Lois called Quentin right after the Darren Wilson verdict was announced. Then she left her laptop in the car, unplugged her alarm clock, and, with the help of Valium and liquor, slept for three days through sirens, chants, fires, and glass breaking outside.
At some point, she dreamed of a bear being attacked by shadowy figures. It screamed in a man’s voice and was beheaded. The bloody matted fur on its skull landed on the ground with a squelching thud and rolled onto Lois’s bare feet. She woke up rattled and dry-mouthed, and lay in the dark listening to her stomach growl until she dozed again.
It was Thanksgiving Day the next time she rose. The sun’s mid-morning assertiveness swallowed the house, and the sound of trash bins being emptied outside was strangely comforting.
Lois got up, showered, and stared at her puffy face in the bathroom mirror. Her whole body hurt. An invisible stone crushed her throat, her shoulders, her chest. She went into her office, turned on the desktop computer, read only the emails from her business account. She brewed coffee, cooked eggs, and ate in silence. She washed dishes, changed her bed linens, and charged her phones. Then she sat in the den and listened to her trail of voicemail messages.
Harold’s call came minutes after the radio broadcast. Lois remembered the cell phone’s vibration inside her blazer’s pocket as she drove home from her last appointment, tears clouding her vision as the deejay repeated the grand jury’s decision. The first absurd thought was a callback from Quentin, but her gut told her it was Harold. She pictured him in his office, his door locked and blinds drawn. Sitting hunched at his computer screens, pouring another glass of Bourbon as he leaned over the speaker phone:
“Lois, listen to me. I want you to go home. Go straight home, okay?”
Some nerve, she thought. He said “home” as if he still lived there, as if the last of his wardrobe weren’t boxed away in her basement.
“Things are getting out of hand. This has to stop. I’ll call you back later.”
The scorn in his voice echoed. She heard the part of him that always declared he wasn’t one of them. The part that had looked at the photo of Michael Brown’s body lying in the street and chastised the boy’s sagging pants.
At the time, Lois had agreed with him. Quentin’s refusal to wear a belt always drove her crazy. Still, she noticed her feelings for Harold begin to dissolve, and faded away until she could no longer be around him. They stopped talking. Instead of playing chess with him after dinner, Lois read alone in her office. And when he mashed his groin against her in bed, she pulled away, told him she was too tired.
For months, they danced the same routine. She tried to hang on, considering her therapist’s view that resistance to intimacy was normal during recovery from her life’s lowest point. She was never convinced, however, and finally decided their love — if it could’ve ever been called that — wasn’t riding over a rough patch. Together, they’d treaded into acres of dead land, and Harold was just better at pretending. Accepting that she wanted out wasn’t as terrifying as Lois had expected. One day Harold was there. The next, he wasn’t.
There was a message from Jillian, Lois’s best friend. Her nasally voice screeched into the phone.
“Lo, you there? I’m headed out the office now. The boards on these windows are already being tagged. Eggs, dirt, rocks, sticks. Good Lord! Anyway, the church is having a Peace & Healing service tonight. We should go. Call me, okay?”
Guilt racked Lois as she downed the last of her coffee. She had promised Jillian she’d go to church with her whenever the verdict came; they were supposed to mourn together. The thing was, even as they were having the conversation, Lois knew she wasn’t going. Something about the thought felt hollow and wrong. How could she embrace people inside the comforts of stained glass when, outside, folks were fighting a foul battle?
Lois couldn’t stand their church. It was large-bodied but bland, like food that was never properly seasoned. Something was always off and obvious, it seemed, to no one except her. She missed the church of her childhood, where she’d felt seen and inspired, and people were expressive, defying the veil of sophistication that was now her world.
The automated system gave an unfamiliar number, but Lois recognized the voice once the message played.
“Hey Lois. Plans for Turkey Day? Mine is awesome so far. Let’s swap stories over brunch and shopping tomorrow. My treat, yeah? Black Friday’s waiting!”
Dawn hadn’t called since the 4th of July weekend, when she’d invited Lois to some stiff soiree in South County on the last day to RSVP. Lois politely declined, as she always did, knowing it would be just another event at which she the only person of color in the building not on the service staff.
Lois met Dawn in real estate school. She was that white girl who insisted on being friends. The two of them had been the youngest in their class, and they studied together in late night cram sessions, and knocked back cocktails during post-test celebrations. But they were never close because right away, Lois understood something: Dawn was obsessed with black, when it was on her terms.
It was a ridiculous fetish, one that turned off once things became too real. When national race relations seemed stable, Dawn expected Lois to be her personal tour guide through contemporary black experience. She was in Lois’s face, gushing with curiosity and grabbing for details about everything she assumed was appealing to Lois: where to go for the best soul food, how to twerk, who to contact for weed.
When things weren’t all sweet potato pie and Tyler Perry movies, Dawn conveniently disappeared; as soon as they calmed down, she returned in need of her ethnic fix, careful to avoid topics that triggered debate and quick to hurl distractions in discussions that were out of her comfort zone. Lois hated it, but saw Dawn as more of a career perk than a confidante. She enjoyed having access to the right people with the right benefits and figured she could always break away as soon as things became as draining as they were insulting.
The voicemail’s automated speaker announced another message from Harold. Lois skipped it and went to the next one from her mother.
“Don’t tell me you in bed while these fools tearin’ up my city. This your Mama. Ring me. Bye.”
Lois deleted the message. Justine’s smart mouth was occasionally entertaining, but more times than not, she sounded crass and ignorant. She expected the mother she knew and liked to return and replace this old woman who had no tact or compassion. The mother who jumped on the bed alongside Lois and her siblings to Kool & the Gang’s Jungle Boogie on Saturdays while Sir was out. The mother who always slipped her Tootsie Rolls while she cried in fear of the large conveyor brushes as they drove through a gas station’s tunnel car wash.
Instead, the years Justine spent living inside her own bubble soured relations for all of them, especially Isha. Lois couldn’t imagine being her niece’s age again, living with a batty widow whose sole purpose in life was to complain. It was hard enough for Lois not to cave into the feeling that she needed to protect Justine from a past she refused to acknowledge. As far as her mother was concerned, Sir was the best thing that ever happened to her. Lois and everyone else knew better.
Sir was never a person; he was a force. A ghost of a man who seemed tortured by his own secrets. When he entered a room, his energy soaked up everyone else’s. Seeing him with Justine was like witnessing a crack slowly expand and travel down the middle of an ice block. Lois hated the way he treated her mother. An expert at saving face, Justine made sure what went on inside their household stayed there. She normalized everything in front of Lois and her siblings.
Certain moments stood out more than others, like the time that Sir grabbed Justine’s face in the middle of breakfast. That day, Lois and her siblings sat around the kitchen table and watched him shake Justine’s jaws with a firm hand for something she’d said or done. Petrified, her mother stood over the stove with bacon grease flying off her spatula. Her heels shuffled along the tile floor as she tried to keep from falling backward. Even then, as it was happening, Justine held Sir’s arm as if they were caught in the middle of some random, passionate cuddle-dance, with a look on her face that said, See kids, none of this is real. Me and your Dad are just playing.
Lois still blamed herself for enabling Justine’s denial. She gave into her mother’s pout fests and often shrank under her contempt. Why couldn’t she be more like her sister? For all of Raynah’s faults, cowering wasn’t one of them. She was sincere, but brutal, and never pitied Justine or fed her fragile ego. She challenged their mother, even when a confrontation wasn’t called for.
As if on cue, the system’s robotic voice read Raynah’s number. Lois’s chest swelled with dread and tenderness. She and her sister had avoided each other for years, only exchanging brief hellos in passing at Justine’s house. Bad stuff always had a way of bringing them together. Their last conversation occurred just days before the funeral. They didn’t embrace or make eye contact. Everything felt fake and empty.
“Tony and his bullhorn are in town. They say hi.”
Lois dropped her empty mug on the table and covered her mouth as if that would somehow un-do the words. She tried to think positive. Maybe this was a sign. Maybe it was what she needed. Devil that she was, Raynah was good for initiating change, unusual beginnings.
But the hard feelings inside Lois wouldn’t go away. She circled the rim of her mug with her thumb, bothered that her sister knew about her ex-boyfriend’s return from Oakland before she did. As it was, Raynah had lived closer to Tony for years. Those years, Lois thought, should’ve been hers.
Raynah had moved to the Bay Area to attend UC Berkeley in the fall of 1986, just before Lois gave birth to Quentin. Lois’s resentment over her sister’s entry into a renowned college on a full scholarship, as well as unlimited access to Tony, deepened the wedge between them. She often imagined Raynah and Tony acting on their hidden desire for each other and starting a relationship behind her back while she adjusted to her role as a statistic: the single teen mother struggling to maintain a decent GPA on less than three hours of sleep each night. She’d be in the middle of breastfeeding or changing a diaper and her thoughts would roam to visions of lustful nights between Raynah and Tony, or the two of them holding hands while they discussed the works of Langston Hughes on some secluded beach.
The what-ifs were maddening, especially since Justine forbade any interaction between Lois and Tony. Sir’s detachment and his decision not to get involved was far more generous than her mother’s overprotectiveness. Tony, in Justine’s mind, was a selfish failure, who’d chosen to let his brother’s tragic death determine the direction of his own life. She treated Tony like a disease, refusing to let anyone mention him in Quentin’s presence, as if Tony’s name would infect him. If the boy was to grow into a decent human being, Justine declared, he should never be allowed to be around, or even know about, his father.
Raynah eventually returned to St. Louis, but not as the same person who’d left. She’d dropped out of college during her sophomore year and immersed herself in all things black and anti-capitalist. To Lois, it was both brave and stupid. Not that she didn’t care about the plight of her community; she just couldn’t accept that it was all she had to care about. People were people, and there were many levels to their suffering. She never understood how Raynah’s pledge to a life of nomadism, bouncing from one social justice-inspired dead-end gig to another, did anyone good. Certainly choosing to have some junkie’s baby along the way and dumping all the parental responsibilities on Justine wasn’t supporting the cause.
Back home in Missouri, Raynah’s sharp tongue still spewed radical talk, burning a hole into people’s consciences about how America’s racism and classism had made it into a third-world country. But, though outspoken, she had become a borderline recluse. She made begrudging appearances at family gatherings, only at Justine’s insistence, and only staying long enough to greet everyone and fix a to-go plate. And Lois assumed her sister had broken ties with all her west coast contacts, since she’d clearly shut down that part of herself. The only elements that appeared to remain were her crisp pronunciation of words, her shaved head, and the rhino’s earring between her nostrils.
Thinking about Raynah and Tony, Lois fought the urge to get back into bed. She tried a breathing technique she’d learned from her therapist as she waited for the automated voice on the cell phone to bring up the next caller. It was Raynah again.
“Oh yeah, found Quentin’s scissors and saved a plate for you at Mama’s.”
Hearing Quentin’s name prickled Lois’s skin. She raked her fingers through her hair and massaged her cheeks to stop the twitch underneath one eye. Images darkened her memory like a shadow she couldn’t outrun as she recalled the new scissors she’d bought for Quentin on Amazon a month before he graduated from Barber College. They were emerald green, his favorite color, and she couldn’t pass them up. She remembered hovering the mouse over the confirmation button as her belly knotted. The years of pride in his lengthy summer outings with kids from respectable families, enrollment in Missouri’s best private schools, and a partial scholarship to study architecture at Washington University. All gone.
Barbers were good, but it was a life for the mediocre, the average. There were things worse than dealing drugs or winding up in prison. To Lois, remaining just above the poverty line, never being able to afford a mortgage, and working through the standard retirement age were equal to a death sentence. But Quentin was pigheaded and wanted to forge his own path, however lowly and generic it seemed.
Lois had tried hard to get a handle on her emotions as she watched her son ruin his adulthood. Like every mother, she was afraid the world would crush him under its biased, corrupt thumb. She also couldn’t shake her jealousy of Quentin’s courage to be his own person, an quality had Lois never had. And she was angry with herself for feeling entitled, as a selfless mother, to his gratitude, to his obedience. For investing in programs that were “ethnically gratifying.” For exposing him to St. Louis’s upper class pocket of Somebodys. For ceaselessly instructing him on the things a young black man needed to do in order to be admired and taken seriously:
“Stay away from dark colors.”
“Hoods and caps cause trouble.”
“Don’t stare at anyone too long.”
“Hold your chest in, Son.”
“Try not to take up so much space.”
“Keep your hands where everyone can see them.”
Quentin’s moving out on his own hurt Lois more than she let on. It was a wonder he’d never reached out to Tony and moved to California, a decision that would’ve killed her. Fearing it might one day come to that, Lois confirmed the Amazon order and had the emerald shears shipped to Justine’s house, where the surprise graduation party in his honor would be held.
When the package arrived, no one had heard from Quentin in a while. He was happiest when off to himself, but it wasn’t like him not to check in with Lois for days. She panicked when she learned Isha hadn’t talked to him, either; since they were kids, the two of them had been intensely connected, bonding more as brother and sister than cousins.
Lois called everyone she knew. She left dozens of messages on Quentin’s phone and circled his apartment complex every few hours, hoping to get a glimpse of him inside the lobby or on the steps that led to the building’s entrance. She drove around town, paying close attention to young men with her son’s build and complexion.
Peevish and exhausted, Lois was sitting at a red light near Quentin’s Barber College when she noticed a boy in a faded St. Louis Cardinals jacket at the bus stop across the street. She saw the copper brown cheekbones scarred with old acne, the bushy eyebrows that had earned him the nickname ‘Grinch,’ the gap in his teeth that he’d never wanted to correct.
Quentin looked like a dim caricature of himself, a body minding his mother’s fraught instructions. He was hoodless, with his broad shoulders hunched forward. His hands were clasped before him, and his feet looked welded together. It was a pathetic scene, like watching a twig break under the pressure of a vicious wind.
“Stay away from dark colors.”
“Hoods and caps cause trouble.”
“Don’t stare at anyone too long.”
“Hold your chest in, Son.”
“Try not to take up so much space.”
“Keep your hands where everyone can see them.”
Lois gripped the steering wheel until her fingers were numb. She answered the phone only to stop it from vibrating on her lap. A string of Quentin’s ‘hellos’ travelled through her earpiece before she hung up and steered away from the bus stop.
It wasn’t like Harold to come by unannounced. He was clingy, but this was absurd, even for him. There were things far worse than another fatal police shooting that occurred before their split. Where had he been then, Lois thought, besides somewhere playing everyone’s damn judge?
She trotted to the front door, cell phone in hand, mentally preparing a good curse-out. The knocking continued at hand-splintering speed. Barely able to contain her fury, Lois yanked open the door and faced a sweating, concerned Tony. He was burlier than she remembered, dressed in a snug V-neck sweater and wrinkled jeans. A ‘Black Lives Matter’ cap covered his head and brought attention to his enormous ears. He looked skittish, but his eyes smiled.
Minutes seemed to pass as they stood wordless, staring at each other. An explosion of dots swarmed Lois’s vision. Her legs buckled. She somehow gathered strength to shut the door as Tony began to speak. She felt jellyish, watching the hallway that led to her bedroom extend like some horror film.
Was she imagining things? The front door opening and closing again. Footsteps gaining on her. Sound filling her mouth. Arms coming around her from behind.
He took her in the kitchen and when they were done, they sprawled out on the tile floor, a mess of skin, limbs, and sweat. It reminded Lois of them as kids at church on the sanctuary’s raggedy carpet, picking off wads of gum underneath the pews.
“I called Quentin the other day,” she said.
“You called him?”
“Yes. I called him.”
“And what happened?”
“Don’t do that. Somebody’s gonna answer one day. It’s been two years and–”
“Don’t tell me to stop. If I want to call, I’ll call. If I get someone, I’ll just hang up.”
She felt Tony staring at the side of her face, the warmth from his nostrils thumping against her temple.
“How’s Harold?” he asked.
Lois stared at Tony’s chest hairs stubbornly sprouting in different directions across his torso. The same grayish strands curled themselves around tiny stubs of black locks surrounding the bald spot at the center of his head. Part of her was glad that he wanted an update on her love life, although she knew better than to ask about his.
“And your mom?” Tony asked. He kissed her collarbone and shoulder.
“Okay, I guess. Still learning how to exist without Sir.”
“All these years and y’all still call him that.”
“What else would we call him?”
“He never let us. You know how he was.”
“And what do I look like calling a grown man Daddy?”
“Right now, sexy.”
“Might as well spit on his grave,” Lois said, dodging the rest of Tony’s kisses. An image of her father popped into her thoughts. It was a picture of him as a younger man, handsome and commanding, before his appearance was defined by bones and bed sores. She couldn’t remember what she called him before Sir, but she knew it was never anything as normal or endearing as Dad. He wasn’t the warm type. He didn’t even directly tell them what to call him. One day, Justine was just ordered to give them a choice between Sir and his first name. To Lois, he didn’t look like a Wesley. Her siblings must’ve felt the same way because from that day forward, he was Sir to them all.
“How’s Ms. Myrtle?” Lois asked.
“You know better than me.”
Tony pressed the tip of his nose against her cheek. His breath smelled like cigarettes and spearmint gum.
“Don’t tell me you haven’t seen your grandmama since you’ve been here,” Lois said.
“She knows my main priority for coming here. I’ll see her soon enough.”
Lois turned to Tony and picked at the caked dirt in one of his ears.
“I see you still don’t wash your lobes, nasty boy.”
They both laughed, filling an unwanted silence.
“I was a bad mother,” she blurted.
“I was. All those years of listening to Mama and keeping him away from you. I was worried about what people would say. What would they think? I’d rather you be dead than some Afro-political nut in poverty.”
Lois flinched at her own honesty. She waited for Tony to spit something back, pull away. He fingered her navel.
“You was no worse a mother than I was a father. Sometimes there ain’t no one to blame. You get that?”
“How you know things would’ve been any different if he was with me?” Tony asked.
“He would’ve had more options. You’ve seen some of the kids here.”
“How you know? You seen some of the kids in Oakland?”
She didn’t say anything.
“What’s the right choice anyway?” Tony probed.
“The right choice is not turning into the animals they all think we are.”
Lois felt her chest growing tight, the weight of the words snapping in her throat. Why did she have to explain this? Tony knew better than anyone.
“You sound like me,” Tony said. He seemed to sink without moving, and Lois could feel him crashing down on her. She imagined him being labelled a freak full of black pride and self-reliance babble when he could barely pay his rent. Flaunting a Philosophy degree while he bartended and drifted through flea markets, scouting used parts for his bicycle. Wondering about a child — a life — he couldn’t have.
Another return home under fresh ugly circumstances must’ve been awful and equally amusing. Lois knew people like her weren’t always the most accepting. She remembered the way people stared at Tony when she introduced him before the home-going service the last time he visited.
“Just Tony,” he’d told her the previous night. They met at a rundown bar on the other side of town after Lois sorted through the last of paperwork at the funeral home. “Make up something. Anything.”
They both knew Lois couldn’t weasel her way out of talking. She cared too much about how others reacted, what they would say. People ambushed her with all kinds of crude questions and she, unable to bear the guilt of deflecting, never changed the subject. She ended up lying as Tony instructed.
Everyone understood anyway. Tony may as well have been the one in the casket. Aside from the obvious age difference, the resemblance was clear. That copper skin. Those bushy eyebrows. The same plucky ears.
Before the viewing of the body, Tony lost himself in the back of the sanctuary away from the immediate family’s designated pews. He cried the longest and the loudest until Justine requested someone escort him out. Echoes of his raw screams in the church’s basement sent a familiar bestial passion through Lois. Returning Harold’s sympathetic hand tug, she dabbed at her eyes and knew if given the chance to be alone with Tony again, she’d saddle him without shame. To her relief and disappointment, it never happened. Tony vanished before the burial, leaving no trace of a working phone number or an address to send a Thank You card.
“When’s the last time you been outside?” Tony asked. “You look pale.”
“Are you kidding?” said Lois. “I can barely go online right now. I’m thinking about deactivating my Facebook until all this goes away.”
“It’s not going away.”
“Well, it should. I’m sick of people taking sides. I don’t know which makes me madder: the whiny we-shall-overcome posts from us or the subliminal finger wagging posts from them. And, why is it still an us versus them? What year is this?” Lois thought of Dawn and her flock of silent dissenters.
“Took me a long time to realize it goes deeper than race,” Tony said. “Sometimes it’s a character thing. Add personal issues, outside circumstances, and a whole lot of fucked up history. Now, you got war. Ghosts and cyborgs.”
“Don’t forget us do-gooders who do nothing,” Lois added. She expected Tony to laugh at her self-mockery, but the bones in his jaw met her forehead as he ground his teeth.
“You should come to California,” he said.
“Oh, is it time I got enlightened?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I miss home, but I’m never here when I’m here.”
“I know,” she repeated, not sure of what else to say.
Lois turned over on her stomach and rested her head on her folded arms. She watched the beginnings of a sunset through her kitchen window. The iridescent sky girdled a yolky sun. Blotches of peach and mauve clouds thinned like soiled cotton balls being pulled apart. The scene was odd, hypnotic.
“What you got planned tomorrow?” Tony asked over her shoulder. It was more of a question than a statement.
“Some of this, some of that.”
Getting out of the house didn’t sound like a bad idea. Lois knew returning Dawn’s call would be a blow to her dignity, but it was the lesser of the two heartaches. She felt trapped underneath the weight of her own brewing anger, a near deadly combination when mixed with Tony and grief. Dawn was a buffer, the only person who could chase her out of her head. They’d get together, do a little shopping, and pick up where they’d left off. Lois would listen to Dawn’s latest my-best-day-ever story while they laughed between sips of their mimosas, ate off each other’s plates, and answered everything with ‘perfect’ or ‘absolutely.’ It was the ideal getaway.
“Don’t do the Black Friday bullshit,” Tony said.
“And miss a chance to get Donna Karans for half off?” Lois replied. “I’m sad, oppressed and pissed off about it. That doesn’t mean I’m dead.” Tony was making her feel base and uneducated with no sense of reality. It was starting to irritate her.
“What about you? Crashing any Black Friday demos?” she asked, her voice laced with sarcasm.
“Well, I guess you should get a head start.”
She lay on her side facing away from Tony as he made small, poky movements behind her. A patchwork of thoughts and feelings emerged, but Lois’s tongue was thick and doughy inside her mouth. She heard clothes being separated and the clink of Tony’s belt buckle. She willed herself not to turn, listening for the sound of his footsteps and the door closing behind him, but instead she felt his cigarette-gum breath was hot on her neck again. She smelled his sweat as his meaty arms engulfed her and he buried his pudgy stomach into her lower back.
Then, a flicker of green caught Lois’s eye. She felt the cold, hard metal against her abdomen. Tony slid one of his hands on top of hers and guided her fingers along the grooves of the shears, circling the thumb hole, the finger rest, the handle.
Together, they moved the scissors across Lois’s belly button. They traced the C-section scar along her pelvis. Their breathing fell in sync as Tony led the shears onto the tile in front of them. Lois stared at their hands still fastened together in her kitchen, where the light was turning steely at night’s command. She closed her eyes and let the silence have its way.