The last fight Peppah had with her mother obsessed her. It stood out in her mind like a giant picture postcard in front of her face. It was one o’ clock in the afternoon. Mama was sleeping the day away and Grandmother Jones was fussing around the apartment, trying to make something out of nothing in the kitchen. A hopeful smell of onion and bouillon cubes misted through the place. She had gathered two beat-up looking carrots and a half-cup of Minute Rice and a row of saltine crackers that would serve for
After the big blowout, Grandmother Jones said the child and her mother, they were made of the same soup, blood and bones. Too much pepper. Peppah’s freckles dotted across her nose just like on her mother’ s nose. Looking at the backside of the two of them, and although Peppah hated to see it, she was a smaller version of the same body, minus the long pigtail her mother wore. Grandmother Jones often broke up the two, who argued and jabbed at each other. The younger one told her grandmother that her mama was stubborn, troubled uphad too many kids to start with. It was an ongoing thing but this particular day, the older one with her hangover head was pushed too far. Scratching around the medicine cabinet for a few spilled-out aspirin, she slammed the door on Peppah’s pinky finger when her daughter tried to get in her business. “Get out, little bitch,” she said.
Peppah, sucking on her injured finger, said, “That’s it. I’m gone.” As soon as she could get it together with her boyfriend, Juggles, she left.
She made it to California, where she eventually met up with the gang in the squat. The leader, Oh-unge, had advised Peppah against using her nickname, saying that she could be found out quick. The circles of talk in the Hollywood community went on over to the station and they had pictures with names of lost kids. Peppah said, “Nobody be looking for me. I broke up with my mama. Her big mouth busted me. Grandmother Jones would be looking but she don’t know how. Just know how to pray and she dead now. Besides, my mama told me, ‘Go on, then. Get out, smartmouth.”
Peppah’s boyfriend, Juggles, and Mama used to argue like pecking hens. Wrestling with words, pointing double fingers. Mama said he was no use at all. Juggles said she was a bitch-mother leaving a kid to fend for herself— a white-ass heifer, hootching men. Peppah knew that he shouldn’ t talk to her mother like that but was glad to have somebody take her side. With Grandmother Jones up at the church most of the day, polishing them railings, doing her part as she said, there was no fair air in the apartment. Taking a clean breath was hardly possible what with Mama smoking and hawking brown spit down the toilet.
There was something about the smell in the hallway of their place in the neighborhood. The air outside wasn’t really clean, but it was different than the inside where smoke from the crack pipes lay unmoved, cheap food cooking odors sat undisturbed along with stale garbage messed with chicken bones piled up, all kinds of people smells.
The place had been peopled to death. Hoards of mixed-up families had survived there, sort of, anyway. Faded red stains on the wooden scratched floors, ink drying from the graffiti on the walls and dusty leaves fused together. Sometimes Peppah would walk by the first apartment on the third floor and the smell of bleach would drift under its door. She knew that someone was trying to clean the bad out of the hulking mad house.
Every Monday morning Grandmother Jones hauled up her black stockings before lacing up her brown-tie shoes, after dressing in one of the three housedresses she owned. She pulled out her half eaten-up broom to sweep the whole of the third floor hallway. Her mopping pail was filled nearly every day with McDonalds’ wrappers, hair elastics, rubbers, sometimes needles. She’d cluck her mouth, shake her head, saying, “Praise be Lord, where are you? Can’t you see your way here. Lordy, Be.”
There were some good folks and bad folks in the neighborhood and it was hard to tell which was which. When Peppah thought she had identified most of the gang members, and would avoid them, the bad boys surprised her by leaving her old grandmother alone. The elder Jones lady, always in her felt-hat with the polka-dotted veil that hid the lines in her forehead, tottered up and down that street, owning it, like she had a halo on her head. She shuffled plastic bags with bits of food for the homeless and churchless men she ran into on her way to Christ Gospel. Her reputation went before herbeing that she was one of the oldest members of the church. Peppah caught sight of the old bitty ladies’ faces when they spoke about her grandmother, lifting them up, saying good Sister Jones this and good Sister Jones that. Then, they would squint up their eyes, their faces like sour green apples, asking about her mama, asking did she straighten herself out yet?
When Peppah scooped up all the courage her pitiful thin body could hold, she searched for a decent mood in her mother’ s demeanor, a hint of good times, a smile at the TV, a flirty swish in her hips as she talked on the phone, and then would ask for a little money, a new pair of underwear. Mostly, her mama would say that she had enough to deal with. She was busy: getting stamps, getting them traded to support her habit, fighting with DSS, getting in the bed and making babies but on check-day, she’d usually give her five bucks if Peppah got to her quick enough. She had plenty excuses to ignore the girl, who was on her own days and nights when her grandmother was at service.
Peppah’s frame was always behind a couple of years. When she was ten, she looked eight. When she was fourteen, she could pass for twelve. She didn’ t have no meat to cushion herself on the lumpy mattress that sat in the middle of the living room floor. She struggled sleeping on it, flipping over all night, hoping for a tuft of softness, and struggled again leaning it against the wall in the morning so her boyfriend Juggles would have a place to put his long feet in front of the one easy chair in the room. She cursed out the rank mattress under her breath, using her arms and even the side of her face to balance it before it slumped against the wall. It wasn’t like it was her smells on the thing. She kept herself up as best she could. On TV she saw actors who had their own room, nice clean underwear, and shiny new clothes like Gap jeans and clingy T-shirts. Life was hard, yet Peppah had one prize possession, a yellow-haired, sweet-bodied Barbie. The oldsters down at the senior center bought presents for all the children in the complex the year she turned four. Joyously spying through the plastic window on the box, she knew that Malibu Barbie was brand new. Not no second hand toy. She rubbed the straight stiff hair against her cheeks. She danced the doll along the windowsills. She dressed and undressed her ten times a day, using Kleenex to make new outfits and cutting chairs from foam coffee cups. Made her a bed from a shoebox, plates from buttons and hair bows from string. She cradled Barbie, slept with her, and carried her everywhere she went.
One day her big brother, Randall, was in a fit about nothing, nothing at all. He ragged on his sister, yanked Barbie’s head off, and threw the body and head out the window. She ran out, sobbing like her arm was cut off. Barbie was found floating in a puddle on the cracked asphalt in amongst candy wrappers and a soggy half donut.
Peppah picked her up, shook out the water, brushed aside her tears with her crumpled long-sleeved shirt, and rushing her treasure upstairs, she dunked her, clothes and all into the sink, saying “You gonna be okay, Malibu Barbie. We fix you right up.”
After the doll’ s bath, she hung her clothes carefully over a towel on the tub. Mama was home watching her stories on TV. Peppah saw her Mama looking at her with that screwed-up face of hers as she ran howling by. After a while, her mother said, “Child, what’s up with you?”
Peppah took the doll and held it in front of her mother’s eyes. “Look what Randall did?”
“Where is he? I’ll whup him good,” Mama said.
“He’s gone. Out the house.”
“Okay then. Give me here.”
When she popped Barbie’s head back on, fixing it with Elmer’s Glue, it came out slightly crooked, lending an odd tilt to one side of the doll’s hair. That kindness was one Peppah remembered of her Mama and, when she thought of her now, she tried to forgive her for all her shit, but didn’t.
That long ago day, she said, “I know you smell a little muddy but I keep you forever.” Peppah carried her around in a little plastic purse. When she got older, she would stuff her in the belt of her pants, covering her over with her shirt on the outside.
When Peppah was five, she was surprised one day to see her mother standing outside her kindergarten classroom door. She grabbed her hand and took off, running in high-stacked boots for the bus that was pulling up out front. It was a quick trip on the bus, a long wait in line where all sorts of Mamas and kids stood, and on the way back Peppah got a glimpse of Lake Michigan. She said, “Mama, could we cross that big ocean? Will it take us to where the foreign people live? You know, ladies with red stones on their foreheads.”
Mama chuckled, “Girl, why you ask so many questions? Those women are from India. Lake Michigan out there; it ain’t no ocean. The oceans are way east and way west.”
“What they called?”
“Atlantic and Pacific. Barbie, you got there, is named after a place on the Pacific Ocean, Malibu. You seen it on TV.”
“You smart, Mama.”
“Naw, I ain’t. I usta be smart, but I got dumber with each one of you offspring. All I got is my looks now, and a system.”
Ten years later, Peppah turned fifteen. It was a birthday without Grandmother Jones, who had passed the year before. There was no cake, and as the blossoming teen flopped in the same sad room with her mama, her snoring and twitching like anything, she decided that she wouldn’ t have no more birthdays in Cab Green.
Juggles, her boyfriend, was ready enough, plenty hot for her. He hung around, calling her “main woman.” Especially since she did the thing with him. He even said he wanted her baby. Peppah had used her stringy, yet strong arms, holding the boy back from fucking her, until he promised. They stood with their pants dropped in the dark corner behind the apartment building. She pushed him away, her hands covering her pussy as long as she could. “Promise me,” she said. “Promise. You want my baby? You want my baby. Say it, you want my baby.”
Juggles answered, “Sure, whatever,” jamming in.
It hurt bad, but Peppah needed Juggles. He had been around for almost three weeks waiting for her to give in, coming in his pants when he rubbed against her body. Peppah had seen guys who played on sisters. She wanted his baby. A family of my own, Handley/Jilted/8 she thought. A baby to love her back and a fine man, Juggles. My baby, I love you good. Not like Mama do.
The next day, she said, “Let’s leave. You up for that? Hitch to Malibu. Can’ t be all that far.” Packing her slicker-yellow nail polish, denim jacket, two pairs of jeans, some old underwear, and Malibu Barbie, she was ready. Juggles would take care of her, after all, he was eighteen and fine. He would get on a TV show or make a CD. Make outstanding money. She knew he was good, because he’d sing up close in her ear and then, stand back, using a wooden spoon for a mike. His whole body spun with talent.
The first day of the bus ride, Peppah got sick from Juggle’ s snapping his peppermint gum in her face.
Juggles said, “You crazy. You can’t get ill from gum, girl. Have some coke, you be boss.”
Peppah didn’t count on being sick. She thought that her Mama had thrown up from drugs, not from babies in her tummy, and she’ d go off, and come back a day later, all emptied out she told her daughter. Peppah heaved in every bus and car she rode in. The thick yellow barf filled her palms and stunk up her clothes. It got so Juggles was begging plastic bags from markets to carry in his pockets.
After almost three days in buses and cars, they landed in the state of Arizona. “Let’s park,” Juggles said. She untied her jacket from around her waist, lay down with Juggles in the steaming mid-day sun. They found an empty truck bed shaded by a tacked-on tin overhang at the back of a gas station. The fool was wagging his stuff at her.
When the sharp pain hit, Peppah’s voice jerked out like she was yelling for two. “Oh,” she cried.
Juggles said, “Cut it. It ain’t nothing. Cramps or something. Get up and walk.” He was easing her out of the truckbed, both of them stepping on hot asphalt, when blood dripped down Peppah’s leg.
Juggles set his woman down on a pile of tires, their rubber-smell so consuming she could almost see it, risen up around her. She clamped her whole hand over her nose and mouth while he ran for the gas station guy.
Peppah heard Juggles blasting in the office door of the garage, yelling up in the attendant’s face, “Hey, help. My girl, she sick. Bleeding to death. Can you take us to a hospital?”
“Whatsa matter? the guy said.
“It bad,” Juggles said. “She bleeding.”
After helping Peppah to the truck, Juggles placed his jacket on the seat for her to sit on. Every few seconds she let out a yelp. The gas attendant said, “Take it easy. Whew, women. Noisy as all hell. My wife, delivering, blew my damn hat off my head. Listen, we’re almost there.”
Once Peppah was behind the cloth curtain at the small hospital, she stared straight up at the hole-punch ceiling tiles and clutched the sheet with both hands, as though hanging on, as though the bed might levitate at any moment. She peeped through the space in the curtain that was just wide enough for her to view her man. He sat on a hard grey chair in the waiting room, adjusting his balls, scratching the top of his head. He picked at the loose threads on the armrest, using the longest thread to floss his big white teeth. The next thing Peppah knew he took out his orange circus balls and juggled three with his left hand. When that went well, he took the two red ones from his other pocket and all five circled the air in a blur of color. Playing, she thought, he be playing while I’ m suffering. Suddenly, when she felt a jolt of pain all up inside her pussy and on up to her belly, she heard herself scream. A voice she didn’t recognize as her own. The swift moans that came after comforted her a little until the nurse came in to hold her hand. That’s when the doctor showed up. He said, “Now, now. What are you going to do when it’s the real thing?”
Peppah’s feet were planted in fuzzy blue socks on top of footrests. The doctor sat on a low stool, quickly pushing open her knees. He stuck a cold thing up her and scraped her insides. There was a loud swish and plop, her own liquids dropping into the bowl at her feet. She yelled, “Stop,” but it was too late. The nurse packed a load of gauze up her and put this odd pair of elastic paper panties on Peppah. The nurse and doctor, who were both dressed in bottle-green scrubs, washed their hands, chatting on about a new wing about to be built. Peppah cried, and she wasn’t sure why, but she couldn’t stop.
Juggles peaked in the curtain and was told to wait outside. Finally, she came out and told him about the packed-up gauze under throwaway hospital panties. Considering how she felt and how serious Juggles looked, she knew she must have been dead-white in behind her freckles. “I ain’t having no baby,” she said. Juggles lifted her out of the wheelchair, her knees squeezing together as though she was holding a baby in so it wouldn’t drop out, and helped her with her bowlegged, wibble-wobble walk to the door. Her eyes were streaked with black, mascara running down her puffy cheeks. She rubbed her hand against her sore belly, like she was missing something— trying to ease the soreness inside. Juggles sat her down on a chair near the door. He placed Malibu Barbie in her lap like when new mamas come on home with their newborns all wrapped up like sausages, their red faces poking out and the mamas wearing bright pink robes, their tummies still swollen with the memories of baby squalling through a tunnel. And holding cheerful bouquets or balloons to announce the occasion, but Peppah didn’t have flowers or even a new robe.
“We ain’t paying,” Juggles said. “Lady said they don’t bill transients. Passing through with no address.”
Peppah started whimpering. Didn’t stop. Even when they got to the California coast.
The sun in California was different from Arizona and Utah and those places and way different from the summer Chicago sun. Everything looked brighter down by the beach. The rays glinted off the water all the way from the horizon to the rolling, white- crusted waves making their way towards the sand. The surfers bobbed up and down at the end of the pier, signaling to each other while waiting for the next set of waves. Their hair slicked back, their wetsuits rippling like black seals. The people riding bikes wore neon-laced shorts and tops stuck close to their skin. The sun lifted light from their hair, shone on well-dressed skin bronzed by the rays and potions from squirt bottles. The sparkling light beamed its way into Peppah’s heart. She liked the blue sky better than Chicago’s dull clouds.
Peppah eyed the teen chicks on the beach and then at her poor self. She thought that her nails were okay, but her clothes were all wrong. She tied her shirt up under her bra, made a pair of cut-offs out of her jeans, rolled the waistband over letting her bellybutton hang out, feeling an airy puff in her stomach where the baby had been. Rolled Barbie up in her jacket, tying it low on her hips. Juggles took off his socks, slashed off his white T-shirt sleeves, ditched his jacket. His shoulders, bulging and ripped, looked like two perfectly round baseballs under a cover of lovely smooth brown skin. He had three white lumpy scars tracking up his arm where he had tried to tattoo himself when he was loaded up.
Brightening up in the atmosphere of Venice, Peppah took in the roller-skaters, body-builders, and tattoo shops. She played, laughing and running in the soft sand, let it rip through her toes. Her man’ s eyes were full of chicks in bikinis that barely covered their titties and thonged up their butts. They lay on the sand together and Peppah looked into his eyes, hoping that she’d see herself, but he was busy straining his neck, gawking at the hotties. Even with his arm slung over her backside, he was straying in his head, she thought. She couldn’t get his attention. But, tonight. We do it in California.
On the down side, after two days, they couldn’t get any jobs, the beach was cold at night and patrolled by the blues, who kicked them out of their sleeping spot between two vehicles. Juggles played his harmonica, his eyes boogieing along with the notes, gleaned a little change. “I can get us a chili dog at that stand, for now. Tonight, I get more. I got me a plan. These here restaurants light on security.”
The sign above the take-out stand was bigger than the place itself, a giant hot dog stuffed in a roll with the face of a dachshund at one end and a tail at the other and rainbow neon surrounding it, night and day. The girl behind the counter looked more like Barbie than the other California girls, Peppah thought. She had the long yellow hair and the legs and tiny waist. Juggles fixed his gaze on her running shorts with high slits that flashed blond pubics, when the wind gushed by.
Sucking at her teeth, Peppah watched Juggles checking out the pale blond, as he spoke, “Hey, what’s your name? Hey, California girl?”
Juggles said, “You been to flatland? Chicago? I’m a rapman, myself.” His mouth ran on. “I’m into soul, baby. Sounds.”
“Whatever,” Patsy answered, bending over to get the rolls, half her ass hanging out of her shorts.
“Woo, you good with dogs. I’m a hot dog, myself. Cooking!” Juggles smiled big, his gums purple above his teeth.
Peppah snatched her corn dog from Patsy’s hand, ripping her nail against the side of the shack. “Let’s go, Juggles. Damn, let’s go.”
I suppose she never had no baby in that flat tummy, Peppah thought. Never lived in no rotten apartment, never had no rotten trip across country. She from Beverly Hills or some jingle jangle town. She ain’t gonna play my man. I get his black ass gone from here.
The curve of the coast from Venice on around to Malibu was part way up the half circle that looked to be falling into the ocean. Close, but far from reach. Peppah took a good long look at it before they found an alley with two beaters broke down. They slept in between the cars that night, hid their terribly-little amount of stuff under one car, and paced the strand each day, with her steering him away from Patsy’s stand. The trash cans were available before the early city sweep. Peppah was ashamed. What would Grandmother Jones think of me hunting down used-up lettuce, bits of buns, germy and stale? Peppah rolled her pants over a piece of rope to keep them up. The tight knot ground a red mark in her soft skin.
The next day Juggles said, “This sucks. I be heading out. You can’ t move fast enough, babe. I break out first, get me a gig. You stay here, do the bottle thing, and beg change. Meet you under the pier tonight.”
“No, I wanna go with you. Wait, you jilting me?”
“Not, baby. I be back.”
“Shit, you old man got to provide. You wait, Boo.” He sent her a look that said you mind me now cause I know what I’m doing.
She cringed, as he walked away with that easy stroll of his, that had gotten bigger since he hit L A. He turned and gave her a wave. Stuffing his fat thumb in the air, a red Jeep picked him up. He flapped his hand out the window in her direction and proceeded to bang on the door as if listening to the driver’s radio. She fought with the voices in her head. One said, “Run, catch up with him.” The other said, “Hold up. He be back.”
She went over to the sea wall and sat flush against it, itching her back on the rough cement, wishing she could take a bath. Her body ached. It was even worse, she thought, than how it felt sleeping on that damn mattress at home. She took out her Barbie, gazing deeply into her painted sexy eyes and then up at the women playing volleyball a few feet away. What they got that I don’t got, she wondered. What’s up with me, anyhow? She rubbed her fingers along her forearm. Least it’s vanill-colored.
Juggles didn’ t return. It was a long day. She wandered down closer to the water where the foam was collecting in a swirling line. Two children were digging a hole, bigger and bigger, and filling it with water. Back and forth they went, working like they had money on the job. They had left a half-full box of donuts next to their excavation, as their Mamas worked on their tans. Peppah sat down next to them.
“What is it? she asked them.
“Going to China,” one answered.
“No fooling. Can I help?”
“Yeah, but don’t mess it up,” the older boy said.
Peppah picked up the pail and filled it twice before she approached the box. “Can I have one?”
She carefully chose the largest, chocolate-covered and fat, and left the others.
The hours went by; the sun arched up and back down again. Peppah plodded along all day, up and down the strand, passing the hucksters and shop owners so often, she began to think of them as friends. A white surfer boy whistled as she passed. Alright then. She’d tell Juggles a dude was after her body. Make him jealous. Later, as the sun moved down in this beautifully layered orange and pink sky, her hands started shaking, her nose dripped— the spot between the cars was empty, the chili-dog stand was closed. Peppah tried begging, but it wasn’t her thing. She remembered Juggle’s line of talk with its fast happening ring to it.
Just as she took one more sweep along the sidewalk, her eyes, bloodshot from the blazing sun’ s rays, and, as she was about to burst into tears, she saw the pink ice cream ball that was almost whole. Some dumb kid, she thought, dropped it. Little bastard, probably crying to his daddy. He’ d get another one. Swooping it up with both hands, she shoved it at her mouth, the cold soothing her sun-burned lips. It was the best thing she ever tasted. She didn’t even care that, licking the last molecule of it, she caught the grit from the sidewalk she had just walked on in her teeth. Her stomach was still empty, her rib bones sharpening.
Peppah had one quarter left. She’d been aware of it in her shoe all day long. She sat down, seriously untying her left sneaker, removing it, and with the quarter held heads up in one hand and with her tired fingers crossed on the other hand, she whispered please to the sky and Grandmother Jones. She knew exactly where the closest phone booth was. With a tiny amount of hope in her heart, she entered the stinky booth, calling collect, but that didn’t matter because her mother’s phone was disconnected. She put her jacket on, settled Barbie against her skin and began the long walk to Hollywood. Stepping off the curb on Venice Boulevard, she nearly tripped on a red ball. She picked it up, blew off the sand, and laughed loudly. I got a piece of you, Juggles.