The baby was a white fist of flesh. Mama had placed the photograph of the ultrasound atop her dresser in a sterling silver frame. That night, when the pain bent her over in the kitchen, I imagined that same white fist punching her insides black-and-blue. When Daddy called from the hospital to tell us she'd lost the baby, Silas said I shouldn't worry. He said the baby didn't feel any pain, that at nine weeks it wasn't anything but a ball of meat squirming in Mama's stomach. He said it hadn't even sprouted arms or legs yet, that it still had a fish brain and gills growing in its neck.
That night, I dreamed of Mama's flesh creaking as the doctor unstitched the trapdoor in her stomach. Her insides looked like crushed red velvet. The baby's skin was blue as a robin's egg. I imagined the stitches in her stomach. Tiny black mouths puckering between the folds of her belly. I remember wondering where the baby's cries had gone. If they had stayed inside Mama's body after the doctors stitched the trapdoor shut.
Nearly six months later, I was sitting in front of Jupiter High in my yellow flower dress, studying for my Science test, thinking about the baby again, my fingers tracing the pink gills of a fish in my Biology textbook. As I stared at the fish in my textbook, I heard the crackle of gravel and what sounded like the faint moan of a car horn. I looked over my shoulder and saw a rusted blue truck with a dented fender idling in the parking lot behind me. It was Silas.
Silas had slick black hair that looked like it had been painted onto his skull. His arms were caramel colored and muscular. Two years ago, Daddy had helped him buy an old rusted pickup truck from a scrap yard in Independence. He'd spent the whole summer souping it up. It had knobby tires and silver spoked rims. A tanned brunette in a yellow bikini was airbrushed on the driver's side door. She was riding a surfboard, her body bent beneath a curling white wave.
As I walked up to the truck, Silas revved the engine. The inside of the truck smelled like pot. A voice was crackling on the radio. I climbed into the passenger's side, and Silas spun the tires. A cloud of brown dust swallowed the truck.
I buckled my seat belt and told him I was going to Ferma's. He was fixing his hair in the mirror.
"Why didn't Daddy pick me up?" I asked Silas.
"He's down at the pool hall." Silas took a drag and blew the smoke out his nose. "Man stays down there much longer, they gonna start charging him rent."
"Can you give me a ride to Meridian's tomorrow?"
"No can do." He took two quick drags and flicked the Picayune into the wind. "Gotta go to New Orleans and meet my parole officer."
Silas had been arrested three times. Once for stealing a tractor from a warehouse in Point a la Hache. Another time for snatching car stereos from the parking lot of the gun show in New Orleans. This time, he'd got caught selling a quarter bag of weed to a boy over on Mercy Street. Mama agreed to bail him out, but only if he promised to join the church and get saved. Mama said Silas' soul was blacker than mud, that only the preacher's water could raise up his dead soul. Me and Mama went down to the church that Sunday to watch Brother Icks dunk Silas in the baptismal pool. When I asked Silas what it was like, he said it felt more like being drowned than being saved. Mama was convinced that the water had cleansed his soul, though, because two days after he was saved, Silas went down to the tattoo parlour and had a line from Revealtion tattooed on his bicep that said: "He Shall Rule them with an Iron Rod." Wherever he went, he kept a pair of brass knuckles in his back pocket. On Saturday nights, he and his friends rode up and down Liberty Road in their rusted pickups looking for boys to save. Other nights, they hung out in an old abandoned bank down on Government Street. They called themselves the Sons of God.
"So, when you gonna take me and Meridian down to the old bank with you?" I knew Silas had the hots for Meridian. He said she had hips that could make a glass eye wink.
"For Christ's sake, Hailey. You're too young to go down there. You just barely started high school."
I grabbed my lipstick out my purse and pulled down the visor mirror. "Meridian wants to go too," I told him, smirking. I circled my lips with the lipstick, puckering in the mirror as I spoke. "You know, she thinks you're cute." I put the lipstick back in my purse.
Silas grinned as he turned into Ferma's driveway. "I'll think about it." He was fixing his hair in the rearview mirror again, his eyebrows crawling like black caterpillars.
Silas put the truck in neutral, and I climbed out. As he pulled off, I noticed Ferma rocking in the swing on the porch.
Ferma was a black woman with mossy grey hair. She had a gold tooth with a star etched into it. Glaucoma had swallowed her right eye in a filmy white shroud. Diabetes had eaten up the veins in her feet.
I'd know Ferma all my life. She was practically part of my family. Mama's mother had died when she was just a girl, and Ferma's mother had raised her. Since before I was born, Ferma had lived down the block from us on Cathedral Street in a pink shotgun house. Most days, after school, I went to her house to help her pick figs, wash clothes, dishes. Whatever she needed really. Every day, before I left, she gave me a five dollar bill that smelled like perfume.
"Where's that brother of yours off to?" Ferma asked.
"Think he's going back to work. Then down to Liberty Road for the races."
"Has the devil burrowed into that boy's skull?" Ferma wheezed, a glass of iced tea sweating at her feet. "If he don't watch it, he's gonna end up like that boy with the paper bag face."
Ferma had worked for a woman whose son's truck had fishtailed through a rice field while racing down on Liberty Road. She said the rusted gas tank on the truck had burst into flames and the boy had been swallowed in an orange ring of fire. After the accident, she visited the boy in the hospital. She said the boy's face looked like a brown paper bag with two holes ripped out for eyes.
"Where's your momma? Over at the house?"
"Dunno. Think she's cooking dinner." Mama wasn't cooking dinner. She hadn't cooked dinner one time since the miscarriage. Or been out of the house for that matter. Daddy said she was dead to the world.
"What about your Daddy?"
"He's down at the pool hall."
"He come home last night?"
"I don't think so." I motioned to Ferma for a drag of her Chesterfield.
She paused for a moment. "What you want a cigarette for? So you can get hooked like me?" She grinned, exposing the cracked dentures wiggling between her brown gums. "Besides, you too young to start killing yourself."
I motioned to her again and she handed the cigarette to me. "All right. Just one quick one though. And make it fast. Your momma and daddy gonna skin me alive they see me sneaking you drags."
I put the cigarette between my lips and sucked the smoke deep into my lungs as Ferma stared across the muddy pasture, the scatter of blackbirds reflected in her dead eye. Her eyes were focused on a row of oak trees that lined the weedy edge of the pasture. Mama told me Ferma's husband had committed suicide before I was born. She said when Ferma got home from church one morning, she had found him hanging from an oak tree in that pasture.
"Your Uncle Caesar been by the house again?"
"Yep." I handed the cigarette back to her. "He came by on Thursday."
"Old rotten-toothed slug." She scratched an itch deep in the clump of her mossy grey hair, took a drag from her Chesterfield. "He still on your Daddy to sell the house?" She flicked her ashes into a folded paper napkin in her lap and took another drag. The tip of the cigarette glowed bright orange.
"Yep." Ferma rubbed her blood-shot eyes. "Well, don't go worrying yourself over it. Your Daddy's got too many memories tied up in that land to go selling it to the first rotten-toothed slug throws a dollar at his feet." She put the CHesterfield to her lips, speaking in between drags. "I told ya Daddy I'd help him with the rent."
A few years back, Ferma had gotten an insurance settlement from Sears after she'd slipped and broke her arm while shopping there. Daddy said she had more money than the Pope himself. He'd even suggested borrowing money from Ferma, but Mama wouldn't have it.
Ferma took another drag from her Chesterfield and snuffed the cigarette against the splintered board of the porch. I helped her out of the rocking chair, and we went inside.
For the rest of the afternoon, I helped Ferma stuff artichokes and peel shrimp for stew. I left around seven o'clock. Before I left, she gave me a five dollar bill. The word "five" had been colored red with a ball point pen. Lincoln's eyes had been cut out.
She told me I better get home and help Mama with dinner, so I kissed her on the cheek and told her I'd see her tomorrow.
When I got home, Mama's Blazer was gone. The yard was littered with Daddy's clothes. Jeans and workshirts. Shoes like empty mouths. A pair of his leather gloves was dangling from the branches of the crepe myrtle. They were brand new, still stitched at the wrists. They looked like two black hands dangling in some kind of upside-down prayer.
When I got inside, Daddy and Mama were in the middle of the living room, tugging on one of Daddy's blue workshirts.
"I mean it, Bigg," Mama yelled. "Give it to me."
Daddy tugged on the shirt, his yellow bird's nest of hair dangling in his face. Mama wound the blue sleeve of the shirt around her arm and tightened her fist, yanking the shirt one final time until and it slipped from Daddy's grip. She looked at him for a minute, then balled the shirt in her fist and threw it at Daddy.
"Now apologize to one another," I yelled, staring at both of them.
Mama looked at Daddy beofre turning around and heading toward her room.
As Mama left, Daddy threw the shirt onto the ground, opened the front door, and slammed it behind him. I looked out the window and watched as he climbed into his truck, started the engine, and peeled out the rutted clam-shell driveway.
A few minutes later, I could hear Mama calling to me from her room. "Hailey? Sweetie? Would you make me some tea? And, could get me a aspirin? For my head?"
I boiled some water for tea. When the tea was done, I brought it to Mama in her room. On my way to Mama's room, I grabbed the aspirin bottle from the bathroom cabinet.
Her room was dark. She was buried to her neck in a white afghan, her face glowing in the blue light of the television. As I walked into the room, I noticed the framed certificate that Mama had gotten for being Nurse of the Year. It said "To Lena Troslcair, LPN, in Recognition of Your Outstanding Work." The only pictures in the room were the ultrasound picture of the dead baby on Mama's dresser, and two pictures of Jesus. One of him hanging on the wall. The other of him hanging on a cross, staring down with those terrible blue eyes, a golden halo atop his head. And another of him holding up his left hand, a bright red heart glowing in his chest. There were no photographs of me. No pictures of me holding an ice cream cone with chocolate ice cream dripping down my arm. Not one of me in my purple dress, the red ribbon Ferma gave me fluttering in my hair. Only Jesus and the dead baby. In my family, it was as if you had to be dead to get noticed.
I could tell Mama had been crying. "What's wrong?" I asked, handing her the warm cup of tea. "Is it something I can do?"
Mama dipped the tea bag into the cup of steaming water. "No Baby. Just the same stuff. You know."
"Is it Daddy?"
She brought the cup to her lips, blowing on the tea as she spoke. "They came and took my Blazer today."
"Who took it?"
"The finance company. They said your daddy was late on the payments. So they took it."
"That's why Daddy's clothes are all over the lawn?"
"I was so mad at him, Hailey."
"I'm sure Daddy can get you another Blazer, Mama."
"It ain't the Blazer."
"What is it then?"
Mama blew on her tea. "It's everything." She took a sip of tea and licked her lips. "Your Uncle Caesar's been coming around the house looking for his money. He says if we don't pay, he's gonna take the house." She dipped the tea bag in the water as she spoke. "I just wish my shoulder hadn't gone out."
Mama had worked at Jupiter Memorial for years until a few months ago when she'd hurt her shoulder moving a patient from one bed to another.
"Hard to pay all the bills with the money we get from the government. And your Daddy . . . he ain't worked in months."
Mama pulled at the bottom of her shirt, trying to hide the dimpled roll of fat that circled her waist. "Was gonna ask Ferma for some money, but I ain't got the heart to ask her. Just wish I could go back to work." She took another sip of tea, and held the cup, dipping the tea bag into the water. "When I was at the hospital, I felt important. People respected me." She blew on her tea again, glancing up at the television as she spoke. "All I do now is sit up in this bed and rot." She dipped the tea bag into the water again, and brought the cup to her lips. "When I ain't worrying about money, I'm thinking about that dead baby. All day, thoughts of that baby roll around like a tape in my brain. I try to keep busy, try to forget its little arms, its pale white body, limp as a lilly, all the air sucked out of its baby lungs." She put the cup of tea on the nighstand and grabbed a nail file from the top drawer. "I keep praying," she said, filing the nail on her pinky until the white tip was a perfect half moon. "Hoping God'll come along and save us from all this mess."
Sometimes, at night, I'd hear Mama saying her prayers. Asking God to save our family. Asking him to watch over me and Silas and Daddy. I'd even tried to pray a few times myself. I'd do the whole silly routine, get on my knees and cup my hands, waiting to hear God's voice roll over me like a black wave of water. I'd wait and wait, but nothing would happen. I wanted to believe in him like Mama did. Wanted him to save our family the way he'd saved other families. But every time I got on my knees and spoke to him, it seemed like no one was listening.
After Mama finished her tea, I kissed her on the cheek and tucked her into bed, opened the aspirin bottle and pulled the cotton ball out. Mama opened her mouth and closed her eyes, and I placed the aspirin on her tongue. It reminded me of a priest at communion.
That night, the moon looked like Ferma's cataract. Stars clung to the branches of trees. Around two a.m., I woke to the sound of Daddy's pickup growling in the driveway. I could hear his keys jingling in his pocket as he walked along the rutted clam-shell driveway, the splintered floorboards creaking beneath him as he walked down the hallway. As I fell asleep, I listened to the rain-filled gutter outside my window, the slow drip of water like a wristwatch ticking in my ear.