Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Authors Signing Books Friday: Loyola Bookstore

I will be one of three authors signing books at the Loyola University Bookstore in the Danna Center Friday, Dec. 14, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The bookstore has multiple copies of Sandrine.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Where to Get Sandrine: Now until February

The first print run sold out. TA-DAH!

Copies of the book will be scarce at online outlets like Amazon until the second printing is done in late January. The best place to find the book until then is in local bookstores which have as-yet-unsold copies on the shelf or in storage. Barnes and Noble should have multiple copies but may only have one or 2 on the shelf. If you don't see it, ask.

Maple Street Book Shop:
7523 Maple St.

Garden District Book Shop:
2727 Prytania St. (Washington Av. and Prytania in The Rink)

Octavia Books:
513 Octavia St. (near Laurel)

3131 Veterans Memorial Blvd, Metairie

Barnes and Noble:
Centre at Westbank, 1601B West Bank Expressway, Harvey
3721 Veterans Boulevard, Metairie, LA

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

W.I.N.G.S. on WTUL, Friday 8-8:30 AM

I'll be reading from Sandrine and talking with Crystal K. Friday morning about the book, growing up girl in the 70s and more on WTUL 91.5 FM, 8-8:30 on the W.I.N.G.S. (Women's International Newsgathering Service) broadcast. Just in time for carpool!

You can't call in but you can listen.

Friday, November 30, 2007


I didn't know People did book reviews. Why is my book labeled "Novel" while Grafton's book is labeled "Fiction." Dare I ask?

page 59:

(3 out of 4 stars) Innocence, it seems, can be hard to crush: Nine-year-old Sandrine Miller--the straight-A student in 1970s New Orleans who narrates Johnson's heartbreaking debut--is beaten by her mother, abandoned by her loving but restless father and sexually abused by two family friends. Yet she's too young to realize the horror of it all; astonishingly, she remains unshakeably [sic] loyal to the grown-ups who let her down. Until the day she cracks: "I heard what sounded like a thick old voice but slowly recognized it as mine, full of tears, hoarse, broken by hiccup sobs." The only thing this affecting story lacks is a bigger picture, wondering how the wounded Sandrine will fare as an adult, readers may be left wishing Tomorrow could write back.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Not Just an Announcment--A Post!

I keep saying I'll actually post here...I had an excellent opportunity while on the reading tour with Preston Allen. I need lots more friends like Preston. He's crazy funny, wise, open, thoughtful, a hell of a writer, a great person all around. I can't wait to really host him in NO--food, Misery Tour, Harrah's, Central City, beignets, po-boys and brass bands.

I may have a big national review tomorrow, the biggest yet. I don't know if I really believe it. When I see it, then I'll believe. It just seems too crazy....

Monday, November 5, 2007

Review: Times-Picayune, Nov. 4

Only a Day Away by Susan Larsen:

Johnson perfectly captures the voice of a young girl, searching for acceptance and friendship. In Sister Paul and the nuns at her New Orleans school, Sandrine finds mentors and models for kindness; in the women who work at her father's clinic, she finds solace. In a new life with her father, she allows herself to feel "small and safe," confident that she has come home at last. After such a bleak existence, she is allowed that ray of hope, that most basic right of childhood.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Review: Booklist Oct. 15

Sandrine's Letter to Tomorrow
Johnson, Dedra (Author)
Nov. 2007. 212 p. Ig, paperback, $14.95. (9780978843120).

Growing up in New Orleans in the 1970s, Sandrine is proud to be black, but because she is light-skinned and very smart, the black kids think she is stuck-up, and the white kids won’t speak to her because, to them, she is black. At home, her single-parent mother beats her, makes her scrub the house constantly, and blames her for being a slut when she is sexually abused. For a brief time, Sandrine has one white friend at school, but Lydia also has dark secrets, and she shows Sandrine that the vicious prejudice they encounter is not only about race and class, but also about gender, and that many believe educating a girl is a waste. This debut novel is more a short story with one repeated theme played out in family, Catholic school, and neighborhood. But the obsession never gets boring or messagey, the dialogue is fast and lively, and Sandrine’s first-person narrative delivers immediate, searing drama, showing her pride, passion, and courage as she breaks stereotypes.

— Hazel Rochman

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Review: Publishers Weekly

Sandrine's Letter to Tomorrow
Dedra Johnson. Ig (Consortium, dist.), $14.95 paper (212p) ISBN 978-0-9788431-2-0

This aching debut explores a girl's coming-of-age in poverty-drenched mid-1970s New Orleans. Eight-year-old Sandrine Miller lives like a servant to her mother, Shirleen, a low-wage typist, and her mean-spirited grandmother, Mother Dear, both of whom keep Sandrine overloaded with chores despite her homework and eagerness to keep up good grades at school. Sandrine's main escape is visiting her father and his mother, Mamalita, in the country for the summer, but her dream of moving there is crushed when Mamalita dies, and her busy country doctor dad leaves Sandrine in the noncare of his girlfriend, Philipa, whose dotty daughter, Yolanda, is, to Sandrine's bookish disgust, more interested in boys than her education. Indeed, Sandrine feels wronged, especially by her mother, who holds Sandrine's light skin against her. As she grows, Sandrine finds empowerment in knowledge of her body (taught to her by an older classmate, Lydia, whose step-dad molests her) and the recognition that learning is her only escape from the defeating cycle of early pregnancy, poverty and general futility. There are echoes of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Sandrine, with her fierce price [sic], is an instantly likable underdog. (Nov.)

Friday, June 29, 2007

Sandrine's Letter to Tomorrow

Advance page:
Sandrine's Letter to Tomorrow

Book Description

Set in 1970s-era New Orleans, Sandrine's Letter to Tomorrow is the disturbingly powerful and uplifting story of a young African American girl named Sandrine, whose only refuge against a world of poverty, racial discrimination, and parental abuse are the letters she writes to her dead grandmother. In the tradition of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Sandrine's Letter to Tomorrow is a brilliant debut from an important new voice in African American fiction.

A professor of English at Dillard University, Dedra Johnson received her MFA from the University of Florida, where she was a finalist for the Hurston-Wright Award. Sandrine's Letter to Tomorrow was a finalist for the 2006 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Award.

Thursday, February 8, 2007


This short story was originally published in Bridge Magazine (Chicago, IL), Fall/Winter 2002.
c Dedra Johnson, 2002

I needed immediate obedience so I shot the cashier. Everyone lay still on the floor as he emptied the register with one hand, the other holding his bleeding shoulder. I noticed bills that didn't look like twenties or tens and my face folded into a smile. As I backed towards the storeroom, only he moved, sliding off the stool to sit on the floor. I fired again in the storeroom to scare them and walked up the empty alley to a McDonald's on the next street. In the bathroom I washed off the pancake makeup, changed my shirt and cut up the wig, one of Eileen's. When I smiled at myself in the mirror, it felt like my skin was dry enough to crack.

At Eileen's I put frozen lasagna in the oven and sat on the floor. My back warm against the oven door, I finished a rhubarb pie.


I've stayed at Eileen's for a few months now. The first day she took out all her guns—semi automatics, shotguns, a Luger, and a rifle. They all felt too heavy, blocky. Eileen slid off the sofa to the floor to sit next to me, smiling. She liked seeing them in my hands.

She has a dinner every week. Her friends bring casseroles, fondue, fresh bread, pesto, homemade pasta, and she ties on a cherry print apron from the dollar store to pose for pictures with pies and cakes and an hysterical grin, pictures she says her parents will love. Eileen has me stand next to her to show them all how tall I am, how long my arms are. I rarely have to get up from the corner of the sofa; I hear her in the kitchen telling John, PJ, Miles, Shari, Liz, whoever, to take a piece of pie to me, take me a plate, take me a beer, put the tequila in front of her, she'll drink it. Every goddamn week.

Last week Eileen shot the TV during a commercial. In the kitchen, hugging the plates I'd been carrying to the pantry, I stayed still even after she yelled that she felt better and the gun was unloaded.

A friend from college said she could hold her apartment in San Francisco for me until March. I needed at least $2000 to move and had no idea how to squeeze it out of six dollars an hour, and I had to leave town.


Kim came into the bookstore every week, walk up and down the aisles for half an hour or an hour and never touch a book. I would stay at the register each time. Eileen called her the Albino; her hair was pale blond, her eyebrows and eyelashes almost white, her eyes pale gray. She was finally showing; even her face looked puffy. Last year she threatened to scratch my eyes out if I didn't stay away from Dorian. Whenever I mentioned her, Dorian would start about Kim's father, Kim's dead mother, Kim's abortions, Kim's sculpture, Kim's psychotic roommate. Kim threatened Dorian, he said, but he didn't stop calling or coming to my apartment. She told Eileen a week before I left my apartment that she'd have me raped. I was sick of her shit, too.


Every time Dorian and I went out, I could look down the bar or up from my shot at the pool table and make out Anthony's long coat or hear his cackling laugh. Kim was usually with him: she'd leave after I looked at them and smiled. He was so dark and she was so white. A few months before I went to Eileen's, Dorian and I were at a bar; he said Kim's baby was his and I said nothing. I just finished my beer. He said he wanted Anthony to move in with us, into the extra room. No, I said. I've always looked out for him, he said, he's my friend, that place is too expensive for him and our rent'll be that much less, I don't see why you're being such a bitch about it. She still doesn't work? I said. Is she going to move in? Dorian set down his beer, leaned close and ran his finger up my neck to my ear. Why can't you just trust me? he said. Trust him with what? Suddenly I was so angry I felt like I was going to pass out. I left, forgetting my coat, and walked home, eight blocks, and it felt like I had goosebumps even on my cheeks. Dorian broke the kitchen windows to get in but I'd locked the bedroom door so he slept in the hall. Small victories satisfied him usually.


Dorian said if we ever had to do something illegal, we should do it in the winter so we could wear gloves. He slid closer to me on the bed and my game of solitaire slipped under his leg. He stared at my face. A little makeup and you could pass, you're not that dark, he said. Neither are you, I said, and he laughed.

He had old scars, purple brown welts on his shoulder blades and side, from something his father did to him. He'd pick me up from work at night, usually drunk, and the car never weaved but I could tell: when he drank a lot of beer his sweat smelled like gin. One night he smelled more than usual and I turned in the seat and said I could drive. He said he hated his job more than I hated mine, what did I do anyway but point to where the self help books were and say the art books were five dollars off, don't tell me what to do, it's not your place. He stared at me and the car drifted across the lanes, in front of a police car. When they turned on the lights, Dorian slammed on the brakes and stopped there in the lane. I got out and ran around to the back of the car just before a semi passed. All the cop talking to me wanted to know was if there were drugs in the car. I said no. Good girl, he said. Dorian was standing next to the driver's side door, talking to the other cop and not slurring much; I told them he was tired, he had had a few beers waiting for me, I got off work late, I had been telling him to let me drive when they stopped us. They believed me, didn't bother to check Dorian's license and see his other DUI, his resisting arrest, his three months in jail for mushrooms. I went to the driver's side and had to wait for Dorian, staring at the cops, to move. Cars slowed down, faces staring, one man tilting his head to took over his glasses. When I was getting in the car, Dorian slammed the door into my leg. He said I was his wife and the cops backed away, watching until I pulled off.

I started taking the bus home. A month later, he started not coming home a few nights a week and I tried to ignore it; I didn't want to know anything about it. Then one night the back door was open, all the lights in the apartment on. I could see my breath, like I hadn't gone inside. Anthony stood in the extra room where I had the TV, a chair, and a sewing machine I meant to sell, taking clothes out of paper bags on the floor, folding them carefully and piling them on the TV. Dorian was moving the sewing machine into the hall. He looked at me twice before telling me to get Anthony's other bags off the stairs. I said no to this, I said. Dorian didn't look at me or say anything. My name was on the lease; I was still paying most of the rent. He can't afford the other apartment, Dorian finally said, I told you that, you just don't listen. I was so angry my eyes burned. I went out the back, kicked over Anthony's bags then, hands gripping the wood rails, went down the back stairs in threes, and walked the six blocks to Eileen's. She spent a few hours going through her closets and boxes, giving me clothes that didn't fit her anymore, some she just wanted me to have, others she'd bought because she wanted to see me in them. She sold me a .22 for the ten dollars I had in my pocket, thinking Dorian would come after me, like one of her husbands did when she left him, and I had no idea what to do with a gun for weeks. Eileen took the Spanish moss a friend had brought from Louisiana down from the walls and said she wanted to take a picture of me wearing it. Please, she said. I lay on a quilt on the floor, moss over one breast, in my pubic hair, over my face.

Eileen paid for half my tattoo the next week since, she said, she'd encouraged me to let Dorian move in. She said it made my body my own again.


I have a picture in my album no one pays attention to, skips over to see what my parents look like: me at four, at the kitchen table in front of a pink and green cake, singing Happy Birthday to myself. I never liked pink and green but every cake I remember and my bedroom then was pink and green. I didn't have an uncle like Eileen's who rented her to his friends when she was twelve. No first husband cut a chunk out of my leg and no third husband shot up the car I was driving away from the house. My father didn't hit me like Dorian's did. My parents left me alone. I don't remember them talking to me much except my mother telling me my father was an asshole and my father telling me one night I was dumb to help kids in my kindergarten class because then they'd be ahead of me instead of behind me. When they divorced, I saw my father every day. He'd pick me up after school and we'd eat lunch at the store, behind the high pharmacy counter where I'd sometimes help count and bottle pills. When I was sixteen he and my mother bought me a used car and gave me an Amoco credit card. In college I only worked during the summer and he paid my rent. I have nothing to feel bad about so that means, I suppose, I have to be patient with everyone and smile a lot.


When the guy burst in the diner and said, Everybody freeze, I smiled. I hadn't left the apartment yet and Dorian was still pressuring me about Anthony; he'd brought it up as soon as we sat down. Dorian kicked me under the table. Be serious, he said. I watched the guy, about twenty, white, a little familiar because his face was so plain, wave the gun around a few times and hold it on Kathy as she emptied the register, probably less than $100, while everyone else, about a dozen at the tables and five at the counter, sat stunned and silent. Dorian kicked me again, for staring, and his eyes were narrowed slightly, like he was about to smile. The guy walked out the front door, a bicycle swerved around him, and he ran up an alley. I thought I heard sirens. You're crazy, Dorian said. If he had shot that gun, I said, I wouldn't have noticed his face.


I wouldn't dance with Eileen in front of everybody so she pulled me to the dark kitchen, turned on the oven and opened the oven door to warm up the room. We could barely hear the boom box. Her hands were hot and damp through my silk undershirt. She unbuttoned her flannel shirt, Dorian's, the one I was wearing when I went to her place, raised my shirt and leaned to the side so our nipples were pressed together. When she turned me I saw Anthony in the doorway, smiling. He said Dorian had a new job out in the suburbs and he was gone every afternoon.

The next afternoon Eileen, Miles and I went to my old apartment. Anthony let us in, smiling at me; he had beer boxes on the kitchen counters. Most of my clothes were gone but I found a sweater, a picture album, a coat with scarves and gloves in the pockets. The bed was new, king size, crowding the bedroom. Anthony slept on the floor in the extra room, and the chair and sewing machine were gone. My books were already packed. Alone in the hall, I clenched my fists until I trembled. Eileen and Miles carried things down to his car. I took a few plates, some silverware, glasses and a double boiler my father gave me at Christmas. Eileen opened the cabinets again. You bought it all, she said, he had shit when he moved in here, you ought to take the bed and sell it. You got any string? she yelled down to Miles. Bungee cord? She and Anthony helped me pack, Anthony setting his pots and plates on the table out of the way. When I picked up a box, he held out his arms and said he'd take it. No, it's fine, I said. He squeezed my upper arms, making the muscles shake, then, smiling at Eileen, stepped behind and squeezed my shoulders. Strong, he said. You should feel her legs, Eileen said.


My mother still lives in the suburbs, outside D.C., in the same house. When I saw it last, the houses still looked new and the sidewalks and curbs were clean, though the grass in the front lawns was patchier from bike and car tires, barbecues, bonfires, weed killer. It's always been quiet and safe; my mother would leave me in the house, doors unlocked, to walk to the store, take a bowl back to a neighbor, or haul rugs to the laundromat.

It was a three bedroom house because my father wanted lots of kids, preferably sons. My mother took the Pill in secret somehow and after a few years my father realized what was going on and cleared out the third bedroom where my mother had her sewing machine, a rocker, a foam mattress that I napped on, and a TV. He locked the door. If the room wouldn't be used the way it was supposed to because she didn't want any more children, it wouldn't be used at all, is how my mother summed it up. My father said nothing to me about it and I didn't want him to be angry at me, too, so I never asked if my mother was right. My mother crowded all the furniture in the kitchen and after a month or two of moving the toy chest to open the oven or pushing the sewing machine away from the dryer, I helped her move the kitchen table to the back yard so there'd be room. My father moved out when I was eight, to a small apartment near my school, and my mother took the doorknob out of the locked bedroom door. Even after we'd cleared out the kitchen she let the table rust in the back yard and we ate on the sofa, floor or her bed. Eventually she took the door down and set it in the yard, too.

Dull vague aches aren't like scars, bullet holes in walls, arrest records, restraining orders. What can't be seen is hard to explain and, even if you try, doesn't seem to exist. Too many times Dorian and Eileen would sit on either side of me, talking about my legs, eyes, hands, the way they said I walked—hard, my hips rolling. Any reaction, a sneer, a hand slammed on the bar, slapping Dorian's arm, telling Eileen I wasn't her conversation piece, was funny to them; I could never do a fucking thing.


Miles' cousin was selling her truck for $1000, and Miles offered to replace what needed to be replaced if I cleaned his house for a month, twice a week. Trust him, Eileen said, and she set a plate of hot pirogi on my lap. I ate with one hand and Miles took the other, spreading my fingers over his knees. No, I've never played piano or basketball, I said and pulled my hand away. In the kitchen Eileen gave Anthony a bottle of tequila, a lime and a knife and pointed him in my direction. I did a shot and Anthony fingered the rash on my collarbone from the pancake makeup. John, Shari, PJ and two people I'd never met before were watching the video Eileen picked—a woman fucking a pig, a dog, and when I looked up again there was a ram in the frame. Anthony measured my neck with his hand. Miles said, it's long, Eileen said it would be great for brass rings. My stomach got so sour I couldn't eat. I gave the pirogi back to Eileen.

After Eileen saw Miles' house she started paying me to clean her apartment, and Shari, John, and even Anthony asked me to do theirs. Eileen liked me better than the Polish woman, who didn't know much English, and she could watch me scraping food off the floor or bent over cleaning the tub.

Eileen asked a while ago where all her old wigs were. I said I threw them out the first time I cleaned.


My boss' boyfriend watched me from the storeroom. The store was empty; I was leaning on a road atlas, adding miles, hours, gallons of gas on the calculator. When he stepped behind the counter he placed his hand on my shoulder, said use Benadryl cream on the rash, now spreading to behind my ears. The sun's out today finally, he said, go for a walk, you look too yellow. Or just go home. Smiling broadly, he took my coat, purse and scarf from the cabinet under the register and wrapped the scarf around my neck, tucking it in my sweater. I rode ten el stops past mine and walked around for an hour, looking at stores. The neighborhood was cut off, between downtown and the expressway; there were a few apartment buildings, empty storefronts and, near the one bus stop I saw, a convenience store.

Saturday the bookstore closed early. I changed in the el bathroom and went back to the convenience store. The neighborhood was deserted, no traffic from downtown coming through, and I was surprised the store was open. I shot at the mirror behind the counter when I walked in. She was putting milk in the coolers in back and didn't flinch, frown, or gasp, just stared as I emptied the register. In an office building bathroom a few el stops away, I changed my shirt, washed off the makeup and left the wig in the trash. I had used lipstick and when I smiled into the mirror, my lips felt scraped. If they were bleeding, I thought, they'd feel better. Just the gun would make people silent and their staring at the gun made me shake less. If I fired it, they would only look at the gun and my shaking would stop. I wondered why this woman had stared at my face.


People I didn't know bought me drinks because the bartender said I was leaving town. When the bar closed we crossed the street to Eileen's. PJ, whom I barely knew, gave me a list of numbers, friends in South Dakota, Colorado and Nevada I could stay with. Eileen wanted me to take her coffee table and her fifties gowns to sell for her so she could visit. Anthony gave me Dorian's work number again, said Dorian still wanted me to call. Miles had another box of old shirts, sweaters, and single gloves like the box he brought the night I went to Eileen's.

Yesterday I burned the moss pictures and negatives at the park with a wig that was still in my purse. A cop passed, saw me squatted in front of the small fire with my hands over it, and kept walking. I went back to the Midas, got the truck, and drove around the rest of the day.

I left the gun in a phone booth, in the white pages in the shelf.

I've never been in an accident, broken my ankle or arm, or run out of gas.

Wednesday Morning

This short story was published in Product 9, Center for Writers, University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, 1993.
c Dedra Johnson, 1993

When Emma woke Wednesday morning, Kevin was still in her apartment. She heard the Harley Davidson across the street start and set off a car alarm, then Kevin’s feet sliding across the living room floor. He was trying to be quiet but the sound was annoying, like sandpaper. Emma stretched, smiled when she didn’t smell coffee or fried eggs, and laid her hands flat on the empty space around her in the bed. Kevin would be gone in a few hours.

Emma was still in the clothes she had changed into after work yesterday, her earrings had made dents in her neck and behind her ears, and she had a white rubber band around her left wrist. A book fell in the living room. She sat up.

In the bathroom she brushed her teeth and touched the curling iron. Cold. Kevin usually turned it on before he nudged her awake, trying to help. Emma picked it up, turned it on and looked in the mirror. Her black hair lay flat and she was as pale as she’d been yesterday, the pinkish gray circles around her eyes darker. Maybe she hadn’t lied when she told the other paralegal at the office that she had the flu and wouldn’t be back until Friday. She shook her head, clicked off the curling iron and put it down, and walked into the living room.

Her four-year-old daughter Pauline knelt in a chair at the kitchen table, her hands flat on the open newspaper, mimicking Kevin like she did every morning. Pauline’s brown hair was as dull and straight as Emma’s but she had her father’s dark gray eyes and round face. Emma hoped her face would get thinner. She wanted Pauline to look like her because if Pauline asked who she looked like, Emma would have to tell her she didn’t know or care where her father was. He was twenty-five now—a year older than Kevin? Emma slapped her forehead, told herself to forget.

The girl wore one of Kevin’s white undershirts, knots tied in the hem so she wouldn’t trip. “Take that off,” Emma said to her.

“Hi, Mama,” Pauline said.

Kevin sat across the room on the sofa. The bookshelves were empty, all the books stacked on the coffee table and on the end table around the lamp. Empty beer and tomato boxes covered the rug in the middle of the room. The blinds and windows were open. Someone else in the building was cooking eggs.

His pillow was on the sofa. Pauline’s Keds and backpack, neon green with dark green vinyl starts on the shoulder straps, were under the coffee table with a stack of catalogues. Emma watched Kevin open the books, look a the first page then put them in the box next to him. His curly black hair stuck up in oily peaks.

She made a wide circle around the coffee table and boxes and went to the windows. She rubbed dust off the air conditioner. A pickup truck sat in front of the building, the back full of boards and chunks of drywall. The car alarm stopped beeping.

Emma saw an arm sticking out of a first floor window across the street.

When she turned back around, Kevin looked away from her skirt and opened a paperback.

“You’re not going to turn it on?” he said. “You always want it on.”

“Hi, Mama. Mama.”

“They’re all yours,” Emma said. “I took mine out last night.”

Kevin stared at the books. “Can I use the phone?” he said. “I got to call in sick.”

Emma rolled her eyes. He talked to her like she was a sixty-year-old school principal, not a thirty-one-year-old woman with no makeup and a four-year old. She waved her hand at the phone on the floor and walked to the refrigerator. She slid the ceramic magnets, a peacock and a red horse, up the door, out of Pauline’s reach where they should’ve been, not down where Kevin let her play with them. She opened the door and stared at the buttermilk on front.

“I don’t want Froot Loops,” Pauline said, her eyes wide. Emma snapped the rubber band against her wrist to keep herself from yelling. When Kevin put his hand over the mouthpiece and looked up, Emma glared at him. He turned away.

“Yeah…Yeah…Yeah, I will,” he said into the phone.

“Jesus Christ, say something else but ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,’ ” Emma said. She took out the buttermilk and slammed the door closed. “Jesus. You sound like Pauline.”

“I want eggs, Mama.”

“I’m making pancakes,” Emma said and Pauline stuck out her lips. “Stop that.”


“Shut up, Pauline.”

Pauline kept her mouth open for a few seconds then closed it, put her elbows on the paper and pretended to read again.

“Okay.” Kevin hung up the phone. He glanced at Pauline. “I need to make another call.”

Emma took out the rest of the ingredients, a steel mixing bowl, and a skillet. She kicked the cabinet door shut and looked over her shoulder. Pauline watched Kevin dial with a finger in her mouth.

“Pauline, mind your own business,” Emma said. Pauline scratched her nose, leaving a smudge, and turned the page of the newspaper. Emma looked in the cabinet under the sink. There was one garbage bag left in the box. She balled it up and tossed it over Pauline’s head. It landed on the coffee table with a soft, tissue paper sound.

“For your clothes,” Emma said to Kevin.

“Mama, I want eggs.”

“Be quiet, Pauline.”

Kevin hung up and walked over to Pauline. He smoothed her hair into a ponytail, held it between three fingers and bounced it. Pauline giggled. “I’ll make her eggs—“

Emma slammed down the spoon, spreading batter across her shirt, the counter and the side of the skillet where the drops hissed and burned black. “I’m making pancakes—“

Pauline gave Emma a huge smile, her lips stretched thin and all her little teeth showing. “I want eggs.”


Kevin slid across the floor to Emma. The sandpaper sound set her teeth on edge.

"Emma, c’mon,” he said quietly. Emma closed her eyes and pursed her lips. The air coming out of his nose smelled like carrots. He was so close she was ready to jump out of her skin. “Don’t take it out on her. It’s bad enough what’s going down. Did you talk to her about—“

“She heard everything,” Emma said. Kevin took a step back. “She sleeps right there.” Emma pointed the spoon at Pauline’s door across from the bathroom. “And she’s mine so get out of my face.”

Kevin picked up the garbage bag and walked into the bedroom. Emma wiped her face on her shirt and poured two pancakes.

“What does…’suff-o-ca-ti-on’ mean?” Pauline said.

“Where’d you hear that?” Emma said, raising Pauline’s arms to pull the undershirt off. She went to the bedroom. Kevin was leaning over an open dresser drawer, staring at his clothes. Emma threw the shirt past him into the closet door.

Emma got a T-shirt and a pair of yellow shorts from the basket of clothes in Pauline’s room and walked up to Pauline.

Pauline turned in the chair and leaned on the back, her arms dangling. Her chin rested on top the chair and her head bounced as she said, “Huh, Mama?”

“Stand up.” Pauline put the shirt on her. “Up.” Pauline grabbed Emma around the neck and Emma lifted her off the chair to put the shorts on. Emma frowned. “Now, what?”

“Suff-o-ca-ti-on.” Pauline knelt in the chair and pointed at the paper. “See? ‘Mr. Crown died of suff-o-ca-ti-on’ and I don’t know what that word means, too, ‘cor-on-er.’ ”

Emma rubbed the base of her spine with her fist and leaned over. She read the line above Pauline’s gray fingertip—Mr. Crown died of suffocation. The coroner—and pushed Pauline’s finger away. “Jesus, you can read this? What’s this?” Emma pointed to another line.

“ ’At three-four-two-a-m police re-spon-d-ed to a call—' “

Emma threw the paper across the room.


Kevin walked to the closet by the front door and dragged out a black suitcase. “What is it, Paulie?”

Emma took a spatula from a drawer and scooped up a pancake. One of the open bubbles had a black ring around it, a curly hair with a knot in the end. Kevin’s. He had introduced himself to all her neighbors, laughed with her friends on the phone, took care of Pauline even when Emma was home, called her Paulie which made Emma want to scream, and now he was in the food. She dropped the skillet and spatula in the garbage then threw the bowl, spoon, and buttermilk away, too.

“I wanted one of those bowls,” Kevin said.

Pauline sat in the chair staring at her. Kevin had the suitcase handle in both hands and looked at the garbage can. Both looked like they were about to pout. She wanted both of them out.

“Fine.” She pulled the bag out of the can, tied it closed and dropped it on top of his books. “Aren’t you done yet?”

Kevin pushed over the bag. He packed the rest of his books and put the boxes by the front door. He took an empty box into the bathroom.

Emma poured milk into a small bowl and put it and the box of Froot Loops in front of Pauline.

“Kevin makes me eggs.”

Emma snapped the rubber band, picked up the suitcase and pillow.

“Spoon,” Pauline said.

Boards clanked into the truck outside. Emma opened Kevin’s three drawers and the closet. She shoved the pillow, his briefs, sweaters, T-shirts and socks into the garbage bag, which Kevin had left on the floor, yanked his clothes off hangers and dropped them into the suitcase. She put his shoes in the garbage bag. A toilet flushed and gurgled upstairs.

Emma tied the garbage bag closed and pushed it into the living room with her foot. She saw Pauline picking Froot Loops out of the milk with her dirty fingers. “Pauline,” she said, “use a spoon.”

The intercom honked and they both jumped. Kevin walked out of the bathroom, opened the door and went to the stairs. Emma pulled out Pauline’s backpack. Kevin had bought the ugly thing, a child’s gift to a child. Emma poured out Pauline’s crayons, drawings, and a blue plastic lizard.


“Oh, shit, fine, keep it.”

He left the door open. “It’s her carpool. I thought it was my brother.” He went into the bathroom and closed the door.

“Get up,” Emma said to Pauline. Pauline climbed down from the chair while Emma shoved everything into the backpack and zipped it closed. She knelt to put Pauline’s shoes on then took Pauline out to the stairs and put her hand on the rail. “Go.”

Pauline hopped down the stairs. Emma leaned over the rail, waited until she saw Pauline’s shoes on the green and white tile in the lobby and heard the woman who picked her up say “Hello” then nodded to herself.

She went back into the apartment and closed the door. She would have to get up twenty-five minutes earlier to feed and get Pauline ready and herself. Emma leaned on the cool wood door and counted to ten.


The truck outside started, backfired and drove away. Emma sat on the arm of the sofa, watching Kevin sort through glasses and dishes. Neither could remember what he had brought in fourteen months ago and she didn’t want him leaving anything he might say later belonged to him.

“Pauline’s reading,” Emma said.

“She is?” Kevin smiled.

Emma folded her arms. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t know.” He opened the storage compartment below the oven.

“You taught her. Somebody taught her. I know they don’t at day care, why didn’t you tell me? You’re just trying to make me look bad, all those are mine.”

He slammed the door closed. “I didn’t, I’m not.”


“Maybe if you paid attention—“

Emma picked up his gold watch from the coffee table.

“Don’t do anything to it. Please.” He took two beers from the refrigerator and set one can on the table. When Emma dropped the watch on the sofa, he opened the beers, took his to the sofa and sat. Emma plopped into a kitchen chair and held her beer between her hands.

“Take that air conditioner, too,” she said. Kevin drank half his beer in one swallow and wiped the can across his forehead. He raked his hand through his hair, rearranging the peaks. A bus passed, shook the street and the glasses in the cabinet.

“The street vibrates ‘cause everything under the buildings is hollow,” Kevin said. “They stored coal down there.”

Emma snapped the rubber band. The marks on her wrist were the color of the circles around her eyes.

“Pauline’s smart,” he said.

“That lamp’s yours.”

Emma lay her head on the table and pressed the skirt over her knees. She watched Kevin swallow the rest of the beer. The neighbor across the hall slammed her door and her heels thumped down the carpeted stairs. Emma closed her eyes and fell asleep.


She felt cold plastic on her arm. Emma sat up, her jaw and teeth sore from lying on the table, and Kevin poked her arm again with the phone. She took it, wiped it off on her skirt and placed it on her ear, her eyes closed.


“This is Linda at the day care? Pauline needs to come home. She’s not feeling too good.”

Emma licked her teeth. “I forgot to comb her hair.” But the woman had already hung up. Kevin stood next to Emma, holding the phone and watching her. She hung up and he set the base down. Pauline’s bowl had been washed and lay on the drain board. Kevin’s boxes, suitcase and garbage bag were next to the door. Emma looked at him.

“I called my brother. He’s on the way.” When Emma slapped her hands on the table to stand up, he said, “I called him.”

Her armpits felt slick. She got a paper towel, wiped them dry and threw the towel in the empty garbage can. He was still there and she had to leave to get Pauline. She saw a piece of tinsel on the rug and knelt. She picked out the tinsel and a hard shred of cheese. She didn’t want him there when she came back with Pauline. He would cuddle Pauline, put a cold towel on her head, sit her on his lap until long after his legs should’ve gone numb.

“I have to get Pauline.”


Emma pulled curly hairs out of the rug; she would even have to clean him out of the rug, the furniture. His watch on the coffee table read 11:15. She stood, rubbed fibers off her legs and dropped the cheese shred and tinsel near his watch.

“Give me the keys,” she said.

Kevin paused, looked around the room. “I can’t get back in if the door closes. I’ll go get her and—“

Emma walked to the bedroom. She took her keys off the night stand and stepped into her shoes. She squatted, spit on the hem of her skirt and wiped a mud spot off her left shoe. She took a deep breath and looked down at herself, Pauline’s fingerprints, mud, and drops of pancake batter on her skirt.

Kevin took another beer from the refrigerator.

“Maybe I should leave tomorrow,” he said quietly.

“I want you gone already.” She unplugged the lamp and set it next to his suitcase. “Just leave the keys.”

He nodded. Emma looked around the living room, tapped her foot twice then opened the door.


The day care center was fifteen minutes away, a storefront between a warehouse-sized grocery store parking lot and an Afrocentric bookstore called Uhuru. Emma double-parked next to the day care center’s green minivan.

When she got to the sidewalk, Linda, the owner, opened the door. Linda’s red braid was tied into a knot at the back of her neck and her pants, white with blue check marks, looked like long boxer shorts. Boys and girls holding hands walked out past her. Pauline lay in a corner of the cluttered room on a yellow mat.

“Hi, Mom,” Linda said.

Emma hooked her sunglasses on her collar. Linda dragged out a picnic basket and red cooler while her helper carried Pauline out on her hip.

“Let’s go,” Emma said.

Pauline kept her head on the woman’s shoulder. Emma swallowed a bubble of panic and jealousy, touched Pauline’s forehead. It was cool. “Good. I can’t take her anywhere today.”

Linda put her fingers to her lips and the children stopped chattering. The helper gave Emma Pauline’s backpack and Emma took her daughter.

“Did you know she reads?” Emma said to Linda.

The helper picked up the basket and cooler. Linda locked the door. “Does she?” she said. She patted Pauline’s back. “Bye, sweetie. You are a very smart girl. C’mon, kids, this way.” She took the lead girl’s hand and walked up the street, the others and the helper trailing after her.

Pauline jerked. “What?” Emma said. Pauline covered her mouth. Emma put her on her feet, bent her over the curb and watched her throw up milky water that ran under the minivan. Emma sighed and wiped Pauline’s mouth with her skirt.

“Is that it? Is it all out?” Pauline held out her arms for Emma to pick her up. “Should I take you to the doctor?” She actually wanted to ask Kevin if she should. She picked Pauline up and put the backpack on her own shoulder. She checked Pauline’s forehead again as she smoothed back her hair.

“I forgot to wash your hands,” Emma said. A bus pulled up to the stop on the corner, blocking Emma’s car while she lay Pauline across the back seat. Then she changed her mind and strapped her into the child seat in front. She leaned on the minivan, drumming her nails on the roof of her car while she waited for the bus to move.


Emma crossed her fingers and opened the apartment door halfway. Kevin wasn’t on the sofa. She smiled. She moved Pauline to her hip and pushed the door open with her foot. It hit something that sounded like tissue paper. Emma threw down her keys and Pauline’s backpack. Pauline jumped.

“It’s okay, Pauline.”

She closed the door. The lamp lay on its side in front of a paper bag with glass baking dishes, a double boiler, and Emma’s alarm clock stacked in it. She pushed the bag under the kitchen table.

She brought Pauline into her bedroom and put her in the middle of the queen-sized bed. She took off Pauline’s Keds then rubbed and squeezed her feet until Pauline squirmed away.

“Do you feel better?” Emma pulled down the blinds, making the room gray. “It’s good to throw up, Pauline. You get the bad stuff out…Everything’ll be fine tomorrow, sweetie, you’ll be fine.”

Emma straightened the living room rug with her foot and sat at the table. She tugged at the rubber band on her wrist but didn’t snap it. Someone pounded up the stairs. Emma looked at the bottom of the door. Shoes passed, broke up the line of light, and climbed to the third floor.

She put the bag of clothes and the bag of garbage in the hall. She pushed the four boxes out and stacked them. The suitcase was light. She lifted it over the boxes, dropped it in front and set the lamp on top of the boxes. A door slammed downstairs. She put the garbage bags on either side of the boxes, pushing the bowl and skillet into the center so the bag would lean, then locked her door. She put her hands on her hips. It all looked the same, just emptier.

Emma tiptoed into the bedroom and touched Pauline’s foot. Pauline held out her arms. Emma picked her up, wrapped Pauline’s legs around her waist. She patted her back as she carried her into the living room.

“Hold on.” Pauline wrapped her arms around Emma’s neck while Emma bent to pick up Pauline’s backpack and toss it on the sofa.

Emma sat at the kitchen table, facing the door, rubbing Pauline’s back with both hands. It was quiet until rain started, hitting the windowsills and air conditioner like gravel.