Cool

He silently watched the car shrink away, eaten up by the distance. Strange. Although his lips were unmoving, he had so much he wanted to say.

Cool was the only word he could utter after the car disappeared over the hill leading to the main highway.

“Cool.”

The weather was cool. First day of spring but snow in the forecast. Fat, fluffy snowflakes fell from the sky earlier that morning. It reminded him of thin strips of white confetti, like the dry stuff they’d sprinkle over a stage for a winter-themed play.

His shirt was cool. Short-sleeve—he shivered when the wind blew. Cotton. Custom made. Black canvas. “Wakanda Forever” in bold white text stretched across his chest. He wore it twice to see the movie Black Panther. Once alone, and again with his son.

The Lexis was cool. One he’d always dreamed of owning. But this one carried his son in the backseat. Away to his mother’s house, across town, across the train tracks, across the invisible Mason-Dixon line that marked his skin— though she sees no color, so she said.

His son’s Spider-Man sneakers were cool. They lit up when he walked. All the kids in school were jealous, so much that one tried to steal them off his feet during recess behind the teacher’s back, then cried foul play when the bottom of the shoe swiftly met his face.

Getting suspended from school for fighting was cool, because that was what all the other boys in the neighborhood did. They kept tally—who won, who was the punk.

But it wasn’t cool.

Not cool. He shook his head, thinking of his ex’s parting words. “We don’t solve our problems with violence. I left him with you because I thought you could teach our son how to be black.”

How to be black, he thought. What does that even mean?

—Nortina


Monday Muse Writing Prompt challenges you to use the opening line and provided photo to create a story in just 20 minutes. Click here for more details.

Also check out Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, “We Real Cool,” which “subconsciously” inspired this story.

BlaPoWriMo: Odyssey of the Tragic Mulatto

Black comes
in many shades
but one—
Too white
I am—
Skin like
alabaster, hair
ruffles in the
breeze like
petals of
daffodils—
Curly in places,
frizzy in places—

Not enough to
stay my father
after three months,
not enough to
inherit the love
of his people—
Meek complexion
reminds them
of my mother,
and grandmother,
my great-grandmother,
how they perched
on pedestals, played
ignorant to their
husbands’ rompings
in the quarters,
abused the
bastard children
and sent them away.

My first love
loved me for my
resemblance to
the white women
he coveted, warned
me I’m no better
with his fists.
Black like him
underneath, with
every blow, he
brought my blackness
to the surface—
Blue bruises
the size of
grapefruits
blot my arms,
Purple boot prints
tread across my
chest and stomach,
red rashes spread
from the fingers
wrapped around my
neck, cutting off air,
black eyes, from every
punch, swell shut,
immersing me in darkness.

When I die, let the
priest open my casket—
Naked, let the world
see the discolored
calluses, a melanin
absorbed through cruelty.
Let no one ever say
I wasn’t black—
I was every black woman,
brutalized and discarded
just the same.

—Nortina


Written for Black Poetry Writing Month, 2017— a fortnight of “black” love poetry (not all love poems are “romantic”). Join the challenge and share your love poems today!

Featured Image: Actress Fredi Washington

Black Poetry Writing Month: Write a Poem that Starts a Conversation

On Being Told I Don’t Speak Like a Black Person

Emphasize the “h,” you hignorant ass,
was what my mother was told
when colonial-minded teachers
slapped her open palm with a ruler
in that Jamaican schoolroom.
trained in England, they tried
to force their pupils to speak
like Eliza Doolittle after
her transformation, fancying themselves
British as Henry Higgins,
despite dark, sun-ripened skin.
Mother never lost her accent,
though, the music of her voice
charming everyone, an infectious lilt
I can imitate, not duplicate.
No one in the States told her
to eliminate the accent,
my high school friends adoring
the way her voice would lift
when she called me to the phone.
A-ll-i-son, it’s friend Cathy.
Why don’t you sound like her?
they’d ask. I didn’t sound
like anyone or anything,
no grating New York nasality,
no fastidious British mannerisms
like the ones my father affected
when he wanted to sell someone
something. And I didn’t sound
like a Black American,
college acquaintances observed,
sure they knew what a black person
was supposed to sound like.
Was I supposed to sound lazy,
dropping syllables here, there,
not finishing words but
slurring the final letter so that
each sentence joined the next,
sliding past the listener?
Were certain words off limits,
too erudite, too scholarly
for someone with a natural tan?
I asked what they meant,
and they stuttered, blushed,
said you know, Black English,
applying what they’d learned
from that semester’s text.
Does everyone in your family
speak alike?, I’d question
and they’d say don’t take this the
wrong way, nothing personal.

Now I realize there’s nothing
more personal than speech,
that I don’t have to defend
how I speak, how any person,
black, white, chooses to speak.
Let us speak. Let us talk
with the sounds of our mothers
and fathers still reverberating
in our minds, wherever our mothers
or fathers come from:
Arkansas, Belize, Alabama,
Brazil, Aruba, Arizona.
Let us simply speak
to one another,
listen and prize the inflections,
differences, never assuming
how any person will sound
until her mouth opens,
until his mouth opens,
greetings familiar
in any language.

—Allison Joseph, from Imitation of Life (2003)

 

A couple years back, I wrote a poem inspired by Allison Joseph’s “On Being Told I Don’t Speak Like a Black Person.” It addresses an issue that many young black students might have faced in school: being accused of “talking white.”

How does one “talk white”? Does one have to use big words consistently in sentences, as if a walking dictionary? Does one have to enunciate their words? Or is it the inflection of one’s voice that makes them sound “white”?

What are the requirements for speaking like a black person? Is it like yin and yang? Everything opposite of white? Should one use small words, short, choppy sentences? Should one slur vowels, treat ending consonants like d or g as if they were silent letters? Speak loudly, with a deep, threatening voice?

What’s basically being said here is that white people innately are supposed to talk “smart,” while black people by nature are ignorant and unintelligent, and therefore should speak as such. Why are we still believing these horrible stereotypes?

Anon1244479975-YoAreYouActingTooWhiteOrBeingToo257992_lgMy language has just as much to do with my race as my ability to dance, or how athletic I am, which, if you were measuring my race by stereotype, you would conclude that I am white in every way—except for the fact that I am very much BLACK, and I am not an anomaly.

It’s time we stop judging people by assumptions we’ve heard about them based on race and ethnicity. White, Black, Muslim, Latino, etc. We are all people. Open your mouths and talk to one another!

For today’s BlaPoWriMo prompt, write a poem that starts a conversation. Speak English, Spanish, French, Cajun, Gullah, Ebonics, Patois. Language can be a culture, yes, but it’s not limited to race, ethnicity, or even location. Let your poem be a Rosetta stone for your speech.

Black Poetry Writing Month: Write a Poem for the Community

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul as grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

—Langston Hughes

 

Besides freedom, a common theme in African American poetry is community. In school, we called it the “collective we.” It’s a way of thinking that African Americans exhibit even today. For example, after the tragic death of Trayvon Martin and the later acquittal of his killer, neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman in 2013, President Obama publically came out and said that Martin could have easily been his own son. It’s a mentally that we all share: if injustice happens to one of us, it happens to all of us.

Beyoncé received a lot of criticism from conservatives and cops for her portrayal of police officers in her “Formation” music video. In the video, the camera pans over graffiti that says, “Stop shooting us,” throughout the video, she is sitting (or standing) on top of a New Orleans police cruiser as it sinks underwater, and at the end of the video, a line of riot police officers surrender to a child dancing.

408-formation-beyonce-940-620x330

Conservatives called this an attack against police and said she should be grateful for the officers who protect her everyday—at her shows, appearances, etc. However, what they fail to realize is that Beyoncé isn’t speaking for herself, but for thousands of brothers and sisters who don’t have a voice—for the children in Flint, Michigan dying from contaminated drinking water while corrupt officials still keep their jobs, for the unarmed teenagers who are murdered for “looking” suspicious in hoodies and jeans, for the black men in prison serving excessive sentences for victimless crimes.

Similarly, Hughes brings the community together. His poem takes us on a journey through our history, back to the birth of civilization at the Euphrates, then deep into the heart of Africa along the Congo, up the Nile overlooking the great Egyptian pyramids, and finally to the mighty Mississippi where news of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves echoed along its banks.

wp-1455250420742.jpg
Mississippi River, New Orleans

For today’s BlaPoWriMo prompt, write a poem for the community. Use your words to unite a people. Lend your voice to a silenced generation. Provide an atmosphere of learning and understand by taking them on a journey through their heritage.

—Nortina

#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.

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 3 | Part 4

Cheyenne: Mixed and Matched continued

“So I bought that gargantuan turkey for no reason!” Rebekah’s blond hair tumbled from the crown of her head as she stood in front of the bathroom mirror and plucked Bobbi pins from her high bun.

“I really wanted to cook the turkey for everyone.” Cheyenne sat on the lid of the toilet, knees drawn to chin.

“There’s always next year, sweetie.”

“I won’t be in Mrs. Watson’s class next year!”

“Well.” Rebekah shook out her hair, scratched her scalp. “I’ll just stick it in the freezer. We’ll eat it for Christmas. You’ll cook it for the family like you always do.”

“Oh, alright.” Cheyenne poked out her bottom lip and slid down from the toilet. She wrapped her arms around her mother’s thigh and stared down and her pedicured toenails, painted pastel pink.

“Being an Indian could be fun.” Rebekah traced the tip of her fingers down the back of Cheyenne’s neck then slipped her hand underneath Cheyenne’s sweater and rubbed her back between her shoulder blades. “They have powwows, and you already wear your hair in pigtail braids. And what’s cooler than a headband with a feather in it?”

“Am I part Indian?”

“That’s an odd thing to ask.” Rebekah lifted Cheyenne’s chin toward her. “Did someone tell you that?”

“Mrs. Watson said I look like it, and my name is Indian.”

“Cheyenne can be a girl’s name too,” Rebekah said in a high-pitched voice, as if trying to convince herself. “I thought it was cute.” Rebekah leaned over Cheyenne and tore a sheet of toilet tissue from the roll behind her. She dampened it under the running faucet, brought it to her lips. “That woman’s got some nerve,” she said to her reflection in the mirror as she forcibly wiped red lipstick from her lips. “She’s been trying to figure out what you are ever since you started at that school.”

“But what am I?” Cheyenne asked.

Rebekah sighed, balled the wet, pink tissue in her fist and tossed it into the trashcan. “I don’t know, sweetheart. Your father once told me he had a little Cherokee in him, but they all say that.”

“They all who?”

Rebekah squatted to be at eye level with Cheyenne. She grabbed Cheyenne by the shoulders, pulled her closer so that their noses almost touched. “You’re my daughter. That’s all that matters,” she said. “Now come on, let’s buy your costume. You’ll be the cutest little Indian princess on stage.”

 

They searched unsuccessfully for a Pocahontas costume. Halloween had passed. The ghost and ghouls replaced by turkey balloons, harvest colored placemats, two for one foil pie dishes, and from the back corner of the stores, artificial snow, reindeer lawn decorations, diamond-shaped evergreens, and glass ornaments crept onto the shelves.

Rebekah didn’t want Cheyenne to look like every other dressed-up Indian girl. “We’ll make one instead. Yours should be unique anyway.” They pieced the outfit together from store to store. At the Shoe Department, Rebekah bought kids’ moccasin slippers. Then from across the street at Michael’s Arts and Crafts, she bought needle and thread—super glue if sewing proved to be too difficult—brown, yellow, and orange beads to decorate the moccasins with, and crane feathers for the headband.

At JC Penny, they browsed the racks for brown fringe skirts. “Do they have anything that isn’t short?” Rebekah complained. On the clearance rack, she found a sepia suede skirt that came down just past Cheyenne’s shins. It was two sizes too big. In the fitting room, Cheyenne held her arms out to the side while Rebekah stood behind her and pinched the fabric together at the waistline. If she bought it, she would have to pin it down and hope the skirt would stay up above Cheyenne’s slim hips. “We’ll make it work,” she said. In the women’s department, she picked up a brown leather belt and a leather fringe vest. “Funny how they call all this stuff cowgirl clothes,” Rebekah scoffed as the sales clerk scanned the price tags at the register. “Like the Westerners didn’t steal it from somebody.” Cheyenne drummed her fingers on the counter, anxious to see how all the pieces would look together on her.

They spread old newspaper across Cheyenne’s bedroom floor. Cheyenne lay on her stomach while Rebekah cut the vest in half then snipped the fringe into thinner, shorter strips. Cheyenne, under her mother’s warnings not to glue her fingers together, squeezed droplets of superglue onto the backs of the fringe pieces, flipped them over, and pressed them onto the suede skirt at the waistline so that it fashioned a belt, and just above the hem so that the fringe tickled her legs when she walked. Once she had completely circled the bottom and top edges of the skirt with fringe, she laid it to the side to dry, and then they started on the sewing.

Cheyenne strung the beads onto the laces of the moccasins while Rebekah threaded the needle. Then Rebekah sewed the laces together so that the beads wouldn’t fall off. Next, Rebekah beaded the thread and weaved it into the sides of the moccasins. The beads hung off the slippers like crescents and jangled when she shook them. “It’ll be like you’re a little grass dancer!” Rebekah exclaimed as she sat the moccasins next to the skirt.

Lastly, Rebekah wrapped the leather belt around Cheyenne’s head to measure the circumference needed for the headband then cut off the unnecessary ends. To tie it together, she wrapped the belt into a halo, stuck the needle through the two belt holes on the end and looped the thread around several times until she could not tear it apart. Then Cheyenne poked the stems of the feathers through the holes and pulled them partway down so the fuzz would fill the space and hold the feathers in place.

“Shall we try it on?” Rebekah picked up the headband and carefully slid it down Cheyenne’s head to the top of her ears as if crowning a princess. She tugged at the feathers so they stood erect at the back of Cheyenne’s head. “How does that feel?”

Cheyenne hurriedly nodded her head until she was dizzy.

“We did a banging good job! You’re gonna look awesome in that play.” Rebekah swept Cheyenne up into a tight bear hug and planted a wet kiss on her forehead between the top of her headband and her hairline.

© Nortina Simmons

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 3 | Part 3


So I’ve been promising a conclusion to Chapter 3 for the past several weeks now. Promises are made to be broken, but again, I’m promising that it will come next Friday. See you there! 🙂

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 3 | Part 3

Cheyenne: Mixed and Matched continued

Rebekah’s stories of Cheyenne’s father became more spirited as the year progressed. The air cooled in September, and the leaves transitioned from green to bright yellows, rustic reds, and crisp browns in October as Rebekah’s face lit up and a wave of nostalgia swept over her.

By the holidays, the slightest provocation could incite a fond memory. A classic recipe folded down, sticking to the last page of an old scrapbook reminded her of the time she nearly burned the house down baking his grandmother’s infamous coconut cookies in the oven at 500 degrees. When she and Cheyenne raked the leaves in the yard, Cheyenne often dove into a pile, lay in wait for Rebekah to return with a black garbage bag. As she began to stuff the leaves into the bag, Cheyenne popped up like a Jack-in-the-Box, startling Rebekah so that she placed her hand over her heart, exhaled uneasy laugher as memories of his hand reaching from underneath the bed to snatch her foot, his face behind a Jason mask greeting her as she exited the bathroom resurfaced to the front of her mind.

She sat Cheyenne between her legs on the front step, plucked the crunchy, broken-off tips of leaves from Cheyenne’s tangled hair and reminisced on the pranks she and Edmund played on each other in college, from water balloons, to plastic rattlesnakes, to dead stinkbugs in her shoes.

“You’re just like him. Walking around here like a ghost. Waiting to jump out of the corner and scare me.”

Cheyenne leaned back, pressed her head into her mother’s chest, extended her tongue to touch the tip of her nose. “Did he do this a lot?”

“You’re such a silly bean,” Rebekah said, kissing her forehead.

 

Thanksgiving was quickly approaching and Rebekah had a refrigerator full of food she wasn’t allowed to touch. Gayle was the cook of the family. Her turkeys were always moist, the stuffing never mush, the skin crispy—it snapped like potato chips when she sliced it.

Cheyenne never asked why they always ate Thanksgiving dinner with Gayle and Grandpa Richard; why she never met the fretting aunts who pinched Rebekah’s butt that one Christmas and fed her until she could no longer fit her clothes; why her only memories of her father came from stories Rebekah told her when she was on the verge of sleep. She couldn’t miss what she never had, what she never experienced, and cooking with Grandma Gayle was so much more enjoyable than worrying about why the other half of her family was absent. She would massage the turkey in melted butter, licking her fingers when Gayle wasn’t looking. She’d pry open the turkey’s legs, whistle inside the cavity and wait for an echo while Gayle mixed roasted vegetables into the stuffing. Together, they would fill the cavity with large spoonfuls until the stuffing spilled out into the roasting pan. Then Gayle let Cheyenne, a recent expert a shoelace tying, knot kitchen twine around the legs.

This year, on top of cooking with Gayle, Cheyenne and the rest of her kindergarten class would put on a Thanksgiving production for the entire student body of Pembroke Elementary and their families. A Feast for All, Mrs. Watson had named it; a play that would trump all Thanksgiving plays because they would have real food on stage, would pass out plates to the audience during the final curtain call. The students waited in line to receive their assignments from their teacher— who would be characters and who would be responsible for preparing the meal. Cheyenne was confident that she would be tasked with cooking the turkey. She had three years of practice with Gayle. She’d even told Rebekah to buy an extra bird, one big enough to feed the whole school. They’d browsed the poultry bins at three different grocery stores before they found one at twenty pounds.

“This thing is bigger than you when you were a baby,” Rebekah said, breathing heavy. “Maybe Grandma should baste you and stick you in the oven.”

The bag boy helped them carry it to the car. He and Rebekah held either end of the paper grocery bag while Cheyenne stood between them, hugging the bag as if it were one of her toys. The coolness of the refrigerated turkey inside seeped through the bag and chilled her chest. When they returned home, they stuffed the bird in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator where all the cold air sank and concentrated.

Cheyenne perked up when she heard Mrs. Watson call her name and write it on the blackboard. Mrs. Watson turned around, looked up at the ceiling, deep in thought, and tapped her bottom lip with the chalk, leaving a line of white dust. “You can be the Indian chief’s daughter.”

“But I wanted to do the turkey.” Cheyenne drooped her shoulders and hunched her back.

“That will be Rebecca’s job.” Mrs. Watson pointed the chalk to her left at Rebecca, who looked at Cheyenne over her shoulder and smirked, only the left side of her lips parting to show her white teeth.

“My dad has his own restaurant. It’ll be a piece of cake.”

“But I’ve been helping my grandma cook Thanksgiving turkey since I was two.”

“I think you’ll make a great Indian princess. You’ll be little Pocahontas. You’ve seen the movie, right?” Mrs. Watson said.

Cheyenne turned her back to hide her tears.

“Aren’t you part Indian anyway?”

Cheyenne shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know.”

“Well, I only thought because of your name. And you look—” Mrs. Watson spun around and wrote ‘little Pocahontas’ on the blackboard next to Cheyenne’s name. “Never mind. You’ll be the Indian princess. Join the rest of the tribe.” She pointed her stick of chalk behind her toward the back left corner of the room, where four other students huddled and whispered. Cheyenne dragged her feet in their direction.

“Welcome, my princess,” Ricky Reynolds said, his voice deep, coming from the back of his throat, bouncing like a steady heartbeat. “I am Chief Candlestick.” He and the other three Indians, Natasha, Susie, and Luis Gomez snickered behind their teeth, then opened their arms and pulled her into the circle.

© Nortina Simmons

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 3 | Part 4

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 3 | Part 2

Cheyenne: Mixed and Matched continued

By five, most children knew of the stork that dropped their tiny infant bodies wrapped in cotton blankets off at their parents’ doorsteps, but Rebekah told a different story. She tucked Cheyenne in bed, plugged in her Little Mermaid night light, and as Cheyenne’s droopy eyelids fluttered, fighting off sleep, Rebekah told her tales of beans in ovens at Christmastime, of great aunts swarming around her, squeezing her arms, slapping her thighs, fretting about seeing her bones, why she didn’t eat real food, how she could push out a baby with those narrow hips. They fed her deep fried turkey, honey glazed ham, sweet potato casserole, macaroni with a burnt layer of cheese on top, rice with giblet gravy, collards cooked in neck bones. A dinner that fed the soul.

Rebekah unbuttoned her jeans, put on a Christmas sweater she found folded underneath the tree when her own sweater pulled too tightly across her satisfied stomach. Santa’s face on her chest, but instead of the rosy cheeks she knew as a child, his was a roasted chestnut brown.

The family stood around the piano as the matriarch’s long, thin fingers fluttered over the keys and sang “Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child,” the only song she knew how to play. They stomped their feet, clapped their hands to the up-tempo music, sang from deep within their guts, their dinner sitting at the pit of their stomachs creating a bass that projected their voices, filling the room, seeping through the walls, pouring out into the quiet neighborhood. When the song ended, they started again. A reprise growing louder, more animated. The women began to dance, raising their arms, exalting the Father for the birth of His Son. Jumping up and down, shaking their heads, tears streaming down their cheeks, they shouted, “Glory! Glory! Glory!”

During the third reprise, Edmond snuck Rebekah down to the basement where she was greeted by clouds of her breath in the darkness. As they climbed down, they could see the yard decorations through the high rectangular window to the left of the staircase. Rudolf’s hooves blinked, the multicolored net lights grazed the bottom of the bushes, the luminary bags lit up the walkway.

The basement floor was cleared of clutter. He had pushed all the unused furniture—broken end tables, old box springs, worn out couches—against the walls, making space in the center of the floor for an air mattress. He guided her to the bed, and they lay together on the cold floor, cocooned in the ragged quilt, legs entwined. She fell asleep rapt in the flashing Christmas lights reflected on the windowpane, wrapped in his arms.

“You were due in September,” Rebekah told Cheyenne. “You came a month and a half late, the week before Halloween. My little pumpkin pie. You browned a little longer in the oven.” She kissed Cheyenne’s forehead when her breathing became steady, when her stomach rumbled with dreams of a weeklong feast devoured in one night and of a Santa sitting on the extinguished yule log in the fireplace, attempting to wipe the soot from his face with his beard, succeeding only in deepening it into his skin and the fibers of his hair.

© Nortina Simmons

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 3 | Part 3


This week’s installment of Chapter 3 is only short because the scene I have planned for next week is going to be pretty long and I didn’t want to break it into parts. So stay tuned for the very long conclusion to Chapter 3! You don’t want to miss it!

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 3 | Part 1

Cheyenne: Mixed and Matched

Cheyenne’s mother, Rebekah, had long, blond hair, smooth as silk. Whenever she stepped outside, it turned white as her eyebrows, absorbing the sun’s rays, a natural bleach. When wet, it was yellow and clumped together like sunflower petals. She would comb her fingers through the strands, lifting her roots at the crown, raking her hair over her shoulders, the ends dropping from her French manicured nails, brushing across her elbows and settling at the small of her back. It dried into wind-swept beach waves. She often styled her hair in a French braid down her spine, weaving the sections together until she reached the base of her neck. Then Cheyenne would crawl behind her, rise on her knees and twist her stubby fingers back and forth, in and out down the braid until she couldn’t go any further and swung the end of the tail over her mother’s shoulder, and Rebekah loosely tied it with a rubber band.

Cheyenne was her mother’s twin, just a few shades tanner. Her green eyes matched Rebekah’s, their noses a pair of acute triangles, lips full only when puckered, pink as the distant horizon at sunset. “We are gorgeous women,” Rebekah would say as she tousled her hair in the bathroom mirror, bent down toward Cheyenne, who could barely reach the sink, and pinched her cheek, creating a natural blush. “Save the makeup for the people who need it.”

Cheyenne’s hair was as long as her mother’s, though not as elegant. It was a brownish blond with copper undertones, thick, especially at the crown and the nape of the neck. After she broke four teeth in her comb and snapped that handle on her favorite brush, Rebekah opted to style Cheyenne’s hair only when wet. It shrank into tiny curls when she lathered it with shampoo, suds filling the bottom of the sink. She rinsed it out and scooped a heaping of conditioner into her palm, spread it over Cheyenne’s hair like butter on pancakes, wrapped a plastic grocery bag around her head and had her sit on the edge of the kitchen sink in front of the window—where the sun bared directly through at exactly eleven o’ clock—and played Cat’s Cradle with her for half an hour. “Your hair is beautiful, sweetheart,” she said in her cool voice, breath like mint, “but I gotta soften out those curls. Make them easy to work with.”

When she rinsed out the conditioner, she split the hair down the middle, tied one half in a side ponytail and out of the way so she could blow dry the other half. She stuffed Cheyenne’s ears with cotton balls to muffle the harsh sound of the blow dryer’s motor, and using the pick attachment, combed out the curls. The first half was always easiest, the curls still wet and loose. The pick glided down the length of it as if her hair had been freshly pressed. Dried, Cheyenne’s combed out, wavy tresses extended just past her shoulder blades, and Rebekah French braided it, like her own hair, into a pigtail.

The second half was partially dry when she started on it—the ends were still damp, but the roots had begun to frizz. Flyaway strands had curled around each other into knots, and she plucked them out, yanking Cheyenne’s head back, Cheyenne screaming for her mother to be gentle. Rebekah pressed her hand down on Cheyenne’s crown to stabilize her head and ripped the blow dryer through her hair, clumped shed hairs floating to the floor, Cheyenne lightly whimpering as the pick scraped across her scalp like claws.

Often, Cheyenne’s grandmother, Gayle, would visit while Rebekah was attacking the stubborn second half of Cheyenne’s head. Gayle wasn’t as pretty has her daughter, her hair, a dirtier blond than Rebekah’s, always tied in a low ponytail underneath a visor hat, her face and shoulders rusted red under the sun after playing tennis all morning at the country club.

She brought saltine crackers and peanut butter, sat at the kitchen table where Rebekah styled Cheyenne’s hair, and scooped dollops of peanut butter onto the crackers, pressed them together to make sandwiches. As Rebekah’s yanks became more forceful— Cheyenne’s hair quickly drying into a tight, frizzy puff before Rebekah could smooth it out with the blow dryer—Gayle placed a cracker sandwich into Cheyenne’s mouth, the thick peanut butter gluing her tongue to the roof so that she couldn’t open it wide to yell. She made faces, smacking her lips, to distract Cheyenne from the pain in her head.

While Cheyenne giggled and laughed, tracing the lines around Gayle’s tight, thin lips, Gayle leaned over the plate of saltine crackers and peanut butter on the table, sucking her front teeth and flicking crumbs from her fingers, staring at Rebekah struggle to tame the child’s hair.

“Why don’t you just perm it? Save yourself the trouble,” she said, the tight skin on her forehead pulling into shallow wrinkles as she frowned.

“I can’t, Mom. It’s part of her heritage.”

“A nappy head? I would think there are better things you’d want to cherish.”

“You would, wouldn’t you? You never liked Edmond to begin with,” Rebekah said, tugging Cheyenne’s head back as the pick attachment snagged a knot.

“Ouch, Mommy!”

“I’m sorry, honey. Almost done.” She lifted the last section of hair at Cheyenne’s temples and gently racked the dryer through, using her other hand to cover the tender edges.

“Be careful that you don’t call your mother a name you’ll regret,” Gayle said, wagging her finger.

Rebekah switched the dryer off and slammed it on the kitchen table. “After a while, one arm will be buffer than the other!” she said winding her arm and rolling her shoulders. She took the cotton balls from Cheyenne’s ears and kissed both earlobes. “All done, sweetie. Now I’ll just braid it like we always to Mommy’s.”

Cheyenne nodded, sucking the peanut butter from her tongue, crumbs surrounding her mouth.

“Way to change the subject.” Gayle said and pinched the wiggly Cheyenne who was ready to plant her feet firmly in the grass and stretch her body up towards the sky after sitting nearly two hours on her bottom.

© Nortina Simmons

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 3 | Part 2