I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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The phone rang just after Felonise had hung up the white clothes in the backyard. It was late October, and the laundry swayed in the California wind that blew hot and gentle from the moment the sun came up out here in the orange groves outside Rio Seco: the dish towels, the sheets from the fold-out couch where her grandson Teeter had spent the night when his brother, Lafayette, went to a piano concert, and the white socks her daughter Cerise called “Peds,” the ones Felonise liked to wear at night around the house. Could wash them after one night. Cleaner than slippers.
Back in Louisiana, Mama used to say, “Least keep the feet clean. All that dirt from the cane fields, but least don’t put dirty feet in my sheets.”
Felonise opened the back door and reached for the cordless phone Cerise had bought her from Target. “Hello?”
“Hi,” a woman’s voice said, “I’m calling about Lafayette Reynaldo Martin.”
“That’s my grandson.”
The woman hesitated. “Hold on, please.”
The receiver was jostled, and the school women’s voices murmured like distant puppies in a yard. Felonise hoped he wasn’t hurt. Stove clock said 11:03. They had probably called Cerise, but she was at work and couldn’t hear the cellphone in her purse. Last year Teeter had fallen off the bars, and the school had called Cerise, but she hadn’t answered. Cerise had come over to Felonise’s house that night, crying until her eyes were red and swollen as peach pits.
“I was in the bathroom, Maman,” she’d moaned. “The only five minutes all damn morning I didn’t have that damn phone with me.”
“He only have a sprain wrist, now,” Felonise had said. “Nothing he gon’ remember.”
Cerise had turned up her face to Felonise and said, “Maman, they remember. The ones at the office. You don’t know. They think, Oh, another little black kid, and his mama’s some crack ho who doesn’t even care enough to answer when we call.”
While Felonise held the phone, a black blur fell past her laundry and made a soft thump on the concrete patio.
“Mrs. Martin?” A different woman’s voice.
“Your name is on the list to call for Lafayette, in case it’s necessary that he be picked up.”
“He get hurt there at school?” She saw white — a wrist bone poking out from his skin, a tooth in his palm.
“No. He was in a fight, and he’s been suspended from school for the rest of the day. I’ve called his mother, his father, and his baby sitter. There’s no answer.”
She didn’t like this woman’s tone. Lafayette wasn’t no foster kid. “His mama workin’, and sometime she ain’t hear that little phone. His daddy work carpenter, and he never hear nothin’. And Esther might be at the doctor. So, yeah, I come and get him.”
“Well, we’ll expect you soon,” the woman said.
Had to add that. Like I was fool enough to come tomorrow. So Felonise added, “You tell him I’m on my way.”
The crow lay dead on the patio beside the wash line. Another baby. Furry with baby feathers puffed out like a piece of black boa from some old costume, the small black feet curled like ink writing. Felonise pushed it onto the dustpan with her broom. She walked over to the trash can, and when she opened the lid, the two finches from yesterday lay there on top, stiff and dry.
West Nile virus, Cerise had said. She’d read it in the paper. That’s where she worked — at the Rio Seco Register, in the customer-service place out near the Pomona Freeway.
Felonise set the baby crow beside the finches. West Nile — something in the air, or in the blood, that came all the way from Africa to Southern California inside the birds and mosquitoes. Her yard had been nearly silent this month: no crows and jays and mockingbirds fighting over every scrap of stale bread and cold rice she threw out for them.
She left by the front walk and closed the gate behind her. Ten small white houses lined up along the gravel road. She would ask Enrique for a ride to the school downtown. Enrique was Lafayette’s grandfather. Cerise had once been married to Enrique’s son. The young couple had moved downtown when they had Lafayette, because Cerise said the school was better, and the neighborhood had good home values. Two years ago her husband had left her, moved in with his brother back here in the groves. He’d apologized formally to Felonise in the kitchen at Christmas.
“I couldn’t hang,” he said. “Gotta be perfect to live like that, Miss Felonise. Every minute. She got the boys in basketball and tutoring and piano. But I’m tired when I get home from work.”
“My daughter tired, too,” she told him. “She call it the ‘second shift.’ Say that her job, too, raise them two.”
Enrique’s truck was parked near the barn where they stored the picked oranges and crates and machinery. Even after thirty-five years, whenever Felonise saw the barn, she thought briefly of Raoul, her deceased husband. A flicker in her brain, like the news that appeared in the corner of the TV screen. He’d worked only a few seasons here in California, then gone back to Louisiana, to the town where they’d both been born, to help his uncle with the sugar-cane harvest. He was twenty-five. Raoul had been driving a tractor loaded too high with cane, in the rain, and the wheels had slipped into a ditch and the tractor overturned.
Enrique had bought this California land in 1960 and brought them all here. His wife, Marie-Therese, had grown up with Felonise in Louisiana. She saw him in the barn now, unloading boxes of fertilizer. Felonise said, “You give me a ride up there to that school? Cerise and your son at work.”
They headed up the long gravel road between the Washington navel trees. The dust was heavy on the leaves — no rain since spring. The green fruit was almond sized. “Which one sick?” Enrique asked, his hand on the gearshift. The veins were like yarn under his skin.
“Nobody sick,” she answered. Enrique waited to turn onto the blacktop road. Down that road to the left was the elementary school Cerise and all the other kids from the groves had gone to: Agua Dulce Elementary. Mexican, black, and white kids from the small communities scattered in the trees. When they turned right, toward downtown, she said, “Lafie get in a fight.”
“Like his daddy.”
“No, not like his daddy. Fight back then don’t mean nothin’. Now they can’t fight. Can’t bring a ChapStick to school. Can’t jump off no swing.” The truck went over the canal bridge. “I gotta take him home.”
Enrique turned onto Palm Avenue, the big four-lane road that went through the business part of Rio Seco. Spanish-style bank buildings, restaurants, and stores. Then turned into the residential district with big two-story homes, historic plaques, hedges tall as walls. Finally he pulled into Olive Heights Elementary.
Enrique stopped the truck in the school parking lot. Felonise said, “Go ahead home. I stay with him at his maman’s, wait for her.”
Enrique said, “She be more upset than the boy, oui?” He knew her daughter well.
“She want him happy. That’s the only thing.”
Felonise had been to the school a few times, waiting with Cerise at the back fence when the kids were let out. Cerise worked 6 A.M. to 2 P.M., and she always said, “We gotta be early to pick up.”
“Why?” Felonise had asked the first time.
“ ’Cause these other moms start lining up at the back fence an hour early so they can watch the kids on the playground.”
“They don’t work?”
“They work inside the home, OK?” Cerise put on lipstick quickly using the rearview mirror. “They’re like a club. They volunteer at the school. They’re here all damn day, bring their kids lunch half the time.”
“Ain’t no cafeteria?”
“Very funny, Maman. Their kids want something from Taco Bell or Wendy’s.”
“Why we gotta be early, too?”
Cerise gave her a long look, then parked her car behind a white SUV with soccer-ball bumper stickers. “So Lafie and Teeter can see us. See we’re here. Like everybody else. So everything is exactly the same, Maman. You don’t get it.”
Cerise was right. There was already a parade of mothers down the sidewalk, standing with arms crossed in that waiting pose, laughing and talking, eyes hard on the playground. One woman, her hands splayed like starfish on the chain-link, called out to the toddler next to her, “There she is! I see Madison! She’s playing tetherball. Do you see her? See big sissie?”
Felonise remembered sitting with Marie-Therese and having one last cup of coffee while the children walked home from school, their voices skittering down the gravel road. “There go peace and quiet,” Marie-Therese used to sigh. “Here come war.”
Now Felonise looked down the long line of chain-link by the playground, lit gold by the sun and vibrating a little in the wind. No children were outside.
She stopped for a drink at the fountain near the office door, and when she looked up, a drop hanging from her lower lip, tickling just exactly as it had when she was a child, a young man said, “Wow, I never see grown-ups drink from there.”
He must have been a teacher. He smiled, his tie blue and shirt white, his jeans faded, and he held open the door for her. Felonise wiped her mouth with her wrist.
As he walked around a corner, she heard him say, “Hey, Lafayette. How’s math?”
Her grandson answered cheerfully, “OK. Numbers don’t lie. Like you said last year.”
Felonise opened the office door. Two women at the front desk looked at her with blank faces. The door to her left was marked PRINCIPAL and was closed. A red-haired boy sat in a chair along the wall, staring at his backpack crouched between his legs like a fat black dog with tags dangling everywhere.
“Are you here to pick up a child?” asked the woman on the right. She was white, her hair short with dark wings around her forehead. Her hand rested on her phone as if it were glued there.
“Lafayette Reynaldo Martin,” Felonise said. Add the middle name, and they knew you weren’t fooling.
“Grand-mère!” He came down the hallway and entered the office. “I was in the bathroom.”
The other boy lifted his head to look up at Lafayette. Then he said to the women, “I need to call my mom again.”
Was he the one? Lafayette didn’t even glance at him. He picked up his own backpack. “You have to sign, Grand-mère,” he said.
“Excuse me,” the woman said again. “Ma’am, I’ll need your ID so I can write down the number here.”
Felonise looked at a clipboard with a list of names, scrawled signatures, and times.
“I need to call my mom again!” the redheaded boy said, and Felonise knew that was him. The other boy. This was a competition. She had arrived first.
“We called her, Cody. She just finished up at the salon. She’s on her way.”
“Whatever,” the boy said. Felonise let herself look at him. Red hair in shiny spikes, like a wet cat sitting on his skull. She glanced away before she saw his eyes.
Cerise had told her many times to always bring ID with her, because the school wouldn’t let her pick up the boys without it. “What other old lady gon’ show up to steal ’em?” Felonise had said, and her daughter had said sternly, “Just bring it, Maman.”
She laid on the counter the California ID she’d had to get five years ago for this purpose.
“This isn’t a driver’s license,” the woman said.
“I ain’t a driver,” Felonise said. She wanted to snatch the ID back and walk out with her grandson. Lafayette’s elbow was near hers. He was almost as tall as she was.
The woman wrote on the lines and turned the clipboard around. Felonise signed like Raoul had taught her years ago, like he’d learned to sign when he’d come to California. Just make a big loop for your first letter and then a straight line, like you in a hurry. Don’t make no X. They don’t know the X here.
“The vice-principal will have to OK this,” the woman said, “because he’s been suspended.”
Felonise let out her breath and turned around. The redheaded boy looked up at Lafayette. His tongue made a lump in his cheek. He was not sorry. His cheeks had light freckles like crushed cornflakes. There was a trace of blood on his lip, a torn spot. Felonise grabbed Lafayette’s hand. A tiny torn spot between his knuckles. Raw pink.
“You apologize?” she asked Lafayette.
“We both apologized,” he said impatiently. His chin was lifted. He was not afraid.
“What he have to apologize for?” she said.
The boy’s hand tightened on his backpack.
Lafayette said, “He called me a bunch of names.”
“What you call him, you?” she said to the boy. His hair glistened.
The principal’s door opened. The man put out his hand immediately to Felonise. “Hi,” he said. “I’m Mr. Nonebeck, the new vice-principal. I’m responsible for discipline.”
She put her hand in his for a moment. He was tall with brown hair and glasses and one of those faces like every newsman on television.
Felonise folded her arms and said to the boy, “What name you call my grandson?”
“Ma’am, you can’t speak to him.” Mr. Nonebeck moved easily between her and the red-haired boy. Felonise felt Lafayette against her shoulder. The space between the counter and the door was crowded, and the wind blew sharply through the window, rattling the blinds. “We’ll be setting up a meeting for you with the principal and Cody’s mother and me.”
Felonise said, “Set up an appointment? Me? To talk to a boy?” She looked at his throat. “He call some names. I like to know what names.”
“You must be his guardian,” the vice-principal said, his voice still very easy.
“No!” Lafayette shouted. “That’s my grandma. My mom and dad are at work. They’ll come in tomorrow.”
The women at the desk, with their phones and computers and wire baskets around them, looked up. In that minute Felonise understood what Cerise had been trying to tell her for six years, since Lafayette had started kindergarten: Raised by his grandmother. So sad, these days. Responsibility. No mother or father. Legal guardian.
“What names?” she said, making her voice low and deadly, the voice she’d used when she had wanted Cerise to be afraid, back when she was a child. This man was a child. He couldn’t be more than thirty-five.
“I heard the N-word in our earlier discussion,” he said, voice not nervous at all. “But, as I said, this is something we’ll —”
“The N-word?” Felonise said. She took a deep breath and felt her breasts inside her bra puff up like a bird’s. “You just say ‘nigger.’ Don’t nobody call out the ‘N-word’ on no playground. They talk about ‘nigger.’ ” She said the word the way she had heard it a hundred times: loud, on the sidewalk, at the edge of the road, in her own mother’s kitchen. “They say ‘nigger.’ ” She said it again, because she knew it made their hearts clutch for a moment.
Lafayette stood close beside her, his arm along hers, and said, “Actually, Cody called me a ‘wigger.’ ”
The boy Cody looked away, at the posters on the wall.
“A what?” Felonise said. Her grandson was moving toward the door, pulling her gently. He had taken all the air from the room; it was swirling around him now. He knew he had some kind of power, because he laughed. “A ‘wigger.’ Whatever.”
He pushed open the door, and the blinds flapped in the wind. Felonise followed his backpack, which had a picture of a mountain embroidered on it.
“How did you get here?” Lafayette asked her outside.
The wind sent leaves across the sidewalk and through the chain-link like confetti. Another woman was coming up the walk toward them, her hair streaked with highlights, the smell of chemicals wafting behind. She glanced up at Felonise’s gaze and looked surprised, then frowned. My blue eyes, Felonise thought. She guessed this was the other boy’s mother, and she remembered that Cerise still didn’t know what was going on.
“Your mama probably got the message from school now,” she said to Lafayette. “She worried.”
He grinned, but then he dropped his head. “I’ll bet she’s totally freaked out.”
Felonise thought of her daughter speeding down the freeway, having gotten the messages and not knowing what had happened. “Wait here,” she said to Lafayette.
She walked back toward the office.
The window was open slightly, and as she approached she heard their voices.
“Would a woman that age really wear contacts?” one said. “Seriously. It just looks weird.”
Felonise froze. White people never learned.
The other woman’s voice was harsh. “Everyone wears contacts now, OK? God!”
The vice-principal said, “They were really distinctive, that’s true. Very blue.”
“Hey,” the first voice said, “you guys didn’t eat the doughnuts I brought this morning.”
Felonise pushed through the door and said, “Excuse me. Call my daughter back on her phone, and tell her I came for Lafayette. So she don’t worry.”
Mr. Nonebeck smiled and nodded, and Felonise looked at the damp-haired woman and said, “Discipline come from the Bible. From disciple.”
She closed the door, and the plastic slats danced.
Felonise and Lafayette crossed the street. It was only six blocks to Cerise’s house. In this part of downtown the houses were smaller, wood-sided with porches and trim around the windows.
“He kept sayin’, ‘You got served. You got served,’ every time I missed a basket,” Lafayette said.
“Uh-huh,” Felonise said.
“He wouldn’t shut up. Every day he kept sayin’, ‘You ain’t down. You ain’t down for shit.’ He cusses all the time, and the gym teacher never hears.”
“You bet not be cussin’.”
“I don’t! They keep asking me to play ball. The first week of school they were all like, ‘Get him on our team,’ ’cause they thought I had skills.”
“Yeah, they were like, ‘What you play, what you play?’ And I said, “Piano.” Then every day Cody’d be like, ‘You a waste, man. If I looked like you, I’d fuck up every nigga on the playground.’ ”
“Lafayette Reynaldo.” Eucalyptus leaves swirled around their feet like brown and silver fish.
“It’s not like how you said it.” He stopped to adjust his backpack and took out a small plastic package with pictures of dinosaurs dancing. Fruit snacks. The jelly-like things he and his brother ate all day. Felonise smelled the sharp scent of juice. “They’ll be like, ‘Hey, my niggas.’ ”
“Talkin’ to you?”
“To everybody.” A glistening fruit paste showed on his teeth, and he shrugged. “It wasn’t, like, all the stuff he said. He just wouldn’t shut up. Every day. He was like, ‘You ain’t a true nigga. You a wigger.’ ”
“A white boy wants to be black.”
She paused at the next corner. The round curb, the specked cement, the wind in her nose. All the women in the school office. “You sure black this mornin’,” she said.
They walked for two more blocks, until she could see her daughter’s yard, the wrought-iron trellis and gate her former son-in-law had put in near the sidewalk.
Lafayette said, “I don’t want to go home. I want to go to your house. Did you cook yet?”
“Long way to my house, and I ain’t cook yet,” she said, looking at the sidewalk under the canopy of old oak trees. But she was secretly happy.
Back on Palm Avenue, they headed for the orange groves, the faded bougainvillea blossoms at their feet. She asked, “Why you hit him, then?”
Lafayette looked across the street at the Staples. “ ’Cause it was just like, every day: ‘I know you play.’ So today I played ball, and then on the court he was like, ‘Why you play the piano? Nobody plays the piano,’ and I’m like, ‘Alicia Keys,’ and he said, ‘So, wigger, you a bitch now?’ So I had to hit him.”
The cars went past in rushes of hot air. Lafayette said, “There he is. Cody and his mom. At Wendy’s.”
The black truck was so tall Felonise could see the metal guts underneath. The red-haired boy was staring at them. His mother spoke to the woman working the drive-through window, and then Cody’s mouth opened. She looked up from her lap (she must have been getting the money) and focused on Felonise. Her hair was a puffed shell — almost like that old style the beehive, Felonise remembered — and fell into two sharp curves on her cheeks. It was striped white blond and honey brown and, underneath, black as oil. Beautiful as pulled taffy. Their mouths moved behind the glass.
Lafayette said, “He always eats Wendy’s. I hate their fries.”
The truck left the drive-through and stopped at the corner for the light. Lafayette had just pushed the WALK button. Cody’s mother had her window open and was staring at them. “Wait, Cody. You’re gonna miss Red Ribbons because of him?” she said. “That kid?” Her words floated from the open window. Her hand dangled out, her fingernails long and pink. “He looks Mexican.”
Lafayette was laughing now. He wasn’t afraid. Felonise said, “She want talk to me, better make an appointment,” just as the woman turned left and sped off down the avenue.
Felonise tried to remember what Cerise always said when she tried to explain it to her ex-husband. “Look,” she’d shouted into the phone when the boys had been to visit their father all weekend and hadn’t done something they were supposed to do for school: Jump Rope for Heart Health. “These women are killing me because I don’t sign up for anything, and Lafie’s in the gifted classes with their kids, OK? . . . I’m serious. If you don’t give a shit, fine, but I do. I get one time not to show up at the office right after they call. The perfect mommies, they leave yoga class right when the cellphone rings. Or if they’re late, the office staff knows them, and they’re in there joking around when they show up.”
“Grand-mère,” Lafayette said, “the light’s green. You OK? You hot?”
“No, this just a baby walk, not how we used to walk in Louisiana.”
They were coming up on the last big intersection of downtown, where they would turn and head for the arroyo. “When he called me a ‘bitch,’ some spit got on my cheek. He was all up in my face.”
“That when you hit him?”
“Daddy told me to hit him back if he got me first. Mama doesn’t know he said that.” Lafayette kicked a gold date off the sidewalk. “I felt spit on my cheek, and I remembered Mr. Nonebeck said you could get arrested for spittin’ on people. ’Cause of AIDS. It’s like assault or somethin’.”
Felonise reached for his hand at the crosswalk and then remembered: he was eleven years old now. She held her arms loosely at her sides until the chirping sound began that meant walk. The first time she’d heard it, the electronic tweet-tweet-tweet had startled her. She’d never heard a bird like that, and it sounded so loud and close.
She couldn’t tell Lafayette that if spitting was assault, half of Louisiana would be dead or injured or in prison. She had left Sarrat when she was sixteen with Enrique’s wife, Marie-Therese. Raoul came out to California when she turned eighteen, and they got married. Then he went back to Louisiana and died.
She had taken Cerise to the funeral. She was three. What did her daughter remember from that time, when they’d buried a man in a closed casket? It was 1968. Did Cerise remember how when they went to the store at the crossroads they had to wait in back for Miss Joan to hand them the rice and sugar and coffee they needed to cook for the wake? Miss Joan said, “Think this California? That what put your man wrong.” And Miss Joan’s husband, Mr. Daniel, spit snuff in a brown stream onto Cerise’s foot, in her new funeral shoes.
© Sandra-Lee Phipps
Another crow lay dead in the vacant lot. Recently dead — his feathers still had the glossy purple and gold sheen of movement and flight. A huge flock of crows used to roost in the pecan grove at the other side of Enrique’s property. The birds had been coming there for decades, according to the old Mexican men who lived in the next grove. In fall, when pecans were heavy in the trees, the raucous cries and fighting were usually so loud that Felonise closed her windows. But this year the sky was quiet.
West Nile virus. AIDS. Mosquitoes and spitting.
She looked at her grandson’s cheek. A smear of dust like a caterpillar — was that from him wiping off the spit? She wet her thumb and erased it. Now my spit and that boy spit mix.
“Why you didn’t just spit back at him?” she asked.
Lafayette laughed. “Grand-mère!” he said. He moved his backpack on his shoulders. It was so heavy he had a mark along his neck. “Anyway, I guess he didn’t spit on purpose. He’s just goofy. He gets scum at the corner of his mouth all the time ’cause he has so much saliva.”
Lafayette laughed again. “Yeah. Saliva has acids to help the stomach break down our food. We had that in science class. We masticate our food, and then it goes down our esophagus with the help of saliva. It’s pretty gross.”
Felonise couldn’t help but smile. How was that different from her telling Cerise to chew her food, not just swallow it? Everyone said the same things, over and over, forever.
They passed through the arroyo, where the green healthy tumbleweeds of fall leaned forward in the air, racing down the canyon.
“Like big old Chia Pets!” Lafayette said in the wind.
“From the devil!” she said back. As they started down the narrow blacktop road toward the groves, she asked, “What you want to ‘masticate’ when we get to my house?”
He lifted his head higher to see the orange trees like a dense forest before them. “Whatever.”
As they walked down the gravel road, the wind softened suddenly in the tunnel of dark trees. Lafayette stepped into the nearest irrigation furrow and picked up two dried navels, fallen from last season. He threw them as hard as he could down the road.
“Your grand-père is in the barn,” she said. “You can go down there.” She took Lafayette’s shoulder and turned him toward her, his eyes clear and golden as weak tea. “Don’t say nothin’ to your grand-père ’bout no names. Tell him you fight some boy for a ball. I mean it. You hear?”
He pulled away. “I know,” he said. “I know.”
By the house, one dead finch hung upside down in the bedraggled sunflowers. As soon as Felonise got inside, the phone rang.
“Maman! This is why you need a cellphone!”
“No. They call me here, and I went got him.”
“But I was going crazy!”
“Uh-huh.” Cellphone ain’t gon’ stop that. Where had her daughter gotten this nervousness about everything, this wire Felonise imagined strung between her braids and down her neck, twitching and coiled and different-colored as the wires inside this transparent phone?
“Grand-père give you guys a ride?” Cerise asked.
“I thought you would take him to my house, so I tried there, but — ”
“He want come here. He’s fine.”
Her daughter was silent. There was the sound of a woman laughing in the background, the other customer-service operators.
“What happened? According to him?”
Felonise looked out her window at the other finches gathered at the feeder she’d filled this morning. Yellow finches with their shivery chirp. “Some white boy call him names. Lafie hit him.”
“That’s gonna go on his record.” Her daughter sighed into the phone. “The secretary called me. She said Mr. Nonebeck wants to set up a conference tomorrow. Like I can get off before two. The other mom practically lives at the school.”
“You seen this boy? Redhead. Name Cody.”
“Cody Smith.” She heard Cerise say something to someone else. “Hold on, Maman.” Her voice disappeared as if she’d fallen down a hole. When she came back, she said, “Well, I’m glad you heard the phone, so Lafie didn’t have to sit there with everybody looking at him.”
“I taken him out of there, and the other boy still waitin’.”
“The mama was gettin’ her hair done. She got that all-color hair. It’s pretty. Just don’t look like hair.”
“She came while you were in the office?”
“Oui. And she got a big truck. She pass us while we walk home.”
“You were walking? Oh, my God, Maman. Why did you walk? Grand-père didn’t drive you?” Cerise’s voice rose higher.
Felonise dished out leftover rice and chicken for two. “Lafie want to walk.”
Felonise heard it in Cerise’s voice. They had seen Lafayette walking with an old lady. Walking, like — what did he call it? “Losers.” Like losers. Only losers walk.
She said, “Cerise, I know —”
But her daughter said, “I have to go. My break’s over. I’ll call you later.”
The few birds at the feeder struggled against the wind. Cody. She remembered when Lafayette had first started at the school and Cerise had told her, “I overheard the mothers at the back gate saying, ‘I can’t believe someone would name their kids Lexus and Chanel. Oh, my God.’ ” Cerise did the imitation perfectly. She heard these voices every day. “And I was thinking, You name your kid Cheyenne after what — some town in Wyoming?”
Lafayette came running up from the barn into the yard. The birds scattered up to the branches of the pomegranate tree. What a strange fruit, she’d thought when she’d first seen it here. In Louisiana fall meant waiting for sugar cane — sweet sticks to chew and suck. The pomegranate seeds had been so beautiful that when she’d put a handful in her mouth and bitten down, the sourness had made her cry at first, and Enrique had laughed. “Think she got some candy out here in California!” he’d said, and Marie-Therese had said, “Pomegranate come from far away, too. In the Bible they tell you. So leave her alone.”
Cerise called back an hour later, crying so hard that Felonise knew she must be in the bathroom or the parking lot. “Maman, he called back. Mr. Nonebeck. He was saying stuff like, ‘There was an exchange of fluids, so we have to take this very seriously.’ ”
Exchange? Felonise dried the pan, the phone tucked into her shoulder. Like kissing. Saliva.
“Lafie hit him so hard he was bleeding.” Cerise’s voice was shivering, like when she was a child and couldn’t stop crying.
Felonise felt her chest fill with heat. “Don’t have to hit the lip hard to make it bleed,” she said. “Baby —”
“This is Lafie’s permanent record! Next year, when he gets to junior high, the teachers will read this and think he’s a little thug. These mothers will all be in the damn PTA there, too.”
The Peds were dry. Felonise stacked them on the couch. Funny little socks. Like dove wings. Her daughter said, “Maman?”
“You so much smarter than me,” Felonise whispered. “I didn’t raise you to be so smart. You — you make yourself that way. Lafayette raise himself to be smarter than you.”
“You think it’s so easy, but it’s not!” Cerise was angry now, and Felonise could hear the anger evaporating the tears. Almost thirty-six and still the same. She was walking now. Her breath huffed into the phone. She said, “Listen, I can’t leave early today. Could you be there to meet Teeter when he gets out of school, in case I’m late?”
“Cerise,” Felonise said in the deadly voice, “I know. I know what you talk about. At that school. I gon’ take Lafie and be back there at 2:30. We meet you there.” In the silence she heard the finches. “You hear me?” she said to her daughter. “I be at that back gate.”
Lafayette fell asleep at one o’clock on her couch, the shadow of the pecan branches waving over his face as if someone stood there with a fan. He wasn’t used to walking that far. At two Felonise thought of Cerise coming quickly down the elevator of the tall, mirrored building standing where the vineyards used to be. Cerise would move quickly to her car and then be stuck in traffic. She talked about it all the time.
At 2:04 Felonise woke her grandson and made him wash his face and hands. She split a pomegranate in half, and they sucked the elusive red juice and spit the seeds, like soft white rice, into a bowl.
They crowded into the front seat of Enrique’s truck — kids couldn’t ride in the back now, Lafayette said — and they crossed over the arroyo bridge and headed downtown. Enrique said, “You walk a long way today.”
Lafayette nodded. He looked scared now. He was scared of what his mother would say.
“Huffin’ and puffin’ while he walk,” Felonise said. She put her hand on her grandson’s backpack. There was no back available to pat.
Enrique left them at the rear gate. The sidewalk was full of women. The chain-link fence was covered with red satin bows and signs with big, painted red letters.
“Red Ribbon Week,” Lafayette sighed. “Today’s the first day: ‘Choose to Be Drug Free.’ ”
They walked slowly through the crowd of mothers who were adjusting bows, kids too young for school beside them. “The first-graders come out and do the fence with their moms,” Lafayette whispered to her.
Felonise leaned against a car while people passed her. The car door was hot against her backside. Cerise had said Lafayette would have to wear red shirts all week. He used to bring home Indian headdresses in November. A brown, waxy, crayon-shaded picture of Rosa Parks in February. Black History Month. Red Ribbon Week. Raoul had died in December. Yes, ma’am. Rain all night and Raoul tell the man, “Too wet go out in the field today.” The man say, “Nigger, you drove here from California, and now you don’t want to work? I tell you if it’s too much water. ’Cause niggers can’t swim. But you can drive.”
“Grand-mère,” Lafayette whispered, nudging her, “you can’t lean on cars ’cause they might have an alarm. Come on.”
But Felonise saw the black truck, parked right up by the back gate. Metal rungs like giant staples below the doors. How you carry grocery up there?
The mother came out of a crowd by the fence. She motioned, and the passenger window melted down. “Cody!” she said. “Your little brother needs your help over there. I told you to put that phone away. Go help Dakota with his poster.”
“Mom, I’m suspended. I can’t go on the playground. That’s the rules.”
Felonise saw his elbow, then his face. A faint crescent moon of fat below his chin.
The crowd shifted along the fence. A man walked down the sidewalk. The vice-principal. “Let’s get all the scraps and trash up off the ground now, OK?” he called in that reasonable voice. “We’re getting close to the last bell.”
Lafayette bumped Felonise with his backpack when he stepped between two parked cars. She grabbed his arm. “Where you go?”
“I’m not supposed to be here either.”
“You ain’t here. You waitin’ for your mama.”
“I don’t want to see her!” he said, his eyes narrowed in the sun, his hand shading them like he was saluting.
Felonise heard Cerise’s car then, the little shriek when she turned the corner, like a trapped bird, but big. A worn-out brake pad. She parked somewhere in the long line of cars, then came up the sidewalk toward them. Lafayette folded his arms and stepped back onto the sidewalk. The boy named Cody leaned out of the truck and saw Lafayette, then pulled his head back in like a snail.
The mother came in Felonise’s direction now. She carried a black plastic trash bag and bent to pick up the tiniest scraps of red ribbon and construction paper swirling like confetti in the wind. “Oh, my God, I haven’t even had time to wash my hands yet! We’ve been here since lunch!” she shouted to Mr. Nonebeck, who handed her a water bottle from a cooler he carried.
“Lafayette?” Cerise said behind Felonise. “You OK, baby? Come here.” Her daughter’s voice too high. The crying was caught in her throat, where it would stay. What was that hot wetness you trapped inside your — what had Lafayette called it? The tube where the food went down. It wasn’t tears. It came up from your chest.
Cody’s mother saw Cerise and Lafayette now. She held her trash bag at her thigh, looked past Felonise, and lifted up her right hand to point. She said, “Your kid —”
Felonise pulled a cloth from her purse. She grabbed the mother’s upraised hand. It was grimy with fence dust and sticky from tape. The pink fingernails were tipped with white, like frosting. Felonise spat into her handkerchief and wiped the center of the woman’s palm with it. She rubbed hard and said, “Here. Now you clean.”
She wanted to tear a little flesh from the woman’s wrist. This kind of woman made Cerise cry. She made Cerise cry and hide in a hallway and swallow the burning that came up from her chest. She probably said, “Welfare mama,” to her boy.
She folded the woman’s fingers over the ball of wet cloth and looked up at her blue eyes. Saliva. A crime. Black lashes like brooms for a tiny doll. She said softly, “These ain’t contacts. My grand-mère get them from a wigger.” She pointed at the boy hidden in the truck. “He know what it means,” she said. “That my grandson, and when you see his mama tomorrow in the meeting, you remember me.” Her own eyes burned hot, and she gave the woman the look that Raoul used to say could start the back of someone’s head on fire. All she ever had — that look.
She let the hand go, and it popped up like a handle on a slot machine.
Then the vice-principal was approaching her. He held a plastic water bottle and said, “Ma’am?”
In Louisiana Mr. Daniel gave water only once a day in the field. Sometimes he put mud in it. Felonise drank it anyway. He would say, “Don’t look at me with them devil eye. Blue eye don’t make you white.”
She would say, “Hat don’t make you a man.”
Felonise walked past him to where Cerise stood, shaking her head and holding her fingers to her temples beside the short hairs that curled there, the ones Felonise used to smooth down in waves.