Copyright © 2000 E.R. Frank. All rights reserved.
At first Ebony and I don't want to, but then her mom, Ms.Giles, says she'll pay us, and we say okay because Ebony'stwin sisters' day care isn't that far, plus it's across the streetfrom McDonald's.
We wait in the playground tire swings, sipping Cokes anddipping nuggets in hot sauce, and I'm wishing I'd asked forsweet and sour, when we see him. I'm guessing he's youngerthan us, but he's way bigger, and he's real dark, and he doesn'tlook around or anything. His eyes are set straight ahead, andhe walks right by and up to the front-door stoop and juststands there, waiting.
"We're fine, thank you. And what's up to you, too?"Ebony goes, loud, so he'll hear. Only he acts like he's deaf orsomething.
Ebony sucks her teeth for a minute, and then she tells me,"He'd be fine if he was dressed half decent." It's hard to knowif she truly cares about stuff like that or if she's just trying toget me aggravated, for fun.
So I tell her, "You'd be fine if you weren't a bitch."
"You know it's true." Ebony fakes a sulk, and I check himout again.
"He wouldn't be fine anyway," I go. "He's scary.
"What do you mean?"
She sticks her foot way out and leans way over to pretend-tieher shoe.
"You're right," she says. "He's mad scary."
A bell rings, and the doors open. A bunch of little kidsshoot through, and me and Ebony hop up out of the swings.A couple of day care ladies laze out behind the kids, and thatboy crosses his arms and leans his back to the brick.
Ebony's twin sisters, Mattie and Elaine, bounce outside,holding some kind of Popsicle stick craziness.
"What's that?" Ebony asks them.
"A dollhouse," Mattie says.
"It's not done," Elaine says. "We have to make the roof."
"Hi, China," Mattie says.
"Hi, baby," I go.
"Hi, China," Elaine says.
"Hey, baby," I tell her.
They're six but like it when I call them baby. Ebony's notallowed. They get mad at her when she does it. They let mebecause I don't have any little sisters, and I talk to them whenEbony just thinks they're around to get on her last nerve.They would let our other best friend, Grace, because she'swhite and she's prettier than anything, only Grace wouldnever say baby anyway.
"China, look," Ebony goes, poking me.
One of the day care ladies is staring, pole up her butt, atthat boy. "Can I help you?" she asks, nasty.
The boy stares back at her. He doesn't say a mad word.
"Do you need something?" the lady goes, like he better not.
He keeps his face shut tight, and the lady opens up hermouth again, but then this real small kidway younger thanthe twinszooms out with this Popsicle stick thing and goesto the scary boy, "Mama sick?"
The scary boy gives the lady a big old cold eye and thenscoops up the real small kid and flips him over his shoulderand takes off. The kid giggles like crazy.
"Eric!" he squawks. "Eric! Let me go!"
"Bye, Mickey," Mattie yells at the small kid's upside-downgiggly head.
"Bye, Mickey," Elaine yells.
"Bye, y'all!" he calls back.
But that boy Eric, he doesn't smile or slow down or anything.
On the first Friday the twins get to color mad bunches of yellowballoons with Magic Markers, and they let me and Ebonycarry the balloons home. When Ebony's mom gets back fromshowing apartments, she taps at the bunches, making themnod and shiver all over their living room, and she goes, "`InJust-spring when the world is mud-luscious the little lameballoonman whistles far and wee and eddieandbill come runningfrom marbles and piracies and it's spring when the worldis puddle-wonderful.'"
"It's not spring," Ebony cuts in. "It's summer."
Ms. Giles leaves the balloons and the poem and digs intoher pocketbook. I wanted to hear the end, but Ebony hates itwhen her mother says poetry. She's always making her momstop in the middle like that.
"Thank you, gifts," Ms. Giles goes, and she hands useach a fresh green bill, stiff as a new bookmark. Ebony holdshers by the edges, pushes them forward, and then pulls themback to make a loud snap. I fold a box out of mine, then undoit flat again and snap it, like Ebony.
"What's the rest of that poem?" I ask Ms. Giles.
"Ugh," Ebony moans.
"Ugh right back," I go.
"Be patient with her, China," her mother tells me."Ebony's poetry hasn't bubbled up to the top yet."
That makes me picture the fish tank at school.
"Mom!" Ebony moans again.
Her mother touches my chin with her fingertips. "China,"she goes, "your poetry is closer to the surface, just under yourskin."
Ebony drags me to her room and then calls Grace so thetwo of them can tease me stupid.
"Under her skin!" Grace goes, all sarcastic. Ebony's gother on speaker phone.
"Y'all just wait," I tell them both.
At Grace's I work on mini-collages from old magazines, to fitinto flat plastic key chains, while Grace and Ebony rip thehems out of the bottoms of their jeans. You have to do bothprojects just right, or you mess things all up.
"Make sure you don't get glue on the floor," Grace remindsme for the millionth time. I don't get an attitude.though, because of her mother. We're not even supposed to beat Grace's because her mom's sort of mean and doesn't likepeople who aren't white. I met Ms. Sanborn once on the sidewalk,and she was kind of nasty to me and Ebony both, but itwas hard to tell if it was because we're black or what, becauseshe was mean to Grace, too, and Grace is white, plus she's hermother's own daughter.
"Y'all want to sleep over this Friday?" Ebony asks, rightwhen I get done cutting out the words hip and sex.
"Yeah," I go, spotting ultra and fine and Wow all on onepage. "Can you come, Grace?"
"Depends what mood her mom's in," Ebony says quick,so Grace won't have to.
Grace rolls her eyes, which she is real good at, especiallyfor a white girl.
"Word," she goes, just to make us laugh.
That boy, Eric, stares right past us again and waits with hisback to the day care wall. This time Ebony keeps her mouthshut about him, and I try to catch his eye, but he won't seeme. The day care lady doesn't say anything. She looks at himlike he stinks or something, and he acts like she's a speck ofbug doo under his shoe.
Another girl shows up waiting today, too. She's youngerthan us, like that Eric boy, only she looks it more than he doesbecause she's real small and skinny.
"Hi," she goes when she has to pass us at the tire swings.
"Hi," we go.
She sort of stops near us when she notices that Eric takingup the stoop by the day care door. Nobody knows what to sayfor a minute, so we all stare at him until Ebony finally goes,"You know him?"
"He switched to special ed last year," the girl says. "Hefights."
"Figures." Ebony smirks. The girl kind of shrugs, while Ikick at Ebony's tire. "Isn't he ugly?" Ebony goes to her, kickingmy tire back.
Then the doors swing open, and the kids spill out. A realsmall girl, the same size as that little Mickey, skips over to us,all excited.
"Keisha!" this real small girl squeaks. "We madecookies!"
"You make some for your mama and Nick?" this Keishaasks her, all calm and still, like she's grown or something. Thesmall girl's face goes guilty. Keisha rolls her eyes at us. "Seeyou," she says, and they take off.
Little Mickey shows up right after that, and he grabsEric's hand and then hums a little while they walk down thestoop and away. Like he knows underneath that hard face,Eric's smiling down at him.
"You sure you don't want to take some day classes in arts andcrafts or karate?" my mom asks, over the TV.
"Uh huh," I tell her.
"Deadline's next week," she reminds me.
"I just want to hang out this summer."
"Twelve-year-old girls ought to keep busy," my daddy saysto me. Then, to the TV, he goes, "What is the Suez Canal?"He knows every Jeopardy answer. The only one I ever saw himmiss was "What is sulfur?"
"I keep busy," I tell him. "Grace and Ebony and me dostuff on our own."
"China's getting a little pay each week to help Ebonywatch the twins on their way home from day care," my momtells him.
"You're putting it all in the bank, right?" he goes.
"Wrong," I say, and he tries to swat my behind, but I getaway, because he never for real tries to get me, plus I'm fast.
Grace and Ebony don't have daddies. Grace thinks hermother doesn't even know who he is. Ebony's lives somewherein the South, and she hasn't seen him since she was five.Ebony's mother won't talk about him except to say that heloves Ebony but isn't enough of a man to know how to showit. They think my daddy's mad cool partly because he's gotthese slanty eyes like me, plus he's got a pierced ear, plus he'sreal nice.
"Have you ever visited him at work?" Ebony's asking me.She's pulling at the let-out hem of her jeans, to make fringes.She does stuff slower than Grace, who's putting her jeans onto see if her done fringes are even enough.
"Once," I say. I'm busy gluing all my cutout words ontothree different pieces of small cardboard. When I'm done,each collage will slip into a plastic key chain frame just like apicture would.
"Did you meet a lot of stars?"
"There's not really any stars on the news," I answer. "Buthe's going to switch over to a soap opera soon."
"I bet stars don't even talk to the cameramen anyway,"Grace says, and then we hear the front door bang open andGrace's mother yell, "I'm home!"
"Shit," Grace goes, and the next minute her mother'sstanding in the bedroom doorway, hands on her hips, mouthwide enough to catch a truckload of flies.
"Hi, Ms. Sanborn," I go, to show her how polite blackgirls can be.
"Hi, Ms. Sanborn," Ebony goes.
"That's Ebony, and that's China," Grace says. She looksreal calm, but I can see a vein, or something, bouncing in herneck.
"Nice to meet you," Grace's mom says. But she's notlooking at us, plus she met us once already. I guess she doesn'tremember. "Now you'll have to leave."
"What a bitch," Ebony says while we're waiting for the daycare to let out. We bought McDonald's again, but we're toomad to eat.
"You think she'll let Grace sleep over with us Friday?"
"You think she's going to shit honey anytime soon?"
"Hey," I go. "That boy isn't around. That Eric boy."
"What. You like him now?" Ebony starts smirking.
"It's not like that," I go.
"Riiight," she says, all attitude.
"For real," I tell her.
The bell rings, and the twins run out. They're wearing allkinds of painted and strung-up macaroni. Bracelets, necklaces,belts.
"Y'all want some nuggets?" we ask. They grab them andrun off to the jungle gym.
I see that Mickey looking around. I see him walk to theplayground's fence. I see him stare over at a lady I didn't noticebefore who's leaning on the fence gate. She's way skinnyand ashy like you never saw. Mickey scuffs over to her. Shestarts walking away as soon as he's near. He speeds up to getnext to her and hands over his macaroni necklace. She puts iton over her head, without stopping or even looking at him oranything.
Today he's not giggling. Or humming.
"May I speak to Grace, please?" I go.
"No, you may not," her mom says. "Grace is groundedfrom the phone."
"I'm sorry we didn't have your permission," I say. I don'twant to get Grace into more mess, but still.
"Your apology is accepted."
"We're real clean," I say. "And we don't make any noise orbother your neighbors."
"I'll tell Grace you called," Ms. Sanborn says.
"Grace is our best friend," I tell her.
"I'm aware of that."
"Maybe you could ask our mothers to punish us instead,"I say. "Because, really, we kind of made Grace let us comeover."
"Good-bye," her mom says. Then she hangs up thephone.
What a bitch.
On Thursday me and Ebony don't hang out together atGrace's first, so we meet up at the day care. I get there early.That younger girl, Keisha, is hanging out by the tire swings.Eric's leaning up against the wall. I wave to Keisha and thenwalk up the stoop to Eric.
"Hi," I go. He doesn't say anything. Plus he does kind ofsmell.
"You want a nugget?" I ask. He glares at the nuggets, andthen he glares at me.
"I saw your mother yesterday," I go.
He won't say a mad word. Maybe it wasn't even his mother.
"Is she sick?"
"Get the fuck out my face," he tells me.
Friday Grace races into the McDonald's right when me andEbony are ordering.
"Hey, girl!" Ebony goes. "How'd you get out?"
"I'm grounded for a month, same for the phone," Gracepants. "But my mom's at work every day. So screw her." She'sred and shiny from running in the heat. All the McDonald'sboys are staring at her under their baseball hats. She plays likeshe doesn't notice, though.
"My mom's not paying you," Ebony warns.
"Like I want your money," Grace says.
"Oooooh," I go.
Outside we see Eric walking ahead of us.
"That's him," Ebony tells Grace. "That's the one Chinawants to get with. Isn't he nasty?"
"I do not either want to get with him," I say. "And don't callhim nasty. Something's wrong with his mother or something."
"So?" Ebony goes. "He's still nasty."
The thing I notice today just about knocks me over. You'dthink he'd slide his eyes over Grace if he slid them over anybody.But it's like he doesn't even see her. The person hewatches is Ebony when she stoops in the middle of the playgroundto help Mattie reglue her milk carton castle.
Grace's mother has a date with some new neighbor, so Gracesneaks out to Ebony's.
"Somebody would get with your mom?" Ebony goes, andthen she says quick, "No offense."
"Like I care," Grace tells us. We're in the kitchen, makingbrownies. When we're at Ebony's, we bake. At my house it'susually popcorn. We don't eat at Grace's.
"You girls want a movie?" Ebony's mother asks, pokingher head into the kitchen.
The phone rings, and Ebony grabs it. "Hello," she goes.
"That's the twins," her mom tells us. They're at anovernight somewhere.
"This is Ebony," Ebony says. Then she gets real quiet. Iguess it's not the twins.
"Who is it?" Ms. Giles asks.
"Uh huh," Ebony goes.
"I don't remember," Ebony tells the phone. "I didn't getany." Then she says, "Hang on." She holds out the phone.
"He says he's my daddy," she goes. "He's crying."
Ms. Giles grabs the phone and covers the receiver with herhand.
"Go upstairs," she orders us. "Now."
We stretch across Ebony's bed and try to figure out how to listenin, but even though Ebony's got mad phone stuff, like callwaiting and speaker and three way, we can't figure out anythingfor spying.
"What did he sound like?" Grace asks.
"He was all happy at first," Ebony goes. "He was realhappy." She's swinging around her sock monkey doll by histail.
"He was all how he sent me these letters on my birthdays,and did I like them."
"You never told us about any letters," Grace says.
"Well, I never got any, girl," Ebony goes, popping Grace'sknee with that monkey.
"You said he was crying," I say.
"But you said he was happy."
"He was crying from happiness," Grace guesses, rollingher eyes.
"Wrong," Ebony says. "He was crying when I told him Inever got any dumbass letters."
We all think about that for a minute, trying to figure it out,and then Grace asks me, "Did you ever see your dad cry?"
"Did y'all ever see your mothers cry?" Ebony goes.
We shake our heads, and then Ebony's mom walks in.
"Was that really my daddy?" Ebony asks. She doesn't situp or anything. She just keeps swinging that sock monkey overher head.
"Yes," her mom says. "Do you want to talk about this now,with your friends here?" she goes. "Or do you want to waituntil you and I can discuss it on our own?"
Ebony shrugs. Me and Grace look at each other. I knowshe's hoping what I am. We want to hear all about it.
"Maybe we should wait until tomorrow then," Ms. Gilessays.
Ebony shrugs again.
Grace sneaks home an hour later, and I wake up in the middleof the night without Ebony next to me. I get spooked, butwhen I find Ebony all tucked in with her mother, I step awaybecause it seems like something private.
"`... and how you first fluttered,'" I hear Ebony's momwhispering, "`then jumped and I thought it was my heart.'"
At the tire swings Ebony chomps at her nails and spits the bitsout in a pile.
"That's disgusting," Grace tells her.
Ebony's daddy called again yesterday. Her mom doesn'tknow. Ebony said he was telling her all about some woman hewants her to meet. Ebony said he was talking slow andsounded like he was forgetting words a lot of the time. Gracesaid maybe he'd been drinking.
"Y'all want to sleep over at my house on Friday?" I go,while I'm looking at Eric, trying to figure out what that madbulge is in his back pocket.
"Mmmkay," Ebony says.
"I'll come by for a while," Grace goes. She'll have tosneak out again. She's still got a week left on punishment.
Ebony squints over at Eric. "He stinks," she tells me, evil."I can smell him from here." That's a lie.
"It's not his fault," I go.
"How do you know?" Grace says, not evil, only curious.
"I just do."
"You're the one who said he was scary," Ebony tells me,standing up from the swings.
"I changed my mind," I say. "And stop talking loud. He'snot deaf."
"Hi, girls," we hear, and Ebony's mother comes throughthe gate.
"Do we still get paid for today?" Ebony asks when hermom gets to our swings.
"Of course," Ms. Giles says. "I can't stay anyway. I'm onmy way to Fifth Street to show a two-bedroom."
I'm trying to catch Eric's eye, but he's stupid stubborn.I guess Ebony's mother sees me looking. "Who's that?" sheasks.
"Some fool," Ebony says
"He's not a fool," I tell them.
"He kind of is," Grace says.
"He is not!" I go, loud.
"What's your problem?" Ebony snaps, and then Grace,instead of rolling her eyes at me, she sucks her teeth hard atEbony and kicks near the fingernail pile.
"He's not a fool," I tell Ebony's mother. My voice is crazyshaky, and my face is all hot, and I don't even know why.
Ms. Giles puts her hand on my shoulder and looks over atEric. I try to keep from crying while the bell rings and the kidsfly through the doors. Ebony's mother watches the day carelady glare at Eric until Mickey comes out, his nose all nasty.Eric yanks a tissue from his back pocket bulge and holds it upto Mickey's face.
"Blow," he goes.
"Battered by the tides like an abandoned ship, a spiritadrift," Ms. Giles says, real low.
"Mom!" Ebony groans at her.
"Just chill," Grace snaps at Ebony. "Jesus."
"He's got poetry," I go, all choky. "He's got mad poetry."
I get a runny head and start feeling wobbly, and my momtakes my temperature and then kicks my daddy off the couchduring Jeopardy so I can lie down. My daddy gives me theclicker and sits in the armchair, and my mom puts the tissuebox and a blanket, even though it's about a million degreesoutside, on the coffee table. Then she brings me this specialkind of aspirin she gets for free from her boss at the drugstoreand lemon honey tea and tells me to drink it hot. Mydaddy feels my forehead and the fat mug with the back of hishand and then makes my mom drop ice cubes into the tea,to cool it.
"You're going to kill her," he scolds. "She's going to meltlike the Wicked Witch of the West."
Then they sit with me watching whatever I want to for awhile, and right in the middle of a car commercial I understand"spirit adrift," and I feel this thing ease through my skinwith the fever, showing me how mad stupid mean the worldcan be and just how lucky I got, and it's a warm sad feeling,like tea steam wrapping comfort around some new, crying partof my heart.