The baby was a white fist of flesh.
Mama had placed the ultrasound photo atop her dresser
in a sterling silver frame. That night, when the pain
bent her over in the kitchen, I imagined that same
white fist punching her insides black-and-blue. When
Daddy called from the hospital to tell us she'd lost
the baby, my brother Cyrus said I shouldn't worry.
He said the baby didn't feel any pain, that at nine
weeks it wasn't anything but a ball of meat squirming
in Mama's stomach. He said it hadn't even sprouted
arms or legs yet, that it still had a fish brain and
gills growing in its neck.
That night, I dreamed of Mama's
flesh creaking as the doctor unstitched the trapdoor
in her stomach. Her insides looked like crushed red
velvet, and the baby's skin was blue as a robin's
egg. I imagined the stitches in her stomach, tiny
black mouths puckering between the folds of her belly.
I remember wondering where the baby's cries had gone,
if they had stayed inside Mama's body after the doctors
stitched the trapdoor shut.
Nearly six months later, I was
sitting in front of Ben Franklin High in my yellow
flower dress, studying for my Science test, thinking
about the baby again, my fingers tracing the pink
gills of a fish in my Biology textbook. As I stared
at the fish, I heard the crackle of gravel and what
sounded like the faint moan of a car horn. I looked
over my shoulder and saw a rusted blue Hyundai with
a dented fender idling in the parking lot behind me.
It was my brother Cyrus.
As I walked up to the car, Cyrus
revved the engine. The inside of the car smelled like
bug spray. Ever since I could remember, Cyrus had
always been a hypochondriac. He was always reading
some medical encyclopedia, convinced he had suddenly
come down with some dreadful disease. A few weeks
back, he'd seen some story on the news about the West
Nile Virus, and ever since then, he'd been spraying
himself down with bug spray before he left the house.
As I climbed into the passenger's
side, he turned up the car stereo, and Mystikal's
"Tarantula" crackled through the speakers.
I closed the door and buckled my seat belt, and Cyrus
rammed the car into drive and spun the tires, until
a cloud of brown dust swallowed the car.
Cyrus was wearing a New Orleans
Hornets jersey and a black Reebok skullcap. He had
a thin line of brown hair for a beard, and he'd shaved
little lines into his eyebrows. Two years ago, Daddy
had helped him buy the old Hyundai from a junk yard
in Independence. He'd spent the whole summer souping
it up. It had red racing stripes, bald, rotten tires
and silver spoked rims. He'd covered the seats with
leopard-skin seat covers, and he had a mini eight
ball hanging from the rearview mirror.
"You going to Verma's?"
"Yep. Why didn't Daddy pick me up?"
"He's down at the pool hall." Cyrus took
a drag and blew the smoke out his nose. "Man
stays down there much longer, they gonna start charging
Since before I was born, Daddy
had worked down at the meat packing company on Julia
Street as an Assistant Supervisor, that is, until
last December, when he'd gotten laid off. For the
last few months, he'd been collecting unemployment
checks. He spent most days down at Spider's Pool Hall
nursing cocktails or at the Fair Grounds betting on
"Hey, can you give me a ride
to Meridian's tomorrow?"
"Not tomorrow." Cyrus took two quick drags
and flicked the Lucky Strike into the wind. "Gotta
go downtown and meet my parole officer."
Cyrus had been arrested three times,
once for stealing a chrome rims from a warehouse in
New Orleans East, and another time for snatching car
stereos from the parking lot of the gun show. This
time, he'd got caught selling a quarter bag of weed
to a boy over on Almonaster Street. Mama agreed to
bail him out, but only if he promised to join the
church and get saved. Mama said Cyrus' soul was blacker
than mud, and that only the preacher's water could
raise up his dead soul. Cyrus agreed to get saved.
Mama and I even went down to the church that day to
watch Brother Icks dunk Cyrus in the baptismal pool.
When I asked Cyrus what it was like, he said it felt
more like being drowned than being saved. Mama was
convinced that the water had cleansed his soul, though,
because two days after he was saved, Cyrus went down
to Ink Dreams and had a line from Revelation tattooed
on his bicep that said: "He Shall Rule them with
an Iron Rod." Wherever he went, he kept a pair
of brass knuckles in his back pocket. On Saturday
nights, he and his friends rode up and down Paris
Road in their rickety cars looking for boys to fight.
Other nights, they hung out in an old abandoned bank
down on Elysian Fields.
"So," I asked Cyrus.
"When are you going to take me down to the old
bank with you?"
"You're too young to go down there."
I grabbed my lipstick from my purse
and pulled down the visor mirror. "Meridian wants
to go too," I told him, puckering in the mirror
as I spoke. "She thinks you're cute." I
knew Cyrus had the hots for Meridian. He always said
she had hips that could make a glass eye wink. I'd
even found a picture of Meridian in his wallet one
time. He'd actually cut out her picture from the Ben
Franklin Yearbook and stuck it in his wallet like
some kind of creepy stalker or something.
Cyrus grinned as he pulled into
the parking lot of Verma's apartment complex. "I'll
think about it." He put the Hyundai in neutral,
and I climbed out. As he pulled off, I noticed Verma
in her pink robe, in the courtyard of the apartment
complex, sitting in a lawn chair near the edge of
a green swimming pool, smiling. She was a skinny black
woman with mossy gray hair, and she had a gold tooth
with a star etched into it. Glaucoma had swallowed
her right eye in a filmy white shroud, and diabetes
had eaten up the veins in her feet. Mama and Daddy
had known Verma for years, and I'd known her practically
all my life. Since before I was born, she'd lived
in the same ratty apartment complex on Pelopidas Street.
Most days, after school, I went to her apartment to
help her wash clothes, dishes, whatever she needed
really. Every day, before I left, she gave me a five
dollar bill that smelled like perfume.
"Where's that brother of yours
"I think he's going back to work," I said.
"Then down to The Lakefront for the races."
"Has the devil burrowed into that boy's skull?"
Verma wheezed, a glass of Pepsi sweating at her feet.
"If he don't watch it, he's gonna end up like
that boy with the paper bag face."
Verma had worked for a woman whose
son's Dodge Neon fishtailed through a rice field while
racing down at the Lakefront. She said the gas tank
on the Neon had burst into flames, that the boy had
been swallowed in an orange ring of fire, and that
after the accident, when she visited the boy in the
hospital, his face looked like a brown paper bag with
two holes ripped out for eyes.
"Where's your momma? Over at the house?"
"Don't know. Think she's cooking dinner."
Mama wasn't cooking dinner. She hadn't cooked dinner
one time since the miscarriage. Daddy said she was
dead to the world.
"What about your daddy?"
"He's down at the pool hall."
"Already?" she asked, pressing the glass
of Pepsi against her forehead as she spoke. "He
come home last night?"
"I don't think so."
"I'm gonna have to have a talk with that father
of yours again," she said, rattling the glass
of Pepsi. "Somebody needs to light a fire under
that man's ass. He's been outta work for almost three
"I think it's been more like five."
Verma reached into her robe pocket
for a Chesterfield. As she lit the cigarette, I motioned
to her for a drag. "What you want a cigarette
for, Hailey? So you can get hooked like me? You too
young to start killing yourself."
I motioned to her again and she
handed the Chesterfield to me. "All right, dammit.
Just one quick one though. And make it fast. Your
momma and daddy gonna skin me alive they see me sneaking
I sucked the smoke deep into my lungs.
"Your Uncle Errol been by the house again?"
"Yep." I handed the Chesterfield back to
her. "He came by Thursday."
"Old rotten-toothed slug." Verma scratched
an itch deep in the clump of her grey hair, took a
drag off her Chesterfield. "He still on your
daddy to sell the house, huh?" She flicked her
ashes into a folded paper napkin in her lap and took
another drag. The tip of the cigarette glowed bright
orange. "Well, don't go worrying yourself over
it, Hailey. That sneaky-ass uncle of yours ain't gonna
get his grimy hands on your momma and daddy's house.
Not if I got anything to say about it."
A few years back, Verma had gotten
an insurance settlement from Sears after she'd slipped
and broken her hip while shopping there. Daddy said
she had more money than the Pope, and he couldn't
believe that with all the money she had, she still
lived in the same ratty apartment complex. Mama said
it was because Verma actually saved her money, rather
than living off credit cards and pay-day loans like
most people he knew. Daddy even suggested that we
borrow money from Verma, but Mama wouldn't have it.
"I got a friend," Verma
said, "down at Wal-Mart. Says he can get your
daddy a job."
"Really? Doing what?"
"It ain't nothing special. Just a cashier job.
But it'll tide y'all over. 'Till your daddy can get
back on his feet."
"I hate to say it, but I doubt he'll go. He had
two job interviews last month, and he didn't show
up for either one."
"I'll dress your daddy up and haul his ass down
there myself if I have to."
Verma took another drag off her cigarette and snuffed
it out with her green slipper. I helped her out of
the lawn chair and we went inside.
For the rest of the
afternoon, I helped her stuff artichokes and peel
shrimp for stew. Before I left, she gave me a five
dollar bill. The word "five" had been colored
green with a ball point pen, and Lincoln's eyes had
been cut out.
* * *
When I got home, I
was surprised to notice that Mama's Saturn was gone.
The yard was littered with Daddy's clothes, jeans
and work shirts, shoes like empty mouths. A pair of
his leather gloves was dangling from the branches
of the crepe myrtle. They were brand new, still stitched
at the wrists, and they looked like two black hands
joined in some kind of upside-down prayer.
When I got inside, I could hear Mama calling to me
from her room.
you? Would you make me some tea? And could you get
me an aspirin for my head?"
I boiled some water
for tea. When it was done, I headed toward her room,
grabbing an aspirin bottle from the bathroom cabinet
on the way.
Mama's room was dark,
and she was buried to her neck in a white afghan,
her face glowing in the blue light of the television.
Daddy's side of the bed was empty. A few weeks back,
he'd started sleeping on the sofa. Mama said he snored
too loud, and that when he was in bed with her, she
couldn't get any sleep. I told her about those nose
strips that all the football players wear, but she
said nothing ever worked the way it was supposed to.
I'd seen Daddy sleeping a thousand times, and I'd
never heard him snore. Not once.
As I walked into the
room, I noticed the framed certificate Mama had gotten
for being Nurse of the Year. It said, "To Lena
Troslcair, LPN, in Recognition of Your Outstanding
Work." The only pictures in the room were the
ultrasound of the dead baby on Mama's dresser and
two paintings of Jesus, one of him hanging on a cross,
staring down with those terrible blue eyes, a golden
halo atop his head, and another of him holding up
his left hand, a bright crimson heart glowing in his
chest. There were no photographs of me, no pictures
of me holding an ice cream cone, chocolate dripping
down my arm. Not one of me in my purple dress, the
purple ribbon Verma gave me fluttering in my hair.
Only Jesus and the dead baby. In my family, it was
as if you had to be dead to get noticed.
When I got to Mama's
bed, I put the cup of tea on the nightstand, opened
the aspirin bottle, and pulled the cotton ball out.
Mama opened her mouth and closed her eyes, and I placed
the aspirin on her tongue. "What's wrong?"
I asked, handing her the cup of tea.
She brought the cup
to her lips, blowing on the tea as she spoke. "The
finance company came by and took my Saturn today.
Said your daddy was late on the payments again, so
they took it."
"Is that why Daddy's clothes are all over the
"Do you know how humiliating that is? Having
some stranger drive up and take your car 'cause you're
too broke to pay the bill?" Mama took a sip of
tea. "I had to wait two years for your father
to get that promotion before I could get that car.
Finally, I get one, and look what happens."
"I'm sure he can get you another car."
"You know how long it'll take before he can afford
another car like that?"
Mama had come from
a wealthy family, and when her and Daddy decided to
get married, against my grandma's wishes, Grandma
disowned her and cut her out of the will. Ever since
I could remember, Daddy had always worked overtime
at the meat packing company, trying to make enough
money for all the stuff Mama wanted, and for some
reason, Mama always seemed like the money he made
was never enough.
not just the car. Your Uncle Errol keeps coming around,
looking for his money. Says if we don't pay, he's
gonna take the house. Hell, we can barely even pay
the bills with all the loans we got. I even had to
stop getting those massages I was getting. Course,
your daddy thinks they're some kind of luxury, but
the doctor told me himself that weekly messages are
important, especially if you want your back to heal
A few months before
she'd gotten pregnant, Mama had thrown her back out
moving a patient from one bed to another while working
a graveyard shift at Mercy Hospital. Daddy said it
was hard to believe that someone could throw their
back out just from moving a patient from one bed to
another. Mama said Daddy didn't have a clue how difficult
being a nurse was.
"I just wish
I could go back to work. All I do now is sit up in
this bed and rot." Mama put the cup of tea on
the nightstand and grabbed a nail file from the top
drawer. "And when I'm not worrying about money,
all I'm thinking about is that dead baby. I keep praying,"
she said, filing the nail on her pinkie until the
white tip was a perfect half moon. "Hoping God'll
come along and save us from all this mess."
Sometimes, at night,
I'd hear Mama saying her prayers, asking God to save
our family, asking him to watch over me and Cyrus
and Daddy. I'd even tried to pray a few times myself.
I'd get on my knees and cup my hands, waiting to hear
God's voice roll over me like a black wave, but nothing
ever happened. I wanted him to save our family the
way he'd saved other families, but every time I got
on my knees and spoke to him, it seemed like no one
Since she couldn't
sleep, we decided to watch TV for a while. On the
news, there was a story about a talking fish. The
newscaster said a 20-pound carp in New York that was
packed in ice suddenly flipped out of a delivery crate
and started speaking in Hebrew, shouting all these
apocalyptic warnings, saying he was the soul of some
preacher who'd died a few days before. The people
they interviewed claimed it was a miracle, and that
the talking fish was proof that God really did exist.
I laughed at first, because the story reminded me
of that Sopranos episode when Pussy got reincarnated
into a fish. But as we watched the newscaster interview
some lady with big hoop earrings, I started to hope
that God would send me some kind of sign, that somehow
he'd fly down to Earth and perform some miracle that
would cure my whole family.
* * *
That night, the moon looked like Verma's cataract,
and the sky, black and cluttered with clouds, was
crying little drops of rain. Around two a.m., I woke
to the sound of Daddy's Nova growling down the rutted
clam-shell driveway. I could hear his keys jingling
in his pocket as he walked along the porch, the splintered
floorboards creaking beneath him. As I fell asleep,
I listened to the rain-filled gutter outside my window,
the slow drip of water like a wristwatch ticking in