Yolanda was working tables at the Tenderloin Ballroom that summer we collided. While she wasn’t my regular type, she was the kind I sometimes picked up with in between the tall, blonde, cool-drink-for-the-eyes numbers I prefer, the kind that don’t give you nothing to think about much except for the smell of their hair. Not that Yolanda wasn’t a looker in her own rights—small, dark-eyed, skin so pale like she never seen daylight. The kind with “Slow down, Donnie-boy, watch the road now,” written all across her face. She wasn’t my regular type.
Take Cynthia, for instance. That’s who I’m hanging out with these days. Three inches under my six foot two, small white wedges of skin at her breasts and hips when she peels off her bikini, eyes green as kiwis. She’s working on a portfolio for a modeling agency out of Savannah. Hopes to make it into videos with the house band from the Tenderloin. And she might. Her brother Marvin works lights for the band, and he knows someone who knows someone who could maybe help now that the band’s got a recording contract. She’s from Tyler, like me, and says she remembers me from when I played on the football team, but she’s just enough younger than me so it’s okay I don’t remember her. And she’s slimmed down since back then, she says, though I don’t say nothing about that. Only I know how she fusses about the pale stretch marks on her bottom and radiating out like a star-burst from her nipples, but they’re not visible to no one but me. Or so she says.
Last weekend Cynthia worked a car show in Macon, stretching all five foot 11 inches of her attributes across machine-waxed hoods and bumpers and quarter panels. She’s got the glossies developed already and tucked into her portfolio just so. She takes great pains in arranging them in special order, holding them up under the light in the diningel, the tips of her nails at the corners, going, “What do you think, Donnie, this one or this? Which first? Which one is the real me?” Course, aren’t none of them the real her, not the Cynthia I see each morning, sheet-wrinkles on her cheek and sour-breathed. But then, what do I know? So I tell her this one or that, point at the photos, smile, say they’re all real nice, and that’s what she likes to hear.
When the guys come around after work, I kind of flip through the portfolio, looking from the television set to their faces, acting indifferent about how they look from Cynthia in the flesh at the dining room table, clipping coupons with hair tied back, to the pages again. I go, “She’s got it all right,” watching them react to Cynthia’s body all oiled and tanned and spread out in the photos, tucked inside those bikinis which were never meant for swimming.
Cynthia’s big dream is a condo on the coast—full basement, white shutters, privacy fence, the whole shot. We drive around Sundays after church and stop at the open-house signs near the beach, going 20 miles in either direction from the city. She says commuting is stylish these days. We walk up the narrow white sidewalks to the display models, real proper, like we was married or something, me in a clean shirt for once, her all wobbly on heels in her church clothes, and only I know she’s not wearing any panties.
Cynthia and I got this two-bedroom apartment in Garden City off Highway 21. It’s cheap because the airport’s right there back of the place, and, to be honest, our neighbors are mostly poor working people, but I kind of like that, you know. Feels like I’m where I belong. But when someone asks Cynthia where we stay, she smiles and tells them, “In the city,” slow-voiced and lying so pretty they believe it, and I don’t understand that, but women are like that, ask anyone.
It doesn’t take much to keep Cynthia happy, just keep saying how God-awful-nice she looks and act like I can’t think of nothing all day but getting home to her body all stretched out in the chaise lounge next to the pool by the rental office. She’s easy to live with because most the time she’s too busy working on herself to know I’m around, sticking little foam pads between her toes and fingers, painting her nails while watching the television, flipping between Geraldo and soaps and music videos, studying who she wants to be, shaking bottles of polish so the little beads go clicking around. She spends two hours a day on the exercise bike in our living room, and when she’s not busy puffing away there, working the handle-bar levers in a criss-cross, increasing the resistance on the wheel, she goes into the kitchen and runs carrots and fruit through the blender. Or she stands in the bathroom spraying some kind of tropical mess on her hair and squeezing the curls around her temples so they stay there until she washes them out in the shower.
Cynthia’s only true hobby outside of “creating an image,” that’s how she puts it, is collecting refrigerator magnets. Now, that isn’t a true hobby, not like collecting baseball cards or refinishing furniture, but she has elevated it to that status, and who’s to tell her it’s silly. Not me. She’s got so many of them doodads they cover both doors of the refrigerator, and just recently she’s taken to putting them on the front panel of the dishwasher. Our only true fight to this day was the one time I slammed the door to the icebox and half the magnets fell to the floor, smack, smack, down on the linoleum, and she threw a fit like I’d never seen, just like I’d stepped on her tail, hissing all ugly between her teeth with green facial clay wrinkling in cracks across her cheeks. Now that was a sight.
I’ve been promoted to crew chief for Clem Palmer’s Asphalt and Paving out of Tyler and we’re tarring a stretch over to Statesboro, so I pick up a magnet for her here and there to add to her collection since she threw that fit, just to show I care. Mostly I find ones of beer cans and Harley emblems, but I did find a real funny one at Red’s store, a shiny naked ceramic lady with big pointed tits, holding her fingers up in a little curl, and a smile on her lips. Across her pink belly little letters say, “Get a PIECE of the action,” and now, I think that’s real cute. Of course Cynthia says it looks just like her, and a few days after I carried it home to her, she took to referring to me as her “fiance.” Tell me how that works.
Now, Cynthia and Yolanda aren’t nothing alike. Reason I got hooked up with Yolanda at all was out of sheer boredom with my regular type. That’s no reason for starting something like I did, but accidents happen, what can I say? That summer, I’d just broken off with Susie Purviss, who is now married to E. Henry Broadwell, who just happens to be working for Clem Palmer in payroll, but we don’t have no bad blood between us these days. Susie had broken things off once E. Henry come around, seeing as she complained she was getting too old to just keep dating like we were, and how I should ask to marry her. She’s a charge nurse now there to Reidsville, pulling in a nice tidy check every week, but marriage was not in my mind two years ago, and it still isn’t much in my mind today, except for those times when Cynthia goes all throaty and says, “And I’d like you to meet my fiance.” Meaning me.
So Susie and I’d broken up to her crying of “Why can’t we just get married, Donnie?” and I certainly wasn’t looking for something like that again, though to be honest, that is my pattern. I’m 34, and for the past ten years it’s been a woman a year, give or take a couple of dry months now and then. See, you start out saying, “Now, mind you, I’m not looking to settle down just yet.” And you say it right from the jump, looking those straight-teethed girls dead in the eyes, and they go, “Why, whatever gave you reason to think I’d expect that from you, Donnie, why aren’t you just the most nervous man I’ve ever met.” Then somewhere down the line it changes. They start talking about moving in together, and they go all pink-faced and smiling at babies in strollers, even the ones with spit and cereal down their chins, and they take to staring at you for long silent moments across the table at the diner next to Miss Lucille’s motel. I’d just come out of a version of that and kicked around single for a couple of months, when right after the fourth of July I noticed Yolanda back of the bar, though she never so much as touched my fingers when I paid for my beer, not even handing back change. Like I been saying, she wasn’t my regular type.
Most of the women I end up with are the kind that make certain you notice them first. They sit around on barstools, smiling those glassy smiles, shaking their hair off their shoulders, lifting their drinks to their pink lips so slow it just makes you wonder. They’re the type that once you finally get a couple of beers going they start making conversation from down the bar or the next table, depending on where you’re sitting. They’re the kind that once you’re a little drunk it don’t take nothing to talk to them, and they lean into you a little once you ask their names, like exchanging names was some kind of personal secret. They’re the type once you’ve got their names straight like to go upstairs and shoot a little pool, only they don’t really know how to shoot at all, asking “Should I hit it here? There? Off the side, there? I couldn’t do that, it’ll never work,” squealing all delighted when they sink something somewhere by accident. They’re the type been noticing you all along but got it planned so when you finally park yourself next to them at the bar, when you finally look in their eyes, it’s like you’ve just arrived on this earth and nobody else existed before you.
But not Yolanda. She’d come from school in Atlanta where she’d been studying design, though what that meant, I wasn’t sure. She’d come to live with her sister Regina, an interior decorating consultant, though later I’d find out they were both from that stretch on the Walapaha back home nobody ever mentions as a birthplace proper. The river spreads out back there so wide it seems like a lake when you stand there near the landing. I know the place good, even took a ride out there last spring with Teddy, Cynthia’s brother-in-law, thinking maybe I’d catch sight of Yolanda. He’s got that speed boat and we drove on down to the landing one afternoon, down past her mama’s place, back through those trails don’t even seem like a road to anywhere, but then the pines clear away and suddenly, there it is, the old shacks, even a couple of trailers, though how they got those back in there is a mystery. Teddy and I took the boat on down where the Walapaha feeds into the Altamaha, then to where that river gets dark and winds all through the woods. My daddy used to take me to the landing to get his liquor. They got a couple of stills back in there, though to look, you’d never find them. The feds come around every month or so, but the people back there are on to that, going so dumb and simple acting wouldn’t think they’d ever done nothing but sit home all day and read the Bible, waiting for their welfare checks.
But that’s something I found out later about Yolanda. The summer we met I was working for Clem out of Savannah on a contract job at Hunter Army Airfield. The Tenderloin was my summertime watering hole. Yolanda was working there nights and living in an efficiency apartment over her sister’s office in a three-story house two blocks from the bar. She’d had to find a place to work within walking distance of her apartment since she’d slammed her car into a viaduct on purpose driving home from Atlanta. She’d just left it at the side of the road outside Macon, can you beat that? She unscrewed the plates and took the papers from the dash, then settled with the claims adjuster for cash money and left the car on the shoulder. “Better than being flat-broke,” she explained. And she took the job at the Tenderloin because it let her work nights and sleep in the day, and that was something she’d wanted.
But like I was saying, I found this out later, because at first I just kind of kept noticing her and she wasn’t putting on no show for me, not like the cool blonde eye-batting type. So I took to trying to get her to notice me, but she had this attitude about her like you didn’t exist except as a body ordering beer. For instance, if I’d try to wink her down for a draft, she’d come over to my table and say, “What can I get you?”, . . . formal, without a smile, like I hadn’t been a regular there for two months and always drinking from the tap.
She wasn’t my type, and I knew it. She was the kind you have to sideswipe into noticing you back, the kind you get a fix on, then let up on the gas and coast into. The boys in the crew seen it coming clear as day, saying how I ought not to mess with someone so serious-faced and unsmiling, and how didn’t she look something like a witch. Trust us, they warned. But she got to me, in some deep place, how if business was slow, she’d set up a stool behind the bar and pull out a sketch pad and draw. And that’s part of why business picked up for Willie B., in addition to Toujaise’s band, because she drew anybody who walked in the door in two minutes flat, and she drew them perfect. She’d take out a piece of charcoal, a long black stick-looking thing didn’t seem no picture could come out of, and then she’d swing it across the page, scribble back and forth with it, work her fingertips in little circles to make shadows and what have you, and that was all it took. Magic. Darryl in his Atlanta Braves jersey, Toujaise in his beret at the microphone, Sasha holding her fingers in front of her mouth in that embarrassment she has about her overbite when she’s not singing, the Wonder Bread man bringing in trays of Kaiser rolls for the grill. She’d get the face, sketch the shoulders real quick, collar, hair, and she’d put her initials at the lower right hand corner and pin it to the wall near the register with a thumbtack.
About the third week she’d been working at the Tenderloin, I come in early on Friday. It’d rained all day, and I’d let the crew go at three. I come in the door, and Yolanda was sitting back of the bar, and I said, “All right, go on now, go ahead.”
And she says, “Go ahead, what?” standing up like she’s going to get me a beer or something, moving slow and cautious.
“Go ahead and draw me,” I smiled, feeling a little silly, because she’d never taken to drawing me on her own, though I come in every night.
The place was real quiet, and the juke box was turned low with Roy Orbison crying about crying out the cloth speaker, and only some gay boys in leather jackets standing around at the back drinking beer and shooting darts. She looked at me holding her face in a frown, her hands stuffed down into the pockets of those baggy black pants she always wore. Her face was all white with some kind of powder, unnatural looking in general, but nice to look at on her, just the same. She wasn’t my regular type, but she was something to look at all right. She had color on her lips you can’t call lipstick, dusty-like, dark as old blood, and not shiny like the stuff most girls wear, and all around her eyes was a thin black line I’d never noticed before, and lashes so thick I wanted to reach across the oak planks of the counter and touch them. Then she said, “Yeah. That’s good,” like she’d never really seen me before, pinching her eyes all tight and serious, studying me, not like the type what pretends to just that moment see you, but in genuine blindness to the fact I existed prior to that second. I felt like I’d just been born. Then she looked me so hard in the eyes I had to turn away for a moment. Her eyes went that deep. So, I stood there dripping rain onto Willie B.’s red carpet like some big fool in work boots, and she stood there a minute in a complete stop, and finally pulled out her sketch pad from next to the register and told me to sit there across from her.
She sat on the stool behind the bar, and I looked her over, really looked, not in the looking to pick somebody up kind of way, but seeing the narrow curve of her neck, the ridge of her spine, her head shadowing the sketch pad, seeing her scalp white like candle wax beneath her glossy black hair. She wore her hair poked up in a rubber band at the top of her head, like a little make-believe Indian feather, funny to do with hair short as a boy’s, but it looked kind of nice on her. Little wisps of hair fell down on her white forehead and down the back of her neck. Then she said, “Don’t look at me while I draw,” even though she’d never looked up the whole time to see me looking. So I stopped looking at her, because I had been looking, she was right. So I stared into the mirror behind the bottles of liquor back of the bar, and I could see her reflection next to mine, and I looked at that, the flat pale face from the side, that little bit of nothing nose, hoops in her ears big around as a beer can, three in one lobe, two in the other. She was wearing a white T-shirt, the only thing I’d ever seen on her thin body, and she wasn’t wearing nothing underneath, her small breasts barely showing except for the shadows of her nipples. She had a red leather belt through the loops at her waist, and a thong of keys hung to one side.
She held the charcoal in the tips of her fingers and used her left hand to make shadows by rubbing the flesh of the edge of her palm against the page. Her hands were pale, and the nails were short and plain, trimmed, not chewed away like some girls do, always putting their fingers in their mouths. Her face was what got to me that day, so white she seemed not to be living, and that dark stuff on her lips making me want to kiss her, and maybe she felt that, who knows.
She sat there drawing a few minutes, and I’d thought she was done when she looked up once to meet my eyes. “Hold still,” she’d said, just ordering me around, though I didn’t know I was moving. Then she bent back over the paper, and went to making just the tiniest strokes with the charcoal, then she looped her initials into place at the bottom of the page and said, “There.” She turned the sketch pad toward me then from her lap and there I was, me, real as real. She’d got the scar at my lip just right, a shadow-like divot where I’d gone through the plate glass window at Mama’s 20 years ago. She’d drawn me smiling, though I hadn’t smiled the whole time she’d been working at the thing.
“Well,” I said, grinning dumb-like. “Well. Looks like me, don’t it now?” I grinned. I couldn’t stop grinning, though I felt a fool for doing so, my mouth like a Band-Aid across my face.
Then she said real nervous-like and peculiar, “You like it, then? Tell me the truth.” The reason this was peculiar was I’d never heard her ask that of anyone before, only heard her say, “See Willie B.” when a customer asked to buy a likeness, only heard her say, “That’s a five spot,” when her drawing went public and all. But there she was, all quiet and anxious about her drawing for the first time that I’d seen, and boy, that did something to my heart, I can’t tell you.
“It’s great,” I said, the grin of an idiot still flowering across my face. “I like it fine,” I said, feeling myself go all tender and loose inside about her concern.
She tugged at the paper and ripped it from the pad. “Take it,” she said as if she was mad at me and wanted just to be rid of it or something.
“I owe you some money now,” I answered, fishing my wallet by its chain from the back pocket of my jeans.
“No charge,” she said, and then a smile shot to her lips, her teeth flashing all sudden in her small white face, like she just then figured something out important. “You remind me of someone,” she smiled. “Take it. It’s yours,” she said, then a couple men in three-piece business suits come in the front door, and she walked down the bar to serve them.
To this day that whole night sticks in my head like some movie I could’ve watched just this morning. Yolanda worked the bar until eight, then drew pictures for the customers brave enough to come in during the storm that worked itself into a fit after the sun went down. Around 11 the electricity went out, and Willie B. set candles on all the tables and the band come up and sat near the bar, and two of them brought out acoustical guitars and made music real quiet up there at the front with Sasha singing. Willie B. didn’t get no power the rest of the night, and he let Yolanda off at midnight, and she come and sat next to me at my table where two guys from the crew sat drunk and not minding their manners much. She sat there next to me, not asking if she could, knowing as well as I knew I wanted her there, small as a child, and quiet, her thigh light as a wing up against mine. She drank beer from the bottle with her lips pulling at the neck, and every once in a while would say something a little odd, like once saying, “You believe in voodoo?” which set us three drunk men into snorts. “No, really,” she’d said. “You shouldn’t laugh about something as serious as that,” then she smiled and wrinkled her nose up in her face. Something she said set me back a little, though I was kind of laughing along with the other two guys from the crew. “My mama’s a practicing witch,” she said, and right after she’d said it a flash of lightning lit all the dark windows of the bar. Tony, one of the guys, went, “Oh my God,” and Yolanda said, “See?”
I had a good-old-boy tired drunk going around one, and at closing said couldn’t I see her home, and she nodded without a smile to her white face. So we drove my truck the two blocks to her sister’s place and she took me upstairs by the hand to her room where she slept on the floor on a mattress, the moon just barely cutting through the clouds after the rain, just coming in faint through the windows.
If you’d asked me that morning where I’d end up that night, I couldn’t have guessed it’d be there under the cool sheets of her bed. I’d never have guessed I’d be lying beneath her as the wind came through the open windows, her thin legs at my hips, her lips opening against mine from the first kiss. I’d never have guessed things to go like that, not with her, not lying there letting her love me with her weightless body in the rain-washed night. She’d made love to me in absolute silence, kissing from my lips to my neck to my belly, then later, riding up above me, so light I could’ve lifted her in my arms. Only once did she say anything at all, and then it was only, “Oh, now,” announcing the squeeze of her body.
When morning come, the room was dark. She’d gotten up before dawn to draw the blinds at the windows. She slept beside me on her back with her hands at her breasts. Her breasts were small and white, and the nipple’s lay flat against her skin. I kissed her breasts as she slept. I kissed her nipples to points and she reached her sleepy arms around me and I moved inside her a long time before I came, and she fell back off to sleep right after.
She kept her room dark in the day and at night opened all the windows. In a bowl beside the bed, she kept three pale stones, and each morning she warmed them in her palms and chanted over them in a trance, words sounding senseless to me, but pretty how they come out of her mouth. Once I visited her with a case of heat-stroke, and she boiled herbs on the hot-plate and made me drink the mess from a spoon. In an hour I was well, and I’d sat naked in a chair while she trimmed my hair, collecting the pieces she cut in an envelope, sealing it closed with a press to her lips. We went on real regular that summer, her working the Tenderloin, me coming to see her at the bar after work, going home with her at closing. She never liked going out much during the day on the weekend, but I coaxed her into taking rides down the coast up toward South Carolina, and sometimes the hour inland to Tyler. She didn’t like Tyler. She said it was an old sore for her. So I asked her why. And that’s when she told me she’d been born on the river, though all along I’d pictured her coming from the city.
Driving into Tyler one day she said, “Okay, we always go to your mama’s house. Let’s go to mine this time. See what you think.” We drove back into the woods and down to the landing, the sky all blue and thin with clouds. There were girls swimming at the landing in their clothes, shorts and cutoffs, wearing little stretchy tops. A couple were pregnant, their white bellies showing, and Yolanda called out to a few by name, and they come up to her and pressed her hands between theirs. One girl named Jasmine said, “Heard you’re doing readings again.” Yolanda nodded, then Jasmine said, “Well, what you said come true. My period come regular. I was only late.” Another girl stood at the edge of the river with a small dark haired child in sagging diapers on her wrist. Yolanda called out to them.
“Hey,” she said. “Hey, over here,” she said, and the child turned from the girl at the edge of the river, and walked up the beach to us. “Come on,” she laughed to the child, and the child come running toward her going, “Mama, Mama,” laughter all bouncing around in his chest from running on those fat white legs, and Yolanda swept him up in her arms.
She held the child against her, nosing her face at his neck and kissing his shoulders, and my skin went a little cold. She looked up at me once, dead in the eyes and staring me down. She turned away from me and walked down a soft silver path to a clapboard shed back of the tackle and bait store. I stood there on the beach and then followed behind her a minute later. She stood at the door to the shack and waited for me to catch up. “This is Joey,” she said. “He’s mine,” she said.
“You never told me,” I said as I brushed gnats from around my mouth. The gnats billowed at our heads under the thick oaks above us.
“You never asked,” she said without any kind of tone to her voice. Just, “You never asked,” like maybe I was supposed to guess at her life and figure it out. “So, you going to stop liking me?” she said. She didn’t say “loving me,” and that made me feel all messed up inside.
“Well, I’d a rather known,” I said, a little bit of anger seeping into my voice, anger come out of not knowing about this baby of hers.
“I see,” she said softly, just like that. “Easy come, easy go,” she said, and opened the screen door to the shack. I followed her inside, the door barely closing behind us as it was hung so makeshift and poorly in its rotted frame. Inside the shack the walls were covered with feedbags, stapled to the wood in regular rows, like some kind of make-shift decorating. The shack was divided into rooms by mismatched paneling fixed to the floors and ceilings with metal angle-brackets. A gas stove and sink stood at the front of the main room, and two curtains made doors to rooms in the back, though the whole thing was no bigger than a two car garage. A thin woman sat at a gray formica topped table in the center of the front room. Her hair was pulled back in a braid and she wore a pink housecoat fastened with safety pins in the front. Her legs were white and thin, and small patches of broken veins roamed under the skin. A hand-rolled cigarette hung from the left corner of her mouth, lips so pale I could barely make them out. She looked up when Yolanda and I come in the door. Then she looked down at the table in front of her where a magazine lay spread out to a picture of lemon chiffon pie. She looked back up at Yolanda, fingering a cross that sank between her breasts. Then she said, “Got the money, thank you,” smoke from her cigarette coming out of her lips with the words. “Bought diapers,” she said, tearing the page from the center of the magazine, her long fingers working the paper free from the spine, the cross at her neck knocking against the table edge. “Don’t let Nigel see you toting that boy in from town now, you hear?” I could tell the way she looked up at me quick when she said it who she meant.
Yolanda put the baby down at her feet, and he toddled over to the woman at the table and crawled up into her lap, leaning against her sagging bosom. Yolanda crossed her arms at her waist, and stared at me for a moment, then back to the woman at the table. “Mama, Nigel don’t want me,” she said, her voice going dark in a way I hadn’t heard before. “Nigel don’t want us,” she said.
“Nigel don’t talk like that to me,” said her mother, running her finger line by line along the recipe for lemon pie. “He know you left school to work in Savannah. He know you work at some place where queers go. He know you live with your sister. He got spells going to bring you home. Ask,” she stated, looking me over like I wasn’t a living being. “Ask anybody here, they tell you the same.”
“Nigel’s got a new baby girl down the Altamaha,” Yolanda said. “I don’t want nothing from him, neither,” she said, her voice sounding so much like her mama’s I had to look to see if it was her talking at all. “Nigel ain’t nobody,” she said, turning to look at me real serious like. “He’s a bad kind of person. He runs people around here,” she sighed. “I’m done with him. I got me a new life,” she said softly, and it scared me to think she meant me.
Driving back to Savannah that night, Yolanda sat close to the door with her knees hugged up to her chin. Ten miles out of Tyler she said, “So, maybe I should have told you. So maybe I did, you’d leave me. Drop me. Stop liking me.” She still wasn’t talking about loving her. All she could talk of was liking.
So I go, “It’s a lot to think about, I’ll give you that. It’s a surprise to me, what you having a baby and all. You don’t look like you’ve had a baby. Your skin don’t look stretched or nothing,” I laughed, trying to cheer her up.
“I could’ve died with him,” she said. “I was tiny and I could’ve died, except for Elvira’s doctoring.”
“You don’t mean Black Bob’s Elvira?” I exclaimed. “That nigger lady, that Elvira, that fat old nigger?”
She sat there in the quiet truck, looking straight ahead down the highway, but staring so hard didn’t seem like she seen nothing but what was inside her head. She stared straight into the night as we passed the forestry-tower going 80, where two army jeeps stood at the mouth of the trail leading back into the wood. Two soldiers pulling fire-watch stood by the jeeps, passing in fast black shadows in field-helmets, the embers of their cigarettes glowing like two red eyes in the dark. She sat there with her knees up, then she turned to me.
“You white boys got the world all figured out, don’t you now?” she said, her voice tight with anger. “You get born into decent families with money to get by on, with daddies who come home at night, daddies you know by name, thinking you belong to those daddies like something God shit out of gold. You think the only decent folks are white people like yourselves, and you call good people like Miss Elvira “niggers” like they was something dead at the side of the road, like something without a heart or a mind. You play football and hang little cheerleaders on your wrist and sometimes they let you feel their tits, but that’s it. They don’t let you do what you really want to do. So, white boys like you come prowling down by the river on Friday nights, and you find girls with dark eyes and you buy their daddy’s shine, and you get them to drink beside you in the woods, and you don’t even remember their names the next day. White boys like you make babies and go away to school to nice places where you find some neat little someone to marry who’s still got her cherry. Don’t you call my family “niggers.” Miss Elvira is blood. She raised my granddaddy at her breast when his mama died of fever, kept him as her own when nobody claimed him, a little white-baby, and she saw him get in bed with her own half-white daughter, but don’t nobody know that side of it. You saw my mama. She’s white now, isn’t she? But that don’t make me true white. Black men give babies to white girls down to the river. That don’t mean nothing. Everyone acts so snooty in Tyler, like us river-girls aren’t nothing but animals, like we don’t got hearts to break and bend. But, your daddies come poking around the river, looking for something they can’t get at home, and they pay for black girls in Shanty Town, just the same as black men bring their money to us girls at the river. Don’t talk to me about niggers.” She stopped a minute then. I was silent behind the wheel, and my fingers shook as I pulled a cigarette from my shirt pocket. She studied my silent face and my trembling fingers as I punched in the lighter on the dashboard. “My mama’s French. Her family come down here from Quebec. None of us got the same daddy, except for Regina and me. You want to know who our daddy is? You want to know what white-looking Baptist come out to stick his thing in some poor white trash at the river? You want to know Miss Elvira’s grandbaby’s name?”
“Stop it,” I whispered.
“No,” she said, so fiercely it shook me inside. “You need to know the truth. You need to quit living your white boy life where the world’s divided into white folks and niggers. My daddy was old man Rogers, Louise’s daddy, but you wouldn’t have called him a nigger, seeing as only a quarter of his blood ran true black, and he passed for white. He paid my mama to love him, then paid her to keep quiet once we come along. He come out to see her once a week all his life till he got the cancer. Louise maybe knows I’m her blood way she looks at me sometimes there in Danner’s store. We don’t got to say nothing. She just knows. Her daddy hurt her, you can see it in her face and how she don’t need to name her own baby’s daddy. But she was born there in Tyler, looking white and living white. Me, I look white. Mama’s skin’s so pale guess it come down to me that way. My grand-daddy got killed on the river, and I seen it, I seen the knife go clean into his heart. Some woman went wild on shine and poked him with a knife till the air whistled out his lungs and blood filled his mouth. Miss Elvira come out and buried him back in the woods. Don’t nobody ask questions about dead men down there. And let me tell you about girls like me. Sometimes we get free, go away, get jobs, get educated, but the river don’t leave you. You seen Joey. I gotta live with that. I can’t never be really free. And if you don’t like me for that, I can’t do nothing to stop it.” She grew quiet then as the truck sailed toward the coast.
My mouth had gone dry, and the cigarette burned hot at my lips as the ember reached the filter. I tossed it out the window, into the dry brush whistling by at the side of the highway, something dangerous and awful to do. “So who is Nigel?” I said, my voice coming out high and fast. “Who’s this Nigel? Some white boy?”
“He’s not a white boy like you,” she said softly. “I don’t love him no more,” she said. That was the only time I’d heard her talk about love, and she never brought it up again. “He’s river family. He lives most the time in Jesup. But he’s river people. And he put a spell on me early. I was only 16.”
“A spell?” I said, and I laughed in disbelief. “A spell. That’s funny.”
“You white boys don’t know what that means,” she whispered. “You don’t know what that means. He put a spell on me,” she said, looking over at me as I drove toward Savannah. “He got Old Jennie to take things from my mama’s house, things that belonged to me, strands of my hair, dust from the corners, and he put a spell on me. You don’t know what that’s like,” she said, her voice thin as the air coming in the windows. “You don’t know what’s it’s like to find yourself possessed till you faint for wanting someone, faint for what comes into your head without knowing why. That’s what a spell does, sends you out in the night till you find what you’re looking for, till you fall down on your knees, the fire all hot inside your middle like you were to die from it.”
“So where is he now?” I asked, feeling momentarily frightened, afraid maybe something might happen to me, to us, like maybe I’d find myself driving possessed, ramming into a tree or sailing off the side of a bridge. We were alone on that dark stretch of road. Anything could happen and be made to look like an accident, seeing as I had this girl in the truck this Nigel had got under his spell enough to have a baby by him, whether I believed it or not.
“He’s still around,” she sighed, and then she yawned, real slow and stretching toward me across the seat like a pale night animal. Then she inched over beside me. “He can’t get to me these days,” she whispered, pressing her hand to my zipper.
“What about the spell?” I asked, trying to keep my voice light but feeling all heavy inside. I lifted my hips from the seat as she unfastened my jeans, keeping both hands tight on the wheel.
“It’s been broken,” she whispered at my ear right before she lowered her face to my lap. The moon hung in a gold plate over the low marshes and reedy banks that laced the river outside the city. The water on either side of the road lay still and black, mirroring the night on its surface. A crane lifted up from the side of the road, its wings pulling into slow strokes in the moonlight as Yolanda took me in her mouth. I trembled between her lips and put one hand to the back of her head, my fingers knitting down to her scalp, and I kept driving in toward the city, steering hard, oblivious and blind to anything but the heat of her mouth.
Later that night as we lay in her bed the wind blew in so warm we didn’t need more than a sheet. I touched my hands to her face. She’d showered before coming to bed, and her skin was smooth and bare. She’d dusted her body with powder, and I rah my hands the length of her torso and then worked my fingers between her legs. “No,” she’d said. “I don’t want to do that.”
“I want to return the favor,” I smiled, thinking what she had done in the truck. But she pulled her hips back toward the wall and smoothed the sheet in a barrier between us.
“I just want to lie here beside you and think,” she said. “I got too much to think about,” she said, and then closed her eyes. “Sometimes I get thinking so hard my heart skips a beat. Sometimes even with my eyes closed, I can’t stop thinking.”
She fell off to sleep like that, with me staring at her face the whole time. She’d taken me so quick and hard in the truck that I couldn’t have made real love to her if I’d wanted. I didn’t have anything left. I wanted to touch her white skin, to look at every inch of her body in the light of the night, to find every inch I’d never been and kiss her in those places. But she slept beside me, and I didn’t touch her. I’d never felt like that before, wanting to make love to a girl without wanting it myself. It was a sad kind of feeling, and it kept me awake until three. Then I fell asleep beside her, my arm at her shoulder until she pushed it away in a dream.
After that night, it was hard to leave her each morning. Every few weeks we went down to the landing and saw Joey, but we never took him with us anywhere, just sat with him there by the water. Some afternoons I sat with Joey under the pines by the tackle and bait store, buying him Coca Colas and marshmallow pies while Yolanda went into her mother’s shack and did palm-readings. I had her read the flat of my hand one evening at the Tenderloin, right before last call as we sat side by side at the bar. She’d held my big hand in between hers, trailing her fingers against my palms and callouses. “You’ll live a nice long life,” she told me, the back of my hand against her thigh. “You’ll go many places, but you won’t always know where you’re going or why.” I asked her would I ever get married, and she said, “Not soon,” and I laughed, though for some reason that hurt me to hear. One late Saturday afternoon we were there at the landing and some boys from Tyler came out and swam in the river. They knew me from around, but not one of them spoke to me, just gave me sideways glances and looked at Yolanda.
The first week in September I went into the Tenderloin on Friday afternoon, looking for her. Willie B. gave me a stare when I come in the door, his face falling serious, and he got busy washing glasses as I dropped on to a stool near the register. When I asked where Yolanda was, he said, “Well, Donnie, she’s gone back up to school.” That was a hard thing to hear, and at first I thought he was mistaken. Seems everyone knew she was leaving but me. Seems Nigel’d come in late one night looking for her the week before, and he’d held her against the wall of the poolroom upstairs and said something right up close to her face. No one could tell what he said, he spoke so low and all. And nobody’d told me he’d been there, either, but then maybe they thought I knew, like maybe Yolanda had told me herself, but she hadn’t. I stopped by to see Regina the next day, and said maybe she could tell me what to do. Maybe she could give me Yolanda’s address or something. But she just shook her head.
“Just leave her be,” she said in the cool of her blue carpeted office beneath Yolanda’s room, her voice a river-born echo of her sister’s. “She’s got troubles enough, let alone some Tyler boy came hunting her down.”
“I just want to talk to her,” I said, standing there with my hands tight in my pockets.
Then Regina leaned back in her chair behind the desk and folded her arms at her waist. “What you have to say doesn’t matter. Words can’t bring her back.” Then she looked past me, through the window behind me to the street. “What you going to say Donnie, that you love her?” She lifted her head then and looked at me dead-center. “Leave her be,” she sighed. “Or Nigel will see that you do.”
That Sunday I hung out at the Tenderloin, shooting pool with the half of the crew that wasn’t married. We drank drafts all day, and then around seven I was bent over racking the balls on the green felt table when a cool-fingered hand touched the back of my neck and I stood up straight and turned around. Nobody’d had to tell me who was standing there. Nobody’d had to tell me that tall olive-eyed boy with black hair bound back with a leather strip and a rattlesnake skin round the brim of his hat was Nigel. I seen it in his eyes sure as shit. He was wiry, thin arms hanging down into fingers strung in his belt and a knife in his boot. He was slim and tense, and I knew even beating him by 40 pounds I’d never win if I fought him. The boys went quiet around me, knowing as well as I did that maybe a fight would erupt between the space of our bodies. We’d all been party to barroom punches in our days. I stood there, knowing I was whipped without even a fair match to prove it. I stared into those eyes of his, and got this peculiar hot feeling under my skin that made me feel fool for standing there. But I kept on staring into his almond shaped eyes, the one on the left with a spot of blood in a patch near the iris. I stared for maybe two minutes when he tilted his narrow head and said, “You got something to say to me?” Course I didn’t and I shook my head. I couldn’t trust my voice to come out of my mouth.
“Well, I got something to say to you,” he said, low in his throat, spitting the words like a sick yellow dog. He pulled a cigarette from the pocket of his plaid shirt, the sleeves cut off ragged at the shoulders, showing the tight knot of his biceps where on the left Yolanda’s name lay stretched out across a heart red as new blood. They were professional tattoos, not the kind made in the middle of some drunk with a sewing needle and ink from the office supply store, real nice tattoos like the ones done in that parlor next to the front gates of the post, the one soldiers go to to have GOD-MOTHER-COUNTRY stenciled over their hearts, going into the flesh the way those words are already deep in their actual beating hearts. He took a Marlboro in his fingers, twisted the filter off and stuck it between his pink lips, the flesh of his mouth sweet as Joey’s and teeth so white didn’t seem right in that poor-boy’s face.
“Well, now,” he said, holding a silver lighter to his face, flicking it once so the flame was not quite touching the tobacco, then he sucked in hard so the fire pulled to the tip of the cigarette and caught. The crew was behind me. I couldn’t see them, but I heard them breathing close at my neck so it didn’t feel so bad having to face this boy right there eye-to-eye, but my hands trembled in my pockets. “Well, now, I’ve been wondering what someone like you might look like,” he smiled around the butt of the cigarette, talking smoke out his lips. “You ain’t soft like I thought you might be. Suppose that comes with working asphalt,” he said. Then he lifted his head real quick and all that pretend niceness dropped from his face and all his energy went to his eyes in a squeeze. “If I hear you’re trying to find her I’ll see you don’t walk for a year. I’ll see you don’t walk or talk or have nothing left between your legs what works,” he said in a hiss of smoke. “And I’ll see she don’t neither,” he added, then he took the cigarette from between his fingertips and dropped it to the carpet. He stepped on the butt without lifting his eyes from my face, stepped on it exactly where it fell by my feet, never looking to see where it was. “I’ll take that baby and she’ll never see him again,” he continued. “Lots of nice white folks’ll pay cash for a baby sweet as that one,” he grinned, so wide I could see the pink of his gums, then he turned, looking once over his wild-horse shoulders at me and the boys standing there dim-witted by the pool tables, not one of us breathing regular.
Love’s a funny thing. Cynthia and me been together just shy a year now, and I know what’s coming up next. She’ll keep calling me her fiance. She’ll keep introducing me like that to her friends and the people we meet when we go into Tyler. And then someday I’ll just tell her that’s not what I got in mind, and she’ll go to crying and buying me cards with all kinds of sweet-talk and flowers and hearts printed on the front. Then someday when I’m too hungover to be patient with her, maybe I’ll slam the refrigerator door so her all-important magnets go flopping down on the floor, and she’ll say something like, “See, I don’t matter to you.” And maybe she’ll cry and maybe she’ll throw something or break a glass against the wall. That’s how those things happen.
I haven’t heard from Yolanda and don’t know what I’d do if I did. I know she is still at that school in Atlanta because she made the front page of the Tyler Sentinel with a show she put on at a gallery in Norcross. There was a picture of her on the front page, and she looks the same as ever, standing in front of her pictures all hung on the white wall of some building, and the show was called, “White Boys and River Girls.” The paper didn’t actually mention her drawings, but I wouldn’t expect that they would. Yolanda’s not smiling into the camera, but I wouldn’t expect that neither. She was a pale slip of white-trash back in Tyler, somebody nobody’d ever remember from high school, not even finishing proper, just taking her General Education Degree out of night school like misfits and pregnant girls do. She was one of those girls that we wouldn’t recognize proper on the street, the kind we’d search out in a drunk and forget about sober. Seeing her face on the front page of the weekly paper made me feel guilty and ignorant all over again, like I’d felt that night in the truck.
The article running along-side the photograph had a title saying, “Local Girl Wins Major Award,” and that seemed a sorry thing. She isn’t true local and she isn’t a girl, not proper, seeing the article states she’s 22 this year. But Tyler reclaimed her in her moment of accomplishment, and if Yolanda took time out to pose for the camera and answer questions for the reporter, then she must’ve felt right for doing so.
I keep the article in the top drawer of our dresser in our two-bedroom apartment. Cynthia asked once why I kept it, and I told her I knew Yolanda from the Tenderloin. Seems she’d have some knowledge about things, since we both know all the same people. But Cynthia don’t ask what she don’t want to hear.
I think about getting married, someday, not to Cynthia, but to who I don’t know. Late at night I’ve taken to leaving Cynthia at home where she don’t even notice I’m gone for all the image-creating she does, what with Vogue and Glamour and Elle all open in front of her on the coffee table with the television on, nail polish bottle going clickety-click as she shakes it next to her face in one hand, punching buttons on the remote control with the other. I drive out toward the coast, across the causeways toward Tybee Island, and the lights from the truck slide over the water beneath and beside me. And those nights I get to thinking how times passes so quick you don’t even know it’s gone, how things happen you can’t explain.
I keep a rabbit’s foot on my key chain these days, and it hangs to the side of the steering wheel. I reach up to touch it every now and again, just quick. If you’d asked that summer if I loved Yolanda, I would have answered fast that I wasn’t the marrying type, like love and marriage go together in answering that question. But it’s funny, because when I think of her face rising up like the moon over mine, when I think of her sleeping next to me there in her dark apartment, those cool smooth stones in the bowl beside the bed, something like love comes to mind.
I get in my truck and drive places without knowing where I’m going. I put my foot to the floor and open her up, trying to outrun the inside of my head, trying to shake loose of that kind of thinking. I sit there driving, downing a cold one, going through a six-pack, stopping to piss at the side of the road, like maybe a drunk will stop me from thinking, like maybe I could forget, but I can’t. I can’t shake thinking about her. I don’t want to tear loose of thinking about her, like it’s some kind of spell. And I get to thinking maybe she’s got a strand of my hair stuck away in her jewelry box, thinking maybe at night she pulls it out and warms it between her fingers, speaking over it on her knees, pulling forward in the pale curve of her narrow back. I think of those words in the breath between her lips, a slip of my hair at her fingertips, praying in river-girl tongue.