The State Store was a squat, Soviet-style building parked on the less-heeled side of our little town. Stark and foreboding, it was the place to go if you wanted something stronger than a six pack of pissy beer or a cheap bottle of fortified wine. In all the years that I lived there, I don’t remember ever seeing anyone go in or out of its metal plated doors, but the building itself made an indelible imprint for the clear and brown-tinged bottles I imagined lining its dusty shelves. Ohio’s restrictive liquor laws made it virtually impossible for underage drinkers to acquire beverages of the distilled variety, thus the State Store remained forever outside my reach; but the Beer Garden across the street avoided the same degree of scrutiny, and for your discretion and cold, hard cash, they would gladly part with the occasional bottle of Boone’s Farm, or a few loose cans of Genny Cream Ale.
“A dolla, ninety,” said the drive-through attendant. I lifted off my butt and dug into my pocket for the one dollar bills I had folded and stuffed in there. I came out with a wad and peeled off five from the twenty. The oily-haired attendant palmed them and looked away as I secured the rest of my cash. “Bag for that?”
“Yessir,” I said.
He ducked inside the window and came back out with his arm extended. I took the bag and placed it beneath the front seat of my ’69 Volkswagen resto-mod.
“Nice car,” he said. “You do the work yourself?”
“Yeah … I mean … well not me, but my mom and dad did. Yeah.”
“Your mom’s into cars?” he asked with genuine curiosity.
“She did the upholstery.”
He leaned out the window for a closer look at my suede seats and leather steering wheel cover. My parents didn’t have a lot of money, but they were resourceful Black people from the south who knew how to make shit happen.
“Thas nice, man.”
“You need a receipt?”
“No thanks. I’m good.”
“Alrighty then. Be careful youngster.”
“Yessir,” I said, looking down between my legs. Before I could get the car in gear, the attendant had ducked back inside, our brief transaction neatly compartmentalized to his past.
Feeling confident that no serious laws had been broken, I adjusted the rearview mirror and set my sights on greener pastures. The little town where I lived was on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. We stayed on the Ohio side (even though everything we did was on the PA side), and from our house, the state line was less than a mile away. From the Beer Garden, it was more like fifty yards.
That night, I crossed over the Shenango River into another little town that hugged the northwest border of the Keystone State, excited to see my new girlfriend, but nervous about my liquid treasure stash. I’d spotted a township patrol car earlier, just a few streets over from my house. They sometimes cruised the neighborhood, pausing conspicuously when they passed by the Stanton Avenue/Brock Street corner lot, as if struggling with the paradox of well-maintained quarters set against the backdrop of the blackness that lived within. By now, my parents had been there for close to twenty years. All the neighbors knew us, and most had been there during those initial months when Daddy and the Amish tradesman he befriended converted the 1930s bungalow into a modern split-level with triple the amount of original space. Sometimes an officer would track me from the turnoff on the highway and follow me through the neighborhood to the end of our street, only inching away reluctantly when they saw that my keys worked perfectly on the front door. It was usually the new ones who did this, recent additions to the force who were young and overly eager to do their jobs. Fresh recruits who didn’t know my daddy or were unaware that my daddy knew their boss.
But if I got stopped now, none of that was going to help me over here on the Pennsylvania side, especially given what was tucked under the front seat. Daddy was a pillar in our extended community, but he didn’t have the pull with these PA municipal cops the way he did with the Ohio township ones. Over here, I was just another young negro in a too-nice car, one distinguishable for its rag top and unique candy coat, something you didn’t see every day on a VW Beetle.
My first stop of the night was a vinyl-sided ranch addition with a homemade wooden swing. The swing looked out over a well-tended back yard bordered by hedges of flowering bougainvillea. It was attached to a house that had been the childhood home of a little girl with pigtails and a button nose; a pretty, little girl who’d been crushing on me since our days in vacation Bible school; but now the pigtails were long gone, evidence of plump cheeks and chunky legs relegated to the attic boxes that held her family’s mementos, stacks of faded Kodak squares and white-framed Polaroids fossilized inside plastic album cover sleeves. The little girl had turned a hard corner on adolescence, and in honor of this transformation I was intent on making up for lost time. I made it my business to consecrate her grown woman altar of incense, to kneel before her sacred veil mouthing promises and prayers in the hope that one day, she’d anoint me the high priest … and grant me permission to enter her holiest of holies.
The first time came on a Saturday in the middle of the day, unexpected and less ceremonial than I had planned, but no less consequential. We did it on the lower level of my parent’s house—a garage-to-family room conversion—on a love seat in front of a picture window that looked out on the front yard. Jeans bunched around my ankles, legs trembling like saplings in a summer storm, she took heaping portions of my virginity, fed them back to me until I choked, then left me sprawled on that undersized couch with no strength, and very little mobility.
Never was there a happier man.
After, I listened hard as the front door opened and closed, then I pulled open a crack in the curtain and watched as she worked those hips down the driveway to her momma’s green Chevy Caprice. My father was in the yard. He looked up and mouthed goodbye over the lawnmower’s engine. She waved back innocently like, no, she hadn’t just fornicated with the deacon’s son. My body tingled and my knees faltered under my weight. For months, I’d wondered about the occasion of my first time, and now that it had arrived, my emotional state was suspended somewhere between exhilaration and mild shock. She was two inches taller, maybe thirty pounds heavier: a mythical Amazon come to life—with proportions most generously endowed—who made me curse in tongues before driving away in a late model Chevy that I would become more and more acquainted with as the summer wore on.
I was on my way to get me some of that now. Passing the Croatian parish that abutted the now defunct elementary school I’d integrated twelve years prior, a splinter of trepidation lodged itself inside the memory. Catholic guilt dipped in Baptist Brimstone equaled one hell of a drug, and I was doing all I could to break the habit. I sped past the church’s brick façade, forgetting all about the cops, only remembering (too late) when the flashing blue lights pulled me down from what had been a glorious high. I skidded to a halt and bumped up clumsily on the curb, then watched in horror-fascination as the patrol car passed and turned away at the next intersection, double-stabbing me with a nasty bloop-bloop of its siren before disappearing down the other side of the hill.
Owing to the Catholic edification of my youth, certain ecclesiastical artifacts remained in my possession; specifically, a crucifix and plastic rosary that lay scattered among the detritus of the top drawer of my desk at home. In addition to the broken Hot Wheels, art contest ribbons, and tins of desiccated watercolors, there was also a crumpled pamphlet upon which had been inscribed The Lord’s Prayer and the Act of Contrition. Religiosity was a stealth drug whose bell tolled louder in times of stress. Conflicted about the police in spite of early programming to acquiesce to authority? Boy … come getchu some. Hurtling down that road to premarital sex no matter what the nuns had tried to drill into me about the hottest levels of infernum? Young man … just getchu some. I felt wicked, and confused, a card-carrying member of the traumatized and highly favored. All I had to do was just turn from my sinning ways and go get me some.
I was gonna get me some alright. I was anxious but determined. I had plans. Sex with her. I wanted to struggle for air; I wanted her to make me tremble like that again. We were going to a movie but getting back on that love seat was my prime directive.
Better get used to them police, boy. My hand froze on the stick shift as I soaked in the thought. It was a voice—not a real one, like from inside the car or just outside the open window—but one that came from inside my head. Clear as a whistle on a crisp, cloudless day, and there was something familiar about it too. I sat there as seconds ticked into oblivion, that voice settling over my brain like a dense, unwelcome fog, and the heavier it got the more familiar it seemed. The thought was my own and yet it wasn’t, and it was exactly this—my inability to pinpoint the provenance of the cognitive invasion—that cemented my pinpricks of unease.
I jerked the car back into drive, came down off the curb and did a slow crawl to the top of the hill where I made a right, then a quick left as I eased into a narrow, concrete driveway. The green Caprice was there, but not her father’s red Eldorado. I helped myself to the spot and cut the Bug’s engine. Her mother was in the yard pulling up weeds, but I got the distinct impression that the actual reason for the rubber boots and wide-brimmed hat was me. I could tell by the way she looked at me when she stood up, clear-eyed and solemn, like she’d been thinking hard or struggling her way through a prayer. She’d never done this before, and I was suspicious of why she might be doing it now.
Sit up, boy! Again … that voice! Exactly as it had been before, but more strenuous this time. I ditched my one-handed pimp lean, sat up straight and gripped the wheel at ten and two as the mother strode purposefully in my direction.
“Hi, Mrs. …”
“Tee is on the back porch,” said the bright-skinned woman. “My, that’s a pretty, pretty car. Did your father buy it like that? What time does the movie start?” She delivered her comment-questions with rapid-fire precision. Suddenly, it seemed as if my plans for the evening might be in doubt. My hands gripped the steering wheel tighter as the shoulder strap cut into my neck.
“Umm … I’m not really sure,” I lied, afraid she could somehow tell. Anxious for the relative safety of that back porch, I was committed to not speaking unless spoken to. These old southern people had certain powers, and I considered the possibility that she just might be able to read my mind; that she could see all the drinking and fucking that had taken up residence there. As for her specific question, I didn’t want to commit to any timeframes. The theater was not our final destination, and I didn’t know what, if anything, the mother had been told.
“So, how’ve you been?” she asked. Disappointment flooded me as my fears about a lengthy interrogation were confirmed. Having fun with your daughter was my first, honest thought, but I suppressed it.
“Pretty good,” I said without committing to anything.
“And your parents? They doing well?”
“Yes ma’am, they’re fine. I’ll tell them you asked about them.”
“Yes indeed, you do that. Tell them I said hello.”
“I will.” She’d been doing a lot of gesturing with her hands, but then she suddenly paused (hands now on her hips), and as planned, the effect was entirely cinematic. I was pinned inside the car, unable to open the door without bumping into her. She gazed down on me like the statue of the Virgin Mary that stood guard inside the vestibule of my old school. When she opened her mouth, I thought about the voice in my head—thought about it, not heard it—which alarmed me even more because it confirmed something entirely different about the preceding cases of hearing.
She seemed to have noticed my involuntary shudder. My face felt tight and I tried to sit still.
“Well … you kids be safe now,” she said and took a few steps back. “None of that sneaky drinking … and be extra careful on these roads.” Her toothy smile unnerved me, and I was nervous about the alcohol buried under the seat. I tried to look casual as I closed and locked the door. If she knew about the drinking, then she at least had her suspicions about everything else. If the voice had chimed in just then, I might have confessed to everything on the spot.
“Yes ma’am,” I said, not believing for a minute that this would be the end of it. I hustled inside the house, concerned about what else the mother might be thinking, afraid of what she already knew.
As promised, I found Tee relaxing on the porch. The porch was one of those screened-in joints that offered legitimate protection from the elements during all four seasons. The radiance it held wasn’t entirely because of the beams of sunlight punching in through the screened windows. Tee was wearing a loose-fitting sundress, blue with a pattern of yellow and white flowers. Her hair was wavy and styled in a short cut. A gold chain hugged her neck, too long to be a choker, too short to be much of anything else … and she was smiling that smile of hers, like she knew things I didn’t and couldn’t wait to overwhelm me with a burst of her magnificence. The dress had a scoop front with straps that tied at the shoulder and a flared tulle bottom that stopped just below the knees. When she moved, material billowed like a herd of cumulus clouds. She leaned in my direction, and I stared into the face of a perfect sky. She was pretty, but there was more to it than that. A better word, one more finely tuned to her unique presentation is what I’d been looking for. This word had yet to be invented. I’d been searching but kept coming up short no matter how hard I tried.
“You’re here,” Tee said.
“That’s a nice dress.” Her legs were tucked beneath her bottom, and she had an open textbook in her lap, already prepping for the fall, because full rides to Pitt on the pre-med track came with expectations. I thought about my own situation, how destiny would send me farther west once my last high school summer came to an end. Next to her I felt like an imposter, but I was determined to fake the funk for as long as I could. I sat down on a floral ottoman, elbows on my knees, trying to look as collected as I could for someone overdosing on hormones.
“Thank you.” Her smile was the promise of a very good time. “You ready?”
“What did you tell your mom?”
“Only that we were going to a movie, and then maybe an open house afterwards.”
“Why? Momma said something?”
“She just asked what time the movie started.” I paused and looked back towards the sliding glass doors that separated the kitchen from the porch. I wondered about the parameters of their mother-daughter dynamic. I had questions about just how much the mother had been told but didn’t know how to ask. “I told her I didn’t know. Wasn’t sure what the two of you had worked out.”
The question caught me off guard, her gentle delivery doing little to deflect the viciousness of the blow.
“Scared?” I asked. “What … why …”
“Yeah. Are you?” I was a shaky five on her standing eight count, desperate just to make it to the next round.
“Girl …” I tried to play it off, but the question had fucked me up a little.
“Don’t think I forgot what you said, about me never having to worry? I’ll always handle my business, you said.”
“And I have,” I blurted, afraid of where this might be going.
“No matter what. No matter who or what comes into the picture.”
“Whaddya mean? What? Scared a’ what?” I’d been cool when I first walked in. Now my armpits were sticky, and the few words I could manage came out sounding hollow. I swallowed, opened my mouth, and was about to say something else stupid, but Tee ducked her head and held up a placating hand. Her nails weren’t short, but neither were they long. The slender fingers matched her height, but I knew from experience that they were also strong. She was smiling, and the band of her class ring refracted the fading sunlight like contrails on a falling star. I got lost there for a moment. She waited patiently until I refocused and met her eyes.
“I’m playing with you … sort of,” she said. “Just making sure you’re still comfortable with all of this. With us?”
Daddy would have sat me down for a conversation if he knew about “all of this.” Her mother would have consulted pastor for an intervention if she knew about “all of this.” We were fucking, it was good, and I didn’t want any part of it to end. In the beginning, I’d been the one to kick off the initial pursuit, but now that things had settled into a more predictable rhythm, it was definitely a script of her choosing that we were following. I knew my lines and was comfortable in my role. No way was I gonna mess this up.
“I’m not scared,” I lied. “I just wanna be with you.” I’d been trying to think of something impactful to say, something to salvage the tattered edges of my manufactured cool, but before I could get all worked up about having fallen so short of the mark, Tee smiled wider and stood up. My heart was still pounding, but the facial burn was slowly melting away.
“Good,” she said, coming towards me. “I want to be with you too.” She set the clouds in motion, and they hovered for a moment before kissing the top of my head. “Let me drive, ok? Momma’s car has more room, and people won’t stare at us everywhere we go.” I looked up and through a gap in that perfect sky, came face-to-face with the sun.
We drove back over to the Ohio side and charted a course for the mall in Niles, a bigger, nicer version of what, for years, the valley had tried but failed to offer. Most days when I crossed that line it was for the singular purpose of going home. Crossing it now, with a different destination in mind disrupted my sense of the familiar. What had always been known became strange and suddenly new. Same geography, different angle … like taking a shortcut across someone’s back yard after years of approaching from the street to the front door. Home was the tiny appellation with the tilted, watery brim, its starboard side lodged against the straight, left hip of the buxom matron with three times as many letters to her name. But it was she who had birthed me. She who had given me life. Salvation. Edification. These life fulfillments were the products of her soil, and just like her oil, coal, and steel, I too was a natural resource. Nothing about Ohio had ever come close, and it was at times like these, when my perspective was unexpectedly altered, that I remembered exactly who I was and where I really came from.
I studied Tee as she drove. Everything about her was precise and finely honed. She was big in all the right places. I admired them all as she sang loud and slightly off-key to “Very Special.” She kept her pretty eyes fixed on the road and I welcomed this tender mercy because the full force of those constellations would have gutted me right then. I was happy and feeling vulnerable. No telling what mess would have tumbled from my mouth.
“You got the brother’s part,” Tee commanded. This made all kinds of logical sense, but for some reason I was irked. Debra Laws had the better lines.
“Baby! You missed it. Pay attention.”
“Sorry,” I said. “Start it again.”
Tee made a noise and hit the rewind button. The cassette deck whirred as the tape spun backwards. “Now pay attention,” she said.
“Ready?” Tee’s finger poised to stab the play arrow. She took these duet singalongs seriously, while I, on the other hand, took pleasure simply from listening to her. This lack of focus resulted in miscues and forgotten lines, but true to form, Tee stayed committed till the very end. I especially liked listening to her on “The Closer I Get to You,” but that song with Johnny Mathis and Denise Williams tended to push her outside of her range. This new one with Debra Laws was steadily climbing up her list of favorites. We started and stopped once more before nailing it twice in perfect succession. Tee was happy with the result, and I was pleased to have played a part.
It was peak summer afternoon sliding headlong into evening. The temperature was pleasant. The sky was warm and clear. We drove with the windows down and before long, Tee’s perfume mixed with the smell of cut grass, gasoline and orange popsicles. Anais Anais is what she called it. Some new shit her mother had picked up down in Pittsburgh. A graduation present. Expensive. It sat there on the breeze like a balloon that was ready to pop, the ensuing rush of air stirring memories of recent triumphs, and the promise of more pleasure to come. Tee always put a dab behind each ear, inside her navel, and along the inside of each thigh. I knew because I’d seen her do it. Before the night was over, I would confirm that she’d done it again.
“This a ’78 or a ’79?” I asked.
“You know good and well it’s a ’79.”
“How would I know that … so good and well?”
“You ask every time you get in Momma’s car, and I tell you the same thing every time.”
I was quiet for a moment, not really hearing her this time either.
“You looking forward to college?”
“I think so,” I said. “I am,” I tried again with a little more conviction. She turned in my direction.
“Look at me,” she said, and waited until I did.
That was dangerous. I almost told her what I was really thinking.
“I thought you couldn’t wait to leave the valley,” Tee said.
I paused to consider her comment-question, cautious for any sign of a Trojan horse. What she said was true, but I didn’t want to get into all the other stuff I was feeling—more recent, uncomfortable things about the time I was spending with her.
“Well?” she tried again.
I didn’t want to disappoint her either.
“I am … Lord knows I’ve been waiting all my life for this moment to arrive. But the summer has been fun too … in lots of unexpected ways, and I wanna make sure I’m ready. Academically.”
“Boy please, wicked smart as you are?”
She was being kind. I wasn’t stupid, but neither did I consider myself pre-med material.
“This world’s gonna be better for the houses and buildings you design. Just wait … one day you’ll be more famous than Paul Williams and Frank Lloyd Wright combined.”
“We’ll see,” I said with a forced chuckle. We shall definitely see.” Sitting next to her now, diffused sunlight sliding off her shoulders, I wondered whether I’d eventually have to explain my comment about the summer.
Something about the moment transported me back to an earlier time, eliciting feelings that only now was I able explain. I was eight, bent in concentration over my vacation Bible school desk. My crayons were perfectly sharpened, the colors vibrant and inside the lines as I filled in Jacob’s robe.
This time it was my own voice I heard, from a tiny version of myself that sometimes perched on my right shoulder dispensing caution and advice. I didn’t flinch when I heard it. Didn’t think that maybe I was losing my mind. It was the familiar voice of introspection that I used whenever I was uncertain or feared I might be losing control. The alcohol was unopened. I looked around but didn’t see any police. I refocused on my beautiful driver and hoped that at least I wouldn’t have to be afraid of her.
We were early, and the lot was mostly empty, the back corner where Tee parked shrouded in puddles of sodium-vapor light. Before leaving the house, we had snatched up a few provisions: two Snickers bars (his), one Baby Ruth (hers), and a large bag of Snyder of Berlin potato chips (barbeque for everybody). As for the liquor, we shared a single, smallish Dixie cup. It was the last one in the house and the only thing we had because I vetoed what I thought would be another unnecessary stop.
I rescued my Beer Garden booty from beneath the front seat and opened it as Tee pushed the cup in my direction. I filled it with Boone’s Farm. She took a first careful sip, sucked down a little more, then leaned in and gave me some. She held the cup back up, and I poured another round. Again, she christened the rim, then kissed me and gave some back to me. We smashed the entire bottle. My lips never touched the cup. Some wine dribbled down her neck, and I did a good job of cleaning that little bit up. Our choreography was legit. We sank down in our seats and let the liquor do its work.
“You’re cute, you know that?” Tee was leaning against the car door with her feet in my lap. The way she cradled the cup was an entire mood, an expression of her desire for us to have more. I promised to hit the Garden before we crossed back over to the PA side. She fingered the links on her gold chain, and I stared at a cluster of yellow flowers climbing up the right side of her left breast.
“Think so?” I asked.
“Yeah. Real cute.” She showed me her tongue, and I blushed.
“When did you know?”
“That you wanted me?” I only hesitated for a second because it’s something I’d been thinking about a lot over the past few weeks.
“The first time.”
“The first time what?”
“The first time I saw you.”
“In Ms. Sheridan’s class?”
“Not that first time … no.”
“Then it couldn’t have been the first time.”
“Actually, there were multiple first times.”
“I barely saw you after we aged out of VBS,” I explained. “That was just a summer thing for you … with your cousin, ’cause you always went back to your home church.” I was pouting and surprised about it. I’d forgotten about the disappointment her annual departure would always bring. “Then we got older. You went to your high school. I went to mine …”
“So what you saying … I kept popping back up?”
“Not enough, but yeah … something like that. And each time was … “
“You didn’t wanna fuck me in vacation bible school?” Tee asked. I laughed, but the question made me blush some more, so I turned my head to the window, waiting for my face to cool off … and that’s when I saw her, maybe fifty, sixty yards from the passenger side of the car: an old woman coming through the trees that abutted the back of the parking lot. It was odd because there was nothing back there but marshland and woodland forest. Not only that, the woman appeared to be wrapped head to toe in what looked like several layers of fabric. Heavy fabric. Woolen winter gear in various textures of black, and gray, and brown. It was cool for an evening in June, but it was definitely still June. I squinted and blinked a few times as the outline wavered. Wait … had she gone back into the trees?
“You didn’t think I was sexy back then?” Tee asked. There was a rustling sound, like leaves scattering in a gust of wind, but the parking lot was clear. It was June, and all the leaves were still on the trees.
“I was only eight,” I said, sounding more serious than intended.
“I know. I was there,” Tee said. “You were cute then too.”
“Umm …” My throat was dry. My mouth was getting stuck.
“If only you had noticed me too. Boy, I would have given you the business.” Tipsy giggling ensued, followed by a soft burp, then more giggling. “And if not for Ms. Sheridan’s assigned seats, I would have sat next to you. Traded crayons. Passed you notes.” The flirting was superb, but I failed to bless Tee’s call with the proper response. Normally I would play along, sanctioning these delicious little provocations meant to poke fun at my reputation as the deacon’s son, but that’s not what was making me uncomfortable. Reality had shifted, those once familiar markers of predictable and sane now wrested from my control. The woman disappeared for only a second then reappeared maybe fifteen yards left of the spot I’d first seen her.
“What. The. Hell?” I sat up and pressed my face to the glass.
“Uh-oh … you not getting all sensitive and stuff on me now, are you?” Tee tried to sound put out, but the amusement in her voice betrayed her.
“What the f … How’d she get over there?”
“What’s she doing? What the fuck is she doing out here?
“Boy, what are you talking about?”
“That woman.” I said. “Over there!” Unsettled, I gave Tee a look, but it wasn’t exactly what I’d intended, and I certainly wasn’t expecting the one she gave back. The beautiful sky had turned cloudy as her constellations cautiously dimmed. I jerked my thumb in the direction of the trees, but when I turned back to the window, prepared to litigate the foundation of all I knew to be solid and true, the bundled apparition was gone. I gaped into the darkness, willing the figure to reappear.
I grew up in the north but had been raised in a southern household. For Black southerners like my parents and most of their friends, there were certain things you never questioned; you just took them as gospel, and you left those things alone. Inside this bubble of down South inviolability, ushers always wore white gloves, pumpkins were only used for carving, and the stories of haints you were told as children turned out not to be stories at all. I’d catalogued my fair share over the years, but one in particular stood head and shoulders above the others. As we crossed back over the river, more cheap wine stashed beneath the front seat, I struggled to describe what I had seen, but there was little doubt as to the nature of what that thing was.
“What she look like again?” Tee probably meant well, but I was getting tired of the questions, especially when I had so many of my own.
“Old. Bent over a little, like her back was hunched.”
“You sure she didn’t just walk off when you weren’t looking?”
“She couldn’t have,” I said. “I was lookin’ at her the whole time.”
“I know baby, but … I’m just sayin’. We were talking for a good long while. Maybe—”
“Nah … it wasn’t that long. I remember the exact moment I saw her. I only turned away that one time, when you said … when you were talking about vacation Bible school, and when I looked back …”
“She was gone?” I was quiet. The woman was gone alright, like she’d never been there in the first place. I tried to rationalize my way through it. We’d been drinking. It was dark. “I was facing in that direction the entire time,” Tee said. “I should have noticed something … don’t you think?” I said nothing—I could barely breathe. I was sliding down the path of discomfort into a state of being really fucking scared … even though a voice—not mine, but one that was no longer unfamiliar—told me that I shouldn’t be.
It was close to ten thirty when we landed at our second spot of the night—a backyard barbeque down in Steel City—that infamous section of the Black part of town named for the mill that night and day roared next to it. When my parents first moved to the valley, they too lived on the Pennsylvania side. I took a good look around, unable to imagine them outside the suburban enclave of the half acre we owned. Over here the streets were narrow, the houses packed in tight. Oaks and elms shaded freshly cut, postage-stamp yards. Grown folks relaxed on dining room chairs that had been pulled outside, their porches wide, an exhaustive supply of Dixie cups filled with brown liquor in their hands. Not Pittsburgh or Cleveland, but it was the closest thing to urban we were ever gonna get.
“Who’s hosting?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Tee said. “… not really sure.”
“Hmm.” It made no difference if we didn’t know them. Familiarity hardly mattered when it came to these things. Only two rules of etiquette applied to open house season: get there when you get there, and when you do, just have a good time.
“You ok?” Tee asked.
We hadn’t talked anymore about the woman, and I’d said absolutely nothing about the voice. By now, I had put the two together: they were one, I simply knew.
“I’m good,” I said, but that was mostly a lie. From the moment we set foot on the sidewalk, it felt like I was being watched. On the ride over, I’d tried making peace with the voice. I forced myself to imagine that it was nothing more than a form of thought projection, my subconscious mind punching through the surface to face the light of day. But having an awareness of another presence—a presence that was focused on me—that was an entirely different kind of thing. I was scared and not ready to admit it. I didn’t know what to make of this fresh fear.
“Look at Mary,” Tee said and pointed with her nose at a pigeon-toed girl with big hair and a slender body dance-flirting over by the grill. Mike Evans had taken up residence there, all six foot three, two hundred and ninety pounds of him. He was in the process of loading up several burgers (four by my count) on a toasted Kaiser roll. Fresh off a state championship win and Mr. PA Football title, Mr. Evans was heading to the University of West Virginia to shore up their defensive line. Mike Evans and Mary Prince. They’d been something of an item since the tenth grade, but in the past few months, trouble appeared to be brewing in Mike and Mary’s paradise. As summer wound down and the star athlete’s departure became eminent, his girl had been acting out. She allegedly punched out one competitor who’d gotten too close and had openly made threats to another.
“She looks desperate,” I said.
“She is desperate,” Tee replied. “Out here showin’ every inch of her narrow behind. That girl is chasin’ a dream already beyond her reach. It’s sad really. She should just enroll at the Penn State extension campus. Take a few classes, get some credits under her belt. I don’t know …” Tee sniffed and shook her head. Mary’s cash cow was about to become untethered, and everybody knew it. She would not be going to West Virginia. Mary would not be going anywhere, and anyone with even a little bit of sense knew what that meant. I was embarrassed for her, out here lying about engagement rings and fighting her imagined competitors. I was put off by her naked desperation, a little frightened that I understood it so well.
Hip to hip and sharing a cup of something dark brown and sweet, we loitered out on the sidewalk, waiting to see who else we recognized. Bodies came and went—more than a few not of their own volition—and as the seductive night wore on, I made a mental note to make sure neither one of us ended up in that category.
Then the synthesized voice of Roger Troutman grabbed our attention, and five minutes later, Sir Nose coaxed us all the way to the back. A dance floor had been trampled into the grass by beautiful bodies dipping and bouncing in time with the music. Couples peeled off for more privacy and were replaced by new arrivals, their floral and woodsy scents comingling with hair grease, reefer, and sweat. I was feeling myself, still high from getting felt up in the theater’s parking lot.
Tee knew I was unnerved about the sighting and had gone out of her way to help me forget. It worked … for a while, but deep down I was still bothered by what I had seen. I kept an eye out for the woman, steeling myself for the moment she would appear behind a group of revelers on the porch, or in an upstairs window of one of the adjacent houses. As I scanned the crowd, more bottles and cups traded hands between us teenagers as we shouted, giggled, and groped. Two grills loaded with burgers and hot dogs sizzled over charcoal that burned in service to the guests as, down the hill and across the Broadway strip, the mills’ two blast furnaces roared yellow-orange in honor of all the labor—conducted in morning, noon, and midnight shifts—that paid for the mortgage, beverages, and food. Most of our mothers and fathers had sacrificed everything down there. In a few short months, we’d send a new crop of laborers to join them, the ones not lucky enough to have scholarships and acceptance letters signed, sealed, and delivered in their names. Whether we were about to give ourselves over to the mill or were leaving home to learn how to become a doctor and an architect, we all—every single one of us—would forever be indebted to the smoke, and scrap, and scarring that invariably comes to fruition when human flesh shares time and space with molten steel.
“Very Special” came on. Tee smiled and pulled me close. Debra Laws hit those soft, sexy notes and Tee did encouraging things with her hands. Appreciation rippled through the crowd as folks paired up and split off. I felt strong fingers inside the waistband of my pants. Tee pulled me closer and I buried my face in her chest. Anais Anais. Baby powder and sweat. Her body was heavy and warm. She whispered promises flavored with strawberry wine, her lips on my ear as she described all the things she was gonna do. I was painfully out of my element, but this ride only worked in one direction. It was scary as hell at the deep end of the pool. I threw caution to the wind, tried some dance moves under water, but my barely-not-a-virgin ass still got wet.
The VW would have left us with a cramped situation. In Tee’s mother’s Caprice, there was more than enough room. I was much more than wet. I was on my way to drowning. My head was tilted back, my attention fixed on a loose thread in the car’s headliner. It was plush and soft to the touch. Tufted green velour, like the rest of the cushy interior. Tee knew what she was doing, and while I wondered about that, I didn’t have the courage to contemplate the many whys and wherefores of her skillful execution. Whoever she’d been with before, she was definitely with me now. It was far less risky to focus on that, and so I did. Occasionally someone would walk by, but it was dark so they couldn’t have seen much. Still, I kept watch for both of us because it was impossible for Tee to do the two things at once. “Very Special” played on a loop inside my head, and I was struck by the enormous power of a song to cement the memory of a time and place. I tried to keep it together, but Tee was just too damn good. I sounded an alarm, but she ignored my weak protestations. The breaking of glass ricocheted off the sidewalk where a bottle must have been dropped. Moments later, a group of loud, giggling girls sauntered by. I tensed, and Tee’s hand came up and rested softly on my chest. At first, no one paid us any attention, but then to my horror—at the last possible moment—one of them slowed down and stopped right next to the window. I didn’t recognize the girl as she looked straight into my flickering eyes. Embarrassed, I closed them, waiting for her to leave, but when I opened them again the girl was still there, surprise spreading warmly across her face. I gave up, gave in and re-embraced the darkness as my body shook and the spirit left me.
Back at my house, everyone asleep except the dog, I shyly returned the favor, awkwardly at first. But Tee steered me on course with her hands and hips, taught me first-hand about the strength in her beautiful thighs. The combination of Tee and Anais Anais made me high. The record player crackled. Maurice White’s vocals lifted off the vinyl like filaments of steam.
“That’s it, baby.” Tee said.
“Um hum, right there.”
“Ffffuuuu … boy, yes. Yes. Yes …” Tee bit her lower lip and ventriloquized her instructions, worked me like a puppeteer until I did the things she breathily asked. Her mouth popped open, and my name rushed out on a grunt of air. That evening I entered her holiest of holies with more finesse than on previous occasions, but I made the crucial mistake of looking directly in her eyes. With my first, cautious strokes, Tee kept on coming, saying absolutely nothing. Drunk with her scent, it was I who tumbled down … and cried out helplessly into the night.
That night I dreamt about Tee, the taste of her goodbye kiss, and the generosity evident in her smile. I was lying on my right side in my bed, facing the window, semiconscious of the angle of moon, the sound of crickets coming in through the open bedroom window. Not accounting for my desk and chair, a narrow chifforobe, and framed posters of Jane Kennedy and Dr. J, behind me there should have been nothing but blackness and empty space. In the dream I walked Tee to her momma’s car, and we stood in the driveway, savoring that last kiss. I watched as she drove away, waiting until her taillights blinked into darkness for the final time before turning to go back in the house … and that’s when I woke up and felt a presence in the room.
The moon was so bright that I could make out details in the next yard. The cross bars on the swing set were bent from where Michael Clark, the eldest of our neighbor’s kids, had taken a bat to them. Someone had left a catcher’s mitt discarded at the base of the crab apple tree, and there were clothespins still clipped to the line, the flat ones with the springs we used as kids to make pop guns. I remembered the rustling noise from the movie theater parking lot, could hear a fresh version of it outside my bedroom window, but the leaves on the crab apple tree were perfectly still. I could see them, their serrated, pointy edges dipped in silver moonlight.
When I was a little, I went through a period of waking from a nightmare and calling out for my mother until she came down to save me. Funny how that instinct could persist these many years later. But all summer, Tee had been making me feel like a man, and men didn’t call out for their mothers after waking disoriented from a dream. Whoever was in my room, they were close. I could feel them watching me.
Was I asleep and just imagining all of this?
I tried that on for size, but the sensory exactitude of the moment made it insurmountable. There was nothing I could do to make myself believe in that lie.
I was wide awake, and there was someone in the room with me. I rolled onto my back and stared up into a tunnel of night. Leaning over me was a figure wearing what appeared to be a hooded cassock or an oversized coat with scarves and many layers … woolen winter gear in various textures of black and gray and brown. The hood engulfed the face so that its features were hidden. I felt shock. The fear would come later, but even then would be overshadowed by a kind of scary exhilaration. Why me? Why now?
And then all at once I knew.
At seventeen, it would take me a lifetime to stumble my way through such grace—this gift—to continue my family’s tradition of communing with the dead. Nan, my guardian angel, our ancestor-angel of death. She would speak to me over the years, but almost forty would pass before I saw her again.
That first time, while lying in my bed, without thinking I raised my arm as if searching for her face, but the moment my fingertips reached her, I was reminded again that some things only worked in one direction. The figure straightened, turned, and then floated … flew? … wordlessly and soundlessly out of the room.
Cover Art by Jack Freedman