Back in the day there wasn’t a cigarette we wouldn’t smoke or a chicken skin we didn’t wrench from its bone. We put the television on blast because hearing Archie Bunker yell at Edith was better than the thumping from above and below. Heads got smacked into walls, babies were crying in every direction, and there go Luz smashing Bacardi bottles on the floor as her man made a run for the door. I mean, wouldn’t you want earmuffs? One time, the boys were roof jumping, trying to impress the girls with the slim hips. Girls who maybe got the bleed but compensated by slashing red on their lips. On the block, red lipstick meant you were a woman but one borough over it just meant you were Puerto Rican. Everyone was trying to be grown, even when they knew that right now–the gum they smacked and the loosies they smoked–was as good as it’ll ever get. Anyway.
So the boys were posturing, practicing their look at me when a girl jumped out of a window. Marlon was on the roof while Ricky was in midair and one of the girls screamed and Ricky lost his concentration, tumbled down, and wasn’t he lucky that the girl who jumped broke his fall. They covered the girl with a sheet because who knew when the ambulance would come. On the way to Maimonides, Ricky kept screaming in the back of the Chevelle that he couldn’t feel his legs. Are they there, man? Are they fucking there? Because I can’t feel them. Back on the stoop, mothers wrapped their daughter’s hair while they took sips from bottles in brown paper bags, talking about Marlon’s birthday at Sizzler. All the garlic bread you can eat. When word got back that Ricky was paralyzed from the waist down, the mothers held their grand pieta complete with head-shaking and teeth-sucking, and thank god he ain’t mine. One said: that’s one less casserole we have to make. That’s cold, said another. Nobody talked about the body gone blue in the alleyway because that’s how it was back then–trash got picked up faster than the bodies.
That was the summer they put bars on the windows and deadbolted roof doors. Nobody asked why a ten-year-old girl jumped out of a window but everyone understood why Ricky wheeled himself out to the street. Smack in front of an oncoming bus.
A woman falls asleep and wakes next to a man who’s killed more than a hundred women. Andy is a neurosurgeon who owns a tabby cat called Edith. For a time, Andy was a therapist who worked in a clinic that took patients on a sliding scale, when he met the woman who would become his wife. She walked into his office with a box of razor blades she ordered off the internet. I need you to take this, she said, handing Andy the box of blades. I need some distance from this. She wasn’t suicidal, he determined, she was more like one of those cry-for-help types, yet he found her gesticulations curious and her non-sequiturs endearing, albeit mildly tourretic. I have so much pain and I don’t know where to put it, she said. Do I put it in a box? If so, how big of a box? What are its dimensions? Do I take this box filled with my wants and my sadness to the beach? Should I ease it into the water and wait for the space between the box floating and the box being subsumed by the water? Do I mourn the box’s passing, the inevitable swallowing? To which Andy responded, fuck the box. Lay down your pain. Right here. The woman grew quiet and finally she said, do I get visitation rights? Can I come back for my pain once in a while?
Andy laughed, shook his head and said, you’re not a circus and this isn’t the zoo. Later that night, he drafted a paper on the structure and function of a psychopath’s brain. He wrote about the reduced structural integrity in the white matter fibers connecting the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. How the two disparate parts of the brain–the former controlling empathy and impulse control and the latter controlling fear–failed to communicate. It’s like two men on the range drawing their guns at dawn, only, in this case, no man is left standing. Sometimes, he thought about his parent’s boat, engulfed in flames, sailing in the distant horizon. Sometimes he remembered a book of matches of his hand, but mostly he thought about the fact that over the years he’s refined. He’s better at his work.
But he never tells his wife this because hers is possibly the one heart he can’t bear to break. His wife is clean, unlike the others. The others are gruesome, sullied, and deserving of the bleach that paled them down to bone.
There was a moment, though, when he thought about closing his hands around her neck. He even went as so far as to follow her home from one of their sessions. Andy watched her pause in front of her door. He watched her close her eyes and part her mouth and he could see that she attempted a scream but no sound came out. And as if nothing had happened, she then opened her eyes, slipped her key into the door, and made her way in. Andy witnessed her hurt, the whole of it, and realized his therapy failed to make a difference. He wondered, briefly, if her pain exceeded his. For weeks, he followed her home and saw her repeat the ritual. Home wasn’t safe, it wasn’t a refuge, rather it was a temporary container for her hurt. Once, he approached her door and leaned against it, hoping to hear her breathing from the other side.
Nights, he studied his brain scans and saw a small glimmer of a connection between polar states. It occurred only when he thought of her.
On their honeymoon, she tossed and turned at night. Her body was volcanic. Andy held her when she woke up screaming. She told him the story of a distant cousin jumping out of a window, her body left covered by a sheet for three days until the men came and took her away. In a span of a newscast from her home in Long Island, she learned that a part of her family died. Her aunt of a heroin overdose, her cousin who couldn’t bear child services and chose to jump instead. She remembered her mother snatching the remote out of her hand and changing the channel to All in the Family. Her mother said, that’s not our family. That’s not our kind. Years later, she would discover that her mother was her aunt, a woman who couldn’t bear children and relieved her sister of her burden instead. The woman on the television screen, the aunt who died of a heroin overdose and the mother she barely knew, was, in fact, her kind.
Andy asked why she never brought this up. Somber, his wife said, we fell in love and I had to find a new therapist. Remember?
Come morning, they learned that a woman in their hotel had been strangled in her room. The wife was scared, drew Andy closer. Should we leave? Andy shook his head, smoothed her hair like did his Edith and kissed the red lipstick off her mouth when he said, I’d never hurt you. I’d never let anyone hurt you.
Hers was the kind of grave you couldn’t wait to dance on. It’s callous to say that, I know, I know, respect the dead, but we so rarely get the opportunity to say what we really think. What would you say if your mother’s been dead for a decade and bill collectors are still calling you in hopes of reclaiming her debts? Why should I be responsible for her ransacking the Fingerhut catalog? No one told her to buy seven of those QVC toasters. When it comes to my mother, I don’t have Hallmark feelings. When it comes to my mother, I don’t feel anything at all.
Did you see that TV special about the rich doctor on death row? That man killed 200 women and he only got caught when his wife discovered his lockup with four of the bodies. You didn’t see it? The special about Doctor Death? This is why I hate hospitals.
Kitty Katherine Knox once said dead people are always so messy. Look at them, blood splashing around. They don’t even look like people anymore. Before the good doctor, Andy Knox was executed by lethal injection in the State of California, he looked at the faces belonging to the families of the victims and said, I like you. I’m going to come back for you and all you love. Mark my words. The morning of the execution his wife’s hand was shaking as she applied red lipstick.
Marlon was the miracle child, a stone that held its weight. Eve was set to have her tubes tied because what did she need with another girl in the family when she already birthed three of them? Children were a chorus of puckered mouths clamoring for the teat. Smacking their lips with that wet sound they make. The years had cradled her in sorrow. Kids she knew hopped off roofs and fell out of windows. The junk-sick lay, arms outstretched, their eyes and the tips of their fingers jaundiced. And although the police finally arrived three hours later from the time you called them, they still managed to toss lit matches into burning buildings. There they go covering the bodies with soiled sheets because they ran out of tarp. You could still see a row of toes, a patch of unblemished skin peeking out. Cancer and tumors emerged as the new breath-robbers because who could afford to go to the hospital and wait the night it took you to see a doctor who would only tell you that the swarm advanced, your body was a contagion of growths, and here are a few things left for you to consider. Have you thought about your final days? We thought about the dolls we used to have and how we hid coins, marbles and baby teeth in the trap doors that were their insides. Flip open our flap of fabric and there goes death multiplying. Did we think about our last days? Sure we did. Hand me my smokes, do my hair good, dress me in my Sunday best, and leave me out with the rest of the trash because no way can we scrape together the bills needed for a funeral. Slow-sing over the heap of us, will you? Sing me Nina Simone, as loud as you can.
People laughed during episodes of Good Times that played on televisions suspended from the ceiling, although we knew that times were far from good. Somewhere, in the distance a phone rang. The forecast called for thundersnow. A woman studied a piece of paper, a form she was supposed to complete. I can’t read. We have these forms in Spanish, the receptionist said with a kindness that made the woman who held her frayed purse close grip it tighter. The woman shook her head and stared at the floor. Come here, mamí, the receptionist said. Let me read it to you.
The night Marlon was born Eve threw her 8-tracks out the car window on the way to the hospital. Eve drove with one hand at the wheel, breaking lights. Her water broke twelve weeks early and she knew this couldn’t be good. Her body hurt like Riker’s, and Eve wondered if this what happened when you were a mother to a child making a prison break from the womb. In the emergency room Eve sprawled across two plastic chairs and pushed out a small mess of a child that weighed three pounds while the girls behind the desk were snapping their fingers to Rose Royce, and will you bitches get out here because there’s blood on the floor, blood everywhere, this black boy is fucking blue, and will someone call a doctor? Will someone cut the cord?
Marlon was a black boy gone blue, but he kept on breathing.
Image Credit: Mike Wilson