|Apr/May 2008 Fiction|
Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart. --Aeschylus
When Angelina was five, her mother married a black man named Bill. Bill was from a family of twelve boys. The first was named William, and the last--his mother having run out of ideas--was named Bill. Bill was the culmination of his mother's passion. She died shortly after he was born.
In the late nineteenth century, lynching was used in the South by whites to terrorize Afro-Americans and maintain white supremacy. Bill's father was lynched on October 13, 1938, in Lincoln Parish, Louisiana. His penis was cut off and left next to the body. He was accused of intent to rape a white woman. His wife (Bill's mother) claimed he was home that night as she was giving birth to Bill.
Angelina was tall for her age, thin, but lithe with pale skin, white-blonde hair, and cornflower eyes. By age four she could climb to the top of the giant fig tree in her back yard. From there she'd peer down through the bulbous green leaves at the people who passed by her house.
The blue-haired woman who hobbled down the road gripping a clear-necked bottle in a brown paper bag.
The big-breasted woman with the itty-bitty shirts and tight short skirts who wore no panties and bent over the hoods of cars when men walked by.
The twelve-year-old boy with the eight-inch afro whom Angelina caught one afternoon butt naked in the bushes of her house pressing his penis into the girl who lived next door.
The boy was just inches from Angelina's window as he thrust like a dog. The girl's head was almost lost in the white hydrangea bush, her blue silk panties down around her ankles, her pink, puckered, elasticized shirt clinging to her flat, ebony chest. Her braids stuck out of the bush like a star-burst or some kind of exotic weed.
Angelina turned from the window. She knew better than to say anything about what she saw. That boy was mean.
Angelina and her mother lived in a tiny shoe-box of a house in South Watts. Mother slept in a room that looked out over the fig tree, while daughter slept in a walk-in closet off the hall where her mother put a bed, a wooden toy box, and Angelina's favorite tiny, red-upholstered rocking chair.
Angelina was the only white kid in her kindergarten class. When the class picture came out, Angelina's face was dead-center like a bull's eye.
Angelina never met Bill, the man her mother married, until he came to live with them. When he walked into their house, he seemed like a giant shadow thrown from her small body.
Angelina's mother introduced him as her new father and told her to give him a hug.
He didn't bend down, so Angelina had to hug his long, thick leg. His muscles twitched when she hugged tight.
Her mother scrambled to take his suitcase into the bedroom. Get Bill a beer, she said to Angelina on her way out of the room.
Angelina stood and stared.
What'd you staring at? He sat down on the vinyl couch. Never seen a black man? You heard your mother, get me a beer. He smiled. And then we'll take you out for an ice cream.
Angelina's mother had eloped with Bill to Mexico. During the three days she was gone, Angelina stayed with Mia, the woman across the street. Her mother told Mia that it was easier in Mexico for a white woman to marry a black man.
It wasn't the first time Angelina's mother left her at Mia's overnight or for long stretches of time. Angelina knew Mia's house well. Every day after school when her mother was working, Angelina walked home to Mia's house. It was Mia who shouted at the kids who followed Angelina home from school throwing rocks and hitting her with sticks. White Girl, they'd sing-song, taunting her, pulling her long, blond braids. They even ripped her shirt from her small body and bloodied her nose.
You a strong girl, Mia said as she cradled Angelina to her plump, soft body. Them kids bad. You stay away from them, you hear?
Angelina nodded, her cheek pressed into Mia's belly. She thought of her fig tree and didn't feel the bruises on her body.
It was like she had no body at all.
She never cried when Mia put rubbing alcohol on her scrapes or pressed Mercurochrome on her head. She loved Mia and wanted to be strong so Mia would love her back.
Mia always read Angelina her favorite book, Ticky Ticky Tembo. Angelina loved the idea that a name could mean the most wonderful thing in the whole world. She wanted to change her name to Ticky Ticky Tembo--no sa rembo chari bari ruchi pip peri pembo--but her mother wouldn't let her.
Mia, couldn't you just call me Tikki Tikki? Angelina asked, raising her head from Mia's breast.
Mia clucked her tongue like she always did, whenever Angelina suggested a name change. Your name is just fine, little Angel-girl.
The day Angelina's mother came home married to Bill, Angelina had been sitting in her fig tree. On her branch at the top of the tree, Angelina could talk to God. Where do we go when we die? she asked the day Bill came home.
Angelina could see that an electrical current ran between Bill and her mother. Like a prod, Bill's voice could make her mother move. One day, about a month after Bill moved in, Angelina had just come home from school when Bill stood up from the couch and unbuckled his belt. Babe, he said.
Her mother stood up, too.
Angelina flattened her back against the front door.
Without glancing at Angelina, her mother walked from the room and went to lie on their bed.
Bill followed her.
At the door of their bedroom, Bill turned to look back at Angelina. His black eyes were like bright magnets.
Angelina pressed her back hard against the front door. The doorknob bruised her ribs. She held herself still. Dug her heels down like at the beach when the tide threatened to pull her in.
After a moment, Bill shut the bedroom door. The trance broken, Angelina moved toward the kitchen to get a glass of milk. From the kitchen she could hear sounds from her mother's room. Angelina looked out the kitchen window at the fig tree behind the house. Its green leaves were dappled in light.
She wiped the back of her hand across her mouth and wandered into the dining room. Fingered a scar on the small round oak table. She sat down in wooden straight-backed chair and kicked her feet back and forth; her toes didn't quite touch the floor. Quietly, Angelina began to sing, Ticky Ticky Tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo...
A knock at the window made Angelina jump. Outside, the boy with the eight-inch afro made a motion near his penis with his hand. The boy laughed and pointed toward her mother's room.
Angelina got off her chair. She pressed her back into the sharp edge of the table.
The boy beckoned her outside. But she didn't move.
She looked toward her mother's bedroom door and saw it was ajar.
Angelina had to pass that door to get to her own room. Outside, the boy continued to mime with his hand near his penis. For a moment, Angelina remained frozen in place--she didn't breathe.
Then something propelled her forward. Like a wind-up toy, she walked toward the open door of her mother's bedroom. She stopped at the six-inch gap and peeped in.
Angelina's grandparents were upper-middle class white folks from Pasadena. They couldn't understand why Angelina's mother wanted to act black, as they put it. Nor why Angelina's mother allowed her daughter to be covered in scrapes and bruises. When they asked Angelina what happened, she'd shrug. Her mother claimed she was a clumsy child.
Angelina and her mother moved to Watts six months before the riots of August 11, 1965. After the riots, the press reported that the neighborhood was 99% African-American and that the only non-blacks in the neighborhood were a few people of Hispanic origin and several Jewish store owners. Angelina and her mother weren't Jewish or Hispanic. Nor was the old woman with blue hair who shopped daily at the local liquor store.
At age five and a half, Angelina's clothes were ripped off her body. She was tied naked to a tree by a gang of neighborhood kids. They left her that way all day. When her grandparents found out, they insisted she be moved from Watts. They wanted Angelina to come live with them in their big house on Orange Grove Avenue in Pasadena. But her mother refused. Her husband wanted them to be a family, she said.
That summer, Bill, Angelina, and her mother packed and moved from Watts to a small tract-house Angelina's grandparents bought them in La Puente, a white suburb in the San Bernardino valley. The street they moved to was on a small hill. The houses stood side by side with tiny yards and all looked alike. Angelina memorized the name of the street the first day. Gumbiner--like Gumby, the cartoon she watched.
I live on the flexible street, she told her teacher the first day of school.
Her new teacher was amazed at the words she knew and her level of comprehension. How did you learn such big words? her teacher asked.
Angelina shrugged. She didn't like to tell all the things she knew, or how she knew them.
The children in her class were all white like Angelina, all except one little girl, Eileen, who spoke Spanish and had long black silken hair. After the first hour in class, Angelina knew she wanted to be best friends with Eileen. She loved the soft coffee-color of Eileen's skin, her frilly blue dress, and especially the way her long hair was curled and in bows.
Angelina sidled up to Eileen at recess. I like your dress, she said.
Thank you, Eileen said, while she carefully unwrapped the white parchment around her sopapia.
Angelina went to touch Eileen's hair, but Eileen drew back.
I'm not allowed to play with you, Eileen said.
Angelina stood frozen.
You have a nigger living in your house, Eileen said, matter-of-factly. My papa and Tio were talking and said your family will be a bad influence on this neighborhood.
Just then the bell rang, calling them back to class.
After school, Angelina walked home slowly. A big park occupied the block between her street and the school. Angelina played for a long while on the monkey bars, then climbed to the top of the swing set--a yellow arc of metal that looked a lot like the arch on the McDonald's sign. Sitting at the top of the swing set seemed a little like sitting at the top of her fig tree.
Bill was supposed to meet Angelina after school, but when she got home, he wasn't there. Her mother still worked in South Central Los Angeles near their old house and wouldn't be home until much later. She took a bus part way home, because her old car couldn't make the drive, she said.
Angelina couldn't understand why her mother kept her old car when she distinctly heard her grandparents offer her mother a new Buick just like theirs.
Bill and I want to pick out our own car, her mother had said.
Now, a few months later, her mother still took the bus to work, while Bill drove the green 1963 Thunderbird Sports Roadster they bought with the money Angelina's grandfather gave them. Bill works harder and has to drive further, her mother said.
Bill's new car wasn't in the driveway when Angelina arrived home. The front door was locked. Angelina had to use the toilet, but she'd been told she wasn't to go into any of the houses on the street. (All the neighbors called her daddy nigger.) And it was too far to walk back to school.
Angelina sat down on the grass to wait for Bill. She laid back to watch the clouds, but the ground pressed in on her, making her uncomfortable. She got up and played hopscotch in the pretend squares she drew. But after awhile the hopping hurt. The man across the street came home from work. He parked his gray Buick next to his wife's white Ford Fiesta. Angelina saw the man's wife meet him at the door. His two kids came running around from the back yard and hugged their daddy. Their dog poked his nose through the white picket fence.
As the sun began to set, Angelina set two rocks in front of her and began to tell them a story. She told the rocks about how the stars are really people. The night sky is the coat of a good queen. The queen lives in a large palace that is surrounded by a moat with crocodiles. The queen uses her coat to keep her children safe so they may pass safely to the other side.
Angelina played quietly like this, until finally, she couldn't stand it anymore. She had to poop.
In the back of her house, a small ribbon of grass stretched between a sea of ivy and the back door. On the other side of the ivy was a tall wooden fence separating their yard from the neighbors. Ever since she found a snake in the house curled up next to her red rocker, Angelina was afraid of that ivy. Bill wanted to burn the ivy, saying it was a breeding ground for snakes and dangerous for Angelina. But her mother was afraid they'd burn down the back fence and cause trouble with the neighbors.
Angelina squatted down on the soft green grass, staying as far away from the ivy as she could manage. She thought of throwing the poop into the ivy, but she had nothing to pick it up with and it was quite big. She pulled up her pants and went to sit back beside the front door.
Her mother found her sitting asleep upright when she returned at 9:30 that night.
Not a word was said about Bill.
The next day, when Angelina got home from school, Bill was waiting for her in the yard.
Come here, he said, motioning with his finger.
Angelina felt her body go prickly all over, like when her foot fell asleep. She followed Bill to the back yard.
Is this yours? Bill asked pointing to the poop.
Angelina shook her head.
Whose is it then?
Angelina shrugged. It looks like a dog's. The neighbors have one.
That is not dog poop, Bill said. And little girls do not poop outside. He grabbed Angelina by the back of her neck and shoved her down to her knees. He pulled her pants down and whacked her hard on the butt. If you were a dog, I'd rub your nose in it, he said.
Angelina didn't cry. She wanted to be a strong girl so Bill would love her.
In 1967, eighteen Klu Klux Klansmen were tried on federal civil rights charges when state authorities refused to take action. The Klansmen were accused of the murders of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney. Seven of these defendants were convicted and received light sentences. None served more than six years. Edgar Ray Killen, the most notorious of the Klansmen charged, was released when the jury deadlocked 11-to-1 for conviction. There were several other racially motivated killings of blacks that year. One case involved the 1967 car-bombing of a black father of five who had been promoted to chemical mixer in a factory, a job usually reserved for white men. Bill worked for a trucking company and wanted to become a foreman. He and Angelina's mother talked a lot about that murder.
In 1967, Angelina learned to ride a real bike, not a tiny one or one with training wheels. The pink bike with a long sissy-bar was an early birthday present from her grandparents. She spent hours practicing riding down the small hill of Gumbiner Street. She got so good, she began to try tricks. Look Mom, no hands, she screamed one day as she went whizzing by.
A family party was planned for Angelina's birthday. She wanted to surprise her grandparents and cousins with how well she could ride her new bike. As the day of her birthday grew near, Angelina got more daring. She began to stand on the seat of her bike, first holding onto the handlebars, but then one by one, letting her fingers go. It was a tricky balance that she strove to perfect.
But there was an accident that day.
Angelina didn't remember her cake or the cookies her mother bought, the ice cream, the presents, the balloons or party-hats.
Angelina had amnesia-of-sorts for a time. She couldn't remember the accident and for a few weeks thereafter, her memory remained totally blank.
One day she "awoke" and found bruises and scabs all over her body. She was sore and could barely move.
Her mother told her she'd been in a bicycle accident. That she was standing on her seat and let go of her hands just as a neighbor girl grabbed the back of her sissy-bar. Angelina went flying, her mother said. And hit her head.
Angelina remembered none of it at all.
Her mother claimed she'd been awake since the accident, eaten food, that she read Angelina Ticky Ticky Tembo.
She claimed that Bill stayed home from work to care for Angelina. Bill's fed you, read to you and bathed you, her mother said. Even bought you your favorite pink peppermint ice cream.
But Angelina didn't remember any of this.
What Angelina remembered was waking up and seeing a blond woman in the hall. Bill held the woman's hand. Neither looked at Angelina. They went into Bill and Angelina's mother's bedroom and shut the door.
Angelina got out of bed. Her legs were shaky. Scabs and bruises covered her body. She wondered how they got there.
She took a step. She felt like a colt. She took another step. Her legs felt stronger. She made her way to the hall. With her hand on the knob, she pressed her ear to the door of her mother's room. For a moment, she wondered if her mother was home. But Angelina could hear sounds that weren't her mother's.
Slowly she backed away. She backed all the way down the hall and finally stopped in the living room. She sat down in her favorite red leather rocking chair.
Bill found her rocking back and forth when he and the blond woman exited the bedroom.
The woman smiled at her.
Bill asked her if she was feeling better and wanted an ice cream. I'll be back in a minute, and then I'll take you to get a double scoop, he said.
When later Angelina told mother about the blond woman who went into the bedroom with daddy and shut the door, Bill claimed she was lying.
He took off his belt and ordered Angelina to her room.
Maybe she was hallucinating from her sickness, her mother said.
The lying has to stop, Bill said. My Nanny beat me with a belt when I lied. Said she didn't want me to turn out like my daddy.
Angelina walked down the hall, not seeing the white walls or the blue shag carpet. She walked right by the oil painting she loved of the sunset on the beach and the painting of the ballerina her grandmother had given her at her birth.
She saw none of it.
She lay down on her bed.
And closed her eyes.
On April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Violence erupted across America. A wave of rioting struck one hundred and twenty-five cities in twenty-nine states. Forty-six were killed, two thousand six hundred injured, twenty-one thousand arrested, and damage to property estimated at $50 million. In Chicago, Mayor Daley ordered police to "shoot to kill" arsonists; in Washington DC bullets and bombs exploded two blocks from the White House. President Johnson dispatched one hundred thousand federal troops to contain the riots.
In 1968 Angelina was in second grade. She was so smart her teachers wanted to skip her to fourth grade, but her mother wouldn't let them. Angelina never told her teachers how she got so smart. Or that when she took tests she'd float right up and out of her body. In this cloud-like state, she could see the answers and always knew the right things to say.
Her ability to move into a cloud-like state improved her biking skills. Now she never fell. The teachers loved her because she was so smart, and because the teachers loved her, the kids did, too. She got special privileges at school. All the kids wanted to be her friend. Angelina liked to stay after school to play and help her teachers.
She was happy.
But she couldn't sleep. At night when she closed her eyes, she felt a gap inside her belly. A hole of sorts. When she tried to probe that hole, it felt like she was walking down a long dark corridor that had no end. And somewhere there was a monster.
She couldn't see the monster's face, but she could feel it.
Angelina coped with her sleepless state by being happy in the day. By pleasing her teachers and making friends.
The problem was, with all that happiness and no sleep, Angelina got over-stimulated, as her mother liked to say.
Bill liked to watch television. They had a set in every room--the kitchen, the living room, her mother's room. Even Angelina had her own television. She kept hers off; she couldn't stand the constant hiss of the screen, the way the voices grew louder during commercials, the buzzing sound when programming went off the air.
Bill and her mother talked about his hopes for a promotion. They talked about the Black Panthers and Malcolm X. They watched the news all the time.
But the news scared Angelina.
When Angelina went to meetings with her mother in South Central Los Angeles, black women called her mother white honky bitch. Angelina was afraid for her mother's safety. One of her favorite day-dreams was to rescue her mother from an angry mob. Her second favorite day-dream was that her mother would get a deadly disease and almost die, but somehow Angelina would figure out a way to save her.
She could feel her pain then--in the moment right before she imagined she could rescue her mother--but only then.
One day in early May, 1968, Angelina's mother took Angelina and Bill's four children (from another woman) to visit Bill's Uncle Alfred. Bill's children had just moved in with them, their mother having lost custody for reasons the grown-ups never discussed. Uncle Alfred lived in South Central Los Angeles, near where Angelina's mother worked. It was a Saturday, and Bill had gone to the race track to blow off steam. It's tough being a black man in this world, her mother said.
That morning, Angelina's mother and the five children drove to South Central in her mother's old blue Pontiac. When they pulled off the highway, one of Bill's daughters pointed at a gray car headed their way. It's Mama, the girl said.
Your mother? Angelina's mother asked sharply.
Before the child could answer, the gray car whipped around and came up next to the blue Pontiac. The gray car moved closer and closer, pushing the Pontiac off the road.
Angelina's mother skidded to a stop. The driver's door of the Pontiac flew open, and Angelina's mother was pulled from the car by her hair.
Bill's oldest boy scrambled from the car. You kids get out, he said to his siblings. You stay, he said, pointing at Angelina.
Angelina's mother screamed.
Angelina peeked up over the back seat.
A man in the gray car was laughing. A woman with a tall afro had ripped the shirt off her mother's body and was beating her up. Her mother screamed when the woman took her cigarette and burned it on her mother's bare belly.
Bill's kids scrambled into the gray car.
The man yelled.
The woman climbed into the car behind the kids.
The car took off, leaving Angelina's mother bloody by the side of the road.
After that, Angelina began to sleepwalk. Of course, Angelina didn't remember sleep walking. Nor could she remember stripping off her pajamas and walking naked outside. She only knew she sleepwalked because one day Bill complained. He had found her naked, sleep-walking again when he came home late. It was embarrassing he said, and he was afraid she'd get hurt. There are crazy people in this world, and the neighbors don't like us.
The sleepwalking didn't bother Angelina--she couldn't remember what she did or where she went. She pushed it from her mind and stayed focused on being happy at school and pleasing her teachers. Each night she got down onto her knees and prayed that if she sleepwalked again, Bill wouldn't find her, and that on her own, she'd find her way back to bed.
On June 6, the night after Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, Bill came home at 3:00 in the morning, supposedly from a Black Panthers meeting, although later Angelina's mother admitted she could smell alcohol, and found Angelina rocking back and forth in her leather rocker. She was asleep and naked. But worse, she had peed on herself, and it had dribbled down the chair to the new blue carpet.
Bill started cursing.
He picked up Angelina and carried her to the bathroom.
Bill, No, Angelina's mother said. You're not supposed to wake a sleepwalker--it can cause permanent damage.
Damage? Bill said. Talk to Dr. King's kids about damage. Talk to the black families in Watts and Detroit and Newark. He turned on the cold shower and threw Angelina in.
Angelina woke up.
She saw Bill taking off his belt.
Bill, please, Angelina's mother said.
They killed The King and Bobby Kennedy too. This white child is not going to piss on my floor.
He shut the door. Locked Angelina's mother out and Angelina in.
Angelina didn't cry.
She didn't wince.
She pretended that she was at school.
While white noise swirled all around.