Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2017  Vol. 16 No. 1
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She Negative

“Shondrae?” He said it as a question, but even so, he looked right at her there on the sand-colored couch in the admissions office reception area. None of the others waiting with their parents could have been named Shondrae, and she stood, stopping herself from saying, “Present,” like they did in Ms. Compton’s class, like they did everything in Ms. Compton’s class: proper. Her mother stood up with her, clutched her big, vinyl bag to her side with one hand, scooped the bits of colored plastic press-on nails from her lap with the other, and slid her swollen feet back into those click-clack sandals with silver bows. Shon held her breath.

“Mrs. Richmond.” He called across the room to her mother, and she answered with a smile and a “That’s me,” even though Richmond was not her name, never had been. He smiled back at her in a way that Shon couldn’t make out, tired or tight. Just British maybe, she thought, as her mind registered why this guy made her think of Mr. Todd at school, who was from Oxford and was the strictest and taught American history, which they all thought was funny. Ironic, she would have said, but that wasn’t really what ironic meant, she knew, and now, as she took a step toward the guy, her thoughts were racing and she had to take a breath and could only let it out when she heard him say in that voice, “I’ll speak with Shondrae first, then you can join us.”

Shon’s mother stopped with all her baggage, frozen under her wig and makeup, and turned back to the couch, said to no one and everyone, “That’s okay, that’s okay. You be good, Shondrae,” to which the admissions guy gave a little smile, this time at Shon.

“I’m Brian,” he said, and he shook her hand there in the doorway, but it sounded weird, the way he gave his first name so casually, though his voice, that accent, made the informality a lie, because how could you be informal with an accent like that? He gestured her into the office, but she looked back once before she followed him, in time to see her mother settle back on the couch, mouth, “Be good,” with her red, red lipstick, waggle one hand of purple-tipped fingers at her; then go back to putting on the rest of her press-on nails.

Shon sat on the little couch against one wall of the office, as far from the curved wooden desk as she could get, but sat on the edge of the cushion, attentive, just like Ms. Compton had coached.

“Shondrae Richmond,” said Brian, and he pulled one of the chairs that faced his desk out and sat, straddling the back of it, facing her, so casual, but when he opened his mouth, all she could think of was the Merchant Ivory films Ms. Compton liked to watch. “But you go by Shon.” Her file was in his hand.

Shon nodded, looked away, took in the tan-painted walls, tan fabric beneath her, Brian’s tanned skin from the Florida sun. Looked at her hands.

“The Talbot School. I read an article about it,” Brian said. “Baltimore City. Public, but boarding during the week.” He flipped a page in her file. “Since seventh grade, right?”

She nodded again, remembered what Ms. Compton had told her. Talk about yourself. Offer information. Don’t answer only yes or no.

“So, how is that?” Brian asked, leaning back against the desk behind him. “What do you think about school?”

Shon knew what to say, had rehearsed what to say. If Ms. Compton had come, Shon would have been fine. She knew it. But that had been before Ms. Compton’s mother’s heart attack. Just a few days ago, Friday, two of the others from Talbot who had been in the Chesapeake Bay program with her had been about to hoist their suitcases from the bed of autumn leaves on the curb into Ms. Compton’s Prius. Shon would have been shotgun since she was the one who went home with Ms. Compton often enough on the weekends to make that kind of claim, and Latrice and Destiny would have been in the back. They had been all of them speed-talking, a crazy mix of how different trolling in some Florida bay would be from the Chesapeake, and what topping they should get on the pizza at the first rest-stop Sbarro, and who was going to mess up the worst in the interview at this very college Shon was sitting in now, their top-choice program, Ms. Compton interjecting how they’d be fine, how they’d go over it again during the drive to Florida. But they didn’t go over it again, didn’t drive. Ms. Compton’s phone had rung and Ms. Compton didn’t need to hush them, they knew better, but she got in the Prius when she saw the number, and shut her car door on them before she answered it. The window was still open, and Shon heard how Ms. Compton didn’t even have a chance to say hello before a voice, loud, fast, hysterical, was batting at her—Ms. Compton slumped down in the seat, and Shon knew then they wouldn’t be driving to Florida.

Mr. Todd, who had seen them standing there, came over from where he’d been getting into his old Ford, Antoine from history class going home with him for the weekend, already in with the keys, fooling with the radio. “Engine trouble?” he asked Ms. Compton through the window, his voice so chipper, so British, as if it would make his day if she said yes. But then he saw Ms. Compton crying, they all did, and he shooed Ms. Compton over to the passenger seat, got in, and left them on the curb, Antoine too, still holding Mr. Todd’s keys even after the Prius took off with Ms. Compton for the hospital.

Shon and Latrice and Destiny had cried together on the curb after their teachers drove off to the hospital. Instead of going to Mr. Todd’s Mount Vernon condo for the weekend, Antoine went home to Violetville, to his crispy-fried mother and the man whose kids she was having now. Latrice and Destiny took the city bus home out toward the county line instead of to Ms. Compton’s, instead of to Florida. And Shon took the city bus home, too. To her mother’s apartment in East Baltimore.

Now Shon said, “It’s all right, I guess.” A shrug.

Brian waited a moment, twisted his mouth, looked down at her file. Shon knew what he was seeing by heart, she’d gone over it so many times.

“Living away from home. You’re a pro at that, eh?”

Shon nodded even though she knew Brian couldn’t see it, his head still down, reading beyond her name on the application to her address, her home address, which Shon had almost put down as the school’s, hadn’t even thought twice, then caught herself when she’d scanned over and saw the space for apartment number.

Shon hadn’t told her mother why she was home. She’d been watching television when Shon came into the apartment, called “Hey,” dropped her suitcase on her bed, which looked like someone had been sleeping in it, didn’t unpack, none of the clothes warm enough for Baltimore, for a November weekend there, but she hadn’t been thinking about that. Her mother didn’t remember a thing about Florida, her memory worse now than it had been even over the summer, and it wasn’t until Saturday night when her mother was watching one of her shows that she snapped, “Shon-drae. Why you not in Florida?”

Shon waited for Brian to look up. “Living at school’s okay. Good. It’s good.”

Brian looked at her straight on. He had blue eyes, like Mr. Todd, and light brow—no, tan—tan curls, cropped so short they were more of an uprising than curls, hair not to be considered cute or boyish. Serious hair. Shon turned away, looked out the window at the Florida sun, maybe too bright for her, couldn’t make out anything in that glare, looked back at Brian, who was now searching her file for a question that might elicit more than a shrug. When he glanced up, smiled, looked back down, she turned the other way, to the other window that looked out to the waiting room. Shon could see her mother through a bent slat of the mini blinds, slats curled closed except for that one spot, as if Brian often spied on the waiting supplicants there.

Her mother wore her bird-feather wig with the streaks of red. They weren’t really bird feathers, but the fake hair swept away to one side in feathered layers of lacquered black, paintbrushed red following the swoop of it. Sunday morning, her head foggy from a night tossing on what had become an unfamiliar mattress, the smell different, the sounds of TV through the walls, of traffic through the windows, Shon had awakened to her mother calling her again, back from the Fellowship, where her mother said Jesus had come to her and told her Shon was to go. She’d borrowed a car from one of the congregants, didn’t tell them for what, and they had started driving, though Shon had never known her mother to drive, didn’t know if she even had a license.

“Marine biology,” Brian said.

“Yes,” Shon said. “Plants.”

Brian waited. Shon knew he wanted more. And she had more. She did.

“Oceanic carbon sinks. They help, you know. With climate change. Sea grasses, salt marshes. Over half the world’s carbon. Two billion tons of carbon dioxide sucked away. Stored in the ocean floor.” She sounded to her own ears like the outline of a paper for Ms. Compton.

Brian raised his eyebrows. In a good way. Impressed.

Shon managed a smile. Looked away, embarrassed. Saw her mother through the bent slat, talking to another parent, a woman with a shellacked helmet of blonde hair, blue eye shadow near as bright a competitor as the color Shon’s mother had painted on her own eyelids. That woman’s son, in khaki slacks, an applicant just like Shon, sat as far from her as he could, not on the couch, on a chair near the receptionist. Shon’s mother talked nonstop, animated, nodding and gesticulating, didn’t matter if the woman was there or not. If the room had been empty, it would have been the same. Shon pressed her lips together, didn’t know where to look now.

“I see you’ve done summer fieldwork on the Chesapeake with Hopkins? We have one of the top-ranked undergrad marine biology programs in the nation. We compete with grad schools for grants, even.”

Shon nodded. Back to that. She’d read all about it on their website, paged through the brochure. Seductive palm trees.

“I been on a cruise once,” her mother had said earlier that year, when Shon had first shown her the brochure. “Left out the Baltimore harbor. I tell you that, Shondrae?”

Of course she had. A cruise to the Bahamas. Buffets so long you couldn’t see the end of them. Whole one just for desserts.

“Cocktails too, and even if they watered, they included, all-included, so I drinking all day and night. Slept right through the first day we at that beach, drank through that next night too, woke up with a sunset. All I seen of palm trees. Black against the sky. Course, that before I clean.”

Before she clean. Before, when she trickin’. Before she found Jesus. Before the virus. All the stories were tagged that way, like the geological eras Ms. Compton taught: Precambrian, Paleozoic, Mesozoic, Cenozoic.

“So, do you have a particular interest? Protection? Cleanup?”

Shon found herself looking back through the bent slat at her mother. The other mother was smiling widely at Shon’s, yapping, eyes round, voice probably too loud. Was that mother’s smile a false smile? A nervous smile? Like so often someone reacted when they first realized her mother had them cornered, realized what she was like. What she was.

“My Shondrae tell you what that is,” her mother said on the bus from Hopkins after her monthly checkup last summer.

Shon sat beside the woman her mother was speaking to, who had, sitting right up next to her, a boy, her son, who was twirling a scalloped green leaf.

“She know all about plants. Been to summer camp on the bay. Hopkins summer camp, don’t let just any old kid in, you hear me?” The woman had stared ahead, shifted her shopping bag, took the cue from the too-loud voice that any indication she was listening would bring forth testimony to last half the city.

“Tell her, Shondrae, tell her what kind leaf her boy have.”

She didn’t say it—ginkgo—a tree that survived millions of years on this Earth, survived to this day when other trees were felled by climate shifts, deforestation. By disease.

“Cleanup. I think. There’s a need for that, right?” Shon didn’t know what she was saying really, looked to the outside window again, saw the blinding Florida sun, all blotch and sunspots, glare. Too bright. She’d written all this in her essay. He must have read it. It was in the file.

Ms. Compton had frowned when she read it. That was a surprise. “Ms. Kronski and I thought you might write about how you were born. You talked about that with Ms. Kronski, didn’t you?” She had. The English teacher had tried to tell her that it would make her stand out, that not too many kids had that kind of background, that story. Shon didn’t want Brian, or anyone else really, to know that about her. To know what her mother had shared with all her teachers, what she shared with all her “brothers and sisters” at the Fellowship.

“She negative. Ain’t that God’s blessing? I already on meds when I try to have her, and I pray and pray she negative. And she come out all perfect. Her father ain’t positive neither. God want me to have her, want me to have something perfect after I give up the life. She my reward, here on Earth. Ain’t that right, Shondrae?”

“Right,” said Brian, a finger jabbing air, as if Shon had scored a point. “There’s a definite need for cleanup. Is that the work you did in the Chesapeake?”

He was trying to draw her out again. She knew it. She had written in the first draft of her essay what the work she did in the bay meant to her. That was the point, wasn’t it? Not the work itself, but what it meant to her. She’d taken it out of the essay, all the parts about standing in waders in a tributary, hours of absolute calm, dipping a dropper in the water, moving downstream, dipping again, new dropper, new sample, as if she were herself one of the purpled, long-legged ibis she’d see there each quiet morning. Birds with nothing else to think about, nothing to do but be. Be there in the water.

“We did some cleanup. Yes. Some water testing.”

Brian leaned forward. “Why don’t you tell me what that was like.”

What that was like. Shon looked away from him, to her mother in the waiting room, away from her too, to her hands. What was it like? It was like the religions class at Talbot. She could say that. He would understand, be impressed, encourage those connections. Not like her mother.

“What you mean, religions with an s? They only one religion, Shondrae.”

Shon’s second year at Talbot, she’d gotten comfortable with the unquestioning routine of school, with all she was learning and how smart they thought she was. With going home to Ms. Compton’s. Her weekends at her mother’s apartment became less and less frequent. The exception. And it was during one of those exceptional weekends, while her mother chopped fatback for greens, Shon noting the shine of grease on her fingertips and on her bright yellow nails, that she told her mother about the religions class she was taking. Tried to explain Taoism to her, about being the pebble in the river, being at peace in the world, letting the water flow over and around you. That’s what got at Shon. The water flowing around her. It was the bay and standing in the grasses, the water rushing around her boots and legs.


“Jesus walk on water, you hear me, Shondrae? He not letting it run over him. Around him. He standing on top. You want to think about something on religion, you think about that.” And she shook a fat-slicked, yellow-nailed finger at her, mm-hmmed her, kept it up all through their walk to the Fellowship, into the evening, so that Shon heard it all the way back to school on the city bus. “You think about that.”

Shon did think about that. About her mother. Every day for four summers, standing in the bay, with weeklong sessions turning into monthlong sessions until she was in the program the whole summer, home only briefly before going back to school. She thought about her mother every weekend for four years staying at Ms. Compton’s, on the sofa bed she began to think of as hers, the dark-roast coffee brewing when she woke, public radio playing while she drank a breakfast smoothie, those Merchant Ivory films every Sunday night. She thought about her mother, but less and less.

Shon wasn’t supposed to have to think about her mother on this trip, hear her mother. This trip was supposed to be about Shon and her future.

“That’s what I want to do,” Shon told Brian. “In the future. Cleanup.”

Brian seemed to be waiting for more, didn’t get more, exhaled. He stood from his chair. “Well, I think we’ve got you lined up to speak with one of the bio professors here. He was just next door a moment ago. Let me  . . . ” he said, glanced back at her, walked out.

He’d left the door open. Shon couldn’t make out the words, but she could hear her mother’s voice, a little too loud like it always was, but not as loud as it could be. Thank God for small blessings. Shon shook her head. Her mother was always saying that. Ask her how she was and she’d say, “I’m blessed,” without fail. I’m blessed. Praise Jesus. God is great. One after the other, even when it wasn’t true.

Even when earlier that day, leaving South Carolina, they’d gotten the flat tire in Georgia. Her mother was praising God even then, before, during, and after the van with the fish on it slowed on seeing their old, borrowed sedan plastered with Fellowship bumper stickers. The van pulled over in front of them, backed up to where those fish emblems were right there, eye level through the windshield to Shon. The man who got out was young, late twenties, clean-cut, tan, like this counselor, Brian, but he smiled big at Shon’s mother as she began her testimony, gave his own in a soft, slow drawl, as unlike her mother’s voice as anything could be, unless it had been British. But that didn’t keep her mother from talking nonstop while this man knelt down as if in prayer, bent his blond head and changed the tire. Her mother chattered at him all through it, the warm wind tugging at her red bird-feather wig.

Shon stood at the side of the road in scrub grass, felt the autumn sun that was still strong this far south, and counted the fish emblems on the back of the van: two big and seven small, though the man was definitely not older than late twenties. Shon closed her eyes, let their words—her mother’s, the young father’s—wash past her like she was standing among the eelgrass or wild celery in the bay, water moving past her, their voices like the occasional birdsong she could hear if she didn’t try to block it out. But her mother’s voice was loud, piercing, not to be ignored. Shon opened her eyes, wouldn’t look at her mother, looked instead at the van, where a cluster of faces—three or four of the seven, sunny and blue-eyed, round—pressed up to the window glass.

One of them stared straight at Shon with eyes too big for her face, full cheeks, hair pulled back tight to her head. Then back at her daddy, watched him perform his miracle for the lady in her red bird-feather wig. Stuck her chin up with pride and wouldn’t look back at Shon no matter how hard Shon stared.

The rest of the trip, riding on the spare that wobbled till they reached the college in time for her afternoon interview, her mother went on, “God is good, ain’t He, Shondrae? Mm-hmm. Yes, He is,” over and over again.

“Shondrae. Good to meet you. Loved your essay. Loved it. So good.”

The biology professor, not Brian. Tan sandals and jeans. He didn’t tell Shon his name, just talked at her nonstop for some minutes, about his own research, shoalgrass, vegetation mapping. He looked like a surfer, his hair long, sun-kissed waves, like he embodied the days out on the bay. Like he was the sun and the water.

“That’s good stuff,” he said again and again, talking now about her essay, the experience she’d built up over the summers in the Chesapeake. Testing and planting, mapping, education. “Just what we need,” he said, and smiled at her.

Shon smiled, nodded, though the professor nodded faster, harder, didn’t seem to know how to stop, kept saying, “Just what we need.”

“You know what you need to be doing,” her mother said every other sentence on their drive down. She drove slowly on the interstate, cars coming up on them fast, honking, her mother calling, “God loves you, too!” to each one, her two hands never leaving the steering wheel, her eyes never off the road ahead.

“You know what you need to be doing,” she would say, and then she would tell Shon about how to study, how to get good grades, how to please her professors. She forgot things, didn’t understand. Like how she didn’t understand that she wasn’t dropping Shon off at college, just taking her for her interview. She even had a wrapped gift in the bag with her medication bottles, a tag that read, “Congratulations!” The gift was a rectangle that could have been a coffee-table book like the ones Ms. Compton had on the table Shon shoved to the wall every time she pulled out the sofa bed. Shon didn’t try to explain to her mother that she wouldn’t know until spring if she’d be accepted, wouldn’t know about the scholarships, wouldn’t leave until the end of next summer. She didn’t correct her when her mother told her half brother they stayed with Sunday night outside of Charleston that her Shondrae was going off to college, just like his grandson, Ernie, who was visiting for the weekend, who sat tipped back in his wooden kitchen chair, about as far from Shon’s mother as he could get.

Shon looked out through the bent slat and saw her mother still sitting there with the other mother whose makeup was just as bright, her blonde hair highlighted with such contrast it looked like she was striped. Her son was gone from his chair now, interviewing in one of the rooms. Those highlighted stripes leaned in close to Shon’s mother’s red bird feathers, instead of leaning away, and that mother’s mouth was going fast now. Her mother’s bird feathers bobbing, nodding along. Shon thought she heard an “amen” in there somewhere.

Shon turned away, saw the bio professor had stopped talking, that he was looking where Shon had been looking, had finally sat down.

“Being so far away from family is going to be hard.”

He said it flat-out, and Shon thought two things: that he said it like she was already accepted, and that he said it like somehow he knew about her mother. She hadn’t put it anywhere in her application. She could still see Ms. Kronski’s frown. But she knew he knew, and it froze her. Then her mind raced to how he could know, and she remembered the two recommendation letters, Ms. Kronski’s and Ms. Compton’s. They must have hinted, maybe told it outright, somehow let it be known. And now this surfer-professor was going to talk about her mother, serious and sympathetic, which was as bad as laughing.

Her cousin Ernie laughed that evening in South Carolina, after the supper they wouldn’t let Shon’s mother cook, citing her long drive, fatigue, though Shon wondered. They didn’t know her mother, not really.

Before Ernie drove himself away from that house by the creek, back up the highway to the university dorm, Shon’s uncle had taken them to the porch, brought out a photo album that the grandmother she’d never met had kept. Her uncle sat on the porch swing. Ernie, prodding at his gums with a toothpick, leaned against a porch post, like he knew things, but didn’t speak. He stood there quiet, smirking, as far as he could get from Shon with her mother on the wicker settee. Shon could hear water from somewhere, the creek, the river beyond. She tried to hear only it.

Shon’s mother cooed over the album, all the black and white and sepia-toned squares with white borders, school pictures of aunts and uncles, the other half brothers and sisters so much older. “Before my time,” she kept saying. “Before my time.”

But Shon saw, as she turned over to the last page, the portrait studio shot of her mother, all smiles, fancy wig, and a toddler Shon, all chub and pride, hair pulled back tight in braids. Beads to match her mother’s eye shadow.

Shon had stared at that photo, tried and tried to see herself in that triumphant toddler gaze. She remembered that little girl as if she weren’t herself, remembered her strutting in front of her mother down sidewalks, hallways, rhinestones in her Velcro sneakers, flashing lights embedded in the heels, leading the way to Fellowship, to clinic appointments, the pharmacy for refills, the market for what they needed to buy with her mother’s disability, to buy what they were meant to fix for supper, fix for others on Sunday. She remembered that little girl and how some of the nurses called her sweetie, how some didn’t even say good morning. How the doctors sometimes held her mother’s hand, sometimes didn’t listen, cut off her mother’s testimony, rushed out to see someone else. How people would stare at them as they walked through the city, smile, call out, laugh.

Laugh. Like her cousin Ernie had before he left for his dorm up the highway. The ringing of a phone, like a bird crying. Her mother left the album open to that photo as she fumbled for her cell, flipped it open, gave a little shriek, covered the speaker with her painted nails, told them it was her love calling, had to take it, lockup don’t let you call back and he hadn’t called in a month.

Shon wouldn’t look at her uncle, at Ernie wearing that smirk. She locked her eyes on the only thing she could, that proud toddler, defiance in her stare, her mother in yet another fancy wig, eyes bright. Shon couldn’t help but hear her voice saying, “That’s Jesus shining in me,” as she stood before the sink mirror, layering on bright blue, pink, green. “Used to be the devil. Not no more, you hear me, Shondrae? Pure Jesus shining.”

From the porch they could hear her mother cackle laughter loud at this man, a new man, a good man from the Fellowship, her mother had told Shon halfway through Virginia, only been picked up on an old warrant, serving a few months, out by Christmas. “Judge say he give him so little time ’cause he know my man be clean now, be with Jesus at his side. And I’m right there with him. We take care of each other.”

They could hear Shon’s mother sing her goodbyes in the kitchen, laughing again. Leaning against the porch post, Ernie shook his head. He flicked the toothpick in Shon’s direction, and it landed on the photo in the album.

“What a mess! Your momma,” he said to Shon without looking at her, “if she ain’t a walking, talking—” and her uncle shushed him, prodded him down the porch steps to his car.

Shon turned to the doorway, saw her mother there, eyes dull now in the dim. Silent.

“That was my love.” The words dribbled out slow, as if her mouth hadn’t caught up yet with her eyes, her ears, caught up with what she had seen and heard: Ernie laughing. Shon shut the album on the prodding toothpick, the photo, excused herself, and went inside to bed.

“We hope you’ll come to us here. We need students with your background. Lots of opportunities. To do research, outreach. We need awareness raised too,” the bio professor was saying. “People need to know what’s going on, understand how what they do affects the bay, affects everything. Teach them how we can fix what damage has been done.”

Shon nodded. Fixing damage. Did she know how to do that?

That morning at her uncle’s, Shon had awakened and coffee was brewing, just like at Ms. Compton’s. There was no one in the house, just the coffee, and Shon went out on the porch with a cup, found the album left out on the wicker settee.

Her uncle drove up, bringing donuts, said her mother had found an early meeting, should be home soon. He got a cup of coffee for himself, and he leaned against the porch rail, a different man than his grandson, Ernie, though Shon couldn’t be sure. He was quiet, so unlike Shon’s mother that she doubted, despite holding the album of proof on her lap, that they were related.

“She go to meetings every day?” he asked at last.

Shon shrugged, then said, “Meetings or Fellowship. Sometimes both.”

“That’s good,” he said. “That’s real good.” He was quiet again for a minute, then reached over for the album, flipped to where his own mother, Shon’s grandmother, eyes wide and not quite on the camera, stood by a pine, purpling autumn sweetgrass up to her waist, river behind her. “When our momma had your momma, she was a late child, after my father died. We were mostly grown. Our momma left me with the younger ones, and she moved to Baltimore for work. She didn’t find much. But found a man for a time. Had your momma.”

He let that sit awhile. Shon saw where he was gray at his temples, wondered how old he was.

“When she had your momma, she was already drinking so much, it’s a wonder your momma ever got born. I don’t know what all happened for a bunch of years, but when our momma finally came home, your momma was out on the streets, just wanted to be left there. The drinking was real bad then, not sure about other stuff, ended in dementia. Only a few more years left.”

Shon didn’t know with that last bit if he was talking about her mother or her grandmother. Could have been both. And then her mother had pulled up in that Fellowship sedan, bag of groceries, breezed in and cooked her brother more food in an hour than he might have eaten in a week. Told him to give some to Ernie, share some of that goodness with him. Shon stayed out on the porch, avoiding the smells.

“Plenty of good in this world if you let yourself see it,” she said to no one in particular as she packed the car, hugged her brother, told Shon to get in. Drove away from her own mother’s house, leaving behind any hurt, connections, disconnections. Like it was that simple.

“How about I go get Brian back in here, we can finish up, get you on that tour?” The bio professor didn’t wait for her response, opened the door again, let in the sound of the two mothers talking in the waiting area, this time clear, loud.

Her mother, no mistaking her voice, talking to the other mother with the stripes. “Girl, you got to thank God every minute, for every blessing, every little one, day in and day out, praise Him and be blessed. He here, ain’t He? He here and He love you, that’s all you got to know. Nothing else matters. You got to remember that.” An “amen” from the striped mother. Her mother again, “Can’t go forgetting that.”

Forgetting. The door open as it was, Shon could see the two men who would soon be back standing down the hall toward the other offices, just like the one time last summer with the doctors conferring while her mother sat in the exam room, Shon in the waiting area, home just a week before leaving for school. She caught their words while she pretended to read the women’s magazine, an article on the latest miracle cleanse.

Dementia. The beginnings. Possibly inflammation, history of heavy drinking, fetal alcohol, maybe amyloid. Shon looked it all up when she’d returned to school, how the brain washes away the amyloid plaque build-up every day. Only sometimes it doesn’t. With Alzheimer’s, with aging, maybe with this virus, too.

Memory went, which made Shon think of the ginkgo, with its memory-enhancing compounds, sold in capsules in the pharmacy. She’d found a bowl of the fallen leaves, now butter-yellow and tan, in the apartment kitchen when she’d arrived the Friday night of Ms. Compton’s mother’s heart attack. Her mother must have gathered them when she’d last been to see her doctor. Ginkgo trees lined the streets by the hospital clinic, clung to their leaves late into the season. Pollution-resistant, good for urban areas, pumping oxygen back out after pulling in all the poisons the city had to offer. That in-between morning, Saturday, just a few days back, Shon had awakened to no coffee smell, no smells at all, silent apartment, her mother gone to her meeting, the bowl on the kitchen table emptied of leaves. Just like that. Gone overnight.

In the night of her uncle’s quiet house, Shon had heard crying, praying too, all soft and hard at the same time. She’d gone, bare feet, out till she could see through to the porch, her mother there, wigless, something cradled in her lap, studied by the porch light. The album. No, that was next to her, splayed to the page where mother and daughter smiled so bright. Next to that, crumpled folds, a rectangle of wrapping paper empty of Shon’s gift, instead cupping ovals of shiny fake nails winking crystals, torn off in distress.

“I be good,” her mother murmured, sobbing, praying, and she clutched the thing—a frame—that she’d been holding in her lap, clutched it to her chest now so Shon could not see what image it held. “Jesus in me. Shining forth. See it shine. I be good.”

Shon crept back to bed. She lay awake until her mother came, knelt at the bedside, murmured prayers like a child, then crawled in beside her, fell to light snoring. Shon tried to hear the creek outside and couldn’t.

“That your mother out there?” The bio professor had come back in. “Reminds me of a red-winged blackbird, her hair. Love it. Just love it.”

Shon looked up at him, Brian just by the door. They both smiled at her. Waited.

Shon could imagine herself standing in the bay, the water rushing past her. She was long-legged, solitary. But when she closed her eyes to the summer sun, felt the flow of water so gentle around her, she couldn’t help but hear the cong-a-lee call of that other bird, the blackbird and its startling bit of red on the wing, ever-present in the marsh, calling and calling.

Her first year at the Talbot School, when she was just twelve, Shon hadn’t known why her mother had signed her up for the school board lottery that got her in, why her mother had sent her away, why her mother was happy about it. She’d come home every weekend, and it would be just the same as every weekend since she could remember. Their apartment filled with smells of beans and ham, chicken necks and rice, food piled high in the restaurant pans her mother brought to Fellowship every Sunday, pushing a shopping cart down the sidewalk to carry the pans and a tray of corn bread, a vat of greens with smoked fat. Her mother would wear her best wig, her brightest makeup, rhinestones somewhere, everywhere.

And Shon would walk in front, kicking aside chunks of broken glass, broken concrete, asphalt that dirtied the way, that might have made the cartwheels wobble and catch. Led her mother past dips and pits and holes. The same route every Sunday since Shon had been so small and it hadn’t been a shopping cart, but a stroller, Shon in there alongside the meat and greens, the foil-wrapped pan of corn bread still a little warm by her side. Her mother striding along, talking to her, to no one, anyone, everyone. Enough warmth to feed the world.

Shon looked to her mother out in the waiting room. Red-winged blackbird. The cong-a-lee companion throughout all Shon’s standing in the bay, letting the water just rush past her, over and around her. Bright sun.

Back in her uncle’s house, her mother sleeping with tears dried to streaks, Shon had slipped out from the bed, found the frame back in her mother’s bag. It was wrapped again in the paper, only partially, tucked into it like a child in wrinkled sheets. Shon slid it out. A big dollar-store frame, dried ginkgo leaves from the kitchen bowl glued all around its opening, framing a head shot of her mother, red bird-feather wig, bright eyes, rhinestones at her ears, dangling, shining. The words “Remember Me” were markered just at top center, the words curving in a crooked arc that mimicked the patch of bright blue shadow just below the black, arched brows above her mother’s large eyes smiling.

“So, shall we bring in your mother? Talk a bit with her?” Brian looked expectant, positive, even after all of Shon’s reticence and resistance. His blue eyes under tan curls. The bio professor winked at her.

Shon didn’t want to look at either of the men then, but turned to face the window and the bright, bright Florida sun. “I can change my focus, right?” she asked. “To preservation? Protection, I mean. That’s the same thing, really. I mean . . . ”

Shon felt all she had rehearsed well up in her, all she knew to say. It began to spill out there and then. She heard herself, couldn’t stop it now. Talk of the bay, both bays, all bays, the work that needed to be done to preserve them. While the words rushed from her like water meeting no resistance, she felt her mother behind her on the sand-colored couch, her very presence filtering in through the slats of the blinds, reaching her. Shon’s chest rose and expanded, her chin shot up. The two men asked her questions, she responded. She was not sure who was leading whom, but she spoke, talk of protection now, and she continued, until she ran out of words.

And then Shon stopped, glanced away from the sun, looked through the bent slat of the blinds, out to the waiting area, said, “My mother. Yeah. I’d like you to meet her.”  

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