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.
Thursday, February 8, 2007
This short story was published in Product 9, Center for Writers, University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, 1993.