JESSICA LANAY

WHALEDOG

 

 

Georgia summers remind me of wild dogs. One minute they can be strolling lazily down the street. The next they would show you their gums and start hollering at you, their tails pricked straight up in the air. That’s how they let you know they aren’t to be fucked with. The first heat wave always fills my mouth with longings for tastes like peaches, watermelon, and blood oranges, things that drip when you bite them. Lavar and I would pass the summer sticking our fingers into the fruit salads momma left in the freezer, putting something cold in our mouths.

Momma works long hours at the hospital. During the summer I only see her early in the morning dressed in her scrubs. She wakes me up, gives me directions and then pauses with my chin between her curled index finger and thumb. She studies me with her brown eyes with the blue circle around them then she bunches her thick mouth together to make her thinking face before stroking my cheek, kissing my forehead and leaving.

“Call the police if someone comes up on the property.”

She says as she runs out of the front door. Sometimes she is at the hospital until the next day.

Today after she left, I was angry. Lavar lay on the hard, brown-carpeted floor in the small square living room. There is an old couch with big cushions, a TV, and an armchair. We haven’t had a coffee table since Lavar opened up his chin on one when he was smaller. He flipped through the pages of his dinosaur book. His skinny arms and legs looked like burnt up little branches in the long white t-shirts we wear around the house to keep cool in the summer. Something about the way Lavar swung his ashy, long feet while lying on his stomach, in his dead world of bones and dinosaurs made me mad. I began crumbling up corner after corner of the newspaper I took off the front porch. I balled it up with spit in my mouth and shot it through an old straw left on the kitchen counter. He didn’t move. It seemed he never did.

Momma always makes me run, jump, cut, stir, and fold. I always ask her why Lavar never has to help and her answer is to let him be – he is too little to handle big jobs-boys don’t like to do this stuff anyways. I didn’t want to learn or do the stuff she and my aunts did either. It wasn’t that long ago that she started letting me know the difference between my brother and I. I had not noticed it before, just the parts I had seen when we took baths together stood out to me, and our ages. But I did not see why momma was all of a sudden making me do things differently. I was getting into trouble for playing too rough, dirtying my cloths, sitting with my legs open. She did not want me outside as much; I couldn’t play fight with my boy cousins anymore.

Sometimes I felt like that scene from Star Wars. Lavar was the big fat alien thingy and I was chained to him, feeding him grapes or some shit. Lavar and me watched that tape until momma brought home the DVD player with the complete Star Wars DVD set. She also brought the Land Before Time, which Lavar ran into the ground until just the music made me feel like it would give me nosebleeds. Besides Star Wars the only other tape is an aerobics one and no one remembers where either come from. Now the tapes sit dusty on top of the TV.

This summer I am happy that momma is mostly gone, so she can’t bother me. So I can be off on my own without her making me believe I am something I’m not. Not saying that I’m a boy – I know better by now, but I don’t want to be whatever her and my aunties are. I am learning to cuss from the construction workers building up houses all around us. The land we are on belonged to a great uncle who grew peaches and pecans. The trees are still all around us, still dropping fruit, which falls to the ground and leaves behind the smell of alcohol. It was something when momma bought this land. She finished her nursing degree when I was around seven. She took all that money she was making now, walked into a lawyer’s office and slapped the money down. She fanned it out just like she did with the cards when she plays spades with my aunties.

Our house was built up like a too big shotgun house. Door in the front, door in the back, four bedrooms, two bathrooms off the long, dark hallway; a living room and a dining room and of course a kitchen. Before we were living in an apartment that smelled like weed. There were always lots of teenage boys strolling through the parking lots. They never went to work and they talked to grown women and sometimes to me. Nothing nasty, just asking me how old I was and about Lavar, one time one of them showed me how to hold a football and throw it. Momma always told me to never get off my bike, to stay on and hold onto it no matter what happened. Momma was real worried about getting me out of there before I was twelve. Twelve was her age for that and I didn’t quite get why. Later, when my cousin Sally got pregnant I thought it might have had something to do with my momma thinking I would do the same. We were out of the apartments by then, living on the new land. Momma spent a lot of time on the phone with my auntie, talking with sounds and throwing in an occasional, “Well you gotta watch them when they start they rag.” She would look over her shoulder at me when she said this and I would make faces at her. I guess I was a little stupid; it did not occur to me that the rag was something beyond my control.

I don’t know why, but listening to momma talk about Sally had made me sick. There was something sad about it, like a deep hole that you can’t see the bottom of may make you sad. And I knew I was going to have to see her soon. Sally was only two years older than me, 14. Our church was having a function down at Goodwill Cemetery late in the spring and with the way I heard auntie saying Sally needed Jesus loud enough that it came through the receiver I figured she would force her to come.

Momma had come to get us out of school. My school was right up the street from Lavar’s school. We drove in silence over the newly paved roads lined with brand new churches out to Perry. The roads ran like the veins that stood up on the back of my grandma’s leg, dipping and wrapping and carrying up and over hills. The pecan tree fields stood clean, their fallen branches cleared away, arms straining towards the sky for rain. They changed into the soybean fields that eventually turned to clapboard houses sitting a half-mile back from the main road. If you looked far enough you could see chimneys standing like guards beside each other with their hundred year old clapboard fallen around them. We took off onto a side road only noticeable because of a hand painted sign made from wood that read, Goodwill. Some yellow truck-machines parked along the side, the road became rough where they had pulled it up.

Our car circled into the valley where the cemetery was. Momma parked with the rest of the cars. People dressed in black knotted around different family plots. The truth is that we are all married into the same area, the same town. Momma was dressed in black too. We left the car and followed behind momma down the red clay paths to the Jenkins-Squire plots. As momma laid out tulips and flowers I began to panic, my chest heaving. Sally, kind of rounder around her bellybutton, and my auntie came walking towards us. A group of old women I recognized from church floated by wearing black dresses with white collars, I heard them suck their teeth at Sally and I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, Sally stood before me with her chin in her chest, in a pink summer dress. It seemed stupid on her pregnant body. I shoved my hands into my school pants, blue khakis that I had chosen over the skirt.

“Hey.” She said to me quietly. I wouldn’t look at her face, I watched the old ladies passing behind her.

“Hi.” I muttered. My aunt’s mouth became tight and she pushed us together, hard.

“Hug your cousin Delilah!” And as she said it, I did it, my arms around Sally’s arms at her sides, I felt like I was holding a balloon. I also felt like she was contagious. Everything smelled like earth being ripped up, like the smell of tree sap, like the smell of pine needles when you rubbed them fast between your palms. Lavar crept towards me and leaned against me as I backed away from Sally who had big tears coming down her cheeks now. I wanted to change the subject so I spoke up, almost shouting,

“Momma, why we here?”

She sighed, glancing towards my aunt.

“Someone big done bought the land, they are going to put a factory here.”

I remembered momma telling me that this was the first blacks only graveyard – a lot of those tumbled houses were quarters where our great-greats lived. “Where they gon’ put us then?” I waited for her to answer me. I looked around I had been to so many funerals already here. Momma’s eyes glazed over like they always did when she wanted to cry.

We had family there sleeping, but some of the graves were so old that groundwater had drowned the corpses. In the holes where the concrete slabs had crumbled away I could see my reflection in the water. I wondered if Sally’s insides looked that way, like a broken stone filled with water with who knows what swimming around in it. Star Wars was easier to understand than this. Easier to understand than how all the women around seemed to work all the time or have babies all the time or be stressed out all the time. Where was Yoda? Where was Luke? Why couldn’t I be on Tatooine?

The graves in the lower valley had already been washed away. They had already begun digging things up there. Months later a yellow bus company flattened the land with huge flattening machines, crushing everything underneath into dust, the next time I saw that place there were busses lined up one after the other.

Where we live now, it is just us. Many people come up to the house demanding my mother sell the land. We are in the middle of this big, what I heard the lawyer say is, a subdivision project. They are trying to make money on the empty country-land. I never got it; there aren’t enough people around here to buy up all of these houses. And unless you are a nurse like momma – you ain’t got no place to work, maybe a restaurant or a store in the mall. But the bus doesn’t go anywhere, just from one end of town to the other and only up one main road. The bus driver doesn’t even bother to make people pay most of the time, knowing he ain’t got nowhere to take them, not really.

I looked at Lavar again; his big black circles were on me, without blinking. He tilted his peanut head and smiled at me with his teeth before looking around his body,

“You better pick these up, momma gon’ whup on you.”

I sucked my teeth, pulling my knees up,

“YOU clean them up, nigguh.”

He smacked his forehead with his open hand, “Why you talk like that? You don’t do it in front of momma.”

“Shut up…shit.” I was trying it out. I liked it. I had worse curses stacked on the back of my tongue, but to use them on Lavar would make him cry and tell. As long as he didn’t cry he didn’t tell.

I took the remote and clicked on the television. I began pulling out the fray on my cut-offs as I flipped through the channels, finally landing on the science channel. There was a picture of a woman’s body cut in half, right down the middle, there were red arrows pointing at her titties, her crotch, her stomach and some other parts. Lavar whined,

“Na-uh! I don’ wanna watch this!”

I grabbed one of the throw pillows and put its name to use,

“Shut up, nigguh.”

He huffed, burying his head back into the book. I had been refusing to see Sally since my period started after they finished flattening the cemetery. Every time these shows came on I watched them, it was better than talking to momma who would tell someone new every time she remembered. Her tone with me changed too, like she was waiting on me to do something wrong. I had asked her once,

“Does this mean I’m like Sally? I have a period now I can get pregnant?”

“What the hell you planning on to ask me that question? You better not be like Sally.”

The way she said it bit down into me, I felt like how I did at the corner store a little ways down the main road, the storeowner always watching Lavar and I even though we always paid. I am only twelve. I still can’t wear a training bra without it hanging loose off of me. And though all the girls at school had crushes, I had not yet figured out how they had them. Boys did not get me worked up as much as they annoyed me.

The narrator-woman’s voice was clear like a whistle and she carefully spoke on each body part as if she was giving instructions on how to load a gun. She talked about the titties becoming swollen, and the woman’s blood becoming trapped in her uterus that was shaped like a basket. She talked about a woman’s body holding millions of half-live eggs that rolled down some tubes and buried themselves in the blood where there they waited for a man to spit tadpoles at it while he was inside the woman. My nose cringed. Who wants someone sweating up all over them, spitting milky shit inside of them? Had Sally liked it? A boy from church named Willow and her had done it, now I couldn’t look at him either. The woman went on to say that if that didn’t happen, if the man did not spit his milk inside, then the eggs and the blood leaves, marking the end of what she called a fertility cycle. I felt like I understood something then, not sure what it is.

I looked down at Lavar. I got up from the couch and crawled down onto the floor where I mounted him. I felt my neck and face cooking as I began to hit him and slap him. At first he laughed, giggled and I wanted to think that I was playing. But my hands became heavier, I began to beat on him, until he cried and wailed. I stood up, shoved my foot into his hip, rolling him away from me.

“Stop crying pussy!”

“Ima tell momma!”

“You tell momma Ima burn these shitty little books you read! Fuckin’ things don’t exist anyway!” Snot bubbled up in his nose, tears bulged at the corners of his eyes and he softly continued to weep, glancing at the television.

“Everything does that Delilah! Even the ocean! It is called red tide…ain’t nothin bad, why you hit me?”

He hadn’t even noticed Sally and how she had changed, how her cheeks bulged, he just ran to her and rubbed up on her when he saw her. Hugging her tightly as if her new fat was meant just for that. What I wanted to know was why everything could happen to me and not to him. Why weren’t his insides all twisted up? Why wasn’t his crotch stuffed up in him and wet? He seemed to know, or at least have more reason about it than I do. The little shit reads a lot where I can barely listen through anything. Hearing his words, hearing him reason through everything made me feel stupid, how a nine year old boy know more about my bleeding than me? I felt like a monster. I sighed, knelt down next to him, wrapped my wiry arms around him, and kissed his temple. “Please don’t tell momma.” I rocked from my heels to the balls of my feet, my chin mushed on top of his head.

Lavar loved affection, attention, and softness. He would grab hold of momma’s hips and she would move around the house with him on her like that. He liked to try to hold his lady teacher’s hand in school. I tilted my face towards his; he wiped his wet eyes and smiled. I sat down behind him; he sat between my open outstretched legs. I picked up the dinosaur book and pointed to a yellowish colored monster with a crown of three points on its head,

“What is this?”

Lavar grabbed the book by the back and front cover, opening it up more. When he grinned I could see his two bucked front teeth, his finger touched the back of the animal.

“This is triceratops. Because it has three points on its head.” I must have made a face because he frowned a little, I smirked.

“These damn things would eat a little nigguh like you.” His face changed into a serious look, he took my fingers off the book one by one. His voice sounded confused.

“It is an herbivore – it don’t eat people and I don’t think carnivores would like our taste. Sharks don’t eat us, they spit us out, we’re too salty.”

I pushed myself to my feet with a huff. He has an answer for everything. I stretched and then flopped into the cushiony couch. I rolled over and opened the blinds. Across the tops of the greening trees were more large yellow machines like there had been in the graveyard. They ducked their heads down, tipped their mouths and scooped up dirt behind a tall chain link fence a little less than a quarter mile away. When their necks bent I could hear the engines turning. Lavar climbed up next to me, balancing his book on the sill as he flipped through the pages until he came to a picture of a t-rex. One of the larger machines seemed as if it could stand just as tall. Lavar’s eyes looked back and forth from the dinosaur in the book to the machine.

“You wanna see it right the fuck close up?” I asked, hoping he would say yes. The bridge of his nose wrinkled,

“Please stop talkin’ like that Delilah. You gon slip up in front of momma and she gon’ hit you, real hard. You don’t even sound good sayin’ it.”

I thought about pushing him onto the floor, but I wanted him to come outside with me and he would lock himself up in his room if I hit him again. I sighed heavily, sucking my teeth long. “Why can’t I sound good cussin?”

“You’re a girl!”

“Stop saying that! Great auntie Tina is a girl, she cuss and spit snuff! Great auntie Milly does too! She cuss!”

I watched Lavar’s eyes become skinny, he was getting ready to beat me in my argument, his smug closed lip smile cut his face in two, “Dey grown, you little still.”

“Nah – uh – uh!”

“Why ain’t you little…?”

“Because – Because…I -” I got up from the couch, I took him by his wrist and yanked him to his feet. I didn’t want to admit why I wasn’t little, why momma thought I may start acting grown.

“We goin’ outside. Leave that book here.” He wrung his body away, twisting around like a rubber band.

“No! I am taking it with me and stop telling me what to do.”

He marched away and through the front door, still in his long t-shirt with tighty-whiteys underneath. His shirt looked like a dress.

I followed him out, the sound of the machines in the distance becoming louder. I slipped my long feet into my canvas sneakers and then helped Lavar with his before we took off into the grass. It was still relatively early. A shiny fog had come down around the trunks of the peach trees. The thick green leaves were slick with the waters of the fallen clouds. The droplets dripping off on my shoulders and Lavar’s head as we pushed past the trees. I felt Lavar’s hand grab the tail of my shirt. He always said that the peach trees reminded him of people trying to pull themselves up out of the earth. The sun glare was blurry through the floating fog. I glanced back to see if Lavar was there, he was, aimlessly following me with a silly smile on his face. It dawned on me that if momma gives in to the people who want to build houses that everything we were standing on would disappear like the bodies in Goodwill.

Lavar stumbled. I tripped up along with him before roughly pulling away from his grasp. We came up close to the fence. A paved road on the other side ended right at the fence and extended into a street lined with pale blue, pale green and pink houses. Lavar darted off like a mosquito between the trees, I reached out to try to stop him.

“Lavar! Tch, Lavar!”

I turned back to the fence. Some tall, dusty men were standing near by. Their hats hovering on their heads. Their vests matched the yellow hats, like the machines. I stared at them, bits of their conversation floating over to me.

“You think that woman is gonna sell all that land?”

“Well I heard that the lawyer is planning to fuck her over if she does…”

“That bitch should just come up off it, you know how much money they offered her?”

I tensed. The dots connected, they were speaking about momma. My fingers clutched the chain link fence, making it rattle. Their heads turned and they paused, like Lavar does when he gets caught doing something he shouldn’t be doing. They were not the same men I had spoken to a few times before, asking them this and that about one cuss word or another that they explained and then encouraged me to say. They had been around some months before when the land was being cleared. Maybe there were men to clear the land and other men to build on it. One came towards me, I backed away from the fence.

“Hey – we don’ seen you sneaking around, you been goin’ back to your momma tellin’ her what we say?”

I didn’t answer, I didn’t know they had seen me in the bushes, spying on their conversations. I took another step back as if the fence would not hold them if they did not want it to.

“Hey gal, I’m talking to you.”

“Leave her alone, now. Hey – what’s your name?” I swallowed hard, my hands wringing around my fingers in front of me as a different man questioned me.

“Uh, Dee. My name is Dee.”

“Well hey Dee. We work over here on the houses.”

“Y-yeah. I know – ya’ll tryina take over our land.”

I suddenly stood straight becoming longer and taller. I poked my chin outwards a little bit,

“But ya’ll ain’t gon’ get shit.”

I felt them pause again, their eyes exchanged glances, their grins expanded, and they began to laugh. I thought of Willow, his skinny wrists, his stupid smile and his gray eyes with the long lashes all the church ladies always complimented. I wondered if he was the same as these men, or if even Lavar would eventually grow up to be like this. Sally and Willow had done it and somehow now the world was different, I didn’t know how to imagine it. Do I imagine it like two fireflies stuck together, gathering in the air? Do I imagine it like when I see one bird jump up and down on another while it tries to get away? I felt the same anger I felt earlier begin to ball up its fist in my stomach. They leaned over like birds pecking the dirt, they slapped their knees. Having blood come from within you without you dying had to mean I had some kind of power, something besides what women called getting into trouble. I ran towards the fence and shook it, the tallest of the three stood up.

“Calm down little Dee. Your momma knows you talk like that? How old are you?”

He was close to the fence now. He smelled like old limes, dust and salt – like rust. I backed away, I called over my shoulder,

“Lavar!” I never took my eyes off of the worker. The others stood back, watching him closely.

“I asked you how old you are…”

“Old enough, bitch.”

I spit towards where the chain link scraped the dirt. His forehead wrinkled, I had thrown the word he used on my momma back at him. He shoved his hand through the fence, trying to reach me and when he tried to pull it back, it got stuck. I grinned and backed up, snickering.

“You know what lil girl, Ima go talk to my boss and we are gonna come tear up your shitty little house anyway, little fuckin’ smart mouthed cunt!”

Another hand jutted through the fence, one on a longer arm, the fingers skimming over my white t-shirt. The voice that went with the arm yelled,

“Yeah we gon’ show you what a bitch do!”

I turned my back to them. I hightailed like a comet off behind where Lavar had run. My cheeks apple hard with pride as I heard him rattle the chain behind me. I ran through the trees, the sun shredding its rays downward. The trees smacked my sweaty face with their hot leaves. The peach trees disappeared and I ran into a cathedral of pecan trees whose rowboat like arms and legs wobbled up and down with wind and weight.

Whenever I run into the pecan tree fields I think about the time Sally caught me and a girl from church out in the old graveyard. A tiny yard with grassy patches sticking up in the red clay behind the tiny building, it was older than Goodwill. The girl, Felicia, had asked me to come out back with her and I did follow her, my hands in the pockets of my pants as usual. When we made it past all the graves she pulled me behind a big maple tree whose roots were tearing up the graves. Felicia’s momma had given her thick braids down her back, as we stood there she reached around and felt my ponytail.

“The old ladies in church say you are like a pretty boy, like you could be a pretty boy or a pretty girl.”

I stayed quiet, feeling myself blush because I had not heard anyone say that. Even though I know momma got mad when people confused me. She had stopped braiding my hair into cornrows at that point and made me wear a ponytail. Felicia stepped closer, smiling, I remember her mouth. “I think you pretty either way.”

I kept still as she pressed her mouth against mine. My heart began to jump and bump in my ears and I tensed at first. But she smelled like oranges, and when my fingers touched her arms she felt like the silk stockings my grandma made me wash sometimes by hand. Just as I was about to lean in, Sally cleared her throat. And it was over. I don’t know if I can’t look at her because she saw me or because of her and Willow.

I caught up with Lavar who stood in his white shirt, looking downward into a ravine that cut from the drainage ditch near the road into our land. I continued running until I was close up on him and then came to a stop. I leaned forward with my hands on my knees.

“Why didn’t you answer me? Whatchu doin’ over here?”

He pointed downwards and I followed the line of his arm into the red clay wall of the deep cut. Five curved bones, equally spaced apart jutted from the red scar. A small bony foot that looked like a dog’s leg, only a bit larger was also embedded in the red earth. I moved closer and jumped down before holding out my arms so Lavar could jump too. I touched one of the bones before gently beginning to rub away the clay.

“Be careful.” Lavar whispered, he stood wide-eyed, his book pressed to his chest,

“Should we call the cops Delilah?”

I thought about the image of the woman cut in half, I shook my head,

“Nah – this too big to be a person.” I looked to Lavar and his book. “Is it a gator?”

He shook his head, rolled his eyes as more of the skeleton came into view under my fingertips. I had seen a gator skeleton before while visiting family in Louisiana,

“Legs are too long I think, but it do look similar…”

He whispered like he did whenever we were at church. His tiny hands joined mines in brushing away the dirt. His book of dinosaurs rested gingerly in the gully with us. After a bit, the almost full skeleton of the thing came into view. It was the skeleton of something with a head like a dog and a body like a gator. I sat down in the waterless river, pulling my knees up to my flat chest. Lavar gathered his book and started flipping through the pages. He stopped, placing his finger over an animal then passed the book to me. The image showed a skeleton that looked like the one we had found. Above that was a picture drawn to look like what the animal must have looked like before it died.

“Prehistoric whale…amb – ambu-lo-ce-tus. Lavar, nigguh – ain’t no water around here.” Lavar nodded,

“Delilah, all this was underwater like a bazillion years ago…this was the ocean. That’s why everything grows so good around here. This is the ambulocetus,” he began to read, “A mammal that could walk on land and swim in water, proof that the whale derives from a land mammal.” I looked at the dead sea-monster. I imagined it deciding to swim instead of walk. What if I didn’t want to change?

All around its corpse the earth was set with constellations of the bones of other tinier things that swam. The roots of the giant pecan trees mingled with the white pieces, snaking in and out, seeking deeper, their tips seeming to tremble with stretching, as if towards the ocean that Lavar talked about. Hanging over the gully, bowing down their heads were the same things that grew in our old cemetery, lilies of the valley, foxglove, hemlock, poison oak.

All of a sudden I felt a warmth and a tightness overcome my lower back and thighs. I wrapped my arms around myself and hugged, wincing. Lavar placed his hand on my upper back and pat me, putting his face near mines,

“Is it here? Did it come again?”

I nodded without looking up. I imagined myself spreading out, becoming a red ocean that gushed down the gully and into the streets. The fog had risen and it was hot now, sweat falling at my temples. At the same time I thought of our house, a larger version of those hundred-year-old houses, the other machines with the huge shovels pulling earth up. Things under the ground seemed to last so much longer than what was above, unless that is, someone came digging. I grabbed Lavar and pushed him up out of the dry river by his butt and then scrambled out myself. We walked through the maze of the trees, avoiding the straight paths through the orchard, picking our path back home.

 

 
Jessica Lanay currently lives in Bronx, NY and works at a magazine for writers in Manhattan. She moved to the city from Macon, Georgia and was raised in different places throughout the South. Themes that trickle through her poetry and short stories are female protagonists, internal migrations, the investigation of violence, disappearance (of landscape or persons), and magic realism. Her poetry and short fiction can be found in Blackberry: a magazine, Linden Avene Literary Journal, and Duende. Jessica Lanay also has more work forthcoming in Kweli Journal, Sugar House Review, Minerva Rising and As/Us. She is the founder of Jasper Collective, an editorial group comprised of women.

buy twitter followers