as she could when she caught me, which was often. I ran, panted, tripped, fell, cried, and cajoled, not necessarily in that order. I devised elaborate paths through the neighborhood, over walls and through backyards, which resulted in me being late for wherever I was going, snapped at by dogs, or berated by housewives who didn’t appreciate me trampling their gardens. Our town was small, and these efforts only slightly decreased the chances of being caught, but I pursued them resolutely for years.
On that day, it turned out that her mother was, in fact, dead. Lisa had found her that morning, brutally beaten in her bed. She was wearing only a bra, blue with white polka dots, but even that was hard to see because of the pooling blood. There was so much of it. She’d called the police and then walked one block south to sit on the rock wall next to my house and wait for me to come outside. I can still see her face, composed and unflappable.
My mama died today.
At that moment, she was simultaneously the most beautiful and the ugliest person that I had ever seen and I wanted to crush her skull with a rock. I spent the next fifteen years trying to become her.
History is not erasable.
It won’t disappear in a cloud of dust like all those
algebra equations scrawled across the eighth grade blackboard.
History is written in permanent Sharpie,
etched into the bones of slaves,
locked tight around the wrists of a thirteen year old girl
who cannot find her way out of this family she was born into.
It is suspended in a glass of cold water
offered in the blazing sun less than one mile from the border.
It isn’t shifting sand or moldable clay amd
cannot be hidden behind walls or swept under rugs.
History is now. We are history.
It lives in our bodies, is carried forward in the curve of our arms
as we hold someone close. History is built one person at a time.
Saturday. Facing a morning of errands coming straight off of a double toddler hangover is the mother of all juxtapositions. Long overdue haircut, dragging my feet through the obligatory trip to the gym, low carb sundries at the market. The undeniable compulsion to check off each item in my brown paper planner. There is a cardboard quality I cannot ignore. This is my life actually flashing before my eyes and I’m stricken by the blandness of it. The unceasing quickness by which it all drives forward.
But they, son and daughter of my daughter. These upturned faces, so unconcerned with the state of crumbs on the carpet or accountability regarding when the linens were last laundered, wonder a never-ending litany of more pressing things. They are trying to understand smashed bits of red strawberries on their tongues, whether or not the stegosaurus can come to the third birthday party, and the intricacies of how metal feels to their fingertips. All of this is beautiful to them and it shines from their eyes. They woke me this morning with soft touches to my face, already sensing that mornings are hard for some, but unable to curb their inexorable need for the next adventure. May we all hold an echo of that today.
H: You another one of them reporters? I already told you people my story – now leave me alone.
M: I’m not a reporter.
(I had flown on an airplane, and then driven for hours with nothing but trees and static for company. Now that I was here, I felt flat. A cardboard man.)
H: I did my time and now all I want is some peace and quiet.
(He takes a slug from a jar and I watch his Adam’s apple move. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, rocks and gazes off into the trees, which are a riot of fall colors.)
M: You’re not at all what I’d imagined. I thought you’d be bigger and tougher. Meaner.
H: I don’t care what you think of me. (Spits.)
M: You should care. Look at my face.
(A flicker then, hard to tell if it was a trick of the sunlight or something else.)
H: I don’t know you.
Me: Yes. You do.
(The silence goes on too long but I will not break it until he does. I won’t give him this.)
H: Took you long enough to find me, didn’t it? You must be just about grown.
M: I’m twenty years old.
H: Well. Time does fly. I guess you want to hear the story.
(Suddenly, I do want to hear the story. It seems that I’ve always wanted to hear the story. All those years of plotting and planning, and here I sit on the front porch with a worn-out old man waiting for a bedtime story. I am five years old again as he begins to speak and the porch creaks a little each time he rocks.)
H: We was always fightin. I didn’t mind that so much. It was always the making-up part that was my favorite. You’re old enough now to know what I mean, ain’t ya? (Winks.)
It was those goddamned hummingbirds.
I wouldna done it cept your mama, she wanted them fuckin critters so bad. Says she's tired of livin in the trailer park. Every damn time I got that girl's panties down, she starts in again with the same shit.
Just settle down, I’ll get to the point in my own time.
She wants a house on the edge of town away from the druggies and whores. Now, this don't make no sense to me because her whole family is right there in Luxury Court. Always have been and always will be.
I say to her, Won't you be lonely without Lulu and yer mama around? She just shifts her eyes away and makes her mouth real small.
Darla, I remind her, you wouldn't have such nice clothes if Lulu didn't pass down those pretty sweaters and whatnot. The truth is, aside from the drug dealers, Lulu is haulin in more bank than anyone else in the Court and she knows it. Her ass is prancin around in stiletto shoes from the mall and charging more for VIP room visits than any other peeler in the Court.
One night, I get up to piss and run smack dab into your mama in the hallway. We edged around each other in the narrow space, she shiny-eyed and keyed up, me porcupine-headed and drowsy. She musta known then that you was in her belly, but she never said a word. Standing over the pisser, coming slowly awake, I realized that something wasn’t right and by the time I got back to her, she was lacing up her sneakers, and wiping tears from her cheeks.
Lulu's in trouble and mama's pickin me up. We're gonna sit with her awhile.
In the time it takes me to even think up what to say, she's gone. I'd like to think that I'd have offered to help, but the truth is, there ain't no love lost between me and Lu and besides, I'm just too damn tired to deal with this shit. Probably Lulu gets in the car with the wrong guy after her shift and he roughs her up a bit. She might even deserve it, if someone was to ask me, which they don't.
I wander into the kitchen and pop a Bud Light. I'm awake now, might as well. On the kitchen table a cigarette butt has burnt clear up to the filter, almost to the sparkly lip-gloss part, but what I really notice is the newspaper laid wide open, with squares around some of the ads. One of them, near the fold in the center, has stars on each corner. Sitting there, I read:
One BR house for rent
Small but clean
Pretty yard with hummingbirds
This last word is written over and over again in the margins of both pages. It don’t look right to me, and I realize that sometimes she uses only one "m". What is it with this girl and hummingbirds? I'm sick to death of hearing about it, truth be told.
A couple of weeks before that, I come home and your mama’s got an empty soda bottle filled with sugar water so you could see it through the kitchen window. God, you'd a thought she won the lotto the way she went on about it and lit up like a neon sign at midnight. She poked little holes in it with the tip of the paring knife, so the little fuckers can suck it out. Those little birds was just lapping it up, too. For the next two weeks, it's hummingbird this, hummingbird that. Everyday she's only halfway listening when I try to tell her what I want for dinner, because she's got one eye out the window.
Look! There's another one! They like me!
She prattles and points til I can't take it no more. I get real mad, slam out the door and headed to The Pitstop. All the boys was there and I told em how she'd been treatin me. Got two free beers out of it, too. These boys know what a pain a woman can be. Don't worry, we'll take care of it, they say.
The next night I come home and there ain’t nothin on the stove for dinner. Her face is all red and puffed up. She don't say nothin, just cries and holds a shoe box on her lap with two dead birds inside. She wants me to dig a hole, but the ground is just as hard as a rock, and shit, I had just come from the bar and wasn't exactly steady on my feet. I told her to quit her blubbering and I threw the box in the dumpster out in the parking lot. That was the end of that.
All of a sudden, I realize I've been sittin at the kitchen table for a long time, and she still ain't back. Between the beer and the fact that it's gettin on to 4 in the am, my eyes are blurry so I heave myself up and head to bed. Next morning, I wake up late for work at the foundry when your mama comes into the room and trips over my boots. She stands beside the bed, the bright mornin light hugging a halo around her, and she looks plain beautiful. Her hair is exactly the color of sand in the sun and her eyes are a blue, blue ocean. Sometimes, just lookin at her was like taking one of those vacations you seen on TV. Her prettiness outweighed the thrift store t-shirt and the split ends of her hair. For just a moment, I could see the resemblance between her and her sister Lulu and I knew that if my Darla Jean had pointy red high-heels and her hair was teased up to high heaven, she'd be a force to be reckoned with. Like Lu. Maybe she even wants a dancing job like Lu. The anger is a bright red explosion in my head.
Later, after we've iced her eye, she cooks up some chopped steaks just the way I like and we eat em with ketchup and tater tots. We're in the living room flipping through the channels and I'm thinkin life is damn sweet when she starts up with the talkin again. She nuzzles up to my ear and tells me she wants a yard. Small, she says. Just big enough to plant some flowers and hang a hummingbird feeder. She wants somethin pretty, for once. Baby, don't you ever like things just because they're pretty? I tell her that she's all the pretty I need.
Nothing much changes until one night I wake up with an empty place next to me in the bed. Where was she? After a bit, I got up and looked but she wasn't in the house. Halfway through a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, I decide to start looking for clues. Jack always helps me think. Opening drawers, emptying them out on the floor. Sweeping things off the table with my arm so they make a crash and whump when they hit the floor. By the time she gets home, I’ve found the envelope underneath the couch cushion. Inside is $463 in ones and a whole mess of newspaper cuttings, apartments for rent. I'm just mad as hell when she tiptoes in smellin like cigarettes and perfume. She's wearing sneakers, jeans, and one of my old t-shirts but one look at her face tells me all I need to know. Her face is as pretty as a picture, eyeliner, mascara, the whole bit. And she's got $60 in ones stuffed in her purse, way down at the bottom. So that's it. I got so damn mad, I couldn’t see straight and son, that was your mama’s fault. That's pretty much the whole story.
M: That isn’t the whole story.
H: I been waiting a long time to tell this and I’m gonna tell it my way, boy. I saw you once before, you know. Your Aunt Lu brought you up to the prison when you was real small. I told you who I was, but you was just standin there, blubbering like a damn fool. I don’t know about what. I knew then I’d made the right decision, but I should have finished the job.
M: She was in the hospital for months after you beat her. She never could think straight after that. She’s had nightmares and headaches ever since. They say I’m lucky to be alive.
(It was strange to hear the words coming out of my mouth in my regular voice. Words like this should be uttered in a wail or a screech. Better yet, never needed at all.)
H: Like I said, I should have finished the job.
I’d had the gun in my pocket the whole time, and when I pulled it out, he didn’t even flinch. It was like he’d known the whole time. He’d been baiting me. He watched, and his eyes never left mine as I stood up. His mouth twisted into a sneer. I shot him then, even though I knew it was what he wanted and I shouldn’t have given him the satisfaction. I’d anticipated this moment thousands of times over the years, but I’d never envisioned it exactly this way - shooting a withered and weak man in the temple as he sat rocking in a chair on a gorgeous autumn afternoon. I’d hoped he’d put up more of a fight. I went to the trunk for supplies. First, I hung the hummingbird feeder out back and then I buried that son of a bitch by the creek.
I have the heart of a lion
but my execution is a whistling teapot.
Lately, I've been out here on a limb.
Bank account low,
not passing all of those tests that life sends our way
to trip us up.
Time sliding slick like snake oil,
wind in my face,
belly like a blender.
The inside of my head throbbing with drums
and sharp whistles.
And then I recall what I had forgotten to remember.
That we all eat lies when our hearts are hungry.
Again and again,
I must remind myself
that my hands aren't pretty but they are strong.
That yes, my heart has been shattered
but it has learned how to beat upward into sheer joy.
it's butterfly wings breathing beauty into the sky.
I jot post it notes and leave them in my sock drawer,
in the bathroom mirror,
in the passenger seat of my car.
Yo, sassy…it will be okay,
don't you worry your pretty little head about it
because the last time I checked
You have what it takes.
It's okay to let yourself rest.
Perfection is not required, but bravery is.
You are fierce and free. You are enough.
I know this: sometimes you need to flip life on its head
until the change comes out of it’s pockets,
that every day is a chance to scratch your dreams onto the canvas of the world,
and sometimes when the wind blows, it brings the kind of change
that is terrifying and must be cracked open with hammers to reveal
the stardust inside.
Each yellow cherry tomato is a surprise. I planted this garden in the spring. Remember how I was rootless, lost in the work. That I woke one Saturday morning, the house quiet and humming with loneliness. I put those seeds - too many seeds because I was hedging my bets - into the dry earth and watered them every day. Weeks later I recognize something there. Tiny, green, sleek. Hope. And now I hold hope in my hand, put them into my mouth like candy and swallow. It turns out that solitude is an acquired taste but as sweet as a tiny golden tomato now that I have learned to savor it.
One can hold a thing up to the sun and squint,
turn it over in hands crooked like claws,
willing it to be a mushroom,
a silver dollar, the soft pale petals of flowers.
Wish it into being anything but the ugly truth
that whispers inside your head.
That doesn’t make it true.
The truth digs deep like an antiseptic,
worms its way deep down into your bones.
It is the body of the tiniest bird beating in your chest,
feathers crumpled and laced with dust.
You know you should cup your hands around it and stroke,
calm it with patience and love,
but what you really want to do is squeeze.
Stop the movement.
And what do I know of truth anyway?
The truth is that there is no explanation
and there are a thousand reasons.
The freckles. The fidgeting.
The talking, talking, and still the talking.
What did she want?
I used to know and now I can’t remember.
fourteen years is a long time and my memory has always been poor,
is poorer still without her.
She wanted love. She wanted peace.
She wanted to be like me.
How the body survives such evil gifts, I cannot know.
After that, I can’t lose the sense of a just-shaken snow globe.
Even in the heat of July, flakes cling to my lashes,
blurring the faces of people and clocks.
My body is an instrument of grief, keening for that little girl,
but my mouth stays as silent as 4am.
I have turned this box over in my hands so many times.
I have closed one eye and then the other,
examined it from the inside and the outside,
trying the understand the sense of it, hoping to find a
crumb of justice.
Always I conclude the same thing.
This was no gift. There is no silver lining and the blizzards keep coming.
There is just the string of days carrying fear
swaddled in sunshine.
It will have to be enough.