Words By Marie Manilla, Art By Lemy Tran
Laser Beam settled into the sidewalk, cold concrete biting his rump. “How long do I have to sit here, Daddy?”
“Until I say,” Fingers said.
Panhandlers with children often collected more, even if the child was nearly grown.
A lady walked by pushing a stroller.
“Spare a dollar?” Fingers asked.
Laser Beam tried to look hungry.
She ignored them, but the toddler in the stroller craned his neck to eye them as they passed.
A city bus pulled up to the curb. Four black boys in uniforms disembarked. They were coming to say goodbye to their families in the projects before shipping out to Vietnam. In three years Laser would likely be wearing a uniform too.
“That’s one way to get out of this town.” Fingers rubbed the stubs on his hand, all that remained of his fingers. He regretted not being able to serve in World War II.
Party Girl exited the bus next, hair in a chignon, white scarf tied around her neck. She yelled into the open bus door to her daughter, “You coming, Itty?”
Laser spotted Itty Bit in the third row, head down, reading. She had real smarts. Everyone said so. She was just thirteen, but boys already followed her in packs. Hey, Itty! Let’s go down to Turtle Cove and roll around!
Just yesterday, Laser had watched her turn to face those boys. For the last time, leave me alone!
She stomped off, the boys laughing.
Itty Bit didn’t exit the bus, so Party Girl pulled a cigarette case from her purse. “Suit yourself.” She headed to her squat orange house.
“You need to keep watch over Itty.” Fingers had been instructing Laser of his duties as far back as the boy could remember. His father eyed Party Girl. “I didn’t do a good job protecting her mother.” Laser didn’t know why his father felt the pull to look out for that woman when he could barely look out for himself. Fingers lost more than his digits in the accident.
Still, Laser Beam did his best, hovering around Itty during recess, in the school cafeteria, waiting in line to see a movie. He’d gotten more than one bloody nose from town boys. Why you sniffing around that white girl? It was the only time it didn’t matter to them that Itty Bit was a whore’s child. Laser had seen Party Girl hook dates by the flood wall. Caught her giving head in the dress shop vestibule. Itty Bit’s grandmother and great-grandmother had been whores too. Maybe that’s what he had to safeguard her from.
The bus driver put his hand on the door pull. Laser jumped up, squeezed between the bus’s closing doors, and sat behind Itty.
“I know you’re back there,” she said.
“It’s a free country.” He reached in his pocket for the latest thing he’d saved for her. “You want this shark’s tooth I got at Bucky Pawn’s?”
At least once a week Laser approached her with an offering. You want this comic book? No. Rabbit’s foot? No. Arrowhead? No. It was a compulsion he’d had since he’d started looking out for her. Something told him that if he found the right thing it might bring Itty a vision of her future that did not include whoring.
The bus passed the strip of black-owned businesses that had cropped up in the twenties: grocery, insurance, dry cleaners, half with soaped windows, the other half holding on for dear life. Laser wondered if Itty intended to ride all the way to Letty-Land where the bus turned around, though the park had shut down years ago after that accident with the Ferris wheel. Still, kids liked to poke around the remains. Look for coins where all the rides had been. Have sex in the Haunted House. Get high. But Itty got out at the cemetery and Laser followed.
“I know you’re back there.”
“Still a free country.”
They climbed the hill and sat with their backs pressed against Itty’s family tombstone, so many dead whores buried side by side. Laser’s dead were on the backside of the hill in that parcel identified by the sign that read: Coloreds.
Laser rolled a joint and lit it. Whatever China laced his pot with made Laser feel as if he were encased in Jell-O, his movements rubbery, external sounds muffled.
He offered it to Itty. Maybe she’d like to be inside a Jell-O skin too. Soft protection.
She shook her head. “I will never touch that stuff. Never-never-never.”
If it was any other girl he would have pressed her—You afraid to cut loose?—but he knew her lineage. There was something very real to fear.
Itty hurled pebbles at the Waller obelisk below them that dwarfed everything and everyone. “Son of a bitch family.”
Laser was surprised by the cussing.
The two largest headstones beneath the obelisk honored the town founders: Balthazar and Dorinda Waller. Lying perpendicular at their feet was a third grave with an in-ground marker without a name.
“Wonder who’s buried there,” Itty said.
“Grandma said it was Dorinda’s lover.”
“Why are you shouting?”
“Am I?” The words sounded muffled inside the Jell-O. “Some say it was the Wallers’ worst enemy.”
“You’re full of shit.”
“Knocked him in the head with a fireplace poker and buried him here so they could keep an eye on him.”
Laser curled his fingers and put them to his eye like a telescope. He peered through the hole, and for a few seconds could actually see the Wallers’ skeletons beneath the dirt kicking that poor man who would never rest in peace. Laser pulled his curled hand away and looked at it with new interest. “It’s an X-ray telescope.”
“Wallers could get away with anything,” Itty said.
Laser’s grandfather, Orchard Keeper, had tended the Waller grounds. Paid him a decent salary too. “They were fair to my people.”
“How can you say that?” Itty said. “They owned you, and look where you live?”
“They never owned us.” Laser considered the cramped bedroom his mother and sister shared in the projects, him sleeping on the sofa. Fingers slept with the bums down in Turtle Cove.
“They own everybody,” Itty said.
Laser had seen Asa Waller buy Itty’s mother over by the flood wall. Never once saw a Waller toss money into his father’s cup.
A belch from the bus heading back to town, but Itty made no move to catch it. Clouds gathered overhead. If Laser hurried he could finish his chores before the rain came. He stood and wobbled on his rubbery feet.
“You’re okay out here by yourself?”
Itty pointed to the dead whores. “I’m not by myself.”
She lay atop her grandmother’s grave and folded her arms over her chest like a dead girl.
Laser’s footsteps were springy as he descended the hill, flagged the bus down, and slid in the front seat behind Frank the driver.
“Still working on that science project?”
Laser over-enunciated. “I sure am.”
Back in seventh grade, after watching a reel in science class of a ruby laser cutting a hole through a diamond, Laser determined to build one. He asked so many questions during class that Mr. Samples finally said, “What in the world do you need a laser beam for?”
“If it can cut through diamonds it can cut through anything. Anything, don’t you see?”
Mr. Samples looked as if he didn’t see. Laser didn’t try to elucidate, not that he understood the fixation himself. It had something to do with power. He imagined himself using his laser to cut through a bank vault, a ship’s prow, or even better, slice shackles off prisoners, ropes off hanging men. He would be the first black superhero.
Finally Mr. Samples had said, “When you come up with a ruby rod, I’ll help you build it myself. Okay, Laser Beam?”
The nickname stuck, and from then on Laser began to save his money so he could buy a ruby rod, not that he knew how to get one or even how much it would cost. Every Saturday he’d run to Bucky Pawn’s. “Got in any ruby rods?” The first time he’d asked, he had to explain. Bucky tried to keep a straight face. “Afraid not, son. But if one comes in I’ll be sure to set it aside for you.” After two years, Laser understood the absurdity, the odds, but now it was more a matter of living up to his name.
Frank asked, “Where you heading?”
“Taking over for your grandpa?”
They owned you, he hears Itty Bit say. “Just a summer job.”
Laser exited the bus across the street from the Waller home, startled by commotion on the porch: Asa trying to leave with a suitcase, his aunt Rindy in her wheelchair holding tight to his arm. “You don’t have to do this, Asa! Let other boys get killed!”
Asa flung her off, the wheelchair rolling backward into a potted plant.
“I’d rather get killed than go to jail.”
The whole town knew about Asa’s last scrape when he drove his car into Judge Walpole’s solarium, practically killing the man. Did kill the judge’s dog. We’ve coddled these Waller boys long enough! the judge was quoted in the paper, still weepy over the loss of his spaniel. Asa had the choice of the army or jail.
Rindy rolled forward and tried to grab him again. “After all we’ve done to keep you out of that mess!”
“I don’t give a shit.” Asa ran down the wheelchair ramp and cut through the yard. He stopped at the road and looked at Laser. “What the hell do you want?”
Laser held his hands up in surrender, relieved to be wearing Jell-O skin. “Just came to mow the yard.”
Asa snorted and walked away, looking like any bum hoofing it to town.
Miss Rindy slumped in her chair, sobbing. Laser went to comfort her, even held out a hand to pat her shoulder, but thought better of it. “It’s okay, Miss Rindy. He’ll be okay over there. He’s a tough one.”
She looked up as if she already knew that. “Yes, but what’s going to happen to me?”
Laser had no answer.
“Help me in the kitchen. Mother will want her tea.”
The house was dim and dusty. After Cora the housekeeper died, the Wallers replaced her with a once-a-week maid from Gallyerville whose name they never bothered to learn.
Rindy wheeled past the music room where she slept in a bed set up beside the piano.
Across the foyer, in the parlor, Dorinda Waller sat on the settee below that painting of her mother, her head slumped forward, string of drool hanging from her mouth. It saddened Laser to see the family matriarch this way. Just last month he’d found her between two houses a few blocks over. She knelt and gouged out a hole in the earth with her bare hands.
He had squatted beside her. “What are you up to, Mrs. Waller?”
“I’ve got to unbury that baby.”
Laser must have heard her wrong. “What’s that you say?”
She held out her dirt-crusted hands. “We can undo this whole mess if we unbury the baby.”
He was so stunned he blurted the first thing that came to mind. “We unburied her last week. Don’t you remember?”
This woman who’d overseen the Wallers’ holdings looked at him with the face of a child. “Did we?”
“We did. She’s snug as a bug in a rug.”
“That’s such a relief!” She clapped dirt from her hands. “Let’s get a Coca-Cola.”
Now, on the settee in the parlor, her hands shook so violently he doubted she could even hold a cup of tea.
Miss Rindy rolled past.
Laser followed her. “You really should hire a nurse, Miss Rindy.”
“More money I don’t have and people in the house I don’t want.” She looked at Laser. “I don’t mean you. You’re about the only person left I can trust. It’s that housekeeper. She steals from me. I just know it.”
It was possible. Laser had seen the girl selling baubles at Bucky Pawn’s, buying dope from China.
Laser followed Miss Rindy into the kitchen. A crack of lightning, rain hammering the windows, the porch roof.
“Guess I missed my chance to mow.” Laser wouldn’t mind waiting out the storm. Maybe ask for a drink since the cotton mouth had set in. He didn’t dare ask.
Rindy filled the kettle at the sink. “Go upstairs and check the windows, will you? Asa probably left them open on purpose.”
Laser climbed the steps as if he were an intruder. The upstairs hall was nearly the size of his mother’s apartment in the projects. The comparison made his gut clench. He wondered if Miss Rindy slid back and forth on the slick wood in socks as a child, when she could walk. Back then the walls were likely not lined with chests-of-drawers, headboards, a loveseat. Side tables. A stack of Louis Vuitton trunks. In the corner was a cluster of lamps: crystal, brass, porcelain. His mother hadn’t yet replaced the lamp he and his sister broke when they were fighting over the basketball their father had shown up with last Christmas. The look on his mother’s face when she opened the door, stunned to see the father of her children standing there with the ball balanced in the palm of his fingerless hand. “You show up once a year and this is what you bring?”
Laser imagined Mother’s reaction if Fingers had shown up with that cherub statue or Chinese vase.
So many doors with crystal knobs. All but two were locked. Laser wondered what was being safeguarded and who held the key. The first room he entered was clearly Asa’s: nightstand crowded with highball glasses. Nudie magazines splayed out on the floor. A pair of woman’s underwear on the pillow. The bedspread and sheets were tangled in the middle of the bed. Condom wrappers mingled in without shame. He wasn’t surprised Asa brought his whores home to screw right under his grandmother’s nose. Maybe Itty’s mother had been one of them. How many mornings had Laser watched old Cora wait for the bus that would bring her here so she could make this bed? Pick up his used condoms with his spilled semen and flush them down the toilet. “Filthy pig.”
The windows were indeed open. Laser shut them and tried not to look at jewelry scattered on Asa’s dresser. A collection of men’s gaudy rings. Tie pins and cufflinks. Laser’s palms itched. Miss Rindy would never know if he pocketed one of those rings. Just one. Maybe that was the thing for Itty Bit.
About the only person left I can trust.
That settled that.
The windows in Dorinda’s room weren’t open, but Laser couldn’t resist stepping in for a peek at where the matriarch slept. It was remarkably tidy. Canopy bed neatly made. No empty glasses or wadded handkerchiefs on the bedside table. No clothes on the floor or hooked on doorknobs, just an afghan thrown over a chair, an open paperback face down on the cushion. Laser picked up the dime store romance, an incongruous find.
There was plenty of jewelry in Mrs. Waller’s room too. Three boxes on her vanity crammed full of necklaces and pins and rings all jumbled together as if some whore, or cleaning lady, had rifled through them. If Miss Rindy hawked half of it there would be plenty to pay for a nurse.
Something flickered inside the middle jewelry box, tiny as a lightning bug flash. “What the hell?” Laser leaned over the box, the light pulsing from beneath a tangle of pearls and gold chains. Chokers and earrings. He looked behind him to see if this was entrapment, but no one was there. He rummaged through the jumble and found a dragonfly brooch, its wings covered in diamonds. Its left ruby eye glowed at him. Only the left one, as if it were urging: Take me.
Laser lifted the pin, articulated wings shivering, and held it to the light, all those diamonds sparkling. But that ruby eye was a sign. It wobbled when he touched it, loose in the setting. Another sign that he was meant to have this gem that wasn’t a ruby rod, but it was the next best thing, even if he would never build a laser. At that moment he understood that had never been the goal.
Laser rummaged through the jewelry box and found a hat pin. He pried the point beneath the loose ruby, angled it this way and that until the gem popped out. He cupped it in his palm and reburied the dragonfly brooch feeling less like a thief since he’d left the more valuable stones behind. He could already hear Miss Rindy: Damn Gallyerville maid stole my ruby!
A crack of lightning and Laser went to the window, adrenaline zapping his high, or clarifying it. He had to get to Itty Bit now, today, and offer her a fork in the road.
He ran from the room, down the hall, stumbled on the stairs.
“Don’t run on the step, Asa!” crazy Dorinda said.
“Asa’s gone, Mother.”
Miss Rindy didn’t notice Laser bolt out the front door and run across the yard in the rain. She didn’t see how he held the ruby in his hand, his fist to the sky like a gift from the gods.
And it was.
Because this was the thing that would change Itty Bit’s life. He just knew it and could already imagine arriving at the cemetery and opening his hand. This time she would say yes, pluck the gem up, and hold it to her eye so she could see like a dragonfly. He wondered if it had the same vision as a fly. If a thousand headstones would float before her. Millions. And if she held it to the light just right it would amplify her vision, multiply the possibilities, and Itty Bit wouldn’t have to be a whore’s child anymore. She wouldn’t have to be a whore.