The boys here looked past her, their eyes steadily transfixed on the procession of tight designer jeans and heels clicking through the quad regularly on the hour.
Image by Toyin Odutola, An Undoing. In collaboration with PBS Digital Studios
Her hands were useless, not good for tilling soil or cutting up a chicken whole. The first time he saw Alicia in psych class, sweeping a lock of hair behind her ear with inch-long tangerine fingernails, he knew that’s what his grandmother would say. Calvin continued to stare at Alicia, the length of her neck, the slimness of her shoulders, while his grandmother yammered on and on in his head about knowing a woman’s value by the utility of her hands.
Alicia’s nails were the kind of thing that got you noticed in their hometown. Back there, she didn’t have to do much but twist that brightly dressed finger of hers in a distinct come-here motion, with an icy gaze fixed on her face. Within seconds, her assumed target would poke out his lip, saunter over in his sagging jeans, and tease her about those nails, while he wondered how they might feel digging into his back some night real soon.
Yet, on the wide campus lawn of the college they both attended, those nails said something else. Amid the pale buildings and the parade of pretty girls dressed in varying shades of black, her index finger failed to register. The boys here looked past her, their eyes steadily transfixed on the procession of tight designer jeans and heels clicking through the quad regularly on the hour.
To him, her nails seemed honest somehow, like hot summers in Baltimore, where he and his cousins chased loud girls with huge earrings, fast ones who hid their sweet underneath layers of salt and sour, but who were oh-so-quiet when the time came. These girls spent their days strutting around like peacocks, with wildly streaked hair that matched their brightly colored talons, girls whose voices hit him low like a song, soft in some places, jarring in others, but deep and dark all the while. He could tell Alicia was like those girls, armor-plated on the outside, but all sugar underneath.
Like him, she was lost in the greenery of the college campus, where the grass and flowers were clipped and manicured like everything else around them. The speech, the students, hell, even the house of worship, was all stifled and hushed, no place any holy spirit they knew would ever be witnessed in the zealous shouts of a feverish parishioner. They came from twin neighborhoods in a big, depressed city, the kind where people lived tight and loud, and the spaces where folks met on Sunday were that way too. And here, the one thing Calvin and Alicia assumed would be the same, even that was different. What they knew formerly as “church” was called “chapel,” and the anemic choir, with its repertoire of classical hymns, was as unfamiliar to them as everything else, from the big, stately halls named after black scholars they never heard of to the students who dressed funny and talked even funnier. Alicia and Calvin saw themselves as regular “black folk,” now suddenly adrift in a sea of black folk who seemed different from everything they knew “black folk” to be, peers who spoke with accents so thick their tongues seemed split, who came from little islands or across oceans, not just other big cities or small Southern towns. The only folk who seemed familiar were the people who lived on the campus borders, the families they ran into at the corner stores and fast-food joints, or the young boys who would threaten to rob Calvin on his way to work, the very same ones who would flirt with Alicia on the subway or offer to carry her groceries home from the supermarket. Although both Alicia and Calvin yearned to know something different from the city they grew up in, neither was sure they wanted this strange new world the college was offering.
He sat down, told her how nice he thought her nails looked before slumping in his seat.
The two finally met on a Greyhound bus heading back to the land of blacktop that ran forever, having barely spoken during their first and only semester. It was the eve of Christmas and the bus was packed and they both had too much luggage to pretend they had any intention of returning to school when the break was over. Calvin stood in the aisle above her, a surly-looking girl in headphones with her luggage sprawled out on the seat next to her, staring out the window, pretending not to notice all the latecomers looking for seating. He tapped her shoulder and asked if he could sit down. She shrugged and pulled her bags to the floor underneath her. Then he spotted her nails, the cobalt blue fingertips dotted with rhinestones. He sat down, told her how nice he thought her nails looked before slumping in his seat and sliding the hood of his sweatshirt over his head.
When Calvin finally introduced Alicia to his grandmother three weeks later, he thought maybe he had been worried for nothing. He kept the conversation on light things, like the new flea market opening on Wilson Avenue and the upcoming block party. The women chitchatted easily over a nice dinner of mashed potatoes, barbecued chicken, and collard greens without much incident. That is, until Calvin’s grandmother took Alicia’s right hand into her own and squinted down at the rainbow-colored, inch-long fingernails and sighed, “Miss Licia…what kind of work you say you do, again?” Alicia fell into minefield after minefield of questions about college, goals, and employment plans, and then topped it off by telling Mrs. Brumfield that she’d really, really like to help out with the dishes, but just couldn’t, seeing as how she had just gotten her tips done and all.
Mrs. Brumfield had no fingernails. The tops of her nail beds were a smoky black color. She said a white man pulled them out with a pair of pliers when she was fourteen, angry that her nails were painted red like a white woman’s. After that, she spent most of her time wearing gloves, and if you think the red nails made the white people think she was uppity, then just wait until they caught sight of a sixteen-year-old negro girl in a pair of dainty, white gloves. They’d yell out to her, block her path, spit in her face, even rip the gloves clean off her hands, but when they saw the blackened, sunken nail beds, they always gave them back. Not out of pity per se, but more so that they didn’t have to look at her fingers, while she moved about or picked up goods from the market. Some even helped her gather her things. After all, the thought of those nubs fingering their merchandise almost made the gloves invisible anyhow. They saw the gnarled tips easy, as if they were burning through the cheap, cotton fabric.
Her wrists and fingers swelled so much, and between the babies and the day work, what use was her vanity then?
She even got married in those gloves, washed them lovingly by hand every night, only taking them off to work in the garden, bathe, or sleep. Everything else, she could be found doing in those gloves. She had to give them up once she had her babies, though. Her wrists and fingers swelled so much, and between the babies and the day work, what use was her vanity then?
By the time Calvin came to live with her, she only wore them to church, though now she had several pairs in different shades that she rotated as she pleased. It didn’t matter the day, be it Sunday morning service, Ladies’ Auxiliary meeting, or Thursday Night Bible Study. He often thought the only reason she became an usher was so she could wear those damned white gloves. He’d tag along behind her as ordered, and she’d be dressed in an impeccable starched white suit, with a matching nurse’s hat set upon her graying coif. He put the gloves on sometimes when she was sleeping, pretending he was directing the church choir or ushering in a 747, wondering if everyone and everything underneath their sweep just found themselves obeying.
It took a lot to get out from underneath those hands, to be something other than “church boy” and now something other than “college boy.” Under her care, he was always something other than Calvin, and “college boy” was only the latest in a long list of monikers he’d been throwing off ever since he could remember. He spent the days trying to forget it, but that school marked him somehow, made him light in his shoes. All of a sudden, he had no gravity over the asphalt and no rightness to his lean. Ishmael and the crew would let him hang, but wouldn’t really let him in on the other shit anymore. The day matters were fine—to hold court, smoke a little weed, and sit on the stoop. All fine. It was a public place. But their night wasn’t for him anymore. He was different now, and they knew it, and though he tried, they wouldn’t let him pretend otherwise. He had seen something they had never seen and may never see and the knowledge of that, no matter how he weighed it in his mind, separated him from them in ways he couldn’t understand.
On days he grew tired of looking for work, the two-month-long interviews full with background checks and piss tests, he’d sit on the couch and stare at the TV, until the ticking of the dripping faucet bore so far into his mind he could hear nothing else, not the din of the television nor the rattling of his grandmother as she moved about the kitchen making dinner. He sometimes liked to sit at the kitchen table and watch her, listen to her tell stories as she flitted about over steaming pots and heaping bowls, but now, if he was home at all, he never moved far from his place in front of the TV. Since the day he told her he hadn’t bothered to register for spring semester and wasn’t returning to the college there was little but silence between them. He knew this was a different kind of silence, because it didn’t follow a storm. There was no yelling, no screeching. She just stared at him as if he was unrecognizable, before going into her room and closing the door.
He got Ishmael to let him hold some steel, not for use, just to lessen the treble and anchor him somehow.
The quiet in the house was all he could stand most days. When he wasn’t hanging out at Alicia’s, he’d run down to the pool hall to drown himself in the bass of the latest rap record vibrating through the walls. The whole thing made him feel off balance, the lightness leaving him weak in places where that could be dangerous. He got Ishmael to let him hold some steel, not for use, just to lessen the treble and anchor him somehow. He put his fingertips on the metal handle and pressed down until he felt something akin to bone, the slender body of the gun could always hold the weight. He promised it would never see light. It was just there, the way little kids carry a rock or stone to anchor themselves by—forgetting that rocks and stones don’t carry two-year mandatory sentences when discovered in speeding cars by fidgety men in blue.
When Alicia came to visit Calvin at the detention center, she’d press her fingernails against the glass and drum them back and forth in an annoying nervous beat while she spoke. He knew that rhythm, the same one she used to tap out on his shoulder or forearm whenever she got anxious, whenever she could feel him getting ready to leave, but not yet saying, not yet rising to reach for a shirt or a shoe.
He was her first real thing—not first boyfriend or first sex even, but the first man who ever claimed her as his, the first to ever look at her as if she was something worth holding onto in daylight. And even though he promised over and over again he would never leave her, she couldn’t help but steel herself for the sure thing she knew was coming. So, when he ended up “inside,” she didn’t know what to make of things. Was her place in his life now more solid than ever before? Could she be certain now he wouldn’t wake up one day and decide to will himself into the lives of better women? And who would she have to be now to make sure that didn’t happen?
When he called on Tuesday at 7:45 p.m. as planned, she felt the worry in her belly lessen, though she knew it would soon be replaced by another. So much of their relationship was filled with it now, from worrying about his safety or fretting about how a stalled subway train could make her miss their scheduled call. She worried what things he needed in there, if he ate okay that day, or thought about her last night, and if their budding relationship could survive this particular brand of heaviness.
By the time Calvin got moved to the prison, all he could focus on was the hands. The rest was too much to take in—the eyes heavy with dark, the sneering mouths above inscribed necks, the tattooed tears glistening on swollen cheeks. Yet the hands could be gotten and understood without going too deep. The crooked knuckles with the tiny insignia hanging out in the fold were easy to read. The integrity of the instruments themselves was still there, though the fingers might be worn and rubbed down from construction or drywall, the thumbs sometimes blackened and bent. He’d focus his eyes there and remember Alicia’s hands, the soft palms she’d place over his eyes, or the slender fingers she’d slide in his mouth sometimes.
Almost weekly, he’d find a reason to visit the infirmary. Sharp but shallow wounds were easy ways to see the nurse. The beatdowns didn’t bring him automatic entry. The bruises and swelling often disappeared in his skin. He’d sit underneath the stench of the heavy men, the lumbering, short-fused, and the always-ready, their breath labored, the lungs almost collapsing, the heart rhythm slowed down to a lazy staccato. He’d wait it out, the pounding of faces and fists always happening in time. He thought better to look at the fist, not the man, easier to take each finger as true. Better that than realize the slow change of his own breathing, now labored and weak, his speech now lumbering, and his fists always at the ready. Better to let loose a little blood and sit under the Southern lilt of that nurse, waving those gloved white hands like a beacon signaling the way home.
Now he was always swollen and bruised when Alicia came to see him. She’d sit in the large gray room flooded with ugly florescent light, and hold his swollen, thickened knuckles in between her palms. His index finger would lightly graze hers, though sometimes the other fingers couldn’t be bent or couldn’t bear the weight of her fingers on them. She’d watch the other folks in the room, the couples embracing at the start of a visit, the small children crying scared tears in their mother’s chests, the weary guard darting his eyes from table to table. She’d look at Calvin’s face, tired and pale, and would do her best to make the walls and all the people clinging to them fall away. She knew most times she would fail at this, but she never tired of trying. On a good day, she could pull him into a string of stories, have him telling her about the time he broke his arm on a double dare or narrowly escaped a beatdown after flirting with an O Street cat’s girl. But on days like today, it was her doing the talking. She rambled on to fill the space in between, to lift the lid of quiet moving over them like a cloud. She went on and on about the crowded bus she took up there, full with wives and girlfriends and babies, all hot and sweaty and hopeful, and about her sister’s new boyfriend and how he was always eating up all her groceries and never paying for anything. When she paused for a second to sort out her thoughts before launching into the next tale, he broke in, “Lee, I don’t think you should come here anymore…”
He rambled on about school, and the future, how she should go back to the college, and if not there, then somewhere…anywhere.
She got real still, felt a wild dizzy feeling come over, followed by a momentary blurring of vision and the sound of wind roaring in her ears. She heard his voice sliding over her in waves, as if coming through a wall. He rambled on about school, and the future, how she should go back to the college, and if not there, then somewhere…anywhere. She stared past him, to a woman not much older than her, with dull brown skin, and a sharp, nasal laugh. The woman had a small, angular face framed underneath a swatch of shiny long hair.
“Baby, I just want more for you than this,” he said, as he dropped his left hand below the table and touched her knee.
“Hands! Tucker, put your goddamn hands back on the table or your visit is over,” yelled the bleary-eyed guard glaring at them from the front of the room.
Calvin raised his hands up in front of him and then placed them slowly back on the table in an exaggerated show of obedience. He then turned his attention back to her. “Licia, look at me.”
She shifted her head and turned to look at him again, but she had trouble holding his gaze. Her eyes darted back to the woman with the shiny hair, and then to the guard keeping vigil at the front of the room, before stopping on the clock a few feet above the guard’s head.
“I should go,” she said, standing up slowly. “I told my mother I’d stop by if I got back to the city early enough.”
“Did you hear what I said?”
“Yeah, I heard you…and we’ll discuss it next time along with any other bright ideas you have about what you think I should be doing with my life… OK?”
“Come here now, I have to go.”
He stood up and stared at her for a long moment. When he didn’t reach out to hug her, she got scared. She moved forward, but not too close, putting her arms around him in that hollow, distant way reserved for acquaintances and old classmates. She pulled back slowly, blinking hard to stave off tears already beginning to sting her eyes. She could feel her throat getting sore, when he pulled her back to him and wrapped his arms around her, squeezing her so tightly she could barely breathe. He leaned down and buried his face in her neck, and inhaled a few deep breaths before he pulled her face into his hands and kissed her. When he let go, she stumbled backwards a bit, almost light-headed she was so relieved.
“See you soon?” he asked.
Several Saturdays later, Alicia stopped by Calvin’s grandmother’s house to look in on her. Mrs. Brumfield had yet to make the journey upstate, though she often sent inspirational messages and care package items from the prison’s list of approved vendors.
Mrs. Brumfield greeted her with a surprised grin before stepping aside and letting her in. Alicia followed her into the living room, now flush with cardboard boxes from QVC and the Home Shopping Network. In the light of the room, she could see Mrs. Brumfield looked tired. Her eyes were weak and watery, and she was dressed in an ugly green housecoat with fraying sleeves.
Mrs. Brumfield offered her a seat and a drink of her choice: hot tea or lemonade. Alicia opted for tea, sitting down on the plastic-covered sofa opposite the huge wooden mantle of a decorative fireplace. The two women sat quietly in the living room, the sound of a television court show filling in the space between them. Mrs. Brumfield fidgeted nervously with her own tea, turning the mug around by the handle and blowing into it, in a straight hard-backed chair to the right of the sofa. As she gripped the mug with both hands, Alicia saw the tips of her fingers, the sunken, black nail beds that often split and bled.
“So,” Mrs. Brumfield said after a long pause. “How is he?”
“He’s doing okay,” Alicia said slowly, peering around the room, her eyes settling on a school photo of Calvin resting on the mantle of the fireplace.
“I’ve been meaning to make it up there, but I-I…” she trailed off, following Alicia’s gaze to the old photograph of Calvin in the heavy oak frame.
Mrs. Brumfield stared at the image thoughtfully before speaking. “I think Cal was a sophomore in that picture and I ’bout broke his tail the day before ’cause he went out and got that crazy haircut right before picture day.”
She walked over to the mantle, picked up the photo, and handed it to Alicia. “See, if you look right here,” she pointed at the edge of Calvin’s head, “you can almost see the C he had shaved into his hair,” she said, chuckling and shaking her head.
Alicia peered at the photo, but she couldn’t see the C, only a sweeter, younger Calvin with alert, cautious eyes. And when Mrs. Brumfield’s chuckle gave way to a pained series of breaths that rocked her broad frame, it was Alicia’s fingers with fresh lime-green tips that reached over and squeezed the woman’s wrinkled, arthritic hand. The two women sat quietly in the dim room, holding hands as the sun inched lower in the sky.
Mrs. Brumfield patted Alicia’s hand and stood up, ambling her way to the kitchen. “Miss Licia, dear, you want some pie?” Alicia nodded and Mrs. Brumfield set up the dessert on the dining room table, with a nice healthy slice for both of them. There they ate cold sweet potato pie and drank lukewarm tea in exhausted silence. When they were done, Alicia got up and cleared the table.
She ran a sink full of hot water, sliding in the cups and plates, the silverware and the tarnished pie pan. She stood still for a long while, staring out the window into the tiny backyard at Mrs. Brumfield’s wilted tulips and gardenias, before slipping her hands forearm-deep into the warm, soapy water.
Tracey Rose Peyton is a graduate of CUNY Writers’ Institute and a 2014 Hedgebrook writer-in-residence. Her short fiction has appeared in Vandal, Pank, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she is currently working on a novel.