by LaShonda Katrice Barnett
Ninety-eight was a bad year for babies, children
too. That’s what I told the pretty girl who moved into 533

“Mostly books,” she said to me from the first step.

I watched three men carry her things into apartment B.
She’s got a smart look about her. There’s them that’s
pretty cause God made them that way but they don’t have
no expression, no thought in they eyes. Pretty enough but
with a head full of empty. She pretty in that way that look
like she’ll do you a favor and don’t expect a thing in return,
like sorrow know the way to her door, been there a time or
two, and when he pass by your way she’ll lend you a

I asked the young lady what she did for a living. “I’m a
scholar,” she said over a box of books on her fifth or sixth
trip up the brownstone steps. The way she said it,
“Scholar,” you could tell the word meant something to her.
I wanted to tell her
scholar don’t mean a thing—not in this
here building. I’ve known nurses, bus drivers, school
teachers, musicians. One played the cello; another one had
some fancy job at the Brooklyn Museum. No matter. Seem
like they can do everything right but what Nature intended
them to do. Washington Street women can be just about
anything except good mommas. That’s why even though
she had a thoughtful look about her I let her know right
away: Ninety-eight was a bad year for babies, children too.

I’ve seen a lot of them with that look. You know the look
I’m talking about. The look looks like: I got power but
don’t know how to use it. I got love but don’t know how to
keep some for myself so it seeps from my pores at night
causing men and cats to caterwaul. She had the look just
like the rest of them and I’ve seen plenty of them come
and go.

Been on this block since forty-nine. Couldn’t forget that
year if you paid me to cause that was the year Jackie was
the starting second baseman for the All-Star game. Looked
to me like Brooklyn would never settle down. Black folks
sure was happy. Buddy Johnson had a song about it on the
radio and everything, “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit
That Ball?” We was proud to see one of our own make it on
account of we ain’t never been made to feel it’s okay to
have other heroes—them that don’t look like us. A lot done
changed since me and my Jimmy first come. Back then you
couldn’t’ve found a gym shoe, broken glass, coat hanger, or
nothing out in the street. Not in front of these brown-
stones folks done worked so hard to get into. And don’t
think I’m one of them that chooses to remember pretty,
cause remembering ugly is hard to do. Washington Street
was beautiful. Used to be the main drag that people
strolled on Saturday nights after the picture show, then
again on Sunday after church. When you looked out your
window you was liable to see folks stopping dead in they
tracks, hugging and kissing all up and down the block.
Respectful kissing, mind you, not what some of these
youngsters do—what look like they trying to make a baby
right where the world can see. They called Washington
Street Sugar Row cause it was the street where you was
bound to get you some sugar if you been acting right.

Wasn’t too long after the Scholar moved in that she
opened up a little. Name is Menda Johnson but I call her
Miss Menda cause I like the way she carry herself—real
lady-like, and I don’t mean dicty neither. Just ladylike.
Some folks think acting ladylike means you got to fly high,
put on airs and such. Not Miss Menda. Somebody brought
her up right. She got flair but no airs. She say her people
out west. She here working on a dissertation so she can
get a PhD. The way she talked about home—like she
couldn’t miss it if her life depended on it—made me wonder
but I ain’t fixing to ask. It ain’t for me to know unless she
wants to tell it cause I don’t know a soul that ever been
pleased by what they had to pry out of somebody.

Menda wanted to know which apartment was mine. I tell
her I don’t live in her building; I own 518. She wondering
why I always perch myself on the stoop at 533 then. Now
mind you, she ain’t said this to me but she was thinking it
so I tell her I come to the stoop to remember the children
so the street can have some peace. She thinking I’m crazy.
Crazy or not I tell her don’t feed that gray and white cat be
coming around here. I saw her put some tuna fish on a
paper plate and leave it by the garbage can one night. Put
me in the mind of Ercel when she did it too, cause Ercel
hate to see a thing suffer. But I come from the country and
like I told Ercel, them what never had a home is mean and
will turn on you.

Valentine‘s Day roll around and I see something that
worries me. Miss Menda come up the steps with a long face
and an arm full of books instead of flowers or chocolates.
She wearing the look especially tough and I know them
books can’t help her fight what’s on her mind. A few
minutes later I hear Monk scorching ivory keys. “Ruby, My
Dear.” Know that tune in my sleep cause Ruby’s my
momma’s name. When we run off from Alabama forty-four
years ago I plum wore that record out. We was runners all
right. See, the first time Jimmy and me had to leave the
peanut farm on account of one of the girls didn’t listen. I
told her to drink the tea early in the morning and late at
night for three days. And to drink a river if she could cause
her liver would need it. Guess she figured she’d get rid of it
sooner if she drank the tea all at once. Soon enough this
fool starts in to talking about her ears ringing and how
she’s got the chills. I knew then. Her momma put the
blame on me—said it was my fault she died since I gave
her the herbs. Didn’t stop women from coming to me
because my momma, auntie, and them all down through
the line had always done it and never lost nobody. Guess
they figured one death in all them generations wasn’t much
of nothing. I’d still be down there shucking runner peanuts
if the dead girl’s momma hadn’t put a hex on me. I didn’t
lose no sleep when folks was going around after the
funeral whispering about that voodoo mess until the day
three yellowhammers, and the wings from a whole bunch
more, were laid out on my front porch and Jimmy got his
truck smashed up so bad it liked to killed him. Then I knew
we had to go.

I thought the womenfolk (and they men) kept me busy in
Baldwin County. In Phenix City I had more than I knew
what to do with. Blue cohosh grew wild and plenty by the
Chattahoochee so I lessened the load of the census taker
while Jimmy worked the mines. We did fine for ourselves
until he got mixed up with that union mess. Told him he
was lucky not to be drafted (on account of something that
truck accident did to him) and to lay low. Communists my
foot. Jimmy act like he ain’t heard a word I said. Then shit
hit the fan. That’s when it was Jimmy’s turn to run, only I
said if I followed him away from Phenix City he had to
change my name. I left Alabama Fredonia Shuck and
arrived in Brooklyn Mrs. Freddie King. Mind you, we never
did tell folks up here why we come. Jimmy used to say he
married me cause he liked the way I put molasses in the
fatback for his gravy. I told people I liked that his
grandfather renamed hisself after slavery: When the man
asked him what his name was he put his finger down on
the Bible cover, so the man wrote King, James on his first
sharecropping contract.

Now I’m not one for prying and I’ve told you why—who you
know that’s been happy by a tale they done had to wrestle
out the mouth? But when Miss Menda comes out to put her
trash in the can, I got to say something on account of the
child looks so black and blue – what the old folks used to
say down south when you had your pity face on real tough.
I tell her if she wants to get her natural color back, she
should come collar a hot—get something to eat—with me
at UpSouth.

Zottie Jones—real name’s Zuella but we call her Zottie—
opened UpSouth in the early sixties. Said after they killed
Medgar she had to let them have Mississippi to theyselves.
Nothing fancy to UpSouth – just some tables, chairs, a
counter with some stools but it’s been hopping ever since
Zottie hung the shingle out. She know how to keep the
neighborhood swinging too. Always got that Motown music
playing while plates of smothered pork chops, collard
greens and yams and spoonbread fly out the kitchen
window. Everybody know Zottie can burn, so if you plan on
getting a seat you got to time it just right cause it ain’t
just the food what make UpSouth special. People come
because they can be theyselves. They come with family,
business folk, secret lovers, wish-mates (you know the one
you wish you could be with), and friends. They come to fill
up on something familiar. Them old-timey recipes and that
old-timey feelgood you just can’t find at half these places
no more. Yes sir, Zottie brought Clinton Hill a slice of the
South and folks just love her to pieces for it.

Me and Menda order us some fried porgies, cabbage,
Zottie’s special stuffed jalapeños, and a couple of
Heinekens. I show her how to cut open the fish and lift all
the bones out by the tail.     

Our plates look like graveyards full of bones when Menda
calls the waitress over to order two more beers and I’m
thinking it’s cause she wants to talk. Or needs to. I’m also
thinking on that peach cobbler but decide against it cause
I’m really too full as it is. I tell her I like her taste in
music. Glad she’s not into that rap—what seems to have
lost the first letter to its name—the letter C if you ask me.
Music’s supposed to give you something to think about or
feel about. Rap ain’t nothing but a whole lot of noise the
youngsters like to shake they tails to. I wanna know what
they plan to do after the tail-shaking is done. Then what?
What they gonna do when they still feel empty? If they
know like I know they’d start listening to music what’ll fill
them up the right way. Miss Menda say she don’t mean no
disrespect but I got it wrong. She claim rap helps people
think and feel about a whole lot of things. She use a bunch
of fancy words I ain’t never heard of but I catch a few from
time to time, like injustice and oppression.

Me and Miss Menda have Monk in common. And that one
singer she’s always playing who sound like she’s on the
edge of a good cry when she hit them high notes and make
you feel like honey on the inside when she sing them low
ones. “What’s that singer’s name?” I ask her when the
waitress puts our beers down with the caps already off but
still sitting on top of the necks. Menda pours her beer into
the plastic cup. I drink mine from the bottle so it don’t lose
its coldness. “Carmen McRae,” Menda say, rolling her eyes
cause she loves her voice so. I tell her about the time I
saw Carmen at the Five Spot in the Village. She listening
real hungry-like when I get to the part about Nat King Cole
sitting at the table next to me and Jimmy and how he cried
like a baby when she sang “My Funny Valentine.”

We sit there for a little while before Menda starts in with
what’s really on her mind. School has always come easy for
her and now that it’s almost done she’s scared. She don’t
know what to do next. Mind you, she ain’t talking about
finding no job neither. Whether or not she know it, she
talking about figuring out how to keep on doing what feels
good cause school always felt good. I ask her what it is
she really wanna do cause at my age you a fool if you ain’t
figured out how to take some happiness out of life. She’s
on beer number three and I have made some room for
some of Zottie’s cobbler when she finally tells me she
wants to sing. Sounds simple enough to me so I ask her
why she ain’t singing then. With all these places I pass
with signs up saying
Live Music and all the folks I see
carrying instruments, seem to me like it wouldn’t be too
hard. “What? You waiting on somebody to invite you to the
stage? Cause from what I know, that ain’t the way it
usually go.”

The mimosa trees were smelling up the block real pretty
when Menda asked me what I meant when I said, “Ninety-
eight was a bad year for babies, children too.” I knew she’d
get around to asking one day cause you can’t get smart
unless you ask the right questions. And I knew why she
was asking too. He started making social calls in late
February. I think the blues of Valentine’s Day just clung to
that child so she decided to give him a little play. Got to
blame it on the blues cause from where I’m sitting he don’t
have nothing special going on. Unless maybe it’s in his
loving. I hear them moaning and carrying on at odd times
in the day. Then I watch her skip down the steps late to
wherever she going. The reason I know that boy don’t have
the kind of magic Miss Menda needs is cause they listen to
Monk whenever they get some. Turn him up loud too. Now
that’s enough to put doubt in anybody’s head. Monk takes
your whole listening heart. The music just grabs you by the
hand and leads you off some place. Some place you been
wanting to go. Now in the time of lovemaking you
supposed to be right in the spot you wanna be.

Nobody asked me but I think his loving just stirs up all the
stuff she got going for her. Stirs it up good and wrong.
Don’t know what the fellow does but he don’t ever have a
book or newspaper in his hand. Never heard him utter one
clever word. Now I know the Good Book say judge ye not
lest ye be judged but Miss Menda’s mind’s gonna get
restless around that boy and come summer I’ll be talking
to his ghost too.

When she ask about the children I come to the stoop to
remember, I think of the dream she disturbed. I’m a good
one for dozing off on the stoop and Menda, worried I might
lose my balance and fall, tapped me on the shoulder with
her question. When she woke me she interrupted a dream I
was having about flying fish. Don’t remember what kind of
fish it was but that don’t matter none. I wanted to tell her
then and there—child, that one you carrying is fixing to be
special—I ain’t never dreamt about flying fish before but I
didn’t say a word.

She gives me a minute to come to myself then she say real
sweetlike, “Mrs. King, what did you mean when you said
ninety-eight was a bad year for children, babies too?” I
could’ve told her right then to go to one of these health
food stores and get herself some cotton root bark and to
load up on vitamin C cause that’ll stop all the progesterone
and it’ll flow on out. But that ain’t the question she asked
me, now is it? I look her dead in the eyes. “Honey, you
moved into a building where children have suffered.” She
wants to know if anything bad happened in her apartment.
Not in B, but A, C, and D had some hard stories. What
happened in apartment A—where Mrs. Ercel McClendon, the
landlord of 533 lives, she wants to know. I always did like
Ercel cause she mind her own business and let folks mind
theirs. She don’t suffer fools. Never heard her say a bad
word about nobody except Willie Jasper.

“Get comfortable.”

Menda sits down on the step next to my feet.

Ercel and her husband Cedric was on the block when we
moved here. They had a son they did everything for and
that boy still let his folks down something terrible. He
went to Brooklyn College for a spell then he dropped out
and ran off with some woman. Never came home to visit
until he showed up a couple years ago. He lied to his
mother. Told her he needed to work the late shift in the
summer months to get back on his feet cause the girls’
mama had run off with what little money they had. Let him
tell it, he couldn’t leave his fourteen-year-olds home alone
in a neighborhood full of men so he brought them to Ercel
to look after. He gave her fifty dollars, not enough to feed
them three weeks let alone three months, and a kiss on
the cheek two years ago.

Wasn’t too long before Rashida and Rose was the talk of
the neighborhood. They was liked by schoolteachers, store
owners, folks at Ebenezer Baptist, everybody. You just
couldn’t help but like the girls. God made them pretty. It
said so right on the men’s faces. You could see lustful
thoughts whenever the girls with shapely legs and behinds
that made they dresses fit snug walked past them. Ercel
pretended she didn’t know the curse that comes with
beauty. She was friendly with everybody. Kept the girls in
church. Since she prayed so hard and kept a close eye on
the girls she knew she heard wrong when Rashida leaned
over her plate at UpSouth one Sunday and said, “Big
Mama, I’m going to have a baby.”

Ercel must’ve wondered when God stopped paying any mind
to her prayers. She asked Rashida, “Well, whose baby is
it?” The girl said it had to have been Mr. Jasper. Ercel
hated the way she said “had to have been” as if there’d
been plenty others. She hated even more that she called
little Willie Jasper, “Mr. Jasper.” When Ercel told Rashida
even though he gave her a baby, Willie Jasper was only
seventeen and certainly nobody’s Mr. Nothing Rashida said
she was talking about Willie Jasper senior, not junior.

You know that made Ercel’s heart sink. See, Willie Jasper
senior and her late husband had been sworn in as deacons
at the same time. How many times had Willie Jasper and
his crazy wife parked their feet under Ercel’s dining room
table? Now, on account of she been told she so fine
Rashida didn’t have sense enough to worry. Told her
grandmother that everything would work out because Mr.
Jasper had money. “He own two Sevilles, Big Mama. And if
you too ashamed of me, I’ll just ask him for some money
so I can move out on my own.” Well, after that Ercel
looked at the womanchild in front of her. She was thinking:
Willie Jasper ain’t got no money. He leasing both those
cars and renting that apartment. Ain’t never owned nothing
and got to be sixty-five, at least. If he had any money,
he’d have sense to set it aside to add to his Social
Security. Poor child. Having a baby ain’t like doing the
Lindy Hop or whatever dance the youngsters were doing
now. They blessings all right, babies are, but they work.
Rashida didn’t know what she was in for.

Ercel opened her purse and fished out some money. “Here,”
she said to Rose. “Pay the check when ya’ll finished and
meet me back home.” Ercel went home with a mind to do
what every woman think of doing when the wrong man
does this to a girl she loves. She put her hand right on her
husband’s loaded pistol and paid Willie Jasper a visit.
Found him at the end of our block, standing between his
Sevilles. She went up to him, pulled the gun from her
purse, and pushed it into his belly.

According to the lady who live next door she said, “I should
kill you for what you done. You tried to ruin my baby’s life,
but you ain’t fixing to get away with it. If she keep this
baby, Willie Jasper, you gonna pay or you going up in
smoke. After what you’ve taken from her, she deserve a
piece of every pie you got. Do as I say Willie Jasper or I
swear before God, Moses, and ten white people I’ll lose my
religion and end you.” He nodded yes to everything Ercel
said. Surely Willie Jasper thought he was about to meet
his maker that day.

By the time I finish my story, I know Miss Menda got a
whole lot on her mind by that far-away look in her eyes.
I’m tempted to say, “Penny?” But she ain’t selling so ain’t
no need in me asking. Besides, I know what she thinking.
She thinking how it ain’t enough to just provide for a child.
That’s hard enough but what’s harder is protecting them
from what they can’t see and sometimes what you can’t
even see.

When Menda invites me over some rainy April Sunday I
take over some of Zottie’s potato salad to go with the
chicken she roasted. She can hardly swallow and I know it
don’t have nothing to do with Zottie’s potato salad cause
it’s seasoned to a tee. I watch her play around in her plate
then I ask about her friend. She says he’s at work but I
know she ain’t down because that boy is somewhere being
responsible. I don’t push it though cause she still ain’t told
me she carrying his baby. Instead I ask her what Monk
piece I’m tapping my foot to. “Well You Needn’t.” I lean
over and whisper to Menda we got us a serious problem on
our hands—cause she don’t have no dessert in the house.
I’m hankering for some of Zottie’s chess pie so tell her to
grab the umbrella. No sooner than we take a seat, a wind
blows in Avey.

Unless you know her, you’d think it was from wearing
uncomfortable shoes or she’s got something wrong with her
legs to make her teeter back and forth like she do. She got
a head full of beautiful coal black hair that looked like it
ain’t been combed in ages, matted in some sections, curly
in others, and standing straight up in the middle. Me and
Menda watch her rock herself all the way to the register at
the opposite end of the counter. The girl behind the
register shouts back to the kitchen, “Avey here! Order of
succotash to go and two rolls.” She stands by the register,
turning her head from side to side, moaning a little.

I lean over to tell Menda she used to live at 533—
apartment D. Talk about a man and a woman who couldn’t
find love if it was standing right in they faces. To make
matters worse, they brought a child into that ugliness. I
blame it on the man. Wouldn’t share Avey and Tish with
nobody. Kept Avey from the church, from the grocery store,
from everywhere. Every blue moon when I did see her out
she was always in a hurry, bumping into something,
stumbling. Quite naturally, the child take after the
momma. Looked to me like they both needed to be on
something for they nerves cause that fool had put the fear
of God in them. Now you know we in bad shape when a
five-year-old need something for the nerves—ain’t been in
the world long enough to even know what a nerve is. Never
saw that child without a Band-Aid. I’d watch her from
across the street, sitting on the steps, head leaned
forward, nose-to-knee, picking at a scab. Never let nothing
heal right. Just picked at sores and bled all up and down
the stoop while her momma and daddy on the inside,

One day Avey’s scream pushed Tish right on down them
steps. Mind you, Tish ain’t but five but she ain’t no fool.
She probably thought, he’s gonna kill her today. I dialed
the police, watching her run off the sidewalk in the middle
of Fulton Avenue during Monday evening traffic. The car
that hit her was only doing thirty.

I’ll have you to know after they buried the child that man
still wouldn’t let Avey go nowhere. People started talking.
They said, “Why won’t she just leave?” Like it’s that easy.
Shit. Where could she go? Avey ain’t never been the kind
to find one of them shelters and have sense enough to
stay gone. If she ever left, she’d call him and he’d be right
there to bring her on back home. After Tish died Avey
didn’t budge. Sat up in that apartment—shit. I guess since
he wouldn’t let her go nowhere she decided to go crazy.
Sometimes any place’ll do, even if the place is Crazy.

Avey’s rocking back and forth then starts into making those
funny bird sounds while me and the girl wait on our chess
pie. I figure it’s awfully strange to Menda that people just
carry on as usual. I lean over to tell her the reason ain’t
nobody put out by Avey’s warbling is cause we know when
she do that she’s in flight and we’re glad for her.

We into May and I start to wonder if Miss Menda’s planning
to keep her baby. She still ain’t said nothing to me about it
but I worry cause from where I’m sitting she ain’t holding
on to too much man. The next strong wind I look for him to
blow on away from here. Which one of these organic
markets carry blue cohosh, I wonder. Get a hold of a little
of that to give to her. Tell her to check the blood until she
sees little yellow chunks, like pineapple, then it’s done,
cause that young man—shit.  She won’t have no help from
him. It don’t seem to bother her none. Or maybe it do. She
come down the steps all gussied up with her mouth poked
out. The boyfriend has called off the date. They was
supposed to have dinner and see a show but he had to do
something for his momma. Something about that just don’t
sit right with me. I’m a mother myself and unless it’s a real
emergency I wouldn’t ask mine to cancel nothing on my
account. Menda says she’s going to walk over to Flatbush
for some ice cream and tells me to come go with her. I pat
the left side of my brassiere to feel for my tittybank, the
little money I keep folded and tucked there and she
laughs. Later, I’m deciding between Pralines and Cream or
Butter Pecan when she say I never told her what happened
in apartment C. I don’t like to think about that one cause I
don’t know how that boy turned out.

I knew Katrina for years. Watched her try to love a couple
of men before she made up her mind to love a woman.
Anyway, she moved in a Dominican woman—Rachelle who
folks called Rocky. Katrina had a baby soon after Rocky
moved in. It must’ve belonged to that last fellow she
kicked out of C. Jason, the little boy Katrina had, sure was
a good baby. Wasn’t too long before it got around that
Trina couldn’t keep no money laying around the house
cause Rocky was drinking it all up. Trina even borrowed
some money from me. Looking back, I didn’t have no
business letting her have it but I hated to think about the
boy going without something he needed. Plus I knew Rocky
didn’t work. I had asked Trina what was wrong with Rocky
that she couldn’t or wouldn’t get a job. She said something
about Rocky being depressed. I wanted to say, “Well hell,
what she expect? Liquor keeps you depressed.” But I didn’t
say nothing.

When Jason got to be some size—must’ve been eight or
nine—I started giving him a little change to help me rake
the leaves and put them in garbage bags. He told me how
his momma always hid they money from Rocky. It’s not too
long since he told me this that I look out my window and
see two men carrying a recliner down the steps, Rocky’s
behind them. I hurried on across the street cause from my
kitchen window didn’t look like that chair was hurting no
where and I sure could use it. Rocky smelled like them
incense they sell on the street. Told me she’d been waiting
months for her leather chair from Jennifer Convertibles and
was glad it had finally come. I wanted to ask if the new
chair would help with the depression but I held my tongue.
The men sat the old chair on the curb for the garbage man.
I told them they couldn’t leave it out there cause garbage
men not supposed to move furniture then I asked Rocky if I
could have it. She said, “Knock yourself out,” so I gave the
men a little money to carry it to my house.

A few days later I saw that Jason wasn’t looking right. I
hollered out, Come on across the street and talk to Mrs.
King. I gave him a little hug, told him to come in and have
some cocoa cause I knew Trina wasn’t home no way and
Rocky was probably sitting in that apartment on that bottle
real tough, not paying that boy no mind. He took his jacket
off, hung it on the back of my kitchen chair. I set the cocoa
down in front of him, he pushed his sweater sleeves up
and I see welts all over his arms. I figured it was Trina’s
handiwork but I asked him who did it anyway. He started
crying, telling me how his momma beat him for playing
Nintendo and for not paying attention when Rocky let the
men take the chair away.

Come to find out Trina had put $600—the rent money—in
the seat cushion to hide from Rocky. I waited until I knew
Trina was home from work then I took Jason over. When I
told her I had the chair she almost knocked me down trying
to get to the door. She ain’t thought nothing of beating
that child but I told her the next time she hurt that boy
like that I was calling the services on her. She didn’t like
that. Stopped talking to me before they moved away even
though she still owed me some money.

Menda say, “I have to stop talking to you Mrs. King. You
got too many sad stories.” When we reach my house, I
thank her for the ice cream and tell her she’s more than
welcomed to come on in. I got enough parsley in the fridge
for the pessary and the brewer’s yeast and dried
pennyroyal leaves for the tea. In about ten days she’d pass
it. About the size of grape.

The next time I see her she running up the steps giggling;
he right behind her, pinching her on the behind and
carrying on. “Mrs. King, we got some barbeque. You want
some?” He tugs on her cute summer dress and she half-
whispers to him that she’d give me some of her portion. I
want to tell him I don’t eat meat no how. Ain’t nothing
worse than a selfish man about to be somebody’s daddy.

A garbage can hits the sidewalk and wakes me up. Before I
dozed off she was playing her Monk so I figured the two of
them got right to it after they ate. When I come to myself
a bit I see Menda standing there with her hand on her
neck. Blood’s dripping between her fingers and her legs
look they about ready to give out. She’s trying to tell me
something about that gray and white cat as we rush across
the street to my house. She’s sitting on the edge of the
bathtub and I’m standing over her trying to see to that
scratch. “You youngsters don’t believe fat meat is greasy.
Told you. He clawed you nice and deep.” Now maybe she’ll
wise-up about strays. I put a cold towel against her neck.
When the blood stops, I dab on a little tiger balm and put
some gauze on it.

After Memorial Day, I don’t see the boyfriend no more. Miss
Menda is back to carrying her books. She stops playing
records all the time and starts singing, low. She think I
can’t hear her out on the stoop but you know those blue
notes have reach.

One afternoon she asks me to do her a favor—to go with
her to the clinic.

Walking home Miss Menda wanna know what I think about
what she’s done. I tell her what she already knows; she is
smart enough to wait until she can give a child exactly
what it needs—attention, patience, love. She’s quiet for a
long time then says, “I guess when you come to the stoop
now you’ll be coming to remember my baby too.” I wrap my
arm around her.

“No. I’m coming to hear you sing. So make sure you got
your window open.”

LaShonda Katrice Barnett’s work appears in Callaloo, the African American
Review and other journals, and in anthologies including The Letter Q (Arthur A.
Levine Books, 2012). She edited the interview collections I Got Thunder: Black
Women Songwriters and Their Craft (DaCapo, 2007) and Off the Record:
Conversations with African American and Brazilian Women Musicians (Rowman &
Littlefield, 2013). She is the author of a story collection, Callaloo (New Victoria,
1999) and recently completed her first novel. She teaches ethnic writing at Brown
University. More at     Photo: Ellen Eisenman