Building the Perfect Shell
My mother is a wizard. Wizards can freeze time and sit on ceilings. My mother isn’t doing either of those things right now, however, because she’s passed out on the bathroom floor, where she’s been all day. I can see her bare brown ass; it’s protruding awkwardly in the air since her pants are down, ruffled around her ankles. I’m embarrassed for her. I want simultaneously to cover her and to cuddle up next to her. I have tried to wake her up. She is needed in this moment. The smoke is pouring into the apartment through the windows and looks like thunderclouds, dark and puffy. Both my brothers are in their cribs in the next room crying. Screaming. Coughing. I keep hoping my mother will pop up off the floor somehow, perform one of her miracles, and save us all from the smoke. I have tried, but I am only six and I don’t know if I’m a wizard like my mother. In fact, the only special power I seem to have is rising from the dead.
* * *
I rise from the dead every morning, excited to go to school. School is no ordinary place; it is an extraordinary place for extraordinary little boys and girls. At least that’s what my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Jackson-Randolph, tells us. We begin every morning by twirling on the magic carpet. It’s old and falling apart like the rest of our school, but Mrs. Jackson-Randolph says we shouldn’t focus on the negatives; we should search for the positives in every situation so we don’t become bitter or discouraged. When the ceiling tiles leak during a big storm, or our toys fall apart, or a mouse darts across the classroom, Mrs. Jackson-Randolph shouts, “But look at how much of the ceiling isn’t leaking! Look how many toys we still have! We are blessed and bountiful!” We shriek with glee. We clap. She is right, we still have so much. I know that even more is on the way thanks to the wishes we make while twirling on the magic carpet.
Every morning, we twirl and twirl around one another until Mrs. Jackson-Randolph tells us to “Freeze!” Then we all freeze in whatever position we find ourselves. “Now make a wish,” Mrs. Jackson-Randolph says. “Think about someone you really, really love and make a wish for them. We shouldn’t only wish for things for ourselves. We also have to think about others.” I’m happy to wish for someone else this time since I have already wished everything for myself: a pink motorized Barbie truck that I can drive down the sidewalk like I see the girls do in the commercials on TV; an Easy-Bake Oven so I can make cakes like my mother does; more red bows and ponytail holders so I can make my hair look better (it never looks right); and lots of crayons, markers, and colored pencils so I can color all the coloring books in the world.
I make other wishes also, secret wishes, but don’t tell anyone about those. Like wishing I was just a little more light-skinned like my best friend, Jessie Stewart. Jessie and I hold hands, walk to school together, and sit next to each other in class. I only just met Jessie at the beginning of the school year, but we have already become like brother and sister. When Mrs. Jackson-Randolph isn’t looking, we pass candy and make funny faces at each other. Sometimes we even cover our ears and scream at the top of our lungs to see if our voices can reach all the way to outer space where the aliens live. Maybe they will hear us and come twirl with us on the magic carpet. We wonder what wishes the aliens would make. Mrs. Jackson-Randolph does not like when we scream and wrinkles her face while telling us to use our inside voices. We nod yes, but start screaming again as soon as she turns around. Screaming, like yawning and sneezing, is contagious. Soon, almost everyone in the class starts screaming, including my two other friends, Tiffany and Davante. None of us can out-scream Tiffany. Her high-pitched shrills cause Mrs. Jackson-Randolph to cover her own ears and shout, “Enough!” We all stop midscream, mouths wide open, and stare awkwardly around the room at one another until she tells us to close our little pie holes.
“But I don’t like pie, so mine gotta be anotha kinda hole, don’t it?” says Davante, who always has something smart to say. Mrs. Jackson-Randolph slowly turns around and stares intensely at Davante, until he lowers his eyes in shame. No one says another word.
Davante’s parents are Black Panthers. I don’t know exactly what that means, but they have large Afros and are always dressed in black, including black sunglasses, which they keep on all the time, even inside the school when they pick up Davante. I wonder if they always wear sunglasses because they secretly don’t have eyes. People without eyes would be scary, so I hope they never take off the sunglasses if they really don’t have eyes. The sunglasses inside are not the only strange thing about Davante’s parents. They also raise their fists all the time, like they’re going to punch someone, but I never see them hit anyone. Davante raises his fist like his parents, but only sometimes, like on picture day.
I wish Jessie, Mrs. Jackson-Randolph, Davante’s Black Panther parents, or any of my friends were here right now to help stop the smoke and save us. I stare at my brothers in their cribs. I put my hands through the bars and pat their foreheads to try to get them to stop crying, but tears are pouring out of their eyes and their little arms and legs are shaking. They know something is wrong, too. I am shaking like my brothers. There is a pinching in my throat, like someone is squeezing it closed so no air can get in. I have only felt like this one other time, when Tiffany and I almost drowned at the beach.
Mrs. Jackson-Randolph takes us on a class field trip to see the gray lighthouse at Lake Erie. “Each of us is a lighthouse,” Mrs. Jackson-Randolph says, “shining our light and purpose out into the world. Your purpose can be as big and vast as the water in front of you. It’s never too early to start thinking about what you want to do in this world, deep down in your heart. Whatever it is, make sure it helps other people in some way. We have to take care of each other.” When Mrs. Jackson-Randolph says this, Tiffany grins and gives me a big hug. I squeeze her back tightly until she starts squirming. If I had a sister, I imagine she would probably look like Tiffany. I stare at the lighthouse across the water, close my eyes, and scrunch my face up trying to look inside my brain to see what my purpose is, but I can’t think of anything. My mother is always saying, “This ain’t no place for a girl chile. Lawd, I prays fo da day when someone heps da lil girl chiles of dis worl’, ’specially da black ones.” I don’t know why the “lil girl chiles” need so much help, but maybe that can be my purpose, to help the other “lil girl chiles.” I’m not sure yet. I will have to scrunch my face up and look inside my brain again to see if there are any answers in there.
When Mrs. Jackson-Randolph isn’t looking, a few of us run excitedly toward the water, trying to get to the lighthouse and see for ourselves what’s inside. We sprint ahead until Mrs. Jackson-Randolph yells at the top of her lungs, “Stop!” Everyone freezes except me and Tiffany. We can’t stop. The water calls us forward as we try to outrun each other, splashing and splashing. I look over and see that Tiffany, my almost-sister, is laughing and smiling just like me, until the water begins to swallow us, pulling us way down. Tiffany’s smile disappears, and she starts frantically flapping her arms, screaming, “Help! Help!” Suddenly, the sun moves from behind a cloud and shines brightly in our direction. I can see Tiffany’s illuminated wet face bobbing up and down in the water. She stops screaming and struggling and stares right up into the sunlight. It’s so bright I can’t look at it, but Tiffany’s eyes are focused upward and she doesn’t look afraid anymore.
But I am. I try to scream for help for both of us, but I can’t because I’m choking. My chest is full of water and my throat is pinched closed. I can barely breathe, even after Mrs. Jackson-Randolph pulls us to shore.
I can barely breathe right now because of the fear and the smoke, which is swallowing me and my brothers, just like the water at the beach. Now I know that it’s not only the water that can take your breath. I wonder what happens when you stop breathing.
* * *
On picture day, we all buzz around school like honeybees returning to the hive. We are ecstatic to be dressed up and leaving class one hour early. When the time finally arrives, we bolt down the hallway to the cafeteria, where bleachers, cameras, and special lights have been set up. Everyone looks pretty on picture day, especially Jessie. All the girls circle around him, trying to touch his soft hair. Tiffany grabs Jessie’s hand and pulls him away from the girls, saying he’s her “baby.” She says it like a mother would say about their child, but we all know she means boyfriend. I want Jessie to be my boyfriend, like all the other girls in the class do, but Tiffany is bigger and stronger than all of us so I guess she can have him.
My mother calls Jessie “the little high-yellow boy that lives ’round the corna on Foster Street.” Jessie is the only high-yellow kid in the class. The rest of us range in color from caramel to dark brown, like wet dirt. Everyone says Jessie has “that good hair” because he’s mixed with black and white. His hair is curly and falls in thick black ringlets down the sides of his face. He looks like he could be Middle Eastern or Latino. I ask my mother repeatedly if I can get a relaxer so my hair can look like Jessie’s. Tiffany already has a relaxer, and now her hair is silky smooth and not knotted and nappy like mine. My mother thinks I’m too young to get a relaxer and tells me to stop asking her about it. Even though she says no, I still wish for a relaxer every morning on the magic carpet.
When it’s time to take the class picture, we all stand, wobbling and smiling on the bleachers. Jessie stands next to me and grabs my hand, like he always does. Tiffany tries to kiss Jessie on the cheek, like she always does, but he turns his face in disgust. Davante raises his fist like his parents, which blocks the faces of two people standing behind him. Mrs. Jackson-Randolph shakes her head when she looks at the photo on the cameraman’s camera and says we will have to take another one. This time we must stand still, look directly ahead, and smile proudly. We nod yes, but when the photographer says “One, two, three … cheese!” we sprint around the bleachers, make funny faces, and hug and hit each other. After eight pictures, Mrs. Jackson-Randolph finally gets one she’s satisfied with. Frazzled and exhausted, she walks us outside to where our parents are waiting. The end of the school day is a relief for all of us. We scatter, like marbles in a pinball machine, into the arms of our parents. My mother doesn’t gallop, like most of the men in my neighborhood, but instead streaks forward with the fury of a thousand panthers, grabs my and Jessie’s hands, and drags us along the concrete sidewalk all the way home.
As soon as we get home, it’s reading time, which is a very special time. My mother opens the pink box sitting on the dresser with the black spinning ballerina inside who twirls to the song “What a Wonderful World” and has a bright white light in the middle of her stomach, which my mother says symbolizes the light we all have inside. I don’t see any lights inside myself or anyone else, so I don’t know what she’s talking about. My mother says she will let me have the pink ballerina box when I’m old enough not to break it. Once everything is quiet and cozy, my mother gathers Jessie and me in the big armchair and reads several of the books piled by the chair. Books like Green Eggs and Ham, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and The Cat in the Hat. Reading time is my favorite. I can’t read yet, but I love listening to the adventures of all the characters in the stories. Plus, reading time is really the only time my mother softens. Her voice and eyes grow warm, and she kisses us on the forehead after each story. I secretly wish reading time would never end.
Staring down at my mother unconscious on the floor, I think about who will bring me home after school and read to me if she doesn’t get up. My stepfather is never around, and Jessie’s parents are very mean. What if no one takes me to school again? I will miss all my friends and Mrs. Jackson-Randolph. I look intensely at my mother and begin to worry that she is dead.
* * *
I have seen only one other dead person in my life, at Mr. Casey’s funeral last year. I ask my mother why he isn’t moving. Why he won’t get up out of the box in front of the church. My mother calls the box a “casket” and says he won’t get up because “he’s dead and gone to the in-between wit’ da rest of da ancestors. He ain’t neva comin’ back ta dis worle.”
I tell my mother I die every night also, but I’ve never seen Mr. Casey in my dreams.
“Sleepin’ ain’t da same thang as dyin’, chile. You don’t neva wake up when you dead and gone.”
I feel sad that Mr. Casey will never wake up again. He used to give me and my brothers candy every time he saw us and say, “Children are the bravest of all, so they deserve special, sweet treats,” and pat us on the head. And now he’s gone to the in-between, which is a place I have never been, but my mother says we will all go there one day. I hope not anytime soon. I’m still getting used to this world.
I want to ask her what the in-between is, but the pastor starts preaching all about Mr. Casey’s life and accomplishments. Mr. Casey’s family starts whooping and hollering all around the church. It sounds like the feral cats that roam the streets by our apartment when they are in heat. One of Mr. Casey’s relatives runs up to his coffin and throws her whole body over the casket while yelling in a shrill, high-pitched voice, “Why? Why? Why ya hafta take ’im so soon?”
My mother shakes her head and says, “So soon? Lawd, dat man was ninety-three years old. I don’t know why people’s got to be so dramatic and act a damn fool. Jus’ be wantin’ attention.”
I watch the ushers work to pull away three people who have made their way to the front of the church. They continue their feral-cat screaming and claw feverishly at Mr. Casey’s casket. I wonder if all funerals are this chaotic.
Right now, my mother looks like Mr. Casey did in his casket that day. I tell her that she can’t go to the in-between yet. She is still needed here. I tell her I wished for her at school today on the magic carpet. I wished that she would take down her shell more often and show us the warm parts underneath.
* * *
My mother has had her shell since she was a little girl like me. She spent years “gettin’ it jus’ right and makin’ doubly sho it was strong enough,” which is why she never likes to take it down. I am shocked when I find out my mother wasn’t born with her shell—that she had to learn how to build it. Being a wizard is not what you think. In fact, it requires serious training. The first lesson is how to build a shell. My mother is a master at this. She flips a switch and—bam!—she’s gone. A million miles away. And what’s left is a hard shell. She started developing this shell when she was a young girl, after her uncle started doing bad things to her in the bathroom in the middle of the night. I ask her what things he did, but she tells me not to worry about it because those things will never happen to me. I’m glad. I don’t want bad things to happen to me, either.
The bad things happened from the time she was my age until she was ten. Every time he came to her room late at night, she would hide under the covers. She would pull them up over her head and wish she was invisible. (Unfortunately, wizards don’t have the power of invisibility.) Her uncle would come and carry her to the bathroom and do the bad things. She would leave her body and sit on the ceiling until he finished. Leaving her body wasn’t enough, however. At the end, she always had to come back down because “you cain’t stay on the ceiling foreva,” she said. She would cry alone in her bed after it was all over, her small body sulking and shaking in the dark.
So she learned how to build a shell around herself. When she put the shell up, she didn’t feel anything, and that’s what she needed to protect her warm parts inside. She knew that the shell would have to be hard enough to keep out the rest of the bad things coming her way. She didn’t make just any shell. She made a double-layered shell that was impenetrable. Airtight.
The shell couldn’t stop the sinking, however. My mother said she sank all the way down to the bottom of herself, after what her uncle did to her. “So fuh down, my mama had to come get me and brang me back, but I don’t wanna talk ’bout huh, my mama. You heah? I ain’t neva got ova what happn’d … Don’t ask me no mo questions ’bout huh. You heah? Chi’run is too damn nosy. Got a question fo ev’rythang. I sweah ta God.” Every time we ask my mother about her mother, her shell flies up and she gets so mad. I wish I could have met my grandmother so I could ask her myself what happened, but she, like Mr. Casey, is no longer in this world.
Besides reading time, my mother rarely takes down her shell. I want her to take it down more often because I need the warm parts underneath that she keeps hidden. I have been trying to build my own shell, to protect my warm parts also, but it’s hard. I just want to twirl on the magic carpet with all the people in the world, but I know that’s not possible. Some people are dangerous.
I wish I had a shell right now to protect me from all this smoke. It keeps pouring in and is getting thicker. I know if my mother doesn’t get up soon, it will fill the entire apartment. I waddle back to the living room, where my brothers are still crying. I have an overwhelming urge to save them. I can’t figure out what to do. I look around the room for help. The lights are off. The TV is on. The glare disturbs me. The people on the TV are not helping. Neither is the sad-looking man with brown hair and blue eyes hanging in a picture frame on the wall. I reach toward him and the people on the TV, trying to grab them and show them we need help, but my arms are too short. I’m wearing a long T-shirt and my hair is in braids like Ms. Celie’s from The Color Purple. I’m trying not to cry, but the tears fall from my eyes and I start to panic. I wonder where my stepfather is. Maybe he can come and save us from the smoke. I listen for his keys jingling at the door. I pray for the sound but hear only the TV.
* * *
The men can build shells, too, but they are not wizards. I never see them make miracles. I only see them make chaos. My father is not my biological father—he’s my stepfather, but my brothers’ biological father. I still call him father and not stepfather because he’s raising me. My mother said my real father is a “lyin’-ass, conniving-ass, no-good-ass mothafucka wit’ thirteen kids”—all girls—“by different womens, and he don’t take care a’ none of ’em.” My mother tells me to forget about him, but I still wonder where he is and what he looks like and if he drinks like my stepfather, who is drunk all the time. My brothers and I love it when my stepfather gets drunk. He comes to life, gleefully bouncing us on his knees and telling us stories about what a great man he is. He tells us he’s a member of the T-Man Trivilization. We don’t know what it means because they never teach us about the T-Man Trivilization in school. We later learn that trivilization is not a real word and that he actually means civilization. He’s been out of the South for almost twenty years, but his Alabama accent is so thick, he sounds like he has a mouthful of cotton when he talks. He stretches out his words and talks slow, like molasses running down a maple tree, except when he cusses, which is the only time he ever talks fast. He loves to cuss and often forms entire sentences with just cuss words. I once heard him say “Goddammit, hell naw, shit, hell naw, shit, goddammit, hell naw!”
Copyright © 2020 by Echo Brown