Loxie sat at the table stirring her raisin bran. There was only a little milk, so it took a while to get the dry flakes moist. She looked at the paper sack of garbage standing under the sink and the empty Pet milk can on top. A roach ran down the side of the sack. “What you running for?” she said aloud. “You got nothing to be afraid of.” She stretched her long thin legs out under the table and studied the fruit basket pattern of the vinyl tablecloth, barely visible on the top, nearly vanished from many wipings, but around the edges, it was still vivid.She remembered when Mama bought the tablecloth five years ago, when she was only eight years old. She had long ago observed the placement of the various fruits in the baskets, counted each basket in the pattern; now there was nothing left to figure except maybe how many more wipings would be necessary before the pattern disappeared entirely. She occupied herself with this speculation now as she ate her raisin bran. It allowed her to dismiss the garbage sack, the roach, and the miserable steaminess of the New Orleans summer morning.
Mama would be home sometime this morning. She worked nearly every night during summer, when there were so many tourists. Loxie had pulled the sheet up on the mattress and smoothed the pillowcase. Mama would sleep all day, and then around seven, get up and wash in the sink before going back to Sal’s around eight. Money was pretty good during summer, and she’d probably buy groceries, and more milk, before she came home.
She rinsed the bowl and spoon and left them in the sink, slapped her dirty feet across the linoleum floor and shoved them into rubber flip-flops. She forgot again to turn off the window fan before she left.
Out on the street, she ran into Chang Lee, zipping up his pants as he emerged from the narrow passage between two houses. He showed her his two yellow teeth in a good-morning grin. Chang Lee had a Chinese-sounding name but he was the blackest man Loxie had ever seen, so black his skin had an almost purple undertone to it. As far as she knew, he lived on the street; he was always there when she went out. She’d almost decided one time to figure out where Chang Lee lived, but it really didn’t matter that much.
She waved across the street to Sonny’s Marcine sitting on the top step of the shotgun house she lived in with Sonny, then decided to run. Her tiny breasts jiggled under her tee-shirt as she ran. Mama wanted to buy her a brassiere but Loxie protested. She knew her twelve-year-old body was changing, but she didn’t want it to and pretended it wasn’t happening. She turned the corner onto Sauvage, then dipped into a passageway, emerging in a small brick yard, and clambered up the wooden steps to Miss Devereaux’s camelback apartment. She could hear the television blaring away: Miss D. was watching “The Price is Right.” She had a television and an air conditioner; it wasn’t too bad staying with her sometimes—for a while, anyway. Loxie could never stay in one place very long. Wherever she was, she always wanted to be somewhere else. Miss D. was supposed to look after her while Mama slept, but Loxie would never stay if there was nothing good on the TV. She banged on the door until she heard the key and bolt and chain, and then Miss D. was in the doorway, her hair standing out in carrot-colored wires around her caramel-brown face, her eyes a blurry smear. Damn, Loxie thought, she must have drunk all night long. The stench of whiskey wafted out the doorway, but also the cool air from the air conditioner. She’d stay a while.
“Come on in, girl. You want some coffee?”
“Yeah—with some milk in it, okay?” She plopped on the sofa to watch the television and presently, the old lady came in, her burgundy-colored slippers scuffing the floor, the cups rattling in their saucers. They sipped their coffee and did not speak as Bob Barker yelled and bells clanged and women squealed and cheered. And everybody laughed. It was boring. Loxie looked at the big picture of John-Robert over the television, Miss D.’s son who was killed in the Gulf War. The picture was huge, framed in a wide curly carved gold frame. The pictures of Jesus’ Sacred Heart on one side and The Blessed Virgin’s Immaculate Heart on the other were tiny by comparison with John-Robert’s. Before he went in the Army, he’d bought some kind of life insurance and so Miss D.didn’t have to work any more.“Worst thing that could’ve happened to her,”Mama said.“Got nothing to do now but watch that television and drink herself to death.” Every now and then, when Loxie arrived, Miss Devereaux would be slobbering drunk and crying over her dead son. But Loxie knew the old lady needed John-Robert to be dead—so she’d have a reason to drink and so she could afford to. That hadn’t been a hard puzzle at all.
She could hear Miss D. slurping her coffee, and the sound was worse than the women squealing on the television. “Look, Miss D. I got to go see somebody, okay? I’ll come back later on today.”
“You not even going to finish your coffee?”
“No. I got to go now.” And she was gone. She never stayed long, but she usually tried to stay longer than she did this morning. Out on the street again, she saw Jimmy, a boy about her age. They had gone to school together until last year, when Jimmy just stopped coming. Loxie wanted to stop too, but Mama wouldn’t let her yet. She skipped school all the time, though, at least two days a week, usually three. It wasn’t bad when the teacher taught math problems, or some other kind of puzzle, but it was mostly just boring, and being in one place all day was something that caused her pain, like she had bugs in her blood, just running crazy through her whole body. Sometimes she would just get up and leave.
“Hey, Lox!” Jimmy was high on something. He was always high on something, but his favorite thing was speed. Jimmy-onspeed was Jimmy-normal. He had a half-eaten hotdog in his hand. “Hey, girl, come on with me. I got something to show you.”
“You crazy, Jimmy. I’m not going any place with you.”
He was grinning, kind of jumping around, excited. “No, come on. It’s funny. Hey, I got some ludes—you want one?” He dug a couple of white pills out of his pocket.
“You know I don’t mess with that stuff.”But she followed him down to the end of Sauvage, to the tree. You could smell the river from there. The tree was the only one in the whole neighborhood, a huge old dead oak tree that marked the boundary between the neighborhood and Bywater. It had always been there. Somebody said one time that gentlemen used to fight duels under it with pistols, and you could still see bullet holes in it. When she was little, she believed the tree was dead because it had been shot to death—maybe that was even true. She was usually right about things even when she was little.
Jimmy started dancing around a few feet from the tree, waving the hot dog, and hollering “Hey, cat! I got something for you. Come on out, cat!” Presently a small white cat appeared from under a ragged oleander bush. Its face was pinched, and she could see all its ribs. “Watch it, Loxie. Watch it run!” He held out the hot dog as he backed up toward the tree. The cat tried to follow. Its front legs lurched forward, but its back legs were stiff and dragging, and its rectum was red and swollen under its broken tail. Jimmy kept jumping around and hollering at the cat to come on, and the cat kept trying, opening its mouth to meow, but no sound would come out. It looked like some kind of crazy slapstick dance—black boy and white cat, the cat’s mouth open but silent, and laughter coming out of Jimmy’s mouth, stuffed with the hot dog, red ketchup on his chin.
“Jimmy, you crazy! I got no time for this shit. I got to go.” She turned and ran off toward the river, then changed her mind, not wanting to go into Bywater, so she turned around again and headed back toward Bienville. She decided to go see Sonny’s Marcine if she was still outside. If she wasn’t sitting outside, it might mean that Sonny was home and she didn’t want to go there if he was there. He was a mean son of a bitch, Sonny was. It wasn’t getting close to lunchtime yet, but the dry raisin bran was gone already, and Marcine might have something to eat for lunch; if not, she’d have to go back to Miss Devereaux’s. Stupid Jimmy. He was going into Bywater, she knew, that edge of it, to get more dope. He wasn’t hard to figure at all. A few quaaludes wouldn’t last him long—probably the reason he’d been headed in that direction anyway, not to show her that cat.
Marcine was still sitting on the top doorstep,smoking.“Hey, Loxie. How you doing, girl?”
Loxie sat down sideways on the bottom step. “Okay. Crazy, that Jimmy Lugo. That boy’s crazy, you know that?”
Marcine tried to smile. Loxie saw that her lip was cut on one side and she had a swollen eye. “Yeah, he’s crazy. He be dead before long.”
“Yeah.” Like Miss D., she thought. She studied the cracks in the wooden step, looking for a pattern in them, ran her finger along them to see if there were splinters. Marcine’s bare feet were two steps above. Loxie wondered why her ankles were swollen, a question more interesting than splinters in the steps. “Damn hot, huh—you eat yet?”
“Nothing in the house. Sonny get paid today, though. Might get some groceries later on.” She drew on the cigarette with the good side of her mouth. Loxie knew that if Sonny was getting paid today, it wasn’t likely that Marcine would see any of the money. Wasn’t likely that she’d see Sonny either, for that matter.
She looked up at Marcine and finally had to say it out loud— what she’d often wondered. “Why you stay with him, Marcine? Couldn’t you have done some better? That man is mean, you know? Real mean.” She remembered the time that Sonny had kicked her down those same steps. Marcine had been pregnant. She was in the hospital for almost a week and lost the baby. One of these days he was going to beat her to death.
Marcine leaned her head back and blew smoke in the air, then smiled in spite of her cut lip. “Oh, Loxie. It ain’t so bad. Sonny just love his fun. He a happy man, Sonny is—always laughing. Ain’t nothing can keep him down. Besidesyou ever notice? He got gold hair.” Her eyes were wistful, like she was seeing something far away. “Sometimes, early in the morning, I see his gold head rising over me like the sun rising, like the happy sun rising.” Then the smile faded, and the swollen eye fixed on Loxie: “Anyway, girl—something get everybody.”
“That’s crazy, Marcine. Just crazy!”
“May be. But it don’t matter.”
“Nothing gets anybody unless they want to be got.”
“You got nothing to say about it.”
“Well, nothing’s going to get me!”
Marcine smiled and said quietly, “It already do.”
Loxie took off running up the street, back to the room she shared with her mother. That was stupid, nothing gets anybody, they just do what they want to do, that’s all. That’s what people do—what they want to do. And they don’t do what they don’t want to. Miss D. drinks because she wants to and Chang Lee don’t work because he don’t want to work. Jimmy dopes because he wants to and the cat—the cat just wants something to eat. The window fan was still running when she reached the door and opened it quietly. Mama was lying asleep on the mattress, softly snoring, her make-up smeared on the pillowcase. A paper sack full of groceries stood on the table. She quietly took items out of it—a box of macaroni and cheese, two cans of milk, a box of roach poison. I guess maybe you do have something to be scared of, she thought, seeing the roach’s antennae flicking the air from behind the garbage sack. “No!” she whispered aloud, scaring the roach and watching it skitter along the baseboard, “No, you don’t!” She put the box of roach tablets in the garbage sack and the other items behind the curtain that covered the grocery shelf. Then she took down the box of raisin bran, stuffing handfuls of cereal in the pockets of her baggy shorts, and left as quietly as she came in.
She ran up to the Sauvage corner and down that street to the dead tree. When she reached the oleander bush, she whispered, “Please come out, cat. I won’t make you do those tricks. I got some raisin bran for you. Sorry I don’t have any milk.” She waited several minutes and whispered again, but the cat did not come out. Loxie peered into the bush. She could see the small cat lying on its side, its face still pinched, its tiny mouth still open. It was dead.
She turned around and looked at the tree. She just stood there for a good long while, in one place, looking at the tree. It had always been there; it always would be there—big, old, bigger and older than anything she knew. Its deep crevices looked like blackened blood oozing forever into the ground. Then she knelt down in front of the oleander bush and parted its ragged branches. She pulled out all the raisin bran from her pockets, a handful at a time, and sprinkled it over the cat’s body until it was all gone and the small body was mostly covered. Afterwards, she sat back on her heels, smelling the bitter tang of the dusty oleander leaves, and the wet earth smell of the river.
She walked back up the street heading for Miss D.’s, past open doorways and smells of sweet olive and hot grease, people hollering at each other deep in the dark interiors. She looked down at her brown feet in the rubber flip-flops. Her feet were too long and thin to hold the shoes on. She always had to keep her toes scrunched downward to keep from walking out of her shoes. Everything—even keeping her shoes on—was a puzzle to be solved, to be figured out, everything…the pattern of dried spit on the sidewalk or where Chang Lee slept at night or why Marcine’s ankles swelled up.
Then she knew it was puzzles that had got her. Even the puzzle of figuring out what it was that had got her—just another puzzle. She sat down on the bottom step of St. Phillip Neri’s, and her busy mind went blank, empty, just nothing. She was staring down at her scrunched toes, at the sidewalk, smeared with ancient stains, but all she could see was the dead tree.
Dena Hunt is an adjunct instructor at Valdosta State University in Georgia.