Reading time: 15 minutes
A note from the editor:
"Birds, Bees" originally appeared in Issue 14 of Tahoma Literary Review. When I came across this story, I sat up and read it out loud to myself. Then I made my husband stop whatever he was doing so I could read it to him, as well. It ate a bunch of time, but neither one of us cared.
What makes this story so gripping? It's the voice. We always say at TLR that plot is just as important as character and voice, but when you meet a character with a voice that won't let go, you're kind of willing to go wherever this character takes you. Happily, in the case of Michael, our narrator, Fisher conveys personality, change, growth—all the things we like to see. Michael is funny, sure, but he's also hyper-aware of himself, even if he's not quite aware enough of the world around him. All of that changes over the course of the story.
The fact that this is Fisher's first publication, and that he'll graduate this year from NYU with a BFA, well, that's just sweet, sweet circumstance. I love this story, and I can't wait to hear what you think of it. Let us know by posting over at our Facebook page, or reaching out to us on Twitter. And thanks for reading.
Yi Shun Lai
Now let me tell you something about messing with white women, my moms said.
Always started her lectures like that, now let me tell you. Now let me tell you about staying out after dark, let me tell you about managing your money, let me tell you how to wash your clothes and iron them with a spritz of starch and fold them crisp--not that way, do it like this, like me--how to make breakfast for dinner in a pinch, how to rub tea tree oil on your scalp and wrap the durag tight so you wake up with your waves looking right in the morning. She said it like, class is in session, sit down and let me learn you. When she was ready to let me tell you, whether it was me or my little brother or my older sister, we’d roll our eyes and get the notebooks out in our heads and prep for her to talk until our ears got stale and could just about fall off.
You know they don’t understand black folks, she said, wagging a finger with her voice. You might think it’s all fun and games right now, having some white girl on your arm, but she’ll grow up one day and you might not be ready for what that brings. You only nineteen--too young to be doing so much, getting all serious. Don’t let no white girl get you caught up.
I was sitting on our living room couch. It was an old couch, leather, hot in the summer and grabby with skin, so I had to hold out my arms a bit to avoid getting sweat-stuck. DC’s heat wave had made it feel like the eye on a stove. The couch was a mainstay, been here through renovations and remodels, before my moms had itchy carpet installed and after that same carpet got ripped up and out after we stained it too much. I’d come to know this couch all too well; for more than a decade straight it’s been her favorite place to let me tell you. Adjacent to each arm of the couch were tall potted plants that my moms would replace whenever they overgrew, since we didn’t bother to avoid stepping on the dead leaves. Healthy, the plants had waxy leaves that made them look fake, but I bit into one once when I was younger (for scientific purposes) and tasted the real thing.
Don’t look at the plants when I’m talking to you boy, my moms carped. Always everywhere but where you supposed to be, just like your brother.
I looked at her face. She had the smoothest face, like you could dip a hand into her cheeks and watch them ripple. Served her well for swapping personalities: she could go from lunatic-mad to pleasant and lukewarm like she had woken up with the face ironed right on, wrinkle-free. But right then, cutting into me with her gaze, her face was just short of I’m ready to cuss you the fuck out.
Couple of hours ago she found a condom on my dresser, her hawk eyes skimming past the loose change scattered about, past the lotion and deodorant and glass vessels of cologne, locking right on to the glossy gold square that conjures dread within the heart of every parent that had skirted past the talk. (Our talk--if you could call it that--came about when I was about fourteen, after she noticed that I had been locking my bedroom door more often. One random morning soon after, she knocked on my door, calling me down for breakfast, and when I got downstairs she had a fresh banana and a butter knife sitting on one of our good plates. One bruised, mangled, traumatized banana later, I had gotten the talk--her version of it, at least. What it amounted to: If you don’t want your penis turning inside out like this banana, you better keep it in your pants.) When I came home, she didn’t mince words. You been having sex? she asked, crinkling the condom in her hand as she held it in front of me. Couldn’t hide the look of mortal surprise on my face, so I fessed up: Yeah. I have.
That landed me right on the family couch, getting a verbal ass whooping of three lectures in rapid succession. The Do’s and Don’ts (what you should do: don’t), yet another rendition of I Ain’t Raising No Babies, and of course, the Possible Perils of Messing with White Women.
Tekelle, who stayed instigating like a younger sister instead of the older one she was, bounded downstairs, giggling, ready to chime in because she had her fill of eavesdropping. My moms, her nose scrunching like she had just caught a whiff of trouble, turned her back to both of us and leaned against the window to watch the street.
It must be rough being with a white girl, Tekelle said. Do they even put lotion on? You ever seen a white girl that ain’t have ashy feet?
If Allison--known in my family as That White Girl--was here, she’d look down at her feet right about now. Sometimes I’d catch her without socks on, grabbing one of her ankles and bringing her foot up close for an inspection, and I’d always see the ashy crevices on her heel and feel the roughness of her skin against my hand. Moments like that, I’d shake my head and say, Cocoa butter ain’t but ninety-nine cents for one of those big-ass bottles. But I guess she liked having pieces of sandpaper for feet because she never listened and she never learned.
Shut up, Tekelle, I quipped, remembering the time Allison and I were wrapped up in bed once, her asking me, Why’re your feet so soft? and me wanting to say, Why aren’t yours?
Tekelle had her hands up in the air (don’t shoot!) and her elbows flared out. She had been twisting her hair up, so the left half of her hair was in tendrilled ropes that came down to her shoulder while the right half was still 4A-kinky and tumbled into half an afro. When she came near me I could smell the products: the shea butter, the leave-in conditioner, the two-in-one that she had put in to loosen her hair up, and that rotten nutty stench of coconut oil, fresh out the cooking aisle. I turned my face up and gave her a shitty look.
That mess stinks, I said.
Don’t be mad at me because you fine with having dry hair, she said.
Oh, you natural now so you neo-soul, right? Black soap and Erykah Badu, right? You need to pick yo’ afro daddy, I sang in my throaty Erykah voice.
Tekelle rolled her eyes and went into the kitchen to wet her hair in the sink. I looked back at my moms, who was holding a handful of curtain and peering out into the street, that marigold sunset lathering her skin. Something was off; only time my moms stopped in the middle of her lectures was if something was going down, or she was about to make something go down.
Ma, you alright? I said.
The sun almost down, she said. Where your brother at?
Couldn’t find Darius at his usual places, not at the ninety-nine-cent store blowing dollar bills on sour gummy worms and off-brand oatmeal cream pies to satisfy his sweet tooth, not at Walton’s trying to bum some extra mambo sauce for his wings, not at the asphalt basketball courts, not riding his dirt bike down Q Street like he was one of them boys from Baltimore. Thought he might have been out selling tree to the cats that lived around Columbia Heights, but I had checked his room before my moms rushed me out the door and all the weed was still there in the shoebox under his bed.
Being older, I was automatically delegated my brother’s keeper--hunter, more like--to round him up before my moms tried to break a foot off in his ass. With shoes on he had two inches on me, stood six-foot-three at only sixteen years old, towering over my moms and Tekelle--but my moms told him like she told me whenever I slipped up and happened to mean-mug her the wrong way, I don’t care if you six-ten, I’ll get on a chair and beat your ass if I have to. But after two kids and hundreds of decibels of sound wasted away, after all that monstrous energy spent deep-yelling and cussing and carrying on, she had tried to adopt a more diplomatic parenting policy the third time around. She was by far the most lenient with Darius, and he made sure to take advantage of that.
Darius was the worst of what I remember of our dad and somehow equal and opposite our moms; usually he was compassionate and exuded her image, but it didn’t take much to bring out our dad’s angry, acidic, smart-ass mouth. My moms was a careful woman, like all the matriarchs of our family: in the same way as her moms and grandmoms before her, she locked most of her humanity away for the sake of being strong, because families like ours--broken-frame fuckups--demanded a practical woman that knew how to be both mommy and daddy (because daddy don’t come around no more), a multitasker who could be tender yet stern with a backhand to match. But Darius had a penchant for pushing his luck, sometimes when you’d least expect it. He straddled the line between angel and asshole like a leaf doing a turnover in the wind, shifting in the blink of an eye.
The sky was creeping up on that blue part of nighttime on our dilapidated block of Southeast, and there were dim cones of orange everywhere, street lights pushing out as much power as they could to keep the dark away. I was sitting on the steps that led out of our cramped townhouse, half because I wanted some air on my skin, half because my moms wouldn’t accept me walking into the house without my brother in tow.
The heat must’ve driven everyone outside (because don’t nobody here have no damn working AC). Next door neighbor, Mr. Johnson, an old man with a ballooned belly that spilled over his belt buckle, was in his yard in a tank-top and jean shorts, shuffling around in his slippers, tending to his rusty blue birdhouse and sticking his hands beneath his waistband to scratch. There was enough space in front of the apartment complex across the street from us--my moms called it Projects ‘R’ Us--for grass to run around in, and everybody’s kid over there was doing just that. The moms were close, gossiping about whatever women gossip about, trash-ass men or something, and occasionally stopped to snap their fingers at one of the kids and give them a look, Don’t make me come over there and light your yellow ass up. Even at nineteen I still got that look--hell, even at twenty-two Tekelle still got it, like her helping with the bills didn’t matter if she came too slick out the mouth. Who I assumed were the fathers of the kids were gathered around a couple of cars parked on their side of the street, smoking weed and bumping oldies, laughing their deep laughs. I was enjoying the smell of their weed when my little brother came back, cradling something wrapped in a blanket.
Michael? he said, like I was long lost or something.
D, is that a baby? I asked, dismissing his lateness.
Yup, it’s a baby. I got a white girl pregnant and she’s coming to live with us, he scoffed.
He walked over and motioned for me to uncover the bundle he was swaddling. I pulled the blanket back and an ash-gray bullmastiff puppy’s eyes opened and widened at the sight of me. Its eyes were a vibrant, cool blue, like a glacier had melted over its pupils. It bit the air twice and tried inching its way out of my brother’s arms, coming for me like a gray baby searching for a nipple. He dropped it into my arms and at first I tried holding it like I held Darius when he was a baby, but then I thought about how Darius used to spit-up on me like he knew what he was doing, so I put my hands on the sides of it and held it at arm’s length, letting the blanket fall to the grass. Even in half-darkness I could spot her features.
Hey, little girl, I said in my best babying voice. Don’t you go spitting up on me.
She radiated heat and seemed content to rest with my hands on her sides, swaying her hind legs along with the gusts of wind that came by. She wasn’t wearing a collar.
Does this thing have all its shots? I said, thinking of worms getting under my skin.
Ain’t have time to go to the vet when I saved it from dying on the side of the damn road.
I shot him a look.
We can take her to the vet tomorrow, he said.
Where she supposed to sleep?
Let me and moms figure that out.
I laughed without realizing at first. The thought of my moms letting something into her house that would lick its own ass and not offer to pay any bills brought a smile to my face.
Moms about to have her put down by dinner, I said.
Don’t you got a white girl to be playing plantation with? he retorted.
He put a hand to his brow and started turning in circles, scanning the street in front of us. Oh look, captain! A ho! he said, pointing at nothing with one hand and tapping my shoulder with the other. Go save her!
Don’t get hit, nigga, I warned.
The front door opened behind us. Of course I had to be holding the damn dog.
The hell is that, Michael? my moms said.
Tekelle was over her shoulder talking that shit: Oh, I know you not trying to bring no dog in here.
Shut up, Tekelle, Darius quipped.
She’s mine, I said without thinking. I’m the one that’s going to be paying for everything anyway.
I pulled the dog closer to me and held her the same way I held pre-spit-up Darius.
We kind of stood there looking stupid and stayed quiet for a minute. I shifted my weight between each foot and Tekelle put her hands on her hips, then crossed her arms. Darius stood there, staring at my moms, who was giving him back every look he gave her. The dog didn’t bark, as if she knew that this was just how the big conversations went in our family.
I had a Rottweiler when I lived with y’all’s great-grandfather in Waldorf, my moms said finally.
She might as well have said, Now let me tell you, y’all own that dog, y’all take care of it and feed it, put a damn sweater on it if you want; I don’t want nothing to do with it, and I better not catch it shitting on my floors or I’ll shit on yours.
Felt my chest getting warm, then wet, then warm again. Looked down and turned my nose up in the air once I caught a whiff. She had peed on me. Tekelle cackled over my moms’s shoulder.
Better get to training, my moms said, chuckling as she closed the door behind her.
For the weeks she went without a name, I stuck close to her and watched how she behaved, how she sniffed the ground and took quick to getting housebroken, almost like she knew my moms wasn’t playing around. Accidents became rare once she got used to being in the house, and she liked to be outside enough that she usually took care of business out front in our little patch of yard.
Named her Hera because of the way she walked with her dog-chest out, trotting around with footsteps that only got heavier and more well-placed, regal almost, like we weren’t anything to her but subjects. She reminded me of a pit bull named Zeus that Mr. Johnson used to have. Hera walked like him: strong, pushing the world off her feet. When he was alive, Zeus didn’t bark much, not even at the other dogs that would be chained up in front of the apartments across the street. And he listened to Mr. Johnson most of the time--a far cry from Hera. I called out Hera! the same way Mr. Johnson used to call out Zeus! and she would stop what she was doing and consider if she wanted to listen. I got a kick out of that.
Only time she got out of hand was when someone new got too close, too fast. Even as a teething puppy she could put a hurt on someone, her newborn teeth still potent enough to tear flesh. I knew when the play nips turned into bites. One day a friend of my moms’s came through to drop off a pan of food and tried to play with Hera, but Hera wasn’t having one bit of it. She went ballistic, nothing but loud barks and deep growls and bared teeth and wide eyes, I’ll fuck you up eyes. Had to flick her nose and bring out my grown man voice, then try to distract her with the piece of ham I had left in the microwave. She clamped down on the ham, sat by my moms’s I-just-got-home-don’t-talk-to-me chair, and fell asleep.
Her weight shot up over time, seemed like she got bigger after each bowl. Got to that stage where she didn’t know her own size after a few months. Her paws got close to the size of my fists, and when she’d stand up to balance her front paws on my chest and give me those You’re home! licks, she almost always knocked a pocket of air out of me. And she was a slobbery dog, like all dogs with heavy flews like hers, letting saliva pool in her mouth until it dripped everywhere, so I had to repurpose some old washcloths into spit rags and went through them like tissues each time she got to drooling.
She put a serious dent in my net worth, but the money I’d been saving up from my job at the shoe store wasn’t doing anything but sitting in an account anyway. I’d been trying to save up about half a year of rent to prep for when I finally moved out of my moms’s place, a day I couldn’t quite imagine but knew would come anyway, but Hera postponed Moving Day to who knows when. Didn’t mind any of it though, not the money I took out of my savings for shots and food and toys, not the double shifts I had to work to recoup some of my losses, nothing. Waking up in my bed with Hera next to me made me realize that my moms wasn’t only cutting Darius some slack--she was cutting me some, too.
Allison stirred out of her sleep when I woke up moving my shoulders in time with whoever was outside blasting Drake out of some real quality speakers. Her neighborhood was in the mostly white, upper-class part of metropolitan DC, but black people still rolled through to get across town and they were the only ones playing music that loud. Thought it added some life to her neighborhood--swear I could hear mosquitos fucking on the tree outside her place, it was that quiet. She couldn’t even be mad, really, but she acted like it.
Who the fuck is playing music this early? she huffed, rolling her naked ass off me.
I wanna see you do more in this life if we takin’ it there, I rapped along, locking eyes with Allison, pointing and bending my fingers like I was in a music video.
Stop, she said, clearly unamused.
No— I stopped myself, still shoulder-leaning side to side.
I was about to say No nigga, but a couple of months ago, when I was rapping along to a song that said nigga as a verb, pronoun, modifier, and adjective all in the same line, she got real uncomfortable in the face and told me she didn’t like me saying that. Almost took offense, but then I remembered that this--us--was still relatively new to her. For most of her life she was used to boys that turned ripe red after being in the sun too long. (I was used to girls that put lotion on before they stepped outside.)
When Drake’s voice started to dopple away, she gripped my shoulders and kissed me to keep me from moving, and once she had me pulled close and caught, cradling my neck in the bend of her arm, she fingered through my hair with her free hand and let out laughs of air through her nose.
Our kids would have the wildest hair, she said. Brushing is going to be tough.
I laughed. In my head I pictured two or three little coffee-cream mixtures of us sporting knotty-ass hair that could snap a comb in half if it ventured too deep.
You don’t brush that type of hair, I said as gently as I could. Not your kind of brush.
Then what do you do?
Take a wide-tooth comb through it on wash days.
Wash day? she said with eyes that looked like she was taking notes. How often is that?
Once a week, maybe twice, I said.
She looked disgusted, like I had spit in her mouth (when she wasn’t ready). Then shook her head like she was never-minding her follow-up questions.
I’m still coming over on the Fourth, right? she asked.
I nodded. This year her parents would be spending the Fourth at their beach house in Virginia to gawk at fresh scenery and try to bring some spark back to their marriage. Not wanting Allison to be alone, I invited her over. My moms had simmered down with time and didn’t mind her presence--though she’d have a meltdown for the ages if she found out how often I snuck Allison into my room and cupped a hand over her mouth while we fucked.
You’ll get to spend some more time with Hera, I said.
Her eyebrows almost touched when she frowned.
I don’t think she likes me, she said. Maybe she can tell I don’t like dogs.
Hera, I said as reassuringly as I could manage, is part of the family.
Am I part of the family?
She shivered a bit like she had caught something up her spine, probably nervous from all the bullshit in that loaded-ass question. Took me a minute of unfilled silence to think of a loaded counter.
Do you want to be? I asked. I mean, in the future, one day--maybe.
I always tell you I can see us married. You know, our kids would be beautiful, she said through a yawn, settling her face in my neck.
The way she said it wasn’t matter-of-fact or inevitability; the way she said it, the way her tone went from high to low and back again, almost made it sound like she was asking a question. Our creamy little mulatto kids would be pretty, right?
Allison and I started out as anything but serious. We pushed our faces together at a party when we were drunk, but I didn’t think it would grow into much more than that. Both of us had our fair share of relationships and hookups, but whenever we had time to meet up and hang, it was electric. And you know what they say about attraction. Before I could realize it, we got close, got intimate and attached and started treading serious waters. Forces at work, I guess.
Never really thought I would end up with a white girl, but Allison had a body like a black girl, which was exciting in the way that someone from California tastes DC snowfall on their tongue for the first time: you can’t help but want more. The white girls who looked like black girls, we called them snow bunnies, maybe because niggas seemed to go for them when it was cold out. Allison looked like one of those snow bunnies that would call me a nigger during sex, when it gets rough and neither of us are particularly thinking straight. Before she dyed it her hair was sandy blonde, but now it was a fresh-off-the-coals black that really made the green of her eyes pop. And even though she looked the part, she wouldn’t dare call me a nigger or any variation of it. Wasn’t so sure about her parents.
My first time meeting them, I was dressed sharp to the nines, went so far as to wear a fucking tie. When they first got sight of me, my fresh shape up and fade down the back, it was something out of a movie: the looks on their faces said Shit, paused, then went to, Oh…shit. Blinked so much during dinner I could swear they were flashing Morse code. S-O-fucking-S.
Her dad, an executive who worked near the Capitol, faithfully voted Republican like his life depended on it (if you think about it, it kind of did), and her moms, even though she dabbled in red and blue and had time to watch the news and deliberate since she worked from home three days a week, would stick her size-six foot down your throat if you said anything that resembled being pro-choice. The ultra-Christian in her wasn’t having it, kind of like my moms when I tried to explain to her that sometimes I didn’t feel like God was the kind of person-place-or-thing everyone thought He was. Allison’s parents gave off that vibe: expert in all things Americana, opinionated bumper stickers and the like.
Allison was a blue-bleeding liberal, about as far left as you could get without veering into communism. The passion she had about politics gave her a restless look when she started yammering about checks and balances and landmark court cases, like she was already there in her office with the door marked SENATOR, pushing papers and filling out forms and meeting constituents and soaking up the bureaucracy and loving it all to hell and back. Made sense that she was at odds with her parents more often than not, Allison being the perfect model of rebellion. Always wondered how strong the bond was that tethered them together. The way I saw them interact, it was like gravity: them pulling her close, her pushing them back.
Don’t ask me why, but sometimes I felt like she was doing me as a way of getting back at her parents. Like every time she swallowed, every time I had her grabbing her ankles or had her bent and twisted half-backwards she was saying Fuck both of you! in her head. But somewhere along the way I guess feelings started to surface; she brought up marriage more and tested my thoughts about kids. The way I saw it, if anything serious were to happen with us, it would be one of those milestone moments that, moving forward, changed everything. A line that, once crossed, warped our vision to see only the truest of colors. That’s the scary thing though. You can never tell the person inside from the person out, what they’re seriously thinking; all you can do is best-guess and hope that words line up with actions. But that’s just how it goes. Forces at work, I guess.
The strip of apartments and townhouses on Minnesota Avenue were gearing up for the next stretch of summer. The Fourth was tomorrow, coming up on the peak of grilling season. I could smell it in the air. Mr. Johnson rolled his grill out of his basement and started hosing it down in his front yard. The younger people in the apartments across the street were playing music all day, putting on repeat the summer classics everyone always played at the family cookouts that made your aunt pull you out of your seat to two-step. Whoever was on the street bumping the music out of their car was mixing old school with new and I wasn’t complaining.
I loved the resurgence of grilling season, when the spirit of the Fourth starts settling in and everyone gets patriotic enough to get some napkins and plates with stars and stripes on them. Made me feel like a kid again, when our grandmoms would take us on camping trips deep in Virginia every Fourth and throw all types of food on the grill. Our strip smelled like charcoal and meat smoke about ten hours out of the day--someone, somewhere close by was always having a kickback, grilling chicken and corn and taking turns tossing horseshoes in whatever yard space they had. And around peak grilling season the honeys on the block would start getting creative and carefree, wearing those short-shorts that left about this much to the imagination and those custom-made hoop earrings with their names in the middle.
After Mr. Johnson cleaned his grill, he kicked back in one of those adjustable lawn chairs and soaked up the rays, watching cars squeeze through our packed, double-parked street. I was outside with Allison and Hera, who was only in the mood to be just enough out of the shade to feel some heat against the back of her ears. She was picking at some of the grass, eager to dig it up. When her hands weren’t stroking the fur on Hera’s back, Allison was pushing a finger against Hera’s lips while she nipped at the grass and laughed when Hera would give off a soft growl in protest. Could tell Allison and Hera were beginning to get along nicely.
Tekelle came outside, itching to be in somebody’s business.
Well ain’t you two just picture perfect, Tekelle said.
What the fuck you want Tekelle?
Don’t nobody want nothing from you, stupid! You know niggas about to start shooting soon. I just want to enjoy what’s left of the day.
Around the Fourth, New Year’s, and sometimes on Christmas, the whole neighborhood would duck into hiding when daylight grew distant. We all knew what was coming. Music got turned down low so no one paid attention to it when someone turned it off. The chatting and kee-keeing would hush and people would say their goodbyes: Oh, alright now, it’s about time for us to get going, got to put this boy down to bed before he’s up all half the night. Before we got big enough to take care of ourselves, my moms would always let me tell you when the holidays came up, because the boys on the block liked to shoot off rounds to say, Congrats, we made it this far.
Shooting? Allison asked with no effort to mask her concern.
Niggas just like to play too much, Tekelle said. They ain’t about to do nothing to your pretty little head.
Don’t worry about it, I interjected. They don’t shoot at nobody. Usually.
Like everything that goes down when you’re least expecting it, it happened too quick to stop. For a second I could see Hera’s gums and a snap of her white teeth gunning for Allison’s hand and pulling back. Then drops of blood dotted the grass and Allison gave a wide-mouth-open scream that still rang in the air a second after she was done. I took Hera by her collar and led her inside--she was trotting along like she was the one taking me inside. The first aid kit we kept in the drawer under the kitchen knife set was enough to squeeze some gauze in the wound and wrap it in breathable bandages. Allison’s hand wasn’t gushing but it was red and mangled enough to where she had to hold it together to keep the fold of split skin in place, Hera had gotten her right in the webbing between her thumb and index finger. Without her other hand’s intervention that skin probably would’ve waved in the breeze like a flag.
I’m okay, really, she insisted. I only screamed because she scared me. I think I pushed against her tooth.
The gauze around her hand already had a soaked-red bullseye staining it.
I don’t know what got into her, I said.
Guess I should get this checked out, she said casually.
While I was driving her to the emergency room, her face went pale and it looked like sweat had settled on her skin, like the shock of what happened had finally dawned upon her. Or maybe the thinness of her nonchalance had worn off and she couldn’t help being anything but serious. And maybe she was thinking serious things.
I can take care of this, okay? I reassured. I can take care of it.
Resting her forehead against the window, she closed her eyes and went Mhm. Couldn’t figure out if she was dismissing my reassurance or dismissing me altogether.
The Fourth finally arrived. Rays of sunlight were cutting through the clouds, plumes of meat smoke wafting through the air, commotion at every corner. Seemed like everyone was coming outside to gossip and make space for grills. The block had just got to bumping the cookout music (even the kids were belting out I wanna make sure I’m right girl, before I let go) when a voice yelled out Twelve! and everybody dipped the next moment. Music record-scratched off, the moms took the kids inside, the men that were rolling joints on the hoods of cars swiped everything to the grass and scattered. Only reason we didn’t hustle the fuck out of there along with them and get with the fucking program was because twelve had rolled up on us, and where do you hide when you’re hiding from something whose superpower in life is to seek?
The hold my moms had on the front door made her look like she could rip it right off if she moved an inch--she wasn’t going anywhere. Probably a good thing since Hera was inside with Tekelle barking her fucking brains out. Allison, with her now-stitched hand, still came over for the Fourth--and I’m sure she was regretting it. She stepped back in the grass and tried to take me with her, but I was more focused on Darius in front of me. Saw that leaf turning over in the wind.
The squad car’s door popped open and out came one of DC’s finest with his hand on his holster, trigger finger knuckle jutting out further from the rest. Dude had a bald head and a stern-cut face and cooped his eyes behind sunglasses, the whole vibe he was giving off warning us: Don’t. But clearly he ain’t never met my little brother.
Don’t y’all pig ass niggas got nothing better to do than stirring shit up? Darius said, standing a few yards from where the cop had pulled up. It’s a fucking holiday.
I’d seen him get like that before. Kind of like my moms when she swapped moods, but worse. His shoulders were squared back and the cords of his neck were pushed up against his skin, and though he started to take a few steps back, I realized quick that he was just giving himself more room. Then I saw that his hands had already begun to form fists, and my heart got to knocking around in my chest like my body was playing pinball.
D! I shouted, careful not to raise my voice too much. Come here.
What you want with us? Darius said to the cop.
Shut up, the cop said with bass in his voice. Get on the ground.
Fuck you, Darius snapped back.
D--that was all I could choke out. Before I knew it the words were caught in my throat, wrapped up with the next breath I had planned to take. My hands were sweating and it wasn’t because of the heat.
Barely a second passed when the cop yelled Get on the ground! again and brought out his Glock. Then the whole world seemed to go stiff. My mom stood at the door, looking like she’d be right at home in a wax museum. Allison probably had some look of dread, but I couldn’t turn around to find out. Darius looked like he was about to bolt like a spooked cat. If I could’ve seen Hera, there’d probably be droplets of drool suspended in the air around her from barking, those chops of hers flapping because she always had so much to say. And Tekelle, probably looking like she don’t have nothing on her mind, like always. Bet if I had looked up to the clouds there’d be a flock of birds frozen in place, their wings spread, scanning as far and wide as their eyes could see, so wholly unconcerned with the chaos unfolding beneath them. Or maybe they’d be looking down at us, glancing to acknowledge our existence for one brief moment, then going about their own.
Hold up, I croaked when I realized time hadn’t stopped at all, that the Glock was still aimed at my baby brother and I was yearning to say something, anything. He ain’t do nothing.
Don’t you fucking move.
Darius took a step back and looked like he was about to raise his hands, but the cop closed the gap between them and collided into him with a left hook that had the full support of his weight behind it. Clocked Darius right in his mouth, I heard the impact and it sounded like the something popped. They went to the ground like two alley cats, the cop still whaling on my baby brother.
My parents, Allison said shakily.
Could make out the red vessels in the whites of her eyes, they were that wide. The look on her face: eyes like dotted cue balls, raised brows that wrinkled her forehead and seemed to hang over the rest of her. She looked like a kid at the mall that had gotten away from her moms and couldn’t see anything but the strangeness of being lost.
My parents called the cops.
Before I could ask why, Darius was on the ground with a knee on his back, staining the grass with his blood. My moms came down from the top steps with the roughest look I had ever seen on her and couldn’t manage to get the words out to make sense of it all. That was when I realized she had been crying out the entire time, yelling for the cop to stop. When she got within a yard of the two of them the cop pointed his pistol at her face just as plainly as he would point a finger and she took a few frantic steps back, got down on all fours and started speaking to Darius, Just calm down baby, please, it’ll be alright, I won’t let nothing happen to you. Darius was gurgling, part like he was having trouble swallowing the blood in his mouth, part like he wanted to bawl but was going to hold it in if it meant doing it in front of others.
They stuffed Darius in the back of the squad car like luggage. Once we could go, me, Tekelle and my moms drove up to the station and stayed there until they stopped questioning him. Wasn’t paying much attention to what was going on because I couldn’t stop playing those last few hours back in my head.
The cop had waved his gun around like he was a conductor and directed us all to the ground, said if any of us moved, he’d shoot. Hera wouldn’t shut the fuck up; that clearly made him nervous. Keeping us under the oversight of his Glock, he radioed for backup and two more squad cars pulled up a few minutes later, along with an Animal Control van. My daughter’s inside, my moms repeated out loud to anyone that would listen. Just let me talk to her. She shouted Tekelle’s name, told her to come to the door, to put her hands up and do as they said. A couple of cops put me, Allison, and my moms in cuffs, then went inside. I breathed a bit when they pushed open the door and called out to Tekelle. Part of me had heard a pop ripple through the air and saw my sister’s blood spilling out into a flat red lake around her body--but then I heard Tekelle’s voice and pushed those thoughts down to where I couldn’t see them. She was holding Hera back, who was barking like she was trying to conjure up a storm. That’s when Animal Control stepped up, tied the noose of a snare pole around Hera’s neck, put her in the van. My vision was wet.
When we were all cuffed and flat on our stomachs, some of the cops went inside and started searching the house. Then the cop that had decked Darius lifted him to his feet and led him to the squad car, blood drying dark on his mouth. Allison, still lost in her eyes, turned to me.
Michael, she said, I’m sorry.
Yesterday I came home with the bite, she stammered, and my parents wanted to know where I got it from. So I told them. We started arguing because they cancelled their trip and said they were going to call the police--I said not to, Michael, I told them no--and I thought I convinced them, but--she left her mouth open as she trailed off. But they called anyway.
There was too much pounding going on in my head so I just looked at her for a while, then rolled my neck the other way and looked at the grass, the street, the faint sight of heads peering out of windows. Then my vision went wet again.
They uncuffed us about an hour later, after they had us chasing the edge of a circle with their questioning and tore through the house looking for a gun. Allison’s parents told a hell of a tale, apparently. (Why? Not to be a nihilist but, it doesn’t matter. Wouldn’t matter in this life or any other life like mine, if the world had its way.) Tekelle walked wearily to the steps and sat down. Once my moms had the strength, she sat next to Tekelle on the steps and they leaned on each other and cried.
I’ll fix this, Michael, Allison said. I’m going to do everything I can to fix this.
The cynic in me wanted to ask how--so I did. She said she didn’t know yet, and her eyes scanned the grass as if the earth could give her a clue. I lightened up, told her I wasn’t expecting an answer anyway. Some questions in life weren’t ever formed with answers in mind.
Do you hate me? she said with misty eyes I had seen only a handful of times, when we had gotten into the worst of the worst of our fights.
No, I said. You can’t change your parents.
She brought her hand over her mouth and whimpered, then wiped the tears off her face. I watched her do it, watched her shoulders jerk as she cried into her hand.
Do you hate them? I said.
I don’t understand them, she said through gritted teeth. Am I supposed to?
Felt like forever was smashed into one breath, in, out. Millions of words said and unsaid, a lifetime born from nothing and extinguished in that same breath. The life we might have spent together. I had a passing thought of hope. But at the end of my exhale I shook my head and said, I don’t know. Then I went back to my family and she went back to hers.
None of us said nothing the whole drive home from getting Darius out. My moms at the wheel, eyes locked on the road ahead, Tekelle in the front passenger seat sneaking quick looks at me and Darius in the back. Darius just sat there, detached, slouched to the side with his forehead against the window, his eyes placing him somewhere else entirely. I could smell the blood that had dried on him. Sort of turned into an odor after a while, something that would stick on our clothes long after we had stripped them off.
When we pulled up to the curb in front of our house and our moms shut the car off, Tekelle asked her for the keys. She didn’t say a thing, just dropped the keys in Tekelle’s open palm and reached for her wallet on the dashboard. Tekelle held on to my arm while our moms and Darius stepped out and started walking to the front door. You make sure she don’t kill him, Tekelle said. I’ll go make sure Hera’s alright. I nodded, kissed her on her cheek and left the car.
Mr. Johnson was outside, leaning on the chain-link fence that separated our home from his, watching Darius and my moms as they walked past.
You keep your head up, Elise.
My moms stopped and looked at him while Darius kept lumbering forward.
He still here, so it won’t hurt forever, he said. Trust me on that.
She nodded gratefully and kept walking. He went and sat on his front steps. Right then, I wondered what it felt like to lose. He’d lost his only son a few years ago, his wife a few decades back. It changed him, took a toll on him. For a while I didn’t think he was ever going to come outside again. But nowadays he always brought himself out to watch the kids play or listen to the neighborhood chatter or watch the cars pass. Nowadays, he looked like he was going to be okay.
But we weren’t. The whole place had been blitzed. Everything that made our slender little townhouse a home, scattered and misplaced like gravity had taken a power nap: the collection of fridge magnets that held up our pictures, our pictures, the kitchen knick-knacks that had puns scrawled on them, the seasonings in the top cabinet above the stove that made the whole house smell good every Sunday dinner, the brass-framed portraits of family we’d never met that adorned our walls, all those invisible things we never thought about until they were out of place.
My moms ignored all that though. She paced while Darius sat on the couch, glanced out the window, paced again. Then she turned to him.
Now, she said mournfully, like she’d already braced to see one of her sons dead on the grass, let me tell you about dealing with the police.
Now let me tell you, that power of hers wasn’t in what she did say, but what she didn’t. She didn’t say this was one of those milestone talks we all had to have, a coming-of-age on the sad way the world works, how we got here, where the parts had to go, all that. She didn’t say this was one of those teachable moments, that everyone in life has loose ends, strands that keep us all together, and if fate has it tied that way, one end can bring about another. Everything she didn’t say was in the tears that spilled gently from her eyes, in the quiver of her lips when the words just wouldn’t come: Baby, I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at this world. But we don’t have no choice but to live in it. Let’s have a sit-down, just a talk. You not in trouble. It ain’t nothing serious--just birds and bees.
Reprinted with permission from the author
Fisher had this to say about "Birds, Bees":
This story primarily came from the fear of my life changing in one moment. No matter what I do or how I do it, if fate (or whatever you want to call it) has something in store for me, I am guaranteed to receive it, and that is almost entirely out of my control. To explore the anxiety gnawing at me, over the course of a year I created a family and gave them lives to live, people to love, things to fear. And then I gave them one moment that changed everything.
Ta’riq Fisher is an undergraduate student in the Dramatic Writing program at New York University, where he is working toward earning his BFA.