The following story is the winner of the fourth annual Marguerite McGlinn National Fiction Prize. Visit www.philadelphiastories.org for details on the 2013 contest.
High rises, like towers made out of sidewalk. The minute they started talking about blowing us up, we forgot everything we didn’t like about Freedom House Projects. No one fussed anymore about the spent lights, or sometimey hot water, or the elevator-jamming hustlers. Pretty soon, graffiti cried through stairwells and across doors: Save Freedom House.
[img_assist|nid=9400|title=Flourishes II by Rhonda Garland © 2012|desc=|link=node|align=none|width=450|height=305]
I had a job at a seafood restaurant called Barnacle Bob’s. He’d hired me as a dishwasher. Straight away, though, he put me on his boat, working the crab pots. Out there, with the wind popsicling my bones and the boat tossing my stomach, I wanted to tell him to kick rocks. ‘Cept then I would’ve been right back in the house with Excuse. So five, six days a week I hit that first empty #11 and rode the flickering lights down to the harbor where the streets were made of stone. Barnacle Bob was this old crusty dude with a fat face and a yellow beard and a really dirty hat that he called lucky even when it wasn’t and he would be there waiting in the dark by the water.
Huddled down, chopping across that bay, gulls at our side, some days you couldn’t help from praying those pots come up light. But Barnacle Bob had taken a chance on me, so I worked to keep his chains snubbed, the slack out of those cleats, his gaffs holstered, his ice iced, and everything else he wanted.
One day, after work, I got off the elevator and I could see, way down at the other end, the little girl who lived across the hall, sitting on the floor, locked out, again. She was nine with a Mom probably wronger than mine. Jay-Z was rocking in my headphones and the long smooth hallway smelled like old mop and fried onions. I slipped off the headphones and stepped lightly, listening. I pictured the floor see-sawing, then dropping away. In my stomach I could feel how it’d be: all of us on seven kind of lifted together like wishes off a dandelion: Old Leopold practicing trumpet in ran-down Adidas and alligator pajamas, still pretending like he ain’t heard the news, that little boy Lopez tapping a soccer ball off his heel like it’s on a leash, Ms. B carrying around an old Campbell’s soup can calling someone want this grease?, the old heads playing spades at their table, and the strange part was that no one was unhappy, considering.
When I got closer, I saw that the girl was eating cornstarch from a box. White powdered her chin. My key was turning the lock when I thought I’d better ask her inside to wait. Inside was half upside down. Odds and ends that hadn’t been there that morning were at my feet: a couple dug up plants from somebody’s garden, too many fistfuls of still-good relish packets, and a stroller—one of those ones they got for running the baby—sleeping a tall orange cone in it. I stepped around the mess and went in my room to change into dry clothes.
My mother—the one I call Excuse–will inch the socks off your sleeping feet and I knew at once something of mine was missing, but I felt I was better off not knowing what she took until I needed it since it was gone now and wouldn’t be coming back, whatever it was. I put on button-fly Levi’s, Converse, and a red hoody. Back in the living room, Maeya stood at the window.
“Where’s your Mom?” I asked.
“Out.” Maeya shrugged, unfazed.
She watched me as I gathered up my crabber’s gloves and yellow waders and CD player and locked them in my trunk. “You don’t go to school?” she asked.
“They put me out.”
“You must be bad,” she said, looking me over.
“The principal got robbed."
Her mouth went slack. “Stop playing.”
“Psyche,” I said. “They got me for eating pop tarts in the bathroom.”
“I’m tired of school anyway. They always on you to write something. Even after you do your answers. They’ll even take your scratch paper.”
I walked to the window to see what she was looking at. Outside there were workmen everywhere. Some dudes in hardhats were wrapping columns in something. There was a trailer marked D E M O L I T I ON. Further off, other men in masked space helmets held blowtorches over manhole covers. I have no idea why. Even Animal Control was out there unloading cage traps from a van.
"Dag," I heard myself whisper, "they getting ready.”
"They’re sure in a hurry for something," she said.
“If they gonna get rid of us, they better do it before it gets hot."
“What’s the difference?”
“It’ll be whatever then, Crayola. People stay upset for nothing when it’s hot.”
“They’re upset now.”
“Upset crazy. Not upset bawling.”
From seven, the concrete square below looked split by green spider legs of grass, all hairy and tall. We could see people clutching plastic bags or humping boxes. Every so often, people would stop and huddle, shaking their heads, hugging–might’ve even been crying–before stepping through that grass. They did not seem to be in a hurry, but kept on, going away. Some of these people I’d known my whole life and watching them gave me a funny feeling, like I was looking at something I might miss later.
"It must not have been as bad as everyone said," Maeya said.
“Or we got used to it.”
She pressed her forehead against the window, looking down. “I’ve been waiting for them to say it’s all been a big mistake, they didn’t mean it and everyone can come back now.”
“They’re not gonna say that,” I said.
“I know,” she said. “But they should.”
“You think so, huh?”
“I mean, don’t they feel bad putting people out?” She turned back to me.
I stepped away, rubbing the cold out of an elbow acting like it thought it was still outside. “You don’t ask the hamster spinning the wheel when he’s had enough.”
She squinted at me, lost. She had a round face and little porcelain saucers for eyes. They were the kind of gentle eyes a little girl is supposed to have.
I stretched out on the couch. I hadn’t realized how tired I was. That Rent-A-Center left-behind was just right. I reached under the couch and grabbed two comic books, one Fantastic Four, one Hulk. I felt good, happy even. People had a lot to say about me and my comic books. Excuse said I was too old for them, but I’d never seen her read anything. Other people said comics ain’t real, but what I need real for? I had plenty of that right outside my door. Basically, people’ll tell you anything, if you let them. I closed my eyes. The heel and pitch of the boat were still under me.
Even now, with a whole bunch of cyclone fencing around the nothing where our home used to be, people still feel sad the way Maeya felt sad then, tattooing FHP Forever on their arms or necks. That was funny to me–inking up your body with a place that doesn’t even exist anymore. I guess they thought it’ll make ‘em feel a little less empty for the people that used to be there. My Nana called it nostalgia, like worrying about the Colts all these years later.
All of us–me, Excuse, Maeya–picked up and dragged ourselves to my Nana’s on the west side, which is where all this mess started. By then Maeya had been staying with us during those last weeks before they blasted our building to the ground. Nana said she’d get custody of Maeya when someone started asking, but no one ever did.
Nana was sixty-three, worked for social security, and drank a prune-gin cocktail before taking out her teeth each night. At night the teeth slept grinning, ready to talk, in the water glass on Nana’s bathroom sink. I’d stayed with Nana before—once when I missed a lot of kindergarten and the school sent the police and declared Excuse unfit. Duh. Once when I was eight and Excuse had me steal razors from Safeway and they caught me. Once a couple years ago after this Mexican maid at the Quality Inn let me hold that room with a Jacuzzi for nothing until I got found out. Bunch of other reasons I can’t remember right now. Nana was Excuse’s mother, but they weren’t nothing alike. Nana’s is where you went when you wanted someone to ask what you wanna be when you grow up. She was never one of those pinch-your-cheek grandmas, but she looked after me and took pride in her house, hanging the windows with beige lace, feather-dusting the good china, which never came out the cabinet anyway, vacuuming when there was nothing to vacuum. She could cook too. Pans of lasagna, baked macaroni and cheese, big gravied roasts she served on egg noodles. And you didn’t have to play sick to get any of it.
About Excuse, Nana’d say she uses the toilet on us just like spelling her name. I think Nana wanted to be free of her daughter and I was the thing that stopped her. Nana never said this. It’s what I thought was all.
No one believed Excuse’s promises about getting herself together once we were on the west side ‘cause she never had herself together over east. That first week, though, we were counting our own shadows ‘cause Excuse had trouble running her little outside scams and she’d steal the soap bar out the shower to try to sell it.
It might’ve been the second or third night after we got to Nana’s. We sat around, trying to act normal. Maeya was messing with a rainbow hula-hoop Nana had brought home. Nana sat in her recliner, working the crossword. Excuse was smoking at the window and I could see Nana clocking her over the top of the opened newspaper. There was a sour-sounding piano in the living room that Nana claimed Excuse could play once, but I’d never believed it.
I stepped over to the piano. “Play me a song, Ma.”
Excuse acted like she hadn’t heard me.
“You can’t play, can you?”
She blew smoke out the window.
“Nana, she can’t play,” I said.
“She loved that piano. She was the only one that could play,” Nana said, “Scott Joplin, Fats Waller, even some Bartok.”
I pressed down a handful of keys. It jangled like an old toy. “You got jokes, Nana.”
“I wish I did,” Nana said, working the crossword.
I opened the bench lid and looked at the thin books of sheet music, the old scribbled notes on some pages. “I don’t care what Nana says. I don’t think you can play,” I said.
“And you can stop, Franklin, okay? I got enough to forget without you bringing shit up, but there you go asking about a piano.” She twisted her cigarette into the brick sill outside and left it there.
I closed the seat lid again.
“It was a long time ago,” Excuse said, getting up. “I played then. I don’t now. What you wanna kick a can? I can’t change nothing what happened. You ain’t Chopin yourself.”
She walked into the hall and was out there with her hands on her lower back for a minute trying to get herself together when she called me over, away from Nana and Maeya. We stared at each other, neither of us speaking. Then she said, “I’ma need something.”
I kept quiet.
She said softly, “You know it’s different over here. I don’t know these people like that.”
“What you expect—a marching band?” I said. “They out there, jamming.”
“I’m in the hole with that little crew already. I need help. I’m going sick.”
“I ain’t got no money,” I lied.
She searched my face, playing back the words in her ear. Then she said, “Can you ask your man Alvin to front you something?”
I let my gaze rest on Excuse’s face. It wasn’t a pretty face anymore: a bony jaw, a droopy lower lip, two scheming dusty eyes. She could be charming or ugly, depending. This was charming.
“Can you do that for me, Franklin?” she said.
“I ain’t seen him.”
“I’m quite sure he’s on his little strip or whatever.”
I cut a quick glance over at Nana. She was still eased back in her recliner, snapping her newspaper, making little humming sounds. “Then ask him yourself,” I said.
“He don’t know me from Ronald Reagan.” This was a favorite phrase of hers, even when it wasn’t true.
I’d known Alvin from all those times at Nana’s. We’d clicked since the fourth grade. Six months might pass without seeing him, then next time, there he was, a bouncy little guy with a smile so full of golds it stayed lit in there. We battled about anything–who could burp loudest, who had the nicest crossover, who choked on that first Newport and who didn’t, who could sweet talk a seven out the dice, who went harder, east side or west. I kept a box cutter up in the cupboard above the fridge and now I reached up and slipped it in my pocket. When my coat went on, Nana plucked off her glasses, fed up. At the door I told Excuse, “Stay here.”
Nana’s was an old street, sunken in its middle like the power lines above, dip-strung, party-ribboned end to end, one block after the next. I walked up to the carryout with the sign that said Mel’s but everyone called Up Top. Two boys, almost yellow under the streetlights, were posted up outside the store. I didn’t recognize them and I had to think if I really wanted to ask these corner boys anything. I stepped in front of one. “You seen Alvin?”
The boy was blowing into his hands. A Bin Laden coat swallowed him. On his head, a blue bandana. His eyes were empty. “You gonna make his money right?”
“I don’t know nothing about that,” I said.
He sized me up, sucked his teeth. “Yeah, you look like short money.”
I took him for one of those clowns that’ll come at you sideways just to impress his friends. In my pocket I felt for the switch on the box cutter. I started to say, “Tell him–
“You can’t read?”
He undid his bandana and wrapped it again, knotting it off in the back. “Yo’ illiterate,” the boy laughed, doubling over.
I didn’t move. Then I saw the white letters behind and above him eating into the red brick: RIP Alvin. Inside me something skipped and dropped away. I backed up slowly, then turned and started up the empty street. A necklace of unlit doorways, boxy and empty, stretched up the block. Then I thought of his sister. I had not seen her for a long time, but remembered Alvin saying she’d gone to Philly to go to college for hair and I knew she must be tore up, where ever she was. Later, I’d find out some of what had happened—he’d messed up somebody’s money, wouldn’t get low when most would’ve–but none of it mattered. Alvin had always wanted to be hard. Now he was gone and it didn’t get any harder than that.
Back at the house, Excuse was sitting outside on the steps, arms clasped over her knees, rocking. When she saw me, she popped up. “What you got?”
“Nothing,” I brushed past, opened the door and stepped into the house.
“Nothing?” She was on my hip. “What you mean?”
“Alvin ain’t there.”
“What about them others down there–you tell ‘em you cool wit him?”
I stared at her wordlessly. “Alvin. Ain’t. There,” I whispered, biting off each word.
“Oh shit,” she said, catching something final and done in my voice.
“Yeah," I said. "Tish ho."
“He wasn’t no older than you,” she said.
I put my coat on a hangar in the closet. Behind me I heard Excuse say to no one in particular, “It’s rough out here.”
I paused in the hollow of that closet, soft coats against my face. When I turned around, she was squared up with me and that lemme-hold-a-dollar hunger was back in her eyes.
“Let me have that little radio of yours,” she said. “I’ll pay you for it after."
“You can’t have my CD player,” I said, trying to brush her off.
“Then I’ll just take Maeya down the store.”
I laughed. “Yeah, okay.”
“I’ll have her back in five minutes.”
“Or five days.”
“You just being stingy now.”
I turned and hooked her elbow. “Ain’t I always?”
She wrenched free, started clawing her neck, screeching Am I gonna be alright? Am I gonna be alright? Am I gonna be alright? Spit, like sparks, flew from her lips. I saw Maeya coloring with markers, spying the whole thing. I saw Nana, still resting in her recliner, set down the newspaper. Then I did the thing I swore I wouldn’t: I gave Excuse twenty dollars from my check I cashed the day before. The whole time I was thinking Barnacle Bob might as well be paying me in salt-water shivers for all this. I just wanted her out of the house. She snatched the money and was gone.
I stepped outside and watched her cut across the street and disappear around the corner. A sharp wind shaved the block of row houses. There’d be times she wouldn’t come back for days. I used to worry she might be gone for good, but I learned that Excuse always made it home. Might forget her own birthday but she knew how to find home.
I closed the door. The house felt suddenly quiet. I let myself tip back, shoulders resting against the wall. Nana had been sitting on her purse. Now she stood, dug in her wallet, pulled out a twenty, walked it over and squeezed it into my hand. I accepted it silently.
I could tell you how awful it was having a mother who’s a fiend, but I’ve accepted it. I could tell you it’s just one side of her, but it’s not. I could tell you that she wouldn’t do anything for five dollars, but she would. I could tell you that when I was little and I needed her like I don’t now, she loved me enough to stop, but she hadn’t. I could tell you that I never saw this happening to Alvin, but I guess I had. I could tell you that when Excuse started running the streets over here, doing her little shiesty dirt, that the dude she hooked up with wasn’t all bad, but Amon was.
[img_assist|nid=9401|title=2nd Humor, Number 7 by Russell Rogers © 2012|desc=|link=node|align=none|width=450|height=554]
Excuse introduced me to Amon this way. I was folding a bundle of clean laundry Nana had left on the couch. They came in together. Over her shoulder, Excuse said “this a friend of mine,” and breezed past, clattering down the hall, into the bathroom where she shut the door. Excuse wore a lot of noisy hoop bracelets, which she thought made her look legit.
I turned to face him. He was big and missing one eye. This surprised me, but I concentrated on keeping my gaze level, pretending he had two good eyes and one wasn’t all milky with little smeary folds and creases that looked like they might be hissing.
I said, “Who are you?”
“The one and only, Amon.” It sounded like an apology.
"Why is it the one and only?"
“Why is what?”
“Why is it the one and only?" I asked again.
He stepped into the kitchen, real smooth, like it was his house and always had been and he was helping himself to whatever. He came right out, holding a can of peaches that had been in the cupboard, and talking again. "How you gonna ask me a question like that?" he said.
I shrugged and continued separating clothes. I saw then that Nana had bought Maeya a lot of new clothes: Hollister Jeans, a yellow American Eagle sweatshirt, socks with moons on them.
“Well, how many people you ever been around named Amon?” he asked.
“No one, I guess.”
“Now, if you knew that you’d never known anyone named Amon then why’d you ask the question?” He had a goofy way of talking, like his mouth was a gurgling drain, glub glub glub.
"Just something I said, I guess."
He stepped a few steps closer and a sweet smell of talc came with him. "You went and fucked up the origin, is what you did."
I felt my back stiffen. I said, “I just never heard a name like that before.”
“It was my people’s inspiration. My people are from Togo.”
You never knew who Excuse might bring in. In general, she was the type of person that could get you hurt–put you in the middle of something you got nothing to do with. But this jackass beat all. He was wild looking. Everything on Amon was too big. His hands were too big, his belly was too big, and his red, flappy-eared, peanut head was too big. He had to cock his face to get any seeing out of his one good eye.
“You know about Togo?”
“Then speak up, boy. Don’t sit there like you Mr. National Geographic or some shit.”
My feet shifted a little.
He made a couple clucking sounds. “Think you slick. Your Mom must notta raised you right.”
"What’s she got to do with it?"
"That ain’t some soup du jour. That’s your mother."
“And I raised myself,” I said.
“Togo’s in Africa,” he went on, cutting me off. “It was German. A colony of it. That’s what they called it anyway. A colony. Make it sound more proper for when they take yo’ shit. Comes to the same thing anyway. When your tea leaves and spices ain’t yours no more ‘cause the laws they made said so, don’t nobody care what you call it.” Now he began to raise his voice. “Yes, indeedy. You looking at a hybrid. Dues paid. For keeps. Sweetened by the taker and the tooken.”
I was quiet, but in my head I was thinking, wasn’t they German in that movie they showed at school, the one where the dude saved the Jews? And this jackass didn’t look nothing like them. But I kept folding and didn’t say squat.
I heard the top pop on that little can of peaches and looked up. He sipped the syrup first, keeping the rim close to his lips, and lasering that one eye into me. “I expect you one of those ain’t no use explaining nothing to, ain’t you?” he said, smacking those peaches.
We watched each other, waiting. When I did not answer, he flicked his face at me, and spoke through his teeth, “Thought not.” Then he turned and pounded down the hall, Diane!
A few days later, I came home from work and when I glanced out the window I saw Maeya standing in the alley. I clanged down the back metal steps. She was holding a shoebox. She stood beside some old tires and a torn mattress with popping springs. “What’re you doing?” I asked.
“Looking for a butterfly,” Maeya said.
I breathed in. Spoiled milk soured the air. Junk was everywhere.
“It was from school. I had it in here.” She offered me the shoebox. Dime-sized holes had been cut on top. “Amon threw the whole thing out,” she said, pointing up to the window.
“Why’d he do that?”
“Said we don’t need no bugs in the house,” she said.
I stood there, mad.
“It was red and black,” she said.
I followed her as she picked her way deeper into the alley, stepping over a fan and plastic milk crate, looking behind a box spring. Then she stopped, turned around, straining to see between the spaces in all that junk. Her hands flapped out from her side and fell back.
“C’mon now,” I said, “let’s go in the house.”
We started towards the mouth of the alley. “My teacher told us they don’t taste good to birds,” she said, hopefully.
Inside, Maeya sat down on the living room couch and I put on Oprah. I checked the rooms for Amon; he was gone. I dropped onto a cushion beside Maeya. Oprah was talking to dieters. These people had been on some crazy diets. They’d show a before picture of some humongous man and then some skinny dude would walk out and everyone would clap.
“Do you think my mother hates me?” Maeya asked.
“No,” I said. “She loves you.”
“She hasn’t come looking for me, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“She knows your safe.”
“She knows where I am?”
“Did she ask you to take me?”
“When you were staying with us all those nights and she didn’t say nothing–that was like her asking.”
Maeya seemed to think hard about this. “That’s when my Mom knew I was across the hall. Now we’re over west.”
"You don’t like Nana’s cooking?"
"No, I do."
“Doesn’t Nana keep your hair done?”
“Yes, she does.”
“You’d rather be with your Mom somewhere?”
"Not when she’s dropping me at different people’s houses all the time. Her little while never is.”
I didn’t say anything. On the television Oprah was cheesing for some man that had lost a hundred and thirty seven pounds. "He did good," Maeya said.
“Listen," I said, "did you know that your Mom and mine are just alike?”
She squinted at me. “Sort of.”
“Oh, yeah. They have a lot in common.”
“Well, for one thing, they’re both un-Mom’s.”
“What’s an un-Mom?” she asked.
“It’s a Mom that can’t be a Mom right now but might be a Mom again later.”
“Oh,” she said.
We were silent.
“You have a un-Mom?” she asked.
“Biggest in town.”
“For how long?”
“Pretty much always, might as well say.”
“Aren’t you mad?”
“Used to be.”
“Used to be?”
“I decided I can live with a Mom that ain’t a Mom.”
“Well, I’m mad,” Maeya said.
“You gotta right.”
She was quiet.
“It lasts long?" she asked.
I didn’t have the heart to say long enough to make waiting for a normal life pointless, which is what I was thinking, so I just said, “Sometimes.”
She was biting her lower lip. Oprah was talking about miracle berries and bloating.
“You know I used to fight for my mother?” The memory seemed sad and funny now and I felt a grunting snort come up. “Other kids would get to talking about her, calling her monkey fiend, or Junkie Diane, or whatever and I’d take up for her. I’d be out there, seven years old, scrapping in the street ‘cause someone said she smelled like dukey, which she probably did.”
Maeya was quiet.
“I was never too young for anything. That’s just how she carried it,” I said. “I wish somebody woulda pulled me up back then and told me: this woman’s not changing for nothing.”
“Who would’ve known that?”
“No one, I guess.” I brushed some dirt off my tennis and felt a sigh go out of me. “It’s just something you tell yourself in your head.”
We were quiet for a time.
Then Maeya asked, “How’d my mother look when you told her I was gonna come stay with you and Nana?”
“What d’you mean?”
“You know, did she have her regular game face on and everything?”
“Oh, that, “I said. “ No, not at all. She got real sad.”
“Is that all?”
“You could tell, it just hurt her real bad. But she was glad too ‘cause she knows Nana keeps a good home.”
Maeya was quiet. The truth is I admired the little girl. At her age, I was already half-sprung. This child hardly frowned. Might be scared of Freddy Kruger, but she was ready for whatever the world put on her.
I looked at her. “You alright?”
I held out my fist, “FHP.”
Then she balled her little fist, extended it and we tapped knuckles. “FHP,” she said.
Everything looked different from the water. In the harbor the boats were shiny with linseed or resin, bobbing in their slips, and the light on the water was creased and flinty and the skyscrapers behind were struck glassy with sunlight and the city looked like a postcard a tourist might buy, and not at all like a place where anything could happen. Then as the boat moved further out, drawing a tail of foamy wake, the harbor spread out and the picture held your whole view and it could seem like a place you might leave one day, if you knew how, or someone showed you.
Barnacle Bob called himself an old salt and I guess that’s how he talked too. When we got to the crab pots, he’d shift down to the little trolling motor and come out of his little pilothouse and start plucking my nerves with his sing-songy directions, Swing to now. Drop the brailer. Hook that float. Now heave. He would say the same thing three, five, seven times. His voice would be low and steady, like something he learned in church, and after a while it would seem like his little sayings were keeping time with the water.
There were heavy seeping chains and small anchors and big crab pots. These I hoisted up, hand over hand. Every time I dropped a pot or pulled up another coil of chains, Barnacle Bob was right there with Swing to now. And it was kind of funny, but his talk did sort of help you bring the weight up and over the edge and on to the deck.
And Barnacle Bob knew that bay like I knew the streets. He’d look at the moon and tell you about the tide, listen to the water against the hull and tell you about the wind, tell you what trap was coming from which side way before you got your first glimpse of blue marker buoy, tell you where the grasses grew underwater from how the water sat, smell the wind and guess just where the northerlies would’ve dried out the marshes. He probably could’ve done it all stone blind. He didn’t fool with charts or sounding devices or tide tables. He knew the shoals and where the channels played out because he’d always known them. And if anyone ever cut his traps, Barnacle Bob was ready for blood.
Sometimes the pots were more or less empty, or had only a few eels, which we’d use for bait, and Barnacle Bob would get heated and start talking down the winter dredgers or the algae that had no business growing in the water or the government trying to keep him on the beach. But he didn’t stay mad. It was like Barnacle Bob hadn’t made up his mind about everything yet, which probably explained why he’d hired me to begin with, ‘cause I know I looked like a roughneck bopping through his door that first time.
If the pots were empty, we’d drive out Route 1 to buy Barnacle’s Catch from the freezers at Sysco. Along the way, he’d be playing Hank Garland or Chet Atkins in his truck and it was as if those empty pots out on the water had been someone else’s. With his moon face and yellow beard and the sling shots going half up his back, Barnacle Bob was like something out of one of my comic books, except he never really wanted to get even with anybody.
One day we were far out and when I snagged the last float for the last pot and pulled it in, it was empty like the others before it. It had been another bad day, the fourth in a row. I reset the bait box with fresh chicken necks, raised it to the edge, and listened for Barnacle Bob’s swing to now as I set the pot in the water and paid out the line. Then Barnacle Bob did something unusual. He cut the engine and let the boat drift. He was quiet and didn’t seem in the mood for talking. I sat down on the rusty water breaker and zipped up my fleece hoody. Using my clenched teeth, I tightened my gloves and then crossed my arms against the cold. The bay was empty in every direction. There was little current. I felt that something might be wrong, like Barnacle Bob was hurting somehow and it made me feel bad forever wishing his pots be light.
Barnacle Bob stood looking out beyond the stern. In the open water, drifting, time felt slowed.
"The sky looks funny, sitting on the water like that,” I said.
He did not answer for a time. “I suppose it does.”
"What’s out there?” I asked.
“A few shore towns gone so broke they’re more mud hens than people,” he said, still without turning around.
“What if you keep going?”
“You’ll be in the Atlantic.”
“And then, after that?”
“The rest of the world.”
The weather was turning. The sky was paper-mached in gray, a thousand shades of gray. It would be dead winter soon and the crabs would dig in and go in their holes and Barnacle Bob would pack it in ‘til spring because he didn’t believe in dredging. For a time, we drifted, listening to the bay slapping softly against the quarters. Then I said, “It’s a long ways from here?”
He had turned back to me. "What’s that?"
"The rest of the world."
Amon came to the back door, pounding. Excuse started for it, but I headed her off. “Don’t bring him in here again,” I said.
“What you getting ready for tea and crumpets?”
Nana had been watching Jeopardy, but now she was up, steady crossing the room towards us. I felt like Nana was aging before our eyes. She looked a hundred and three.
“I don’t like him,” I said.
“Sit your tail down,” Excuse said. “He ain’t no harm to nobody.”
“No more than you,” Nana said. “And that’s enough for anybody.”
“Whatever,” Excuse hissed.
He pounded the door again. Nana moved forward and slid back the dead bolt and pulled the knob. Stone-faced, Amon filled the doorway, one arm on the jamb.
“You’ll have to take your good times outside, sir,” Nana said. “There are children in this house.” The door clicked shut again.
On the way out, Excuse wheeled on me. “That’s the problem with you: you always think you better than somebody.”
Sometimes I sang Maeya to sleep with I Believe I Can Fly or I’m Not Your Average Girl on the Video. I can sing a little bit, but only Maeya would know it. This night I didn’t feel like singing so I was searching for a good radio station. I’d gotten tired of 92 Q playing the same songs.
She said, “You’re like my father, Franklin.”
“I’m not your father Maeya.”
“I think so.”
"Sixteen’s not old enough to be a father."
"Yes, it is."
“Then why do you hold my hand when we get on the bus?”
“So you don’t fall and bust your ass and everyone laugh at you.”
“Isn’t that like a father?”
“I think it is.”
“Look, Maeya, your father’s in Jessup. You know that.”
“So quit geeking."
"But I don’t even talk to him."
"That’s still your father,” I said.
“Not to me.”
“And he probably gave you those good smarts,” I said, “least you could do is act like you use ‘em.”
We were quiet while I fiddled with the radio dial. Bits of songs flew by.
"Amon says he knew my father.”
“That fool’ll say anything. He never knew your father.”
“He said you act like you’re grown when you’re not.”
I thought about how kids my age always think they’re grown and want to tell anyone who’ll listen. But I didn’t think I was grown. Instead, I thought about getting older and what my life would be like then. But I didn’t say any of this to Maeya. I said, “He could be two hundred, but that don’t make him grown.”
“He said he’s gonna teach me to kiss, since I’m gonna be a woman soon.”
I cut the radio off. “What?”
“’Someone’s gotta show you how a woman be’,” she put her hands on her hips and puffed out her chest, imitating the glub-glub-glub of Amon’s voice. “A woman’s gotta know how to enjoy herself.”
I got up and walked a tight circle, my shirtfront in my teeth, cursing. Then I threw open a window and spat. I asked Maeya a bunch of other questions, but she didn’t say much more and I just got madder anyway.
Afterwards she said, “You shouldn’t cuss.”
“Even that bastard knows better than talking like that to you."
“I don’t pay Amon no mind.”
I said, “You stay by me or Nana. Me or Nana. Okay?”
She was quiet.
I took her hands in mine. "Did you hear me?"
"Yes," she said.
"You promise now?"
My bed had been in the very small room Nana always called a sewing room. Now I dragged my little mattress down the hall and into Maeya’s bedroom. I plumped the pillows and arranged the bedding on the floor where I slept for a time after this. She watched me, her face still with worry. I hadn’t meant to scare her.
"Look,” I said, “Amon ain’t right. Even when he does something nice–like gives you a whole box of Krispy Kremes, all your own–he’s really just plotting on something else."
She said, “His eye—that ugly one—it looks funny.”
“Somebody told him no.”
The next day Amon came in from the back. I was in the kitchen, making a bologna and Miracle Whip sandwich.
"You can’t be in here no more.”
“This not your house.”
He looked at me, surprised. “What you tipsy?”
“Wouldn’t matter if I was,” I said.
"Your Mama’s already gave it her blessings,” he said, like that settled it.
“That ain’t even how she talks,” I said. “She ain’t church.” I placed my sandwich back on the plate and set it on the counter. “So you can bounce.”
“Oh, you big time now,” he said. “You decided.”
“Maeya doesn’t need you anywhere near her. None of us do.”
Suspicion twisted his face. “You must be planning on keeping her to yourself.” He opened the refrigerator door, closed it and swung back to me, getting louder. “‘Cause you sure enough not running, what, an orphanage in here?"
"I’ll take that key.” My voice had gone tight.
When he moved closer, you could feel his size in the floor. “Nine ain’t what it used to be. Girls grow up fast nowadays.” And then he laughed, throat like a train tunnel.
“You make me sick,” I said.
"Okay," I heard him say, swallowing a giggle. “Do you.”
I never felt him hit me. First, I was standing; then laid out. Darkness pooled around me and the smell of bologna became electric, crackling and sputtering behind my eyes. I lay there, trying for breath. I heard him changing TV stations. Then I remembered the weight of his shoulder rolling towards me before the fist shot out. High in the chest is where he’d hit me.
When I got to my elbows, he came over and put a heel on my throat, flattening me. “I seen so much I gave one of these sum bitches back.” And he pointed to the empty socket in his face. “You lucky I left you something to chew your food wit.”
I got to my feet and started for the bathroom. I was up and walking, but I was shaky. At the sink I steadied myself before the mirror. My wind felt small; it made a little rattle. Slowly, I cranked my head, right, then left, until my breathing got easier. I had not expected a warning and there had been none. I opened the medicine chest; the reflection of my eyes swung past. There was a box of band aides and some mouthwash. I didn’t need band aides or mouthwash.
I headed down to the corner where Alvin used to be. I thought of asking one of them that took his place to kill Amon, but didn’t. Then I went looking for Maeya.
The next day I didn’t go to work. Barnacle Bob would have to do it without me. I did hope the crabs were running for him, but I wanted to be in the house when Maeya came in from school, which I was.
The sun was gone from the sky. It was getting to be time for dinner. I’d gotten paid the day before, so I had some money. Maeya was eating cornstarch from the box, a habit I hadn’t been able to break her from. She looked bored, flicking jacks around her lap on the carpet.
"You keep eating that, you gonna turn into a ghost," I said. "Watch."
"I wanna bake a cake," she said.
I was getting mad. "Fix your face. You look a mess.”
"What’s wrong with you?" she asked.
"It’s not food."
"You’re acting funny." She sounded insulted. “And bossy.”
“Yeah, well, maybe I got things on my mind.”
She closed up the box and brushed off her mouth and cheeks. "Anybody can bake a cake," she said. "Just follow the recipe."
We were quiet.
“We don’t have no eggs, anyway,” I said. “I’m quite sure that recipe says eggs. I know that much.”
"Chinese people deliver," she said.
“If you think I’m calling that Chinese man and asking him for two eggs.”
“Why not?” she said. “I don’t mind calling.”
I forced out a long breath, pinching the bridge of my nose. Maeya could argue if four quarters made a dollar when she wanted to. “You a nuisance,” I sighed, giving in. “Let’s go get what we need.”
We walked down to the corner store and bought all the ingredients in the recipe. By the time we got back and got started, Nana was home. Later, after Meaya’s yellow sheet cake had cooled and she was icing the top and Nana dozed in her chair and the whole house smelled cake-sweet, I let myself fall into that butterscotched air where you could tell yourself nothing bad was going to happen.
I asked some dudes around the way about Amon. He’d done a lot of cruddy things. Stolen his uncle’s methadone so he could sell him real dope. Called the fire department once faking concussion for an Advil. Ran in the Arabber’s pockets and, when all he got was a peach pit and someone laughed, Amon killed the dude’s sable-back horse right there; after that, was like a fruit drought hit the whole neighborhood. Always ready to mix in. Always wants a Newport but never has one for anybody else. Some of the old heads called him Mustah Bin, ‘cause after Amon bled some poor bastard, it’s always, Oh well, must’ve been meant to happen.
If I called the police on Amon, they’d come in here and take Maeya away, put her in some crazy foster home or group home or in DSS. Might even try to put me somewhere.
I thought of tricking Amon into coming out on the boat—telling him we can rob Barnacle Bob—then knocking Amon’s big ass in the water. I doubted he could swim and no one would miss him. But I didn’t think Barnacle Bob would appreciate me using his boat like that.
I wished so hard that something would happen to Amon, but nothing did. Life was like that. Amon could rob and steal and scheme and get over and nothing hardly happened to him. But Alvin tries to sell a few pills for back-to-school clothes, and he gets got.
A day later I went down the back steps to where Amon always came in. I slipped into the alley, beside the steps.
I turned a metal trashcan upside down, pulled it into a sliver of darkness, away from the streetlight and sat. Patience filled me. I’d wait ‘til next spring if it took that. I felt the grapple in my hand. It was iron, heavy, and had three small hooks. I did worry that I didn’t have it in me to crack his skull, or that I wouldn’t hit him hard enough and then he’d just burn me up with the revolver he kept in his dip. So many dudes say, I don’t care if I get shot. Live by, die by. Real knows real. But when they’re on that sidewalk leaking out of themselves, they care. Crying for their Mama-God-ambulance, they care.
Hours passed and the sun went down and I set myself against these worries. There was an old head of cabbage under the steps and the rats ate from it, taking their time. And I got to wondering about the things I always wonder about: the stars of course and what’s so great about this country that everyone wants to come here for anyway, and Nana’s teeth in that water glass at night and what Alvin saw when that cap went in his nose–maybe it just feels like clicking off the TV, that sucking sound and everything shrink-popping black. And the rats came out deep, scurrying here and there and I could hear a TV from someone’s house. It was a re-run of Martin.
Then I heard him, walking that shuffling walk, mumbling, re-living a bad turn he owed somebody. My ears pricked up. My breath dropped away. I bent my knees and clenched back the grapple with my moisty grip. I could feel blood thumping my head. He got so close I smelled that sweet powdery talc he wore and I saw his face emerging from a curtain of cigarette smoke and at the last moment he turned that one good eye toward me and I swear I heard Barnacle Bob in my head.
“Swing to! Swing to! Swing to now!”
The Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction is made possible by the generous support of the McGlinn and Hansma families.
Adam Schwartz received an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis in 1995. His stories have appeared in Arkansas Review/Kansas Quarterly, and in 1999 he won first place in the Baltimore City Paper’s short story contest. In 2011, “The Rest of the World” received an Honorable Mention in New Letters’Alexander Cappon story contest and in 2012 it won the Poets & Writers 2012 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award. For the last fourteen years, Adam has taught high school English in Baltimore City. The experiences he has with young people in the classroom sometimes find their way into his work.