February 2, 2017KR OnlineFiction

From Stab Wounds

From the Kenyon Review, New Series, Autumn 1992, Vol. XIV, No. 4

The Things He Turns To Gold

My little brother slams into our bedroom in the middle of The Brady Bunch to announce that he wants to be a helicopter when he grows up. My other siblings are only half listening but I turn my full attention to this brother even though any word spoken in the next half hour could decrease Jan Brady’s chances of becoming a Fillmore Junior High School Cheerleader.

“We could be like the Bradys,” my older sister says dreamily, moving the dark mass of hair covering her shoulders away from her face. Jan is wearing a ponytail. My sister pulls her own hair back, gazes at the television, then sighs. “We only need two more kids in our family.”

My big brother’s eyes follow Jan’s every move. He is silent, transfixed. At ten, he is the oldest. He tells us he is working on a plan—a maybe that will make us like the Brady Bunch, radiant and ranch-housed in a quiet suburb bubbling over with baking mothers and station wagons.

“All I need is a propeller,” my baby brother says. My sister whirls around, throwing a finger to her lips and his voice drops as he kneels beside me in the blue TV light to tell me his scheme. The small difference in our years defines us, makes us allies. He is five, I am seven.

“No black boy ever grew up to be a helicopter!” But my little brother’s small face locks into a stubbornness not allowed in the presence of our parents, a stubbornness the four of us reserve for each other, our friends, and often, unlucky substitute teachers who stumble upon us with the hope of seeking alliance.

“I want to be one. It’s like a superhero only you’re a helicopter. And you save people’s lives.” He is still whispering but my sister glares at us, and his voice drops even lower.

On the television, Jan’s big brother Greg coaches her through a cheer, screaming “Louder Jan, Louder!”

My little brother moves to the far end of our bedroom and sinks down against the wall. I follow him, sink down beside him. “Anyway, I’m only half-black.”

His face flickers bright, darkens, flickers bright, darkens—brown-gold with hair curling a darker brown around his ears.

I know this—that a part of him is white, a part we know nothing about. A part my mother and father argue about in the early morning. Suspecting us asleep, their voices waft past the thin walls like smoke, settling above our beds in violent whispers. A different father, we catch in pieces, another man, a lie showing up white as spilled salt then fading, as this baby grew older, into a pale, pale amber. Still the traces, my father says. Still the proof that a black man can’t leave his woman for one minute without her making a fool out of him. We stare at this brother when we think he isn’t looking, drinking in his whiteness like milk; the soft bark-colored curl of his hair, the flecks of gold in his eyes and beneath the thin layers of his skin. We think maybe, this is the part of our lineage that connects us with the Bradys. The part that makes us unusual, thus, somehow better than white-deficient families.

“The other half of me,” my brother says, “is different.”

I move closer to him and for the moment, the four of us are silent. This difference matters, we are learning, although we don’t know why or how.

My sister flings her hair away from her face, Marsha Brady style, then drops her head so that again, it falls across her eyes.

On the television, Brady Bunch music begins to play. My big brother puts both of his thumbs in his mouth and begins to rock as the credits start to roll.

 

Where My Mother Touches Me

Christmas day I pull the bow from my first present. My mother’s camera flashes on me cross-legged in a flannel bathrobe underneath the tree. The robe belongs to my father and even as she flashes, I can hear my mother suck her teeth at the fact that I can’t keep my seven-year-old body out of my father’s clothes. I hold the box up and smile. Then shake it, knowing already, there will be a doll inside, probably one that eats and pees with the unformed body of an infant and the blond, straight hair of an offspring that could never, even by the minutest possibilities, have been brought into this world by someone as dark and kinky haired as myself.

My older brother pulls a Lionel train set from underneath the tree. I quickly drop my box and scurry to help him put it together.

“Open your own presents,” my mother commands. But there is a weariness behind the command that is becoming more familiar to me.

“I know it’s a doll.”

“What else would it be?” Then my mother and father are arguing about creative thought in gift-giving, but their voices drift off. My sister opens the box for me and pulls a brown-skinned baby doll from plastic wrapping.

Distracted for a moment, I snatch it back from her. The doll’s hair is jet black, cascading down her back like hair I’ve never seen on a black person. I run my fingers through it. Yellow-brown tiger eyes stare blankly up at me. I cradle the doll in my arms, and my mother’s camera flashes on this. In the weeks to follow, the doll will be added to my collection of useless toys, assembled to dust on the shelf above my bed. When I am thirteen I will be punished for disassembling every doll I own and reassembling them so that black dolls have white arms, white dolls have black legs, and none of them have clothes or hair. I will run the dolls over with my brother’s trains, hold them over the stove until their plastic skin melts away from itself, dripping into a smelly sizzle over the open flame. Then I will pack all of the dolls up in an old pillowcase and put them out in the trash. But for now, I rock the doll stiffly, pull a cheshire smile across my face, hold it until my mother’s camera flashes, hold it while circles flicker and burn bright red before my eyes.

“That will be such a sweet picture,” my mother says.

But long after my mother’s flash, I am still standing with the doll, incarcerated into this posture, afraid to move a step in any direction out of her frame. Afraid all of a sudden, to blur this image of me.

 

Slipping Off

My father’s hands are soft and dark on the back, hard and white where thousands of lines race across his palms. There is a power and anger seeping into these hands that none of us understand. I call my mother “Mama” when my father’s hand lands hard against us. We hear her calling to us in the night and pretend we don’t. Damn it! Don’t do this to me. My baby brother listens harder than the rest of us. Years later, when he sends his girlfriend to the hospital with fractures to the skull and ribs, he will tell that this is how a man teaches a woman to behave. And I will not remember where his lessons took place.

The soft thud of a body being slammed. Then I am farther beneath my covers, crying so that no one will hear—hard silent fearful tears. But my sister, lying in her bed beside mine, hears, touches me on the shoulder, says Shut up, Stupid. Nobody’s dying in there.

My mother’s screams roll low from the back of her throat. Damn it! Damn this fucking life.

All of us are crying now, our stomachs tight, painful cramps against our fear. This fight is a new one. Maybe it’s old. Someone is drinking too much. Someone has lost his job. Some kids are hungry, need clothes for school, a kid who doesn’t belong to someone, who’s half-white or something. There are accusations of lies.

My sister walks across the bedroom and tiptoes up to my big brother’s top bunk. She whispers, This is the grieving before the leaving, because she is twelve now and has begun to talk in a language my little brother and I don’t understand. My mother screams again. This time my younger brother screams with her. Then he is puking the plaster he has been peeling off the wall behind his bed and eating over the side of his bottom bunk, onto my sister’s leg.

You’re a dumb-ass, my sister whispers. But my brother is puking and crying and doesn’t seem to hear.

My mother is crying soft and low now. There is a rustle; then my father, with his coat on, is walking through our room carrying a brown paper shop- ping bag spilling over with clothes.

Then my mother is in our room crying, snot dripping down onto her top lip, tears running down the sides of her mouth, cleaning up puke and crying, telling us to get to sleep, who do we think we are being awake at five in the morning. And the sun is coming through the window with all of this pink and gray mixed into it so I look over at my little brother who my mother is rocking back to sleep, holding what she can of him in her arms and letting the rest drape back across his mattress. I realize how pale and poisoned he looks, how his skin looks almost green underneath the amber. My mother says it’s from the plaster and the lead. But I look at my sister who is back in bed staring at my mother like she wants to kill her or maybe just hurt her real bad. And I see my big brother, leaning down over his top bunk to watch my mother’s face for some sort of sign, but my mother just rocks and rocks even though my little brother has already fallen back to sleep with his mouth half open and his tiny hands swinging like he’s dead. My mother blames everything wrong on the lead that’s seeped into my little brother’s blood and will probably end up in his brain too. When I ask, she tells me this is why my baby brother is turning green. I point to the window, show her the colors setting the sky on fire. I ask her if my brother is green because my father has just slipped off, stare at my brother’s hands, fisted and bent at his wrists like the bright-hot wick of a birth- day candle while I wait for her answer. But she is silent, silent. My sister turns to me. No, Stupid-ass, she whispers.

Then my mother is crying and telling my sister she’ll beat her butt black and blue if she ever hears her call me a stupid-ass again.

And all of this happening with the morning promising such a perfect, perfect day.

 

The Telephone Company

Six months after my father leaves, my mother finds a job working until three A.M. at the telephone company. By 3:45 she is home. Through the thin walls, I hear her crying until blue-gold light fills the sky outside the bedroom I share with my sister and brothers. I try not to listen, knowing that before daybreak my own eyes will fill with tears, spilling out over my mother’s cries.

What number are you calling, please? I imagine the hint of southern accent in my mother’s voice going nasal over the wire. At the telephone company (my mother whispers to my sister and me when we are alone), the black women are forced to spread their legs, to be checked for crab lice, gonorrhea, vaginal infections. The white women are free to hang their coats in the employee coatroom before moving to padded chairs at their stations, to drink coffee while waiting for their shifts to begin.

What number are you calling, please? I dial “O” for operator when no one is home, imagine the face of the woman at the other end; Is she black or white? Has she been examined? Did they find anything wrong?

My mother tells us to keep our dresses down and our legs closed. Automatically, from our relaxed position at the foot of her bed, my sister and I jerk our legs together, pull our dresses farther down across our knees.

“A black woman sees a hard time,” my mother reminds us, applying heavy layers of light brown face powder to the bags beneath her eyes. My sister and I watch her in the mirror, watch three dark, perplexed faces peering back at us.

“Don’t ever get so down,” my mother warns, “that you have to take a job at the telephone company.”

What number are you calling, please? Do you stand up on a table when they search you? Does it make you have to pee? Why, when you’re helping someone else, do you have to say please?

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Jacqueline Woodson is the author of more than two dozen books, including National Book Award winner Brown Girl Dreaming, which also received the Coretta Scott King Award, a Newbery Honor, the NAACP Image Award, and a Sibert Honor. Recently named the Young People’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation, her awards include four Newbery Honors, three National Book Award finalists, two Coretta Scott King Awards, and the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in YA literature. She lives with her family in Brooklyn, New York.