It was Thursday already, and anyway you knew he was itching by the way he tapped his feet double time.
He said, "Don't nobody wanna take a ride? Don't nobody wanna taste that sweet air with they tongue? Hunh? Stuffy in here, ain't it Lin? Pam, you not hot? Roy Jr.? Marian? Sugar, what about you?"
And he coughed some, threw his shoulders forward into the sound, because it was insincere and the color yellow, not thunder like he liked it. But no one—especially not Carolyn, listening from the kitchen (eyes two opened-up stupid questions)—needed scaring. He'd turned them all to tin or soup some years back. "I ain't crazy. It's hot in here." He fanned himself with a newspaper and then a magazine, and finally with his hands big as New York. "I'm sweating."
But when he pushed his corduroy thighs open and then shut them, lovingly, to squish his dick into a firm beige heap between them, then mercy unraveled all the way out.
He said, "Y'all got to be hot!" Made his eyes wide as the threat.
"Uh uh, Daddy, we fine." That was Pam. Oldest and meanest. "We like it this warm, right y'all? Too cold outside."
But those words weren't filling. He swallowed them and was hungry still. He sat a spell, sure; everything had its pace. Was quiet five, six minutes. Watched Marian whisper something to Sugar: "Let's wish he die, count of three…" and then Sugar whisper back: "One, two, three…". Hummed My Sweet Lord the Savior, told his dick Whoa now, whoa now between verses. He slid his stinking feet out his stinking shoes and helped himself to too much forgiveness. He hummed louder. Then lower. He hummed louder then lower then wider. Then sweeter. But that song only disturbed where he was hunting violence. Somewhere inside him things said "now" and he put his shoes back on, in case. He pressed his fat lips so close they blended with his chin, and he became just two eyes, a nose, and fury.
He told them, "Y'all gon have to take a ride! Shit!"
And Pam gave her lap her hands. She looked left and right and then left for Linda.
Standing barefoot in the middle of the den with her thumb shoved to the hot middle of her mouth, Linda might as well have been a woman with all that ass stretched out behind her like forever and those breasts bubbling up over her bra like beer. Only she twisted her hair with one finger like a young girl does; she let her shoulders take her over; she stood there hunched and silly like young girls do.
Marian and Sugar had stopped altogether their whispers and wishes. Despite the routine they were shocked as two fresh-cut trees. When they finally closed their hanging mouths, one (Sugar) fell into a useless habit—calling on old ordinary Jesus, and the other tried talking her out of it: "Hush." The other children only counted to a hundred. Or started mourning (might as well). Or longed (bad) for a bowl of fruit cocktail, six cherries please.
"I work hard for y'all and I'ma need some time or something…for myself. Can't I spend one hour of one day alone? Without a sorry wife and lazy kids hounding me? That's a bunch of bullshit if that's what you telling me! A man big and grown as me, working hard as I work one day after the next, can't get a minute!"
So they collected their fear, quick, and ran. Even Pam, stubborn as she was. Even Pam was swayed. But the mother stood still.
It was long enough before she tore her hands out the dishwater, like for war, but then on top of taking her time and faking tough, she only gripped her skirt. She said, "Please God, please God," in circles, for at least a minute. Like this wasn't ritual. All that time standing there shaking and singing, she pretended her husband's voice unordinary. God wasn't coming, and she knew it, and since Roy Sr. was king behind Him, it was time to gather things.
When she did move, it was without order. She snatched up hats and coats and earmuffs, yes, but accidentally: toilet paper and barrettes, Tupperware. Only when she grabbed a limp pair of purple panties did she think anything. The thought was: bubble gum. Only when she flung the panties into a corner did her soul stir. It went chasing after them. Her feet just brush, brushed the floor she moved so fast. And even Roy Jr., for whom the world had spun only a thousand times, for whom the excitement meant nothing yet, stayed out of her way. He pretended he was busy when all he was doing was licking new teeth with a young tongue.
Big Roy went on hollering from his seat by the window to speed things along, and because he was ready all over. There was his dick fixed to bust, his mind all done with shame, his fingers blind as worms.
He spelled out a list of everything new any one of them had. All Sugar's socks were nestled like eggs in a sturdy oak dresser, for instance. Roy Jr. wouldn't shut the fuck up about that dumb electric train. And where was it? Right there on his bedroom floor. Between them they had notebooks and postage stamps, coloring books…motherfucking toothpaste. All because of him. All because he had worked "37 and a half BACKBREAKING hours of gotdamn overtime." He reminded them: "If I don't buy it, you tell me who the fuck will?" And asked them in a voice so steep they could climb it, twelve times, twelve ways, "Am I asking too much? For just a stingy snatch of privacy, a square of space where I could just sit and breathe and not hear bigheaded children questioning, farting, fighting…fucking with my head?"
Fucking was out his mouth, and Carolyn and the children were in Linda's room. It was biggest, bone colored. It could hold all six of them, plus wonder, plus secrets.
The mother held her arms in a crooked, wobbling circle, with all their winter things taking up its uneven insides, and the children stood against a wall, lined like stitches, like jury. She tried passing the clothes on, but they hid their hands. She said, "Come on now," but they about cried. And they were all so alive. Those questions nearly tripped out their mouths.
Carolyn said, "I'm trying, ain't I?" And gave them another chance at the coats. "I'm trying! If one don't make it, well, I think that's better than none. That's basic math. Ain't it?"
And eight brown eyes searched Linda's face. She was third in line either way you counted. Big as a plum among raisins. Pam hooked her lips to call her mother "bitch" and then "damn dummy", but got no chance to spin either.
"Don't you answer that," Carolyn said. "I'm not asking that for no answer. I don't want to hear nothing right now. All I need to hear is my own mean-nothing prayers and y'all running to that car. Stop looking at me."
But they didn't. And all she had was her face to tell the story with. The clothes used up her hands and her knees were too busy knocking to help.
"This bigger than me," she said, whining. Then tilted her head to meet a shoulder. "He bigger than me. His fist'll eat me whole. One punch to my head and y'all won't have no mother. And who gonna clean after you then? Make you dinner when you want it? I'm just saying there ain't nothing I can do. I'm trying hard to get us outta here. Y'all see that. But if y'all don't all go, well, shit, just be happy it ain't you. And if it's you, well…well then…"
And her hands, useless as the rest of her, loosened a bit, but did not risk their grip on the clothes; and one thing became two in her sight, and now she was the mother of ten blurry, bushy-headed things, not five, whose features she could not make out. Her heart, typically ungenerous with its blood, beat against itself so hard its pulse slammed through her neck and her wrists, and if she was studied, through her dry, hardly ever kissed lips.
She rushed the children using that tone of voice, the chopped up one that made them bite the insides of their cheeks 'til there was just enough blood to haunt the teeth. Told them, "Get it together. Get it together!" And they did. She tossed what she held on top of Linda's feet, so the girl was a bit buried, and poked the other children in their stomachs to say, "Go on." They grabbed their coats and things with cross hands and either swallowed the blood or let it live.
Linda, the second oldest, the prettiest, the one with the bread-soft breasts and ass filled to the verge of her panties, always dressed fastest. She was like lightening such evenings. So much so she missed a button, guaranteed, and absolutely always stood lopsided, eyes dumb as a deer's, hands palm open. She was just this way when Carolyn pointed at her—"Your coat, Lin…you coat on wrong."
"It don't matter!" Pam hollered out her mean mouth, but the mother snatched those words out the air like they were one single worker bee and said, "Don't you try it. Don't you try it 'less you want all our heads bashed in the ground." And was not stung.
The six of them made their way to the living room, where Roy Sr. was still grinding his dick and fanning his squat face.
"Come on kids. Roy Jr., Linda, Marian, Sugar, Pam." Carolyn just almost gathered all four girls in her arms but couldn't. Roy Jr. stood before her, leaned backward into her knees, a flower already picked. And the family posed for its father. An awful bouquet.
"Let's give your daddy a minute to breathe and collect his thoughts. Working so hard for us, don't he deserve it?
"I tell you Roy, I know what you mean, needing a minute to yourself. Sometimes I need a minute too. I'm just gon take the girls and Roy Jr. to that ice cream parlor around the way, and we'll just set there for an hour or so. You think it's too cold for ice cream, Roy?"
They held six breaths. Didn't breathe a sip waiting on Roy. Those plump Down coats were buttoned to the collars and their damp hands were fat from the heat, and eating up all the space in their mittens. No matter it was one degree outside, they suffocated waiting on that answer. And for all the seconds before the father spoke (dozens of them), they worked hard at being bigger and browner and more beautiful. They rocked from their left feet to their right, wanting hard to disguise Linda among them. But Linda was so tall and so dark, she might as well have been ink. She might as well have been ink burped and bled 'cross the page.
They didn't say one word watching that man in his chair with his newspaper making unsatisfying wind for his fat face. They lost their language faced with those lips decorating that horrible mouth, forever filled to its pink roof with all those foul words.
"I don't care if you go to the motherfucking moon," he told them. "Just get the fuck outta here."
And the color red rushed down the mother's cheeks and along her jaws, as if for revolution, but only gathered in a stain at her chin (for nothing). Her heart might have knocked her chest open, but she gasped and interrupted it.
Everybody, she and Linda included, turned and nearly ran to the front door. They shoved against themselves like bees wanting out the terrible hive. Their voices sped up to keep pace with their hearts: "Let's go," and "hurry up," and "move." And even Pam, mean as the devil, was on the margin: even she just nearly tipped over into tears.
Then Big Roy, from that corner way over there with the newspaper and violence, and the firm beige triangle between him said loud enough to be heard over all the commotion and near-crying and heartbeats put together:
"Won't you stay here with me? Hunh? Sit a spell and talk?"
And fine Linda, eyes dumb as a deer's, coat plenty warm, but buttoned all wrong. With those dumpling-soft breasts and ass wide, wonderful, mysterious as the noon sun. Too pretty Linda. Tall enough to pinch her lips closed, and almost, just almost kiss God. Linda. Linda, Linda. Linda Tichelle Grant. Miss Linda Tichelle Grant, big in all the wrong places, a flower un-bloomed, yanked, her palms open, palms asking, palms pleading, palms begging, turned to take her seat next to the corduroy lap. Its zipper stripped back easy, so well-used. The sound, a dying bee, in the family's ear.
First no one could lift her knees. All their feet were heavy, their shoes stuffed from their beginnings to their ends with bees. Pam held Roy Jr. on her hip, and he cried to be there; kept reaching for Carolyn and calling her first name. And when they managed the weight of the bees (only because the cold had hit) and finally fit themselves into their seats—the oldest sister in the front, the other children behind her—then they could not raise their arms for seatbelts for a good while. Pam asked Roy Jr., in a voice tidy as a pat of butter, to hush, and he did; fell asleep quick.
To go with the new silence was wonder. They had never ever wondered before. Roy Sr. had never got started in their presence and Carolyn had always sped away so fast their necks snapped. Normally, they'd be searching the car for their heads. By the time they'd realized they still had them, there was no sense worrying over Linda. They were long gone. So in general, with their heads in tact, the wonder was rushed. Everyone was braced for the leaving. Sugar's wonder was generic: Whole families harm? Pam's particular: If your father looks at you that way and if God allows it and if your mother is the wrong kind of ruthless and your strongest sister only a dinky girl, then what, pray tell, are your chances? Marian's wonder was somewhere between, but Carolyn's was on the rim, a circle of things: some begging, some questions, some sentences with "kill me." And then some of it was just a scent, feminine.
Pam said, "I'm not going," because her fear had unloosed. Brought everyone to.
But Carolyn's was still home. Hers remained a rope tied ten, eleven, twelve times round and round her delicate neck. The only reason they were still sitting there was her misguided wonder. She said, "Yes, you are too."
"I'm not going. I'm not leaving her no more. I'm going back." Except there was no yank to accompany the words. Just that tiny bit of threatening had eaten Pam's courage, like it was eggs. One slurp and a swallow and she had none.
"You sitting here. I'ma start this car in a minute, or two, and we going."
Pam said, "What kinda person is you, Momma?"
Carolyn said, "What kinda person are you?"
They let that question burn.
"Don't you look down your nose at me, Pamela. Come down off that horse. You pack your shit up just like me. Every time." She beat the steering wheel, soft, with the palm of her hand. "You might look backward, but mostly you don't, and you don't ever follow the look. Ever. You leave it eyes. Don't never make it steps. So ask yourself that same question you asking me. When you ask it…ask it twice!"
"I'm 15, Momma."
"Sound like fluff."
"God gone strike you down."
"Wish he'd hurry."
"Nobody a worse mother than you."
And what to say to that except, "What about us? Would you let him keep us?"
It was Sugar cutting in. That word keep was a slip of glass. A needle. Nothing almost, but it scored. She pushed Roy Jr.'s head off her. It weighed the world.
And what to do once that's asked? But laugh? And big? Like that's all the throat was built for? Like an evil old woman knows death's coming? Be there tomorrow? Nine o'clock? That was Marian. And the laugh was hysterical and empty and condescending and oh dear Lord she could not have seen it coming—she'd have never been so bold.
But now bold was on the table, and this evening unordinary, so Carolyn said, "I think that might just be the silliest question I ever heard. What you think, Pam? She stupid for asking me that, huh?" And for the first time, admitted her life.
To begin, Pam was thrilled. The admission thrilled her. But when she looked in her mother's eyes—missing ordinary and important things, she yielded. The joy leaked a bit and then rushed on out.
"So since we calling bluffs tonight, let's call yours." Carolyn tore off her seatbelt. Because she hadn't realized she'd won, she reached over Pam and unlocked her door. Pushed it open. The cold hit. "Go on and get her, you so bad. Go head. Go get her. Take her place. Let your daddy have you for once. Be Linda hero. He don't want me. Believe me, I tried standing tween them fifty some thousand times. Roy Jr. is a miracle, you hear me? A miracle. Go on. Go on, hero. Go head."
It was a low down dirty thing to do, and she might not have done it, but she didn't know she'd won. She was so busy calling bluffs she didn't see the rout in Pam. Still, it was a real, real mean thing to do. It put everybody back on her hinge. Sugar cried so hard it's a wonder she didn't shrivel up; she woke Roy Jr. all the way, and he joined her, in wild chorus. Marian might have made them a trio if her mind didn't fly out the window, after what, who knows. And Pam was all grown up, better known as dead.
"He gave us an impossible life to live, you hear me?" Carolyn put the car in drive.
"So, go ahead and accuse. Accuse me all you want." She pulled off with such force the door slammed.
"But be gentle with yourself." She had to holler over the crying.
"Or else y'all ain't gon make it through this life here.
"I'm telling you.
"You ain't gonna make it.
"Believe me when I tell you.
"You ain't gon make it.
"Be gentle with yourself! Or the Lord God in Heaven knows, you ain't gon make it.
"You just ain't gon make it.
"You just ain't."
Andria Nacina Cole is co-founder of A Revolutionary Summer (www.arevolutionarysummer.com), an intensive critical reading and writing series for Black girls. Her short stories "On the Blood" and "How Tony Learned to Stay Young" are forthcoming; her novella "Men Be Either Or, But Never Enough" is available on Amazon and Audible.