My lil sister/niece/granddaughter/baby cousin doesn’t know that she’s pretty, so she asks everybody, one post at a time. Her mom showed up at her high school graduation, no one had seen her in eight years. Mothers like that never know how to dress, too much fake jewelry, fake hair, and a big-ass fake leather purse still too small for all her shame and addictions to everything else. My lil sister/niece/granddaughter/baby cousin went to a costume party dressed as Selena or Madonna or Paula Abdul, just a thin layer of 1985 draped over her tits. She works out, a lot, a pic for the shoulder press, 78 likes, a pic for the dead lifts, 134 likes, don’t get me started on the squats. She doesn’t like when people take pictures when she isn’t looking, when her face is the one we see in the mornings when she can’t find her keys or when her phone is silent and black and asleep and dead and she has to wait fidgeting in that space so close to oblivion. They put titanium rods in her back when she was eleven to correct the scoliosis. She used to walk around like a Black Quasimodo: loved and gorgeous. The metal worked to undo the snaked spine, only a little pain and constipation from the meds to whip her back straight. Afterward, there came new opportunities, new clothes, new friends, new hobbies, one after another on a conveyor belt along with the chance to document it all. Her happiness was electric, blinking, a ding, ding, ding, ding. Disappointment is oily; it has hair and musk and cracked lipstick. Her mother never spoke at the graduation, just faded away into the crowd as per the court orders. They say scoliosis is common in obese girls, the weight on their birdlike skeletons is too much. My lil sister/niece/granddaughter/baby cousin was popular. One hundred seventeen hearts for feeding ice cream to a puppy. There are never enough hearts. Of course the monsters came, the trolls, the online bullies with their emoji fangs shooting projectile venom of envy and disgust. We were afraid she would choke to death on the poison like the white girls on TV, hanging from closet doors, bleeding out into tubs, but my lil sister/niece/granddaughter/baby cousin never said even a fuck you, just kept on. When your own mother punches you in the chest for reasons too small to see with the naked eye, the rest of the world has a hard time hurting you more. Sixty-four lols for flipping off the president. Two hundred sixteen likes for a poolside bikini pose at sunset. She smiles into her phone where smiles are brightest, in the light, the wires, the electricity of us who have become everything to her because in the machine there is no blood, no bone, and no fat.
Bear Bear Harvest™
The house is on a twelve-acre lot that Mom Mom thought cozy. She has an aerial view of the land and surrounding home designs to prove that it isn’t a corner lot, as if anyone could tell. Corner lots draw too much energy and, like so many things we avoid, are considered bad feng shui. The aquarium is on the southeast wall for wealth. I believe the cousins are bad feng shui, but no one ever says so aloud. Like everything, that too must be in the stars.
We have to entertain the cousins all weekend in honor of Sybil’s first Harvest™ like she’s going to an unexplored galaxy when it’s at the mall. Bear Bear understands my eye on the event completely but doesn’t say a word about it of course. We are in harmony. Bear Bear is my actual dad and generally silent on most matters about the house or the neighborhood or the city or the globe, really. He reads. He’s earned that luxury. Fatherhood is a motherfucker, Mom Mom says, same joke, same irony, same spit flying through her gapped teeth. I like to bring Bear Bear snacks just like she does even though he won’t eat. Cousin Sybil, on the other hand, has not missed a meal or an in-between meal in her whole life and can’t wait for Harvest™, just grinning her delighted jiggly-wiggly ass off. Mom Mom is in every way free of sharp angles and has the neck and enunciation of Nigerian royalty though we went to the continent just that one time. DNA results compelled her, forty-seven percent lineage. We brought back plenty of souvenirs to place around the giant portrait of my great-grandfather. The image of him over the mantel is so large it is almost obscene. He looks like a scientist/king/shaman/god; the expression one of total mischief and self-importance. He started the Harvest™ idea when regulations for business reached the peak of disinterest, and he saw a need to heal those suffering in his communities, so Mom Mom says. I call her Mom Mom because she almost seems like two people but also because I think she got jealous of Bear Bear’s double name. She says the word water like no one else. I hear “woo to her,” and it sounds like a seduction, like she’s conjuring the very thing in the glass, and I can tell why no one dares fuck with Mom Mom.
The cousins are plentiful in all the ways, their numbers and size and feelings just roaming through the house like mad geese, tearing bread crumbs off our asses. I have to tell the youngest, Tricksie, to respect my personal space—don’t press into my hips like a horny puppy all the time—but she’s cute and round and probably in love with me, so it’s hard to be cruel.
I used to be able to tell how many meals Bear Bear has eaten based on the smell in the hallway. If there is too much rot from untouched strawberries and pastrami he is on one of his trips, meaning he went so deep into one of those silly books he forgot the basics of life. One time I saw him leave the office for the bathroom, and the smell had gotten so rough I hurried to clear out the trays while he was gone. There were little creatures and ecosystems of mold just happy as hell on all those plates of picked-over lunches and dinners and breakfasts. I needed two garbage bags. I wasn’t quite as swift to exit as I wanted to be when I noticed the book he was reading, but turns out it was just another history book. Bear Bear was being darling and trying to divine the future by looking at the past. Pisces are like that, full of sensitive thoughts and secrets. Mom Mom believes nothing is as prophetic as the heavens, so she charts our lives accordingly. There are horrors and missteps in our history where men are desperate and greedy; the clawing and nipping at each other is far too unrefined for her. Of course I tried to peek, but I was too slow and he showed up. His face reminded me of the saddest woodland creature and all that somberness made me want to stroke his bald head and tell him everything will be fine, but I was nine and too small to reach his head and always had doubt about the future myself, so I just left the room with my back to the walls, dragging his trash beside me. After that I called him Bear Bear because it rhymed with there there. Some names just stick because they are true even if we don’t want or need them to be. Now there’s always rot.
I’m old enough to know that most men don’t act or think or look like Bear Bear. Even Bear Bear used to be just Bear once. He and Mom Mom went out in public together as a couple, smiled together, reveled in the achievements of normal civilized people, not giving a damn. Now Mom Mom is on a currently unsuccessful hunt for a boyfriend to supplement her relationship with Bear Bear. It is not subtle by any means, and women like her never lose the right not to give a damn. Marriage. Children. Incidental. I think she prefers other married partners. That might be her mistake. The selection process is quite mysterious and cryptic. There was the yoga instructor who never went to a Harvest™ and smelled like rose oil; the clinical psychologist who did not offer any free advice, just seemed overly excited to be there. He left us all uncomfortable. There was the investor with the well-manicured goatee who made eye contact with me for what must have been a second too long and was immediately removed from the grounds. An Olympic swim coach stayed an entire April with bad breath and a higher-than-expected BMI. She let the yoga instructor stay over last weekend. Now his kids are everywhere. Mom Mom insists we call them cousins; it’s more welcoming. She looked me right in the eyes, smiling over her coffee, and told me, “Stop frightening them.” It wasn’t clear if she meant the boyfriends or their children. I wonder if all parents look at their children that way, like incessant nuisances who are marvelous to watch. That shook something in me, a string before then too fragile to pluck but that now rang with a mission. I began to observe them all, the suitors, the cardigans and hard shoes, the pink vests and leather coats, the colognes of birch and sawdust and mint, the thick palms and wide shoulders and razor bumps and nose hair and dry knuckles and wide smiles and big heads and baseball caps and this ability to make a big room feel smaller, feel the floors and ceiling all contract like something frail in a vacuum.
Tricksie is learning geography, so we play games, name as many countries as you can that all start with the letter A. After a slow spin of her head around the room, across the portrait of great-granddad (Emperor Wizard), over the high ceilings peppered with masks from Benin and Togo, war relics from the Congo, and tapestries from contemporary textile artists with difficult names, she says, “Africa,” and we all laugh. She says it with such confidence and pride that it is heartbreaking. In the way she exhales on the vowels, “Africa,” I hear it echo in the room like a ghost, moving in and out of my chest as does my own breath. Africa is a continent, not a country, I tell her. She isn’t interested but loves that she has brought us all joy and been the source of such entertainment. Tricksie begins dancing around the room chanting, “Africa Africa Africa Africa,” until Mom Mom laughs out a tear and becomes very serious and hushes us all.
“There is a country that is also a continent,” she says. Everyone listens as though a great and wonderful truth might be revealed to them. “Can you guess it?” And she holds a hand out to me, a command, Shut up, child, she says with her jeweled fingers, knowing I can answer, knowing she has taken the game from me. I leave.
Copyright © 2021 by Venita Blackburn