Authors: Han Nolan
ORLANDO AUSTIN NEW YORK
SAN DIEGO TORONTO LONDON
Copyright © 2001 by Han Nolan
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced
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Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.
First Harcourt paperback edition 2003
The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition as follows:
Born blue/by Han Nolan,
Summary: Janie was four years old when she nearly drowned due
to her mother's neglect. Through an unhappy foster home experience,
and years of feeling that she is unwanted, she keeps alive
her dream of someday being a famous singer.
[1. Abandoned children—Fiction. 2. Singers—Fiction. 3. Mothers and
daughters—Fiction.] I. Title.
ISBN 0-15-204697-6 pb
Text set in Janson
Designed by Cathy Riggs
This is a work of fiction. All the names, characters, organizations, and events
portrayed in this book are products of the author's imagination. Any resemblance
to any organization, event, or actual person, living or dead, is unintentional.
For my sister, Caroline Walker Kahler,
thanks for the music
And for Brian, as always
Y FIRST MEMORY
of myself I be drowning. I can close my eyes and feel myself getting pushed back under all that heavy water, my legs kicking and straining for the sandy bottom. Alls I find be more water rushing at me and over me, big walls of water hitting me whole and tossing me upside down, and I got no breath left, so I open my mouth and I swallow a gallon of salt water and choke, and more water get up my nose and burn in my head, and I go for a breath again, and the whole time I thinking,
Mama's gonna be mad at me, Mama's gonna be mad.
Then I ain't thinking nothin' and all the struggling stops, and I wake up in a dark room I know ain't mine. I think I be dead, but I scream, anyways, and a lady I never seen come in and holds me till daylight.
That were back when I were four years old. They couldn't find Mama Linda for a long time, and then when they did, they said I couldn't see her 'cause she were sick and needed help. I kept on crying for her and asking for her and telling all them grown-up people who now in my life that I wanted my mama. When were I gonna see my mama?
I got put in a foster home with Patsy and Pete, my foster parents, and some babies that come and went—there was always some babies in the home—and a foster brother named Harmon Finch.
I remember the house that Pete and Patsy lived in like I just moved out yesterday. I don't think after all these years I yet got the smell of that place outta me. It were in a town just outside of Mobile, Alabama, a little poky town. The house were a big old nasty with yellow paint and brown trim and mostly just fallin' down ugly. It had more puke smells in it than a toilet bowl, and all of them some kind of sour, like sour feet and sour cheese and wet sour and fart and BO. Most of them come from Pete, and the rest come from Pasty's cooking or the way she didn't never keep a house. Them smells just flooded the place, and weren't a spot you could go to get away from it but outside when the wind were blowing just right.
Only thing good about living in that home were knowing Harmon. It didn't take me any time to figure out that Patsy and Pete had no use for either of us 'cept to boss us round and make our lives miserable. All their attention went to the babies, so me and Harmon got to be best friends fast. Back then he a shy boy, seven years old and walking round with a shoe box everywhere. He
carried it under his skinny black arm, and anybody got too close, anybody ask to see what he got in the box, he bring it round and hug it tight to his chest with both arms and twist side to side—sayin'
with his body. Always when he said no 'bout something, he used his whole body. He were physical like that, and soon as we 'come friends he were huggin' me all the time, and I huggin' back, and never since have I felt safe and sure with a hug the way I done Harmon's.
Harmon were three years older than me, and when he little he were a skinny runty thing you wouldn't imagine could ever grow up to be much, but he grew up tall and round—not fat, just beefy. He got the friendliest face I ever seen in a person, too, with a big smile so full of goodwill it could melt anybody's heart, and it turns his own face so soft and good you fell in love with him right away; everybody do. He got happy round eyes, and eyelashes so long he got to cut them to look a man, and chubby cheeks that make him look too young and sweet for any kind of hell raisin', but he say that be fine by him.
In the foster home those babies come and went so fast, weren't worth it to bother looking at them and learning their faces, but me and Harmon stayed on and stayed so close you knew if you saw one of us coming you saw the other. Patsy and Pete, thinking they was being cute, called us chocolate and vanilla 'cause of our skin, and it just burned me up to hear it. I didn't like being called vanilla or anything to do with white. White was Mama Linda and her not coming to see me, and Patsy and Pete and their steely meanness, and the evil-eye lady with the pistol in her boot who lived across the street and talked all the time 'bout shooting us and hanging us out for scarecrows in her cornfield. No, I didn't like white.
Harmon showed me what he got in the shoe box—cassette tapes of lady singers. He got Aretha Franklin and Ella Fitzgerald and Odetta, Sarah Vaughan, Etta James, Billie Holiday, and Roberta Flack. I couldn't read all that till I were six years old, but there were a Fisher-Price tape player in the house, and one time I said to Harmon, "Harmon, what's on them tapes? Can I hear?"
"Be music," he said. "They my daddy's tapes."
We dug out the tape player from a pile of toys we was supposed to keep in a box in the basement We listened in front of the toy box 'cause we knew if a toy wandered too far from that box, we got the strap.
We listened to the ladies singin'. I laid down on the floor on top of a rug that smelled wet and sour, and Harmon laid down next to me, and we stared up at the ceiling that looked like white cardboard and listened to those pretty voices. Sometimes while I were listening I'd look at the pictures of the ladies on the front of the cassettes, and I'd look at the words I couldn't read, and I'd get all happy and easy feelin' inside. I loved the ladies. I loved their singin'.
Pete and Patsy wanted to know what we was doin' down in the basement so quiet, and they said we doin' dirty things, and I felt all twisted nasty hearing their ugly words.
It were our secret 'bout loving the ladies. We'd go outside and climb into the Japanese maple tree Patsy said were the only tree we allowed to climb, and talk our secret talk 'bout loving the ladies.
"They pretty, Harmon," I said once.
"Mm-hmm." Harmon nodded.
"They make me happy."
"Me, too," Harmon said. "They make me want to jump."
"You want to jump out the tree?"
"I want to jump and jump and turn myself around."
I said, "They make me want to sing. Harmon, I want to sing." I said that and I felt something inside me go different from everything else I ever felt. It felt like something strong were sitting inside me. Like it were sitting in my belly waiting on something, and it made me feel hungry. I got to feeling so hungry I thought there weren't enough food in the world could fill me up.
"Harmon, let's go see if they got any bread to eat," I said.
After that time, when I thought of the ladies, when I heard the ladies sing, I had to eat bread so I didn't go feeling that hunger. I'd eat the crust first and then roll up the rest into a ball, dip it in the sugar bowl, and suck on it, getting all the sweet out of it, and then I'd eat it down and start on another one.
Patsy wanted to know why I ate so much bread. She said I looked like dough. Said maybe she should pop me in the oven and see if I bake. I stayed clear of her best I could.
Sometimes we would go sit in the Japanese maple tree with a stack of bread and eat and dream the ladies' music till it would get so late we 'bout fell right out the tree asleep.
That whole time I lived with Patsy and Pete and Harmon and the babies that come and go, I loved Harmon and the ladies most, and almost every day I lived there, which lasted almost three years, we'd go to the basement and listen to the ladies sing. But Harmon didn't dance and I didn't sing. We was too scared to get the strap. We'd lay on the sour rug and dream we was singin' and dancin', and I had me a stack of bread on a plate by my side for when I got so hungry I thought I would die.
E HAD A SOCIAL WORKER
who come visit us every once in a while to see how we doing, and ask what we thinking. Her name be Doris Mellon, and she were a fat lady who always wore happy red dresses and red lipstick and red fingernails and had the blackest, shiniest skin I ever seen. I used to love to pet her arm and grab her skin and hold it. When I got to know her better I used to kiss her arms and her cheeks, and I were jealous 'cause I knew she loved Harmon best. I knew 'cause she come over one time and said to Patsy that she gonna take Harmon out to her church on Sunday and that she wanted to do it regular. She wanted to take him out with her every Sunday.
I never been to no church. Weren't sure, even, what church were, 'cept Harmon were gonna get to go with Doris and I weren't. Doris said that she would take me someplace special, too, sometime, but I wanted to go with her and Harmon. Why couldn't I go? I wanted to
know. So did Harmon. He asked, "Why cain't she go? She my best friend. Don't wanna go no place without my Janie." And Doris and Patsy looked at each other and shrugged their shoulders, and I got to go.
The church were a long drive away to a building that looked like a movie theater. There was lots of people, and they was every one of them, 'cept me and one lady, black skinned. I smiled big when I saw this, and everybody smiled big right back at me. The preacher did his shoutin' and prayin', and the people sitting in the chairs shouted
and waved their arms about and stood up and sat down and sang. A whole roomful of people was singin'. I grabbed ahold of Doris's skin and Harmon's shoulder, and I hung on tight. A whole roomful of people singin', and I got chills inside and out I wanted to fill myself up with bread, but there wasn't none, so I sucked on my lower Up. I wanted to sing so bad, but I didn't know the sounds or the words. I just knew about Aretha and Odetta and Ella. I knew their sounds, but the people in the church was singin' new ones.
After church Doris took us out to Shoney's for lunch and chocolate ice-cream sundaes. We never had sundaes before, but I got hooked on them first bite I took. I knew weren't nothin' in the world ever taste as sweet and good as a chocolate ice-cream sundae, and I always let some of the syrup dry on my Up so I could lick on it later.
Harmon and I couldn't wait to go to church with Doris every week, and I didn't know what I loved most
about it—being out with Doris and Harmon, the music in the church, or eating sundaes—I were just happy as happy could be the whole time.
After three weeks of going to the church, I had learned most the words and all the tunes to them songs they sang regular every week, and I tried singin'. I were going on almost five years old, and I hadn't never sang a note. I opened my mouth to sing but didn't hear nothin'. I could feel sound humming in my chest, but I couldn't hear it. I opened my mouth more, like the men and women standing up front with the blue-and-gold robes on, and I sang louder, and I could hear my own self singin'. I were making a song, my first song. I shook my shoulders and clapped my hands like the people all round me, and I sang louder. I felt Doris let go of my shoulder, and I heard her stop singin'. I turned my head, and Harmon were staring at me and smiling. I looked up at Doris, and she smiled, too, so I knew it were okay me singin', so I kept on.
Every time we had to sit down and listen to the talking, I got antsy and hungry and I couldn't wait till the singin' started up again.
After church that day, Doris said to me, "Child, you sounded real pretty singin'. Didn't she, Harmon?"
"Yes, ma'am, she do. And she can sing other. She can sing Aretha song and Etta and Roberta."
We was riding back to the stink house in Doris's car, and me and Harmon was sitting together in the back. I gave him a kick on his leg.
"Hey, you messin' up my one good pair of pants. Now quit."
I said, "How you know what I can sing, Mr. Harmon? You don't know what I can do."
Doris looked at me in her rearview mirror and said, "Sing something for us, Janie. Go on, it's all right. We're all friends."
I looked at Harmon and he nodded. "Go on, thang, you can do it."
Didn't never hear myself sing alone before. I closed my eyes and felt myself down in the basement, laying on the sour rug, listening to Roberta Flack. I heard her voice singin' "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," and I started singin'. And sitting in that car with my eyes closed, singin', felt like entering those pearly gates of heaven I were always hearing 'bout in church, felt like chocolate ice cream with chocolate syrup, nuts, whipped cream, and a cherry slippin' down my throat. Felt like the first home I ever known.
AMA LINDA COME
to see me. I were coming home from kindergarten, riding on the bus with Harmon. She were waiting at the end of the road where the bus driver always let us off, standing with one leg crossed in front of the other and her arms folded 'cross her chest. She were butter blond and blue eyed and pretty as pink pastries, and kids on the bus was sayin' it had to be my mama 'cause I looked just like her.
I got down off the bus behind Harmon and peeked round him at Mama Linda. She smiled big and opened her arms out. I went on and ran to her, feelin' funny 'bout it 'cause I weren't sure yet if I felt happy to see her or what. She hugged me, so I hugged her back, and my arms closed round her skinny, skinny waist. She smelled like I remembered, even though I forgot I remembered. She smelled like a cake made out of sugar and flowers and cooking oil.
"Now, how's your little face today?" she said, like we just left off seein' each other yesterday.
I didn't know what to say, so I looked back at Harmon, who were behind us.
He had his hands dug in his pockets, and when I looked at him, he shrugged and his face drooped so sad like he was giving up on me, saying good-bye 'cause Mama Linda be there, comin' to take me home.
I reached back for him and grabbed his arm, which were still pushin' at the bottom of his pocket, and said, "This here Harmon. He be my brother now."
Harmon said "hey" to Mama Linda, with his head down so low his fat cheeks was 'bout all I could see of his face. Then he pulled away from me and ran ahead to the stink house without us.
"He's a shy one," Mama Linda said.
"He don't know you," I said. "Are you here pickin' me up? Am I goin' home with you?"
I didn't know what I were hoping the answer would be till she told me no. Then I knew I were hoping she coming for me, 'cause soon as she said no, I wanted to push her down on the road and run off home with Harmon.
Mama Linda stopped walking and pulled my two arms toward her and stooped down in front of me. "Janie, I've been ... ill. I've been in a rehabilitation center 'cause I've ... I've had this amnesia thing." Mama Linda nodded to herself and said "amnesia" again.
"What that be?" I asked.
Mama Linda set her head at a tilt and took a bit of my hair in her hand. "Don't you talk fanny now. Amnesia's when you lose all your memory. You can't remember anything. So, see, I didn't even remember I had a little girl. That's how ill I was."
"Are you all better? Why cain't I come home?"
Mama Linda stood up. "Well, see, they've got to watch me awhile, still, and make sure I don't go back on—get that old amnesia thing again. You wouldn't want me to get it and leave you alone at the beach again, would you? So, for now I'll just come visit you, and if things go well"—Mama Linda started up walking again—"then we'll live back together."
NCE A MONTH MAMA LINDA
come to visit, bringing a sack of boiled peanuts in her hands and handing them off to me like that were the reason for coming. I always ate them up before she left, popping in one after another and swallowing them whole like they was vitamin pills. I got sick every night on days when she visited, and Pete said it be the peanuts, so he said not to eat them no more, but still I got sick. I didn't tell no one but Harmon.
"Harmon, I sick again."
"What you gonna do?"
"I gonna go get me some food 'cause I think it a hunger sick in my stomach."
I waited for Patsy and Pete to go on to bed, then I
slipped down to the kitchen in the dark and stashed down as much food as my body could hold. Next day, Patsy did have a fit and then some when she come down and found all her food gone missing. She blamed me and Harmon both, 'cause she said no way could I eat all that food myself, and she told Doris on us.
I said to Doris, "It ain't Harmon, but Harmon get the strap same as me, an' you
tell Patsy it ain't Harmon."
So Doris and Patsy talked long, and they got up a plan so I don't be gettin' in trouble and gettin' sick Doris give me Mama Linda's phone number and said once a week I could call her and talk, and on days when Mama Linda come, Patsy would set out extra food for me to come down and eat at night if ever I felt sick-hungry.
First time she set the food out, she wagged her angry finger at me and said, "But if you eat anything else besides what I set out, you'll be standing on one foot all day for punishment and so will Harmon." She knew she could get me to do right if she punished Harmon for what I done wrong.
"And thanks a lot for telling Doris about getting the strap, as if we're here beatin' you senseless. One time standing on one foot and you'll be begging for the strap."
When Mama Linda come, I always asked if she be better now, and every time she said yes, she was gettin'
better every day. She never said nothin' again 'bout me coming to live with her, though, and when I called her every week like I supposed to, Mama weren't never home 'cept once. That time I got her, she said I just caught her on her way out and she'd call me back tomorrow 'cause she gotta run, but she didn't never call me.
Me and Harmon talked 'bout me one day leaving and going back to live with Mama Linda, and he said he didn't want me to never leave 'cause we belonged always together. I knew he were right 'bout that, 'cause I loved Harmon and the ladies most in the world, but I knew if Mama Linda ever said, "Come on," I'd come on, 'cause I knew it were just the way it had to be, and I felt sad inside for never telling Harmon this.
Mama Linda kept coming most every month, and one time she brung a boyfriend with her. They took me out to a playground. The boyfriend looked too bored, so the next time, she brung a different boyfriend, and we just stayed outside the stink house and did nothin'.
I never liked any of the dudes she showed me, but just in case, I always asked if they—any of them—be my real father. That's when Mama Linda got creative, makin' up stories, one time saying my father be famous so she had to keep him a secret, and the next time saying she don't even know who my father be, 'cause she had a case of amnesia back then, too.
Sometimes Mama Linda would forget to come see me, and lots of times she didn't stay long and took me
nowhere, and lots of times she got real angry at me 'cause now she were's'posed to come out to see me twice a month and it were messin' up her other plans.
"Grown-ups like to do grown-up things," she said. "I got plans, little face, so I got to cut this visit short. When you grow up, you'll understand what I mean, but you call me, okay? You can always call me. Here, now, I brought you some candy to share with Herman."
I always knew when the visit were gonna be short, 'cause she'd wear something black and sexy that showed off her boobs. On days when she stayed long, she wore baggy jeans and kept her boobs tucked in. I liked her best on her long-visit days, even when we didn't get along.
She were always trying to pick fights with me. One fight she tried to start, she said I acted too much like Harmon, only she called him Herman. "You two are always whispering. I don't like it It's rude. What are you two saying, anyway? Are you whispering about me? "You like making fun of me?"
"We ain't talkin' 'bout you, Mama Linda. We just talkin'."
"I don't like that boy. He's too quiet. It makes me nervous. He's always studying me and grinning. What's he grinning at?"
"Don't he have the sweetest smile you ever did see?"
Mama Linda hated me not fighting with her, but I knew if I did, she wouldn't never come back, so I never
said thing-one against her. Then one time Doris said Mama could take me for a weekend visit, and Mama took me to a motel. Soon as we pulled into the parking lot I got scared, 'cause there be a outdoor pool right at the motel, and last time I were out with Mama Linda, I almost drowned and she disappeared.
"Why ain't we goin' home?" I asked. "I thought we goin' home."
"We're supposed to stay in town, little face. Maybe if this visit goes well, I can take you for a home visit sometime, but that Doris said we've got to stay close by for now. But that doesn't matter, does it? I'm never home much, anyway."
"I know," I said.
Mama Linda pointed across the parking lot "Look, they got a swimming pool over there, and I bet there's a Coke machine right around die corner from our room. We can drink cola all night, if we want"
"I ain't goin' in no water," I said.
"Sure you are, little face. You can swim in your underwear if you don't have a suit You'll be precious. Everyone will think you're just precious."
Mama Linda had a look on her face like she was seeing it all right in front of her, everyone thinking I be precious and her getting all the glory for it.
I didn't have to worry long 'bout drownin' in no pool, though, 'cause Mama didn't stick around long enough hardly to do much but pee. Soon as we stepped into the
room, she put down the overnight case she brung along with her and run off to the bathroom. I stood in the doorway, waiting.
"Doris said you can sing," she said after she got off the toilet and come back into the room, zippin' up her jeans. She looked at me. "Well, come on in the room and sing. Let's see what kind of good singer I've got me."
I didn't move or say nothin'. Mama Linda put her hands on her hips and said, "Sing!" And her voice were angry, just like that.
"I cain't sing," I said.
"Doris said you got a pretty voice. Now, come on. Come on, little face, sing."
I turned round feeing out the door and said again, "I cain't sing."
Then, before I knew it, Mama Linda were shovin' me out the door and scootin' me back out to the car, and we screeched out the lot and back onto the highway.
"You won't sing, I'm taking you back to Patsy. That's the way it's going to be, okay? You going to sing?"
I shook my head with my chin sitting on my chest Much as I wanted Mama Linda to take me back with her, I couldn't do it I couldn't sing for her.
Mama Linda sped on to Patsy and Pete's, saying she didn't care what I told on her to Doris, she were sick of that fet-ass woman sticking her nose into her business, anyway.
She didn't take me all the way to the house. She pulled up to mine and Harmon's bus stop and told me to
get out. "I'll come see you when you're ready to sing, so if you ever want to see me again..."
She didn't say more. I climbed out the car, and she drove on, slow, like she were thinking I gonna come running after her.
I caught her looking in her rearview mirror at me, and I turned from her and walked on toward the stink house. Soon as I did, Mama Linda pulled away with one long screech of burnin' rubber. I just kept walkin' on. I just kept walkin'—and singin'—'cause only thing I knew to do to keep that sick-hungry feelin' away were to sing.
OR MORE 'N
a year Mama Linda been comin' to see me, but she told Patsy she weren't never comin' back so now Doris could give me away for adoption. Doris told me not to worry. I just had to let Mama Linda cool off awhile.
Me and Harmon said we was happy being just us two again, but I was sad for wanting Mama Linda back sometimes, and Patsy said I was turnin' into a fatso feedin' myself up the way I did when I got to thinkin' 'bout it Sometimes, when no one were in the living room, I tried callin' Mama Linda on the phone. Two times I got her, and both times she hung up on me.
Then Mr. James and Mrs. James come to visit us. They both had soft brown skin matching exactly like they was brother and sister, and they was both tall and skinny, too, but Mr. James had big teeth and spoke all quiet and smooth. Mrs. James spoke smooth, but she
weren't so quiet and she laughed a lot. I thought they come to see me, 'cause no one never come to see Harmon before, but they come for him. They told him he could call them Mama and Daddy if he wanted to, or John and Cherise. Then they took him off somewhere for a couple of hours, and when they brung him back Harmon were changed. He wouldn't say nothin' to me hardly at all. He wouldn't say what be going on, and I got scared and raided the refrigerator that night even though Mama Linda hadn't come in months and wouldn't stay on the phone when I got hold of her. The next day after school, Patsy made me stand wobblin' on one foot till supper time for punishment for eatin' all her tomatoes. My ankles burned so much, even if I did cheat and change legs when she weren't looking.
One Friday afternoon I couldn't find Harmon on the bus and I cried, and kids called me a baby 'cause I were almost seven and I were cryin', but I didn't care, 'cause all I cared 'bout was knowing where Harmon gone.
Pete were sitting on the front stoop drinking a beer when I got home. He saw my face and said, "What you been bawlin' about?"
"Where Harmon at?" I asked. "He not on the bus with me."
Pete waved me away. "Aw, he's gone off for the weekend with that James couple. They're gonna adopt him. They're gonna be his parents now."
"I ain't never gonna see him again?" I could feel hysterics shakin' my shoulders.
"Calm down, girl. You'll see him Sunday. He ain't gone yet."
I hid out in the basement all weekend, sucking on balled-up bread and feeling scared 'cause Harmon took his tapes with him like he wasn't never coming back At night I got sick-hungry, but I knew I couldn't eat up the kitchen no more, so I snuck outside to the lady's house across the street—the lady with the pistol in her boot—and I didn't care what happened to me. I climbed her peach tree and ate on her unripe peaches till I felt sick. Then I went on back to the stink house and yakked it all up in the toilet.
Harmon come back to the house on Sunday and he had a book of photographs under his skinny black arm and he said it were his life book and it told the story of Mr. James and Mrs. James and their house and their dog and the school where Harmon were gonna go and everything else Harmon could think he might wanna know. He showed me his book, and then he showed Patsy and Pete, and then he looked through it on his own with me watchin' him, and Harmon were so full of happy he didn't see how I were dyin' all over. He told me that him and his new mama and daddy went fishin', and he showed me a picture again of the fishin' hole. He said they took him to a football game, too, and how he met a boy his same age, named Max, who lived close by, and how he were gonna have his own room and his very own
toys that didn't have to go in a box, and how Mr. James took Harmon to his office and let him play on a computer and Mr. James said Harmon be a fast learner. Harmon couldn't stop talkin' to see how every word he said were just killin' me.
I asked him to come on and listen to the ladies with me, and we got down on the rug same as always, only it weren't the same 'cause while Aretha were singin' Harmon kept on talking right over her voice like her voice didn't hold nothin' for him no more.
I stopped the tape 'cause I couldn't bear what he were doing, and I said, "Ain't we never gonna see each other now, Harmon?"
Harmon sat up and shrugged, and he hung his head down low over his lap. "Don't know." He looked up. "But you always be my best friend, Janie."
Mr. James and Mrs. James picked up Harmon for good. They had their dog in the car, droolin' on the window like it couldn't wait for Harmon to be his. But I couldn't let go. I hugged on Harmon and cried an awful mess, and Patsy kept trying to pull me off, but I just got right back on him. And Harmon were crying, too, and he whispered that he loved me most, even more than the ladies, and all of me were so tore up it felt like I was bleedin' to death.
Pete got me off Harmon and hustled him into the car while Patsy held tight to me so I couldn't latch on to
Harmon no more. The car started rolling away, and I got screaming, the hurt were so bad. Then the car stopped, and I thought they was gonna give Harmon back to me. I hushed up and I saw the back window roll down.
Harmon called to me, and I ran to the car, wantin' to reach in and snatch him through the window.
"Here, this yours now," he said. He handed me his tape of Etta James, my favorite, and I took it and sat down in the drive with the tape in my hands and cried hysterics over losing Harmon and the ladies till my voice run dry.
my own kind of blues after Harmon and the ladies gone away. I climbed into the Japanese maple tree and sung my made-up songs, holding my sound long and bending the tune with my hurt. I sang any words that come to my head, 'cause it didn't matter the song, it just mattered the singin'. All I wanted to do anymore was go down to where my songs would take me, down deep to that place that cut and healed, and cut.
Didn't hear nothing from Harmon for a long time. Then I got a package in the mail with his name on the return address. Inside I found a shoe box different from Harmon's raggedy box. This one were new. I opened it and it smelled of new shoes, only weren't shoes in the box. Were tapes. Harmon's note said he and his new dad recorded the ladies for me so we could both have them. Asked would I send back Etta James so he could make a copy of her, too. At the end he wrote, "Love, Harmon W. James." He and Etta had the same last name. I told
Patsy, who stood behind me with a baby in her arms, looking down at what I got.
"Harmon got the same last name as Etta James now," I said.
Patsy said, "James is a common name. Don't go making something big out of it, Janie. You always got to make something big out of everything."
"You think they know Etta James?"
Patsy shifted the baby onto her other hip and said, "Now, what did I just say? No, they don't know her. Woman's probably dead, anyway. I don't know why you two are always listening t:o those dead people. Now, here"—she handed me the baby—"he's put a dirty in his diaper. Go change it and don't forget to wash your hands. Oh yeah, and Doris won't be taking you to church this Sunday."
I had started out the kitchen door but I turned round. The baby were pulling on my hair, pulling it cross my face, so I couldn't see Patsy good.
"Why ain't she taking me?"
Patsy turned away and picked up another baby from the high chair.
"I got a call saying her daughter died."
"She got a daughter? She got a daughter who dead?"
"Yeah. What did you think? You think she don't have a life outside of you?"
I pulled my hair out of the baby's hands. He were stinking bad but I kept standing there.
"How old her daughter be?"
Patsy shrugged and set her baby in the sink "She's grown up. She's probably my age."
"How old you be?"
"I'm thirty-six, miss nosy britches. Now go on and change that baby's diaper before his butt stains." Patsy yanked her baby's shirt up over its head and took the dish-rinsing hose and sprayed it at the baby.
"What her name be?" I asked.
"Who? You mean Doris's daughter? It's Leshaya. Was Leshaya. Why? Don't you believe me? You think I made it all up to make your life miserable? Think I got nothing better to do than make up ways to keep Doris away from you?"
I turned and walked away with the baby, thinking on the name Leshaya. Were a pretty name, Leshaya—a real pretty name.
the name to myself all afternoon. I took it to bed with me and slept with it close on my tongue so when I woke up the next day it were the first word I spoke. I loved the sound of it—gentle, easy sounding, just as easy as a breath. Saying it and hearing the sound of it made me feel quiet inside, peaceful, like sitting in a empty church 'with Harmon and Doris before it filled up with people.
I carried the name with me to school that day, keeping it in my head and not saying it loud for others to hear, 'cause I weren't ready to share it yet. Just like with the ladies and their singing, I needed to keep the name to myself and think on it awhile. During math I spelled it out different ways on a piece of paper over and over, and I covered the page with it—Leshaya, Lashaya, Lisheya. It spelled out just as pretty as it sounded, no matter how I spelled it, but I picked Leshaya. I thought how I
wanted that name for me, for keeps. I wanted everybody to call me Leshaya.
Riding on the school bus that afternoon, I were thinking that when I got to the stink house I would say to Patsy and Pete, "My name be Leshaya," then see what they do, but Mama Linda were hiding in a bush near my stop and jumped out at me before I got walking far on the road to the house. Her hand shot out from the bush and clamped down on my arm and yanked me so hard she 'bout snatched me outta my shoes. She said, "Come on," and I did 'cause I had no choice. I went on with Mama Linda to a white car waitin' on the road on the other side of the bushes. She said for me to scoot on in the back, and I did. She climbed in behind me, and before I could remove my backpack, turn round and get sitting with a seat belt and all, we was outta there. I got myself strapped in and looked up to the front. A skinny-faced white lady with babylike teeth were looking back at me, smiling, and a black man with a couple of mean scars on his face were driving the car.
"Janie, this is Mitch and Shelly," Mama Linda said.
The lady up front stuck her hand out and said, "I'm Shell."
She had a wild, jazzed-up look in her eyes, almost like she were gonna eat me soon as she could.
The lady shifted a look at Mama Linda, waitin', I think, for Mama Linda to explain or say something else to me.
"We're taking you away from that stink hole you've been living in," Mama Linda said. "You're glad about that, aren't you?"
"Yes'm, I reckon," I said, and Mama Linda nodded at Shell and said, "See, what'd I tell you, polite and sweet and pretty."
I smiled inside myself 'cause I knew she were talking 'bout me. Shell nodded, then said to me, "Hey, you hungry? We got you a chicken sandwich at the Chik-fil-A."
She turned round and fished 'bout for the sandwich, and Mama Linda said for Mitch to take a left and the signs would take us out to the highway. I saw Mama Linda's hands trembling, and her eyes looked 'bout as wild as Shell's. She had on makeup, but it didn't cover up her yellow-lookin' skin, and she had on her usual strong flower oils she wore for perfume, but it didn't hide her stink—a strange kind of rotten smell.
"Where we goin'?" I asked.
"You're going to Birmingham. Won't that be nice?" Mama Linda said. She didn't look at me. She wiped her mouth. Her lips were sore chapped.
I shrugged. Didn't know nothin' 'bout Birmingham 'cept it were in Alabama somewhere.
"You want your sandwich with or without mayo?" Shell asked me.
"Don't matter," I said. "Am I never gonna go back to Patsy and Pete?"
Shell handed me a sandwich and looked fretful at Mama Linda like I said something wrong.
Mama Linda said to me, "You won't ever have to go back to that terrible place again. Shell and Mitch are going to take care of you now."
"Shell and Mitch? Do Doris know 'bout me goin'?"
"No. Now listen, Janie. This has got to be a secret, okay? Now, Mitch and Shell are good people and they love children"—Shell nodded—"and they're gonna be really good to you. All you got to do is be their daughter. See, you got to call them Mama and Daddy. Think you can do that?"
I looked at Mitch. He were keeping his eyes on the road, but I could see some of his face and I could see his arms and his hands on the wheel, and what I thought was that even if he weren't black as black like Doris, he were black right on, so I nodded.
Mama Linda slapped my leg and said to Shell, "See, what'd I tell you."
Shell reached back over her seat and touched my hands. "I love you already. I'll take good care of you, sweetheart."
I pulled my hands away from her, making like I needed to unwrap my sandwich, 'cause I didn't trust no jazzed-up white lady tellin' me five seconds after knowing me that she loved me. I looked at Mama Linda. "What 'bout you? Where you goin'? Why you ain't my mama?"
"Of course I'm your mama, little face. I'm your mama Linda and she's your mama Shell, but it's Shell now who's going to care for you. Look how she bought you
that sandwich. I didn't even think to get you something to eat. So she'll be your mama. Now that's the deal."
I wondered 'bout her saying the word
Doris used to say that word when she took me and Harmon out for Sunday lunch. She said we was always playin'
Let's Make a Deal,
'cause of the way we was always trading our food with each other. I asked Doris what a deal be, and she said it were like agreeing to do something, and me and Harmon was agreeing to make a trade with our food.
So I asked Mama Linda in that car, "You make a deal with Mama Shell?"
Mama Linda got squirmy, moving her legs like they ached and looking away from me out the window. "Well—yeah. Yeah, okay, we made a deal."
"A trade? You make a trade?"
Mama Linda leaned forward and tapped Mitch's shoulder. "You can let me out here. Here's fine. I can walk the rest of the way."
"We're almost to the exit," Mitch said. "Let me get you off the highway."
"No, it's okay. I need to walk. I need to walk, Mitch!"
Mama Linda's voice got hysterical, just like that. One minute she were saying pull over, and the next she were screaming how she needed to walk and she opened the door like she gonna jump out the car.
Mitch swerved off the road, and Mama Linda got out and walked away up the ramp of the exit.
We didn't say nothing for a long time. Mitch pulled
out on the highway again, and we rode on. I sat with my chicken sandwich unwrapped in my lap, and Shell turned to face front.
Then after we been silent a real long time, Shell turned round and said, "We've got to change your name. I have a sister named June. We'll call you June."
I said, "My name gonna be Leshaya."
Shell and Mitch snatched a look at each other, and Mitch asked, "Who's Leshaya?"
"Me," I said. "I be Leshaya now."
kidnapped but didn't care none. What's it matter who done the snatchin'? Them at Social Services yanked me from Mama Linda and gave me away to Patsy and Pete, then Mama Linda stole me back and did a deal with Daddy Mitch and Mama Shell. Ain't no difference, really. None of it had thing-one to do with my feelings. So what if I been kidnapped? I figured Mama Linda didn't just hand me over to any old body. She did a deal with my daddy; musta been my real daddy, 'cause why would she give me away to strangers?
Mama Shell tried to call me June and Juney, but I wouldn't come 'less she called me Leshaya, so she learned right quick I were a stubborn, pigheaded child, just like Patsy always said. But she didn't take the strap to me or make me stand on one leg, neither. She called me Leshaya.
First night in their home she caught me crying 'cause I were scared and missing Harmon and the ladies and
Doris, and she said she couldn't do nothin' 'bout Harmon and Doris but we could go to the music store and I could pick out some brand-new music for myself.
We went shopping the next day. I didn't find all the same tapes as them Harmon had, but I found some I never heard sung by the ladies, and I got a extra one by Etta James. Mama Shell got me a new tape player, too, the kind that fit on the waist of my pants and had earphones so I could listen private without nobody else hearing. I could lay in my own bed at night and listen all I wanted till I fell to sleep, and weren't nobody tellin' me no, and no babies laying in cribs next to me screaming for daylight.
Sometimes, when I were singing my songs, laying on my bed, I wondered if anybody were ever looking for me. Did Doris remember me? Did Harmon wonder whatever become of me? Were Patsy and Pete happy I were gone from them? I'd fall asleep wondering these questions, and in the morning Mama Shell would say to me at breakfast or while she were doin' up my hair, "You walked in your sleep again last night."