Seemed like she spent most of her life waiting. For buses, in the doctor’s office for them to see Jamal and just this morning, at the D.C. Jail waiting for them to bring Marcus’ dumb-ass down. Chanelle shifted her weight from one leg to the other and knocked once again on Renée’s door. Renée was supposed to be watching her younger brothers and sister but she generally made them go to the park without her so she could watch television in peace and quiet, or take a nap. She took a lot of naps.
“Who is it?” The voice sounded bad-tempered and out of sorts.
“Me,” Chanelle said. “Wake your ass up.”
Renée opened the door grinning. Her eyes were bleary and lacked focus and her hair was a bird’s nest.
“Thought you was busted, huh?”
Chanelle pushed past her and into the apartment. It was dark and dank. Renée had shut the blinds and had evidently been sleeping on the sofa in front of the television which was on, but turned down low. On the coffee table was a tray with a half-eaten meal from MacDonald’s.
“What time is it anyway?” Renée asked. “I better go get the kids before my mother gets back.”
“Almost five,” Chanelle said. “My Mom just got in.”
“Damn,” Renée muttered. She ran to the bathroom and emerged a few moments later looking marginally more presentable. “You coming?”
Chanelle followed Renée out of the apartment, down the two flights of stairs and out of the building. It was still sweltering outside and the rancid odor of garbage that once again had not been collected rose to meet them.
“I hope those little bastards stayed where I told them,” Renée said.
“One of these days you gon’ get a nasty wake-up call with that,” Chanelle predicted. “People snatch kids up all the time, Renée.”
“Who’s snatching kids from around here?” Renée scoffed. “That mess only happens to stupid white women who live in Potomac.”
“Or stupid Black girls in the projects,” Chanelle muttered under her breath as Renée rushed ahead.
At the park, Renée’s siblings – eight-year old Taj, and the six year old twins Antoine and Trey were sitting on the monkey bars, desultorily picking through their respective bags of fast food. Chanelle always thought the boys looked like hardened little miniature men rather than children. She imagined it had something to do with their mother who made Chanelle’s seem like a dream. When she wasn’t working, Ms. Walker stayed drunk. And she was mean, too. She was one of those drunks who cursed out their kids, their man and everyone in sight when they were under the influence. A few times, Renée had even showed up at school with her lip busted, or an eye blackened. Everyone pretended not to notice, even the teachers. Chanelle didn’t know if Ms. Walker beat on the little ones like she did Renée, but witnessing the beat-down of their older sister had to be pretty damn messed up in its own right.
“Y’all okay?” Renée asked, stroking the top of Trey’s head.
Despite the harsh manner in which she talked about her siblings, Chanelle had to admit, she had never heard Renée speak to them in anything but the gentlest of tones. At sixteen, she was practically their surrogate parent.
“Yup. They was giving away bottled water down the block,” Taj said. “We got six of ‘em.”
She indicated a plastic bag on the ground at her feet. For an eight-year old, she was pretty resourceful. You had to be to survive around here.
“C’mon now, y’all,” Renée said picking up the bag. “I gotta go start dinner.”
As they trudged across the park, Chanelle noticed Cyrus across the street, going into Manchu Palace Carry-Out. Her mother sometimes cooked, but rarely on weeknights. When Cyrus stayed the night he was too impatient to wait for a meal to be prepared so he generally got Chinese for everyone. He ordered the large size of everything and Chanelle looked forward to having as much as she could eat of the beef with broccoli, Szechuan pork, dumplings and shrimp fried rice. Usually, they all sat in the living room and watched television as they ate and everyone got all talkative and they were almost like a real family. Even Trinity, who most of the time watched rather than participated, got into the spirit of things and Chanelle almost forgot to resent her.
“I probably can’t stay too long,” Chanelle said to Renée now. She didn’t want to miss the Chinese food feast.
“At least keep me company a little bit while I cook.”
“I guess I can do that. For a little while anyway.”
As Chanelle watched Renée take out the ground beef, pasta and tomato sauce, she could feel the darkness coming over her again. It was like that. It came from nowhere and without warning – a dark feeling that made everything and everyone around her seem garbled and covered in gauze. She tried to listen to Renée as she chattered on about her boyfriend, but it was almost impossible to concentrate. All she wanted at times like this was to sleep. Maybe Renée had the darkness too. Maybe that was why she napped all the time. But Chanelle would never ask her something like that. People were liable to think she was crazy if she told them that she sometimes fantasized about jumping off the Anacostia Bridge or taking a bunch of those pills her mother thought no one knew about.
The only thing that stopped her was Jamal. She loved little man like she had never loved anyone before, except for his Daddy. She knew her cousin thought she was a lousy mother but that was only because she didn’t have a baby of her own. She couldn’t know. She couldn’t know what it was like to love someone so much that it felt like slavery and you knew you could never make another single decision that didn’t also take them into account as well. Because of Jamal, killing herself was not an option. Unless of course, she took him with her. And that was out of the question. He was like a living, breathing reminder that actions had consequences – something most sixteen-year olds had the luxury of not confronting for at least another two years.
“Guess who I seen yesterday with her baby?” Renée said.
This question penetrated the fog.
“Tina? With her triflin’ self?”
“The one and only,” Renée said. “She looked right at me too.”
“I saw her name on the book when I went up to see Marcus,” Chanelle admitted.
“You should just beat her ass and get it over with,” Renée said. “For her to have been your friend and done what she did.”
“Marcus did it too,” Chanelle said dully.
Renée looked at her as though not convinced she’d heard correctly.
“Anyway, I can’t be mad at her for the rest of my life,” Chanelle said quickly. “Jamal’s got a brother whether I like it or not.”
Renée grunted. “If you let someone do you like that, no telling what they got in store for your ass later.”
Chanelle didn’t bother pointing out that the same was true of Marcus. She knew he was no great bargain. She wasn’t fuckin’ stupid. But he was the best she had right now. He loved his baby and he said he loved her too. He said he wanted to get his life straight when he got out this time, and that he thought they might make a family together. She knew the odds were long, but sometimes it happened – dudes got out of jail and turned a corner and never looked back. Like Cyrus. He’d been in the joint and was a changed man, according to her mother. Hell, if she knew what was good for her she would do everything in her power to keep Cyrus. The only action he seemed to be looking for was a couple nights a month at the titty bar with his friends. Marcus hadn’t gotten there yet, but he was a work in progress and Chanelle had no intention of throwing away the time she’d already put in to start over with some other fool.