This short story is an excerpt from my novel, LIFE ON THE OTHER SIDE. It was published in the Spring 2014 Willow Review and merited a fiction award.
The Barred Window
Outside the barred window, a teenage boy called to his friend on the Newark streets and an ambulance bleated its siren through the muggy summer air. Tahisha peeked out from behind the curtain to make sure no one on her block lay bleeding, and then returned to where she had been sitting on the lilac carpet of her grandmother’s bedroom. She played with a pair of socks her preschool teacher had transformed into hand puppets, mumbling to herself in mock anger as the puppets began hitting each other with bobby-pin bats.
It had been almost two years since she had seen her mother, Maizy, and Tahisha’s memory of her was fading. She could recall a soft cheek that liked to press up against her, and dark eyes that seemed always ready to cry. But that summer afternoon, as she was lifted up into smooth caramel arms, squeezed against a bony chest fragrant with talcum powder, and kissed by a cinnamon-gum mouth, Tahisha remembered.
Maizy gave her a firm hug, and Tahisha threw back her head in laughter. She studied her mother’s slender arm, a shade lighter than her own, as it reached into a blue and white striped vinyl bag. When her hand reemerged from its fishing expedition, it was grasping a brand-new doll in clear plastic wrapping.
“It’s from the South,” Maizy said, as if this conferred upon it some unique and special meaning. Tahisha held the gift and her eyes widened with the shock and joy of it. In the past, she had been given dolls by her aunt or the church ladies who smelled like mothballs. These were used and abused toys with knotted hair, missing articles of clothing, or dirt smudges on their limbs. She had never been given a new doll; never even held one because her grandmother would shout if she so much as touched a new toy at the corner store. But this one she clutched to her chest, her heart filling with awe and reverence, as if it were Judgment Day and she had been deemed worthy.
“It’s a Topsy-Turvy doll: it changes,” said her mother, and then the girl saw that it was true. When she held it up one way, it was a black woman with a long red and white polka-dot dress, white apron, and matching red and white head scarf. When Tahisha lifted the black woman’s skirt and turned the doll upside down, she was fair-skinned with two blond braids, wearing a light-blue dress and matching bonnet. It was love at first sight for both the doll and her mother, and Tahisha tried not to let either one move too far from view.
Maizy cooked up a large pan of fried fish and a potful of potato salad that she said was prepared in the special Macon, Georgia, style, and over dinner Tahisha asked question after question about her mother’s life down south.
“The weather? Well, it’s much nicer than here—warmer and sunnier. The sky is clear and blue, and the air smells like magnolias and cornbread. The summer seems to last right on into November.”
“And where you live at? With who?”
“I lived with a friend. We do have some family there, but I lived with a friend. Everyone is real warm and cordial in the South, real polite like. No one would dare cuss in public…least not when a lady is present.”
Tahisha’s grandmother started to chuckle. As she lifted her dirty plate from the table, she muttered, “And who that lady be? ’Cause she sure as hell ain’t you.”
Tahisha seemed not to hear the cutting remark. She touched her mother’s arm as she spoke, wanting to confirm that she was real. Her eyes caught sight of a trail of scars on Maizy’s arm that marched like tiny footprints from her wrist to her heart. She touched one and felt the rubbery bounce of the wound before Maizy shifted herself out of reach, signaling that the scars were off-limits. Tahisha plowed forward: “And what was yo’ house like?”
“The house? It was small, but pretty, with flowered curtains on the windows and a dining room with a big window that let you look out at a few old apple trees we had growin’ in the yard. Georgia is known for the peach, you know. But we had those apples instead. They didn’t look that beautiful, but they was sweet and tart all at the same time. There was a little piece a heaven in each bite.”
“Oh, I ain’t a big fan a regular ol’ apples, but did you bring any?” Tahisha’s delicate fingers were now on her mother’s back. Moving her braids from side to side, she wondered when she’d be old enough to get long braids like that.
“Well, they’d a gone bad on the trip—got banged up and such. But what I liked most to do with ’em was bake ’em into pies. They made the best apple pie you ever tasted!”
Tahisha’s grandmother was leaning against the sink observing the two and shaking her head. “You bake them pies? With your own two hands?” When no one in the kitchen responded to her, she whipped the dish towel down on the counter and announced, “Maizy, when you’re done with your fairy tales, clean up the kitchen. I’m goin’ to watch TV.”
Climbing onto a kitchen chair she’d shoved up next to the sink to stay close to Maizy while she cleaned up, Tahisha asked, “Mama, how did you pay for such a nice house? You had a good job?” Since her grandmother was always talking about money or the lack of it, it seemed the most natural question to ask, but she heard her grandmother make a guttural sound, which usually meant that she was angry.
“It wasn’t really that great a house: it was very small; I had a roommate; it was a sweet little place. My friend worked; I had…a little business. We managed.”
“Uh-huh.” Her grandmother’s voice again expressed her disapproval; of what, Tahisha was unsure.
“What kind a business?”
Hearing Tahisha’s question, her grandmother rose from her chair in the next room and filled the doorway with her wide frame. “Hisha, you need to take yo’ bath now.”
“Oh, but I’m helpin’ Mama with the dishes!”
“Distractin’ her is more like it. Go on, get yo’ behind up in the bath now. I can see the dirt on your knees!”
“I want Mama to read to me!” Her face pleaded her case.
In response, Maizy dried her hands on a dish towel, gave Tahisha’s back a stroke, and bent down to her ear. “We’ll read together after the bath, when you’re all ready for bed—okay, my Hisha?”
How could it not be okay? How could anything her mother said that included a caress and the words “my Hisha” not be okay? She padded off to the bathroom happily swinging her arms. While the tub was filling, Tahisha pressed her ear up against the door to hear the adult conversation.
“How long you here for this time?”
Tahisha heard the dishwater go silent. “I’m here for good… I’m not going back.” Maizy’s voice was soft and thoughtful. “I just can’t go back.”
“Uh-huh. State pay for your rehab?”
“What does it matter?”
“You plannin’ on takin’ this child so you can get some more money?”
Maizy raised her voice, so Tahisha didn’t even have to lean against the door to hear it. “What? Are you crazy? Of course I’m not here because of that! It’s not about the money; how could you think that!”
“Maizy, one thing I’ve learned: With you addicts, it’s always about the money. That much I know.”
“The hell you do! You don’t know me. You’ve never known me! And besides, I ain’t an addict, not anymore… I mean…I’m not usin’. It’s not about the money for me, so stop saying that.” She paused. “And especially don’t say that in front a Tahisha.” Her voice seemed to soften. “I can’t believe how much she’s grown…how beautiful she is.” Tahisha heard the scrape of the kitchen chairs moving against the linoleum floor. “Tell me about her. She does okay in school so far? She has friends?”
“Yes, she does seem kind a smart; least that’s what her preschool teacher said. And she plays nice at school, but I don’t go runnin’ her around to people’s homes and such to play with other little ones. I don’t have time for that. She’ll play in school and with the kids at church and she’ll be just fine.”
“Well, there ain’t no way a knowin’, now is there? I thought I done all the right things in raisin’ you and look how you turned out.”
Only when her grandmother shouted at her from the kitchen did Tahisha realize that the water was about to flow over the lip of the tub onto the floor. She released the plug and waited as it drained down. By the time she stepped inside the bath, the temperature had cooled and she sat shivering as she dragged a soapy washcloth up and down the length of her body. “Good enough,” she said to herself and began to towel off and then tugged on an undershirt and cotton pajama bottoms over her still-damp skin.
With her hair dripping, she charged out of the bathroom and barreled into her bedroom, praying that her mother would be there—and to her great amazement, she was.
“These all the books you got?” asked her mother, holding a small pile in her hands.
“Yeah, that’s it. I’m kind a tired of ’em.”
“I bet. They were here back when this room was mine.” Tahisha’s mother sat down on the bed and began flipping through pages.
The young girl climbed up next to her and pressed her shoulder against her mother’s side as if her mother’s body were steel, and hers, a magnet. Her mind was swimming with more questions she wanted to ask. Chief among them were: “Why did you leave me? And if you leave again, will you take me with you?” But these were questions she dared not ask, at least not yet.
After Maizy read her a picture book by Margaret Brown, Tahisha wondered out loud, “Where are you sleeping?”
“Right here with you, baby. I just have to brush my teeth. You go to sleep. I’ll be right back.”
“Uh, uh, I’ll wait for you.”
When Maizy returned to the bed and squeezed in next to her daughter, Tahisha snuggled into her side, tucking herself beneath her mother’s arm and holding a fistful of braids in one hand. In the other, she clutched the doll: the special one from the South who, unlike most people around her, had the ability to change.
For thirteen dreamlike days, Tahisha moved through life at her mother’s side. She discovered an old bottle of nail polish in Maizy’s striped bag, and the two took turns as manicurist and client. Her mother didn’t even complain when Tahisha painted her cuticles and even got a spot on the knuckle of her right index finger. In response to the child’s worried frown, she simply wiped it away with a paper napkin and smiled, saying, “See, no big deal.”
Tahisha and Maizy breathed in the midday air scented with automobile exhaust fumes and Caribbean shea butter as they strolled to the library. When they arrived, sticky and overheated, the two had no trouble fitting into a well-worn upholstered chair meant for one. Maizy read to her from Hans Christian Andersen’s version of “The Little Mermaid”: the one where the young mermaid doesn’t get the prince, but instead sacrifices herself, turning into sea-foam in order to save her beloved’s life.
On the way home, Tahisha picked a bouquet of dandelions from the weed-infested grass that passed for a lawn in front of the local elementary school, and Maizy accepted the gift with the gratitude as if they were roses. She pulled a package of cinnamon gum from her pocket, offered Tahisha a stick, and they both happily chewed, Tahisha’s mouth tingling with the sweet and spicy flavor that was her mother’s.
During those enchanted days, when her grandmother would return from work and question the pair about their activities, Tahisha tried not to look in the direction of the older woman, for fear the magical spell might somehow be broken. She caught her grandmother’s critical scowl as she brushed past the two huddled together on the concrete front stoop. She turned away from the head-shaking response she gave to her mother’s declaration “I’ve changed,” and walked away from her grandmother’s choruses of “Uh-huh” in reply to just about anything Maizy said.
It was almost two weeks after Maizy’s return that the call came in on the housephone. Tahisha could hear the voice on the other end of the line, deep and sad. She heard the man say that Levon had died, and watched as her mother crumpled onto the kitchen floor, her flowered skirt spreading wide against the cold linoleum. He said that Levon had come out of the coma briefly before having a massive heart attack and being pronounced dead. “I’m sorry, Maizy, but maybe it’s for the best. Least now he won’t be beatin’ on you no more.”
“Hollis,” she whispered into the phone, “I think I might a killed him.”
“Baby, heroin done killed him.”
“But what I gave him…it was too much…I…”
“Maizy, don’t be sayin’ that and don’t think it neither. He went out like he lived and now you’re free, so go figure. It’s the Lord’s will. Don’t be sayin’ that shit to no one. I mean it. Just let it be. You’ll figure out what to do with your place. Funeral is on Thursday.”
She squeezed out a high-pitched “I gotta go” before turning off the phone and allowing the long-held sobs to shake her shoulders, her tank top and cotton skirt becoming damp. She tucked her knees up against her chest, wrapped her arms around them, and rocked back and forth.
Tahisha slipped herself onto her mother’s lap and wrapped her arms around her center. “It’s okay, Mama…you’re okay.”
Maizy kissed the top of Tahisha’s head, held her for a few moments, and then came to standing. She wiped her eyes, blew her nose on a paper towel, and gave her daughter a feeble smile. “Thank you, baby. I just got some bad news about a friend. But I’m all right.”
“Levon, he died?”
“Yes, sugar, he did.”
“Who was he?”
“Just someone I used to care about…back in the day.” As soon as Tahisha’s grandmother returned from work, Maizy announced, “I think I’ll take a walk.”
Tahisha felt the small hairs on the back of her neck prick to attention. “Can I go with you?”
“No, Hisha, not this time. I’ll see you later.” Maizy was almost out the door when she tossed back, “Don’t wait up.”
Tahisha awoke with a start, to the sound of angry shouts, not long before dawn. “I knew you’d never change! Why the hell did you come back? You think bein’ a mama is some game you can play at?” The older woman’s voice was sharp and bitter. “You think you can just stroll in here, sit your scrawny bottom back down in our lives, and then sneak out to the streets chasin’ a good time!”
Tahisha, sitting up in her bed, began chewing on the bottom corner of the white cotton undershirt she wore as a pajama top. There was a long pause. The piece of fabric dropped from her mouth. “Answer her, answer her,” she whispered into the night. “Tell her it ain’t no game. Tell her…” The rest of the sentence, you love me, was left to silence.
Finally, Maizy spoke. “Chasing a good time. You think that’s what I do? Why don’t you ever ask me instead of just assuming the worst?!”
“What good would that do? I’ve heard enough of your lies over the years to last me a lifetime! Why don’t I just ask you? You must think I’m a fucking fool!”
“Mama, I never said that.”
“You’re right: I must have been, to let you back in through the door!”
“Please, listen to me just a minute…” Her mother’s voice trailed off, and Tahisha jumped from the mattress onto the thinning carpet and moved toward the door, pressing her ear against the dark wood trying not to miss anything.
“What did you do to get it? What did you do?” Her grandmother’s voice broke into a moaning sob, releasing a pain so deep it seemed to shake the house.
“Answer her, answer her,” Tahisha offered in a frightened whisper, hoping her mother might receive her message. She had never heard her grandmother cry, never seen her show weakness or despair. She was afraid to move; afraid that anything she did might bring the ceiling crashing down or something worse: her mother running for the front door.
Then came a horrible sickening sound: leather meeting flesh, whipping the air and then meeting its target. Primal groans were followed by the sound of kitchen chairs scraping against the floor and then toppling. Over it all was her grandmother’s chorus of “Out! Out! Out!”
Running back to her bed for safety, Tahisha huddled beneath her wrinkled pink bedsheet and whispered a rhythmic response to her grandmother. “No, no, no,” she muttered, as if they were in church and the two were doing a responsive reading.
Then everything was still. Tahisha’s bedroom door creaked open, and her mother entered the room pressing her palms to the wall for balance. Tahisha lowered the sheet from her head and stared.
“Hey,” said her mother, not looking at her. Instead, her eyes were scanning the floor for the blue and white striped bag. When she found it, she took her few belongings that had been piled on top of the dresser and placed them inside the vinyl case.
Tahisha now realized her mother had never even unpacked. As she moved unsteadily around the room, occasionally the hallway light came to rest on her long, graceful arms and the fresh track mark—red and wounding. Even at five, Tahisha knew this was not good. “The sign of the devil,” her grandmother had said as they maneuvered around a junkie passed out in the lobby of her aunt’s apartment building.
When Maizy had returned her few belongings to her traveling bag, she found her way to the bed and unsteadily seated herself on the edge. She lifted Tahisha’s smooth chin with one hand and stroked her short pink and white beaded braids with the other. “Be good,” she whispered.
“Where you goin’?”
“Be good, baby.”
“Where you goin’… Mama?” Tahisha tried to draw her closer, but her mother had already slid off the bed.
“Shit,” she murmured, struggled to her knees, and then used the dresser handle to pull herself back onto her feet.
“Mama!” Standing on her bed, her hands instinctively reached forward toward her mother’s shoulders. “When you be back, Mama?”
Her mother’s drugged eyes lifted and took in the girl, and as her lips began to form a response, the bedroom door banged open.
Her grandmother’s wide form filled the entryway, blocking the hallway fixture and swallowing her mother in the darkness. “Get the fuck out! Get the fuck out my house and don’t come back! You ain’t never gonna change! I must a been a fool to think you could. Garbage—that don’t change. You can dress it up and make it smell good, but when you open the bag, you just got garbage. I ain’t got time for your lies, and this child don’t neither!”
Tahisha’s mouth fell open, ready to shout “I got time! I got the time for you! Take me with you!” But something primal inside stopped her, as if she knew, without knowing why, that Maizy would not be able to care for her. Instead, she placed the corner of her undershirt in her mouth and began chewing wildly, and her hands groped through the tangle of pink sheet and frayed yellow blanket for the doll. She brought it to her nose and breathed in the sweet scent—the scent of her mother. Tahisha watched Maizy shuffle across the living room. After more declarations of pain and rejection, the steel front door clicked open and shut. Leaping out of bed and running to her bedroom window, Tahisha caught a glimpse of her mother’s narrow back and the blue and white striped bag before both disappeared into the shadows of the early morning.