That Janet Williams hadn’t liked children all that much she blamed on the boy’s mother. Children annoyed her, frankly—all that incessant energy, the enthusiasm for obnoxious music and inedible food, their general and relentless neediness. When pressed, however, she would admit there was something special about this one, this Danny, her five-year-old grandson. On that day—that god-awful day—he’d mostly amused himself, trying out all of the chairs in the living room, plopping himself on the new loveseat and scootching his little bottom around, testing it for comfort, twisting his face around like a bad actor portraying a food critic. Goldilocks with nappy hair.
“There’s not a thing wrong with that sofa,” she’d admonished him as the phone rang. He’d blown a quiet raspberry to demonstrate his immunity to her goading.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with you, boy.”
The call had been from Keisha, the second of the day from her, her voice reminding Janet of some other time, although just then she had been unable to put her finger on when that might have been.
“Mama,” her daughter had sighed—a happy sigh. “Mama, His will be done, has been done. All praises, all praises.”
“None of your foolishness tonight,” had been Janet’s response. That girl, her sanctimonious ravings. Who needed it? She never knew what it might be with her daughter, had never known. The new thermostat didn’t work. Cryptic passages in obscure books of the Bible needed interpretation RIGHT THIS MINUTE. Mama, please how do I crisp these collars? He wants them just so, like all the deacons have. You know how Jerrold gets.
Me, me, me, me, me.
“What do you want, Keisha?”
“I’ve sent them across, Mama. My angels. Sent them across to Him.”
The boy in Janet’s house made sputtering noises and blew spit bubbles. Maybe this was normal for boys. She reminded her daughter that another of her angels happened to be right here in her face, right this very minute thank you very much, and that all day long he had been giving her the fish eye and various other exotic expressions.
“Damn boy’s about to eat me out of house and home,” she told her. Danny mugged shoveling handfuls of food in his mouth. Janet tossed him another pack of Skittles, which he caught with his teeth. No lie! He tore the packet open and dumped what looked like half into his mouth. You’ll choke, she mouthed—wondered if that sounded less like worry and more like a wish.
Through the phone she heard something that might have been singing, but it was hard to tell. When Keisha had been the age of her son, she “sang” entire operas to herself, part Diana Ross, part screaming banshee. Janet heard something about tempests raging and peace, the phone line flattening all of it to a sad monotone.
Keisha’s earlier call, before noon, Janet remembered. Same phone, here on this counter, beside it, a to-do list—things to be accomplished before the trip to Rend Lake with Wes. She’d warned this girl (hadn’t she?) that she had no time for mess, that a weekend away with her (potential) new stepfather was more important than anything that she, her sorry-ass husband or any of their crumbsnatchers had cooked up. It would have been the weekend that Janet closed the deal, and on the list had been the tools of her trade: the makings for a knockout supper, fine champagne, a sexy CD. Wes enjoyed a soprano sax.
What became of that list? That boy had better not be over there scribbling on it.
Now, across the wire, her daughter sang something about being here and how because of that the rest of us need not worry.
“Keisha,” Janet prompted.
“We are bathed in His glory,” came the reply.
Enough! Honestly these people and their drama. What hope did Janet have but to snag this man (any man!) and convince him to move as far away from this crew as they could find. Tasmania. Tuvalu. Some place with bad phone service.
“Wes and I want to be on the road early, so I need to go to bed. Is one of you coming to get this child? Or I could send him in a cab.”
I’ll bill you.
Danny hummed and sang and pretended to draw. Mostly he looked around the room at nothing in particular, a million miles away, no doubt. Couldn’t be more like his mama. Sometimes.
For what it’s worth his mama had been lucid during the earlier call.
I need you to pick Daniel up after kindergarten. Keisha, classic demand mode—damn anyone else’s needs. Another childhood trait, it had been. Get me a new dress for school. Eggs for breakfast, and they better not be runny.
Please, Janet would remind her. Puh-leeze. Again and again and again, she’d remind her, and Keisha would always look at her as if she had been speaking another language.
“They’re like angels, Mama. Wrapped in white, that He may receive them.”
Miriam, Sarah, and baby Hosea—and they had been angels, too. Bundles of brown beauty, perched on their parents’ laps in some Sears photo studio, dressed to the nines, posed in front of a neutral backdrop, muted earth tone smears. Big brother, bigheaded Danny, beaming, down on his knees, in front.
“Keisha?” Janet insisted. The girl just hadn’t sounded right, but when had she ever, really. “What’s the matter, Baby? Talk to mother.”
Just then Janet remembered what the air-thin whispers put her in mind of. Years ago (time passed so quickly!) she had dropped Keisha off at some teenage friend’s house. (And who knew what that girl’s name could have been. Since she had married Jerrold Davis and joined New Purpose she had cut off her friends from “the world.”) Keisha had called from the party, pointedly whispering into the receiver. “Mother, they’re doing things here.” “Things?” Janet had prompted, and in reply all Keisha had said was, “You know. Things.” Her voice had been full of both fascination and horror. The rest of the call had been mostly breathing and giggling from Keisha’s end. “Do you want me to pick you up?” “Are (whatever her name had been)’s parents there?” More giggling and wheezing. “I can be there in five minutes. Keisha?”
“Talk to me, Baby.” She’d said it back then, and she’d said it on the terrible day, too.
“It’s Jerrold, Mama. He’s so heavy. I must prepare him to be received.”
“Keisha? OK, sweetie, mother’s coming right over. I’ll get the boy together and . . .”
“Uh-uh. Don’t bring that boy over here. Don’t.”
“You heard me, Mama. Do not bring that boy over here.”
“All right, Baby. It’s all right. Mother will do whatever you need. Just talk to me. Keisha?”
Some nasal humming. (Could that have been a sob?)
“There’s someone at the door, Mama. The deacon. I called him.”
“Keisha, don’t hang up. I’ll wait. Don’t hang up.”
“Blessings, Mama, on you and your son.”
Keisha? Baby? Keisha.
The phone clicked off.
They waited and the boy spun on the barstool. What a compellingly odd person he was—even back then he had been so. Butterscotch-colored with a large blocky head that he would grow into when he inherited his father’s good looks—which he would. He’d grow into the strangeness, too. He’d use it to attract people, to endear them.
On that night he had hummed and he’d spun and he’d hummed. Hadn’t he been listening to her conversation? Hearing his mother’s name called in alarm by her mother: Wouldn’t a normal child know to be alarmed?
She paced. Now and again she’d look down and there he’d be, right up next to her, head tilted back like a turkey in the rain, ear-to-ear insipid smile like a primitive cartoon.
Then again it had been a good thing, after all. Certainly on some days oblivion is a form of grace.
Hadn’t she herself packed it all away since that night? Press clippings. Memorial cards. A tiny teddy bear she’d plucked from atop the mountain in front of his family home, black button eyes, its bow of white ribbon crumpled and stained with blood-brown chocolate.
Words lingered: Premeditation. Cyanide. Insanity.
Images, too. Three tiny coffins (So small! Who imagined such things?) arrayed around a large one. Cameras—dozens upon dozens—aimed at her and at the boy. She’d layered a shawl across his face.
More than anything: the blank-eyed bliss on her daughter’s face. Try forgetting that.
When the doorbell rang, it, as expected, had not been her daughter.
“Ms. Williams? Ms. Janet Williams?” A policeman. That deacon, the young one, from their church.
“Ma’am, I’m afraid . . .”
She’d put her hand up—the universal sign for just-one-damn-minute. They reeled back, as if her fingers contained lightning bolts.
“Danny. Daniel!” Sometimes he didn’t seem to know his own name. Keisha had that, too: selective deafness. The boy stopped his spinning and humming and dropped from his most recent stool, staggering like a drunk, overcome by the sudden motion of the room. When the spinning stopped he seemed to recognize the deacon and made to rush for the door.
Get him out of here. That had been her instinct. Go take a bath. Fish through the smutty books in my underwear drawer. Find my purse and steal me blind. Just get the hell away from here. Now.
She held up the same hand that had stopped the officer to stop the boy in his tracks. She concocted some errand—some picture to be torn from Essence.
“Leave the magazine on the bed when you’re through.”
The boy had called out something to the deacon, but on her life she cannot remember what he had said. He knew something was up (don’t they always) but considered the look on her face and decided to comply. She had set her jaw and affected the slightest of squints; it was the face she used on recalcitrant employees at the phone company. Foolproof, dependably so.
“That’s a good boy,” she encouraged. God, how she hated easy compliance. They’d work on that, the two of them would.
She turned and faced the men.
What she remembers most from that night was feeling sorry for them. What an awful thing, what a grim business: the giving of bad news. The officer had been young—perhaps barely out of the academy. Peach-fuzzy, he was. Blond, chunky build, ex-military—his haircut announced that.
The other man, the deacon, she had seen glowering self-importantly next to the pastor of New Purpose. A friend of Jerrold’s, she remembered, but she couldn’t retrieve a name. Something Germanic perhaps. Barely out of his teens, clean as a whistle and self-righteous as a snake. Good Lord, could there be anything more smug than a handsome young man who thought he had God’s ear. That night he had a bruised quality about him, like someone off an all-night flight from Tokyo.
Instead of sadness she saw fear in their eyes; and she was the cause of that fear, she knew. What, after all, would she do when they told her what Keisha had done?
As it turned out, not much. Hang her head. Accept a hug from the boy deacon. Note the probable next steps: autopsy, funeral arrangements, jurisprudence for her daughter. Lots and lots of media, they warned, and she agreed that would be the hard part.
But, really, until they spoke their truth, these men had no idea how she might respond. None. And for a moment—just for a moment—she savored her power, the sheer deliciousness of it. How often in life did you have a man—two men—at your absolute disposal? What wouldn’t a man do for you in a moment like this—and she could see in their eyes that the longer she held them off, the harder it pained. Once, maybe twice in her life she’d had this power. Sex with her now long-dead husband. He’d be helpless—she’d stun him, he’d buy her the moon. And then there was that nasty piece of work down at the office—a lineman—up to his whiskers in gambling debt, rude and evil, him sniveling in a chair in her office, his fate in her hands. Beg me, she’d thought to herself. Beg me and maybe I’ll save your worthless behind from the unemployment line. She’d stared the bastard down while he cried like a little girl—the same way Keisha would always do, in fact—swearing, as would Keisha, off his bad behavior, promising to be good forever. She had reared up, slightly, up over the worm. Who cowered. She’d had to dispose of that chair (one indiscernibly shorter than her own that she’d kept across from her desk—for the little people). He’d peed his pants a little, ruined the damn thing.
The eyes of the frightened: They were peerless. In front of her, these two men: Waiting for my fangs, boys? You! Blondie: in that kitchen and clean up the mess my grandson left on the counter. Preacher boy! Yes, you, hot stuff: Up on that roof and clean those leaves from the gutter. In the bedroom when you finish, the both of you. I’ll be waiting—and I’d better not be disappointed.
On occasion over the years—rarely—she revisited this moment in the doorway. She’d entertained the identical pedestrian fantasies that all her fellow humans did: She’d frozen time right there. Wouldn’t life be . . .
Except Janet, good determinist that she was, could never finish that sentence. Janet had been nine when she had settled on the stoicism that would shape her entire life, and she had told her mother that her path in life contained no choices. Her proof had been the fact that all of the things that had happened to her had in fact happened to her. The other choices had not. Her mother—who had as much as made a religion out of resolute common sense—had ordered Janet to stop talking nonsense. Frequently and never with anything remotely resembling tolerance she would cut off Janet’s little pseudo-philosophical ramblings at the nub, handing her a clean dishtowel and ordering her to get on with the matter at hand—another philosophy that had always served Janet well. So be it, then. She’d put these men off as long as a person decently ought to.
Like the big girl she’d always demanded her own crazy-ass daughter be, Janet squared her shoulders, took a deep breath and nodded to the men, signaling that it was time for them to take their best shot.