Sleepless

I’ve been watching the morning news since 4 AM. It comes on earlier and earlier these days. I can’t imagine there would be much breaking news to report between 11:35 PM and 4 AM that it can’t waiting until 8. Who besides me is up watching it? But then I remember Orlando, and I turn up the volume.

Donald Trump will be in town. They interview a girl in a sleeping bag just outside the gates of the special events center. “Ah’ve bain hair saince faive a em!”  she says in a heavy Southern drawl. She wants to make sure she gets in and that she has good seats. All this for a man whose only policies I can remember involve banning a billion people and building a wall to ban a million more.

Hell, I’ll be up, I might as well go. Maybe he’s not as bad as he seems. Maybe he actually has good ideas. Maybe there’s a logical reason for why people like him so much, and not the reason I fear. But then I remember where I live. The last time I stepped out because I couldn’t sleep, I found myself on the outskirts of town, driving behind a black pickup with a Confederate flag in the rear window. Going to see Trump is the closest I’ll get to attending a Klan rally. They’ll take one look at my afro and know I don’t belong.

Sean walks in buttoning his uniform and sighs when he sees me on the couch. For once, I wish he’d be happy that I’m up before him. I could’ve cooked him breakfast, fixed him a fresh pot of coffee. But who am I kidding? He’s known since our first date sophomore year in college that I don’t cook. I’m one of the few people who are actually skilled at burning coffee.

“Please tell me you haven’t been here all night,” he says.

“Just all morning.” I smile, but he doesn’t laugh.

“Sweetie.” He sits on the arm of the couch, and my eyes drift down to the gun holstered on his hip. I wonder, will he have to shoot anyone today? Someone who doesn’t cooperate, doesn’t listen, like me. Pull the trigger to silence my defiant mouth.

“We sent Matthew to your sister’s so you could finally get some sleep. Please tell me you don’t still hear the man downstairs.”

I don’t understand why he can’t just go downstairs and check that apartment. He’s a cop for God’s sake. The man downstairs is beating his wife. Her screams should be probable cause enough. I hear her struggle with him every night — the lamp crashing to the floor, the shaking of our bed when he slams her against the wall. I hear him curse her: Bitch! Cunt! I know he’s drunk. He comes home from the bar and demands she get on her knees, do her marital duties. Some nights I think he’s already on top of her when she wakes up because I hear his grunts and then her high-pitched screams. Their bedroom is directly below ours.

But Sean doesn’t hear a thing. He sleeps like a bear in hibernation. He’s sure the apartment downstairs is empty because he saw an eviction notice posted on the door last month. It’s just my postpartum, he tells me, it’s just my insomnia.

He tangles his fingers in my hair, pulls me into him, and wraps me in a suffocating hug. “Why don’t I go ask the manager if anyone’s living in 205, hmm?” he says, kissing my forehead.

“No.” I pull out of his arms. “I didn’t hear anything last night.”

“Well that’s good!” he exclaims, but he’s missed the hint again. I couldn’t sleep last night because I didn’t hear anything. Now I fear she’s dead. He’s wrapped her in a throw rug and is sorting out where to dump the body. Maybe he’ll put her in the trunk of her car and drive it into the swampy waters of Midland Lake, five miles down the road. Would he be so stupid to bury her so close?

“Babe, do you think we can bring Matthew home tonight? I don’t want him to start thinking Sidra is his mom.”

I shrug because I don’t hear him. I’m fixated on the news again, waiting for headlines of a woman’s body found. But they keep playing footage of wounded patrons of Pulse nightclub being carried off to safety. I can see they were shot, blood pouring out between their fingers as they try unsuccessfully to block the wounds, t-shirts and pants soaked through, red, a deep cherry. Are they supposed to show this much gore on early morning TV? I think of that movie — I’ve seen so many since the night I decided to stay in — Nightcrawler, staring Jake Gyllenhaal. News directors obsessed with getting the grisliest of crime scene footage, and the cameramen willing to cake their lenses in innocent victims’ blood just to get it. They wonder why we’re so desensitized now. One thousand Palestinian children can have half their faces blown off, and no one bats an eye. And then I remember my own child. How he could be watching, how he could be dying.

“One more night,” I tell Sean, and he kisses my hand.

“Fine.” I never knew one syllable could stab me in the chest so deeply. He’s disgusted with me. He thinks I’m making up these phantom screams from downstairs because I don’t want kids; I don’t want his son, his image and likeness, attached to my hip. Was it so bad just the two of us?

“I’ll be in late tonight,” he says, walking to the door.

“Are you doing the Trump rally?”

“Yea, making sure no one gets sucker punched.” The breezy air in his voice returns, and I think maybe he’ll forgive me if I try to fall asleep tonight before he gets home.

“You know, if those protesters were smart, they would just stay away,” he says.

“If they were smart, they’d keep protesting. We don’t need someone who promotes violence and racism in the White House.”

He shakes his head. I’m so much more political than he is. He’s only voted once, Obama’s reelection, and I practically had to drag him to the polls kicking and screaming. Even last summer during all the demonstrations against police, he didn’t refute with chanting “Blue Lives Matter,” or the ever-insulting “All Lives Matter,” as if to exclude Black lives from that category. Too many people are dying for us to be so selfish, he told me.

He’s halfway out the door when he calls back to me, “Why don’t you get out the house today. Go to Sidra’s. It might do you some good just to hold him.”

I consider his proposition. It could help. My breasts have gotten so sore over this past week, my nipples so tender. Then I think my time would be better spent just buying a pump from Target. But what would be the point of having all this milk and no baby to nurse? So I nod. Tonight, I’ll sleep in the nursery so I’m not tormented by the screams or lack there of from under my bed. I’ll show Sean how much I’m missing our precious baby boy. I’ll be a better mommy for him and for Matthew.

—Nortina

Black Poetry Writing Month: Write a Song from the Front Yard

A Song in the Front Yard

I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.

I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.

They do some wonderful things.
They have some wonderful fun.
My mother sneers, but I say it’s fine
How they don’t have to go in at quarter to nine.
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will grow up to be a bad woman.
That George’ll be taken to Jail soon or late
(On account of last winter he sold our back gate).

But I say it’s fine. Honest, I do.
And I’d like to be a bad woman, too,
And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace
And strut down the streets with paint on my face.

—Gwendolyn Brooks, from Selected Poems (1963)

 

We end our Gwendolyn Brooks weekend with “A Song in the Front Yard.” Following the theme of the last two days, the speaker of this poem, a sheltered child, sees what she thinks is greener grass on the other side and wants to go there. The “back yard” or the “alley” could represent the other side of the train tracks, the rougher side of town, the bad neighborhood. She’s curious; she sees the children there having more fun, doing what they want, but her mother keeps her in the “front yard” where she’s protected and not influenced by those no good kids with no home training—because either their parents don’t care, are as young as they are, or just aren’t around, leaving the task of raising the children to the grandparents—who have no future but prison (George) or prostitution (Johnnie Mae).

I love this poem because it embraces the innocent child’s voice so effortlessly. Children are notorious for wanting the very things their parent forbid them from having. “But all the other kids are doing it,” I can hear her whine, “and Johnnie Mae looks so pretty.” It’s only natural that they look at other children doing something they’re not allowed to do and automatically think that it’s cool. “Why not?” they cry, “it doesn’t look so bad.”

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Brooks balances out the child’s “song” with the inclusion of the mother’s rational thinking. With age, she’s old enough to understand. She sees the path the other children are running toward, and she wants to save her own child from that. This mother reminds me so much of my own, who wouldn’t let us go to certain parks by ourselves, or play with certain kids in our neighborhood, or stay outside past the time the streetlights came one. At the time, I just thought she was being overprotective and too strict.

Years later, those kids I wanted so desperately to play with don’t have careers; they aren’t working, or if they are, they’re working low-wage jobs because they didn’t go to college. Their priorities are messed up because they live beyond their means. Most of those boys are in jail, and those girls have kids of their own with deadbeat dads, cursed to follow the same fate as their parents. Maybe they’re happy with the paths they chose, but boy, mama sure does know best.

For today’s BlaPoWriMo prompt, write a song from the front yard. What does the child see that she just has to have? What makes it dangerous? Who is the voice of reason that saves her from a life of poor decisions and a permanent residence in the unkempt “back yard”?

#BlaPoWriMo: Reading Lesson (poem)

African . . .

American . . .

Elsewhere . . .

We drive by American Furniture Warehouse and my son—
leaning over his car seat, pressing his face into the glass window—
clicks his tongue, purses his lips,
scrounges his brain for the sound to match the letter,
enunciates each syllable as he attempts to read
the words displayed across the front of the building.

I want to applaud him;
pronouncing the word A-MER-I-CAN
at three when he’s only just learned the alphabet
deserves ice cream, chocolate chip cookies,
a kiss on the forehead from mommy.
My little protégé, grandson of W.E.B. Du Bois,
a talented tenth to raise his people from the pits of darkness.

But I fear how he discovered the other two . . .

African . . .
Elsewhere . . .

as if he believes his heritage to be disposable.

And I worry.

Do I not read enough tales of Anansi, the cunning spider
before he falls asleep? Does my forgetful husband
allow him to watch mind-numbing cartoons
of cross-eyed doofuses, and drooling talking sponges
instead of the Gullah Gullah Island reruns
I record and set aside for him?
Does he still play with his action figures—
John Stewart’s Green Lantern?
Falcon soaring above the Marvel Universe?

I did it, mommy. I read the sign!

I look at him through the rearview mirror,
smile weakly at my baby boy’s reflection.
Does he know who he is? Can he see himself in
the myths and fables, the educational programming,
the animated superheroes?
I want to pull over,  sweep him up in my warm, Black embrace.
There’s nothing elsewhere about being African,
I wish I could say with an undeceiving heart.

—Nortina


Written for today’s #BlaPoWriMo prompt: write a poem for your sons. This is a revision to an older poem I wrote last year. Click here to read the original.

#BlaPoWriMo: Self-Portrait (poem)

All brown children color
their faces. First families
shades of yellow, red, black.
Self-portraits traced with edges
of brown crayons; they know
their identities long before
they are taught race.

What color is my skin?
A resounding tale of fallen shackles,
of long tenancies on distant
masters’ lawns, of coal-painted
faces dancing on stage, of misplaced
ballots and grandfather clauses,
of front row seats on public transit,
of Black Power and Panthers,
of raised fists and Afro puffs,
of Black berries sweeter than sugar,
purple juice on their puckered lips.

Why do we color?
African lineage documented in
mixing shades of nude on pallets,
wielding artistic instruments—
colored pencils, crayons, markers.
With every brushstroke
They match their complexions;
Tiny realists never white-washing,
erasing their existence.
We are here.

Little brown children, present
yourselves as unabashed
workings of self-identity.
Do not cover your skin
for a fearful colorless society;
coat it in a deeper mahogany.

—Nortina


Black Poetry Writing Month: Will you join the challenge? This is a revision of a poem written last year. Click here to read the original version.

Class Field Trip

“Stop running around the pool!” She blew a faint whistle to call attention to the frantic children splashing in the water daring Jason to cannon ball.

“If I have to tell you one more time, I’m sitting you in the bleachers,” she struggled to vocalize above the high-pitched squeals.

“Mrs. Halton, can I come out of time-out now?”

She nodded, and Ronnie sprinted toward where Jason was preparing to jump.

“Don’t!”

But his heel had already slipped, his head slammed against the tile. Jason’s knees buckled as Ronnie crashed into him, and they both tumbled into the clear blue water.

—Nortina


ll_poolDive into this week’s prompt for Literary Lion…

 

Regret

She keeps scrolling through the anxious smiles, the brand new Spiderman backpacks, the first handprint smudges on the classroom windows.

“You’re only torturing yourself.”

“Mine would’ve started kindergarten today.”

He reaches for the phone. She flicks his hand away.

“One more picture.”

 

Wordy Wednesday: Dinner Conversations with Toddlers

Ariana’s mother told her that eating fruits and vegetables was essential to having a balanced diet.

“But I don’t like vegetables, Mommy. They’re nasty.”

“You’re supposed to eat at least three servings of fruits and vegetables every day to stay healthy. Now eat your carrots and broccoli.”

“But this is only two vegetables, so can I have grapes instead? I only ate a banana and orange today.”

“No, you don’t need anything sweet this late.”

Ariana frowned. “That don’t make sense, Mommy. I want mac and cheese.”

“That’s not a fruit or a vegetable.”

“But it’s good,” she said with a smile.

Ariana’s mother rolled her eyes and picked up the plate full of untouched vegetables. Ariana smiled to herself, believing she had won the battle.

Her mother put a bowl of Easy Mac in the microwave, and while it cooked, she chopped the carrots and broccoli into tiny bits. When the microwave beeped, she retrieved the bowl and stirred the vegetables into the mac and cheese. “Here,” she said, sliding the bowl across the table to her daughter.

“What’s that stuff in it?” Ariana asked.

“It’s good for you. Just eat.”

Ariana licked the bowl clean without the slightest hesitation.

 

word count: 201

—Nortina


This is part of Wordy Wednesday over at Blog-A-Rhythm: Write a minimum of 100 words on the prompt. This week’s word prompt is essential.  Click the froggy icon to read more and add your own.

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