The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 6, No. 3


by Susan Straight


They can’t shave their heads every day like they wish they could, so their tattoos show through stubble. Little black hairs like iron filings stuck on magnets. Big roundhead fool magnets.
          The Chicano fools have gang names on the sides of their skulls. The white fools have swastikas. The Vietnamese fools have writing I can’t read. And the black fools—if they’re too dark, they can’t have anything on their heads. Maybe on the lighter skin at their chest, or the inside of the arm.
          Where I sit for the morning shift at my window, I can see my nephew in his line, heading to the library. Square-head light-skinned fool like my brother. Little dragon on his skull. Nothing in his skull. Told me it was cause he could breathe fire if he had to. ALFONSO tattooed on his arm.
          “What, he too gotdamn stupid to remember his own name?” my godfather said when he saw it. “Gotta look down by his elbow every few minutes to check?”
          Two names on his collarbone: twins. Girls. EGYPT and MOROCCO. Seventeen and he’s got kids. He’s in here for eight years. Riding in the car when somebody did a drive-by. Backseat. Law say same as pulling the trigger.
          Ten o’clock. They line up for shift between classes and voc ed. Dark blue backs like fool dominoes. Shuffling boots. Fred and I stand in the doorway, hands on our belts, watching. From here, seeing all those heads with all those blue-green marks like bruises, looks like everybody got beat up big time. Reyes and Michaels and the other officers lead their lines past the central guard station, and when the wards get closer, you can see all the other tattoos. Names over their eyebrows, teardrops on their cheeks, words on their necks, letters on their fingers.
          One Chicano kid has PERDóNEME MI ABUELITA in fancy cursive on the back of his neck. Sorry my little grandma. I bet that makes her feel much better.
          When my nephew shuffles by, he grins and says softly, “Hey, Auntie Clarette.”
          I want to slap the dragon off the side of his stupid skull.
Fred says, “How’s your fine friend Tika? The one with green eyes?”
          I roll my brown eyes. “Contacts, okay?”
          I didn’t tell him I saw Tika last night, at Lincoln Elementary. “How can you work at the youth prison? All those young brothers incarcerated by the system?” That’s what Tika said to me at Back-to-School Night. “Doesn’t it hurt you to be there?”
          “Y’all went to college together, right?” Fred says.
          “Mmm-hmm.” Except she’s teaching African-American studies there now, and I married Ray. He quit football and started drywalling with his uncle.
          “Ray went with y’all, too, didn’t he? Played ball till he blew out his knee?”
          The wind’s been steady for three days now, hot fall blowing all the tumbleweeds across the empty fields out here, piling them up against the chain-link until it looks like hundreds of heads to me. Big-ass naturals from the seventies, when I squint and look toward the east. Two wards come around the building and I’m up. “Where you going?”
          The Chicano kid grins. “TB test.”
          He flashes it, and I see the nurse’s signature. The blister on his forearm looks like a quarter somebody slid under the skin. Whole place has TB so bad we gotta get tested every week. My forearm’s dotted with marks like I’m a junkie.
          I lift up my chin. I feel like a guy when I do it, but it’s easier than talking sometimes. I don’t want to open my mouth. “Go ahead,” Fred calls out to them.
          “Like you got up and looked.”
          Fred lifts his eyebrows at me. “Okay, Miss Thang.”
          It’s like a piece of hot link burning in my throat. “Shut the fuck up, Fred.” That’s what Michaels and Reyes always say to him. I hear it come out like that, and I close my eyes. When I get home now, and the kids start their homework, I have to stand at the sink and wash my hands and change my mouth. My spit, everything, I think. Not a prayer. More like when you cool down after you run. I watch the water on my knuckles and think: No TB, no cussing, no meds. Because a couple months after I started at Youth Authority, I would holler at the kids, “Take your meds.”
          Flintstones, Mama, Danae would say.
          Fred looks up at the security videos. “Tika still single, huh?”
          She has a gallery downtown, and she was at the school to show African art. She said to me, “Doesn’t it hurt your soul? How can you stand it?”
          I didn’t say anything at first. I was watching Ray Jr. talk to his teacher. He’s tall now, fourth grade, and he smells different to me when he wakes up in the morning.
          I told Tika, “I work seven to three. I’m home when the kids get off the bus. I have bennies.”
          She just looked at me.
          “Benefits.” I didn’t say the rest. Most of the time now Ray stays at his cousin Lafayette’s house. He hasn’t worked for a year. He and Lafayette say construction is way down, and when somebody is building, Mexican drywallers get all the business in Rio Seco.
          When I got this job, Ray got funny. He broke dishes, washing them. He wrecked clothes, washing them. He said, “That ain’t a man—that’s a man’s job.” He started staying out with Lafayette.
          Tika said, “Doesn’t it hurt you inside to see the young brothers?”
          For my New Year’s resolution I told myself: Silence is golden. At work, cause me talking just reminds them I’m a woman. With Ray and my mother and everyone else except my kids. I looked at Tika’s lipstick, and I shouted in my head: I make thirty-five grand a year! I’ve got bennies now! Ray never had health care, and Danae’s got asthma. I don’t get to worry about big stuff like you do, cause I’m worrying about big stuff like I do. Pay the bills, put gas in the van, buy groceries. Ray Jr. eats three boxes of Cheerios every week, okay?
          “Fred Harris works there. And J.C. and Marcus and Beverly.”
          Tika says, “Prison is the biggest growth industry in California. They’re determined to put everyone of color behind a wall.”
          Five days a week, I was thinking, I drive past the chain-link fence and past J.C. at the guard gate. Then Danae ran up to me with a book. They had a book sale at Back-to-School Night. Danae wanted an American Girl story. $4.95.
          Tika walked away. I went to the cash register. Five days a week, I park my van and walk into the walls. But they’re fences with barbed wire and us watching. Everything. Every face.
          “Nobody in the laundry?” I ask, and Fred shakes his head. Laundry is where they’ve been fighting this week. Black kid got his head busted open Friday in there, and we’re supposed to watch the screens. The bell rings, and we get up to stand in the courtyard for period change. We can hear them coming from the classrooms, doors slamming and all those boots thumping on the asphalt. The wind moving their stiff pants around their ankles, it’s so hard right now. I watch their heads. Every day it’s a scuffle out here, and we’re supposed to listen to who’s yelling, or worse, talking that quiet shit that sets it off.
          All the damn heads look the same to me, when I’m out here with my stick down by my side. Light ones like Alfonso and the Chicano kids and the Vietnamese, all golden brown. Dark little guys, some Filipino, even, and then the white kids, almost green they’re so pale. But all the tattoos like scabs. Numbers over their eyebrows and FUCK YOU inside their lips when they pull them down like clowns.
          The wind whips through them and they all squint but don’t move. My head is hurting at the temples, from the dust and wind and no sleep. Laundry. The wards stay in formation, stop and wait, boots shining like dark foreheads. I hear muttering and answers and shit-talking in the back, but nobody starts punching. Then the bell rings and they march off.
          “Youngblood. Stop the mouth,” Fred calls from behind me. He talks to the wards all the time. Old school. Luther Vandross-loving and hair fading back like the tide at the beach—only forty-two, but acts like he’s a grandpa from the South. “Son, if you’da thought about what you were doing last year, you wouldn’t be stepping past me this year.” They look at him like they want to spit in his face. “Son, sometimes what the old people say is the gospel truth, but you wasn’t in church to hear.” They would knock him in the head if they could. “Son, you’re only sixteen, but you’re gonna have to go across the street before you know it, you keep up that attitude.”
          Across the street is Chino. Men’s Correctional Facility. The wards laugh and sing back to Fred like they’re Snoop Doggy Dogg: “I’m on my way to Chino, I see no, reason to cry . . .”
          He says, “Lord knows Mr. Dogg ain’t gonna be there when you are.”
          The Chicano kids talk Spanish to Reyes, and he looks back at them like a statue wearing shades. The big guy, Michaels, used to play football with Ray. He has never looked into my face since I got here. My nephew knows who he is. He says, “Come on, Michaels, show a brotha love, Michaels. Lemme have a cigarette. You can’t do that for a brotha, man? Brothaman?”
          Alfonso thinks this is a big joke. A vacation. Training for life. His country club.
          I don’t say a damn thing when he winks at me. I watch them walk domino lines to class and to the kitchen and the laundry and the field. SLEEPY and SPOOKY and DRE DOG and SCOOBY and G DOG and MONSTER all tattooed on their arms and heads and necks. Like a damn kennel. Nazis with spiderwebs on their elbows, which is supposed to mean they killed somebody dark. Asians with spidery writing on their arms, and I don’t know what that means.
          “I’ma get mines, all I gotta say, Auntie Clarette,” my nephew always said when he was ten or eleven. “I ain’t workin all my life for some shitty car and a house. I’ma get mines now.”
          I can’t help it. Not supposed to look out for him, but when they change, when they’re in the cafeteria, I watch him. I don’t say anything to him. But I keep seeing my brother in his fool forehead, my brother and his girlfriend in their apartment, nothing but a couch and a TV. Always got something to drink, though, and plenty weed.
          Swear Alfonso might think he’s better off here. Three hots and a cot, the boys say.
          We watch the laundry screens, the classrooms, and I don’t say anything to Fred for a long time. I keep thinking about Danae’s reading tonight, takes twenty minutes, and then I can wash a load of jeans and pay the bills.
          “Chow time, baby,” Fred says, pushing it. Walking behind me when we line everybody up. They all mumbling, like a hundred little air conditioners, talking shit to each other. Alfonso’s lined up with his new homeys, lips moving steady as a cartoon. I know the words are brushing the back of the heads in line, the Chicano kids from the other side of Rio Seco, and I walk over with my stick. “Move,” I say, and the sweaty foreheads go shining past like windshields in a traffic jam.
          “Keep moving,” I say louder.
          Alfonso grins. My brother said, Take care my boy, Clarette. It’s on you.
          No, I want to holler back at him. You had seventeen years to take care of him. Why I gotta do your job? How am I supposed to make sure he don’t get killed? I feel all the feet pounding the asphalt around me and I stand in the shade next to Fred, tell him “Shut up” real soft, soft as Alfonso still talking yang in the line.
I have a buzzing in my head. Since I got up at five to do two loads of laundry and make a hot breakfast and get the kids ready for school. When I get home, I start folding the towels and see the bus stop at the corner. I wait for the kids to come busting in, but all the voices fade away down the street like little radios. Where are these kids? I go out on the porch and the sidewalk’s empty, and my throat fills up again like that spicy meat’s caught. Ray Jr. knows to meet Danae at her classroom. The teacher’s supposed to make sure they’re on the bus. Where the hell are they?
          I get back in the van and head toward the school, and on Palm Avenue I swear I see Danae standing outside the barbershop, waving at me when I’m stopped at the light.
          “Mama!” she calls, holding a cone from the Dairy Queen next door. “Mama!”
          The smell of aftershave coats my teeth. And Ray Jr.’s in the chair, his hair’s on the tile floor like rain clouds.
          My son. His head naked, a little nick on the back of his skull, when he sees me and ducks down. Where someone hit him with a rock last year in third grade. The barber rubs his palms over Ray Jr.’s skin and it shines.
          “Wax him up, man,” Ray says, and I move on him fast. His hair under my feet, too, I see now, lighter and straighter. Brown clouds. The ones with no rain.
          “How could you?” I try to whisper, but I can’t whisper. Not after all day of hollering, not stepping on all that hair.
          The barber, old guy I remember from football games, said, “Mmm-mmm-mmm.”
          “The look, baby. Everybody wants the look. You always working on Danae’s hair, and Ray-Ray’s was looking ragged.” Ray lifts both hands, fingers out, like he always does. Like it’s a damn sports movie and he’s the ref. Exaggerated. “Hey, I thought I was helping you out.”
          I heard the laughing in his mouth. “Like Mike, baby. Like Ice Cube. The look. He said some punks was messin with him at school.”
          I go outside and look at Ray Jr.’s head through the grimy glass. I can’t touch his skull. Naked. How did it get that naked means tough? Naked like when they were born. When I was laying there, his head laced with blood and wax.
          My head pounding when I put it against the glass, and I feel Danae’s sticky fingers on my elbow. “Mama, I got another book at school today. Sheep in a Jeep.”
          When we were done reading, she fell asleep. My head hurt like a tight swim cap. I went into Ray Jr.’s room and felt the slickness of the wax.
In the morning I’m so tired my hands are shaking when I comb Danae’s hair. “Pocahontas braids,” she says, and I feel my thumbs stiff when I twist the ties on the ends. I stare at my own forehead, all the new hair growing out, little explosions at my temples. Bald. Ray’s bald now. We do braids and curls or Bone Strait and half the day in the salon, and they don’t even comb theirs? Big boulder heads and dents all in the bone, and that’s supposed to look good?
          I gotta watch all these wards dressed in dark blue work outfits, baggy-ass pants, big old shirts, and then get home and all the kids in the neighborhood are wearing dark blue Dickies; Ray is wearing dark blue Dickies and a Big Dog shirt.
          Like my friend Saronn says, “They wear that, and I’m supposed to wear stretch pants and a sports bra and high heels? Give me a break.”
          Buzzing in my head. Grandmere said we all got the pressure, inherited. Says I can’t have salt or coffee, but she doesn’t have to eat lunch here or stay awake looking at screens. Get my braids done this weekend, feels like my scalp has stubbles and they’re turned inside poking my brain.
          Here sits Fred across from me, still combs his hair even though it looks like a black cap pushed way too far back on his head. He’s telling me I need to come out to the Old School club with him and J.C. and Beverly sometime. They play Cameo and the Bar-Kays. “Your Love Is Like the Holy Ghost.”
          “What you do for Veterans Day? Kids had the day off, right?” he says.
          “I worked an extra shift. My grandmere took the kids to the cemetery.” I drink my coffee. Metal like the pot. Not like my grandmere’s coffee, creole style with chicory. She took the kids to see her husband’s grave, in the military cemetery. She told Danae about World War II and all the men that died, and Danae came home crying about all the bodies under the ground where they’d walked.
          Six—they cry over everything. Everything is scary. I worked the extra shift to pay off my dishwasher. Four hundred dollars at Circuit City. Plus installation.
          I told Ray Jr., “Oh, yeah, you gonna load this thing. Knives go in like this. Plates like this.”
          He said, “Why you yelling, Mama? I see how to do it. I did it at Grandmere’s before. Ain’t no big thing. I like the way they get loaded in exactly the same every time. I just don’t let Daddy know.”
          He grinned. I wanted to cry.
“Used piano in the paper cost $500. Upright.”
          “What the hell is that?” Ray said on the phone. Hadn’t come by since the barber.
          I tried to think. “The kind against the wall, I guess. Baby grand is real high.”
          “For you?”
          “For Ray Jr. Fooled around on the piano at school, and now he wants to play like his grandpere did in Baton Rouge.”
          Ray’s voice got loud. “Uh-uh. You on your own there. Punks hear he play the piano, they gon kick his ass. Damn, Clarette.”
          I can get louder now, since YA. “Oh, yeah. He looks like Ice Cube, nobody’s gonna mess with him. All better, right? Damn you, Ray.”
          I slam the phone down so hard the back cracks. Cheap purple Target cordless. $15.99.
          Next day I open the classifieds on the desk across from Fred and start looking. Uprights. Finish my iron coffee. Then I hear one of the wards singing, “Three strikes you’re out, tell me what you gonna do?”
          Nate Dogg. That song. “Never Leave Me Alone.”
          This ward has a shaved black head like a bowling ball, a voice like church. “Tell my son all about me, tell him his daddy’s sorry . . .”
          Shows us his pass at the door. “Yeah, you sorry all right,” Fred says.
          The ward’s face changes all up. “Not really, man. Not really.”
          Mamere used to say, “Old days, the men go off to the army. Hard time, let me tell you. They go off to die, or they come back. But if they die, we get some money from the army. If they come back, they get a job on the base. Now them little boys, they go off to the prison just like the army. Like they have to. To be a man. They go off to die, or come back. But they ain’t got nothin. Nothin either way.”
          Wards in formation now. The wind is still pushing, school papers cartwheeling across the courtyard past the boots. I check Alfonso, in the back again, like every day, like a big damn Candyland game with Danae and it’s never over cause we keep picking the same damn cards over and over cause it’s only two of us playing.
          I breathe in all the dust from the fields. Hay fields all dry and turned when I drive past, the dirt skimming over my windshield. Two more hours today. Wards go back to class. Alfonso lifts his chin at me, and I stare him down. Fred humming something. What is it?
          “If this world were mine, I’d make you my queen . . .” Old Luther songs. “Shut up, Fred,” I tell him. I don’t know if he’s trying to rap or not. He keeps asking me about Ray.
          “All them braids look like a crown,” he says, smiling like a player.
          “A bun,” I say. He knows we have to wear our hair tight back for security. And Esther just did my braids Sunday. That’s gotta be why my temples ache now.
          “They went at it in the laundry room again Sunday,” Fred says, looking at the screens.
          I stare at the prison laundry, the huge washers and dryers like an old cemetery my grandmere took me to in Louisiana once, when I was a kid. All those dead people in white stone chambers, with white stone doors. I see the wards sorting laundry and talking, see J.C. in there with them.
          “Can’t keep them out of there,” I say, staring at their hands on the white T-shirts. “Cause everybody’s gotta have clean clothes.”
          At home I stand in front of my washer, dropping in Danae’s pink T-shirt, her Old Navy capris. One trip to Old Navy in spring, one in fall all I can afford. And her legs getting longer. Jeans and jeans. Sometimes they take so long to dry I just sit down on the floor in front of the dryer and read the paper, cause I’m too tired to go back out to the couch. If I sit down on something soft, I’ll fall asleep, and the jeans will be all wrinkled in the morning.
          Even the wards have pressed jeans.
          In the morning, my forehead feels like it’s full of hot sand. Gotta be the flu. I don’t have time for this shit. I do my hair first, before I wake up Danae and Ray Jr. I pull the braids back and it hurts, so I put a softer scrunchie around the bun.
          Seen a woman at Esther’s Sunday. She says, “You got all that pretty hair, why you scrape it back so sharp?”
          “Where I work.”
          “You cookin somewhere?”
          “Nope. Sittin. Lookin at fools.”
          She pinched up her eyes. “At the jail?”
          Then she pulls in her chin. “They got my son. Two years. He wasn’t even doin nothin. Wrong place, wrong time.”
          “YA wrong place, sure.”
          She get up and spit off Esther’s porch. “I come back later, Esther.”
          Esther says, “Don’t trip on Sisia. She always mad at somebody.”
          Shouldn’t be mad at me. “I didn’t got her son. I’m just tryin to make sure he comes home. Whenever.”
          Esther nodded and pulled those little hairs at my temple. I always touch that part when I’m at work. The body is thy temple. My temple. Where the blood pound when something goes wrong.
          The laundry’s like people landed from a tornado. Jean legs and shirt sleeves all tangled up on my bed.
          “You foldin?” I say. Ray Jr. pulling out his jeans and lay them in a pile like logs. Then he slaps them down with his big hand.
          “They my clothes.”
          “Don’t tell your daddy.”
          “I don’t tell him much.”
          His hair growing back on his skull. Not like iron filings. Like curly feathers. Still soft.
Next day Fred put his comb away and say, “Give a brotha some time.”
          “I gave him three years.”
          “That’s all Ray get? He goin through some changes, right?”
          “We have to eat. Kids got field trips and books to buy.”
          Three years. The laundry piled on my bed like a mound over a grave. On the side where Ray used to sleep. The homework. Now piano lessons.
          Fred says, “So you done?”
          “With Ray?” I look right at him. “Nope. I’m just done.”
          “Oh, come on, Clarette. You ain’t but thirty-five. You ain’t done.”
          “You ain’t Miss Cleo.”
          “You need to come out to the Comedy Club. No, now, I ain’t sayin with me. We could meet up there. Listen to some Earth, Wind and Fire. Elements of life, girl.”
          Water. They missed water. Elements of life: bottled water cause I don’t want the kids drinking tap. Water pouring out the washing machine. Water inside the new dishwasher—I can hear it sloshing around in there.
          I look out at the courtyard. Rogue tumbleweed, a small one, rolling across the black.
          “Know what, Clarette? You just need to get yours. I know I get mines. I have me some fun, after workin here all day. Have a drink, talk to some people, meet a fine lady. Like you.”
          “Shut up, Fred. Here they come.”
          Reyes leading in his line and I see two boys go down, start punching. I run into the courtyard with my stick out and can’t get to them, cause their crews are working now. The noise—it’s like the crows in the pecan grove by Grandmere’s, all the yelling, but not lifting up to the sky. All around me. I pull off shirts, Reyes next to me throwing kids out to Michaels and Fred. Shoving them back, and one shoves me hard in the side. I feel elbows and hands. Got to get to the kid down, and I push with my stick.
          Alfonso. His face bobbing over them like a puppet. “Get out of here!” I yell at him, and he’s grinning. I swear. I reach down and the Chicano kid is on top, black kid under him, and I see a boot. I pull the top kid and hear Reyes hollering next to me, voice deep as a car stereo in my ear.
          Circle’s opening now. Chicano kid is down, he’s thin, bony wrists green-laced with writing. The black kid is softer, neck shining, and he rolls over. But then he throws himself at the Chicano kid again, and I catch him with my boot. Both down. Reyes kicks the Chicano kid over onto his belly and holds him. I have to do the same thing. His lip split like a pomegranate. Oozing red. Some mother’s son. It’s hard not to feel the sting in my belly. Reyes’s boy yelling at me in Spanish. I kick him one more time, in the side.
          I bend down to turn mine over, get out my cuffs, and one braid pulls loose. Falls by my eyes. Bead silver like a raindrop. I see a dark hand reach for it, feel spit spray my forehead. Bitch. My hair pulled from my temple. My temple.
          My stick. Blood on my stick. Michaels and Reyes take the wards. I keep my face away from all the rest, and a bubble of air or blood or something throbs next to my eyebrow. Where my skin pulled from my skull, for a minute. Burning now, but I know it’s gon turn black like a scab, underneath my hair. I have to stand up. The sky turns black, then gray, like always. They’re all heading to lockdown. I make sure they all see me spit on the cement before I go back inside. Fred stands outside talking to the shift supervisor, Williams, and I know he’s coming in here in a minute, so I open the classifieds again and put my finger on Upright. Z

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