Yesterday, Grandmama and me was preparing grease-wet hocks and I thought we was happy on account of us both smiling big. Then she told me I never cut them houghs right. “You always puttin’ too much pressure on the face,” she say. “You gotta slash the meat lightly. A real woman know that.” I said something like, “You see me trying, Gran,” and then Gran’s eye-rims got wide and she asked me why I didn’t have no man. “You ain’t no young fox,” she said. “You should have a boy who want to make a warm future for you by now.” I put down my little knife and frowned hard. I didn’t say nothing, just yanked the blade out of the meat. Grandmama grumbled something like “Y’ain’t listening Lil,” then she went off and boiled the limp hocks. I was feeling a little hurt, so I switched the subject and asked about spices, something about where they was. I wanted us to start smiling again. But Grandmama’s mouth pinched small and she said, “Don’t help me none. Just make the hoecakes.” That last word come out rough, like a little slap. I started saying “Gran…” but she was already grumbling to Jesus so I gave up. I made the damn cakes.
Grandmama really ain’t old-fashion. At least not the way you think a Gran might be. I always thought she was a new-kind of Gran, the sort that thinks about what a girl wants, ‘fore she think about what a girl should do. Grandmama never said nothing about why I didn’t have no man before. She was always saying, “Kick ‘em, shove ‘em boys, Lil. Better they don’t touch you at all, then touch you wrong.” She’d click her tongue, do this “tch, tch” thing, once she saw any one of the shiny-faced boys I brought home. Her eyes would sweep the kid’s body, forehead to knees. She’d bite her lip and hiss, “Nah.” But now then she actin’ different. I’m thinking it’s because the girls ‘round here are getting out of Ashberry, one by one, on account of some man.
That’s the thing now, all the girls on my street are getting these rings on their fourth finger. They knocking on our door and skipping into our living room, with hair pressed flat and chins pointing to sky. They flapping their fingers and saying, “Listen to my news! Hear it, Lil and Ms. Layne, my news! My boy, he taking me away! I’m goin’, goin’!” They’d show us their little ring, and the band would glow silver, and the girls would get bright too. Like they was fat with light. Like they had lightbulbs swelling up they bellies. Yeah, they was making our room hot with wild light. Grandmama’s face gets soft when she sees them ringed girls now. She says, “Oooh, ooh!” and I say, “Oooh,” too, ‘cause I like seeing all that happy glowing. Every time a girl with her new ring leaves, Grandmama look over at me and say, “What you think?” I’d say, “That’s real sweet for her, real sweet,” and Gran would nod too. Then she’d say, “Lil, my girl, you stay strong and true,” and I’d think I was glad I had a Grandmama who thought I was strong and true. That she’d want me to stay that way.
But yesterday I didn’t know if Grandmama still thought I was strong. Or true. I was wondering if she wanted me to get shackled off to some smiling boy who can take me away from this street. That she got fooled with all that light and glowing from the girls I know. So yesterday, we just kept cooking without saying no more words. Grandmama finally say, “Lil, you need to get one good boy. One boy who sit still and smile at you without his eyes switching away or without his lips gettin’ too shivery.” She said I need a boy with a little something-something, ‘cause all the boys I meet are just Nothing Boys, who got nothing going for them and nothing useful in the head. And all the boys who ain’t Nothing Boys, she say, are the ones I chuck away quick.
Well, I got sad-feeling again. I just say, “You got it wrong, Gran. I ain’t just been with Nothing Boys.” From my experience, there are four kinds of boys I’ve known, and they ain’t Nothing but none of them gonna make me glow.
I tell her, you got the Uh-no Boys. They the ones whistlin’ with two fingers deep in their lower mouths; the ones hollerin’ out a Hyundai window, reminding you ‘bout your own body parts. What you have. What shakes when you step. They the ones who squeeze your left breast quick in a club; they the ones who find you in a grocery at midnight, look at your hip-curves, and tell you to “Smile, smile, baby, mmmhmm I could make you smile.” They the type who halfway through spittin’ some radio-line and you already wriggling your nose and saying, “Uh-no.”
Then you got the boys who look like the Uh-nos, but they much sweeter. They keep their tongues tucked inside their lips, but they still got oozy angles in their voices. Slants you can’t trust. My girls, we call them Darlings. You seen em, and so has Gran. Them Darlings got too-deep dimples and slicked-back hair. Pants low on they hips, chest puffed out. Always smoking on something. You can fall into their smooth stuff if you’re not careful, but usually they got a trail of heart-worn women ‘round them with names you know. It’s best not smile back if a Darling call out your name.
Then you got the Anyway Boy. Most girls got one, and usually just one. Maybe two if they ain’t living life in a straight line. The Anyway Boy could be a Darling, but even if he ain’t, even if he just some boy you came to love from any old place, that boy is a Problem. Capital P. He got gone fast after you started with him, but that boy is still your always-bane. He the thorn Good Paul talked about, the kind that stick in you and stay mean. Part of you thinks you gonna love that boy with never-leaving, nasty love ‘til God shoves you under the ground, but the other part of you know you’ll be all right. That Anyway Boy ain’t no person. He just a ghost, haloed with red hurt. Every so often, you see him ‘round the block and you don’t know if he gonna love or hate you, but you love him anyway, just because of why-not and anyway. Sometime he got a new girl, sometime he don’t. You used to care about who he lovin’, but now you got so used to seeing his life of loves, that you don’t feel nothing but tired feelings. His body ain’t a thing you see as fine or sexy no more, he ain’t Darling-handsome. He just a memory that didn’t go away. And that’s the problem. Where the Capital P come from.
I tell her, sometimes you get a Should Boy. You might get a few of these, maybe just one. He the boy who check most or many of the boxes on a list of what a girl wants. Or what a Gran or Mama or Daddy want. He got fat pockets or a big mind or his voice is pillow-soft. Sometimes he got a body so curved and strong it make your goddamn teeth hurt, but he’s never just a body. Should Boys always got money or smarts or kindness. Sometimes Should Boys only got one of them things, sometimes they got ‘em all. But whatever your Should Boy got is enough that the folks ‘round you point at him, click their tongues and say to you, “Damn girl. You should. Should.” And when he flashes his fencepost teeth, all you think is “Oh, should,” and sometimes it’s a “Yes, will,” but most of the times it’s a should.
There are other boys too, I tell her. I knew some of the others. There are plenty of boys ‘round. Some I ain’t too familiar with but my other girls got ‘em. The Love-Rush Boys. Ones that give you a love-rush so quick your head get dizzy with all that reeling. That dizziness gets you making choices so bad you got to clean them up for years. There are Too-Sweet Boys, boys who got lots of good in them but don’t know how to read a girl’s lips when she say, “No, sorry, nah.” There are all sorts, and none of them I’m checkin’ because this girl don’t like crowding up her soul with other souls.
That’s what I tried to tell Grandmama yesterday. This girl, me, Lil, she stayin’ true and strong, for now. I want to leave the block, you know it. But I want to leave when I want to. My little job ain’t impressive, but it’s ‘nuff to get me to the places I want to go. And I don’t want no fast flicks of love, no long scars, no dark bruises or burns. I don’t want a body crowded with feeling, when I can do things that make this Lil happy. I tried to explain all this to Gran about the Boys and wanting a washed-clean spirit, and she say I’m too simple. She said boys are people and people ain’t this kind of this and that kind of who. Gran said, I’m gonna close myself off and then I’ll look up someday and I’ll still be on this street. I’ll be some Nothing Woman. I tell her, I ain’t gonna sit on my hands and wait for no man. I ain’t never gonna be a Nothing Woman, you watch, Gran, and you bein’ simple too. And well, Grandmama just give up and shake her head. She pointing her nose at the hocks and she saying you should be using your hands to help me. To cut more meat. Put down the hoecakes. Cut your houghs your way. I can’t do nothing with you no more.
Jennifer Maritza McCauley is a Ph.D. candidate in creative writing at the University of Missouri. She is also a graduate of Florida International University’s MFA program, where she was awarded a James L. Knight Fellowship in fiction. She is currently an intern for The Missouri Review, an associate editor of Origins Literary Magazine, a reviews editor at Fjords Review, and a fiction editor at Sliver of Stone. Her most recent work appears in Literary Orphans, For Harriet, Deep South Magazine, The Boiler, and The Blue Lyra Review, among other outlets.