Winner of the 2011 Matt Clark Prize, Selected by Susan Straight
You can smell oil in the air and the hummingbirds don’t like it. Jamer can’t hear them when Ivory’s around, but she’s gone inside. He closes his eyes. The hummers speak of migration and what they’ve seen, oil spewing into the Gulf. If it keeps gushing, all of New Orleans will drown or burn, especially the brightly colored flowers. The red buds and purple plum trees. Jamer feels helpless. He opens his eyes, wishes he was a bird. At least then he could fly. He pours fresh syrup into the basin-feeders. Hummingbirds levitate above the sugar water, their wings whirring. They lick the air with their translucent tongues. What a miracle this world once was, they tell him: we are creatures flown from the pulse of God. Jamer nods, and then mentions his own troubles. The gangbangers think he’s sissified. The bird freak. Else they wouldn’t have kidnapped Calvin.
He figures the hummers saw the school guidance counselor stop by yesterday to report that Ivory’s developmentally disabled half brother Calvin had vanished from his special education classroom. The friendly two hundred pound twelve year old has been living with Jamer and his wife since Calvin’s full sister Genesis said she couldn’t afford him—he ate too much. “Are you people just noticing?” Jamer pulled at the neck of his t-shirt, and then in his quiet manner told the counselor. “Two days ago kids led Calvin out of your junior high.” Although he’s tall, Jamer always feels like he’s looking up to shorter people. Like the gangbangers, the counselor figured him for a good boy, a softie, a married man at age eighteen.
Didn’t the guidance counselor know about the new low-level kidnapping wave sweeping through the old neighborhood, the Cold Hearts and Lizardi Street Blue Dudes competing for scarce dollars? Hummers, how do I come up with the ransom demanded by Dante “Fig” Newton of the Cold Hearts? Do you have anything to say on that score?
He hears his wife’s voice. “Jamer, I want to talk to you.” Ivory taps on the window above the kitchen sink. She is beating eggs and sifting flour, making an angel food cake from scratch. On top of everything it’s his nineteenth birthday tomorrow. She uses real whipped cream and ripe strawberries, not the pale ones that are dyed crimson and taste raw. Her shirt is printed with green willows that knot under her breastbone. Three years older than him and two heads shorter, her bangs are gelled to her forehead in spit curls. She’s an entrepreneur and her Ivory’s Custom Cakes business for birthdays, anniversaries and weddings has been growing. The counters are overrun with spatulas and baking pans and pastry tubes.
“They just called again,” she says, tears trembling in her light brown eyes. “The Cold Hearts want their four hundred dollars today. They said to tell you to bring it over to Reynes Street. Otherwise, they’re blowing his fat ass away.”
“Four hundred! Yesterday, it was three hundred!” Jamer stiffens, a lump forms in his throat that’s hard to swallow. He picks up the spoon she’s just stirred with and tastes the warm, sweet flour. She’s making a frosting mold of a ruby-throated hummer to decorate his cake. “That’s a hundred more than yesterday.”
She touches his cheek with her knuckles’ hazy sultriness. “That’s because of expenses. Food and lodging for Calvin.”
Jamer clenches his fists. He’s as weak as those hermit crabs stuck in the oil. The day before yesterday Dante “Fig” Newton sent one of his gangsta girls over to the Rite Aid Market where Jamer works part-time, held up a cell phone and showed him a slideshow: Calvin with a lip split, with his glasses broken like a bird; Calvin holding one wing in each clumsy hand; Calvin, marshmallow-soft but big as a refrigerator, crying, his nose bloody.
“I have a hundred dollars saved from my cakes. I’ll throw it in the pot.” Her eyes flash before she breaks out in a laugh trying to keep the sobs back. She’s showing the sliver of space between her two front teeth. If he truly loves something about her features, he thinks it’s that space.
“And I have a hundred and fifty put away,” he says. “We’ll use that.”
Jamer and Ivory live in a modular home—real rooms after all those months in trailers. They picked up a midnight blue couch that someone had set out on the curb, fat starlit pillows and silver legs. Ivory matched curtains to the couch. The color of those old Evening in Paris bottles her grandmother gave her to play with. They hoped to grow a life. And now this. They’re each starting their own business and need every dollar. Jamer’s bought a pickup and is using it to move people from here to there. Since Ivory started baking for kids’ parties, he’s done more driving cakes around than anything. Once people taste an Ivory cake, all decorated like a Sunday hat, their friends want one too.
They bring out the cash on hand and sit at the table to count. “One hundred and nine dollars,” Ivory says, unfolding them. Paper-clipped, worn-out, hard-earned cash. Jamer empties his Band-aid can. Cashier work, standing and taking money and waiting for debit card processing and giving change and saying “next customer” again and again. A five-dollar bill with an ear torn off, a taped twenty, twelve one-dollar bills. It’s seeing all those wrinkled ones that have been smoothed, all the “next customer” work done to collect this money that makes him mad. What kind of guys are the Cold Hearts that they can feel good spending this? He knows some of them and that’s not how they used to be. The kind of guys who beat one of their kidnap victims with a two-by-four board.
“Maybe we can take the two hundred and fifty-nine dollars over there and they’ll say good enough,” Ivory says, wringing her hands. “But who’s to say they won’t kidnap me or you next?”
There is nothing to say they won’t. “Come here,” he says. “Sit on my lap and let’s hold each other, I’m going to visit Genesis and ask your sister for the rest of the money? She’s his full sister.” He kisses Ivory’s forehead that smells of pecans and nutmeg. He’s not getting fright nerves; he’s going to stay strong. His wife doubts he’ll get any money out of Genesis. Both Genesis and Ivory lost their mothers, Ivory’s to cancer, Genesis’s to a car accident. Their father is supposedly living in Los Angeles, but he’s rarely in touch. Genesis hates to say goodbye to even a dollar. Ivory sent her mother into the ground bedecked in satin and bronze, while Genesis cremated hers in the next best thing to a cardboard box. “It’s how I want it for myself,” Genesis had said. “No fuss, no muss.”
Ivory stands up and before he knows it he’s pulling on his t-shirt neck and chewing it. He thinks of his father teaching him about guns. It’s the boss. It gets you respect. He doesn’t believe that. Besides what good is a gun going to do him on Reynes Street when all the guys carry chromes. He’ll lose in a shootout. She squeezes his shoulders. “I don’t want you going over to Reynes Street alone. If I’m with you whatever happens happens to me too.” She draws her eyebrows together and frowns. “Say something. Are you going to let me go with you?”
Jamer’s eyes are steady in his head, brown flecked with fool’s gold, like mica. “No, I’m not.”
It’s already hot and the fan lifts a corner of the midnight blue tablecloth. They don’t like to use the air conditioning until they have to. The TV is on and Governor Bobby Jindal fills the screen. He’s out on the barrier island searching through the grasses for signs of oil. His hair shines so it hurts Jamer’s eyes. He’s talking about the Deepwater Horizon blowout and how it’s nesting seasons for hundreds of species. There’s oil in the mangroves.
“I think God is mad at Louisiana,” Ivory says. “First Katrina and Rita and now this.” Her forehead crinkles up like one of those bills. “Promise you’ll call 911 if worst comes to worst.”
They both know 911 and police are out of the question. You never snitch if you want to go on living, but you can’t back down scared either. “I’ll call as soon as I collect Calvin,” Jamer says. The Cold Hearts aren’t afraid of the police. They aren’t scared of anything except their own shadows. They sure don’t give two hoots about the oil gushing into the Gulf. He glances again at the TV. There’s an aerial shot of the spill, a reddish-rust stain forty miles across. A man from the Audubon Society is talking about the oiled birds. “Don’t try to touch them yourself,” the man cautions. Jamer watches one of the rescue people carry the oiled creature from the water in his arms, the great wings heavy with muck, deflated, bedraggled, but the eye glowing like a pebble of fire. That brown pelican brother is stuck. Jamer’s stuck too. Between the Cold Hearts and Blue Dudes.
On his way to his pickup he pauses for a moment with his hummers. Three at the feeders and watching them gives him strength.
He buzzes her doorbell. Genesis is his wife’s half sister. They share a father but were raised by different mothers. They don’t get along. He buzzes again. He feels the air change around him. Something inside him flies up into the stratosphere, highs connecting with lows. The door opens. She is as tall as he. Dreads of ash blond and black hair drape each shoulder. She wears an almost-not-there sundress. Her long legs are stowed in cowboy boots. Her skin is a pale apricot color and matches those winter wheat braids. She works in the financial aid office and goes to New Orleans University. Financial aid likely helps with this nice place.
“Hello, Jamer sweet. Did Calvin have to get himself kidnapped before you’d visit me?” She holds the door wide, and then lets it close easy behind her. After he settles into a chair, she bolts the door and chain locks it.
“I think Calvin needs your help,” he says, watching a pearl of water drop from the kitchen faucet.
Everything neat and shining. The table is set with place mats. A laptop in the corner stares at him, picture on, sound muted. It’s a video hook-up showing a live feed of the oil bubbling from the wellhead. A black smoke burning three miles under the water.
“I’m wondering if you’ve heard from the Cold Hearts.” How Calvin dark as a skillet could be full brother to peach-skinned Genesis he can’t figure. Same father, same mother.
Ignoring his question she turns her back and cracks open the refrigerator. “Beer, Jamer?” Her fingernails are pale blue with crescent moons on the tip of each nail. She pops the cap of a bottle beer off on the edge of the Formica counter. He hasn’t met a girl before who could do that. “Want a brewskie?” she asks. “Sam Adams or Anchor Steam?”
He shakes his head. “I can’t. I’ve got to pick up your brother. They have him on Reynes Street.” He remembers the first time he saw her. Ivory and Genesis had acted in a school play. They were both older women—tenth-grade girls—and he was a skinny junior high kid. The half sisters had parts in Gimme A Pig Foot, named after a Bessie Smith signature tune. Genesis played Bessie and Ivory took the part of Ma Rainey. Both girls tried to paint the singers’ broad faces onto their own, shimmering gold over their cheeks. Jamer thought they were stardust goddesses, that far above him.
“Come on. Drink a beer with me.” Genesis is used to having things her way. Women get quiet when she passes by.
“I have to drive; I don’t give the cops a reason to take away my liberty.” He notices the brown glass of the Anchor Steam gives off bits of light like she does. “They’ve upped their demands,” he tells her, thinking of how scared Calvin is of the dark, how he has to sleep with two pillows, one to hold and one for his head. And those little squeaking sounds he makes. Nights used to frighten Jamer too. Nights changed daytime people. Fights started in the dark.
“I know, charmer,” she says. “He eats a lot. Have a beer with me, Jamer.”
She calls him charmer, but she is the real enchanter. Her soft voice like a pillow you could rest your head on. Everything about her. “Listen, Genesis, we’ve got two hundred and fifty-nine dollars toward Calvin’s ransom. We need a hundred and forty dollars more to take over to the Cold Hearts on Reynes Street. Do you have anything you can throw into the pot?”
“Your hair is cropped.” She laughs, not answering his question. “Who shaved you like that? It shows off the pretty shape of your head.” Pretty? What is that supposed to mean? That he’s sissified. She plops into the chair next to him. “Haven’t you saved anyone this week? Do you need to save my brother? You’re a do-gooder, babe. They come to bad ends.”
She likes you, Ivory used to tease, marry her.
The bare apricot thigh moves close to his jean leg. Pretty soon it will be dusk and he wants to get to Reynes Street and back before dark.
She tips her beer. “Calvin and I had another brother who drowned,” she says, taking a long swallow and pinning him with those cloudless eyes. Like his wife she has a soft pretty face with curling up lashes and a dimple in her chin.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“It was weird. A dry drowning, Have you ever heard of it?”
“Never.” But he knows he’ll hear soon. That’s the way some girls are. They try to hook you by telling you their most hurtful precious secret. You were stuck then.
“I was with him. It was in the city park swimming pool. He was playing bomb-diving with a couple friends. You know jumping on top each other and seeing how long they could keep each other under water. He got out of the pool and we walked home. He went into the house and told our mother he was tired. He died in his bed. Drowned.” One tear trickles down her cheek like it’s asking him to wipe it away.
“Is that why you’re not fighting for Calvin’s life?” he asks, turning back from that tear. She’s a beautiful girl, too pretty for him. Her tongue is licking her bottom lip’s orange gloss. The hummers would mistake her mouth for a flower.
“I have forty dollars I can pitch in. Honestly, it’s all I’ve got. I was serious when I said he ate too much to keep him. I had to put a lock on the refrigerator. I’m going to school trying to lift myself up. Calvin’s loveable but he drags me down. I can’t swim with him. I’ll drown. I don’t believe the Cold Hearts will hurt him.”
“I do,” he says, swallowing hard.
“Don’t go there, Jamer. They might hurt you. God takes care of drunks and idiots.”
“Calvin is an innocent,” Jamer says, objecting to the word idiot.
She presses her hand over his, trying to work her fingers between his knuckles. “Jamer sweet, God doesn’t take care of do-gooders.”
“Genesis, I have to go.” He remembers she used to go around with Dante before he added “Fig” to the middle of his name. Once Dante worked hard in school, but then his brother was killed. Broadsided by a drunken white woman who had been living in her car with her mother and a bottle of vodka.
She sighs and gets up, opening her purse.
The Lower Ninth, Jamer stops at a red light. The whole city has come back better than ever, except here, where the lots still look bare of trees and grass, a stark brokenness to whatever you happen to rest eyes upon. He finds the first working ATM at the strip shopping center with an Iberia Bank. He checks the balance and withdraws twenty more to add to the two hundred and ninety-nine dollars in his pocket, folds the money, receipt, and bank card inside. He doesn’t like carrying money. Not only the Cold Hearts can smell it. The Blue Dudes too have dogs trained for fighting and dogs trained for sniffing cash. The Cold Heart’s clubhouse sits in the middle of the block surrounded by abandoned homes and empty lots.
Reynes Street. The smooth pavement turns to potholes and in places the road washes away. He swerves around piles of plastic containers and splintery wood. He hasn’t been down here since Katrina. He doesn’t recognize the neighborhood, and then he does. Green, violet, rose and white shotgun houses with black waterlines dividing them. There used to be a Winn Dixie right there in that weed lot that would lock their electronic doors at 9:00 p.m. and the cashiers and meat wrappers would take off their white coats and aprons and melt into the night. One night an ex-con named Drano, who worked in the meat department with the rib eyes and t-bones, stabbed his cashier girlfriend, Poinsettia. She bled to death behind the checkout counter. There wasn’t any article in the Times Picayune. Just HELP WANTED taped to the glass entrance door. Summer nights his father bought sweet corn there. Two ears for a dollar. Jamer loved husking, touching all that corn silk. He made corncob dolls with green wilderness hair. One he called Poinsettia. He never told his father about that, his daddy thought he was soft enough.
Slicker Little is sitting in a lawn chair on the porch of the Cold Hearts’ clubhouse. Jamer has known him since kindergarten and up through the grades. Jamer finished school and Slicker fell by the wayside. Slicker was a natural athlete, always the star quarterback. When Jamer slams the pickup’s door, which you have to otherwise it won’t shut, the milk glass in the clubhouse door rattles. “Wassup, Pajamas?” he asks using Jamer’s most unfavorite nickname. “Big boy is upstairs waiting.” His ring sparkles red, blue and white. Ruby, sapphire, diamond, what they call the patriot. Slicker wears his patriot on his thumb. “If you’ve got the four hundred cash,” he says, “you can pick up slobber baby. We’re about sick of him.” There’s a telltale bulge at his beltline.
“I’ve got the cash,” Jamer says, in his most determined voice. “You bring Calvin down.” He wants to ask Slicker how he’s doing but he can’t. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of Cold Hearts around. A good many of them grew up together in the Chef Menteur Houses. That includes Dante “Fig” Newton. They haven’t cleaned this place that once belonged to Slicker’s great-aunt Miss Harriet. What he can glimpse of the cream-colored walls inside wear a speckled greenish-brown frog skin. Jamer and Slicker used to play pickle here on the front lawn, Slicker standing on one end and Jamer on the other throwing a ball back and forth and the kid in the middle trying to grab it.
“Come on in, footsie pajamas,” Dante cackles from the upstairs window. Likely he’s carrying a chrome in a holster. They must have a lookout down the street. “I’m inviting you into my house. There’s nothing to be scared of unless you’re a jelly ass chicken little.”
Jamer touches the three hundred and nineteen dollars in his jean pocket. He knows he’s got negotiating to do. He glances behind and sees Slicker easing his earphones back in his ears and settling into his folding chair. Then his old friend turns his way, gives the a-okay finger sign. Each step Jamer takes makes the wood answer back and when he opens the old-fashioned screen door it lets out a creak. Dante is standing on the first floor landing. He’s a slinky, light-skinned, small-sized guy with Shirley Temple spiral curls. There’s the smell of the flood in Jamer’s nostrils. He stops between Miss Harriet’s coffee table and the couch with its tasseled, rose-velour stiffened into a lump of mold. Things still frozen in the act of swimming. A tapestry stool, the TV set staring at the ceiling with its blind eye. It’s hard to see the farther he moves from the door, although there’s light coming from a lamp and the stairway. The Cold Hearts must have hijacked some electricity.
Miss Harriet was a school teacher way back in the day. She took pride in how she could boss the commas and semicolons and independent clauses around and she doted on her niece’s son Slicker. She drilled grammar into him and any kid who happened to be there, and afterwards served pink lemonade and sugar wafers. Slicker used to write sentences that teachers loved; they ran on and on all wrapped up with dashes and colons. Miss Harriet would be sad to see Slicker wasting his time on the porch knuckle-cracking. You’re my flower, Raymond. My boy flower. She was the only one who called Slicker by his birth certificate name—Raymond.
“Your daddy’s come to pick you up,” Dante “Fig” Newton shouts up another flight of stairs. “This heathen’s a hungry mother. He’s not getting fed again. If I told the heathen to eat mold, he would.”
It’s an outer space house. The water did all this. Like a fire had burned through. He takes in the ceiling with its medallion fixtures and milk-glass bulbs. A yellow breakfast nook and a wall phone. Little chicken-of-the-forest spores in the telephone cabinet. Mold growing from the floor like cypress stumps. The water must have pulled the shelves from the chestnut buffet and carried off the china. Teapots and jelly dishes and ice scrapers. On the remaining shelf sits a gravy ladle with weeping willows. He can’t help himself. Jamer nudges the door and peeks in the kitchen. Cupboards hang crookedly from their hinges. The copper kettles are gone. On the stove stickiness has spread and a broiler weighs down the burners. Neptune’s dirty brother was here. Mampi, god of sewers. But he can feel the cold from the refrigerator, a new model and not the one here in Miss Harriet’s time.
He stands at the bottom of the stairway. Between the banisters root-like webs weave themselves. Under the steps he notices bundles of copper wiring and plumbing pipe. The Cold Hearts look about ready to go into the construction business. He reaches for the neck of his t-shirt and pulls it toward his mouth. He thinks of all the pillows he’s gnawed in his life, the teeth marks that even Ivory teases him about. She sometimes watches him in his sleep, tries to take the pillow from his mouth. Born jittery, part hummingbird.
A girl appears behind Dante and her arm snakes around his waist. He nudges her down the flight of stairs. “Gangsta Girl, go get the money from freaking Pajamas there. Count it and make sure he’s not counterfeiting your butt.”
The girl in low-riding jeans and silver sequin top wiggles her way toward Jamer. He knows he’s supposed to demand to see Calvin before he hands the ransom over. Slicker has entered the house behind him and now he’s boxed in. That place you’re never supposed to be. Now what?
“Gangsta Girl, bring me a cold one after you count the money,” Dante orders.
She takes the envelope from Jamer and licks her thumb like she’s a cashier. She frowns when she finishes. “It’s not all here, Fig.”
The house hears that. It twitches before going still. “How much is he shy?” Dante asks, shrugging his narrow shoulders and shifting from foot to foot.
“Eighty-one dollars,” she answers, before disappearing into the kitchen.
Jamer figures she’s gone to fetch Dante’s beer. Is that how everything works? One big shot at the top of every little hill and everyone falling over themselves to please him?
Another Cold Heart, this one shirtless and in low-riding jeans with a swath of boxer shorts on display, emerges from the upstairs. “Whatcha going to do with him, Fig?” Dante gives him a nod and the low rider heads down the stairs. He stops halfway down to glare at Jamer. His tattooed chest looks like a graffiti-tagged Yield sign. Should Jamer back out, make a run for it? Slicker might let him ease by. A shrill barking bursts from somewhere above him. Dante instructs the tattooed man to go water the mutt. He’s got everything here under control.
Jamer knows dogs scare Calvin. He was seven years old during the storm and one of the stray dogs had bitten him. Jamer remembers being followed by a filthy yellow Labrador. The dog had been in the water and was hungry. Poor miserable creature. On top of everything else you had to beware of pets gone wild.
Gangsta Girl climbs the stairs with Dante’s beer. “Where’s my mother freaking eighty-one dollars, bozo?” Dante challenges, taking a pull on the bottle.
Thrusting his shoulders back, Jamer speaks in an even voice. “I’m not shy a cent. In fact, I overpaid you by nineteen dollars. You sent Gangsta Girl over with pictures of Calvin and she told me it was three hundred dollars to get him back free of harm. I brought the money you asked for. I kept my word. I kept my side of the bargain.”
Jamer sees a flash of Miss Harriet like a light bulb switched on and off between Dante and Gangsta Girl, the glow of her kindly face. Too old to climb on stepladders, she’d ask the boys to take down her lace curtains and wash them with vinegar and hot water in the bathtub, and then hang them outside on the clothesline. Once Slicker caught Jamer pressing his nose into a drying curtain because he could smell the sun and breeze in it. “What are you doing, Jamer, trying on softie pajamas?”
Dante shakes his spiral curls. “Bargain, this isn’t no bargain. Are you trying to play clown on me? Fool, we called your wench and told her the price had gone up to four hundred dollars. Now I’m pissed off, the price is five hundred dollars and you and that heathen upstairs aren’t moving until two hundred mother freaking dollars more shows up.” He stamps his foot and touches the silver gun, a .48 caliber holstered to his side.
Dante has to stay a flight of stairs above Jamer because he’s short. Even Gangsta Girl is taller. Maybe Dante doesn’t remember those summer nights when Miss Harriet let friends of Slicker play spot in her yard. The boys each tied a white dish towel around their necks. They drew straws to determine who would be it. When Dante got the short straw they teased him. Pimple boy. Maybe because he was so light-skinned he had acne blossoms showing on his chin and nose. Dante counted to ten (one thousand one, one thousand two) while the rest of the boys ran into the dark.
“The truth is no one’s messing with you, Dante,” Jamer said, not knowing whether he should try hiding the truth. “The money is all we could come up with. Ivory, Genesis, and me. We don’t have it.”
Dante gives a snort, rolling his eyes. “No, bro, you’ve got it. Your wife needs to take a couple strolls around the block showing some leg. That freaking ice princess Genesis can make a hundred bucks in two minutes. Calvin just isn’t incentive enough. Maybe the two of them would work harder if it’s your jelly ass in the slam. What about that pickup out there?”
“What about it?”
“Throw me the keys and you and fat boy can walk away.” Dante’s grinning like the kid playing with a flashlight in an alley.
He feels like Dante just kicked him in the stomach. The pickup is his skin. It’s Ivory and his future, their businesses depend on it. It’s their leg up in the world. He hears more excited barking from above, and then a squeaking sound. Calvin’s calling him, squeaking like a terrified mouse. Jamer takes the first stairs in a leap, flies by Dante, fast. He shoulders open the first door he comes to. A bedroom, a king-sized bed layered with burgundy comforters and pillows. It’s cleaner up here where the water didn’t reach. Jamer tries the door that used to be Miss Harriet’s room. One sad lace curtain. Blue spike Cole Hann high heels sitting on the single bed, alligator boots still in the box. A roomful of mildewed shoes, a mound of sneakers. All the running and dancing these shoes missed. They never lived. This must have been a staging ground for loot. He hears more squeaking. Calvin’s way of crying. Jamer backs out into the hall and pushes the door to Slicker’s old room open. There’s a beagle in a large cage, the high-pitched barking reminds him of breaking glass. The dog’s water dish is empty. Calvin cowers in a corner littered with fast food containers and Big Gulp cups. He rocks himself and makes squeaking sounds, clutching a pillow. Each time the dog barks, Calvin trembles.
“Calvin, it’s me. It’s me, honey,” he says, kneeling down. Calvin lifts his large head. Jamer feels the heat inside his forehead and cheeks when he sees they’ve tied his hands and roped him to the dog’s cage. On the floor Calvin’s taped glasses knock against the woodwork. Jamer spits on the knots to loosen them. His head breaks out in sweat as he struggles to untie Calvin. Finally, he frees him. Jamer picks up the black frames and pushes them on Calvin. They sit crookedly on his big round face. He’s filthy, there’s ketchup and dirt on his shirt and wet spots on his unzipped pants. Rivulets of tears on his face that is the color of dust and putty. Now he recognizes Jamer and cries out. “JAM! JAM!”
“Stand up, big boy. Let’s get you to your feet.” The dog keeps yelping and Jamer wishes he had water to pour into that bowl. He crouches, letting Calvin hang onto him as slowly he lifts the boy to his feet. Calvin throws his meaty arms around him and hugs until Jamer can hardly breathe. “You can do that later.” He takes Calvin by the hand and leads him toward the porch. There’s a door that used to lead to an old stairway. Outside the sun is about to set in wisps of lipstick-colored clouds.
“You can’t go out that way any more. Those outside steps washed away.” The tattooed man appears in the doorway, a towel around his neck and a water jug in his hand. “Take the stairs, brother. Dante’s had time to cool off. You just have to give him the keys to your truck.” Jamer tells him that his dog is thirsty. Likely hungry too. The man splashes water from the jug into the dog’s bowl. The beagle laps joyously.
You’re not treating your dog like he deserves, Jamer thinks. If they can just walk out of the house, give an IOU, not give up the keys, they’ll be okay. Calvin won’t let go of him. He’s blubbering, leaving a line of spittle along Jamer’s arm. “JAM. JAM.” He thinks he hears giggling from the room with the king-size bed and burgundy comforters. “Come on, boy, let’s keep going.”
They’re in the foyer ready to walk into the dusk. Jamer’s hand is on the screen door. They’ll say goodbye to the house and the pantry. The mildew with iridescent spots and silken fins. Urns and blistered paint where the mushrooms and toadstools take on shapes.
“Hold it! Freeze!” Dante jumps a flight down, lunging toward Jamer. He’s grinding his even white teeth. “Keys. Gimme the keys, Pajama. That’s the deal.”
His forehead and cheeks burn. “You go on outside, Calvin.” He pushes the boy out onto the porch.
“The keys.” Dante stretches out his hand. “It’s your own fault, sucker. You could be a Cold Heart instead of a chump. You could be Robin Hood like me.”
He reaches into his pocket, grasps the keys. “You don’t steal from the rich. You steal from the poor. That’s too easy. That’s lazy money.” Jamer’s eyelid is twitching, but he stares Dante right in his oil-colored eyes. He thinks of the wetlands burning. Mangroves being flooded. They are all coated in oil. “You might be a hood but you’re no Robin Hood,” he says.
Dante lifts his chrome from his carry holster. He coughs like a piece of popcorn is caught in his throat. “This is a real gun, Pajamas. Not a cap gun. I could pop you and that useless mouth. You’re as stupid as fat boy, Jamer. I let you get by on the money and then you try to school me.” There’s the eruption of the gun and blue flash from the muzzle as Dante shoots out the TV set. The glass shards make a tinkling sound. Like cloudless sulfur moths in fog. Then Dante laughs. “I was sick of that TV’s eyeball staring at me. You’re dead you TV sucker.” This is the kingdom of Dante “Fig” Newton.
Jamer tosses Dante the keys, then pushes out the screen door. The tears keep grooving Calvin’s cheeks as Jamer digs in his pockets for napkins. He wipes Calvin’s nose, tells him to blow.
The angel food cake lords the countertop, all frosted with whipped cream and strawberries. It’s a double celebration. Calvin’s homecoming and Jamer’s birthday. A platter of homemade French fries sits in the middle of the table. It’s what Calvin requested for his dinner. Both Ivory and Genesis are here in pink sundresses that show their arms and shoulders. Just looking at them makes him smile. No one mentions the pickup. He’ll walk Ivory’s cakes from here to there. “You’re going to get fatter, Calvin,” Genesis tells him. Calvin eats the fries by ones and twos, he smiles at them. He smacks, kissing his fries before popping them into his mouth. They all dig in. Comfort food. Over the French fries you can smell the crude oil, faint and far away but there. What if they can’t stop it? They’ll use robots to drill the well and fix it. Jamer’s eyes are glued to the TV’s diagram of mechanical arms fitting the containment cap on the well. All that technology. He thinks of how pleasing it is to watch hummingbirds comb their heads with their front claws. Their ruby gorgets flare like the letting of blood at their necks. His father taught him how to mix the sugar syrup for the feeders. “The male is the flashy one,” his father said, showing Jamer how a feather was divided into barbs and the barbs into barbules, and then tiny hooks held the whole structure together. Tomorrow Jamer will sign up with the Audubon society to help. Ivory wants to help too. He won’t give up. He’ll remember that a feather takes the engineering feat of a bridge. He wants to learn how to handle the injured birds. He is jealous of the rescue men able to carry the great wings in their arms, the feathers like narrow leafed trees. Jamer will become the one who knows what to do with a terrified creature of the air, its heart pounding. He’ll speak the calming words.