Everything Good and Bad Happened at Tilly’s
Won’t ever tell you my name, my name from the outside. Sloan from C-Block said it keeps our people safe. Those who might come visit us when the bus schedule runs like it’s supposed to or when our Nana’s got the money to pay cousin Arnie to drive her out to deliver my cookies and cigarettes. Anything I can trade while I’m in here.
I look down at my shoes as the nice lady in the business suit sits across from me. She crosses her ankles and tucks her feet under the rusting metal chair and places a manila file on the table between us. I can see she has been here for awhile the file folders protrude from her bag, and her make-up has worn down so her forehead shines and a long black smudge of mascara streaks under her left eye. I think she must be new to this job since a mascara streak like that only comes from a good cry.
The kind of cry no one makes for us anymore, our stories sound alike, same parts different players. Others blame their circumstances, that neighborhood with its boarded up row homes and iron barred corner stores only good for Miller Lite and Virginia Slims. When you got work, nobody ever sees you because you’re hauling yourself out the door trying to make it before the first shift bell rings. But most of the time, you don’t got work, and you smoke on the front stoop and count the cars going by, waiting for the mail truck to deliver your check knowing if you aren’t there to get it, someone else will meet the mailman and take your share from Uncle Sam.
But the lady in the black suit looks up at me as if she is waiting for some explanation of what I did, the excuses to come pouring out. I don’t grovel. I don’t make excuses like those whining bitches still on their front stoops waiting for the mailman to come. I glance at the lady before turning away. Her name tag says Rose White, and I try not to think about how my baby girl Rose should be sitting on a stoop somewhere waiting with her foster parents for two checks. One from unemployment, the other from her daddy. No checks coming from either.
“I’ve reviewed your file,” business suit Rose says pushing her glasses up from the end of her nose. The glasses with their brass colored frames and tiny gold chain connecting the two ends make her look older than her thirty years. I’ve gotten pretty good at guessing people’s ages. I want to tell her that the suit makes her look like a thin exclamation point with her low black pumps as the end dot. Maybe, she might laugh, but most lose their sense of humor after the first month so I shut up.
“Yes, ma’am,” I say as she flips four legal sized papers over then pulls out another three and places them on the table. She scans the words with her finger looking for the right section, I guess. The one, she wants to talk about today. The one that’s going keep me here.
“As your previous counsel noted, your case doesn’t have much hope of being overturned,” Rose says taking off her glasses and letting them dangle around her neck. “Your best option is trying to get the plea deal. You understand?”
“Yeah, I get it,” I say trying not to think about how easy it would be for me to grab her glasses and choke her just a little, scare her. I guess the nice Rose lady in the black suit has a front stoop, probably a porch with a yard so she can sit in her tailored suits and Prada heels. Maybe, she sips her pink Chablis out of her Wedgewood crystal glass. When she isn’t shuttling her two kids to the private school because the public schools aren’t good enough for her babies. Just keeping up those appearances with her friends who probably don’t know she comes down here every Monday to meet with her clients. Maybe, those ladies pat her on the back and coo over how she’s making a difference in the real world. But she isn’t. She just gets our time cut back or D-row reduced to life. Some difference.
“The DA will expect a sworn confession before he’ll be willing to negotiate any plea bargain with you,” she says looking me directly in the eye and holding her gaze steady. I feel those stares boring a hole inside my head, trying to root around and pull out any information about my life before I landed here, anything to make me not as scary as I know those papers make me out to be. I’ve seen the pictures, again and again from the last legal counsel who tried to hunt me down an alibi. I couldn’t even make one up. Didn’t want to either.
“Okay, tell him I’ll sign one,” I say stretching out my legs and wiping the sweat off my face with my hands. “Can’t undo what I did.”
“Right,” she says still looking at her files. “Look, you’re not going to get much from the DA if you don’t at least appear to be remorseful for what happened on September 4th. So confess away and sound sorry doing it.”
“I said I’d sign,” I say looking at her. I’ve learned the power of holding on to someone who lives on the outside just by staring straight into their pupils, watching the eye color deepen and the sweat bead up around their neck. She isn’t like the others. She stares right back. “Can’t make myself sound any sorrier than I am.”
‘Then I guess I can’t help you,” she says closing the folder and stacking the papers on top, and she stands up to leave. I don’t move. We’re taught never to move from our chairs. One move too quick, even to shake hands or give someone a hug gives Esau Jacobs, the guard glaring down me in the corner of the room, enough reason to jump on any of us, push us to the ground. He tells us that we do it just to have a real man on us, but we all know he does it just to show us how much power he’s got between his flabby thighs.
“So, I just got to act sorry, that’s it?” I ask and Rose sits back down. I can see that smile creeping around the corners of her mauve stained lips. She thinks she’s won this round, but I know better. She pulls out the four pictures again and a blank piece of paper. I scan her face, as she doesn’t look me in the eye this time. Too busy, staring at the pictures.
“Let’s begin again,” she says. Her words like bullets blast holes into the silence. Esau walks over to the table to see what pictures this lady’s got, but Rose turns over the folder and stares at him. I watch the guard skulk back to his corner of the room like a wounded hound dog. He sighs, and Rose waits until she thinks Esau won’t be curious again. “September 4th, tell me what you remember.”
“Stuff hasn’t changed,” I say as she flips over the first photograph. The picture is blurry from being blown up from the security camera footage. I look down at what I know to be myself dressed in my street clothes. The black sweat pants with the gold zippered pockets, the long sleeved t-shirt with gold stripes. “Went into buy beer and smokes. Always bought from Tilly’s Corner.”
“You went to Tilly’s Corner, then what?” Rose says jotting down notes but keeping her legal pad hidden so I can’t read what she’s writing. Not fair, I think. I got the right to know what she thinks about me, my case that everyone knows is hopeless. That’s why they keep sending the ones like Rose. Beat them down a little bit, so they don’t feel too good about helping us on the inside. She points to the picture, and I close my eyes and almost taste how Tilly’s was.
When you walked into Tilly’s, it never was the smell that bothered you but how the store tasted. You could feel the taste of the hot dogs rolling on the metal tubes underneath the red heat lamps, the slick smell of vinegar and pickled eggs, and the piles of cigarette ash next to the cash register where Tilly sat smoking on one unfiltered cigarette after another. Once you got your whole body in the store, your mouth went dry, and ash and hot dog grease lit up your taste buds. Always took me hours to get the taste of Tilly’s out of my mouth. Even sitting here in front of Rose, I can feel the last bit of Tilly’s not yet gone, and my spit runs dry.
I still remember walking down the block from my Nana’s to go to Tilly’s. For over a year, my little Rose and me had been holed up on the top floor of Nana’s row house. We knew not to go outside in the daytime when any one of the people sitting on their stoops could see us. “Nobody safe for you,” my Nana would say as she shook her head and went back to watching her talk shows. Until the first year passed, I obeyed Nana. Never left till after the streetlights came on, and everyone went inside for supper. I’d get out of the house just long enough to breathe the outside air. Air that didn’t crawl on your skin like the black mold creeping up the walls in Nana’s. Every month, we’d scrub down those walls with lye soap, and when we could afford it, bleach. Black mold always come back. Outside smelled of car exhaust and the humid sweat of the city, bodies lumped together and living and working near each other, the smell like a heartbeat pulsing energy into me every time I walked out of the house. With the streetlights glaring down at me in yellow, I didn’t miss the sun as much as I thought I would. Just the smell. I will always miss that smell.
After that first year, I guess Nana forgot to be cautious. Her hip went out, and she needed me to do more than sit on the sofa with her or cook the dinner or clean the bathrooms. She couldn’t go down to Tilly’s and haul the canned goods back up the block, so it became me and Rose’s job. We might wait until everyone went inside, but something inside me told me that we were safe, we could go out and wave to our neighbors like everyone else. I’d convinced myself that they all knew we lived here, but all had the decency not to call and rat us out to him.
Even now, as I sit here in front of Rose the attorney; I can’t mention that man by name. I just call him or that man. He don’t deserve any kind of name. Of course, I can see his name scrawled on all my paperwork. That name follows me like a stray dog, skin stuck to ribs, snapping at my heels, anxious for the taste of my meaty thighs. But don’t ever use his name any more. Sometimes, I can feel that strangle hold he used to have over me and my Rosie slipping away until I have to talk about him again and I see his name. His memory attacks me, and I lose all my power.
“What happened,” my attorney Rose asks as she waves for the female guard behind the glass. “Could you bring us some water, please?” None of the lawyers ever said please or thank you or anything kind to anybody up in here. I watch the guard nod and turn to leave. I don’t realize how thirsty all this talking about that one day like a blob of black ink across my clean record.
“Nana needed her smokes and gave me money for my beer,” I say as Rose jots down what I say and fill two more lines with what I don’t. “Put my Rose, my Rosie baby down for bed then walked to Tilly’s.”
“Don’t say that goddamn man’s name to me,” I yell as I pound my fist into my hand. I clench my hands together. It helps to hold me back from jumping across the table and taking a good swing at her for saying that man’s name. “Don’t say his name.”
“All right, did the man in question approach you inside or outside of the store,” Rose says and flips back through her papers. “Tilly’s, you said you were going to Tilly’s. Oh thank you.” She takes to two cups of water and places them both in front me as the female guard retreats back behind the glass. I can hear Esau snoring in the corner. I turn to see his grain sack body flopped over, his head bobbing as he breaths in and out. Rose giggles when he starts snoring. Maybe, she’s got a sense of humor after all.
“Thanks, “ I say and sip the water. It tastes clean. I notice that I can see straight through the cup, no grit floating up or black speckles ringing the sides. Just water. I gulp the first cup down because it tastes like the water at Nana’s house before she moved to be closer to my mom and me. Her first house had been long drive outside of the city till the road and sky almost looked as if they were touching each other. We would drive all day, and as soon as night hugged the horizon, we would arrive at Nana’s farm. Of course, Nana never called it a farm. It was just a double wide on an acre lot with crabgrass and a wire fence that the neighbor’s goats liked to eat through then attack Nana’s roses. My last trip there, I’d been older but not old enough to know what to do with my woman hips and breasts. I sauntered around swinging all that God gave me in my shorts and flips flops. Mama rolled her eyes when Nana told me to go put something else on, but Nana never made me do nothing I didn’t want to. Her only granddaughter could get away with murder if she set her mind to it, my Nana said every time she saw me.
When we arrived, Nana had been baking two egg custard pies to take over to the new neighbors. She told us the goat people had moved, and her pink rose have never looked better. I could smell the pies still cooling on the wire racks near the open window as I hugged Nana. She pulled out her pie carrier and sent me over there to deliver her pies. That’s when I saw him. He sat on the front stairs. All his long legs and arms hanging around his body. I could see his tattoo on his left arm, how it accented his muscles, and I wondered for a moment what it would feel like for him to wrap those arms around me.
“Hey, my Nana, Miss Grace Lee made you a couple of pies,” I remember those were my first words to him. “Just a welcome to the…” I just couldn’t call this strip of road and four trailers a neighborhood.
“Thanks, much appreciated,” he said as I walked into his patchy yard and tried to avoid the tires and old fence posts.
“ When did you move in?” I asked trying not to stare as he moved toward me. “Got any family with ya?’
“Just me,” he said stuffing his hands in his pockets. “Bought this back in April. Been working out there on Route 402.”
“Nana just wants everyone to feel welcome,” I said still holding the pie carrier not sure if he were coming any closer or not. All at once, my skin felt prickly and hot as if I shouldn’t be there. I remembered feeling this way before every time my Daddy would come home smelling of gin. My body knew when to run from my Daddy, but this guy walking over toward me didn’t smell of liquor or tobacco. Probably didn’t use none of it either, probably just a nice guy who lives next to my Nana. The lies. I told myself when I knew better.
“Well, I feel welcome now,” he said as I handed him the pie carrier, and his fingers brushed my hand, moved up my arm, and twirled my curls. I felt chills go down my back as he lingered.
Rose shuffled her papers as I feel the metal chair getting colder. Everything about this place is cold. The lights with their blue and sickly yellow hue cast long shadows, making everyone look jaundiced. I push the papers that have moved too close to my side of the table back toward Rose, and she mumbles a thank you.
“Why didn’t you just leave after you met the man in question?” Rose asks. I still ask myself the same question. I could’ve gone, should’ve gone but didn’t.
“I liked the way he looked at me,” I say. The first nice thing about him that I’ve told Rose ever. I didn’t mean to say it, but it was the truth.
I remember those eyes looking for how much I would let him do, when I would tell him stop, but I never did. I thought that’s how you knew that right guy had come along when you didn’t have to heart to tell him that you don’t like it when he touches your hair, or that it’s getting late and Nana’s got supper.
“I should be getting back,” I said trying to sound grown up, but I heard how my voice squeaked and pinched my words. He smiled at me.
“Almost dinner time,” he said. I could his stomach growl loudly. “You going to be around for awhile.”
“Couple of weeks,” I said blushing. “Mama’s going on home on Sunday. Usually call when I want to leave.” I take a ponytail holder and pull my tangled hair up, but he reaches out and takes the hair tie away from me.
“No, girl, you too pretty with your hair down,” he said teasing as I tried to grab my hair tie from him. He laughed, and I giggled as he held my hair tie closer to him until I tripped a little and fell into his chest. He smelled of cedar wood and sweat as I leaned in for a moment. He didn’t push me away at first, then he nudged me off, and I could feel the redness color my skin. Maybe, as he hugged me, he knew that I was barely legal, old enough to buy those smokes but not the beer. He held my hair tie up above my head where I couldn’t even jump and reach it. “I’ll give it back if you keep your hair down.”
“Fine,” I said trying to sound stern but the giggles started again. “Nice meeting you.”
“And you,” he said giving me back the hair tie and making a grand bow as if he were presenting me with Cinderella’s glass slipper. “Hope you won’t keep yourself scarce, Sugar.”
“I’ll be around for awhile,” I said lingering as I heard Nana call my name from her kitchen window. “Just depends if I got a reason to stay or not.”
“You need a reason?” He asked and flashed another smile my way, but this one felt off as if he were trying to sell me something I didn’t want. “I can give you lots of reasons, if you want them.”
“Sure,” I said as I walked back over to him, pulled him into me and kissed him good on his lips. I turned to leave and didn’t look back.
The water cup sweats as I watch Rose write down more notes on her legal pad. I tap my fingers to ease the silence. Esau sat up and stopped the snoring, the air conditioner stopped its whining, nothing but quiet. Not even her pen makes a noise. It glides over the paper making loops and dots, and if I try to see what she writes down, Rose scrunches up her eyebrows and pulls her notes away. The first picture lays on the table, and I thump out a few rhythms as I wait for Rose to say anything. I never know how to act when Rose doesn’t talk or ask questions. My fingers beat out what sounds like Jingle Bells in my head, but I don’t like Christmas so I try Happy Birthday or Row, Row, Row Your Boat. Still Rose says nothing; she doesn’t even look up to silence me. She writes then stares at the pictures and writes some more.
But I’m tired of this game, and I beat out tunes without finishing the rhythm, see if Rose will look up or get annoyed or maybe play along. She writes. I pick up my water cup. The ring around the bottom, a perfect circle then I smear it. Use the water that’s now on the table to paint what I think the sun might be if it were water and the same size as my cup’s bottom.
“When did man in question begin contacting you?” Rose says as she puts on her glasses. All of her make-up is gone now. She looks tired and frail as she rubs her hands. I guess they hurt from all the writing my case requires. Not that she’ll ever let me see what she has been writing about me.
“Six months after Rosie was born,” I say looking down at my shoes. “He’d run into my Nana at the Grab ‘N Go. Asked how I was. Nana said she bout hit him with her pocketbook for what he done.”
“What did he do?” Rose asks and positions her pen to take more notes. I breathe in and calm myself. Never liked talking about him, even when things between us were going good, I didn’t like it.
“Wanted to see my baby, Rosie,” I say hoping the questions would end there, but I knew better. “Thought it must be his baby cause of what happened at Nana’s.”
I feel the color creeping up cheekbones. I’m sure Rose will know. Somehow, I think she can rummage around inside my head, look at every word that’s about to come out of my mouth, and know which is true and which is shit.
“You mentioned something happened at Nana’s,” Rose says referring back to her notes. “ Can you explain what?”
“You know what happened,” I say trying not to laugh. I make an “O” shape with my right hand and push my index finger inside the opening. “You know stuff just happens. Didn’t plan it or nothing.”
“Was it consensual?” Rose asks, and I nod. I knew I couldn’t get away with lying now. I want to tell her how it was all that man’s fault. How he pulled me into his trailer, how my Nana heard me scream but couldn’t get to me, how the sheriff ignored us because that man was such a good guy. But it would all be a lie. Maybe the reason I don’t like remembering him is because I want to remember him as being all bad. But he wasn’t. Some days, when I’m lying in my cellblock, listening to the other women around me snore or whisper, I miss that man. His smell after a long day. I close my eyes and imagine those arms around my waist, his nose nuzzling my neck. I don’t know how to tell my attorney that I wanted that man to be all bad, that he raped me, but even I couldn’t lie like that about him or to Rose.
“He never forced himself on me,” I say after a long pause. “Wasn’t like that at all. Just having fun until…” I stop talking and Rose keeps writing. She flips through her notes and jots something else on a different piece of paper.
“When did you find out you were pregnant?” Rose asks as she shifts her weight from her right hip to her left. The metal chairs always hurt after sitting in them too long.
“Don’t remember,” I say. “But I knew who the daddy was just didn’t want him around.” I look away knowing that Rose could see right through my half-attempt to lie to her. At first, I played with the thought of being a family. He would give me his last name like a badge of honor, and we could live next to my Nana. Two weeks after, I peed on that goddamn stick then another just to make sure, I borrowed my mama’s car to head down to Nana’s. I told Mama I wanted to surprise Nana, how it would do Nana good to have some company for a while. I wrapped the pregnancy test in toilet paper and stuffed it into a plastic bag to show him once I got there. I had thought about not telling Nana that I was even in the neighborhood, but Mama would ask and Nana never lied.
I remember the drive being longer than before, needed more stops, mostly to throw up the Cheetos and ranch dip I thought sounded like a good lunch. I pulled the car into Nana’s driveway. I could see the lights on in his trailer. Before I could go over to tell him how we were going to be a family, I saw her. A tall white girl, not much older than me. Her knees wobbled as she walked, and I could see his arm around her waist. He stopped and waved me over to his yard, and I stupidly sulked over to the fence.
“Hey, it’s been awhile,” he said smiling still holding on to her waist. Her hair hung around her face in thin brown wisps. She smiled at me, but I just stared at him. “Guess you’re here to see your Nana?”
“Yeah, thought I would surprise her,” I said trying not to throw up in my mouth. “Who is this?”
“This lovely lady’s my wife,” he said proudly. I will always remember how he stared right into my eyes when he said wife. “Separated for awhile but love wins, I guess.”
“Guess it does,” I said. “Good seeing you.” I turned to go into Nana’s house but not before vomiting, big heaves of stomach bile into her rose bushes. And I knew that he had ruined everything for me, so my only choice was to keep him away from the baby whatever it took.
“What happened after the baby came?” Rose asks as she reaches over to me and jostles my wrist. Sometimes, I zone out when I get the chance. Can’t do that in the cell, not when Claudie Cane forces the girl above me out of her bunk. I know what Claudie wants from me, but I ain’t playing along with her. I’ve learned to snore and pretend to be asleep even though I know what’s going on in our cellblock. But it’s awful to never be able to relax, not once. Got to watch everything, everybody, only way to survive.
I don’t like talking to Rose, going over the same thing, same way as before as if she expects to break me down and tame me into submission. I won’t tell her any more than I got to, but she never badgers me about being quiet. She lets me go inside my head and just think for a while, doesn’t even pester me too much when I smile just a little bit remembering something good. Not much good, but even for me the good’s still there.
“I had a baby to deal with,” I say trying not to sound too snarky. I could feel Rose’s nerves pinched tighter than her Prada heels. “Got a job. Bought diapers and formula. Normal stuff.”
“When did the man in question start asking to see the baby?” Rose asks and moves back in her chair. She thinks she had my full attention. I sit straight up and push my empty water cups around. I can’t look Rose in the eye. She’ll know.
“Took Rosie, named her after my Nana’s favorite flowers, down to see Nana,” I say as I watch Rose write more down.” He came over to see the baby and began demanding who I made this baby with and all…” She changes the ink pen colors and circles a few words as I wait for her ask another question. I hate the waiting when she is silent as a housecat; all the noise she makes is the scratching of her pen and the raspy in and out of her breathing.
“According to your former attorney, you took the baby over to his house,” Rose says and looks at me directly in the eyes. “You told him and I quote: ‘Took Rosie to see her daddy, trying to get him to pay his share.’ So which is it?”
I stare at the floor. The gray mass of concrete that ripples along the edges looks just like his porch did. He never had been bothered to fill in the cracks or fix the two brick that had fallen into the tangled weeds. I should never have gone to see him, but Mama flat out said she wouldn’t pay for shit. Nothing for her grandbaby. I worked every night at the gas station on the corner of Elm and Eugene, alone always hoping nobody would come up inside the store to bother me. Rosie kept growing through her rompers and diapers, even the old cloth ones, ran out. I told myself that once he saw her he would just pay for a few things, maybe diapers and formula till I got my own place. I rang the doorbell then shifted Rosie from one hip to the other.
He came to door without his shirt. His left arm still red from his newest tattoo, an eagle with its wings spread out holding ribbon with the words “Semper Fi.” His skin paled from the lack of summer’s sun, white and clean. I could smell the Old Spice scent as it almost tumbled off his skin. I looked down at his left hand, no wedding ring. My heart thumped loudly, maybe this time, just maybe.
“Hey girl, been awhile,” he said. “Who’s this sweet thing?” He held his arms out, and I passed Rosie to him. She didn’t cry. Smiled up at him, and he smiled at her.
“Your wife home? “ I asked not sure how to say what needed to be said. He shook his head. “Remember last year when we…” I couldn’t finish the sentence. My words got lost inside my head and none would come out. His smile faded as he looked down at Rosie and back at me.
“You mean?” He asked. I nodded.
“I was going to tell you last time, but your wife was here,” I said. “Didn’t mean for it to happen, just wanted us to be a real family.”
“Look, Sugar, you know that can’t happen, right?” he said as he passed Rosie back to me.
“You still married?” I asked hoping the only reason he and I couldn’t be together was that woman keeping us apart.
“No,” he said quickly. “Divorced last month, officially.”
“Then why can’t we?” I said, pleading with him to change his mind. “You owe it to us, to our baby, why can’t we just try?”
“You know how people round here are,” he said. I turned and left him standing on his porch and headed back to Nana’s.
Rose taps her pen in front of my hands, and I jerk back. She still stares at me, but this time, I know she has let me stay inside my head longer than she likes. I fold my hands on my lap and whistle a bit. No tune, only notes going up and down like waves.
“Which is it?” Rose asks again. “Can’t keep lying.”
“A little of both,” I say rubbing my hands together. My fingers went numb and my back ached from sitting in the metal chair. I could see the light fading in the windows, and I knew it would be time for dinner. I’d grown tired of Rose’s questions and answering all of them, always trying to make myself look better than I really was. I know what I did and am, can’t change it, but this Rose keeps asking as if there is a magic number of times she can ask the same question and all the shit I did will undo itself But it never will. We both know this.
“Again, if you’re not honest with me, “ Rose says and I turn my body away from her. “Did you ever try to work things out with him regarding the custody issue?”
“No, didn’t want him to have anything to do with him,” I say and Rose writes one word before looking back up at me. “Got scared when he had some lawyer serve me papers about him seeing Rosie.”
“Is that when you convinced your Nana to move in with you?” Rose asks and I know I can’t lie this time. I can see that she’s pulled out the notes from all the attorneys in my case.
“Yeah,” I say hoping she won’t ask me anything else. I count the seconds until the guard will come tell Rose her time is up for today, and I can go back to my cell.
“According to your Nana, you told her that the man in question forced himself on you and beat you,” Rose says as she shuffles through her notes. “That’s why she agreed to move. That’s why you didn’t get a job until a year after Nana moved in.” She places the papers in front of me and points to my sworn testimony, my police questioning, and my first time on the witness stand.
“I got scared,” I say as I push the papers back toward Rose. I watch as some of them slide off the table and float to the floor like embers from a dying fire. “He just kept calling and sending official looking letters. Besides, wasn’t like he wanted to be a real family.”
“No, he didn’t, but that’s not my point,” Rose says as she folds her hands. “You can’t keep lying to me. You want a plea deal. No, you need one. Cause if your latest appeal ends the same way. Your stay on D-row won’t be too long.”
“Fine, I lied,” I say and cross my arms. The room has grown cold, and I can see my skin prickle up. “I needed help with the baby and Nana wouldn’t have come without a good reason.”
“How long till the man in question found out where you and Rosie went?” She asks as I try to get warm. I bundle my hands in my orange jumpsuit shirt. Nothing works. I don’t want to answer her; I don’t want to say anything else. I just want to go back to the noise of the inmates. Anywhere so I don’t have to think about myself or Rosie or Nana but most of all not him.
“About a year,” I say. “He hired some detective to find out where I was then turned up at Tilly’s.” I point to the first picture of me in the long sleeved shirt and sweatpants. I trace the part of the picture where half his body is visible in the security camera, so Rose can better see him. Even in the blurry picture, his square jaw and muscle shirt always so tight you could trace where each part of his triceps and biceps began and ended.
“What did he want?” Rose asks.
“To see the baby,” I say.” I told him Nana was watching her and he wouldn’t leave me alone. I thought if he saw her once he wouldn’t come back.” I choke up and try to force my eyes to water. I had always been a great actress around my mother. Sometimes, I pretended that the girls on the bus hurt my feelings, and Mama would just send me for a while to Nana’s. Nana didn’t always buy it. She’d send me right back cause she knew when I wasn’t telling her the truth. Except this one time. But maybe, she knew then too, not wanting to lose her great-grand baby to some trailer trash white man who happened to live to next door to her. Some man who left his wife and hooked with her granddaughter because we were lonely, and I hounded him until he consented.
“I can’t help you any more if you lie to me,” Rose says as she stands up and slams my file on the table. “You got pages and pages of testimony, yours, your Nana, even that man you won’t call by his name.”
“All of you think we lie,” I yell but stay in my seat. I know the guard and Esau will come over and getting up would make it worse. “We’re in here and not going anywhere. You think telling the truth’s going to do a damn bit of good?”
“You know why you needed to lie to your Nana,” Rose says as she sits back down. “ You needed her to raise that baby, the baby you didn’t really want but didn’t want the daddy to have either. You did what you did just like a toddler throw a temper tantrum.”
“I never said I didn’t want my Rosie,” I say. This time my voice cracks. My eyes pinched closed to keep from crying. “He made me do it, I swear he made do it.” I put my hands over my eyes, so Rose can’t reach inside my to grab out what happened.
Everything good or bad had begun at Tilly’s. I carried the newest lawyer bullshit from that man in my pocket as I crossed the street and headed to Tilly’s. The night smelled cleaner than usual for the city. I moved faster knowing Nana’d be mad if she didn’t have smokes in time for her shows. I knew how to blend in so no one would see me, but just as I turned to go inside Tilly’s, I heard his voice and smelled that mix of sweat and cedar wood.
“Sugar girl,” he yelled at me. I could see the Coors Light can in his hand. The low slung jeans, the plaid boxers peaking above his belt. “Been looking for you.”
“Why?” I asked as I pushed myself past into Tilly’s. I smelled the hot dogs and the unfiltered cigarette smoke as I rushed to get what Nana wanted.
“Changed my mind about Rosie,” he said. “Want to do right by her.” I turned around and faced him, but this time I wasn’t going to get my hopes up.
“Like be a real family,” I said as I push the beer and smoke on the counter and slap down the cash I had.
“Just want to see her every now and then,” he said then realized what I meant. “We can’t be together. Just won’t work, you know.”
“Then you can’t see Rosie,” I said pushing him into the door so I could run out. My lungs ached as I sprinted up hill toward Nana’s. I could hear him following me, a heavy thud behind my soft patter. I counted the steps as I got closer hoping he would stop chasing me.
“Just let me see her,” he yelled. I turned to see him bent over, puking on the sidewalk. He held his side as if he cramped up from running.
“You don’t want me, you don’t get Rosie either,” I yelled back as he started puking again. “She’s all mine and you can’t have her.”
“I call the police, they’ll make you,” he yelled but didn’t finish his sentence. I ran inside Nana’s, locked the door, and went straight to Rosie’s room. He couldn’t have her, I thought, he just couldn’t ever have her.
Rose doesn’t move from her chair as she slides another picture toward me. I look down to see again what I did. The soft curls, her arms clutched around the bright pink bunny rabbit. She slept in her crib, too small for her, but I didn’t have the money to buy a new one. All of the things I couldn’t buy or do or because that man wouldn’t do right by me. I looked old and tired after Rosie had been born, she and that man had taken away my whole life. I saw her pillow, the one my Nana made special for her and grabbed it. She’s just sleeping I tell myself, but I know better.
Another picture slides toward me, then two more. Rose looks at me as if she were saying that she’s quitting my case. Her finger taps on the image of Rosie, her bright white pillow, the bruises from where I held pillow down too hard, the limp body. I stare at the pictures, and Rose doesn’t say another word.