“It’s a four-letter word, when it’s heard, it controls your body to dance—you got it—soul.” —Rakim
Beau Bill was hella frightened of this thing called death. He had heard about it when the grown folks got together to gossip. He caught soundbites and tidbits on “What had happened was . . .” and eavesdropped on “Who got the body?” He listened at them fuss over the particulars of “Who gon’ pay what?”; “Why they ain’t had no insurance?”; “Who’s making the potato salad?” This time, he overheard somebody whisper, “Who gon’ take care of that man’s wife and all those damn chi’rren?” Beau Bill had no idea what a chirren was, nor did it pique his interest. It was all the crying for him. The high-pitched wails caught him off guard. The outbursts were loud and sporadic and had startled him. That they were somewhat distant and pithy, though, made them not too much of a pain in his itty-bitty ass. It was the low, droning cries that concerned him more than anything. They occurred late in the middle of the night when the phone stopped ringing, when all the condoling, all the “How are you holding up?” and all the “God got you covered, Sis” ceased. That’s when the cries began as sniffles. They did not deprive him of much until they escalated into coughs that gagged Tunechi, and tightened the murky space that surrounded his soul-self and left him and his young mama-to-be equally dehydrated.
Nope. Beau Bill did not take death well at all. Not the feel of it, not the sound of it, and certainly not what he almost seent of it while he was wombed. It seemed like many moons ago, at twelve weeks gestation, when Tunechi petted him in her belly as she exited that train, the one that traveled alongside East Ponce De Leon Ave. His mama had nearly walked the whole length of the platform, dragging her feet slower than the morning rush that trumped her own before she decided, “I can’t do this.”
Her dear sister Pie, who committed to being an early morning escort and whose words Beau Bill couldn’t make out as clearly, rolled her eyes, sucked her teeth at his mother’s abrupt change of mind.
“Why, Tune?” Pie asked.
“I just can’t.”
“Tunech, that nigga been dead a whole three months, and he ain’t coming back,” Pie reasoned, and brushed the back of her hand gently across her baby sister’s face. “He cain’t contribute to you or that baby’s well-being. He cain’t even think about it, Sweetie.”
“This my baby,” Beau Bill heard Tunechi say. “This my son, and maybe this feeling is proof—proof he’s supposed to be here.”
Pie shook her head. Beau Bill felt his mama turn on her heels. She did an about-face and brushed past Pie before any further debate could ensue. She walked back down the platform and backtracked her journey home, leaving her early-morning pursuit behind. Beau Bill breaststroked and back-stroked and sent ripples through his young mother’s tummy, making her queasy.
The second time Beau Bill had come face to face with death, it was in the dawn hour when those who were closest to it took up dying without a fight. Tunechi had thought about all the things she did not want to be: the babymama of a dead man’s child was one of them. She stepped off the train and onto the familiar platform with haste. Her agility outdid the fatigue that wore across her face and hung out beneath her eyes. Neither the meatiness of her flanks nor the edema that troubled her ankles slowed her pace. Her widened hips sailed past advertisements that clung to the subway walls, by the sleeping heads of men who transformed cardboard and concrete into suitable beds. She circumvented the pissy puddles in her pathway. She sprinted up the escalator with such grace that Beau Bill felt she had levitated from the mezzanine to the station’s upper landing. He got the sense that something was urgent on the outside from the way he teetered on the inside. He had not felt the calm of Tunechi’s palms gliding across her belly that morning and thought perhaps it was just a random rush, the pace her foot traveled, some other urgency. Whatever it was, Tunechi arrived at her destination expeditiously. The building was five city blocks from the station and sat on Front Street which made it easy for random folk to know a woman’s business. It’s pewter awning was centered over the doorway and read Choices in white cursive. It was two-storied and bricked, windowless and flanked by Baptists, Catholics, the COGIC, all wanting to make their point through pamphlet, picket, pronouncement.
“Choose life,” a woman announced as she approached Tunechi, clutching a sign that urged “choose life.”
Tunechi was choosing life—her own—she thought, as she hustled her thickness around all the loudness. And as she made her way toward the building’s entrance, the woman circled back around and into her path. The woman pushed up against her, backed her down, splayed her legs and arms like she was defending a three-point shot.
“Don’t do this,” the woman pleaded and demanded. “You really don’t have to do this!”
“And neither do you,” Tunechi responded. “Now please, getthefuckoutta my way.”
The woman blinked with confusion and umbrage in her eyes, as if Tunechi’s words had some nerve. She jumped back, leaned within inches of Tunechi’s belly, spouted in her face.
“Life chose you!”
Tunechi hollered back, “These hands are ’bout to choose you, if you don’t back up outta my face!”
Over her shoulder, a tide of chants grew. The heat of their collective breath landed at her nape. The rising voices closed the gap between what was said and what she heard. The words wanted to twist arms. The violence of their speech spread across her shoulders, inched down her backside. Beau Bill folded himself up and rotated inside her. He made it a point to press against the base of her spine with all his might. Tunechi winced twice.
“Some choices are dead wrong!”
“A person’s a person no matter how small!” two women out of the gaggle heckled.
Their identities were hidden behind rubber baby-faced masks that had lowercase Ts marked in ash at the center of the forehead. Tunechi cut her eyes in their direction and caught glimpses of the precious things that adorned their necks, the crucifixes, the rosaries. She tried again to pivot leftward around the piety and paleness. Beau Bill then felt his mama twist and bend her body to the right to avoid the bumrush. Tunechi pushed up her sleeves, balled her swollen fingers into tight fists and decided then and there.
“This baby gon’ die by vacuum or violence,” she yelled emphatically into the small crowd. “Now, which one of you bitches is choosing to go with it?”
Tunechi stood her ground and—surprisingly—was victorious. Her damnation parted the disrupters. They fell to either side of her like she had spoken the words of Moses. She walked through the women who became silent and averted their eyes in shame as she passed them by on her way to finish what she started.
Tunechi filled out forms, gowned up, gave blood, got examined, spoke with a head doctor who asked if her head was screwed on right. He checked her neck. He then asked questions to assess if it was straight, if she had gotten anything twisted, if she had drawn her own conclusions in what she was going to do, if she was making the right choice. Beau Bill could hear things more clearly these days, and, even if he had not the power of knowing what all things meant, he did have a strong sense of feeling. His little limbs tensed up at the word “terminate” and he twitched the toes on his teeny feet. They were no longer webbed. He liked that. Beau Bill yanked at the cording that linked the two of them belly to belly. He refused stillness. He bucked his legs from the rear of his body and rammed his head into the membrane that enveloped his soft bones. Tunechi felt his movement in her groin. It gave her pause, caused her to grab at her inflated midsection and agonize.
“We’ve got a busy one here.”
Beau Bill listened closely as the technician tried to capture the contents of Tunechi’s gut with a digital wand.
“How far along are you?”
“Oh, I see.” the tech said. “Let me have the doctor talk to you.”
Tunechi had not peeped the change in voice as the tech exited the exam room. She read the curiosity as small talk nosy people use to break ice.
“I’m Dr. Patel,” a woman introduced herself. “I’m here to examine you.”
She removed a tape measure from her white coat and stretched it across Tunechi’s wide belly from side to side and breast to pelvis.
“Ma’am, you have to make an OB appointment.”
“I’m here for termination,” Tunechi corrected.
Again, Beau Bill cringed at the ghastly word and eavesdropped with all his might. He learned that he had matured twenty-four weeks into—what he had heard voiced was—a fetus.
“You’re too far along,” the doctor said. “By law we cannot treat you.”
Tunechi’s eyes were fixed at her lap. Her fingers folded into themselves. Her thumbs rotated around one another.
“I’m only twenty-four weeks in,” she said, thinking of all the things she did not want to be: the mistress mama of a bastard lovechild.
“Both the sono and measurement state otherwise.”
“Machines lie,” Tunechi rebutted.
“You are twenty-six weeks. You can schedule a prenatal appointment at the front desk,” Dr. Patel said, closing the door behind her.
Beau Bill had evaded the jaws of death a second time in his unborn life and so he rejoiced. Days on end, he tumbled in his sac. Nights on end, he performed a series of side aerials that sickened Tunechi to her core. His deliberate twirls knocked her for a loop and introduced her to a world that shifted when she opened her eyelids. The ceiling oscillated above her at nano speed. The ground sloped beneath her feet when she stood. The walls surged every which way but still. The conditions flipped her stomach and kept her flat on her back many mornings.
Beau Bill’s activity left his mother bedridden till the very day slimy, blood-tinged water broke itself free from her womb and trickled out of her cooch and down her weary thighs. The moment thrusted Beau Bill into a mode of physicality that rocked his world. The atmosphere parched. The dark domain that once cradled him tightened, leaving him very little space to stretch any part of himself. Pangs pounded into him on all sides, forcing his knees to crisscross and crush up into his chest. Intermittent pressure beat around his frail torso, his soft rib cage suffered the brunt of each blow. The violent energy strong-armed his upper body, folded his back inward till his shoulders kissed and his arms tangled themselves like pretzels. Beau Bill fought the cord he used to swing from as an embryo. It tried to wrap itself around his unstable neck thrice. He curved it—ducked, bobbed his head plenty, snaked to the left and right, tucked his chin tightly in his chest. The throes converged on Beau Bill’s body, bullied him all at once and then again and again. His only respite was a flash of time when each affliction receded. Beau Bill’s time was up. After thirty-nine weeks, Tunechi’s insides wanted him out. This must be what death feels like, he thought. How dare she. Within the limited space that contained him, he managed to swing a few uppercuts and set off a litany of jabs that made Tunechi’s gut recoil. He elbowed the thickest parts around him till his mother hollered. He felt the snap of Tunechi’s diaphragm as he got in a lucky kick.
He heard eager voices summon him toward dim lighting. He saw an opening that seemed to measure the circumference of a pinhole. He scooched down toward the light and squeezed himself—head then shoulders—through the canal that expanded as he pushed himself forward and his feet off the wall of his mother’s womb. He felt Tunechi bear down around the lower parts of his anatomy. She was angry. Her grunts were mean. Her screams scared him shitless and welcomed him into a cold inhospitable world. Frenzied hands grabbed at him. None were Tunechi’s. He thought he’d at least recognize her voice among the manic voices surrounding him, but he didn’t. He thought, just maybe, her voice was drowned by the flat, continuous beep that hovered in the air. He thought she’d be waiting, eager to meet him, but she wasn’t. He decided he’d greet her first. He opened his mouth wide, cleared his throat and pushed out the loudest voice he’d heard thus far. Its high octave overwhelmed the cold room. His wail shook his own eyes open. They stared off into the distance at a motionless mama, whose body was splayed across a hospital bed, whose soul had ascended, whose eyes would never lock with his, whose ears could not hear the tenor of his hellos.