Extermination

Tiphanie Yanique


The worst thing that ever happened to me happened to someone else. You know that story. About how I was there. How it was so loud, that field where we stood. How I saw the shuttle go up and up. How there was a blast and we all cheered. Dumb as we were. Because that was the astronauts dying. I was fourteen. I was there for Dr. Ronald McNair. Sure, he was the second African American in space, but the first had been a Challenger man, too. Pop liked the name of the shuttle. Liked that the work of it all was there in the name. Pop, he believed in things being hard. Jenelle, that wild streak of a sister, was gone by the time I got back from Florida. Like she and the space shuttle disappeared the same.

The worst thing that ever actually happened to me proper was when I was an adult. And that worst thing was your father. See, my name is Ellenora, but you and everyone from Memphis to Atlanta knows that I lived with my husband’s first Ellie from the beginning. The same year he parted from that other Ellie—1990. Same year I met Gary, married him, got in the family way, started quilting the marriage quilt, then had you. No one knows really about that other Ellie. Some schizo white girl your father once drove across the country with. But for most of our marriage, Gary kept a picture of that one on the mantel. The skinny girlfriend standing in front of their beat-up car. Family folks might think a mother-in-law is bad, but there is no way to compete with the only woman who ever loved your husband before he married you. Wife isn’t power, you see. Wife is work. A marriage is a wife’s challenge. Which is to say that I was a wife who felt very married.

It wasn’t like that for my parents, I don’t believe. The hard thing for Pop and Mama was us girls. Which is why I thank God I never had one, a girl. Instead I had only you. Though it wasn’t me who was so difficult. It was my sister, mostly, to be honest. I am loyal to Jenelle something fierce, I am. But I’m her sister and so that’s my place. Doesn’t mean she deserves it.

We all used to watch Star Trek, especially the reruns. Lieutenant Uhura, young and sharp faced. Mama would be quilting and the rest of us would be sitting with our dinner plates warm in our laps. “Jennie. Ellie. Take a look at that Nichelle Nichols,” Pop would say. “Now ain’t she fine.” Mama would stay quiet, stay on her quilting. But when she put us to bed she would say, “Uhura isn’t just fine.” Though she would never say what else.

During my marriage to Gary, we watched a world’s worth of TV. I watched much of it by my lonesome. The set was better for company than having visitors, if I am being honest. Which I always am. Visitors might see the picture of that other Ellie and have pity on me. I wanted to cut that cracker woman out. Cut her. But she’d already cut herself out. Your father taught her how to drive, then she drove away without him in a car he built with his own hands. Never giving him a good reason. He used to say he needed the picture of her to remind himself to hold on tight to me. To remind himself that I might leave him, too. I never said what I felt, which was, Why aren’t I enough to remind you?

It’s true I put a square of a spaceship in the marriage quilt. The spaceship was just a symbol. I didn’t need you to be an astronaut. You could be whatever you wanted to be. But a vehicle marks a boy’s manhood in America, it does. Any vehicle might do. And also, your father had loved to build things that would vroom around. Bikes when he was a boy, cars later. When I decided to marry him, I envisioned guiding him to being an airplane mechanic, a space shuttle engineer. Not exactly leaving me for space. No. But having a role in the great thing. I had something like that in mind. I made the quilt, made it more than once, I was putting everything I had into it. That is how art is, so they say.

It’s your grandmother who was the quilter. Though she didn’t do it serious as I have done. She did it often and easy. At first my plan was to make many, as she did. But a woman plans and God laughs. I have completed just the one quilt. I made it for you and your wife-to-be. I haven’t told you the whole of that story, and I can’t say I ever will. This is not me speaking, really. This whole story is from a part of me I can’t even hear. Don’t need to. Don’t want to.

Truth be told, I won’t speak this to you or to anyone—not even God. That would be a giving up of power, and I’m not going back to being the kind of woman who gives up any power, no matter how small. This is a story and this is my truth. You see, the character of the mother always has power. A mother is power. Any TV show makes that plain.

A wife, I suppose, is something different. When I started that quilt, my plan was to pass along your manhood from my hand to your wife’s. Proper. Different from what your father had. Like my mother did for wealthier people, for their daughters’ weddings. But when I married, Mama told me she’d taught me the skill. So it would be on me to quilt for my own family. “Done enough for you girls what with all the doing I’m doing for your sister,” she said.

The first patch of the quilt I did up for you, the center, was the square with you inside. That patch is still there even now. I used brown felt to make you, and I cut carefully, I did. Made you like a boiled peanut. Sweet and soft as you were from the beginning. Though it wasn’t soft nor sweet, my marriage. Not for me. But my story of my learning to be a mother begins, I believe, years before you and Gary even showed up in my life.

That day in ’86. I was sixteen and I was there. See, when Jenelle and I were wee things Pop had written to NASA to make sure the first shuttle was named after the Star Trek one. And it was. Space Shuttle Enterprise. That name was a great success of his. But there was no Uhura on the real Enterprise. Then came the Challenger with Dr. Bluford, and then after him, Dr. McNair. Not fine as Uhura, but brown as her. We knew about those men in our home. And so I knew all about the Challenger. Sure enough, I had written an essay. Pop had made me. He was into space, he was. I wrote how the very first Challenger, the one from the olden days, was a sea shuttle. Sailed around South Africa. I made that connection, yes, I did. With how the first Challenger and our Challenger were both important for uplifting the Black race. Got a good grade, an A, as I’ve told you. Got sent to Florida for the launch. How I got to my first tragedy. By being a good daughter. Obedient daughter.

I was the good child. Patient and kind. Of course, I wound up a patient wife to your father. And I was kind. At night in bed beside me, Gary would whisper to the voices in his head and I would kindly and patiently hold back my tears, hold in my screaming. His speak-back voice didn’t sound like his normal voice. It had a foreignness to it. It was frightening, to be true. In the mornings, I would play Al Green on the stereo, so Gary might know I was trying. I wasn’t boastful and I wasn’t proud. I was mostly ashamed. I was all that stuff the Bible required, even when it was clear Gary didn’t give the Bible any primacy. I would even play wild Ike and Tina, once I knew Gary liked a little wildness. I meant them as love songs for Gary. But he would always make me turn them down, off, when he wanted to play the Moslem music or the Jew tunes.

At the launch that day it was cold. Real cold. Too cold for the South. And it was windy. The wind was rightly gusting. We kids were right there. Waving little American flags that had been handed to us. I remember that. That year there had been a launch every few months, it seemed. Failed. Aborted. But so many successes before. So no one can blame any of us for believing back then. There was that teacher making news as the first teacher in space, and our Dr. McNair.

On TV that year there were some other black wonders. Mr. Mandela had been released from prison. They showed him waving. He was an old man then. Had been in jail his whole life. There was that South African connection, like the Challenger, again. Mama and Pop didn’t say anything to us about him, Mandela. Not then and there when we watched the news, not later at tuck in. Mr. Mandela was supposed to be dead but he had lived. Then not too long after, I was watching all those astronauts die. Could barely tell they were dead, from my vantage point. For weeks it seemed like they were still on their way to the moon. I can’t see what the point of death is. Death doesn’t seem to make anything really go away. That is the truth.

Take my life, for example. What is a dead first love up against a living wife? Turns out, it’s everything. Better I was a co-wife, like it’s said they have in South Africa. Better me and that Ellie could stand and compete. Better we were both there in the marriage kitchen—me outcooking her, outsexing her. In the picture Gary held onto, the girlfriend has yellow hair that I could tell, even from the picture, hasn’t been washed in weeks. I wash regularly. More classy, I am. And yet, in the few pictures he has from his youth my husband looks as unkempt as that white woman does. He’d never worn sloppy clothes like that with me. We never went for cross-country drives. He never suggested anything freaky in the bedroom, though I learned, I sure did, that he wanted a little freak. As though it was not really him with that woman. Or not really him with me. Which is to say I did fail on one of those Biblical commandments, because I sure was envious of that other Ellie.

Just a picture of her, I tried to convince myself. But gone people have power. Even people who have never lived at all have power. Because it started with that TV character Lieutenant Uhura. We can all see that now. Now that we are looking back.

Though, truth be told, space didn’t work on me like it did my sister. For Halloween when Jenelle was fourteen and I was twelve, she dressed up as Uhura. Wore a wig for the hair, but Jennie had Uhura’s skin and bones. I was pretty, to be sure, but not in that way. “I don’t approve,” my father said that night when Jenelle came out of the room. I wasn’t going out anywhere. Too young for the parties, but too old for trick or treating. My mother had come in from outside with a watering can in hand to see my sister off, but now Mama turned and went back to the garden.

“Thanks, Pop,” Jenelle said, and flounced out, as though he’d said the opposite of what I know he’d said. I’d thought, My, so that is how it works.

I wouldn’t say that Jenelle came back late that night. I was still awake, after all. I heard her in the kitchen fixing something to eat. Which meant she’d been dancing. We lived in Memphis, after all, and most everything was a dance party. Live music to start. And when the band tired, then Milli Vanilli blasting from someone’s boombox. I didn’t sneak out to the kitchen. Sneaking wasn’t allowed in our house. “Sneaking is lying,” Mama would say, “commandment number nine.” Pop would whip us for sneaking. So I just walked out to my sister. Tried to be loud, so she knew I was coming.

But Jenelle was standing there with a pan in her hands like how that Arthur Ashe used to hold his tennis racket. And Pop was standing there too. “Nichelle is pretty but she ain’t a lady—kissing on that cracker,” he said. Pop’s right hand leaning on his cane, his left up like he was making a big statement. “No girl child of mine will be doing that.” Honest, Jenelle and I had never watched that specific episode, the one where the captain kisses Uhura. I still have never watched it, to be honest. “Don’t take one step closer to me,” Jenelle said to our father, “or I’ll burn your face off.”

It hadn’t dawned on me then that the pan Jenelle had at ready was filled with hot oil. And I wondered then if Jennie would do it. Burn up our father. I wanted her to, to be honest. I can’t say why. “Go on and do it then,” our father said.

You have to try and see it. Jenelle was Uhura, Lieutenant of the Starship Enterprise. Our father was just a Pop in pajamas. They stood that way for a long long time. The pan must have gotten heavy because Jenelle finally put it down, turning her back to him like there was a force field around her. But Pop was already raising the cane. I left the kitchen and went back to Jenelle’s and my bedroom. I can’t say they ever saw me there, because they never looked my way. But back in my bed I heard them. Her screaming. Him yelling. How Mama slept through that racket I can’t say. Next day Jenelle’s pretty face was fine, but she stayed in bed, the blanket wrapped around her like some healing cocoon. She didn’t go back to school until the bruising on her back went to normal. Took time, it did.

Some things just take time. You’ll remember, that it wasn’t until after the break in that I made Gary move that Ellie’s picture from our mantel. Because that is when I knew that it wasn’t just a picture. No sir. Gary had never given that Ellie up, her dirty body and her dirty ways. Which is to say that perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to outsex her, after all. She treated him like an animal, they treated each other that way maybe. I supposed he liked that bit, but I say she was using him. A little dark fantasy for her. I made him move the picture from my mantel after I knew what I knew.

Right then. That’s when I did a square of Gary and his other Ellie. I did. I drew them in my own hand, which was crude. You were sixteen already and I was hoping you’d marry early, as I had. I pictured you and a nice young Christian African American girl laying up under that quilt working on grandkids for me. I’d quilted in a square of a cross from the day you were baptized. A square with some islands felted onto it, representing the place your father felt he was from. A square with the letters MEMPHIS on it, so that you might know that was where I was from. A square of Jenelle’s boy, your cousin Brent, in his peewee uniform. Your family.

I quilted that other Ellie and your father as the final square to fit. Put them in decent clothes, not like what they ever owned when they knew each other. A red mini dress for her, though in the picture he had she is wearing a long skirt to her ankles. A proper blue dress shirt for him, I did. Like Uhura and Spock, I know. Why I did that, I can’t rightly say. Maybe a penance for having that Ellie removed from my mantel. Maybe a way to overcome my own un-Godly envy. I colored in her dress with a cloth marker. Her yellow hair. I wasn’t good at it, the drawing. Still, I did it careful as I could. I worked on it for days that week after the break-in. Didn’t want Gary to see. Though maybe I did.

I left my quilting room open often that week. Then, low and behold, Gary did the same. Left his office open. That’s when I saw that he hadn’t discarded his image of the other Ellie at all. There she was on his worktable. Same picture, just now in his private room. Alongside his bug sprays and rows of rat traps. Gary never could let his past go. If we’re speaking plain, I suppose I couldn’t let the past go either. Not his. Not mine.

So I ripped the quilt to pieces. That’s the truth. What I couldn’t get with my fingers, I took with the scissors. Did I cry? Can’t say I really remember. Most of the squares were in shreds. All but the one of you there, my boiled peanut, at the center. I started over on that quilt after that, though. Started over determined to do better. What I’m telling you is that I worked hard, so hard, on my marriage. I worked it for you.

I can’t really blame the man, my husband, for not letting that Ellie go in his heart—I say my husband because he’s been my only one and I can’t see myself doing that again. It’s true I’m not much of a Christian woman these days, but I still abide by what Paul said about marriage. That it’s forever. So you know why I can’t fully blame Gary Lovett. See, he and that Ellie were young together. And I suppose they were crazy together, too. The girlfriend was eighteen when they ran away to get married, though they never did. I married Gary in my eighteenth year, as well—not even a year after that other Ellie. But I lasted longer. I’ll give myself that. I was a real something. Not like a TV show. Marriage is a real something, even if it’s no good. Remember that.

My Pop and Mama. I can’t say they had a good marriage. Can’t say good was what they were after. They worked hard. They watched TV after they worked. In fact, even after that incident with Jenelle we kept watching Star Trek and Papa kept saying how pretty Nichelle was. But Mama didn’t tuck us in to tell us that Uhura was more than fine. We kept watching Star Trek until Dr. Bluford and then Dr. McNair gave us the real thing.

One thing we knew, what Pop was always going on about, was that Dr. McNair had picked cotton when he was a boy. Pop had done that, too. Still did, when we were having a hard go of it. “Gonna get you girls down there,” he would say when we watched some new advancement about the Challenger on the news. My sister thought he meant get her down to NASA, and in our room she would ask me what I thought it would be like. “But Jenelle, you sure he didn’t mean down to pick cotton on the farms?” I know for a fact that is what Pop meant.

But Jenelle didn’t want any part of that. Me neither, to be honest. Which is why it was all too easy when Gary Lovett came along. No, my pop wasn’t the kind of man I wanted for myself. Gary was my get out. Though when you were finally born a year later, 1990, I didn’t drop you off with your Gram and Pop, like Jennie did Brent. A summer here or there with your grandparents was the most I ever allowed. I went far away from him. Though, Pop never did worry my mother as Gary worried me. I’ll give Pop that. The space stuff was the only thing that made Pop different to other men in Memphis. See, most people in America weren’t paying attention to the Challenger as early as 1983. But we were. Had been giving that ship our undivided attention ever since Dr. Bluford. On our TV, our family watched the star ship wheeled down a runway getting ready for its early missions. We watched Dr. McNair. His big smile. His big voice. And he was a musician. Not singing, but a sax. Still, you see how it went for me.

Gary. He had that big smile. And that big voice. And he knew all about all kinds of music. The girlfriend had driven across the country with him in his car. The music he sang for her saved her, so he said. I’d believed him in the beginning. But it became hard to know what was his crazy and what was his truth. Either way. When that girl left him, he stopped working on cars. Fixing vehicles was what he’d loved as a boy and what he felt he’d failed at. It wasn’t his fault. That other Ellie, she took his gift for working on cars. By the time it was Gary and me, he’d send our car to the mechanic for every doggone little thing.

And do I remember that time at the gas station …? You were still a tiny thing. My breasts hard as two bags of rocks, because you never could get the feeding right. It was a too hot day and I just didn’t want to pump the doggone gas, I tell you. Not with my husband in the car like that. Shaming me. So I went inside and I asked the cashier. He said, “Sorry, ma’am, but I am not to leave my register.” I told him that my husband was sick and could he pretty please. Where I got the gall, I can’t say. It was a young white boy, face prickled with pimples. Still, he came out, nodded at Gary, and pumped. On cue, Gary covered his ears, started in on the voices. There he was, asking them to left him, in that bush accent that would come over him. I watched the gas make the air look swimmy. You were in the back seat—in a fancy child chair you were always squirreling out of. But you hadn’t budged since we parked. Instead you started to cry. Gary kept chanting to the voices. I kept staring at the thick sweet air swirling. Made believe I was a girl again, and there I was at the launch, watching Dr. McNair and his saxophone from the sky to the earth.

And that white boy kept pumping. Didn’t even charge us for the gas. When Gary finally started the car and drove us away, he seemed calm. You calmed, too. It dawned on me then that maybe Gary wasn’t all crazy. Maybe the voices weren’t a demon. Maybe he was talking to her—that Ellie. Maybe it calmed him to make her leave him again and again. But I tried to let that go, I did. Instead, I had it in mind that maybe you might grow up and become a car mechanic—doing the thing your father had never been able to do. That night, I tucked you in and told you life was good. Despite your crazy father. I told you about Dr. McNair and all that he’d overcame. You won’t remember that, Earl. I didn’t tell you then about all the astronauts dying. It was a bedtime story. I told you about how Dr. McNair played that saxophone on the space shuttle, a lullaby. After you went down, I started on quilting a square with a wrench.

It was so many years later that I found out about that nastiness and saw Gary wouldn’t even let that other Ellie’s picture go. I decided to do the quilt different. There would be no wrench, nothing of your father’s past. By this time you had an afterschool job, a responsible young man you were. I had the TV on, as I was trying to find inspiration. I can’t say I was still a woman of much faith, but some things are a force of habit. So, yes, I was watching the Christian channel. Not that I was really listening.

Sometimes, my eyes would be on the TV but my mind would be there in Florida. Watching the Challenger go up and up and then explode. But there was a TV pastor asking, “Where is your marriage physically located?” I stared at the TV and focused. And I knew. My marriage wasn’t in space or back in Memphis or on the mantel. My marriage was in the quilt. I held your brown boiled peanut body, the felt cutout I’d made of you that is, in my hand and I just knew. I turned the TV off and went to Gary’s office. I looked at the picture of the other Ellie but couldn’t think of what to say to her. I searched around and found one of Gary’s work shirts and cut out the pocket where his badge was. I found one of his rags that had an advertisement for bee repellent on it. Before I left the office, I turned back to that picture. “Leave us!” I said to that white girl. “Leave us alone!” Which felt like the most right thing I’d ever said, though I was saying it to an inanimate picture. Then I went into our bedroom and found a clean short sleeve that I myself had bought Gary. Something he might grill in or cut the lawn in—though it’s true he cut the lawn but never grilled. The grilling was just a wish of mine, something other husbands did. I stitched all those things of the Gary who was now your father and now my husband into your quilt. I stitched in a square with the A’s and B’s of your third-grade report card. One red square because that was your favorite color for a while. Ripped it out for a blue one, when you changed to that instead.

I didn’t play Nut Bush or any nonsense. Played saxophone music all through the house, like what Dr. McNair played. To give me a new inspiration for the quilt. And Gary didn’t deny me that. I didn’t do a dignified patchwork like my mother always did. See, I’d been to the museums by then. Seen how the fancy quilts could look, how creative the quilters could be. I planned to make a great quilt of the present and the future. One that was most definitely better than my mother’s. In the new one you are still there, a little boiled peanut, at the center. Your father’s shirt pocket, and all that new stuff, encircling you. You see, I stitched a crazy quilt the second time around. A jazz design, like the sax I listened to. Like the thing was a maze to make your way through. Like manhood.

I’d decided that in that quilt I would let everything dead go. It’s true I used to imagine Gary was Dr. McNair. Before that I used to imagine Dr. McNair was Pop. No more of that, I told myself. Besides, it was like I said—wasn’t me, so much as my sister who was moved by all that space. She’d gotten into her head that she was gonna be the first black woman astronaut. She wanted to get away from Pop. I supposed space seemed far enough. I didn’t think at all about what I wanted to be or where I wanted to go. I figured it would find me and I would marry it. Hadn’t worked out exactly. Not like my sister planning her life up seemed to work so well, either.

And it does seem Pop mellowed after Jennie left. Never raised his voice or that cane again. Not as far as I know. If he ever put a hand on you? Well. I made a patch of a cane in the new quilt, then drew an X over it. Then I cut out the X. Let the cane go all together. The kind of woman’s magic Mama taught me.

Your father had his problems but he wasn’t a man of impulsive passions, like Pop. He was a calm man—except for the voices. He spoke hard to the voices sometimes. Other times, though, he would sing to them. He’s a singing man, my husband. Exhusband. Sang all around our house, is true. Hymns, chants, gospels, azans—the whole cat and cradle. He was always singing to God, Gary was. Always a different god, as he could never settle. I gather that he sang love songs for that other Ellie. He never sang love for me. But you managed to love music, despite. I quilted in a guitar when you took lessons for a few months. Quilted in three African drums in all. Tried to make them look close to the three fancy drums you had me buy you for high school graduation. Beautiful, strange things. Cost me a pretty penny. By then I didn’t want you to be a mechanic or an astronaut. A musician, that is what I knew you were made for. Gary and me, we made you for that.

In the revision crazy quilt, there was no Bible, no cross. No pills. Nothing crutch like that. There was a musical note. There was the name of that shop where you got your first afterschool job. There was your name, the one I gave you: Earl. There was you, boiled peanut, at the center. It’s true I quilted in the letters of the shuttle, but I did leave out the last one. I wanted you to have a challenge, but not one that would rise up from the past and kill you. I never put myself in the quilt. Though of course, my hand was in the whole thing.

But you had to leave, like sons do. Not the moon. College. I even quilted that ugly mascot. You were close enough to drive back to me sometimes. I wouldn’t have encouraged it any other way. A long road and a white woman had ruined your father. A road and a woman can do that. Ruin the full life of a man. Gary had to go and become an exterminator, getting rid of pesky things that got in the way. Rats, mice, roaches. Then me, eventually. Two years after I made him move the picture, he was packing up everything, that picture included. You were well into your first year of college by then. He left me. Imagine that. And he was the crazy one. Certifiable. Took the pills to prove it. The Good Pills, I called them. Like the Good Book that we both ignored eventually. The pills made it so we couldn’t have another child. The pills took that from me. But we lived by those pills, we did. I did, anyway.

Here’s something that I would say, out loud, because I want it to be known now. When I stitched that quilt to a close Gary had just left the house, but it was okay. Because I knew that the quilt could be done now. My marriage was done after all. And you were on your way to a wife.

Well, even the smartest people make mistakes. Look at NASA. All those smart people and look how they messed up the Challenger. And not one mistake: a whole planet full of mistakes before the big one. Pop made us watch them all. One where the shuttle didn’t even move off the launch pad. One where it lifted off but came back down minutes later. The last you know, we all know, where it blew up. And everyone died. Now if they can make that kind of mistake, you can see how maybe you can make a mistake. With this Maristela. Take just her voice. Sounds like your father’s voice when he wasn’t taking his Good Pills.

And I’ve tried with that one. I have. Tried to discuss smart things with her. But she’d never even heard of the Challenger from the times of ocean exploration. Which tells you all you need to know about the kind of marine biology teacher she must be. Not that I’m judging. I don’t have that Christian discernment in me anymore. It’s only that it feels rightly like a mistake, this Maristela and you. Just like those other women, before and after me, have been my husband’s mistake. I am a mother. I want the best for you children. The both of you, really. But I know that Maristela Jones is a loose woman and unnatural in her looseness. Just like your father’s first Ellie and her unnatural animalistic desires. Feels like you gonna go off and marry this woman and blow your life up.

You are stubborn. Now, that is a strength in a man, I believe, but Maristela needs a husband who will know how to manage her. Earl, you are not a managing type of man. Take heed. You had to get on the road, all the way to heathen New York City, to stumble upon that woman.

And you don’t even know the worst of her. Things went missing that weekend you brought her to meet me. Not fancy things. Not things a different homemaker might notice. But I am meticulous. Had to be, married to a pest controller. See here, Maristela took a mug I bought myself that said “World’s Best Mother.” And a commemorative magnet from the one time my husband took me to hear the opera in Atlanta. Been on my fridge door a decade. She took the extra soaps I kept in the bathroom cabinet, shaped like starfish. Low down. Like she thought my house was a hotel. Might have stolen the very quilt I’d been stitching, if I hadn’t hid the thing.

But don’t you worry, son. I’ll play supportive at the wedding, if you make it there. I’ll even put on a nice dress and heels and a nice face, too. I’ll get the license and marry the two of you my own self. Even if I don’t approve. Can’t say I ever will.

But I will say the truth here. Because what does it matter? You’ll never know. You know the story I’ve told you about the shuttle. Yes. That was the morning Pop asked Jenelle to stand up at breakfast. She hadn’t eaten her food that day or the day before. “Stand up,” he said. “Oh, let her be,” Mom had said, standing up herself. “Let them go. Today is launch day.” But, “Take off your dress,” Pop said to Jenelle. Jenelle stood. And mom started to cry and pray, “Please God,” she cried. Jenelle lifted her dress.

And there was Jenelle’s belly, which I’d paid no mind to at all before. Too innocent, I was. It was tight and round, and then, right then, a little fist punching out, like there was a space creature inside her. Pop stood up, raised his cane and knocked her to the ground. Broke her collarbone. And other things, too, I guess. Which is to say, I wasn’t at the Challenger launch. Not really. Couldn’t have been. I was in Memphis. I was on the way to the hospital with my sister. Mama driving us, though up until that day, I can’t say I even knew Mama could drive. You see, a mother always has her secrets. We waited in the waiting room for Jenelle.

And that’s when we saw it. Everyone crowded around the TV. The star shuttle Challenger gone. Rerun, rerun, rerun. Which is to say, being at the launch wasn’t really the worst thing to ever happen to me, because I wasn’t there at the launch at all. I didn’t even watch it live on cable TV, like I know some kids did at school. The lines of smoke curling to the earth. Like arms stretching out to hold a person. That is what I saw. Dr. McNair dead. Him and his saxophone and his Challenger, all in the sea. My sister didn’t come out either. She was alive. But she stayed in there. Two nights. Something about the baby. And then she didn’t come back home. We didn’t see her for months. I don’t think Pop has ever seen her again. “Raising your sister was a challenge,” Mom would say. Pop never said a thing. I always think of Jenelle, pretty in that little red Uhura dress.

And what of Gary’s white heifer? I have to guess her story is that she married religious, had babies and babies for God. Did her nastiness with Gary and then left me with that. I didn’t get the chance to marry a good Christian man, thanks to her. I didn’t get a chance to have babies and babies for God. Just you. And I can’t say rightly that we raised you for God. Honest to goodness? I raised you for me.

And that pastor on the TV? That white man, with slicked-back silver hair and a strong Georgia voice. “Where is your marriage physically located?” he’d asked. I never forgot that question. My answer hadn’t been right, I suppose. I worked so hard on that quilt. Though, I always hated quilting. That is God’s honest truth.

 

From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.

Art by Christian Colton, curated by Dana Lyons.

Tiphanie Yanique is a Fulbright Scholar, a National Book Award 5 Under 35 awardee, winner of the Bocas Prize for Caribbean Poetry, the United Kingdom’s 2016 Forward/Felix Dennis Prize for a First Collection, the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Award from the Center for Fiction, the Phillis Wheatley Award for Pan-African Literature, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Family Foundation Award and Pushcart Prize. Her books include LAND OF LOVE AND DROWNING, HOW TO ESCAPE FROM A LEPER COLONY, and WIFE. Tiphanie is from the Virgin Islands and is a professor at Wesleyan University.