How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch
By D. Bryant Simmons, Lauren I. Ruiz
Bravebird Publishing Copyright © 2014 D. Bryant Simmons
All rights reserved.
Married Woman, Regular Man
We were married about a week before Ricky let me in on his plan. Mississippi wasn't where it was happening with his boxing and he knew exactly where he wanted to go. Chicago. There was this famous boxing gym there where some guy had trained up under some other guy that used to be somebody. He said it was where he was supposed to be and I was his wife so that meant I was supposed to be there too. Not in the house I'd grown up in, where I'd lived with my daddy. So I packed up my things and off we went.
We lived in this rundown apartment that wasn't anything more than a bed and a sink. Was right next to the train tracks. Not the kind on the ground, the ones that run around on tall metal stilts. I hadn't seen anything like it until we moved to Chicago. The windows shook every time the train would run past. The hot water was always stingy, giving up only a few drops at a time. And there was a smell like dead cats from the minute you opened the door. I couldn't get rid of it no matter how many times I scrubbed the floors. We had a ragged old TV that only had two channels and the weather man kept saying a tornado was coming. Said it every day the first week we were here. And he was right, but I ain't see it. Couldn't see it. Couldn't see anything, not really. Was too busy missing my daddy. Ricky said it'd make me feel better if we were close like a man and wife supposed to be. I ain't think so but he was sure and he was my husband so ... I let him love me. And he loved me every day sometimes twice a day. Loved me so much he gave me a fever. I took to the bed for a few weeks and by the time I got up I realized I'd missed something.
Nikki was born nine months later, ten months to the day my daddy died. The exact date. The thirteenth. Ricky ain't even notice what date it was. Was too busy being happy — proud even. Said something was wrong with me because I wasn't celebrating. That I ain't love our baby. Wasn't that. I loved her, I did! I did. But he ain't let up about it. Just kept right on picking at me like a day old scab. Until one day when I started acting happy. Started smiling real big. I was somebody's wife, somebody's mama. So what if I wasn't nobody's daughter no more. Right? It ain't matter. The past was gone, no use crying over it. Right?
It ain't happen right away, me realizing all the lies I'd told myself. Took me a while to see them but the signs were always there. We'd been living in Chicago about three years when things finally came clear to me. Ricky got up at the crack of dawn, as usual, and I got up to fix him and Nikki something to eat and make sure his clothes were ironed and ready. He kissed me goodbye and asked me if I loved him.
Should've told him the truth. That I ain't know enough about myself to love anybody. That I wasn't even sure I had it in me. Maybe folks were born with a specific reserve of love inside them and maybe mine was all used up. But instead of saying any of that I just said, "'Of course I do. I'm your wife." And Ricky ain't know the difference. He was like that back then. Not really knowing or caring about my lies as long as they were what he wanted to hear.
Then by the time noon came around a voice in my head was saying go ... go ... GO! Other folks might have asked the voice some questions but I ain't need to. By then I knew what I'd done. I'd lost years of my pretending to be who he wanted just so I wouldn't feel alone. And I couldn't be in that place, be that person no more. Had to go somewhere real and true. Had to be free from all those damn lies. Sometimes I think it was my daddy talking to me from way down deep inside.
So I packed up my baby and all the clean clothes I could find. Searched all around the apartment for enough bags to hold everything. Ended up with a bunch of old plastic bags we'd been saving from the grocers. I would've gone with trash bags but they were too big for me to carry along with Nikki. She came with more stuff than I did. Toys and things I got from church giveaways. It ain't matter if it was missing pieces or missing eyes, she still loved it. I had so many bags they hung around my waist, twisting and slapping against my legs like a skirt made of wrinkled up old plastic.
So there we were, bundled up, nothing but our eyes sticking out, standing on the street. Nikki could walk just fine on her own but there was no less than a hundred people marching up and down the block screaming about justice and murder, so I held her. The police had shot somebody named Hampton while he slept in his bed. I remember thinking that it sounded too crazy to be true. Nobody gets shot in their own bed. While they're sleeping? I told Nikki to hold on tight and huffed and puffed toward the train station. We'd gotten a few blocks away, the dull roar of the crowd was at my back, when I saw it. Ricky's '61 Cutlass, bright red, covered with snow, and cruising down the street towards us. Cars back then lasted forever, but Ricky never took care of his so you could hear it from a mile away. Nikki twisted around in my arms, pointed to it, and in her innocent way said, "Daddy!" I just about died and the bitter cold blew through me in a way I'll never forget. I was frozen, right to my bones. If I had been in the crowd, he wouldn't of seen me but I wasn't. His car door slammed shut and his footsteps tracked across the snow. The cold ain't bother Ricky none. He ain't have nothing but a leather coat and it wasn't even buttoned up all the way.
"Where y'all going?" he asked.
"No-Nowhere ... we not ... nowhere."
"Yeah? Nowhere, huh? Y'all going nowhere? Get in the car," he growled.
"Get in the fucking car, Pecan."
I tried to tell him we were just going to the market — the grocer's, but he knew better. He just looked at me carrying a million bags and his only child and he knew. I told myself he grabbed me so hard to keep me from falling on the ice as we stepped down off the curb. Told myself he was just worried about me and our child. That was why he pretty much shoved me into the passenger seat.
I held Nikki still on my lap and Ricky slammed the door. All the bags crowded up around me, fighting for space in the passenger seat. Ricky kept on glaring at me all the way around the front of the car until he was back behind the wheel. He parked in his usual spot right in front of the building and nodded to the little old lady that lived on the first floor. She'd come out into the hall to see about all the ruckus on the street. I tried to explain some guy was shot in his bed.
"What?" she barked. She was hard of hearing.
"HE GOT SHOT IN HIS BED!"
"Oh." She nodded and went back inside her apartment, leaving me alone with Ricky.
Ricky looked at me like he ain't know whether to scream or sigh and I could feel the tears congregating in the back of my throat. I ain't have a good story. I'd never told a lie before in my life. Not one that I hadn't convinced myself was the truth first. But I could smile. Probably ain't look no kinda natural, but that's what I did. Smile. A train ran past our window as soon as my key went into the lock. Nikki was getting heavy and I wanted to drop the bags to give my arms a break, but I was afraid if I did that, Ricky would get a good view of how much I'd planned to take. So, I held on to everything.
"Where were you going, Pecan?"
The heater hissed in the corner, spewing lukewarm water into the air and I let it steal my attention. He yelled like a maniac for a good ten minutes and turned beet red. Sweating so hard it slicked down his hair over his forehead until it looked like he had a bang. I heard every one of his words but told myself he was just worrying about us. It was so cold out there he ain't want us to freeze.
"Answer me, Pecan! Put that girl down!"
Me and Nikki was both sweating by then too. Our snow gear still on — scarves and hats and mittens. I dropped the bags and felt his eyes follow them to the ground. They had fell like rocks. He knew. I knew he knew. He knew and I ain't even know. Not until that very moment did I know I wasn't coming back. I was gonna leave and never come back. No note, no reason, just gone. He wasn't a bad husband. He was funny and folks always liked him. They liked him before they liked me. But most of all he kept his promise to me. He took care of me and I wasn't never alone. But still, there I was about to leave him. Ricky picked up one of the bags and tore through it, tossing the clothes on the bed. Then he went for another one, and cans of fruit cocktail landed on top of the clothes.
"You leaving me? Huh? Where you gonna go? You ain't got nobody! Who gonna take you in? Huh?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know?"
I hadn't gotten that far. I hadn't even known that I needed to be taken in. I was just going.
"You ain't leaving me. You got it?"
And I really wasn't. Ricky looked friendly and talked real smooth, but if he wanted to, he could kill a man with his bare hands. So even though he'd never hit me before then I knew if I even looked at the door he'd make his move. So I stayed still. I tried to make Nikki stay still too. But she couldn't wait to get down. Kept on wiggling and fussing, and fighting with her scarf.
"Take that shit off of her. She ain't going nowhere. You ain't going nowhere."
So I did. And she bounded around the room, happy to be free. I was watching her so hard I ain't see him until he was right up on me. His fingers. Cold. Brushed up against my neck as he yanked and unwrapped my homemade scarf. His pretty eyes danced all over me — examining my face, my chest. Searching for something.
"Where you was going?"
Our apartment ain't never want for no heat. Was always plenty to go around so when he finished unwrapping my scarf I got a little more comfortable than I should have. Let the heat tell me things were gone be okay. Ain't matter that he was looking at me all crazy, like I was a lying cheating scandalous kind of woman. I ain't wanna see it. Ain't wanna see him stomping back and forth, thinking things I would never have imagined.
"How you gonna go nowhere? Tell me the truth, Pecan. You going to meet somebody?" He chewed on the last word, turning it into something dirty. Somebody. The thought was tearing him up inside; I could see it plain as day. "You ... You got some nigga waiting for you somewhere? Why you looking at me like that? Huh?" He paced from one end of the room to the other. Glaring at the floor boards and kicking things out his way. "I ... I do right by you. I take care of you, don't I? Pay the bills? Put food on the table? Huh? I gave you a baby! And this how you wanna repay me? You gonna sneak up outta here when my back's turned?"
"No? You think I'm stupid?" Ricky stopped pacing long enough to put both his eyes on me. "Huh? Think you about to outthink me? That I can't see what's right up in my face! Who is he?" "Who — he ain't nobody — I mean ... ain't nobody."
"You fucking around on me?"
"No. I ... I was just going to the store. I was ... I was coming right back." First one hurt the most. The slap. Backhanded me like I was just a fly. But the second one hurt too. Ricky made it real clear he could send me flying in either direction with any one of his hands. Had me balled up on the bed, crying and pleading. Him on top of me. Screaming and holding me down. "Rick-ky, please ..." That's all I could get out before he hit me again. And again. And again. I just couldn't believe it. Not me. Other girls might have that happen to them but not me. My man was not doing that to me.
"You ain't leaving me! You hear me, Pecan? I ain't gone live without you. You hear me? And you ain't living without me." I was too busy crying to say something but he acted like he ain't see that. Demanding an answer. Swearing and spitting on me until he got his way. "Hear me?"
"Yeah! I ... I hear you!" It came out so hard I started shaking. And he backed up off of me real slow like I was the one who was hurting him. Like me crying held some power over him. Like me bleeding and swelling and bruising was something I was doing to him. Then he looked over at Nikki. She'd seen it all. I couldn't wait for no tissue, made use of my sleeves and wiped my face best I could. "Nikki! Come here, baby! Come to mama!" A good girl, she came and I wrapped her up in my arms. Thinking I could keep some part of me safe.
"Stop looking at me like that. Pecan."
"I ain't. I ain't looking at you no more. Never." Me and Nikki rocked back and forth at the foot of the bed, shutting him out best we could.
"You ... You my wife. You supposed to love me, not ..."
"I said I ain't looking at you!"
"It wasn't my fault! You did this — you made me ... you did." Ricky scratched his head and wiped the sweat from his brow. "I ain't mean to ... I ... I just ... a man got a right to know where his wife going, and if she don't tell him he gonna think something!"
Nikki was crying softly into my shirt, so that was where all my attention went. I ain't wanna think no more about this man that was supposed to love me. But he wasn't having it. More I tried to calm Nikki, louder he got. Demanding I see things his way. How it looked to him. What was he supposed to do? Of course he lost his temper. But it ain't mean nothing he said. I was lucky. I would've been out on the street if it wasn't for him. Would've been all alone. I was real lucky. Ricky knelt down on the floor and his pant leg got caught on one of the floorboards that was starting to stick up so he yanked it free. Yanked it so hard he tore a little hole right on his knee but he ain't give it much thought. Just went right on with what he wanted to say.
"I ain't never gone do that again. I promise. I know how sensitive you is and I ain't mean to hurt you. I just can't think of you with some other man ... him putting his hands all over you." His hands found they way to my back, closing in around me and Nikki like they could make us feel better. "You cold, baby? Huh?" I shook my head even though I couldn't stop shivering. "Don't be like that. Look at you. Your face getting all puffy. I ... I ain't gonna ... again. You believe me right, Pecan?"
"You know how much I love you. I just wanna protect you, keep you safe. This here a big city and you don't wanna end up like these girls be out here on the corner, begging for food and having to sleep up in alleys, do you? But if you wanna leave, go ahead. I ain't gonna stop you." He watched me, waiting for me to look over at the door.
I ain't need nobody to tell me it was a test. He was waiting for me to slip up. I knew how Ricky thought. If I was leaving him, it was because somebody else was waiting to take care of me. And wasn't no man going to take care of some woman and her chile if she wasn't giving it up.
"I ain't going anywhere."
"How I'm supposed to believe you? How I'm supposed to leave you alone tomorrow while I'm up at the gym? You think I wanna come home find my wife and kid gone?"
"So, how I'm supposed to know? Unless ... unless you say it was all a mistake. Maybe you was just overwhelmed with all the love you got for me. That it?"
I nodded at first but he needed to hear the words. "Yeah."
"Yeah. I just ... I ain't know what to do with all the ... the love I got for you."
Ricky planted a kiss on my forehead then threw a clean towel into the sink. The water came out in a rush so I knew it was cold. He brought it back to me dripping wet. Since Ricky ate and slept boxing he knew all about injuries and how to make things feel better. So, I told myself I was in good hands.
Best of It
My baby was always finding something to play with, didn't seem to matter to her that it wasn't a toy. Her baby hands slapped up against the fragile wall and it rewarded her with bits of plaster and flecks of paint. White layers on yellow on white. She watched it rain down like it was just for her. I prayed she wouldn't think to put any of it in her mouth but she started to squat and I forgot all about the blood-stained shirt. Cold water they say will take out anything if you soak it long enough. I was just going to have to wait and see.
"No, no, baby."
She was a bit on the chubby side, even for two years old, so I always felt bad that we ain't have money to get her more clothes as she grew. Her dresses came too short and shirts fell too high. It was a good thing she was too young to realize. Even my clothes were faded and outdated. I saw girls my age strutting down the street in bell bottoms and those shirts that barely came to their navels. Tried to imagine myself in one of those outfits, my hair kinky all the way to the end. Ricky said those girls were working their way around to being dikes. Said that girls like me, innocent and all from the South, new to the big city, said we had to be extra careful because they preyed on girls like us. I ain't tell him that I kinda liked most of the things they said. About doing for yourself and having a voice ... yeah sounded real good to me right about then. But I ain't say anything. (Continues...)
Excerpted from How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch by D. Bryant Simmons, Lauren I. Ruiz. Copyright © 2014 D. Bryant Simmons. Excerpted by permission of Bravebird Publishing.
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