ShaniaBy Ashleigh Bryant Phillips
January 08, 2019
On the day we met, she told me she was named after the sexiest country music star alive. And that she knew how to fire a gun. And that she was one hundred percent Cherokee.
My mama says I’m named after nobody. We don’t have a gun in our house. I have blonde hair and blue eyes.
I’m so jealous of her that I talk about it with Jesus when I say my prayers at night. It’s May and I’m gonna turn eight on July 30th. She’s just turned seven and is about two heads shorter than me.
When I went to her house for the first time, her daddy had just started fixing up the balcony. She lives in the big gray house on Main Street. Mama says it’s Victorian. It’s the only Victorian on Main Street that has the balcony falling apart. Pieces of the fancy white trim round the roof is missing. They’re all in the yard. You can see ‘em from the road.
There’s a history book of the town at the town hall. And one time when Mama went up there to pay the water bill, I found a picture of that house in that history book. It said her house was built when the town was “booming.” The picture was black and white but under the picture it said the house used to be painted robin’s egg blue.
I don’t tell her about that picture. But I think about it when I go into her house. There’s no blinds or curtains on the windows. They got sheets hung up instead, like old sheets. Probably her baby sheets from her baby bed.
And there’s this one big window in the living room and it don’t have a sheet. And her grandmamma sits there a lot in her chair. And the sunlight comes in on her face and it makes all the dust in there shine and float around her like magic. And when her grandmamma breathes real heavy, you can see how the sparkles dance around her. And when she sleeps, sometimes I get as close to her as I can to see how deep the wrinkles go in her face. And one time when I was real close to her like that I asked her grandmamma about animal spirits. If my kitten carried inside it the heart of a big old ghost. See she told me that her grandmamma talks in her sleep. But she didn’t tell me anything. She never says much to me at all. Her grandmamma has real fat arms.
Her mama has a big butt and says “he’s hot” when some man comes on the TV. Her daddy has a mustache and kills all kinds of animals, hunts them all the time. One time he killed a deer and her mama cooked it. She sneaked into the fridge to show me, because she’s not allowed to go in the fridge or her daddy yells and the yelling makes me want to get into the back of the closet like we had to do that one time. But when she put the deer meat in my hand she told me to not think about Bambi, just hush and eat it. I thought it tasted a little like roast beef, but it was dry.
She likes to show off her mama and daddy’s water bed. Seems like every time I go over there, the first thing we do is go into their bedroom and she pokes the water bed to make it slosh. I told Mama about it and she said that waterbeds are bad for your back. But there’s one huge picture on the wall in their bedroom, right above the bed. It’s an Indian warrior sitting on a horse with spots on him. They are in the desert somewhere. And there’s not any cactuses or trees, but there’s a mountain way back behind them. And it’s about to be night time because the sky is purple. The horse’s head is down. And the Indian has white and red paint on his chest. It looks messy, maybe he’s sweaty. His leg muscles are big and looks like he’s squeezing the horse with them as hard as he can. And he’s sitting slumped over, with his hair in his face. There’s an arrow sticking out of his back.
She always sees me looking at that picture every time we go in there. But she never says anything about that Indian. I guess it ain’t no big deal to her. She don’t go to pow wows. She don’t go to church either. And the Baptist church is right there beside her house.
One time I was there close to supper and we were swinging on her swing set and the church bells started ringing a church song. We had a bunch of her beaded bracelets on and they was making lots of noise when we swang up and down. I told her we were making music. All we needed was a big ol’ drum to beat on like Hi-a-wa-tha. Jun-a-lus-ka. Pow-ha-tan. She thought that was funny. Her backyard has roly polies, no grass, and a big mean dog tied up at the edge of it. She hates to feed that dog. His name is Butchie. I watch her feed him. And one day that dog jumped on her and knocked her down. She got up and came to me with her elbow bleeding. She told me she had fell on a busted bottle. The blood was coming out quick but she didn’t cry. Their backyard has dog food cans and cigarettes and broken bottles all over it. I found a piece of glass and pulled it down my hand like people in the movies. And the blood came out and I didn’t cry either and I held her elbow. Our blood mixed together. And we found a clean spot in the dirt where it was cool and we sat there long enough for us to be blood sisters.
I did a rain dance in the front yard like she showed me how to do. I put my hands to the sky just like her. And I danced so much! Grass got stuck in my toes! And the bottom of my feet turned green! But I got mad cause I couldn’t get it to rain. Mama says the corn needs rain real bad now.
Everyday morning I check my hairbrush for a brown hair like hers. And today I found one. It’s proof of my native blood. I put it in an envelope to the father thunder god. I think he’s an eagle with spreaded out wings and turquoise eyes. I write a letter to him, but at the end I remember I don’t know his address. And I know that she knows it. And I bet if she don’t know, her grandmamma knows. So I need to go ask them about it.
I ask Mama if I can go to her house after dinner, but she says that I can’t go over to her house no more. She says that her daddy hit her mama till she was ‘bout dead last night. So I’m gonna go and try to slip her some secret notes. I can get some tape from the kitchen drawer, walk up to her house at night and tape it to the seat of her swing. I think that’ll be a good place for her to find them. I want to tell her it’s gonna be ok. And we’ll keep telling each other things like that. But what happens is I never end up leaving her any notes. We go to different schools. Her daddy leaves them, stops fixing up the balcony. More and more of it falls in the yard. By the time I go to college the yard’s all soggy, shit white.
And last time I was home, Mama sent me uptown for an onion. And I saw her working there in J.J.’s. She was real pregnant, shoulda been off her feet. I went to her checkout line and all she said was “Hello” like you’re supposed to do. And when she opened the cash register, the drawer bumped her big baby belly. And while she counted my change, I thought about her in that house, floating alone in the middle of that waterbed, tracing shapes on her belly. And when she handed me the change, her fingernails grazed my palm.
Dear Ashleigh Bryant Phillips: I’ve just now read your “Sleepovers” in Hobart. I don’t think you know how to lie, and there is a certain mysterious pull to your work, like you invite us in, but don’t say how to get out. What I mean, is you are the real thing. Please submit something to New Ohio Review and Pembroke Magazine and UCity Review, where you will be welcomed, I’m sure. And when I see your name again, I will set aside whatever I’m doing and read, and give silent homage. I’m not sure, but you may be better at fiction than poesy. Do you know Francesca Bell’s work? Please don’t think I’m hitting on you. It’s just that if I admire something, it’s like cheating not to say so.