i. Street

“We ain’t dead said the children . . .
We just made ourselves invisible”
                                        —Erykah Badu

The little girl lay on her side in the middle of the street, a half circle of blood spreading from her body toward the sidewalk, a red drape drawn down by gravity. Would the blood reach me? I stood fifteen feet away in silent concentration, one of two dozen (more) astonished kids, their voices buzzing around me, half heard. Taking in the sight. I was ten years old.

I am thwarted by not knowing how to put it, leaving imagination to build approximations.

A group of adults swooped down on us and tried to get us to move, but we would not go away. Impossible to do anything other than gaze at the girl, watch her body grow where it lay in the tough afternoon sun. One hand positioned above her head, the other near her waist, a dance pose. Her eyes open and hard. Her small braids like the stems of firecrackers. Her dark skin contrasting with her pink dress. Stark against her white bobby socks and black shoes.

I argue with my memory. Tell me more! Show me more! But I am thwarted by not knowing how to put it, leaving imagination to build approximations.

My heart beat with such density, something having opened inside me. I write this now feeling my body’s weight. Why does the girl weigh nothing? Is it because her blood emptied out onto that street almost four decades ago?

What do the dead owe the living?

My mother turned her face toward me as soon as I stepped through the door. She never missed much. I pretended not to see her.

Why are you crying?

I said nothing.

Hatch? She got up from the plastic-upholstered sofa with a sticky sound and blocked the path to my room. Light moved from one object to another. She repeated her question, waited for me to speak. I didn’t. I let the sweat cool on my head and hands. She stood looking at me in the middle of our small living room, her face taking a long time to open out into something more than anger. She reached out to touch me with her hand, which appeared to be fitted inside a long glove of wrinkled skin from her knuckles to her elbow. (The story she’d told me: when she was three years old she tried to remove an egg from a pot of boiling water.) There was a time when I had been afraid for the hand to touch me.

I averted my face, started for my room. It seemed my mother would call after me, but she did not.

I would learn that the girl was the little sister of my classmate, a classmate I never saw again. I would learn that the driver claimed he never knew he’d hit somebody.

I’m telling you that I never saw her, the driver said. I heard a bump, and the truck lifted off the ground a bit, then the next thing I know I hear all these kids shouting at me. For God’s sake, this happened in front of the school, right at the corner. How come they didn’t have no crossing guard there? Where was the crossing guard? There’s always a crossing guard at that corner.

He paused, half turned among a field of cameras and microphones.

I’m going to sue the school. I’m going to sue the principal and the school district. No, I’m going to sue the board of education, and the city and the mayor. Yes, the mayor. So help me God.

My mother refused to let me attend the funeral. And then, a few weeks later, a second girl died. I knew the girl as well as one could. You see Carrie Lavender, my next-door neighbor and my mother’s best friend, took in a bit of pocket money babysitting me and the girl and another boy named Daryl in her apartment for a few hours after school each day until our mothers came for us exhausted from work. Just us three. Like kids the world over we had a need to fill time and conquer boredom and somehow managed to do so in Carrie’s living room—the rest of the apartment was off-limits—a cramped maze of couches and armchairs, lamps and loveseats, televisions and coffee tables. (Carrie did not mind the fact that her husband felt the need to buy some new item of furniture each time he received his paycheck.)

I’m not sure if Daryl and I liked the girl because she was a few years younger than we were and different. She told us everything, and so many times.

I ain’t getting married cause then you got to get divorced, she

Daryl and I laughed.

Don’t hate on me cause I know what I know. The girl twisted herself excitedly before craning over backward into a series of flips.

Tell us what else you know.

She told us. We liked to hear her talk because she had many funny things to say.

Where yo daddy at?

In another country.

What country?

New York.

Daryl and I snickered.

No wait, she said. He down there in England, man.


I said to the girl, We’ll never understand you.

But I speak slow, she said, small teeth in big gums, her braids standing curled up on her head like candy canes.

We found her more amusing than annoying. Because we were older, because we were boys, we could scapegoat her for our wrongs. It never came into my head that she would be anything other than who she was. Neither would we. Mannish behavior was the known world to Daryl and me. Nothing would change. So it was that we’d been happy one day being up to no good when Daryl ventured to say to me:

I’m dead.

I said I’m dead.

Nigger, you ain’t dead.

Yeah I am. I got killed dead last night.

I looked at him, at his forward-jutting mouth.

I got stabbed in the head. And the ambulance men came and said I was dead. And they took me to the hospital and the doctor man also said I was dead so I’m dead.

I watched him. If you dead, why ain’t you in the ground?

That room in the hospital where they had me was too cold, so I ran away.

I watched him. I was a little taller than he was although we were only a few months apart in age.

But don’t worry bout me. I may be dead but I’m that special kind of superhero nigger.

Yeah, soft.

Soft? Nigger, you better recognize.

Recognize what?

Try me.

I tried him. I was taller, stronger, quicker, and always got the better of him although he was scrappy and would put up a good fight. He put up a good fight until I came down on his flailing arms. I felt him brace his body beneath me. We wrestled into a
lamp and knocked it over.

I’m telling, the girl said. She was seated cross-legged on the floor before the TV.

You gon tell on yoself? Daryl said.

She pulled a face. Me? I was watching cartoons.

You broke the lamp.

You lyin.

Daryl yelled out Carrie’s name, and in no time she entered the room, concerned. She was a big woman so it always surprised me how fast she could move. She saw the broken lamp and stood looking in disbelief, her torso quaking under her housedress, stood shaking her head until she became so upset she had to plonk herself down in her favorite armchair, the great weight of her body settling around her. Somebody better tell me something, she said.

Unlike my mother, she didn’t curse. She didn’t need to.

Daryl told his story.

Boy, the girl said, why you lyin on me?

Carrie looked at me.

She broke it, I said, confirming the lie.

Carrie looked at the girl, turning her face one way then the other, the girl some strange and rare species demanding close study. I’m gon to talk to yo mother.

I ain’t even do nothing, the girl said. They ganging up on me.

You call that nothing?

I ain’t break yo lamp.

Heifer, don’t backtalk me. I’ll snatch you bald-headed.

The girl glared at Carrie, her face pinched as if she were trying to pull her eyes inside her skull.

Thick as thieves, Daryl and I grinned at each other awaiting the mother’s arrival, eager for the showdown. Carrie did not disappoint us. The mother was hardly through the door when Carrie faced off with her and gave her a week’s notice. She peered at Carrie, startled. Puckered her lips in shock, prompting Carrie to say, I have my limits.

Yes, mam, I understand, but, mam, things are really tight for me right now.

Because we were older, because we were boys, we could scapegoat her for our wrongs.

She was a pretty woman with a natural slimness, well put together in a long black skirt and bright white blouse baring a good deal of bosom. Her sandals made her feet look like birds’ feet, the veins standing out, and her toes curling talon-like toward the floor keeping her grounded, upright.

She tried to plead with Carrie but Carrie continued to talk, her voice low, unceasing, and steady, impossible to interrupt, the mother listening with her head tilted to one side, the girl beside her, looking up at Carrie, challenge in her eyes. Carrie’s mouth stayed open after she’d had her say, her lips pulled back. The mother stood for a while regarding Carrie in the clarifying silence. I thought I recognized the expression on her face and tried to look at Daryl but he wouldn’t look at me. She thanked Carrie, bowed, then told her daughter, We have to get along.

A week or two later, my mother came to collect me from Carrie at the usual time. With something in her voice, Carrie told my mother to watch the evening news. I watched it with her, surprised to see the girl’s mother trying her best to answer the reporters’ questions about a fire that had claimed the lives of her daughter and her babysitter. Soon there was another funeral my mother would not let me attend.

i. Fires

“When niggers turn into gods. . .”
                                        —Erykah Badu

Like many others I saw the story on the news. The firefighters leapt back every now and again to avoid flame, the roof spitting fire at them, the sky above the house dense with billowing smoke. The air tight with heat. The helmeted firefighters half men and half beast with their accoutrements, machinery, and serpentine hoses. One fire hose looked like the long neck of a giraffe, the head the nozzle.

I was told that I could find Tonia’s parents at a neighbor’s house up the street on a block that was as regimented in organization as an ice tray: a neat row of identical structures on either side of the street, each house inside its own plot. I figured out where to go when I saw a front door standing open to the street. The person posted out front recognized me and waved me inside. Mourners stood chatting uneasily in the corners and shadows of the living room, others watching me with suspicion. Then sight surprised, two termite mounds sphering up from the floor at the center of the room. On closer inspection, I saw that it was Tonia’s mother and father draped from neck to toe in an old blanket. Mr. Patton sat mute beside his wife while she received a string of well-wishers, lending herself to their comforting hands.

Celeste, I’m so sorry, Celeste.

I filed over to her and pressed my lips against her forehead.

You saw my David, she said. You saw my David when he was alive?

She held me tight. I waited a moment or two then worked awkwardly to free myself. Expected as much when her husband let his head fall forward and he wept.

I felt my skull, a sensation that weakened my entire body but gave me enough time to draw a breath and ease away from them without excusing myself, to cross the room into another where I’d been told I could find Tonia hiding inside a walk-in closet. So I found her, stunned with grief and guilt. At the sight of me she leapt up into the air as if dunking a basketball, banged her head into the ceiling, and came collapsing into my arms, already bursting into talk, apologetic, trying to explain. Candles. Curtains. Someone named James asleep on her bed in her room and her brother David asleep in his room down the hall. I tried to come up with things to say but felt reduced, slow motion, slow thinking. Contained, our voices echoed around us as if we were submerged inside an aquarium.

We struggled out of the closet together, out of the house. I helped Tonia into my car and took her back to my place.

I had made up my mind that I would look after Tonia and get her through the two funerals. She’d been my closest confidant for more than two decades, since that day in third grade when I passed her a note in my best penmanship: I LOVE YOU. PLEASE GIVE ME SOME PUSSY. She gave the note to our teacher, Mrs. Clay, who phoned my mother, prompting my mother to give me the worst asswhupping of my life. I couldn’t have imagined the affection Tonia would come to feel for me, the small acts of mischief we would carry out from our respective back-row classroom seats that escaped Mrs. Clay’s notice.

I made a pallet on the floor in my bedroom and gave Tonia my bed, where she would remain idle for hours on end with her face buried in a pillow like a cat in a bowl of milk or squatting with her back arched over her knees. At times she would stand at length before the bathroom mirror combing out naps and kinks, straightening out her thoughts. And when she was restless I had to put up with her dazed barefoot wanderings through my apartment, her feet so flat they suctioned the floor in a series of rapid farts.

One night she sat down heavily beside me on the floor and shoved her face into my chest. Careful not to pull back, I put an arm around her shoulders, her collarbone, her neck, my fingers feeling in her hair, each kindness a disguise. I had to force my dick down with my elbow and try my best to burn past the feeling.

Astonished at my new existence, I could no longer gauge time and regulate my body the way I could at the firm taking a deposition or trying a case in court. Dawn came with a quiet gaze the day of James’s funeral. When we left my place, I was worn out with strain and lack of sleep. The sun high on a miserable afternoon, light striking my skin and fire in my teeth. So this is what the day would bring, light and heat. We shaded our eyes against sheen coming off cars parked rank on rank inside the funeral home’s lot and cramped on the street. I kept one arm hooked around Tonia’s waist, to keep her from rushing to the body. But we were inside soon enough moving through machine-cooled air saturated with perfume from dozens of wreaths, among circles of clean faces shining under the bright lights and tributaries of mourners pouring down the aisles and converging at the open casket.

I will speak to his family, Tonia said.

If that’s what you want, I said.

I need to speak to his family.

We took our place in the line of viewers. Her turn, Tonia lingered before the coffin like someone standing guard over a pot cooking on the stove. Then she started to wail, drawing heads, attention. She tried to muffle the sound by pulling the neck of her dress over her face (a thwarted tortoise), and that was when I stepped into her body, cupped my hand around the back of her neck, and somehow managed to lift her off her feet. Each time I heard her heels scuffing against the floor, I exerted myself and lifted her higher, a moving force weaving around and through bodies until we were outside on the street again.

I eased Tonia back onto her feet, thinking, Now get her into the car. Get her into the car.

The sun high on a miserable afternoon, light striking my skin and fire in my teeth.

But I fumbled my car keys, so much welling up in and around me. Perhaps a walk would help both her and me relax. The lake was not far away. With that thought, my consciousness moved toward water. I embraced Tonia clumsily and started wading with her through the stubborn heat, no easy matter, the air still and thick, slow light breaking everything into glow. Annoyed by the sound of my own breathing, my legs cramping from all the exertion at the funeral home. Tonia was doing much better in the heat than I was. Although her hands and face were bright with sweat, she seemed to have become accustomed to the temperature even in her long-sleeved mourning dress. I removed my jacket but it made no difference, the liquid shapes of cars splashing sun in my face.

We were well on our way to the beach by the time I figured out how to move in step with her. Although my body was heavy, I matched my breath to hers. Once there, we found a spot close to the water, sat down cross-legged on the sand, took our shoes off, and watched waves walk in from the lake, hit some invisible barrier, then break open into a fan of cool spray.

We did not attend her brother’s funeral.

I read Tonia’s face every evening when I came home from work. Nothing changed. How did she interpret the way I looked at her? Did she know that I felt awake in her presence? We would order takeout and watch horror movies on television until we pressed our faces toward sleep.

One morning, she said to me, I’m not trying to drag this out.

I know.

But that’s what you think. Seated on my bed, she eyed me suspiciously. She had made a point of rising earlier than me that morning and was already dressed and groomed, her hair combed into a low neat Afro, the way I’d seen her wear it for close to two decades. (She wasn’t much for styling or braids or beauty salons.)

Come on, I said. You know me better than that. What I didn’t say, I forced myself not to think about her leaving.

But where am I supposed to go? Before they wanted me out and now they want me back.

Watching me the way she’d done when we were kids, a challenge in her face—those dark pouches beneath her eyes—unlike her body, which seemed relaxed in clothing (a white blouse with puffy tulip-like sleeves and flowered pants) suggesting another ordinary day, same ole same ole, her bare feet crossed, exaggerating her indifference.

But I had become good at getting the slow smile I wanted from her. Indeed, during the many months of her living with me in my sparse apartment that met our simple needs I felt I’d become someone else. So, to put down her challenge, I said what I had to, and she took it up, bringing the pleasure of relief. Things could now go on as they had. And they did.

In the coming days I found it easy to act as if we’d not had that spat. Easy for us to continue on as we had. Then the slave woman appeared.

A smell in her nose, a taste on her tongue, and Tonia would wake in the middle of the night craving crayfish or oxtail or beef tongue, osso buco, apples pears and honey. She would quit bed for the kitchen and chance upon the slave woman seated at the table waiting for her.

Her mother routinely held counsel with the dead, but Tonia—guarded, apprehensive—never took part.

She decided that she would meet with the slave woman on one condition: I had to be there too.

Ghosts leave whenever you’re around, she said.

Not a power I claimed; I doubted the validity of ghosts. But the slave woman didn’t go away when I sat beside Tonia at the table. Nor did she acknowledge my presence.

I would come to learn that she was a woman of some years, although she’d died after a short illness when she was seven years old.

We were four girls, she said, but I quit breathing, we all did, but I growed til I reached my full years.

Was that how I saw her? What I remember, the way I took in her thick eyebrows moving on her crumpled face when she sat talking with Tonia across the tabletop, the slave woman answering Tonia’s thoughts before she could think them.

If it doesn’t let you lie quiet, then you should know, she said, you should know. But you never speak to him or come visit.

I noticed some motion trying to awaken in Tonia’s body, a quaking, a trembling, but it never fully emerged. Instead, Tonia bent forward, staring into the spiral grain of the table. I did not know if it was my place to speak—what did I want to say in Tonia’s defense?—so I continued sitting firm.

I saw and took the child from the fire and brought him here. The slave woman slapped dirt from her dress sleeves onto the table.

Tonia looked up. You could have told me what was going to happen, she said. But you didn’t.

Told you and made it worse. The slave woman cleared her throat, sucked her teeth. The world ain’t for you. The world is for everything borned.

During these nightly visitations, I could do little more than offer Tonia my usual reassurances. Not that I could easily put aside the slave woman’s revelations, a spy in my own home. Perhaps this is why—after a month? two months?—I developed the impulse to serve as an intermediary between Tonia and her parents. (Was I trying to put her into the right again?) I did not let Tonia in on my plan, simply set out one morning to pay them a visit. The smell of smoke reached me in my car before I reached the house. Mr. Patton answered the door in undershirt and pajama bottoms, silent but not particularly surprised. He welcomed me into a house echoing with the vanished voices of firefighters, a burned seashell. We sloshed through a stream of black water from room to room until we reached the kitchen with smoke silhouetted into the walls.

I took a seat at the table, while Mr. Patton slid into the chair where David used to sit cracking jokes on me. (Damn, Hatch, your hairline is running away from your face. I guess you old before your time, huh? Well, you sure are a funny-lookin motherfucker.) I would smile in humiliation, pretending that he wasn’t getting under my skin.

You can join me for breakfast, Mr. Patton said.

I’m not really a breakfast person, I said.

But you’re in my kitchen.

I thanked him. I didn’t expect to be waited on, but he was already portioning grits and eggs onto my plate.

Thank you, sir, but I’m allergic to eggs. And I’m not crazy about grits.

He paused, poised above me, spatula in his big hand. You don’t eat grits?

No, sir.

That’s why you so puny. His smile was not altogether pleasant. Try putting in some butter and sugar.

He sat down and started eating, looking into his plate, focused, mouth in a hurry, sweat hanging at the edges of his forehead. Clearly something was going on.

I had only started in on my sugary grits and eggs when he stood up from the table, slipped out of his undershirt, and tossed it onto the wet floor, giving me reason not to finish my plate. He turned his back to me—two patches of wing-like hair on his shoulder blades—and I followed him into the backyard. Surrounded by piles of lumber, sacks of plaster, and stacks of insulation, I could no longer remember how I’d hoped this conversation would go. He positioned himself under a tilting load of planks and moved with uneasy strain from backyard to kitchen, then balanced and counterbalanced the wood up the narrow staircase to the upper story of the house, soggy floorboards making spongy noises under his weight.

Load after load, I trailed around in silence behind him. This was who he was and what he wanted me to see. A practical man, lifting planks, putting his legs into the motion, doing what had to be done, the steady rise and fall of his breathing, his back muscles working up and down like wings.

The slave woman cleared her throat, sucked her teeth. The world ain’t for you. The world is for everything borned.

Later that day, I gave Tonia a full report, but she did not let on how she felt about my visit. She remained with me for several more months during which she would awaken at night from the smallest movement or sound, remained until the day she left to move out west to a mortuary college. I never heard from her again, although for years her presence would be so close at times that I could feel her hot breath on my face.

The deposition began to gather itself:

You think I wanted to shoot that nigger? Over a pack of cigarettes? I’m telling you, he was crazy or high or something. He just kept looking at me with his eyes all wild. And I’m standing there with a bead on him but he just started laughing. He be like, Shorty, don’t you know who I am? You lucky I’m a good thug or you be dead already. So jus play your cards right so you can go home tonight and give yo nigger some of that good pussy.

My phone rang. My mother. I had to answer. I put my pen into my pocket and my notepad into my briefcase. Look, I said.

She looked at me.

Try not to worry. I promise I’ll get you out of this mess.

Gessie moved soft and quiet about the living room tending to my mother as I watched, showing me that she was on top of things, nothing to worry about. A slender woman, lanky, lean, all legs, so much so that when she walks with her long strides she resembles a jackknife threatening to fold in on itself. She glanced at me and I returned her gaze, looking into her light-complexioned face, the features small as if still developing, growing, under hair styled into knots like black cauliflowers. I could already hear her trying to talk away my panic. We would get through this.

If only I could have her level of faith, optimism. My mother’s house had been razed. Upset at the news, I’d circled our block for some time before I settled down enough to park the car and come inside. I had a thousand small feelings for Gessie for all the ways she knew me.

I knew something bad was going to happen, my mother said. Last night, I dreamed that a snake was trying to get into my house.

She was sitting bent forward in the armchair, pitching an ugly strain on the tendons in her neck, her face distorted in a way I’d never seen. Something hurried about her position and her clothing, her wrinkled housedress and the worn-out sheepskin house shoes I’d brought back from Australia (a business trip on behalf of my rapper client DICCC) a few years ago.

She was always finding snake eggs in her garden, eggs she would cook and eat.

Gessie touched her lightly on the shoulders and directed some remark to her.

I ain’t never wanted to hurt nobody, my mother said, but I could shoot every one of these no-good niggers from here to Timbuktu.

Maybe they did you a favor, I said.

We looked at each other.

Gessie extended a cup of steaming coffee into my mother’s line of sight. My mother accepted it with the scarred hand that had always scared the shit out of me. Then Gessie was gone from the room, leaving me to be alone with my mother.

Did me a favor? The only thing those niggers left me is the clothes on my back.

But, mom, now you can take the insurance money and buy a house in a better neighborhood.

I took the armchair opposite her.

Hatch, sometimes you make me so angry you make my butt want a cup of tea. She had a good look at me.

I’m just trying to see the bright side, I said.

Is that what you call it?

I loosened my tie.

Well, she said, I guess you know what matters. She shook her head. It’s a damn shame cause you ain’t never had no mother wit. Like when I tried to tell you about that girl.

My mother had developed the habit of calling Tonia “that girl.”

Insulted, I stood up, nothing in the room that could keep me there.

Later that night when I went to Gessie, I found her sitting quietly on our bed in her nightdress, the curtains open, the glow of streetlight on her face, a dark weight in the air. I made my way clumsily over to her and slipped into her flesh. Afterward as we lay on our backs, Gessie seemed deep in thought. Had she overheard the conversation with my mother? Had they talked before I came home? Nothing could be worse. My mother knew all my secrets. And now she was living with us.

Gessie titled her face toward me like a capsized boat. She started to tell me a story from her childhood. One evening, she was sitting quiet and alone eating her usual dinner of starch and beans. Then something told me to look up and I did. And I see this snake slithering through the dirt toward me. He saw I was on to him, and he rushed at me and I kicked him without even thinking about it, and that snake catapulted into the air—she gestured—and was gone.

I studied the moonlight illuminating the narrow definitions of her face. My wife for seven years: on our honeymoon, taking no chances, we imbibed a potion from her village that insured we would love one another forever.

Don’t ever tell your mother that story, she said.

Why not? I said. It’s right up her alley. I’d told Gessie the story about the coachwhip that my mother claimed, back home, back in the day, had chased her over into the next county.

I know. She gave a slow blink. But Superman can’t go around telling everybody that he’s Clark Kent.

In the days that followed, my mother would disappear into the back room once I came home. Because my emotions always flushed near the surface, I kept to the screened-in porch overlooking the garden, reviewing cases and preparing briefs. Our house was large enough that we never had to get in each other’s way; still, we had dinner together each night, although she was silent in my presence, withholding her attention, waiting for my anger to burn down. She and Gessie would go out into the garden and carry on conversation and smoke cigarettes, their tobacco sparking among the fireflies, the slow accretion of us becoming three in the same house.

Then the summer reached its peak, cascading casualties, bodies falling amid a tangle of causes at once intended and accidental. Twelve murders in one day: two boys on bicycles, four girls shot on swings in a park, six bystanders in a drive-by. And Mayor Harryette Washington deciding to relocate to the danger zone hoping to put an end to the violence. She vowed not to leave until the violence ended. We watched her standing in the windy radiance of cameras and props, the Redfern Housing Projects behind her like the tallest trees in the world, yellow light wavering down from the sky, converting each building into amber, preserving the residents inside, the clouds barely alive. We saw her Afro expanding in the light like baking bread. Saw her kneel down and kiss the sidewalk, her silver anklet shimmering like a tambourine.

I like her, my mother said. She got a lot of nigger in her. But she won’t last a day.

But she’s from Redfern, I said. I saw the situation clearly.

That was a different Redfern, a long time ago.

Yeah, Gessie said. Back in Bible days.

The next day, Gessie and I took a drive to access my mother’s property. No barrier, the metal fence that once bordered the place coiled around the tree in the front yard. We stood surveying the surviving bricks glistening with sweat in the humidity and giving off dark heat, neither Gessie nor I saying what we both felt. What would we tell my mother?

We started back for the car. Forever on guard, I caught sight of some young blood across the street, his hoodie rising pointed above him like an inflated sail, his high-top sneakers two expansive arks. Then the block vibrating with music from a black sedan—sound I could feel in my teeth—and he took off running. Fire spat from a window again and again, that duration of sound, terribly brief, causing him to slip, lose his footing as he disappeared around the corner, and the sedan speeding away. The screams of other witnesses hanging in the air around us.

We tracked his movements, found he hadn’t made it far, only a block or so. He’d collapsed onto the sidewalk, one arm flung against a hedge as if swimming a backstroke. Gessie left my side to go drop down beside him and take his hand into hers, her skirt forming a little hut around her lower body. She put her face close to his and spoke comforting words, this woman my wife who spent most of her time in a laboratory researching ways to modify and embolden breast milk against infection and disease.

Once we were home, my mother’s voice pulled us from room to room into the garden. There my mother stood looking down at the ground, shaking her head at what she saw. The dirt churning, turning over and over with worms as big as eels. Moonlight pouring down from above, transforming our garden into a glistening seabed.

I never heard from her again, although for years her presence would be so close at times that I could feel her hot breath on my face.

Gessie went over to my mother, offered her a cigarette. A match struck and the sound of tobacco fizzing into a slow burn. Together they stood smoking and consulting over what to do. Gessie suggested they fetch hoes from the toolshed. And so they did, returning weapons in hand, hacking the garden to pieces. I thought to take up the third hoe when a sound from inside the house reached me, a familiar voice I could not ignore.

Editors’ Note: Excerpt from Fat Time and Other Stories. Copyright © 2023 by Jeffery Renard Allen. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.