The second and last installment of the short story that begins here.
One morning in Vermont, Abiza woke to the smiling face of a green-eyed boy. She rubbed her eyes in disbelief at his pinkened lips and cooked-cream skin, generously powdered with nutmeg freckles. She stares at them along the bridge of his nose, all over his cheeks, across his forehead.
He placed his warm, white palm on her bare, cold shoulder. She saw smudged green ink on the back of his hand, where he’d scrawled a reminder to file for financial aid. ‘FAFSA,’ the smudge read. “Tell me about when you were born,” he said, and she jumped, pulling the covers up to her chin and shrinking to her edge of the mattress. She didn’t really remember him. She had a vague recollection of the night before, of a faculty reading and claret sipped from paper cups.
“What did you say?”
He didn’t repeat himself.
“Daddy, tell me about when I was born.”
Clap tells her every time she asks. She asks even when she doesn’t want to know. Part of her hopes he’ll refuse—or at the very least, that he’ll forget the details.
“You weren’t born,” he’d begin, “You were forcibly liberated.”
“It was ’79 and our neighborhood was burning. The government had already succeeded in turning most of the comrades to crackheads. And without a solid, legal-arms-holding line of defense, we were easy to isolate and obliterate.
“I’d met your mama ten years before, working alongside her every morning at that Panther free breakfast program. But I stopped seeing her there after about a year. It was six years before I saw her again. I ran into her at a rally. She told me she’d been off at Berkeley, studying anthropology and early childhood education. I was scared to ask her out after she told me that, but I did it anyway. Took her to see Stevie Wonder and by the time he finished opening with ‘Too High,’ I knew she was gonna be it for me. Take Donny Hathaway’s “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” and wrap it in Nina Simone’s “Four Women.” That was your mama.
“We found ourselves a pad in South Philly—small, but we got by with it. We were saving up for something better, both working. She was at a nursery school nearby. I was at a record store my man Hasaan inherited after his father was killed.
“We were completely legit in ’79, Abiza. And when we found out we were gonna have you, there were no more skeletons to clear from our closets. We weren’t even really protesting anymore. The revolution—if it had come at all—was over for us. We were settling down. We had fought our wars, committed our so-called war crimes, and emerged without implication. I’m ashamed of it now, but we were grateful. Glad for those four-dollar-an-hour pieces of jobs and our little walk-up efficiency where we could just listen to records and read Mari Evans and Amiri Baraka to each other—and to you, in those months before you were born. We were grateful that we were still here to reminisce instead of lying stark-still on a corpse in a pine box on its way to Cuba or rotting in solitary at some prison in a city we’d long since forgotten the name of.
“We sold off most of our guns, but we kept some of our knives and ammo—just in case anybody wanted to break bad—but for the most part, there was quiet. For the most part, we thought there was peace.
“We were settling into an anonymous life, Abiza. You have to understand how dangerous that is—attempting anonymity. Give me notoriety over anonymity any day. You think you’re slipping under the radar. You think if you live in a certain measure of stillness, folks’ll stop comin’ after you. The fact is: the man who exposes his willingness to go unnoticed is only setting himself up as an easier target.
“Your mama and I didn’t know that. We were startin’ to sleep soundly every night—but not so enough to move the switchblades from under our pillows. She’d started sleepin’ on her back at one point ‘cause she’d gotten too big for it to be comfortable any other way, and her arm would be pinned under my shoulder. My hand would be on her stomach—in whatever spot you had decided to kick that night. And I’d keep it there ‘til the three of us fell asleep.
“We were just like that when a brick shattered our window. We didn’t wake up right off, so we didn’t notice the grenade of tear gas that sailed in after it. Seems like I should’ve been a much lighter sleeper back then.”
Abiza didn’t see the red-haired boy again, after that morning in his bedroom, when he’d asked about her birth. She never got his name. But she thinks of him as Ramsey drops her off in front of her father’s house, a little after 4 a.m. She thinks of how she’d urged him to lie on his back next to her, how they stayed that way, arm to arm, shoulder to shoulder, while she stared at his chalk-white ceiling and she told him all the things she saw there—
A tangible whiteness expands and clings to everything. Clap’s own coughing wakes him. He is groggy. Panic hasn’t registered. He does not spring to action. It isn’t until Abiza’s mother stirs beside him that his focus begins to sharpen. His palm brushes the hair from her forehead, his lips are at her ear, and he says, “C’mon, now, baby. Come on, we need to move.” Her eyes, when she opens them, are wide but unruffled. She starts to sit up and he watches her eyes to make sure they won’t close again. When she kicks at the covers, he rushes to the closet to get his shotgun just as the front door is knocked in. Three men without uniforms or visible badges shout, “Freeze!” A cluster of explosions sounds, a round of five, maybe six, and Clap turns from the closet in time to see her falling, bloodied. Her head catches on the sharp edge of their night table on the way down. A ragged cry tears out of his torso as he charges into the haze, toward the sound of the shots and retreating footfalls. All he manages to glimpse are scrawny silhouettes slinking into an unmarked, idling car and speeding off. If he runs hard and aims right, he can blow out a tire, catch the car, pistol whip one before the others overtakes him. It’s worth the odds. Then he remembers her—turns, stumbles to the place where she has fallen, kneels. She is pulseless. She is wide-eyed. She is dead. The fingers on her right hand are folded into a fist, half-concealing the handle of her switchblade. She hadn’t even had time to open it. Clap pries the knife free, plunges it into her stomach, and pulls across, forcing a jagged incision. His hands are warm, reaching into her womb—one hand on Abiza’s torso, the other over her face. He cuts the cord, pulls a bed-sheet to swaddle her, holds her to his chest. Runs.
“Runs,” she whispered to the red-haired boy, and she noticed the tears on his face.
It occurred to her then that she wanted an apology. She wanted him to say that he was sorry that her mother was woken up by White men, just to be killed. She wanted him to say that he was sorry her father would always carry the memory of gutting his woman to save their child. The boy reached for her hand and clutched it. Then, he took the deepest breath—like everything she’d said had just happened to him, and he was already weary of the burden.
She sees a beam of yellow light floating under the closed door to Clap’s home office. It was foolish of her to think that he would be asleep—he rarely sleeps. There’s no other way to her room but past his door. He will see the shadow of her feet passing. He will swing his door wide and narrow his eyes. There will be a deluge of obscenities. She steels herself and starts the walk, but when she nears his door, she hears music. Clap has always loved music, but Abiza’s rarely known him to listen to it. It is one of the things he’s relinquished, one of the things he left burning in that South Philly apartment. Music. It staggers her. All she can do is knock, and then respond to his silence by opening the door.
He seems small, hunched in his swivel chair, surrounded by newspaper clippings and out-of-print books, nursing a snifter of cognac. She walks over and rests her hand in his shrubby hair, gone nearly all grey and wiry in the crown.
“You just gettin’ home?”
“Come over here and sit down.” He gestures to a spot in front of him, on a less cluttered edge of his desk.
“I have always expected to find you dead,” he says.
“You can’t just keep comin’ in here at all hours. Your mama was right in her own bed when they came for her. That’s the kinda shit you were born into.”
“I know, Daddy.”
“You think they gon’ pass you if they catch your ass in the dark?”
“I know they won’t.”
“I don’t understand you. What we used to do in my day was for the greater good. We were civil servants—out there livin’ and dyin’ for the people. It’s like y’all done forgot everything we did. The baton done fell on a hill and it’s rollin’ toward a storm drain. None of y’all wanna pick it up. Y’all just wanna ‘live your lives’ and die. But when y’all die, your deaths don’t mean anything, Abiza. They don’t mean anything.”
Abiza lifts Clap’s half-smoked cigarette from the glass ashtray beside her and takes a long drag. She considers telling him about the red-haired boy or about Ramsey and the barely-thirteen-year-old prostitutes on Eutaw and Baltimore. Or about one of the many times she was stopped by the police driving to and from school in Vermont. She should tell him about the underserved children she tutored there—how they came to school hungry until she decided to start bringing them muffins and apples, how holey and stained their clothes were until she decided to sew them new outfits. She should mention how many of those children were White. But what would be gained? she wonders. Would any ground ever be gained?
Then her ear keens to a song crackling under the needle of Clap’s record player:
… ‘Cause there ain’t nothin’ in this world can stop me worryin’ bout that giiiiirl.
“Okay, Daddy,” she says. “All right.”
The needle slides to the innermost grooves of the vinyl and stays there, in the soundless region of the record. They listen to it revolve, each turn seeming a little different than the last.