by Jennifer Anne Moses
Loretta is talking, talking, talking—the fact of the matter is, her mind is slipping some, and if she doesn’t talk, well, then, she may well just forget what it was she was meaning to say. This time she’s with that white girl. The white girl who takes her places. The volunteer. “What did you say your name is again?” she asks the white girl, who tells her. Oh yeah. They’re driving. The white girl isn’t such a great driver though: she drives like an old lady, slow, and Loretta wants to go fast! She wants to go so fast that her hair will fly right off her head! It’s boring, here in the car. Boring with the white girl old-lady driver. Where are they going again? she asks the white girl.
“To Walgreen’s. You wanted to buy some things.”
“I don’t know. Toothpaste? Shampoo?”
“Oh. Oh yeah. That’s right.”
What else? Because something else is clouding her mind. She thinks and thinks, because she knows that somewhere, deep under the layers of her brain and the haze of her memories, there’s something she’s not remembering, and then she remembers after all: it’s her brother, Lukas. Lukas is sick. He’s so sick he’s going to die! That’s what the other white lady, the one at the place where she’s been living, told her. “We need to prepare you, Loretta. Your brother isn’t doing so well.” Her brother. Did she have a brother? More like a sister.
“Lukas,” she says.
“What about Lukas?”
“He dresses up.”
“In ladies’ clothes. Makeup. Shoes. Lord have mercy. What I gon to tell Mamma about him?”
“Your mother doesn’t know?”
“Lord have mercy.”
There’s another thing too. She’s hungry, that’s what it is. She has gum though. A whole pack, right here in her pocketbook. She takes two pieces out. Juicy Fruit. Her favorite.
“No thank you.”
“What’s the matter with you? Don’t like gum?”
“Actually, not really.”
Well, what do you know about that? Some folks be downright crazy, and some folks be downright mean. This one, she reckons—this white girl who is white and therefore doesn’t know shit about shit about being black—she’s a little of both. But not really, because, really, Loretta loves her. She loves everyone is the truth.
“I love you,” she says.
“I love you too.”
Well, there you go and doesn’t it just go to show you? Loretta is so happy that she can feel the happiness as a tide of warmth spreading in her heart. That’s Jesus in there. Because Jesus is love and love is God and she can feel Both of Them in her heart and this white girl is a good Christian. Taking her to the drug store, just because, and isn’t that something, the way people can be so goddamned nice? Nothing in it for her, either: no money, no shit, no sugar, no nothing. But the good feeling turns cold again because all of a sudden she remembers what it is that she’s worried about: she remembers her brother, Lukas, who dresses in women’s clothes, puts on women’s shoes and women’s under-things and perfume and makeup and wigs and everything. When Lukas dresses up he’s prettier than she is and men try to make it with him because they think he’s a woman. She knew about it from long ago too because when they were coming up together on North 20th Street she’d find things missing from her drawer, panties and bras, even a box of Tampax once, and then she found him prancing in front of the mirror, and he told her that if she ever told anyone he’d kill her dead. Then he cried and said he didn’t mean it but she swore anyway, swearing that she’d never tell anyone anything about it. He was already a big boy by then, too, almost six feet tall, broad and strong, with armpit hair you could see and little bristly bumps on his face where his beard was coming in, and here he was, stuffing her bras with Kleenex and squeezing his big male parts into her pink panties. But it’s not even that that bothers her, because she’s been knowing all about it since she was just a girl herself. It’s that other thing, why the both of them are living in the place together, now, after all these years. It’s not a hospital but it’s kind of like a hospital, with beds that crank up and down, and a TV in every room, up high on the wall but you turn it off and on and switch the channels from your bed.
It’s why they’re there that’s the problem. How that other white lady, the one who’s in charge, blinks behind her glasses, blinking like she’s trying to get the blue of her eyes to stay put and not run all over the place like melting ice, blinking and saying in her dry white voice: “You know your brother isn’t well, don’t you, Miss Loretta? You know he won’t be with us much longer.”
“Oh Miss Loretta. I wish I were. I wish I were lying. But honey, it doesn’t look good.”
“He’s a strange one, sure, I’ll give you that. Probably putting his thing where it don’t have no business being. That how he get sick, putting it where it don’t belong. Don’t even want to think of it. But that’s just the way he is, always has been.”
“Just don’t be telling our mamma about none of that mess, hear?”
That’s what made her sad.
They’d loved to do the jiggle-wiggle, which is what they’d called it, back then, but it was only dancing they were doing: the brother dressed up in wig and evening gown, the sister in regular day clothes, him in giant heels, and the both of them dancing, shaking it, playing records on the stereo. The Funk Brothers, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas. Damn. She hasn’t danced like that in years.
“Mind if I turn the radio on?”
“Go ahead. But we’re almost there.”
“Where we going again?”
“Walgreen’s. You need to buy a few things. Shampoo, stuff like that.”
She turns the radio on but something dreadful and dull comes out, so she fiddles with the dial until it’s something she likes, with a beat, the singer’s words coming out high and fast so she can’t understand the words but it doesn’t matter because it’s that kind of song.
It would be one thing, she thinks, if the girl would just sing along with her some, but white girls can be like that: snooty. It doesn’t matter though, because when she gets going, like she’s going now, she just opens up and just like that she’s lost in the music, her lungs filled with the joy of song, her feet tap-tapping and her hands beating the rhythm on her thighs, and, praise Jesus, she’s happy. She’s got a place to live, doesn’t she? A room? A bed? Food to eat? And there’s that man, too, the white man, real creepy looking, who keeps making eyes at her, and if he doesn’t have the hokey-pokey for her her name’s not Loretta Dawson, no ma’am, not that she’d go near him, not even if he begged her, because, for one, she’s done with all that, and, for two, he gives her the creeps, with that long hair and those tattoos, and it isn’t that she minds white men, either. White men; black men. Not much difference, both of them wanting and needing her the same way. Oh, she’d been in love so many times! Married only once, but love, that was her weakness. But she could never love this man, not in a million years, and anyway: they can’t have sex anymore, not where she’s living now along with her brother and all the other infected people, not unless they want to get thrown out, and that’s just what Miss Lilly told her when she was caught with that other man in the bathroom only they weren’t doing much of anything.
“Do you mind if I turn the radio down a little?”
“Do you mind if I turn it down?”
“Do what you want to do, baby. Your car.”
Oh well, because the song was coming to an end anyway and shit: she’d forgotten it again. She’d forgotten the bad thing. It was back there, somewhere, some bad thing that she has to remember because if she doesn’t remember it, it’s going to get worse.
She takes out a pack of cigarettes: four left. Which means she can have half a cigarette now and finish it off later and then have another half later in the day and by then maybe someone else will have bought some cigarettes and she can have one of theirs.
“I’d prefer if you waited,” the white girl says.
“What you mean?”
“I’d prefer that you don’t smoke in my car.”
“You mean this here truck here? You don’t want me to smoke.”
“Then why don’t you just say so?” Not that she’s offended. It’s no big deal. It’s just funny, how some people get all ticklish about something as nothing as a cigarette. Putting the cigarette back in the pack and the pack back in her purse, she says:
“You want to know how come I still smoke?”
“I ain’t told you before?”
“I don’t think so.”
“See,” she says, spreading her palms wide. Her hands are big in front of her: she’s always had big hands. Even as a child she had big hands. “What it was was that, first, I got out of St. Gabriel’s.”
“I didn’t know you were in St. Gabriel’s.”
But she was: sent down to the women’s prison and had to work in the laundry and then had to work in the cane fields like a slave in the olden times and then back to the laundry and damn if it wasn’t boring in there, and all because she took a shot at her husband, that no-good motherfucking motherfuck carrying on with her own aunt, found the two of them in the bed and didn’t think twice about it, she grabbed the pistol they kept behind the flour and the sugar, way in back so no one would find it, and marched right into that bedroom—and it was her own damn bedroom, too, her own damn bed that she had made that morning before she’d gone to work—and took a shot, aiming at his head. She missed though and had to shoot again. Blood spurt out everywhere and her auntie jumped out of the bed with her little titties wiggling and her scrawny behind no bigger than a child’s and she must have been the one to call 911, because even before Loretta had had a chance to clean up some of the blood the house was filled with police, with firemen, sirens blaring, lights going criss-cross through the darkened windows. And the motherfucker wasn’t even hurt bad: spent a week in the hospital and then went straight home, but by then Loretta herself was locked up at the city jail.
“Damn,” she says now. “Yeah. And let me tell you something about St. Gabriel’s. You don’t want to do time there. Hear?”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Place is nasty. But me, I get out for good behavior, only when I get out, where I gon live? My husband gone and divorced me and my kids are grown and they don’t live nowhere near here anyway. So I move in with my mamma, and got me a job. A good job too. At the dry cleaning plant.” Only she’s forgotten what she was going to say. “Mind if I have me a smoke?”
“Actually—we’re almost there. Can you wait?”
She looks at her hands again, thinking how nice it would be to have a cigarette between her fingers, and just like that, she remembers again: “So I was working. And every evening, when I get home from work, I go to the refrigerator and get out a nice cold beer. Then I lay out my stuff—first my cocaine. Just a little bump, you know. Then the beer. And I got my cigarettes for last. So I do like I always do, and I’m at the table, and I’ve got my cocaine right in front of me here, and my beer right in front of me there, and my cigarettes for later.”
The car has come to a stop in front of Walgreen’s.
“I need me all kinds of things,” Loretta says.
“Well then, let’s go in.”
Crest, Colgate, Aim, Aquafresh, Pepsodent, Arm & Hammer—only she doesn’t need no toothpaste and doesn’t understand why the girl is standing next to her urging her to make up her mind. Didn’t someone back at the place make a list for her? She fishes into her purse, finds her cigarettes, and pulls them out, but the girl tells her she can’t smoke in the Walgreen’s so she stuffs the pack back inside.
“I know that.”
She’d like one, though. Just one, or even just a few draws off one, just enough to calm her nerves so she can remember what it is she keeps forgetting. But now what’s this? Her fingers have alighted on a piece of paper. Pulling it out, she reads:
But everything is so beautiful, so dazzling, so colorful: and that music? How do they expect her to just stop everything and choose a toothbrush when the array is so intoxicating and the music so insistent? It’s old school Michael. Michael! She just wants to do the wiggle-jiggle, is what she wants to do, like she and Lukas used to do, back home, when they were teenagers, because with Lukas, she knew she could let loose, really be herself, really let go and go wild and no nigger would call her a whore and her mother wouldn’t give her a lecture and the teachers wouldn’t ask her if she’d always been slow and no one would say a damn thing and that was because when she was with her brother-sister, her secret inner self was safe and his was too, and it was only just the two of them, Loretta with her big behind twitching like she wanted some even though all she wanted was to dance, and Lukas with his wig and his perfume and all manner of women’s under pants and hose and perfume and eye-shadow on. And then he’d press her to his large soft chest, and it was just like being pressed up onto her mamma’s bosom, only not, because Lukas was huge, well over six feet, and built massively, with a broad chest and broad shoulders, a thick neck, and large, strong hands.
“Oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah,” he’d sing along, coming in on backup.
In the candy aisle there were beautiful jellies shaped like worms and bears and fish and they were orange and red and yellow and white and green, green like the greenest green there ever could be, and dark chocolates wrapped in silver and gold papers, and enormous swirling lollypops. On the other side of the store the lipsticks were even more beautiful, red and more red and dark red and pink-red and purple-red all in black and red cases and glimmering and shimmering there in the light.
“Do you want me to help you find your things?”
“Your things? Mind if I look at your list?”
“Help yourself, baby.”
“Let’s get you a toothbrush, okay? Soft okay? Because my dentist always tells me to use a soft toothbrush. Better for the gums.”
“And what kind of soap do you like? Antibacterial okay?”
“I like that real soft kind. Soft and white, like butter.”
“This one?” She holds up a box with three soaps inside. “Is this the one you mean?”
“Yeah, that it.”
The music’s changed now.
Baby, I need your lovin’….
“Mind if I have me a smoke?”
“You’ve got to wait until I get you back home.”
“That right? Well, okay.”
But there’s something else on her mind, and she remembers what it is: it’s the story of the cigarettes. She says: “So it was Jesus himself who told me I could smoke cigarettes.”
“Yeah. Because with those other things I didn’t want them any more. But with cigarettes, I never heard a word.”
“What do you know?”
It was true, too: she was sitting at the table in her mother’s kitchen, just like she did every night after work, and she’d laid everything out in front of her, all nice, all easy-like. Then she reached for her cocaine. But Jesus said: “No, Lo, no,” and he took the taste for it right out of her mouth. Then she reached for her beer, and again she heard the voice of her Savior speaking right into her ear, right down into it so she could feel His breath inside her body, and again he was saying, “No, Lo, no my love,” and she had no more interest in drinking that beer than she had in drinking a bucket of dirty mop water. Then she reached for her cigarettes but Jesus didn’t say anything and even when she lit up He stayed quiet and right then and there she knew that she had His permission to keep smoking.
They’re back in the car, heading down the highway, all manner of cars passing them, because the girl, she was real nice, but she wasn’t much of a driver. Drove like an old lady. Stuck to the far right lane.
“You know my brother?”
“That’s the one.”
“He ain’t right.”
“You know he likes to dress up in lady clothes?”
“You ain’t gon tell no one, though, is you?”
“Because they don’t let him dress up like that no more. Just pajamas.”
Poor Lukas: he didn’t dress up any more, not now that he was sick and had to be taken care of. Instead he had to wear regular clothes, sweat shirts and jeans and like that, or, when he couldn’t get out of the bed at all, in clean men’s pajamas, with socks if his feet were cold.
The car is humming now but she doesn’t like it, all this humming quiet, when she wants music—she wants to dance! Only she can’t dance because, for one, she’s in the car, and also, something’s wrong, only no one will tell her what it is.
“He’s sick, you know that?”
“I’ve seen him. He doesn’t look well.”
“He’s real sick. He’s just so sick.”
“That’s a shame.”
“They say he gon die.”
“Who said that?”
“That’s what they say. They keep telling me that. But they wrong.”
She flips on the radio again and again out comes all kinds of things that she doesn’t much care for, so she has to go hunting around again until she alights on WFMF 102.5 all-hits-all-the-time only they’re playing something she doesn’t know so well so she can’t sing along. She can’t sing anyway, though, and that’s the truth, because suddenly she’s just so sad, so sad and downcast, she feels like crying. And it’s all because of her sister-brother, Lukas, and how he likes to put on ladies’ things. Puts his own thing inside of places it don’t belong too which is how he got sick, putting it all kinds of places, and now he’s dying. That’s what they say, anyway. But they don’t know Jesus and they don’t have faith and isn’t it God who decides who shall live and who shall die and not no white lady with little wispy eyelashes and eyes so watery blue that they look like they’re made of skim milk?
“Here we are,” the girl is saying, swinging the car around. “Door to door service.”
“You’re a good Christian, child,” Loretta says. “You really is.”
Back inside she looks for her brother but he’s not in his usual place, in his wheelchair in the front room, where he likes to watch TV. Because the thing of it is that he doesn’t much like to watch TV alone, in his room, all by himself. Which is why the ladies always be making a fuss over him and cleaning him up, putting him in clean pajamas and a robe and slippers and wheeling him out to the front room where, even if he’s the only one out there watching TV, he won’t be alone.
She goes to his room, but he isn’t there either. She knocks on the door to his bathroom. She goes down the hall to her own room, thinking that maybe he’s waiting for her there. But the room is as she’d left it, messy and empty at the same time, the bed only partly made, and her dirty clothes in the corner where she’d left them when the girl had come to say that she could take her out if she wanted, and all her other clothes lying this way and that on the bed. Just in case she takes a peek into this white man Alvin’s room just because Alvin is that way, liking men and very friendly, and he sometimes has all kind of people in there with him but Alvin is asleep, snoring. Where’s her brother? Then she remembers that sometimes they’ll take him straight into Miss Lilly’s office, or maybe he’s having a bath? One of those special baths that the ladies who take care of everyone give him sometimes, in the big bathtub in the special bath tub room where they can lift you in and out of the water like a big baby. She’s sure that must be it, especially as seeing that Lukas had been complaining about how his whole body be aching him, and there’s nothing like a nice hot bath when you feel like everything’s hurting…but he’s not there either and damn if she doesn’t need a smoke because if Lukas has gone and died on her while she’s been out shopping for pretty things she’ll die on the spot, just cry and cry until she herself is dead, because Lukas is Lukas, and ain’t no one else like him, her own brother who’s also her sister.
She marches back to her room, retrieves her cigarettes from her purse—taking the whole pack now, and not just the one cigarette she was going to smoke half of—and heads back in the other direction to the smoking porch. She’s fuming now, twitchy with fear, angry at herself for leaving, even angrier at the white girl for taking her, angry at Miss Lilly for saying that he was going to die because if you say it it makes it that much more real, that much more like permission for Jesus to take you. When she pushes open the door, though, she sees him: her brother, Lukas, wearing her favorite dress, red with black buttons, his feet jammed into a pair of her shoes, her favorite gold hoop clip-on earrings on his ears, and his lips covered with red lipstick. The only thing that’s missing is a wig but he’s gone and put her beautiful purple scarf over his head so he looks a little bit like a gypsy.
“Lukas!” she says.
Even in his wheelchair, he’s looking fine. He’s looking better than fine. He’s looking downright beautiful.