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?” Cyrus asked.
“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 him rent.”
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 horses.
“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 off to?”
“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 months now.”
“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 you drags.”
I sucked the smoke deep into my lungs.
“Your Uncle Errol been by the house again?” Verma asked.
“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.
“Hailey? That 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 lawn?”
“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.
“Anyway, it’s 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 properly.”
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 was listening.
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 my ear.