You always seem to end up behind her; you're not sure why. At the Sip 'n Save, she's got a 12-pack. No, you're the one with the 12-pack. She's got the Kahlua Mudslides. Easy going down. You decide maybe you want those instead. Go back to the refrigerator case and put back the Corona Lites. When you're back at the register, she's gone. You've forgotten her, so don't think to look out the plate glass.
At the Whirligig Laundromat, she's there too. This time, you can see her better. Before, in line, you could only see the backs of her legs. And the Band-Aids. They were stuck on her calves, but that's all you could see. Some were smacked down tight on the flesh, but some were flapping. As they do. Their gummy undersides showing. They leave an impression—those Band-Aids—because she's black, and the Band-Aids, you realize, are "flesh-colored," but not her flesh. Yours.
Here at the Laundromat, you can see the Band-Aids are everywhere. She's got Band-Aids on her thin arms, the smudged elbows. You suck in a little air when she turns from the dryer to face you. Her eyes appear permeable and there's a Band-Aid underneath one. You look down. It feels too vulnerable, too risky, to keep looking. Whether it's her wound or your own, you're not sure. She quickly empties the dryer and leaves. Which is a good thing: that she didn't see your meanness. Buried though it is.
She reminds you of that girl in your old Girl Scout troop—when you were still trying to be one—the girl with arthritis or a bone disease. Thin and helpless, but sour and back-biting all the same. You tried being nice, you all did, but sometimes she'd turn accusingly and you'd feel guilty. You couldn't talk to her, no matter how hard you tried.
Of course, June could. June was who you wished you could be. She'd turn to Victoria, the girl with the arthritis or bone disorder, and say, "Victoria, is there anything we can get you when we get back to camp?"
June would push back her curly hair when she said something like that. She had the best hair: dark blonde with a natural curl. When it was hot, the hairs just coiled in neat spirals around her temples. Unlike yours hanging limply against your neck.
You'd all talked in the corner about getting out of the stifling tent and away from Victoria, who appeared to be glowering, who was there to make you hate the fact you could walk without pain. Victoria had to be carried in by the leaders, and set down on the cot. Most times.
Although she could also hobble around by herself, looking at you like it was your fault. Her feet in their perennial socks. Her body was like a ten-year-old's on pause; even though all of you were fourteen by that time. But Victoria had no breasts to speak of, and wore wire-rimmed glasses popular in the seventies. In the mornings, she made a lot of noise waking up. She put on her glasses, grimacing, which filled you with irritation. You weren't sure why. Young as you were, it felt strange to be angry. Like another person had stepped inside your skin. What does a kid have to be angry about?
Every one of her joints must have ached, maybe they burned. But you didn't care, not then. Or maybe you cared too much. It just wasn't fun to have pain thrown in your face. You were a teenager.
The next time you see the woman with Band-Aids, you're at the Whirligig again. The dryers are full and people are restless. Somebody has taken up four dryers and left their clothes to sit idling. Nobody's saying anything, but everyone is thinking "What the hell! Get your damn clothes out of the dryer."
It's hot as shit, even though fans hang from the ceiling trying to blend the bad air, and there's a woman with a passel of kids, her laundry still on the wash cycle. The kids are tearing around, shaking the gum machines.
The woman with Band-Aids reminds you of Victoria. Reminds you of your neglect, your indifference, reminds you of all your missteps, all the things you didn't do. The woman is hunched on one of the plastic chairs and she's staring at the dryers intently. You wonder what happened to her; you can't see any burns, but maybe she's a burn victim. You think maybe you should make amends. For being an ass to Victoria. For being a bad daughter, a cranky wife, a mediocre mother, and an indifferent neighbor. You never did have a heart of gold, like June. And your mother just told you last week that Victoria died when she was in her early thirties. Alone.
"Pretty crappy, huh?" You gesture toward the dryers. The woman with the Band-Aids isn't used to being talked to. Just before she opens her mouth, you watch as her muscles ripple with excitement. She might just glom onto you and never let go.
I knew her in high school. Dated her just that one time. One date. She was different then, but so was I. It was a weird date, but I reckon that's my fault. As I remember, we ran out of gas on the freeway on our way to Birmingham. There was nothing in our town then. I had my dad's old truck, and it's true I never did buy the gas. Dad always yelling at me about it because I ran it until it was near empty. We ran out of gas, and we had to walk to the nearest station. Dusk, the mosquitoes just starting. Maybe I told her stories. Later, that is.
I asked her out because she had big tits and I was curious about black girls. You know how that goes at that age: wanting something different. Anyway Jimmy dared me, and I sat next to her in Chem. She was smart, with numbers at least, so sometimes I copied from her Lab notes. I could tell she let me; she moved her hand aside, so I could see good around her wrist. Her wrist, I have to admit, caught me unawares: made me take a breath, pulled in tight like during football practice. Heady and somewhere I'd never gone before. The way it curved, her long fingers with the pencil balanced. Elegant, might be the word. So I asked her out. Nobody but Jimmy knew about it. That's another reason why Birmingham.
I picked her up from the projects. Her mother never came out of her room, and I never saw a father. Her apartment was piled with clothes stacked on beat-up sofas. There were milk crates full of crap all along the walls. Toys on the floor, so I guess there were brothers or sisters, but I never saw anybody. Her mother, she said, was a seamstress, but I didn't really believe it. She wanted to be gone, and quick.
She was good-looking then, like I said. Slender, full lips, her eyes softened and clear. She didn't show off her body; she wore t-shirts and jeans like everybody else, but you could see she was stacked. When she got in the pick-up with her straight back and her delicate head—I had a weird feeling. It was like she was a deer. Tense but soft—ready, at any moment, to spring from the cab. I talked most since she didn't say much. I ran off at the mouth because I was nervous as hell. I talked about football since I was going to UGA in the fall.
When the pick-up ran down—gulping at every last bit of gas, I coasted to the nearest off-ramp. I was nervous and she wasn't saying anything. I apologized for running on empty, but nothing, not even a joke, not even a laugh out of her.
I could feel an urge come in me. Truth be told, it was like I'd entered some kind of strange dream. Like being up in the blind after watching her for so long and then it appears—right in the clearing below you. You want to watch, but you got to raise that rifle and aim. She raised her fawn eyes, and I took her wrists and held them in my clenched hands. Those wrists thin as sticks, trembling. Her eyes widened, teared up, so I let her go.
We walked up the ramp towards an old broken down Esso station. I didn't really make any conversation. I was mad that she just looked at me in the truck and acted hurt, instead of wanting me like I wanted her. Like, who do you think you are? Too good for me? Is that it?
When we got to the station, I filled the can, but she didn't walk inside with me. I felt like the woman at the register, the one with the creased lips and bad red hair, knew. Knew she was out there—a shadow, my dark deer. Hovering near the Pepsi cans stacked up outside. The woman sucked hard on her cigarette.
"Ran out a gas, didja?" Smoke trailed out of her mouth.
She rang up the gas on her old press and pull cash registers, ancient even then. It took a long time, and the woman pulled on her tacky cat-eye glasses hanging from a chain around her neck to look at me better. Like she knew something, knew everything I was about to do.
But it didn't matter; maybe that old woman was just there to egg me on. I wasn't surprised when I found my girl still waiting, sitting hunched on the curb, her head drooping. I wasn't surprised she followed me back to the pick-up. She'd lost the tense feeling. She was into it, is what I thought. That boy walking back with the gas can, slapping at the mosquitoes drilling into his neck, trudging next to a girl holding her body together with one arm. Like some character: I can see how the boy could think it.
I don't remember the order of what happened next. I don't remember what she said, or if she said anything at all. But what I told her, pressing down on her full taut length on the flat front seat of my dad's truck was that I wanted to be with her. Those were the stories I told to her, soothing-like. I wanted her to go to the prom with me; there was something about her I couldn't shake—maybe we could be together. Now I look at that big empty head saying those things. That's the best you can say? Maybe that boy believed it at the time.
The boy talked her down, you know, gentled her. Making it okay. He touched her full tight breasts with their big nipples, and got inside her. He wasn't rough with her, and he came right away in a stupid-ass way. Maybe pulling out towards the end, like an afterthought. The cab was steamy and he took off his shirt to wipe it down, and he felt her eyes on him afterwards, wet and hopeful.
I drove her home afterward—we never did go to Birmingham, and I didn't tell her any more stories, not then or ever. I took to sitting next to Jimmy in Chem Lab. Told him she was a crazy-ass chick after all and to stay away from her.
When I'd see her in the hallways, I noticed how her back was slumped over. She wore big shirts and she didn't look pretty anymore. Just some loner, some creep show you wouldn't want to be seen with. I went to prom with Tanya Jenkins; she was fun but chunky. She laughed too loud and got so drunk that she passed out in the middle of our make-out. Her breasts spilled over her pink nylon dress, and she wasn't even embarrassed the next day.
Afterwards, college with its trail of dumb-ass moves: frat tricks, barf scenes. Finally settling on Ashley, sorority sister, pretty but ironclad about everything in the ways a girl's supposed to be. Straightening you up a little, you know? Home from college, I don't remember seeing my girl much. I figured she'd moved away, and maybe she did, for a while.
Moved back to my hometown after graduation. A good place to get a house, and now I commute to Atlanta every day, going in to the bank headquarters midtown, so it's not likely I'd run into her. Ashley didn't grow up here, but she's settled in. Maybe she's grown a little big in the ass—but she's pregnant now—the whole family waiting for what's bound to come out okay.
But Ashley doesn't really know the boy walking on the side of the freeway or what he did inside that shitty pick-up that got sold as soon as I left for college.
Ashley's the one pointed her out at Kroger's, whispered too loud, "look at that woman covered in Band-Aids. I see her all the time." Then Desiree turned around from the freezer case, spotted me right off, wheeled her buggy away.
I never let on to Ashley that I knew her once.
But seeing her brought it all back: that one episode, like an old "Twilight Zone" show—black, white and red all over. Hard to believe I was that boy in the dark.
The one in the pick-up, who drove her home with not a word. Who watched her floating back to her mama's door. Like a dream: the slice of light when the door opened showing for no more than half a minute of your life.
In the emails they send back, they attach on the coupons. I print them out at the library from the computers. Johnson & Johnson has an entire line of products, and the emails come with coupons you can scan in to get you discounts. But do they really think I would try those? They got the Comfort-Flex, Decorated, Flexible Fabric, Water Block Plus, Tough Strips, Ultra Strips, and get this, the Hurt-Free line. Hurt-Free.
Nobody asks me about the Band-Aids. I would tell anyone if they asked. But I hear them thinking about it.
I work after-hours cleaning office buildings around town. Genie in the Bottle Cleaning Service; I'm the genie. I like it that way: night work, the snap of fluorescents on, then off. Mostly off. Every cubicle emits its own light. Small lights blink or flash or hover while I move around, becoming ever more soundless. Behind me, once I clean it, space fills in.
You can always tell the Christians with their PTL knick-knacks on their desks: "WWJD" and "Jesus Lives." Their posed Christmas pictures: little Timmy in his football outfit or Jurlene at her Christian ballet recital, dancing with Jesus. Or the whole mess of them posed on a rock or next to a waterfall that doesn't exist. Holier-than-thou; in real life their faces look like the doughy undersides of muffins. Their hands are puffy with Jesus. You might just see them smacking little Jurlene and Timmy afterwards in the Shoney's line.
I didn't expect it would be hurt-free, this life. You see it all stacked up against you from the beginning. You're light-skinned and maybe you're too smart to fit in with the other girls—so you're an oreo. And then, you're too black for everyone else. You got no time anyway, doing what you got to do at home. So forever, you move apart, by yourself. Spaces open up around you, and at first, before you hear it, you're not sure why.
After a while, you hear the sound that runs under everything. It's a whirring, like the sound of the refrigerator humming in the dead of night. You know how it is: you can't pinpoint where it's coming from, and you try tracking it down. You open the door and a frigid light drives the shadows to the edges of the room. That's the thinking sound. It will elongate around you—stretch out even the smallest hurts.
In the dark of my bedroom my last year in high school, I felt the tumor growing. For a long time thinking I might have to tell my mom I was going to die. It was before her cancer, and after Peebo had left town. After he took off without telling us where, and during the time the tumor was growing in me, I was the one looking after Travis and Jocelyn. Peebo, for all we knew, had headed north. Peebo, not really ever my step-father, but a "relation" like he used to say, a relation because of Trav and Jocelyn.
Now I know any relation wouldn't have done what he did. Me sick on the sofa that one day, five or six maybe, and Peebo saying come on honey, just touch it. It would make me feel so much better. I think he was drunk, but I never would know. You touch; shadows stretch hideous along the walls. The hurt twitches its tiny blades.
I clean the Professional Building out on the bypass where there's an office for family therapy. One time, I came across a woman who was still there. Suppose to look like somebody's living room. We both startled to see each other there so late. She looked up over her red eyeglasses when I passed; she cleared her throat, said hello. I lingered some. We talked about maybe nothing: weather and all. Weren't her eyes as red-rimmed as her glasses though? Hadn't she been crying her own family therapy self?
Alone in her office the night after, I looked at a picture of her family. Her arms draped across a husband, a teenage son, but I could see she was trying to hold something together that was bound to break. Under everything she'd said the evening before were the words she was really thinking aimed at me. Poor, poor, poor punctured the flesh of my body.
By the time I was twelve, Jocelyn and Travis were my duty. They never minded a single thing I said. When they got off the bus, it was me that tried to get them to do homework; it was me who gave a crap about them. It was me that drove to town, once I got my license, to pick up dinner at one of the fast foods along Winslow Highway near about every night. Fried chicken, cheap hamburgers; my mom would leave a note and some money and we switched off using her Chevy Cavalier.
During the day, she took in alterations; she'd even sew drapes and curtains, sewed full-scale wedding dresses sometimes. Then at night she was the genie for the cleaning service. I drove her to work and she'd ride around in Rebekkah's van from office to office. My mom was too tired, always tired by the time she came home. Mostly, it was when we were all in bed: She'd kick off her black shoes and the nylons were ripped at the toes. Seemed like she'd smoke a whole pack sitting at the kitchen table in the dark. Stewing about things.
You have people and then you lose them. Travis to meth, Jocelyn to the Cheetah Club, and other things I'm sure I'll never know. She called me once on the phone to tell me she made good money and not to worry anymore.
My mother to the lung cancer. There was a sound to cancer too—I'd lie in my bed, with the ball of flesh growing hot and full inside me, and all the while I could hear the gears turn inside my mother in the other room. Grinding, catching, holding. A stranger might just hear the intake, the deep dragging breath, then the smoke coming out—but there was a deeper sound—a crackling sound as the smoke started finding its way into her lungs—that was the cancer spreading.
I never knew why I moved so separate from everyone else, and I never knew exactly why that kid Mark took to me. I felt him next to me in Chemistry class, knew he was trying for my answers. Under the baseball cap he always wore, his eyes followed me. Pitiful to say it now, but I carried his attention with me like a velvet box. A velvet box: the idea that someone might just love me. He wore his cap low. He wore it the night we went out, and by the time he took it off in the cab of his pick-up, it was too dark to see. I can only tell you now what color his eyes are. The sound I heard that one night and long ago were the sounds I thought were going to keep me company forever.
I knew walking back to the truck he was going to have me, maybe I even knew walking back there was no velvet box. What made the pain bearable was the sound of him, his panting over me, telling me maybe I could be his girlfriend. There, the velvet box, Desiree, is what I was saying in my mind. The sounds were the price for it : the thrust of his organ deep inside me.
Mark never did call me again, but I wasn't waiting on it. I'd see him out with his friends, hanging off his pick-up; I'd see him with his letter jacket on, his cap pulled down tight.
As the tumor grew, so did the sounds, riotous in my ears: I heard my mother's thinking and most people in my high school. They'd go past and I'd hear their judgments: gone to ugly, fat in her ragged clothes, bitch not so smart after all. I let my grades go; it wasn't good to be smart anymore, to attract any attention. Once the tumor started growing, the point was to deflect it. But the thoughts, their thoughts, were like needles running through me. At home my mother—the sound of her heart trailing after Peebo. Between those long puffs on her cigarettes, she was calling: Where you been? Where you are? Come back. She wouldn't let up, and I imagined the tumor looked like a full plump pomegranate: liquid filling its chambers. Millions of them plumping up with a riotous pulp.
I think even my mother started to know, set to thinking about the solid lump taking up space inside me too. She worried on it smoking and she worried on it sewing even after she got home from the cleaning. The furious needle passing in and out, throbbing through my full alien body.
I'd talk to it, saying: stop, stop growing. I trained my mind on that tumor: even taking some of the medicines and herbs I read up on. I quit school in March and no-one came after me. I pretended pretty good to my mom. Left in the morning to go to the library, made sure I got the school notices before my mother opened them. May rolled around and I told my mom she didn't have to come to graduation; it was okay. She'd been hearing from Peebo again; he even visited once in the spring. She was distracted—her thoughts off on Peebo, loving and cursing him, back and forth.
When it came, it was slicker and hurt me more than I expected, not like the pomegranate I'd imagined. I barred the door and bit down on the washcloth and I was lucky it came in the evening when Mom was at work, though I'd felt it tightening in hot angry spasms all day. I filled the tub with water. Travis was at the bathroom door even though I tried to stop the huffing and the low curses. He cried softly outside the door with me. Go back to bed, Trav, is what I said. I knew he was lonely in his bed, but I couldn't go to him.
Afterwards, I rolled the tumor in ragged towels that wouldn't be missed. Went out in the car, down along the roads I was used to.
There's the Water Block Plus, the Clear Strips, but there's none that'll block you from hearing faraway sounds: a dumpster near one of the fast foods out on Winslow Highway. It was dark, there was too much blood and for the next week it seemed like more organs, more black blood poured out of me. My breasts were hot with white milk. Then it stopped.
You hear things. No you don't. You don't hear things, my mother hissed at me from her bed, bald as a turnip. I'm still paying the hospital bill in installments for the chemo that meant nothing after all; it just helped make her sicker. A doctor came along one day to give her some stupid hope, though she wheezed and wheezed at the end, though she looked at me the day before she died: I feel I might just be getting better. Doctors say it's shrinking.
The next day with her eyes fading, she still looked straight through me because maybe she knew what I'd done all along. You don't hear nothing, Desiree, she said. She rattled inside her thin shell, then it was like she crawled out of it like a snake. Then, nothing more.
When Peebo came around after my mother's death—thinking there was some money instead of some bills, I set him straight: too late, I told him, nothing left. When I called him about Travis, he hung up on me. Now Travis roams over in Atlanta by himself, and I collect his wounds too.
I write the company once a week on the library computers. Dear Sir or Madam: For your information, Johnson & Johnson does not make a bandage to match the color of my skin. I have written you countless times. What you call flesh-colored is not everybody's flesh. I demand that you correct this travesty.
A travesty. It's one word I hear all too often. Mostly it's a whispering so that I can't make out the exact words—sometimes behind me, sometimes to the left or the right. From a dumpster: slippery, guttering, gutting. The blade of hurt, the hurt blade. Sometimes there'll be a cashier who will hold my look for more than one second. Then she'll let loose and slash right through me with her eyes. Maybe that lady in her red glasses or maybe a stranger might step forward, might one day look me in the eye: What hurts? What happened?
Mark's eyes are green: a green like moss on rocks. Or green like the scum I scrub from toilet bowls. Brilliant when I turned to face him at the grocery. Surprised to see he hadn't puffed up like the rest. He would never know what longing there was or would be. But he never did have to hear her and her whispering. Because I caught sight that once of her pinched mocha-colored face. A little velvet box that I could not keep.