Well, do we have to go straight from church in stupid dresses? Why can't we go home first? I say.
Ask your father, she says. But then I remember it's Sunday and you can't wear shorts on Sunday anyway.
Why can't we go tomorrow? I say.
Ask your father, says my mother. She don't care I guess since she wears stupid dresses every day of the week. So it's "jubilation day," because Deacon lives in a house in the sub-urbs and we live in a small flat in the city like everybody else we know. So we should be impressed by his success. I am not impressed by Deacon's house. But I still have to go.
Deacon is not really a deacon. We, I, call him that behind his back. His father is head of the Deacon's Board at church, but that's not like he was a king or anything. But the father seems like a very nice old man, especially when he reaches in his pocket and gives me a quarter, or sometimes just a nickel, but none of that rubbed off on Deacon. Sometimes, my mother says, quality skips a generation. And so, when we go to Deacon's house, my mother does not look like jubilation day. She looks like a pin cushion, steel pins ready to fly at a word.
The high-speed expressway that will take the city folk out to the Boondocks faster will be done in about three more years, people say. My mother gives them ten years, which is about when she will be ready to go to Deacon's house. But right now, we stop-and-go for it seems like hours. Before we're started good, I can feel the car-air shrinking and my stomach starts reaching for the back of my throat, and I don't know if I can make it all the way without throwing up.
I concentrate on not throwing up. Then I figure out how I will throw myself across the lap of my sister, Sharin, and hang my head out the window if I have to. I imagine the vomit hitting the wind and blowing back into my face and onto my clothes and onto both Sharin's and Karin's clothes and how they will be so mad and almost never forgive me. Thinking of this, I concentrate on not throwing up. I tell my father I am going to be sick, and ask him if he will stop the car please please please. He says, We're almost there. But we're not. We are not almost there. That's just what my father says instead of No. We're almost there, he singsongs, almost there. . . almost there . . . he will say almost there until we are there.
My stomach feels like the treeless dusty sunbaked streets of the Boondocks. The houses are not red or brown brick like ours. These houses look weightless. They are colors like green, pale blue, yellow. They look like Monopoly houses all in their rows of aqua and beige and pink trimmed in white with trees so weak they need two sticks with wires to hold them up, or down. They look like houses in books, flat, with no backside.
Especially his house. Deacon's.
See Deacon's house, sub-urban, see his vomit-green window shutters that don't shut or open, his initials in cursive metal on the front door screen, swinging open, see him step through the crack, a dark slant cut into sunlight. My head is tight, swirly, dusty. The earth turns slowly. If I stare and stare at his black shoes like ink wells, like small black puddles, I can make it stop. Make the world stop moving, make my ears stop ringing, make my gut let go the back of my throat.
When I look up there are two flamingos standing in the yard. They look as if they might highstep out of here except, like the trees, they are stuck to the spot. A thin rod penetrates their bellies. It's supposed to be invisible, the rod, but I can see it from here. I can see it from every angle. Anyway, you see it once and you know it's there.
Inside are coordinating flamingo "cocktail" tables and pink shingle lamps. Mrs Deacon hurries us kids into the kitchen as if we are about to spill ourselves on her light colored rug that is properly called carpeting (says my mother) because it covers the whole floor, not just part of it, but is crisscrossed anyway with plastic runners, so why is she worried?
In the kitchen we get watery Kool Aid, grape, which is the worst flavor of all, especially if you mix it with something stupid like lime which gives you mud which is what this looks like, and on top of that mistake, not enough sugar, and I guess they ran out of ice just before we came so it's warm as tap water. It's good manners to say thank you, even if it's for brown tap water. So we all say thank you thank you thank you one after the other as we look at each other knowing we will have to take this mess outside and feed it to the flamingos who looked a little desperate.
These are the rules: My father will sit with Deacon in the living room laughing and talking and having a great time. My brother Jerome will take off with Deacon's son Leonard who is his age, twelve. My mother will sit in the kitchen with the wife "being sociable," pins lying sociably flat, mostly. Deacon's one daughter is "gotten pregnant and gone," so me and Karin and Sharin will be on our own. No place to go. No one to show us anything out here in the desert. In the Boonies.
We always walk to the edge of the yard or walk to the comer and back. We can't jump rope because it's Sunday and you can't play on the Lord's Day unless you are men sitting in the living room, and you can't sweat on the Lord's Day, unless you are women in a steamy kitchen chopping onions which is what we will end up doing if we hang around too long. And we can't go far because what's the point? Twenty minutes and we'd look like three Buckwheat Jesuses forty days in the wilderness. Plus this is the Boonies - you have to watch out for hidden dangers like grasshoppers as big as your fist, spiders, and white people looking at you like they're trying to remember something. My mother says they're trying to remember how we got here. How did we get here? I say. Never mind, she says. You're here. Be grateful.
So Sharin and Karin and I are sitting on the back step like three tarbabies in the sun when my brother slips by to whisper to my mother that they, he and Leonard, are going somewhere. She looks up at him, deciding. Without knowing where to, I want to go. I say it - I want to go . . . so what else is new? My brother rolls his eyes. Here is the rule: Whatever boys do, girls shouldn't be doing. Why? Never mind. Be grateful.
Mother looks at me. She says I can go. Jerome is stunned, but recovers in a split second because we know better than to argue. Come on, he says. Sharin and Karin want to come to. Sharin has to comb her hair. Karin has to use the toilet. Come on, says Jerome. Come on, then. And he and Leonard take off out the door running and I'm right behind them because I don't care how my hair looks and the flamingos got my Kool Aid.
They run without stopping. Leonard looks over his shoulder, laughing, running faster when he sees me. Karin and Sharin yell after us to wait. They yell for mother to make them wait. But my mother won't make them wait. She would say we got what we asked for. If we want to go with them, we have to go on their terms. Karin and Sharin run to the bathroom and shove open the window fussing and shouting threats but we are turning a corner, the boys ahead, and then me. And finally I hear nothing but my heart pounding and my breath still coming light.
When Leonard and my brother look over their shoulders, there I am, still there, still running my heart out to be with them, to be away from Deacon's house, away from back step sitting, away from the heat of onions and kitchens and Deacon-eyes smearing you with sin like fried chicken grease rising up in clouds of steam seeping into everything, covering everything with an invisible slickness.
We run down a hill, then up one. I feel free and alive, running as fast as I can but still falling behind. Then the boys come to a tall wooden slat fence. They give a whoop and, in what seems to be an impossible leap, they scramble up, then disappear over the top.
I run to the fence and jump. I jump again. I look around, quick, tip a crate, cardboard box, sideways, run, step, up! and grab the splintery top edge, then heave, pull, work one leg across. I inch to the top, my heart pumping, my lungs beating and dry in the dusty hot air; I cling to the narrow fence like a caterpillar to a willow. Carefully, I turn my head, and I can just see my brother and Leonard escaping across a field.
I scream at them to help me, to not leave me, that I can't get down, thinking they will pity me and come back. I watch them disappear into the distance. I hear, Come on! Come on! Jump! Jump! but they never slow down. They are gone and I see how high up I am, and the box is tumbled away and crushed anyway. I start to wonder if I can get down. I grip the fence tighter. They will come back. They have to come back.
They're not coming back. And I'm scared. I'm scared of falling . . .
Well, ok. Really I just have to let go and drop to the ground, but somehow I can't let go. I've come up wrong. My chest is balanced on my wrists pressed against the narrow fencetop. If I let go, I might topple over sideways. I might fall forward on my head. Why do you always want to go where you're not wanted? I should have stayed on the back step. Or in the kitchen.
People ought to keep to where they're wanted.
What if you hate being there?
I think of the Deacon's pink flamingos balancing circles of glass on their wings; I think of the Deacon peeping around doorways at church whispering my name, his eyes cutting me out of the fold like Clint Eastwood on Rawhide cuts a runt out of the herd. I realize only now that Clint must be invisible to the cows who mill about the horse's slender legs. Cows never look up. The Deacon is invisible like that, tiding so high up on his Daddy's back. I'm afraid of him because he is invisible, to them, and I am not. And because he is not Clint Eastwood.
The rough wood bites into the soft meat of my palms. My wrists hurt. My arms are shaking. If they keep shaking I'll topple over on my head. I look at the hardness of the dirt beneath me. I can't feel my hands. If I roll back off of my wrists, my hands might not catch me. My fingers might slip, numb, off the fence top. I pull one leg half over the top. Cling. I think of a vocabulary word: teetering.
I can't get down.
The ground is moving farther and farther away from me. Or the fence is getting taller. The longer I wait, the farther the fall. I know why I'm here. Because I can't do things like hit a softball. And I can't run fast. At school they say I can only catch a basketball pass with my face. My grandmother says I'm too thin but Lisa Harris is skinnier than I'll ever be and she can hit a softball out of the park, better than the boys who think they're so great. My grandpapa can't look at me without giving me a dollar and sending me for ice cream - one pint of New York Cherry for him and one Strawberry for me. But that's not it, being skinny. I'm not tough. That's what.
So get tough, says Lisa Harris. Let the basketball / hit you / in your damn face (Lisa curses) 'til you learn how to receive it (she says receive like the boys, instead of catch like I would say). You gotta take your damn licks, she says. Don't be a punk.
The longer I wait, the farther the fall. It is so hot. Gritty dirt and wood crumbles make glue in a skim of sweat. If I look up, the sky lurches and tums making me dizzy, so I have to grip the narrow fence even tighter. My wrists ache and shiver. Be tough says Lisa Harris leaping over the fence in a single bound and sauntering off in the same direction as my brother.
I can't get down.
Punk, says Lisa.
The sun drops an inch closer to the slatted wall, burns larger. The fence's shadow grows. On either side, I'm scared the same. Behind me is Deacon's house. Deacon appears in a doorway, shuts the door. Come 'ere girl, he says, come 'ere. What's wrong with giving your Uncle a kiss? Is there anything wrong with that? Come 'ere then . . .
They should have come back to help me, that's all. They should have known . . . they knew I couldn't make it over the fence. That's why Leonard came this way. They knew and laughed and kept on running, Jerome my brother, and his friend.
The sun burns straight on me. My shadow clings to the wall. Help me, I whisper. I scream inside my head. Somebody help me. To myself. Tears squeeze out of my eyes. Through the tears, the sun wobbles and shakes. I pray somebody will come to help me. I pray no one will come and find me stuck on top of a fence. My mouth trembles. The sun is cooking a hot spot on the top of my head. My palms are sticky with sweat, dirt, grit from the crumbly wall. I try to readjust my grip on the fence top. I have nowhere else to go but to Deacon's house. I have to . . .
Don't be a punk . . . Bein' scared is the problem. You gotta stop bein' so scared all the time. What's the big deal anyway? Grow up, for heaven's sake. It's mind over matter. It's how you think, see. You thinkin' you can't do it. You gotta think like you Bill Russell, somebody. Like you can do anything, see. Like you can fly like a bird.
If I was a bird I would know how to sit on a fence and not fall off. A bird, bluejay or robin or even just a plain brown sparrow, ready to take off . . . what does the sparrow think of? She laughs at the cock on a weather-vane, stuck in one place and can't get down. She laughs. Flits up and along the fence top daring the cock to fly off of that stick stuck in its belly, dares him to leave that house and fly. I am the sparrow. Brown and plain. I could fly if I knew something else. I've no stick that pins me down. I could fly if I would, and look out over everybody's heads down there, counting the crosses on the church tops, counting the Deacons on their knees . . .
I could see . . . see where my brother went. And fly there. He'll be surprised when I show up and sing down to him, I don't want to go with you or Leonard, I've got better places to go. And then he sees I am flying - suddenly I am flying. Backwards, flying backwards. The sky swoops, hits me upside my head - am i screaming? screaming . . . the sky swerves, hits me upside my head once like a wooden board . . . black. Blackness. Dark.
I'm not dead . . . the darkness is my skirt over my head blocking the light because that's what gravity does when you hang by one knee upside down on a fence.
Blood in my face . . . swelling, inside my head . . . hot . . . dark as the sun blood red seeping through a dark curtain . . .
Push the skirt up out of your face, fool . . . do something with that spare leg waving in the air . . . go fishing . . . caught a whole fence . . . can you sit up? . . . grab the top . . . sit up (light) . . . grab it . . . missed (dark) . . . one hand to grab, one to keep my dress up (or down) to cover my pale-pink-for-Wednesday-even-though-it's-Sunday underwear . . . up! (light) . . . missed . . . down (dark)
Something starts to shake . . . it's me . . . it's inside me . . . wet rolls off my eyelids . . . tears run off my forehead . . . splashdown in the tan dust over my head . . .
My head . . . big . . . like a big rock . . . heavy like a rock . . . raise up . . . raise up, rock! missed . . . above me, waiting, is the hard dirt . . . when I fall . . . when? sometime . . .
My eyes squeeze shut tight . . . please nobody come to see me hanging stupid upside down nobody
Nobody comes . . . didn't think so . . . good . . . nobody can hear me from those houses way over there . . . if they look out of their windows they will see . . . they will see a brown thing . . . won't know it's me (me who? me-myself-and-I) . . . won't see me . . . won't know it's me . . . it's me it's me it's me oh lord standin in the need of prayer . . .
Call somebody . . . can't call nobody for help . . . fences . . . good fences make good girls . . . and sun . . . red hot in a white sky is like hell you know is upside down . . .
Cry . . . can't . . . good . . . arms too heavy to reach . . . too heavy to keep my dress down . . . up . . . over me . . . heavy to hold my dress draped over my face (pull that dresstail down girl!) cools my face from the straight burn of the sun . . . hanging . . . dresstail over my head (with your fast-tail self!) . . . erase the little houses way over there white people peek out they see black me hanging upside down on a fence reminds them of something they can't remember . . . I can't remember how did I get up here on this fence? . . . never mind. be grateful!
Who put this fence here anyway . . . to leave me back to push me back to Deacon's house to get away from me away in the dark I see him them sitting on a step drinking cold Nehi purple right out the bottle they've got penny candy mintjuleps wine candy sours banana bikes taste like salt like snot . . .
Sorry trees turned upside down brown dry skinny trees like me hanging in the heat . . .
Hate . . . I hate. I hate Leonard and my brother with their Nehi pop I hope / they trip / on a po-ta-to chip / and drown up / side down / in / a / bot / tle of pop! . . . my last wish . . .
I wish wish wish / to hypnotize this dish dish dish / yellow dirt over my head head head / make me a feather bed bed bed / to fall into instead stead stead . . .
The ugly big-nosed man on TV just happens to pass by my fence. He says: Whut uh revoltin' development dis is! and stretches his eyes . . .
When I fall I might die quick or I might just pop my head open pink inside strawberry ice cream or like that watermelon rolled off the edge of grandpapa's porch smack on the concrete step rind split open crooked and red water leaked off the step . . .
Hanging from my stem like green blackfruit on a tree. Like apple trees in Mrs. Johnson's yard. Her apples never fall, just rot on the limb. Gone straight from green to bad, she says. Like Deacon's daughter. Blackfruit. Green inside and gone to rot.
Well, girl, it could be worse. Just keep your knees together, eyes open. Hands up and open like this. Palms open. If he tries any tongue action keep your teeth closed. Keep everything closed. Except your eyes. And then, and then, well, it's nothing to worry about. Can't nothing happen then. So don't be a punk, ok?
I wouldn't want to have to tell my mother that I've gone and broken my neck. That would be hard to do because she would be frightened for me and in pain for me and have to take off work to take care of me and the worst part would be when she'd say, What were you doing up on a fence? and when I told her she'd say, You don't have the sense God gave you.
I let myself hang, loose. Last tears drop slip out of my eyes. I can feel the world's slow spin. Slow, barely moving.
A breeze. One. I feel cool in this slow motion like a world spin so I can catch the fence top with my flying foot heel heel heel then ankle pull slow but moving in the dark pull pull inch inch gaining the fence top scrape scrape little blood little blood on the wall on the wall will not fall will not fall up light up light take the fence-top. Hooray.
Simple. To bend at the waist, grip the top of the wall, skin my legs down sideways, push off from the fence, drop to the ground. My knees give out. I just stay down, on my knees, forehead to the wall, face hot, eyes sticky. Just for a minute. Wait. Just till I don't hear my heart. Wait. After a minute, or more, maybe? An hour. I climb to my feet, walk shakily toward Deacon's house. Before I turn the first corner and I know he will be waiting for me.
Where you been? Why you run off like that? Hardly had a chance to see you and you were gone . . .
(Where is my father?) . . .
Went to the store, for some ice . . . he'll be back . . .
Hair, slicked back, dull in the late sun with old oil and dust. His narrow face is still and bland as the air behind a barn.
How come you didn't give your Uncle a kiss when you came. You come to your Uncle's house and he can't get a kiss?
I put my hands up, fists. Deacon thrusts his tongue against my firmly clenched teeth. The backs of my knees ache from where the coarse wood of the fence has pressed and scraped. With my eyes open I see his eyes are open too. He forces open one clenched fist, presses my palm against the lump always between his legs. The cloth rubs rough against new bruises in my palm, ache and burn.
The air is quiet. I can hear the dust rising. I can hear a caterpillar creeping on a limb over there. I hear the far off creak and slap of the screen door to Deacon's kitchen and my mother calling Sharin and Karin because if they're just standing around they can come in this kitchen and make themselves useful. But mostly I hear silence shaped like the triangles of spaces between my fingers, hands palms up and open, knees together and slightly flexed, the proper way to receive the basketball muscled at you hard because if you play with the boys you better learn how to take it and stop whining and for God's sake don't be such a sissy.
Later there will be glasses of blue Kool Aid cooled with ice and fried chicken and some kind of potatoes but not potato salad because you can't trust mayonnaise on a day like this, it's just too hot, and some kind of canned peas.
It is almost dinner when Leonard and my brother get back from wherever they've been. I am sitting on the back step, still and quiet like a Tarbaby. I will not speak to them.
Hey, says Jerome, What happened to you? Why you didn't come with us? We waited for you! Then he grins and looks at Leonard. They both laugh. I cut my eyes at Leonard and laugh with them thinking how it's too bad quality has skipped two generations. But really I'm looking at my brother, my mouth laughing, but I do not speak one word to him. I am looking at him. I am looking for something inside of him. I do not see what I am looking for. Me? They don't see me. Till they want to get by me, get into the house, him and that ugly Leonard, and I won't let them come by me. They see me then . . . they see my smile is not smiling, really. They see I mean it. They see me raise my hands too, so they can't step over me either and stunt my growth.
If they want to get in, they will have to go around to the other door, to the front door, have to go past the pink flamingos where my dark water still gleams at their feet and ring the doorbell so Mrs. Deacon has to disturb herself from whatever she's doing, has to walk to the front door thinking it must be someone, another guest, another place to set, make Mrs. Deacon walk from back to front, and it's only them, have to come past two pink birds balancing circles of glass on their wings, and track their dust past her and the birds, and let her ask them why in heaven's name they are tracking again through her front door, and are they too grown now to come through the back? And how they answer her will be their own damn business because today I am a fence with no gate. And I am not moving. Not today. No way. Yes, I am here. But I will not be grateful.
Opal J. Moore is Associate Professor of English at Radford University. Last year, she was a Fulbright lecturer at Johannes Gutenberg-Universitat in Mainz, Germany, and is currently the Jessie Ball DuPont Visiting Scholar at Hollins College in Virginia. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in AAR, Callaloo, Obsidian II, Homeplaces: Stories of the South by Women Writers (U of South Carolina P), and elsewhere.
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|Title Annotation:||short story|
|Author:||Moore, Opal J.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1995|
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