(Read the previous chapters here.)
Three weeks in and the girl had yet to eat anything I prepared, preferring instead big tubs of Corn Flakes covered in mounds of sugar and drenched in skim milk. Her refusal to eat had me scared at what the social worker would say at seeing the girl who had been dipped in baby fat when placed in my care, now looking like a finalist on America’s Top Model. I, on the other hand, had gained five pounds.
“Well, if you don’t want lasagna–” I did not know what it was about Caucasians refusing to eat food I prepared—“What do you want to eat, Penelope? You can’t survive on Corn Flakes. Well, you could, but…”
“Nobody calls me that.”
This was the first time the girl had revealed anything about herself. I had been calling her Penelope since she arrived and she answered respectfully, if not with an air of indifference tinged with pathos.
The girl lowered her head, shaking it slightly as though she was doing all that could be expected of any one person when dealing with someone whose intelligence up to that point was only assumed. “Pippa, not Penny,” she said, turning to look at me as if trying to ascertain if she needed to repeat this simple command, and then did, “Pippa.”
I nodded. I hadn’t known we were at odds. Sure, it was clear she wasn’t the happiest of campers, or as she said when asking about the color I had chosen for her room, “Ecru, that means dreary yellow, right?”
“Okay, it’s too late to go grocery shopping,” I said, picking up my tote bag and sunglasses.
“How about carryout?”
The girl didn’t look up from her iPod noodlings.
“Well, there’s still the lasagna I made?” At this, the blond head bobbed up and then back down again as her fingers continued its quicksilver manipulations.
“All right,” I turned and began walking toward the kitchen.
She held up her iDohickey, handing it to me. She wanted to go to a place called Carl’s Fish, Chicken and Tots. Its location, one block north of Guilford, two blocks down Charles.
“You mean that place across North Avenue?”
The girl nodded.
I shook my head. For someone who was not a mute, I thought she affected many of their ways well.
“Well, Penny – Pippa, that place’s never open. It’s a vacant storefront.”
“It opens at six,” she said, looking at me through piercing blue eyes, mocking, you’re so stupid, teenage eyes.
“All right, you say it’s open, let’s go.”
We kept pace with each other, both paying no mind to the stares of the men as we travelled down Guilford, hurrying onto North. Carl’s Fish, Chicken and Tots was crowded.
I stopped at the first menu I came to. The one stuck up with masking tape just to the left of the entrance. Pippa already knew what she wanted to order. The air was heated over with cigarettes, hair balms, air freshener, and just a hint of chicken and fish. I continued to scan the menu, looking for the tots. Tater Tots served in assorted flavors: curry, barbeque, and lemon pepper. I smiled, moving my finger along the words, Tots your way! I looked over at Pippa and saw her reading this too. She looked as if she might smile.
We had finished ordering when I heard a low chant coming from one of several young guys posted along the carryout’s wall.
“Hot, me hot, hot hot,” the voice began, “Got that big bottom, that Hot, hot, hot bot, yeah, you my lil Hottentot and you got me hot…”
I stood there frozen, knowing I couldn’t be hearing what I was hearing. I then looked from the chanter to the girl at my side. I looked her up and down, specifically, the form fitting fuchsia Juicy jeans she wore. I hadn’t wanted to make a fuss about this, seeing how it appeared to be the only clothing the girl had other than a rather dowdy dress, which I assumed was for church. Also, it wasn’t like she hadn’t been delivered to my door this way, all juiced up as it were. But more to the point, I hadn’t received the first promised emergency check for taking Pippa in that would have allowed me to buy her anything else to wear. Still, standing there with the girl, watching the chanter, his eyes taunting, practically cut into slits, I knew this would have to be addressed.
I looked at the takeout number I had been given, wishing that they would speed it up. Still the chanter, in between sips of his Hawaiian Fruit Punch, continued: “Got that big bottom, that Hot, hot, hot bot, yeah, you my lil Hottentot and you got me hot…” Then it hit me. The lyrics referenced Sarah Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman who had been exhibited as freak show attractions in 19th century Europe. Her handlers branded her “Hottentot” Venus.
Angry, I turned, my mouth set, when an older man also waiting for his order, said just under his breath, “Man, stop all that noise. I don’t want hear all that shit.” I looked at the chanter who did stop, but not before waving the man off as he exited the door.
I wanted to say something to the man, but he appeared to be as interested in hearing what I had to say as he was in what the chanter was spewing. Then of course the girl behind the counter called our number, asking if we wanted hot sauce, and if not that then mambo, and if not mambo then….
I grabbed the bag and answered no. Pippa was already ahead of me, out the door. For whatever reason, I handed her the bag as if this might somehow shield her, or perhaps subconsciously, I did this to free my hands in case I had to go at it, apply some bag lady justice, and use my tote to go up someone’s head. I motioned Pippa to go on ahead of me. I followed close behind to protect the girl’s flank.
The boy started his chanting again. Once well past him, I whirled around and shouted, “You need to stop all that noise. That’s very disrespectful; I know that’s not how your mother raised you.” The guy, stopped, stared, and then laughed, “Moms, if you don’t want nobody lookin’ at your ass then stop wearing ‘em pants so damn tight!”
I felt my face flush as those congregated and waiting for the 3 bus headed for Fells Point stared hard. I put on my sunglasses, motioning for Pippa to continue, not to stop. “Miss Ross! Miss Ross! Cana I git your autograph!” a man laughed, calling after me as I hurried, barely able to keep up with Pippa, in what I hadn’t known were my tight ass jeans.
Back at the house I was embarrassed. But even so, as we devoured our food, which to Carl’s credit was delicious, I asked the girl, “So, that was an actual song that guy was singing?” Pippa wiped her mouth and hands, then began with her iPod. After a few seconds, she handed the earpiece to me. I listened. The lyrics focused on a girl, who the song boasted, was a modern day Hottentot Venus. The song sampled Hall and Oates’, Sara Smile.
Though mortified, I knew this was an opportunity for what the trainer in the foster care seminar called a “teachable moment.”
“You know what that song’s about?”
The girl looked at me quizzically, again with the You really must be stupid stare, before saying, “Yeah, I know.” I watched as she took the edge of her plastic fork to clean her Styrofoam carryout plate clean. The chicken bones were pristine enough to piece back together with just a bit of Elmer’s Glue. I looked down at my own barely touched food, and took my fork and put the two pieces of chicken I hadn’t eaten onto the girl’s plate. I thought I saw her mouth the word, “Thanks,” in between chews.
“You know, this woman was treated horribly. She was treated like a sideshow freak, and in a sense, she was. People actually paid to see her because they hadn’t seen a woman with a shape like hers.” I waited for some reaction, other than chewing.
“Uhm,” the girl said, taking a sip of the drink she had ordered, lemonade mixed with iced tea, a Half and Half. “So you feel bad?” She said.
“Well, sure. Of course, any female would, any person? Don’t you?”
“Not really,” she answered, taking yet another overly long sip, one I felt should have drained the cup.
“’Cause it wasn’t me they were staring at.”
“That’s not the point, Pippa. I’m a woman. So, of course, I feel sadness for what this woman went through.”
“Yeah, that makes sense. Seeing how it was you he was talkin’ about,” she said, stuffing a tot into her mouth.
“Sure, but it’s not the fact that she was African or that my ancestry is the same as hers, she’s another woman, Pippa.”
“Sure. But,” here she began speaking haltingly as one would to someone particularly slow-witted, “like-I-said-they-weren’t-staring-at-me. It-was-you.”
I hadn’t thought of it that way. I was the one being disrespected by a boy who could have very well been my son or my younger brother.
We sat there. Pippa taking her time with the couple of pieces I put on her plate, chomping away even at the bones. I watched grimacing as she then took her straw, manufacturing the perfect tool for forcefully inserting in between her overlapping lower teeth, going wholeheartedly at those remnants of Carl’s chicken dinner.
“Not at the table.” I said, my voice surprising me. Up until then I had been more an arbitrator of proper behavior. “Not that knife, that’s for butter.” “Most ladies don’t wear thong panties with hip huggers. Yeah, okay, right, low riders.” This time without thinking, the words fell from my mouth, “There’s floss upstairs in my bathroom, Pippa.” This simple admonishment about not grossing people out by picking her teeth at the dining room table, and, at last, I felt like a mother.
“Okay,” she said, picking up her takeout container, along with my now empty container.
“Thanks. God, I wish I had something sweet to eat.”
“Me too,” she said.
I was about to get up from the table, when Pippa came from the kitchen, hands full.
“Muffins,” she answered, lifting the cloth napkin to unveil six beautifully browned muffins.
“Oh, how nice,” I said, truly surprised at the girl’s effort. “Did you bake these?”
Pippa, smiled, “I can bake,” she answered, with a defiant edge.
“Do you want butter, some people like butter on theirs, even if the muffins are sweet.”
“I would love some, but…” Before I could finish she was back in the kitchen, returning seconds later with the butter and a knife.
“Oh, thanks.” I sat back in my chair as she took one of the muffins from the basket and placed it on the plate in front of me. “My hands are clean,” she said.
I looked down at the plate and didn’t know what to say. It was obvious the girl had gone to some trouble to bake the muffins. I thought I probably should brave it, eat one. But then what would I do the next time when she made more.
“Pippa this is so nice, but I can’t eat gluten. I’m allergic.”
“These don’t have any gluten.”
“Okay, then do they have wheat flour in them?”
The girl rolled her eyes, making her heavily mascara caulked lashes flutter. Performing a bit of ocular acrobatics I associated primarily with black and Hispanic girls. “These don’t have flour because that’s made with wheat and gluten’s in wheat, and other stuff, too,” she said, reciting this as if it was part of her orals at Morgan.
“I can bake,” she repeated, the muffin on her plate untouched, the butter knife in her hand at the ready. “You want butter, right?”
“I do,” I answered, looking at the girl and the tee shirt had on – Steel Marauders, handing over my plate, scared at what might happen if I didn’t want butter.
The muffins were exquisite. “God, those were good, Pippa. Where’d you learn to bake like that?”
“My Aunt Hanna made cakes and breads at Shuler’s Deli. She worked there a long time. People use to ask her if she was the owner. She worked there so long.”
“Well, she so sure taught you well. Because those were probably the best muffins I’ve ever had.”
“Thank you. I miss her.”
“With her hours it’s probably hard on you both. If you like, we can take a ride out to see her. Would you like that?”
“Cemeteries make me sad, so no. I like to remember people the way they were when they were alive and you could talk to them.” She looked over at me, “All that’s in my file.” Then she got up, clearing the table a second time. I listened for the clang of dishes placed into the dishwasher and as she tromped up the back kitchen stairs to her room.
I had read Pippa’s file, just not the entire file. Once I made it to page twenty-seven, with no pyrotechnic issues, I figured why bother with the other 73 pages? What’s a month’s stay? When I got up from the table it was with the intention of retiring to my room. And I would have if the phone hadn’t ringed.
“What’s up?” The voice asked. It had been over a week since Benny and I last spoke, and with the arrival of Pippa and dealing with Kehinde dealing with the Minnesotans, I had almost forgotten I had a best friend.
“No, not very.”
“Where’s Charlie’s lost angel?”
I laughed. “Pippa’s doing her teenage thing in her room. Why?”
“So, it’s okay if I drop by?”
“Of course, even if she wasn’t.” I knew Benny had not yet warmed to Pippa.
“I thought you were providing shelter for a little chocolate cherub, and you come back with something out of Children of the Corn.” This is what he said when I showed him a photo of Pippa.
“A kid’s a kid,” I tried to explain. “Besides,” I mumbled, “she’s biracial.”
“Biracial, my ass. That chick looks like that little girl in the Bad Seed. Someone’s pulled a fast one on you, Miss Estella. And now, you’re trying to pull one on me.”
This had crossed my mind too. But biracial, black or white, whatever, I was now in it, and didn’t need to revisit a decision that was now signed and dated.
“When should I expect you?”
“Look out the window,” he said.
Benny was just then pulling up in front of the house.
“Where’s that old crone? I want to make sure I graze her when I pull up.”
He was right. Miss Pauline was not in her spot, and hadn’t been there when we returned from Carl’s. I peered over at the Trident Maple. Miss Pauline’s white resin chair there, but empty.
“I see your new best friend has taken to nodding and drooling from the comfort of her doorway.” Benny said, as I gestured for him and the young woman whose arm was looped through his to feel free to take a seat. She was statuesque, and, of course, crazy pretty as were many of Benny’s “hagglers”. The cadre of women, who though beautiful and career minded, couldn’t seem to get enough of Benny– his all-girl posse. Whenever I had cause to meet one, I couldn’t help but to laugh, and did so this time. I quickly moved away from the door, and took a seat opposite the pair on the sofa. I smiled even more at the thought that if my assessment of these women were true, then this certainly made me Benny’s chief hag unless, of course, I had been replaced.
“Guess she needed a different point of view.” I said.
“Don’t we all,” Benny said, kissing the woman’s cheek.
Benny reached out and pulled the woman even closer. Caryn was her name, and she was absolutely perfect. Hottentot–not. Her figure, its curves and dips were not to be disparaged or disrespected. Caryn as she stood beaming before us this day existed only to be revered.
“Baby, go ahead, make Estella’s eyes pop.”
And she did, as she offered up the hand not clutched tightly around her Hermes bag for inspection. The diamond she flashed was blinding. She probably bought the ring for him to give to her, I thought, smiling tightly as the Devil began digging his talons deep into my shoulder.
I smiled back at the happy couple. I wanted to ask one, if not both, if Caryn was aware that Benny was indeed gay, homosexual, liked boys, swore all girls had cooties? But this would have been a silly question to pose because any blind man who got within whiffing distance of Benny and the CK One he practically bathed in, could guess what team Benny cheered for. Perhaps she knew, but didn’t care. Still, she didn’t appear to be a woman of a certain age, my age, 38 or older, one of us who had not found the man of our dreams to grow old and stare off into the sunset with. She was perhaps 25, but no older. She had all the time to in the world to kiss frogs. I sighed.
“What’s wrong, Sweetie?”
Up to this point I had been pretty quiet, even so, I didn’t want this to be mistaken for rudeness, devilment. “So, Caryn, you’re from Maryland?”
“Yes, ma’am–” I bristled at this, and did what I could not to fly off the sofa—“My family’s from Annapolis, but we’re mainly scattered now.”
Benny winked at me, patting Caryn’s thigh. “Sweetheart, no need to be so formal, we’re all family now.”
“Right. I was still in Annapolis up until two years ago when I decided to change jobs, and hired on to manage the Urban Outfitters outlet at Towson Town Center.”
“Of course,” I smiled.
“That’s where I met this one,” she said, reaching over to kiss him on the lips. “I was on a break and went over to Macy’s to visit a friend who does make up demonstrations for Mac, and there he was harassing her, getting his eyebrows thinned–no charge. She doesn’t even do this for me and we’ve know each other at least a year.”
I felt myself becoming dizzy. Perhaps Carl’s tots were having their way with me. “Of course, after a year, you’d think a friend…” I began, but before I could dig in, Benny shot up, motioning with a tug of the hand, for his fiancée to do the same.
“Well, it’s been real, Stell.”
“Always is,” I said, standing to walk them the short distance to the door.
“Caryn, very nice to meet you,” I said, extending my hand, and was surprised, startled to see that the hand she gave over was missing two fingers, along with the tip of the pinky. Still, her grip was firm.
“Nice to meet you too, ma’am – Estella, you have a beautiful home.”
“Thank you,” I managed. And they were gone.
With the closing of the door, Pippa appeared at my side.
“I need to ask you something.” By now I was thoroughly tired of being mommy. “Shoot.”
“Can I invite my boyfriend over?”
God. I took a cleansing breath. “Is he twenty going on thirty-five?”
“Is he thirty-five going on seventeen?”
“No,” she wrinkled her brow. “He’s fifteen.”
“When? His birthday’s in June.”
“No. When is he coming over?” I asked.
“Tomorrow for dinner?”
“Will he eat lasagna?” I asked, hoping that she’d answer no.
“Will you eat the lasagna?”
Pippa hung her head, and then answered a slow, “Sure.”
“Then, I look forward to meeting him.”
“Six o’clock sharp. And he should make every effort to be on time. What’s his name?”
“He will be, and it’s Sammy,” she said, smiling.
In the course of a day, I had become Michael Corleone. Everybody wanted an audience with me.
to be continued…
Willett Thomas is the president of Write of Passage, Inc. She earned her MA in writing from Johns Hopkins. She has received artist fellowships from Blue Mountain Center and the Millay Colony. She was selected as a Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation fellow for the District of Columbia, and is the recipient of the 2008 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange award for fiction.