Nobody told Marlon that he would grow up hustling rock. He was thirty years old when he died, but he had the face of a boy fresh out of the crib leaping onto the playground. Kicking sand out of sandboxes and twisting the iron chains that held up tire swings. Yet underneath his skin you’d find scales webbing from his hands to the small of his back and cartons of cigarettes smoked down to the filter. Meaning, he came out of the womb all Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? even though he was far from the aging actress whose star had managed to darken an already black sky. You know how the story ends and how it wasn’t supposed to be what it was, but if you’re game and have the time lean in for a listen. Because nobody did suffering like Marlon—he reached for the dark far more than he stood in the sun.
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, but 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.
What kind of lie are you living, said Eve’s friend when she learned that Eve was pregnant again. There you go thinking that another kid will increase your monthly check. Eve was carrying a boy and the father was who knows because it was 1974 and there was a party every night, and Eve sang the Chi-Lites on volume ten to all the boys in the room even though she didn’t have a movie star voice. Instead, Eve had the kind of body you wanted to wind around bed sheets. Eve swore this was the last one and what she was going to do—kill the boy in her body? Girl, please. Pause your nonsense. Marlon wasn’t about a paycheck; he’s going to be good to his mama. He’s going to be the one man who stays.
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. Two months later Eve brought him home and the girls rubbed the sleep out of their eyes and wondered how five pounds of hostility could cause so much ruin. Behind his back, the girls called Marlon the leftover child because he was what remained when your mother got passed around one too many times. Even Eve knew that her child would be like all the other men in her life, a body that slept on top of sheets, never between them. One foot poised at the edge of the bed, ready to run. Six months in the womb, and already the boy was making a break for it—Eve had all the evidence she needed.
Notice how no one’s claiming him, said one daughter whose father came by once a month with Starburst and coloring books. Someone beat him hard with the ugly stick, the other two laughed while Marlon crawled around the linoleum. They kept the shades drawn; they lived a house where the light couldn’t get in. The girls sidestepped his groping hands while Eve worked the night shift. Rarely was he kissed. Rarely was he held.
Bitch, what did I tell you about touching me, said Marlon riding a girl called Lenny. He was thirteen and spent his days bussing to a magnet school in Park Slope and hitting up any girl who had grass on the field come evening. Marlon preferred girls who looked like “before” photos because they were grateful for the crumbs while the “afters” were throwing attitude in every direction. Marlon pushed Lenny off the bed to work on his exponents. Why did everyone need to get physical? You can at least help me with my homework, she grumbled pulling on her clothes. Peering over his shoulder, Marlon laughed. Are you wearing Care Bear underwear? Shit. You need to take your ass back to remedial because the only way you’re going to learn math is by lying on the bed issuing numbers to the homeboys outside the door. Now go on and get the fuck out of my house.
Marlon rode the bus to Bed Sty to hang with Eric, who was putting together the money to make a record. Marlon amused Eric because of the way he could do complicated math in his head. You threw numbers at the young brother and he gave you an answer on the exhale, and Eric thought some kid speed-balling multiplication tables in the chorus might make a rhyme worth repeating. Why Marlon wanted to mess around with the corner boys mystified Eric, but he never mentioned it and always slipped Marlon a twenty just for stopping by. Eric knew it took two trains and a bus for Marlon to stand on the corner shuffling his feet and eating Dipsy Doodles while all the base heads on the block lifted their shirts for a piece of the rock, thinking their skin was going to help the cause. You’re going to catch the fade, the boys hollered back, shielding their eyes with their hands because they all knew the story of Medusa and they didn’t want to turn to stone. One day Eric leaned in and said, I heard about your mom, and Marlon shrugged his shoulders because, so what, he hardly knew the woman. You don’t miss what you don’t have, even when the woman’s body whittled down to a mess of scraggly limbs and bone and flashing going out of business signs. You don’t love what you don’t know, even when the lesions told the story of a woman who’d been passed around one time too many. When Eve died no one rented the apartment she lived in, even after the super bleached the place and repainted the walls because no one wanted to live in the same place where a disease you couldn’t cure had festered and bred.
When Eve’s body was laid into a casket, Marlon ate stolen hog dogs in the park, crying his own quiet, miracle baby tears. That summer there was no shade, only sun, and it was gold and blinding. That summer Marlon slept naked on a bed stripped of sheets because even the fabric hurt. Cotton threatened his skin. Everyone was watching reruns of Good Times, talking about when times were good. Girls were discussing their tag names—Coco, Sugar, or Queen Lethal—because no one wanted to sit in their skin.
The year Eve died we found out our pastor got the sickness too and was on his knees praying for forgiveness. The Lord ain’t got time for that bullshit, said everyone on the block, passing around cups of Folgers from Ginny’s pot. Some cowboys from the Bronx shot Eric at point-blank range because everyone was having greed for dinner. Nobody made a record that year. The corner boys filed into Eric’s house for potato salad and pork cutlets, and Marlon was so tense he couldn’t speak except to whisper the times table in front of Eric’s high school graduation photo taped to his mom’s fridge.
Marlon was a black boy born blue, but he kept on breathing.
The black and white television cast the room in blue and Marlon leaned over the edge of the bed to where Felicia watched a late night movie about a man who killed a woman and got away with it, and said, I could be your daddy if you want me to. Felicia stared at the television screen, unblinking when she said, that’s not what I’m looking for. She was eight and he could tell she appreciated the sentiment. You’re a little young to be watching a movie about girls getting killed. Felicia shrugged her shoulders, smiled and pointed to the screen covered in snow. What’s on there is no different than what’s out there. They sat alone in the dark like a Hopper painting, and Marlon had to agree. You had to give it to the girl—she had a point. Marlon heard her mother spray the perfume that smelled like real flowers instead of the fake ones everyone had in their homes, and Felicia said in a small voice, how long are you going to stay, Marlon—longer than the rest? I don’t know, he said. Maybe I’ll hang a while.
Earlier that day: you remember my boy, Eric? Oh, you don’t? But you know your son, right? Little T? Here’s a picture I took of him—I like to think of this as the before because the after snap you don’t want to see. It’ll be one the coroner takes once they fish your boy out of the river. I wish you were there to watch Little T beg for his life, but don’t worry, I made you a tape and I’m going to play it for you twice. Marlon lived for the unexpected plot twist.
Marlon’s home became a revolving door of need. You’re crazy for selling crack where you rest at, said his boy Jamal. There was his eldest sister who was already burning a hole through the door after cashing her check. Maria was angling for a family discount, and if that didn’t work they could negotiate a friendlier rate. Put your clothes back on, Marlon said, shutting his eyes. Maria wrapped a blanket around her and cried playground tears at the kitchen table. They’re coming for me because my baby girl died in her sleep. I can hear them, she said, knocking on the wall. They’re in here, in the walls, listening. We have to be quiet; you have to give me a little taste so they go away. So I can to sleep. Remember mama and how she used to sing us to sleep? Marlon shrugged his shoulders because the only songs he remembered where the ones she sang on the other side of his wall, never in his room.
Marlon held his sister’s trembling hand over a bowl of spaghetti. Maria begged for darkness and unmolested sleep. Felicia turned nine and from the other room she said: just give her what she wants. Maria passed out on the couch. Marlon held his head in his hands while Felicia drew tears under Maria’s eyes with a ballpoint pen. In a year’s time, Felicia will lie in a morgue with a hangtag tied around her wrist and Maria will lie unconscious, a price tag swinging from her bedpost like a pendulum. But now, right now, Felicia was crying the tears she drew on Maria’s face. Sometimes your sadness scares me, Marlon said. Sometimes it scares me too.
Sad wasn’t a good enough word for what Felicia was—Marlon would sooner or later learn this.
Marlon didn’t like pools because they reminded him of oversized coffins. But he liked to swim so he took a pretty girl named Luz to Brighton Beach. Luz was the kind of girl you got when you were big enough to sell rock on consignment. What was she going to do in Brighton? There were no fun house mirrors, cyclones, and Nathan’s Famous—at Brighton Russian grandmas, overcharging for the air you breathed, surrounded you. Marlon and Luz split a knish when Marlon asked if she ever considered that a single haircut could ruin a whole doll’s life? When he was small his sister passed down a life-sized doll called Big Michelle whose eyes had fallen out. He carried Big Michelle everywhere until some B-boys hanging out behind the A&P knocked out his front teeth because boys don’t play with dolls and you should happy we’re teaching you a lesson. Marlon dragged Big Michelle along the pavement and when he got home he set fire to her hair and cut where the flames didn’t go.
When you’re small your mother tells you to be careful when you cross the street. Look both ways. But sometimes your mother isn’t there or she looks away when you cross or doesn’t say anything at all. Boys who broke out from the womb were bound to find their way, right?
You’re creeping me out, Luz said while perfecting her hair flip. Tell me about Felicia. I heard you were the one who found her body. I heard they found pieces of her skull in the alleyway. Marlon punched Luz in the middle of the street, and everyone looked the other way. When she got home she told everyone who would listen about what Marlon did, and then she called a brother in the Bronx and told him a story about a boy named Little T. A month later neighbors reported a smell and the police found Marlon in the bathtub with a knife in his head.
Marlon was a black boy born blue, and one day he stopped breathing. The police found a notebook he kept, and inside was a torn piece of paper and the words: you stayed longer than most. Know that you did the best you could do. –Felicia
*It’s been challenging to write in this space over the past month because I’ve become so absorbed in this story collection. Right now I’ve 140 pages of stories about women in and out of peril, tentatively titled, Women in Salt. The stories span decades, class and racial boundaries, and it’s been a joy to move in and out of voices. I’m living off meager savings, but I believe in this project so much that I’m commissioning custom illustrations and photography to take these pieces to another level–for you to feel something deeper about what’s written on the page. Right now I’m using images from Unsplash.com as place-holders but I’ve got exciting plans for this. I’ve published a complementary story, “Broke Land”, on Medium and There Was No Shade, Only Sun. And while most might think this endeavor to be silly or not financially sound (because story collection), I’m enjoying this. I’m enjoying this regardless if people read it, regardless if it’s published in book form. I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I love writing them. If you love this, why not share it with someone else? –FS