That summer day, when I still lived with Mamma and Vern, I woke up early in the morning to go for a walk around the neighborhood. It was 2007, I was eighteen then, and headed off to college in a few weeks. I planned to study Zoology back then. It made sense that I liked to care for animals more than I cared for people, even though we never had a pet in our house. This was the time just before Mamma and Vern separated for good, and when my brother Quentin moved back into the house. On the weekends, I worked with Vern at Winner Winner, Chicken Dinner. On the weekdays, I walked and sat on the porch and made up summer vacations in my head that I hadn’t had. Trips to the pool. A beach barbeque. The salt smell of the Mediterranean Sea. Those daydreams involved Paloma and the two of us would travel around the world in the summer, swimming in all the world’s oceans. If I wished long enough to be away from Hyde River Road, my dreams would turn into the blue of the ocean. I swear I dreamt of water all summer and to this day, I cannot understand why.
During that time of year, the sky at dawn gave color to the neighborhood, brightening the faded-out greens and pinks of the houses, and the air was cool enough during the early summer mornings that I did not sweat as much through my hoodie. The only ones up aside from me and the birds was my neighbor’s rooster and a few folks who were headed out to work at the crack of sunlight. They would wave to me as I walked. Often lingering in their cars, letting the engines run until they snapped into autopilot and left the driveway.
Squeak crowed at the first sign of sunlight peeking through the sky. I named him that because he made the mornings sound like the air was being sucked out of the neighborhood. And he was easily seen pacing the top of that sagging roof just up the road from our house. The rooster was bright orange with blue feathers, and he had a red bill. It is twisted how nature could make something so beautiful like Squeak sound so horrible first thing in the mornings.
There was the usual route that I took—around the road to the apartment complex where the playground was, down the side street where an old manufacturing building still stood. It had one eighteen-wheeler parked in its dusty lot, with grass and dandelions growing around the tires because it hadn’t been used in god knows when. We were on the side of town with mix-matched houses and deep ditches along the road. The laundromat and church shared a building that was right across from the Food Lion. And of course, there was no river. Along this path, where I passed the corner store and up to another section of the neighborhood, I walked around to the Montessori school. The parking lot was empty except for one stray yellow school bus propped up on cinder blocks with the hood up. I could do laps. It was too embarrassing to run on the road with no sidewalks, and risk getting hit or being laughed at by passing cars. I started to jog and when I came to the back of the school, where the dumpster area met the woods, Vern’s truck was parked right there on the other side of the dumpsters. He sat in the shade, shadow casting half his face so that he looked asleep; or dead. I couldn’t tell. But that was him in his truck facing the wooded area behind the school like he was waiting to enter the mouth of a beast.
I ducked my head and made a U-turn so that Vern wouldn’t see me. At the edge of the school that turned into the road, a car drove by and slowed down a little. The driver turned her head slowly, she watched me crouch-run down the road the opposite way from her, before speeding up and driving away. I know I must have looked silly then—some tall fat girl in a hoodie smack in the middle of summer jogging down the middle of the road. When I got home, the sun had fully come out, though it hadn’t reached down the hill where our house sat. The porch looked dark and cold. I could see Mamma pacing and jangling her car keys in the living room through the window, but I did not want to catch her attention so I just sat on the porch, waiting for the sun to reach our end of the neighborhood.
There was a rustling sound coming from around the house. I was thinking it was those rabbits again. We had a family of bunnies that lived in the little Rubbermaid shed Vern built when we first moved in four years earlier. I had a box of raisins in my pocket, which was a great snack on my walks, and I thought to bring them over to the rabbits. When I got to the back yard, Squeak was pecking the ground, bringing up little specks of dirt around him. Quentin had climbed on top of the shed. His duffel bag laid out in the grass.
“Demon bird!” Quentin’s voice was so deep, it shook me.
“What you doing Squeak?” I said.
Squeak stopped pecking and looked at me. One foot raised in the air like the roadrunner in freeze frame. I tossed a few raisins. He ran off through the trees to the house next door. I started to run after him because he was going the wrong way; his house was across the street. Mamma came out the back door in her hospital scrubs and a backpack high on her back, bulging with her entire day inside of it.
“They just rabbits, boy,” Mamma said. “Get from down there.” Quentin jumped off the shed and then came over to me and punched my arm. It was awkward because it wanted to be a hug, and then a handshake, before he settled for a punch. I hit him back though.
“Punk.” I was older and he was shorter than me and younger, with a patchy goatee trying to grow in around his mouth. We both looked like our father who was in prison somewhere further south than we were. It felt good to see a face like my own rather than like Mamma’s.
“Listen, you and Quentin will be here today, so make sure he eats and showers. Vern working double shift at Reidsville, but he’ll pick you up for work later.” Mamma made it sound like Quentin wasn’t sixteen years old and that he’d forgotten how to take care of himself while in Juvenile detention. I gave Mamma a look, but she brushed off some pollen that blew onto her shoulder with a shift in wind.
“You burning up in that hoodie, ain’t you?” Mamma didn’t wait for me to answer as she walked back into the house and out the front door. I followed behind and when I got inside, Mamma had already cranked up the car and was backing up out of the driveway, her head spun all the way around, the tires catching smoke and mud as it climbed up the hill.
Quentin came inside and sat his bag on the couch before running into every room. “We have a computer now,” he said in almost disbelief, like he was asking, how can we afford such a luxury? The third bedroom had an air mattress and a small television set on the floor. Some of Quentin’s clothes were folded up in a laundry basket and Mamma had also put my old blanket and one of my pillows onto the mattress. The house had been preparing for Quentin for days, ready to have a new corner of it occupied. He sat at the computer all morning playing online games with the volume turned all the way up, and talking on the phone with friends he hadn’t seen in two years. My little brother had gone away with three pairs of jeans and a few white tees, and those were the only things he brought back with him.
* * *
The three of us—Mamma, Vern, me—had five jobs total. Mamma had her jobs as a nurse’s aide and at the call center where she worked part time on the evenings and weekends talking to white ladies about appliance insurance. She rehearsed her script at night. “Hello, this is Coco Gray. Kenmore has an exciting new feature I’d like to talk about.” Vern worked at Reidsville Furniture where he’d been for a long time. He was also a cook at Winner Winner, where he had been even longer. On his thirtieth anniversary, Vern received a plaque and a sterling silver watch, thanking him for his dedication to the restaurant. It was hung up on the wall above the computer monitor so that when I sat to do my homework all I saw was Vern’s name etched in a black placard: VERNON GRAY, OUTSTANDING EMPLOYEE FOR 30 YEARS.
I couldn’t imagine being there beyond that summer. I had already worked a year as a drive-thru cashier, packing two-piece chicken dinners to go. On shift, I’d see Vern with the same dead stare in his eyes as he breaded the chicken pieces, dropped them in the fryer, and waited to prepare the next batch. His hands were thick, like an extra layer of skin grew over them, and his arms had grease burn marks scattered on them. They looked like dark brown saucers and he’d catch me staring sometimes, before I quickly turned my head.
Vern had stopped going to school at fifteen. Worked service jobs his whole life, according to Mamma. I figured that was what life was like for someone who grew up on a hog farm in Georgia. He spoke with such a thick farmer’s accent that I could hardly understand a word he was saying. My friend Paloma, who wanted to study psychology, diagnosed him as a sociopath. Mamma must have felt love for him early on in their marriage, though. It was that kind of love where she washed his clothes and combed his hair and, even after they had been married only five years, didn’t fuss at him when he called the police on Quentin.
* * *
Vern didn’t talk to me when I went into work that night. It wasn’t like he knew I saw him parked beside a dumpster. He never really talked to me besides grunting the occasional Sandra when I forgot to put in an order. We were on shift with Paloma. The three of us sped through our cleaning tasks because it was slow. Winner Winner smelled like burnt peanut oil and spoiled coleslaw that night and I tried to hide the smell with all-purpose cleaner. Paloma was punching in made up names on the order ticket. SwampAss—two-piece din double beans.
The two of us laughed loudly, making the few dine-in customers turn their heads and give us raw looks of disgust. Vern was clumsy with the biscuit flour and spilled half the bag on the kitchen floor. Paloma, her braids busting out of the red Winner’s cap, whispered to me when Vern wasn’t listening, “your daddy been here for decades and never made manager?”
“You know he’s not my daddy,” I said. She always liked to tease me about him. I mean, it wasn’t like she lived with a father at all. Whenever I’d go to her house, which was never as clean as I wished it was, her mom would tell us not to ask her for nothing while she had company. That company was always a man who smelled of too much cologne.
Paloma was a year behind me in school. I had been eating lunch alone when she came up to my table, her hair in twists and pulled back, her lunch tray filled with two fruit cups and a plate of fries. She was new and it was my last year of high school, and I was so relieved because she came up to me without knowing that I had been alone a long time.
We worked the night shifts on the weekends, with Vern being the designated lead. Though it felt more like Paloma was because she was in control of the cash register. On our lunch break when it was slow enough to stop working for a bit, I pulled her over to my table. She smelled like peach lotion. Carmex lip balm was chained around her neck and she applied it to her lips every five seconds.
“Squeak escaped from Jeff’s house,” I said.
“Wish he would come into my backyard. We got a kiddy pool for him to bathe in.” When Paloma said this my insides turned, like it was on the drop of a roller coaster, and I felt myself pull away from her then. She was the kind of pretty that gave her no reason to be hanging out with me. I was awkward and shy and even though I lost sixty pounds early in high school, the kids still called me “fat ass” up until graduation.
“You think he’s looking for his home?”
Paloma leaned in closer to me, put her elbows on the table which was sticky from the last customer. “Or a long-lost love.” She picked up a fried chicken leg and pointed it at me. We laughed so hard the table nearly fell over.
We finished up the shift. I picked through the older chicken that sat under the heat lamp. Some of it had been there at the bottom of the tray soaking up grease for hours, looking all wrinkled and gray. This was the chicken we gave to those last customers who came through the drive thru right before we closed looking for our “freshest” pieces of chicken. While Vern cleaned the grease from the fryer and took out the trash, I packed a family to-go box for us to eat for dinner the next day and through the weekend because it was all we had for the house that week until our paychecks came. Most weeks, we ate leftover Winner like it was a holiday meal.
In Vern’s car, the window on my side was rolled down while Vern had the air conditioner blasting. The radio stationed tuned into some out of city station. The static of it hurting my ears. I held in my breath and asked, “You made it out of Reidsville, alright?” It was sinister to taunt him like that, knowing he didn’t go into his first job that morning.
“Mmhmm,” is all Vern said back. He turned up what was playing on the radio—an old soul song trying to break through the bad reception. I looked out the window and watched as we drove along Main Street passed the fast food chains and apartment complexes that gave the city its only skyline. Something long and metal sat in the middle road, so Vern swerved to avoid it. I held onto the dashboard. He and Mamma had been together since I was ten and the most he’d spoken to me was at work or when he griped at me for not wearing socks in the house. I never saw him as a stepfather or any other kind of replacement. I reached from the dashboard and turned off the radio.
“My ears hurt,” I said. When we got home, Vern stayed in the car as I went inside the house. Mamma was at the kitchen table absorbed in that day’s newspaper which she would read all night and not sleep. Quentin was looking out the window, trying to pretend he didn’t see Vern. There was trouble between those two, starting from when we lived in the Wayne T. Barlow apartments. Quentin, all of ten years old then, punched him in the face one-night Vern slept over. I still think that’s why he got him locked up a few years later. What is a man if he doesn’t care for the children of the woman he supposedly loves?
* * *
Days that summer flew by. Neighbors noticed that my brother was home because more of them came knocking at our door, asking for random objects to borrow like the water hose or Mamma’s outdoor fish fryer. They got a good glimpse of Quentin, but not the backstory of why he was taken from the home. Paloma told me she overheard her mom say that Quentin was in prison for gang activity. That’s why most of the people who knocked on our door were men. They would have him come outside to help them with home improvement projects. Some had him mowing their lawn or showed him how to repair roofs or had him fix the pedal on their child’s bicycle. As long as Quentin was busy when Mamma wasn’t around, I was convinced he wasn’t going to get locked up again. These men were trying to say something through their actions; I just hoped Quentin was smart enough to hear.
Some mornings it was like it was before Mamma married Vern: Quentin and I sitting on the couch watching cartoons and eating Mamma’s entire box of raisin bran. It was like that for a couple of weeks where nobody asked questions about the state of their marriage. Mamma hummed as she prepared to go to work in the mornings, like a happy tune would distract us from noticing that her husband hadn’t set foot in that house since Quentin returned. But Quentin was bolder than I was. One day he asked, “don’t Vern live here too?”
“Shut up,” I said. Mamma was eating toast with peanut butter on it and speed reading through the paper before her afternoon shift.
“You shut up,” Quentin said. I slapped the back of his neck like I used to do when we were younger. He hit back that time, and it stung. “That’s why you fat.”
“And you stupid,” I said. We knew which words would hit us the hardest. Quentin had been diagnosed with a learning disability before he even learned to read, and I started to eat the snacks in our cabinet late at night at the age of ten, when everyone was asleep.
“Both of y’all hush now. That man will be alright. You know how he is.” I knew Mamma was talking to me because I had lived with him for longer than Quentin. But, still, I shrugged like it didn’t matter. Vern not talking to the family was the best thing that could happen to us. We could go back to the way it was at Wayne T. Barlow, where I thought Mamma was at her happiest, and where she only worked hard enough to only love the two of us.
Mamma left the house in a rush, not saying bye to either of us.
I told Quentin about the argument they had before he came back. How they fussed all night and slammed doors and cursed each other until there was nothing but the sound of the box TV in the room that belonged to Quentin now. I didn’t tell him how the argument was about him. How Vern didn’t want “that damn boy” to return home.
Every morning, I’d sneak up to the school and see Vern every morning in the parking lot sleeping on a small mat with a white sheet in the bed of his pickup truck. What was a man like him doing in the back of an empty schoolhouse in the middle of the hottest summer? I thought he could at least go someplace with air conditioning. I didn’t understand then that this empty lot was the safest place he could keep his secret, the last place anyone would look, if anyone was looking for him at all.
* * *
Paloma showed up at my house on a day the sky was clear after several days of rain. Our front yard had flooded so the driveway was covered in muddy tire tracks. Paloma sat in my favorite chair on the porch. I had dreams of her. Of us in the backseat of a white car kissing under a large pink moon. Her Carmex’d lips tasting sweet. The large moon in my dream even sweeter. Paloma had a small bag of bird seeds in her hand. And a skinny leash attached to a homemade harness.
“To catch Squeak,” she said.
He had been spotted hopping from yard to yard. Jeff whistled every morning and cupped a hand over his ear to hear the crow better. That day he was sitting out on his porch, shirt off, exposing his sunburnt skin. The man looked so dejected, like he had lost both his legs. Quentin came onto our porch in the same jeans he wore three days in a row holding the inner tube of a bike tire. Looking straight at Paloma, he asked, “Mamma got any crazy glue?”
Paloma caught his eye every now and then. Looked back from me to him with a smirk on her face. I told Quentin to look in the supply drawer and as soon as he went into the house, I got Paloma off the porch as quick as possible.
“He’s like you if you had a square head,” Paloma said.
“We are nothing alike.” For all the ways that we looked similar, Quentin and I were raised differently. He got a pass for being Mamma’s little baby boy and only needing to be loved. I couldn’t yell him at too much for bugging me, couldn’t turn my back or leave him alone to play. Though, what got at me was that Quentin could look at Paloma the way he did and not be afraid of the response.
Paloma said, “I didn’t mean nothing by it.”
We started by spreading little piles of bird seed in the front yards of every other house on the road that would let us step on their grass. Paloma thought it was a good idea to fashion the leash out of three strings of yarn—red, yellow, blue. The colors of Squeak. We had yet to find him that morning, but Jeff called us over to his yard. As far as I could tell, the man lived alone with his rooster and three cats, who also wandered from yard to yard but had sense enough to find their way back home. His house was always dark. Its roof, a dull rusted color; the entirety of it looked as if it would collapse at any moment. Paloma and I slowly walked into his yard, keeping at least ten feet away from the porch.
“Ya’ll girls done seen anything?” he asked. Something about him was like Vern by the way he spoke and that dead stare he had in his eyes
Paloma said, “Nah sir, but we put feed out for him.” Jeff just nodded his head at us and rubbed his tongue against his inner jaw. He kept his eyes on us, looking up and down before smiling, exposing brown teeth.
“It’s a hot day, ain’t it?” he said. But I felt the burn of his eyes. Paloma felt it too. The two of us stepped back, because what did his hot mean? “I’ll find him one way or another,” he said. One of his cats, a gray tabby, came over to us from the porch and rubbed her body against my leg. She looked up at me, as if she were waiting for something.
Jeff said, “Petunia, get.” And the cat scurried away to another yard.
We left and walked up to the corner store, leaving Jeff behind.
“You think he has dead bodies in there?” Paloma asked.
“He’s just lonely is all.” Like Vern without Mamma. I told Paloma I had something she had to see, and took her over to the Montessori school in the parking lot where Vern’s truck was facing the woods. We snuck up behind the truck and saw that the driver’s door was open. Vern wasn’t inside.
“Don’t tell me he’s cheating on your mamma,” Paloma said. We entered the wooded area, following the path of tire tracks that had been made a long time ago. I grabbed ahold of Paloma’s wrist without thinking, then let it go. But, then, she reached out, wrapped her warm hand around mine, and squeezed.
“You hear that?” I said. We walked a little farther inside but could still see the truck. We heard a funny cluck. “Squeak!”
“Shhh.” Paloma placed a hand over my mouth and quickly pulled it away. “Sorry,” she said. I didn’t mind. Her hands were comforting, like she was protecting me. The warmth I felt.
Through a thicket of starving bushes, its berries smashed on the dirt ground, was Vern sitting on a log feeding Squeak crumbled peanut shells. He saw us walking towards him.
“You girls got sense enough to not play in the woods.”
I hated him more so then. You girls. I was eighteen. A grown woman with paychecks.
“You hiding Squeak from us,” Paloma said.
“Coco know you been playing in the woods?” I shot back. Vern got up from the log. With Squeak still pecking at the peanut shells on the ground, he started walking back to his truck.
“Stay out of grown folks business.” There was something caught in his throat. Like he was hurt. All week I had known he lost his job because I called Reidsville. The man over the phone, speaking over a loud machine, said, “We let go twenty of ‘em last Friday.” He meant that Vern was twenty of ‘em. He was losing Mamma every day he stayed away from the house. Vern cranked up the car and drove out. Leaving me standing in the empty lot, between a dumpster and the broken school bus. Paloma came up behind me with Squeak in the harness she had made.
“He bit me.” She held up her index finger, a speck of blood forming into a dot, before dripping onto the ground. I don’t know why, but we took Squeak to Paloma’s house farther up the road. There was a garden in her front yard. Blue forget-me-nots and white tulips sprouted from the ground. Two little boys were playing in the front yard and when one of them saw us with Squeak in hand, he squealed so loud, Paloma’s mom came running out the front door.
“You serious?” she asked. Her mom had on a pink bathing suit with turquoise shorts. She was the kind of mother everybody secretly wished they had but Paloma. She called me “baby” and the first time I met her, she asked if I was into boys or girls. I blushed at the question. She saw right through me, or perhaps how I looked at Paloma and savored every word she spoke. “Ain’t no shame in that,” she had told me.
We followed her into the backyard where there was the kiddy pool full of cool water. She sat right in the middle of it with her can of beer in one hand. Paloma rolled her eyes at this. “You better get that thing back to Jeff before he raise hell,” she said.
We let Squeak wander around the back yard on the harness. Squeak took the lead, going to the edges of the yard, walking from corner to corner. He pecked at the ground and at the bushes and tried to go further away from the yard, into the trees. Paloma was able to get Squeak into the kiddy pool after her mother soaked in it for a while, complaining about the bugs and the smell of the rooster and how the city hadn’t sent her check yet. One of Paloma’s little brothers skinned his knee in the driveway and her mother had to leave the backyard cursing the little boy for hollering so loud.
We sat on the grass and watched Squeak dip his head in the cool water.
“Vern and Mamma having problems,” I said. I was looking at the blue of the sky, the clear blue of the water in that little pool, the coral blue of Squeak’s feathers.
“Don’t trip, you got what, a week left before you leave all of us.” Paloma splashed a little water onto me. A welcomed coolness. I turned towards her. The goosebumps on my skin, once again, popped up. Then she asked, “You straight?”
I said, “I’m good.”
Paloma laughed. “No, I mean. Look, Squeak.”
I turned and Squeak had run to the edge of the yard again, this time with his head through the little garden fence, breaking up the forget-me-nots.
By the time I left Paloma’s, the sun was setting, and we had been outside so long that I smelled like grass and sweat; my skin a couple of shades browner than it was that morning. It had been forever ago that I’d been outside from sunup to sundown.
Mamma was sitting in her car when I got home. The hotter the days, the more I saw how the people around me like Mamma and Vern sat staring through their windshields. Burning holes into the earth. Some years later, when I lived in Philadelphia, I’d drive to the edge of Fairmount park after working a shift and sit in my car under a tree that was big enough to shade me. It was the only time I could be alone with my thoughts, make sense of the choices I had to make in order to keep going. Keep surviving. I think Mamma and Vern did the same thing, at least that’s how I see it now. Only a turn of a key away from abandoning all of it.
She finally came in that night dragging her feet.
“Coco, you know what time it is?” I said and laughed hoping it would ease her tension. Mamma sat down on the couch, propped her feet up on the coffee table and removed her shoes like they had been filled with water.
“I just needed some fresh air.” She motioned for me to sit down beside her on the couch. When I was little and the two of us would stay up passed Quentin’s bedtime, we would make sugar cookies before watching America’s Most Wanted. I remember laying my head on her shoulder, feeling safe.
The clock on the television read 10:07. A rerun of The Jeffersons was on Nick at Nite. We both watched the show while the sound was on mute.
“Look at you, college girl. Leaving me next week.” Mamma didn’t say this with joy. She lingered on her words for a second, like she was lost. “This house is way too dark,” she said, not getting up to turn on any lights.
“Mamma,” I said, in the quietest whisper.
“I don’t want to go.”
“Yes, you do,” she said. If I left, that meant Mamma would have to manage Quentin alone and face a distant husband who had lost his job and was slipping away to the woods. I knew she knew. The job applications lay on top of the computer. Her eyes said, why not take on three? I placed my head on her shoulder, but she didn’t embrace me back. Maybe she was thinking about all the ways she could lose the house once I left.
After a long silence, Mamma still facing forward watching a mute television, said “I wish you’d grow up.” I thought I already had. I knew the tragedy of what hard work could bring. Didn’t that count?
* * *
Quentin was the one to demand that we return Squeak. Because, he said, “it ain’t normal to walk around the neighborhood with a stolen chicken on a leash.” I reminded him that Squeak wasn’t a chicken, and we were going to return him to Jeff anyway. We were just afraid to go back to Jeff’s place. The way he had looked at me and Paloma made me want to peel off my skin and replace it with knives. Quentin decided to walk with us over to Jeff’s place, “just in case.” It was like a chihuahua trying to protect two sea lions. He flexed his skinny chest for Paloma, walking ahead of us in the street like any amount of him could rip a car in half.
When we got to Jeff’s yard, and he could see Paloma holding Squeak under her arm, his grin was the widest I’d ever seen, and he clapped his hands. His cats glared at us from the porch, and I could just make out the emptiness of his house from the torn open screen door, with no screen just the frame of it left. A single armchair sat adjacent to a brown fridge. No air blew inside of it. I imagined it being a hot and stale place to live. Paloma released Squeak onto the porch. Jeff propped his dirty feet up onto the porch rails with Squeak on the leash, the leash in his hand.
“I ‘spect ya’ll want something for the trouble?”
Quentin let out a loud awkward laugh. His chest was no longer stuck out and he stood so close to me, I could smell his hair grease. That laugh was the kind that seemed like he had gotten the joke too late. A cackle that was not warranted. I froze before Paloma grabbed both of our shirts and we walked off, and left Jeff like that: on the porch with his animals and a stagnant, hot house.
* * *
Quentin walked to the corner store with us to get freeze pops and a bag of pork rinds before we went to the little park next to the apartments. The swings had mulch piles on them and twigs, like offerings, but we didn’t care if our butts got dirty. We swung and ate the freeze pops before Paloma had the nerve to ask Quentin why he was in juvenile detention.
“My sister ain’t tell you?” Quentin smacked his lips. “Vern caught me smoking weed one day and it just so happen that when he called the police, they already had a warrant out for me for selling it at school. Two years over some bullshit.” Quentin finished the bag of rinds by tipping it way over his head to get out all the crumbs that stuck to the bottom.
“You did sell a little though,” I said.
“Look who the stupid one is now,” Quentin shot back. I didn’t mean nothing by what I said. I knew it was unreasonable to get two years for selling a couple of joints to some friends, I just wanted it to be known that he had done what they said he did.
“Shit ain’t fair though,” Paloma said. Quentin nodded his head and kept swinging. Paloma was keeping up with him, swinging faster, until they both started a race without realizing. I left the swings and went over to sit on the jungle gym. I didn’t know she followed me until she poked the middle of my back. Paloma grabbed my hand and we went to sit on the top of the slide. Our legs so close together I could feel her razor bumps. She let down her braids and placed the hair tie around her wrist. Paloma, who still smelled like that peach lotion, grazed my shoulder.
“You ready?” She asked. I wanted to say yes. I’m all yours.
“College, stupid.” She bent over and laughed, snorting through each breath. I laughed too. Quentin stopped swinging and when I turned my head, he was talking with some young boy on a bike. I watched as Quentin got on the back of the bike and the two of them left. He waved and yelled, “peace out, Sis.” Paloma lay her head on my shoulder. I was relieved Quentin was gone, knowing good and well that he liked Paloma too.
“I’ll miss you,” I said. My words came out so slow. Paloma raised her head. She kissed my cheek.
“Your brother’s cute,” she said.
My stomach dropped. I said, “Paloma.”
“You’re beautiful,” she said. “But, I’m not—” Her words cut off, giving me a chance to feel in the blank. “—it’s cool if you like girls, or whatever.”
It was the second time I’d heard someone say that to me, her mother being the first. “I don’t know,” I said. But I knew. Though I still had dreams of Paloma for years after that summer, until my first sexual relationship with a woman well after college, I would continue to say I don’t know.
She grabbed hold of my arm and I lay my head on her shoulder. Here I was leaving for some college an hour north because it promised some wayward future outside of Hyde River. With the real future of our family in question.
We sat there for what felt like a long time. When I got down from the jungle gym and looked out into the parking lot, a shadow stood across the street, watching us. It was familiar enough for me to walk closer to it, as it waited in the shade. Vern was standing there. His eyes wide, the whites of them louder than the sound of crickets.
“Your goddamn brother.” Vern grabbed my arm. I pulled back. I wonder now how much he saw of me and Paloma. If our embracing was reflected through the sunlight, bouncing off the mulch and hitting him directly in the face. I waved to Paloma on the playground. She waved back before realizing that I was calling her over. Vern’s eyes were still directly on me. My insides lit fire and I could smell the fuel burning through me.
“You lost your job in Reidsville,” I said. Not knowing what to say next. We walked down the road.
“It don’t matter,” Vern said.
“Mamma hates you. I hate you. That house hates you.” I walked ahead of him like I had won the game we were playing. Vern stopped.
“I worked, so hard, you hear. It don’t make sense. The both of us, tired.” Vern breathed out his nose. His breath so heavy, he was drowning in oxygen. We both were. Before I could say something else, we approached the corner store where Jeff was standing shirtless in the middle of the graveled parking lot. He was pacing with a bloody nose that dripped down the sides of his face. Shouting, “I don’t need no help from nobody!” I stopped walking and let Vern and Paloma walk ahead of me. My knees buckled and I prepared myself to see Quentin lying on the ground, face smashed in by something Jeff had picked up. When I stepped forward, Quentin came out of the store with Mr. Kirkland, the storekeeper, pushing him out. His face was intact. I exhaled. But he had been angry, and I could tell because tears were coming down his face. Still, at his age, he cried when he was at his maddest.
Mr. Kirkland said, “You stay away from here now boy!” Quentin’s face tightened at his words. Paloma put an arm over his shoulder, and they went to sit on the curve off to the side of the store. Vern was talking to Jeff who was still pacing up and down, cursing Quentin.
“You keep that boy away from my house!”
I didn’t know my role at this moment. If I had a footstep toward my brother or home. I was leaving in a week, though my mind had already run away from there. When I sat beside Quentin, with Paloma comforting him, I caught the end of his retelling.
“Man, fuck his roof. See how much I try and help. Everybody always think I’m joking.” Quentin spit into the ground and kicked gravel over it, making gray dust rise into the air. A police car drove by, and slowed down, monitoring the scene. But Mr. Kirkland waved him off. Jeff’s bloody nose, still visible in the air, had the cop car hesitate for a moment, keeping an eye on the three of us sitting on the curve, before it pulled off down the road and disappeared. We were lucky Mr. Kirkland only banned Quentin from entering the store. Vern was levelheaded enough to calm Jeff down, letting him know that the boy was only sixteen and hot-headed.
My brother, who gave me honeysuckle from the bushes as a birthday present every year when we were kids and let me paint his nails green was boiled down to just a kid with a rising temperature. We continued to grow apart as siblings, the returned that summer being short lived. Now I could only guess—if it was me who put an arm around his shoulders, wiped his tears, checked in every day after I left—would he have kept working hard at being somebody other than that “hot-headed boy”?
* * *
When I left that summer, Mamma hugging me twice before we even drove out to the campus, Vern had moved back into the house, though he was sleeping on the couch. I didn’t say anything to him when I left. I just wrote a note I tore from the pages of my composition book. Thanks for the money, Vern. He had left me two crumpled twenties in a yellow envelope. Mamma had to convince him to give me something for the first semester. Even before she left him and that house ten years later, Mamma had to convince him to show some amount of feeling and love. I suppose he never got it. I imagine him now in that house, sitting on the couch in front of a dark room, the TV on mute. Vern waiting for Mamma to return to feel something for him and getting nothing but the shadow of the television dancing on the walls.
Photo courtesy of Peter Miller; view more of his work on Flickr