by Leia Menlove
Bouncing in the bucket seat. The wind is up, and it’s a boiler day so it’s the abrasive kind, a wind with milk teeth that catch and tear. It whips Fredza’s hair up, now down, forcing it into its own mad spring dance inside the car. But she doesn’t care anymore. It’s wet now anyway, her hair. Let the wind do its thing. Let it. A tooth clicks in its socket.
A bee could get in. She remembers having this thought just hours go, could it be hours, as she toed up the wedge of grass bordering Belle Isle’s blacktop parking lot, arm in arm with Jim. He had left the windows of the Ford Galaxie wide open beyond so that the car could simmer open-eyed in the day. The picnic basket stocked by Fredza’s mother was rocking easily beneath his forearm.
“Won’t the bees get in?” she had said when he picked her up. And he had said something like: “The bees follow the sweet girl, not my car,” and she had laughed and tried not to roll her eyes. But his compliment hadn’t made her feel any better about the possibility of bee incursion, and while he drove out of the small neighborhood, she sat with her hands pressed tightly in her lap and tried to think how to ask him to wind up the windows before they got to the main road, where the wind and the incipient bees would certainly maul her hair.
It wasn’t an old car like her brothers’ cars, she had thought as they walked toward the path together, it was new. It had a radio in it, even, and she turned, making him pause on the grassy strip one last time to see it shimmering on the concrete, and then she turned away, mindful of her wobbling espadrilles on the pliant grass. He led her up to the path and off they went as if they were old friends, as though this wasn’t a first date but a fourth or fifth. The island was infested with people: couples standing hand in hand, flummoxed and happy, children scattering gravel as they streamed by, boys and their fathers bristling with fishing tackle, the calls of friends, that attentive, fastidious wind sifting through the trees, blowing her skirt flat and filling it up again. A day for a picnic.
Jim had a scholar’s soft hands. What a scholar’s hands should be. He wore chinos and the polo shirt with the collar that all the wealthy boys from Grosse Pointe wore. She was conscious of her own cheap handbag. But not the clothes. Mama had made the clothes. And she knew she was not only pretty but astonishingly pretty, even with the skinniness. But he wouldn’t be able to see that. She had worn the A-line skirt to make her look fuller, and the poet’s top to hide her spidery arms, and the thick black belt to show the waspish middle that her brother Mitchell could wrap his hands around until his fingers touched. Glisda. Mama’s endearment. Worms. Your legs thin as worms hanging from your skirt.
She had succeeded in getting him to close the windows before the highway. But there, right at the top of the hill leading toward a massive marble lighthouse, as the Detroit River flashed into view with the boats and ships and the sudden hoot of a calliope, the wind had taken her hair for its own after all, took it right up like a flag, shaking out the hairspray, ruining Mama’s hard work. And so. Mama had warned her. She had squinted into the light and tried to forget the hair, and they had gone down around the picnic area and past the sporting fields and off into a quiet space that was his secret, his sacred secret, he said.
“No one knows you can go here,” he said as they walked.
“Will we rent a canoe?” she had asked.
“Ha! No one rents a canoe, we’re not one of these schmoes. I’ll take you out on my boat next week.”
And so. It had been a good day for a picnic, and now it was over.
Belle Isle and a ripped dress, wine all down the front. What a day. Jim Nettle drove off Belle Isle and took care with his steering. There were families with children everywhere. One little boy charged directly into the road, screaming as if into a surf, and Jim had to hit the brakes. He honked his horn at the stupid, small face that stood looking at him in stunned surprise, as if he didn’t know cars ran on roads. The day was still warming and a ferry was hooting up the American side of the river, a frenetic cartoon command his pulse obeyed. He could hear the sound of the calliope on the Detroit riverboat, where he had meant to take her this afternoon. He thought he could hear it, anyway, now and then, but he couldn’t be sure, because she wouldn’t stop crying. His feelings were hurt. He had professed his love, he had told her that since the moment he had seen her, at the bank, her neck, her shoulders, that he had only wanted … well. Now she cried like a shrunken, hungry baby.
“Can’t you play with the radio?”
The car bucked over a speed bump, and she clutched the door handle. She made no move to play with the radio. Instead she looked out where the families and their cars and children made a patterned panorama. It might as well have been one child repeated over and over, like images on a movie reel, children toddling in the grass and toddling among the cars and toddling to their parents waiting in their Sunday clothes. All watery shades.
The sky ahead, in the direction of Detroit, had taken on the blue of a comic book sky, but in his rearview mirror, toward the center of the river, the smokestacks and high-rises of the Canadian side rose up like pointing fingers against a paler hue. He pressed the gas because it was getting late and she was getting on his nerves.
When he reached for the radio dial he saw her flinch.
“Don’t be like that. What do you want to hear?” Only static drifted out. He cranked the dial until he found Dinah Washington, and he let it sit there. Girlish love songs, soda fountain fizz, let her listen to that. After a while it made him anxious, the words came too slowly, there was so much maudlin filler, and he reached for the dial again. “You like Motown or what?” he said. He wanted her to have music. Early in the day she had said that she loved music, and here he was with a radio in the car, a radio installed last week, and she wasn’t listening.
He noticed a sticky line that ran down her near leg, over the knee and down to the ankle, a line that might have been the twisted seam of a nylon. He turned off of Forest and onto Fitch, where there were more children, these darker, but just a variation on the day’s endless spool of flushed, dumb faces. They were shrieking in the white corona of an opened fire hydrant. People had set up lawn chairs on the lawns and porches and were watching the commotion. They would watch anything if they could get it free. The girl looked at out at them with such big, sad eyes he nearly stopped, dumped her off with people nearly as bad as her own, or maybe worse, though at least the Negroes knew their place. As he slowed, he feared she really would climb out and run if he threatened her that way.
“Look,” he said. “Don’t cry. I want you to stop crying.”
When they were well past the hydrant, he pulled over next to a tarred-up telephone pole so that she couldn’t open the door and run, and turned to look at her. Now the Everly Brothers came on and he wanted her to enjoy it. It made him feel the old hopelessness that she was missing this moment, willfully missing it. But now he saw she was even wetter down the front than he had understood, and that she was trying to stretch the material toward her knees.
He sighed and put the car in gear again, and as he did so, something in the backseat thumped. He looked. An apple had escaped from the picnic basket that he had flung in back in all the hurry. Beside it was the grass-stained cotton blanket. She had been carrying it when they came back down to the car, which was why he hadn’t noticed the state of her dress. She didn’t look so good now. But it was always like that. A girl put on all this fuss, the dress, the eyelashes, the stuff, and you couldn’t tell until you got some of it washed off, saw what was underneath the preening. But she didn’t look ugly, exactly. She just looked young, empty, and when her eyes skipped past him to the passing street signs he saw a hardening there, a manufactured blankness.
“Do you want to fall out? You will, leaning on the door like that. It happens all the time, I heard. People on the freeway leaning on the door and then the door opens, maybe it wasn’t shut properly, they go falling out all over the road. Blammo. End of story, you understand? Not that this is a highway, I didn’t take the highway because I know you don’t like it, but you still wouldn’t want to fall out here. You could get scraped up and I wouldn’t be able to save you.”
She didn’t respond, merely leaned into the far door as if she wanted to make him jealous of it. Well let her have the door. Let her fall out and smash her bony knees to sauce. He twisted the radio loud, and just as they passed another church, so many Catholic churches around here, he felt something pop in his neck and he reached over and grabbed her by her arm, such a skinny arm, it made his chest ache, and yanked her toward him until he smelled her sweat, then shoved her again, and then again yanked her to him, and pushed her again, so that at last she stayed squarely in her seat.
“There. Sit how you’re supposed to. Haven’t you ever been in a damn car? You people don’t have cars?”
“I got to go home,” she said, but it came out thick, like she had caramel in her teeth.
“You’ve already said that,” he said. “You don’t have to repeat what you say. Do I look deaf to you? No. I don’t. And I’m taking you. I said I’m taking you. Answer me.
You people don’t have cars?”
She was thinking of her bathroom. How much she wanted to get into the four-footed tub. There was one bathroom in the house where she lived with her father, mother, and two grown brothers, and she was always trying to make it look better with embroidered towels and doilies. There was no tile on the walls, only the paint—a shabby cream over a narrow wainscoting, and pale green below, as if the room had once been deluged by the sea and left to mold. There was the toilet near the door and next to it the white porcelain sink with U-shaped pipes showing beneath. Above it was a white wooden medicine cabinet with stores of liniment, salves, aspirin, mineral oil, Rem’s cough syrup.
On the lip of the tub was an ancient metal soap holder with a bar of Fels-Naptha. On a shelf near the sink and overlapping the wall above the tub, Tata kept his shaving mug,
brush, and straight razor. Below the shelf on hooks hung the leather shaving straps that he used to sharpen the blades.
In the house the radio was always on, and he would keep the door open while he shaved so that he could hear it. When she was very young, Fredza would sometimes watch him shave, although she found it hard to watch the razor skimming skin and hear the raspy sound it made. She would see Tata right now, standing at the sink in his sleeveless undershirt with his green suspenders shrugged off his shoulders and hanging in loops from his waist and over his heavy corduroy pants. One of his Chihuahuas—always Chihuahuas—would be skittering around his feet, its stubbed tail mostly healed. He always chopped them himself in the shed. She suddenly wondered whether he used one of his razors. He wouldn’t, would he? She thought of the feel of one of those razors in the hand. He wouldn’t be home now. On weekends he was busy in the City, where he was a sewer inspector.
“My Tata has a car,” she said suddenly.
Jim reached over for her chin, but she tilted it away. She brought her hands up to protect her face before realizing that instead of fists they were limp, the backs of them pressed against her and the fingers splayed out. She would be a worm. A worm in the earth.
“Use English,” he said, taking his hand back. “You keep talking in that stuff. You know you’ve got to quit that? No one’s going to want you if you don’t.”
She crossed her limp hands in front of her chest and expelled a long breath. She was physically tired from being afraid, her neck sore with the effort of fear. Perhaps there was only so much you could fear before you went blank. She might believe this, she reflected, because of how people survived wars. Look what the war was doing to her brothers. And anyway, what could Jim do now they had crossed into her neighborhood? She looked at him and tested her broken tooth. It was salty on her tongue, oddly fresh. There was a flake of skin in his ear. She felt his terrible simplicity, held onto the thought with hope: that he was simply bad. He was older than her but younger than either of her brothers. Thinking of Walter and Mitchell, she wanted to fly across the car and tear his ears off, like they would want her to do.
“I am American,” she said. “I’m as American as you are. I was born here.”
“Then use English. I can’t understand.”
At last he turned onto her street. The day was getting old. He hated this part of the day, when sunlight tired and the shadows sagged over the dry lawns. It was depressing to him, it made him feel how alone he was, really, and it was a good time to go somewhere and nap until the sunset when there was at least a new evening ahead. He’d smoke his cigarettes with Pop and they’d talk numbers, listen to the game. He felt her looking at him.
The skin of her near cheek was swelled, and beside her mouth it was also swollen so that she looked like she was storing something for the winter. No, she looked very young. He shouldn’t have made her do it. He felt the anguish of his future, saw how much he would have to do to make this right, and he found himself telling her how sorry he was. He drove slower and slower to draw out the moments before she would get out and leave him, and he explained and apologized and even got tears in his eyes, and he meant it, those tears. As he spoke she took a scarf from her handbag and wrapped it about her head, hiding the bruising by forming a neat hood.
When they arrived at her address he looked out at the postage-stamp lawn sliced in two by a narrow concrete walkway, the chain link fence before it. The house was tall, three stories, windows dark, and it looked empty but for a light in the kitchen. Through the window he could see a birdcage and a bird. She had told him about her bird. He was amazed that poor people had pets, that they would waste the money on feeding the things, buying them in the first place.
When she fumbled with the door, and rose out of it, he got out too, and as he went to brush his hair back he found his knuckles were caked in blood.
He walked her to the door. She wouldn’t let him touch her. He wanted to say more, realizing what he had done, what he had ruined for himself. One of her beautiful espadrilles had gone. He remembered where it was and ran back to the car and fetched it and ran back to her, bringing the basket and blanket as well. She had not moved far, and was bent over holding her tiny middle. Her hair had drifted out of the headscarf on one side, a crooked mass of black. An old man on the porch next door waved, said something in another language, and then stood, peering through the gathering darkness.
Jim looked away.
“I love you,” he whispered.
The shade of the porch absorbed her, already drawing her away from him, and then the squeak of the door and her Mama, there was that Mama, that cliché, she might have had four legs and a snout, and she reached out and pulled his girl away from him and into the pungent shadows. The house, smelling of dog, smelling of sauerkraut, of washing powder.
“We … had an accident,” said Jim. He thought he could still see Mama behind the screen, looking out. He felt an immense pressure, and he wondered if he should fall at her thick feet and beg her to understand, but it was just vibrating cicadas, loud that year, rising in their finale.
Published on September 27, 2016