Boombox and Neon Flowers
by Abby Savitch-Lew
She walk on Rockaway. She swing purple hips. She buy a bag of green genips like sweetness from the Guyanan people at the corner. The juice gloss her lips, the rubbery rind curl in her palm, the jell ball roll with her tongue. She in 99¢ Century on New York Ave., a plastic crate swing at her arm. She be filling it with pink flip-flops, baby-breath scent candles, cockerspaniel-cookie tins, Nigerian statues, Brazilian masks, and them kind of old time jack-in-the-boxes. With Aunt Cassie anything under five buck belong shelved in her Dumont Brownstone. Thing she seen a million time she want cause they remind her of the old days, and thing she never seen she want cause they be souvenirs of a new life, by Jesus a new, fresh, starched and laced life. She be a widow now and her lover is Brownsville, her fetish is them venders and thrift stores. Money slide out, and the plastic jewelry of oppression slide in. Her family live in Brooklyn long time—she only twenty-five when they came. Long while she work to do, till she could go back then and now to Guyana, her better love. Better and lamented, like that husband that come before Brownsville. This why plastic jewelry taste like oppression when she suck on them beads round her neck. Is not cause she got no freedom or food. She drink sweet sorrel and on her stove be cooking plantains and macaroni.
Five men lounge round a table in the parking lot out of the Key Food. Two got canes and stiff knees. One be saying how he yesterday heave up that god-damn air-conditioning from the basement into his apartment, all by his self. His face still red with pride and gleam with sweat. Another one live behind a curtain a smoke and got bad lungs. Puff, puff, puff, they mock him and call him the black engine and tell him he gonna get a stroke and die. It noon and they’s shoving down pre-made tuna sandwiches thick with mayo, and kiwi fruit salad. Is evening and they talk bout the way kids used to pick up pennies, bout cars without seat-belts, bout Lindy’s cheesecake, bout back in the 80’s when them firecrackers on Fourth of July so loud is sounded like a war going on. Bout the way kids always work too hard now days, and don’t got time for hanging round or mastering real skill—skills like playing dominos or crashing they bikes into peoples’ garbage bins. Then while they’s thinking on wasted summers they think of playing basketball with Runny Joe, and at Runny Joe’s name they eyes get overwhelmed and they’s deciding to split a beer.
Two boys walk on the street step on the cracks on purpose, wondering if they be cursed to hell and die for stepping so. Two boys walk past the community garden where them little toddlers in the day-camp grow corn. Hey they be ducks in here yo, say one boy. And they look through the pentagons of the iron fence like a prison gate trying to see they ducks but they don’t see nothing but a mossy pond and a scarecrow and a mailbox. Hell how the mailman get his mail in the mailbox, say the same one. Teachers say he got a good mind, this one, he always get on so curious-like. The other boy don’t like to talk, only like to chew gum.
Some girl named Amira, she wearing a pink Sunday dress, sit on her porch and read some big fat book by some long-named Russian guy. Her glasses got no lens. Them boys, they’s come by her house to say she a big phony and to tell her she ain’t no friends. They saw some boys do like this on a TV show. In the show one boy get close and hit the girl down, but none these boys going to go so far, though they telling each other to go hit Amira. The other girls left Amira long time ago, they don’t come by no more. They’s done trying to be friends with her cause they all knowing Amira don’t want to be friends with them. Amira, she notice that when she spends time with other girls, her habits and speech and manners all changing. It scare her cause she don’t want to be corrupted. She know she already pure and perfect and pearly like she is, she already been told so many times by many grown people. Everyone always telling you to remember who you are, and that is no less what she trying to do. She don’t want to be the type of person who say “shit” and “fuck”, or the type of girl going behind the school building to be touchy-like with the sixth grade boys. She want to be pure like an angel through and through.
Angels is everywhere. Angels is spread on the sides of brick churches and temples, they holy stone faces like lepers’ faces, with all them holes from the rain. Sometimes when it snow, angels is appearing on the streets and sidewalks. They’s always angels in the kitchens: mommas in bandanas cooking up heaven. You coming home to chili and angel food cake.
One of them mommas got a man named Tommis, and he young and still a beauty. He desperate like a little girl, lone in the world with no papa or bro to walk him safe. He grow up in New Jersey, right by that Wal-Mart which open in Secaucus. Wal-Mart make his Daddy’s business go out like flame. Long time his folks got no money to wager with people in the hood, or buy from people they know. They has to shop at Wal-Mart cause prices come cheapest there. But is all one bitter circle, and by going for the cheap they’s putting out other businesses like they own. So Tommis grow up hating Wal-Mart, and he always tell people that Wal-Mart “de-humanized” him. He say he going to sue Wal-Mart when he older and he ain’t even lying: before he got married he got a job at Wal-Mart pulling up the shopping wagons and he tried to get lock in the store over night so he could sue. Now, he drive a Wonderbread truck in East Brooklyn and his wife never let him go to New Jersey.
On Fourth of July, Aunt Cassie decide she have dinner with her lover, her old and fine-faced Brownsville. So people come out from them tenements on Strauss Street and Sutter Avenue. Then they’s appearing on Empire Boulevard and Linden Boulevard. They all crossing them soft streets, streets wrinkled like old dish towels. They all journeying to Dumont, and they know they reach Cassie’s not by the street signs, but by the yard with them willows sweeping up the night dust. Soon every wall of Aunt Cassie’s house is cake up with Brownsville: that old lover line the hallway, chop in the kitchen, giggle in the bedroom. Soon Brownsville drink sorrel on the porch and in the backyard, and them kids crouch in the alley by the garbage bins and draw with chalk on the cement. Aunt Cassie give a kiss right and left and every which way till she dizzy. Then she serve cold cucumber salad and hamburgers out of tin-foil trays. Everyone stand round and eat from paper plates, and when the kids hear a fire cracker, they climb up the roof trying to see sparks. Aunt Cassie now like the working axle of the whole party, and she tell jokes and sassy stories in her high clacky voice. Meanwhile Aunt Cassie always wonder in her head, if she just to love life and enjoy it without worry bout making something of herself, who in the world would mind? Might Jesus mind it? Might Mama and Daddy mind it? Seems everyone who care bout what you do already long time dead! If life be so sacred, how you supposed to go living by what the dead say, when who know what they really think? She keep thinking it, even while whistling gossip. She feel like she in that nightmare where you ride the subway to nowhere, and when you try getting up you realize you got no power over your body. You can’t say nothing, can’t scream. Got no control of yourself, no more than you has over the rest of the world. She wonder if she even got power in the real world—and if she do, where it gone.
Sam, her Daddy’s friend when he still round, and them men that hang round the Keyfood, they all is here this Fourth of July, rocking in them porch chairs that ain’t meant for rocking. Cassie take the punch and go over to them. She like to see what kind of things is old people like talking bout. She know she getting to be a worn dog, she realize that. She scared she ain’t ready. She ain’t know how to talk, how to walk, how to think like she old. But she find they all just talking bout the holiday. The Nigerian man, he say, All this fun and jazz on Fourth of July, why?
Cause it when the revolution happen and the US come it own nation, say Cortez. He has come long with Sam. When Cortez meet Cassie at the door for the first time, he say he glad to meet her and how he take up his air-conditioning all by his self yesterday. Cassie wonder if he trying to charm her.
But who in hell like the US anymore? Sam say sudden. We has that war in Iraq. I never figure it out. You go one place and you is hearing Bush is there on an oil-hunt. You go another and you is hearing we in a Muslim crusade. I think no one knows what they’s talking bout.
Cassie hear him talking and she walk over to hand him a glass of punch. Old Papa, you don’t waste your time thinking bout these things no more. They isn’t yours to solve, no use getting bugged out. Nothing you do bout all these crazy people killing each other gonna change anything. The old man take the punch and drink her down but he don’t smile, and Cassie feel weird like she gone say something stupid.
The two boys, the one that like talking and the one that don’t talk, they here. They sit on the edge of the roof, looking round when they hear thunder in the cloudless sky. When they’s looking out over the yard, they see many other tight straight yards, and black rusty chimneys, and pink bed sheets flapping on clothing wires. They seeing smoke in every direction. Aunt Cassie’s ain’t the only party on the block. They get up and walk to the street-side of the roof to see if they be kids on the sidewalk bout to set off a cracker. There on the road below they seeing the bum who always squat at the chess tables in Betsy Head Park. He stand outside the house now with his wagon, and his face is all red sinews like beef jerky. The boys watch him but the man keep on without saying a word, without any movement.
Yo, wat you stand there for bum? say one of the boys.
My name is Ben Cooke, son.
Wat you wait there for, Ben?
I is mad hungry. I is smelling the barbecue. It a free for all?
Is Cassie’s house, no it ain’t a free for all. You has got to be invited by some person. They has to have some rules, else any bum off the street be walking in.
I think I get a bite anyway. Is Fourth of July, son. Everything got a right to be free.
If you got two buck you just go to McDonalds. They’s so cheap there.
McDonalds ain’t serving me. I don’t do them. McDonalds, they’s eating up the rainforest. Don’t you know every time you is eating a hamburger at McDonalds, is have another thing of trees being cut down in the Amazon? 50 million acres a year, son! They’s getting rid of the tropics cause they want king-size bedrooms for they cows!
You don’t know that, boy? How come you in school and you don’t know that?
So them boys make Cassie get some meat on a plate for old Ben Cooke, and they is sitting on the stoop with him while he talk bout the Amazon. And Cassie, she watch them from her kitchen window and feel good bout it too. Is nice to see a good patty feed up a hungry man, and she don’t miss a chance to prove her charity before all of them folks.
They got a boombox in the backyard, and someone start playing Keshia Cole loud enough to shake down the Brooklyn Bridge and scare them Manhattan people out of they pants. Cassie go down the porch to where all them folks are dancing in a crowd. Amira, the girl with fake glasses, stand by the fence and look on. Cassie know Amira’s auntie from the Woman’s Club, but every time Cassie try to talk to the pretty girl, Amira get all prissy and turn up her nose. Cassie always wonder what problem she got, and invite Amira over this night to see if she can easy her up. She hoping when all them peoples start dancing like they’s on fire, Amira is gonna get up and act like any other girl, swaying her buns and shifting them feet. But Amira do nothing but watch the crowd like they’s nasty, and when Cassie see this she going over to do something bout it. She loom over Amira, she put her hands on them hips, saying, Why is you standing here by you self, girl?
I ain’t getting dirty, say this child.
How is you going to get dirty by dancing? Cassie reach out and grab them glasses off Amira’s eyes. These ain’t no lens, miss. How is they any help to you?
Amira look down and don’t say no word. All the crowd be laughing and bumping into Cassie while she stand there. They’s all high on grill smoke and perfume. Come, Cassie order, and she take Amira by the hand and pull her under the crowd. Cassie twist and twirl and shake her body like a maraca. Them other women be taking Amira’s hand and trying to move her round too. Amira break free and squeeze her way out. That naughty girl, where she gone? they holler, and they’s all disappointed. But Cassie, she wonder now why she got to make Amira dance like a bad girl. Why is it they all wanting to see her get dirty? Never a soul say they like Amira as she is; they’s always trying to change her into someone else. Why is that? Cassie feel like she been trying to make a tame dog bite.
Ho! Ho! Ho! You all look here! someone say and they be turning off the boombox. Everyone quiet down but them dancers’ ears still ringing. In some throats the laughter goes on bubbling, like those last shoots of water spurting out after you has shut down a fountain. Is the New Jersey boy who spoke, whining pretty Tommis Keat. He long while sit in the den with the wisecracks and cynics, talking in that jaded lisp of old times. Then he come down the porch when he see something catch his eye in the garden patch. You look wat I has found, he tell them. I never in my life believed these guys exist, but see what I see! A jackpot of four leaf clovers! A whole patch of em! Is wat I seeing: hundreds and hundreds of them four leaf clovers! By Jesus I always said not one of them exist in this world!
Honey, we is going to be rich tomorrow, say Tommis’s wife.
Hell, we is going to be the poorest we ever been tomorrow. They’s hired some other driver for the south parts.
You is going to fall into a pot of gold on your way home, say the Nigerian.
You is going to win the Lottery. You be out of town tomorrow.
You all fools talking nonsense, he cry. When I a kid I always collect those pennies with they faces up. Didn’t make no difference. Didn’t keep my Daddy’s store open when that damn Wal-Mart come to Secaucus. Don’t tell me is magic. I don’t go for no Disney Land magic!
Then Cassie step up smiling. How you is saying my four-leaf clovers ain’t no luck if you is never seen a four-leaf clover in your life?
Cassie, you is a fool, say Tommis.
But I has known they’s there all along. Is my little secret.
You lying, whine Tommis.
I ain’t lying and you is only heard the beginning. You can laugh at me all you want but I is going to ask you a question. Ain’t I a lucky woman? I is got friends like a chicken got chicks. I is got nice clothes and pretty things and a big bed and a TV. I is going back every year to see my family in Guyana. Ain’t I the luckiest woman you is ever did see?
You has got those things. That don’t say nothing.
Wat you think I has before I seen them four-leaf-clovers? Them four-leaf-clovers got me through hard times, Tommis! How you think you know everything? You is just fat headed, son! You’s a fool! You don’t know wat they has done for me!
You is crazy. You is a crazy lady.
But you ain’t got proof that four-leaf clovers all luckless. I has got proof all around me!
Then Cassie go squat down on the dirt. She be pulling up a handful of four-leaf clovers in her fist and all them folks can hear the earth rip. Hmmm Hmmm Hmmm, she mutter and she look happy as a cow. She stand up and start passing them clovers out while the crowd all smiling and laughing. Now Amira, she been watching silent all this time, and when she see what Cassie done, she dive for the clovers too. She pick a bunch and her fingernails black up, and her white dress get soggy from the mud. Cassie see her and say, You given up staying clean. Now you is the dirtiest child I ever seen. But Amira don’t pay mind. She smile cause she has four-leaf-clovers, green and shiny, in her palm, and she feel like a princess fairy from a book.
All the people is there till five in the morning, laughing and dancing and eating rhubarb pie. Brownsville is a loud racy thing on a night like this one, loud with rap and reggae, cars and crackers. All the way till dawn time the air is warm and when the smell of meat come wafting down the street, not even angels can plug up—they too is drunk on the night’s electricity. In Brownsville’s backyards, the thread of the talk roll out like yarn from a dropped spool and people’s minds go drifting from thing to thing: 99¢ Century perfume, cigarettes, angel food cake, AIDS in Africa. Cassie notice how they thoughts drifting from place to place easily like feathers on streams, and no one even think twice bout it. As the night goes on, so easy do they voices mesh with them neon flowers of insanity, and words got no sense and stories they jumble. Even so, rising up from this insanity and drunkenness is a kind of understanding, an understanding Cassie see as the best kind of understanding, with more truth to it than the words of them sober.
They talk bout what they know or what they wish they could know, and bout how they’s always hoping certain things to happen which never do. Like finding a pot of gold. Or catching true love. Or changing the world, saving all them orphans in all those mother countries that got no sneakers, no running water, no 99¢ Century. They know these things got to be done but it always look destined to failure no matter how they start bout it. Is mad easier to live for green genips like sweetness and Keshia Cole. They’s just a million fights to fight if you’s gonna be any bigger. Sometime a person just want to hang it all and eat another slice of pie and raise the volume on the radio. But sometime a person can pretend no longer, and they’s angry at all the cynicism they see. They’s so angry they’s even ready to make fools of themselves. Is then that they feel the power rush to they limbs. And they’s standing up. And they’s screaming. And they’s getting off the subway to nowhere, and turning off the boombox,and crushing the neon flowers. And they’s walking right out of humanity’s dream, the one where you is trapped between basket and burial, between today and tomorrow.