"I had heard stories about the human body and the human mind, the conditions it can adapt to, the ways it chooses to survive."
-Jeanette Winterson, The Passion*
Morning is here, too early again. I think I feel Night's wet nose. Night, come rest, lay down here, beside. I tell myself, Fatima, no. I tell myself, Fatima, lay back down. At least be that reasonable. Even my breath takes shape. I imagine it a hissing blue. It fills my ears. The radiator and floor grates are a tangle of sound. Next to the radiator sits the straight-backed chair, both of these are up under the window. The window is full of light. There's probably mud in the chair. I'm sure I dirtied the seat on my way in. I should get up and clean it. Moping around ain't never paid no rent. I shake my head, manage to lay here. But I want to keep my eyes. Closed. At least, Night deserves that much. A couple minutes more, minutes can be hours, and hours days. Maybe I will hear him pacing. His nails clicking as he lopes across the floor, a demand that I rise again. To fill his bowl, to open the back and screen doors so he can go out. The frigerator's empty, I shoulda brought myself a plate home from work, but I've got his food. A brand new bag. I can always eat later, but I can't remember how to pray. Grandma's wise old hands, soft and worn like her Bible. Where is it? Not underneath my pallet. Grandma's Bible that she took with her every Sunday when she carried us to church. I reached for one thing and grabbed another. Another. Something cold and final, not mild-mannered like Grandma. Church ain't never done me no good but I always went to please her. Church is all show. That I can get everyday. From Buster. From that boy one floor up in 2D whose wife run off and left him with them four bad-assed kids. And all this without having to get dressed up and put on airs for folks who don't know me-who don't know me, not like that. Night knows. Woulda knowed how to bring me back to my senses. Sooner. Drifting back into darkness.
This pallet is too small. My breath is too, too blue. I need to get up and turn on the oven. I tell myself, Fatima, get on up from here now. But my head, my back, my legs all hurt. No sharp pains. Just too many dull aches that aspirin is useless to fix, for all it tries, can't fix. Pain makes you sweat in your sleep. There are lots of pains, so many different kinds of pain, a new one to fill every livelong day. I will wash my sheets today. No, I won't. That would mean money. Quarters. More money that I don't have. My bus pass expired yesterday. Today is Tuesday. Payday is Friday. I gotta get to work. Out in the parking lot, some asshole. Laying on the horn. It's too early, hardscrabble people, like me, who work late, are still sleep. Have to be there by ten to prep the food. Snow peas, sweet onions, green peppers, ginger. De-vein a bushel of shrimp. Make the velvet chicken. Cleave and chop, add extra sugar and red pepper sauce. Double the amount of chicken stock to make enough extra. This is how Chinese take-out works round these parts. At least where I stay. But for how long. A week past the three-day notice. The yellow tape in a long stretch across the doorframe. The metal lock box around the knob. It's not that life has kicked me in the teeth, it's just that I keep finding my teeth on the floor.
All of a moment you become aware of such things, when you've jimmied the catch and you're climbing through your own back window. When you've scraped up your elbow to raw tatters, have soiled and scuffed the only decent pair of boots with tread you own. Nobody, working hard as I do, wants to admit that you can't afford three tight rooms. Kitchen, bedroom, bath. It takes three steps to inspect everything I call my own, less than three steps. I'm plum tuckered out. I need to talk to Grandma, to hear her voice ring a rainbow. To tell somebody who might've care, to speak about what's come of Lourdes. How I tried to help her, how I failed. My sister. Grandma should've told me that when working folks have grace it makes their strength invisible. Grandma should have told me how truly hard it is to be strong. I'm beyond tired. I want to go back home to Virginia, but Grandma's dead. No more bell voice and headscarf. There's nothing left, no patchwork quilt. Not even the house. Somebody bought it out from under us for taxes. Lourdes grabbed up and pawned the rest. Grandpa up and died. Stroke. Grandma up and died. Shot herself. Even the strong can only stand so much. The certified letter, the burial. I don't have time for nonsense this morning. I'll have to pick through dirty clothes for the least soiled. Iron them clean. I tell myself, Fatima, get up, get dressed, go to work. Because always, there's bills to pay.
Waking here, I am still. I am still waking here. Light bill, gas, groceries. X the light bill. I can turn that back on by myself, the way that boy from 2D showed me. He ain't nothing but a boy. His woman was smart to get when she did. Fatima, I says, you should be so smart. I says to myself, Fatima, you should turn the lights back on now while everybody's still sleep. If it coulda been two weeks later maybe I woulda had a little piece of money to give him. Two weeks maybe, the end of the month. But rent's due, past due. He had no right. None, I say. Barging over here high. Buster, high. Wanting money he know I don't have. Must think I still braid heads. I ain't braided nobody in over a year. My legs, my back. Shit. Braid somebody even though I can't stand the pain, I might have to. I need the money. Money I wouldn't even have given to him. This time I woulda. No doubt. I woulda.
I can not think about it. I haven't lost everything, only what made my burden nigh bearable. I tell myself, Fatima, don't think 'bout it. But Buster's the one. The one who should be giving me money now. Blood money.
The night was bitter, the tuneless early dark ever so cold, but I thought of Night, how he'd be waiting for me, patient like. Glad I made it home, scraps from work or no. So I got on off the bus at the corner market, went bought him a bag of food. Came out, had some loose change left in my palm. All I remember is how odd the light. The sky was pregnant with a moon pale and full and heavy, carrying it low and big near'bout like….
Light flowed across everything, the way wind does across water. The streetlamps a bent row of lonely women what ain't got a honey to dance with. The concrete walk stained with salt, the way Buster's drool usedta look on my pillow. I ought nought to've called. I knew better. But the phone was right damn there. Nobody on it for once. I had only wanted to call and see how he was getting along. I don't know why the missing him took holt of me right then. There are those nights, seemingly no different from any other and then you do foolish things like call folks you shouldn't. For whatever reason, you want what you shouldn't oughta. It was like that. I had the quarter. I picked up the phone. I dropped in the coin. I dialed his number. A few feet away headlights and wheels rushed over and through the slush. The roar of each passing car made it right difficult to hear. The bag of food rested heavy against my leg. Numb. I was so cold even my face hurt. Shuffling back and forth and breathing hard to beat back the chills. But I called him. As contrary as I can be, yes, I'm quite shame to admit I did. Never mind all that. I did not ask him to come here with all his nonsense. I did not ask him. To make me prove just how bad I want to live.
Somebody was walking hard. That's what I remember most. The echoing steps not passing by but, instead, coming directly to my door, not continuing straight on up the stairs as they shoulda. All hours that boy got them high school girls coming and going. No wonder them kids of hisn so bad. Night was sitting up. His head jutting forward, his ears perked, him staring at the door like he was able to hear with his eyes. Night growled low. He let a long, crazed bark. Three loud raps and I knew something terrible would come to pass. I kept still. Night started pacing with his tail wagging high. It was Buster. I don't know how he had known that I'd called. No one ever picked up. Maybe just thinking about the past can summon it like the po-lice your door. It's possible. I asked myself, Fatima, you gonna say something or not.
"Buster. Go round back." He pounded again. I sat still and waited…"Go on round back, I said." His hard walking stretched away. Night was breathing quick and anxious. His nails clicking the way they do. What I thought then was how my stomach pooched. It didn't usedta. What it would look like to Buster, how it would feel to him. I stood up and tugged on the hem of my shirt, rolled edges down over my hips. My white T-shirt and panties were glowing like the moon.
"Come heah, boy. No. Right heah. Keep still now." I took Night's leash from the nail on the back door and clipped the ring to the hook on his collar as he pranced. With my right hand, I turned the deadbolt, unlocked the door, keeping the chain in place-I tried to remember if I had any leak stains in my drawers the last time I peed. I could slip them off without Buster seeing. The draft rushed from beneath. I looked over my shoulder. The clanking radiator, the dirty straight-backed chair, the window that had torn up my elbow. I knew my legs were ashy. Buster banged three times. I smoothed back my wild hair. I opened the door real slow. I felt the eager length of Night's fur brush past. He squeezed through and darted out and away.
"Night! Come heah, boy. And what you want?"
"To see you."
"Here I am."
Buster stepped forward. I shut the door closed part way. "Night, right heah. Come." He was searching beneath the small stairs. I could see his tail as he ran zigzag, one side to the next, to find his old tennis ball. I could see Buster from where I stood in front of the opening. His tube socks slouched down into a pair of unlaced dress shoes. But it was mainly his eyes. I noticed. I knew right away by the too certain set of his brow that he was high. "I'll get him" is what he said. I watched him move, all gangly arms and legs. And as he his long thin self negotiated the steps, Night brought him the ball, dropped it at his feet and started backing back in scoots and turning in circles, waiting for him to throw. He called Night close and eased down. He picked up the leash. He walked back up the stairs, Night leading the way.
"You gonna let me in."
"You know I ain't."
"Got any money," he sniffed and looked down as Night wandered to and fro.
"Now you know I don't. Night, come." He sat between us and his tail beat in a steady rhythm against the railing.
"How 'bout I come in."
"Ain't no need."
"Just to talk."
"Ain't no need. Night, come on, boy."
"I'll take him for a walk." The leash in hand was loose 'round his thumb. He started off and away.
"I'm just taking him for a walk" is what he said. I stepped outside and moved to the edge of the steps. I hugged my arms 'cross my chest and shifted. Barefoot to barefoot. "Buster, I want my dog. Bring him back. Heah." I could hear the weepiness rising in my voice. How, tell me how, to rip out that soft handful of yearning out my gut that feels like a willow switch cutting into flesh. What makes me this way? So weak. He moved on down the alley past the big dumpster, kept going past the rusted Bonneville up on blocks. "Gimme my damn dog!" I spat. My breath froze in a burst of blue. He stopped where he stood. The wind blew cold. Night stopped.
"Cain't I talk to my lady."
"I ain't your lady no more."
A low voice said, "Course you is." I knew. He knew.
I told myself, Fatima, hush now. I told myself, Fatima, shut the door. I was all wrought up with the full cry that was about to crack my throat. I went over and sat down on the pallet. The muslin curtains, the radiator, the mirror, the moon. I closed my eyes and began to rock back and forth to ease my mind. The heavy walking returned. He gave the door three solid pounds with his fists so certain that I would allow him back. Again there was Night's restless movement back and forth. "You know you wanna let me in." A silence bigger than everything held me as I rocked back and forth, back forth. Then a perfect calm.
Remembering can fill those empty colorless spaces better than old lust. Reach me that, Grandma's Bible, is what I wanted to say, but to who? There was nobody left to do for me, no one I could do for. I hitched up the futon for one thing found another. Another. Grandma dead, Grandpa dead. Buster had turned his head to look at me, but he never stopped firing the pipe for Lourdes. "Leave us be," is all he said. I envied her that. She sat in a dreamy-eyed pose, leaning forward in the straight-backed chair. One hand reaching back holding on to the seat, one hand cupped around the flame. Later, when it was convenient, Lourdes cussed me, told me to get some business of my own. It was my man and my house. Some thangs you cain't forget. And not being able to is a whirlwind that can blow the spark in your belly, stoke it into flame. It can bolster you so you're able to do what you never would have even considered possible.
His hard walking moved away and down the steps. There was no question I would've.
Let him back in.
Unimaginable, unchangeable, unavoidable.
I heard a bottle smash against, I don't know, a wall or the street. I stood up-heavy of hand, heavy of mind-and walked to the door, moved the smelly mop that had fallen back out the way. With my left hand, I turned the dead bolt, unlocked the door, and finally, shaking, undid the chain. A draft of cold wind rushed beneath the door before I opened it. I walked toward the rail, my left hand sliding across the icy metal as I went down the steps. Sure steps moved my feet steadily over the biting rocks and pebbles in the alley. The moon was pale and my breath drew quick and sharp knives of air to my lungs. "Buster!" I yelled. He stopped and turned around. He looked around, then started to walk back. Dark shadowed places exist everywhere.
Places where you can not see.
The wind blew and the trash stirred in beautiful gusts of darting light.
Places you're too afraid to look.
Night sniffing, all the time sniffing. Me walking toward him. Buster stared and sniffed, drawing the back of his hand slow cross his nose, the leash still in hand. "Fatima," he said, "why you gotta be so contrary." That too certain set of his brow let me know.
"Gimme my dog."
"What you think you gonna do with that, girl."
No use bothering with words, they oft times lie.
"You give me back my dog."
"Not till you let me come. Inside."
I knew, he knew.
Great hope is more ruinous than mouthing some halfhearted hymn.
God damn. Fatima, I told myself, If someone gotta gun to your head and ask you if you want to live, you tell them yes-every time.
I raised my right arm. Leveled. Heard the high-pitched wail muffle, I clutched it to my chest. Watched his legs buckle and criss-cross, I clasped the image to my mind.
Night, come rest, lay down here, beside.