The teeth on the BSB-133 blade are induction heated, diamond crusted, sharpened to a flesh cutting five microns. When securing the ends of the blade to the spine of the hack saw, if you do not pay proper attention, nasty gashes sometimes happen. Bartholomew Evers (he knows the hazards) removes the blade from its cardboard sheath.
Reba sits at the kitchen table. “Thought you’d have that lock cut when I got here,” Reba says. “I’ve got other things to do today.”
Reba calls the Home Depot in Mattapan, tells Bartholomew she wants to come over and get the items in the trunk. Bartholomew reminds Reba that he will unlock the trunk when she stops playing games with his visitations. Reba reminds Bartholomew that he can see Shanessa more often after he unlocks the trunk.
Shanessa saunters into the kitchen, marches straight for the refrigerator. A butterfly barrette swings from the end of one of her long braids. An airplane-shaped Mylar balloon hangs limp from the door handle of the refrigerator. “We have to leave that here, Baby,” Reba says, reaching for the string of the balloon.
“I wanna take it,” Shanessa says.
Reba shakes her head. “Your grandmother says we can’t bring any more toys into her house.”
“I want the balloon.”
“Please don’t argue with me today.”
“I want it.”
Bartholomew goes into the living room and returns with a VHS tape. “How about you go watch the penguins?”
“Don’t want to watch the penguins,” Shanessa says.
Reba presents a bag of mint cookies. “Here, Shanessa. Take the whole bag.”
Shanessa pivots on the heels of her red boots, the toes still wet from the snow. “I want the balloon.”
Shanessa’s hard eyes go back and forth from Reba to Bartholomew. They are her third set of parents in four years. Two-and-a-half pound Shanessa wakes up in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Boston City Hospital, down the hall from where her mother, Crystal has expired with pneumonia. Four pound Shanessa leaves the hospital with her aunt Mavis and Bartholomew’s twin brother Rayford.
Bartholomew picks up a piece of the broken hacksaw blade. Reba frowns. “You’re not going to cut that string, are you?”
“Plan on it,” Bartholomew says.
“Didn’t you hear?”
“What I just told Shanessa?”
Bartholomew walks toward the refrigerator. Rayford and Mavis are falling from the rooftop of Tower II of the Sojourner Housing Complex. Bartholomew remains behind on the rooftop dozing. The crash of bodies causes him to open his eyes. Bartholomew runs to the edge of the roof, he runs to the elevator doors, they refuse to open. Bartholomew runs down the stairwell calling: Rayford, Mavis.
In the parking lot two crowds are gathering. The smaller one hems in an idling taxi where Rayford’s body lay in a glitter of windshield shards. A larger crowd circles Mavis’s body which sags between a rusting Buick and a brand new Honda. “Get up from there, Mavis,” Miss Pickett says. “Get up girl.”
Shanessa accepts the freed balloon and the VHS (but not the bag of mint cookies) and walks out of the kitchen.
Reba starts to shovel in her purse. “I brought that letter I told you about,” she says. “Like to get this matter settled soon. The movers will be here before you know it.”
“You got a few weeks yet.”
“Didn’t I tell you?”
“The movers are coming Monday.”
“Next month, you told me.”
“Now I’m telling you they’re coming Monday.”
“That’s next week.”
“Thought I told you already.”
Reba takes an envelope out of her purse. “I’ve been so busy. Must have slipped my mind. Didn’t think you were that interested.”
Bartholomew jerks open the refrigerator, fighting the idea of seeing the truth in Reba’s last comment. The evening after Rayford and Mavis’s funeral, Shanessa crawls in bed between Bartholomew and Reba. Bartholomew carries Shanessa back to the other bedroom. “She’s not contagious,” Reba says.
“We don’t want her to get to close,” Bartholomew says. “What if we decide not to adopt her?”
“I’ve already made up my mind.”
“We both need to agree.”
“You wouldn’t do it without me.”
“I will if you keep stalling.”
The envelope Reba lays on the table has an acetate window, just like the letters Bartholomew gets from Boston Legal Services. “Should have modified those custody papers before the marriage,” the BU law student says. “It an uphill fight now.”
A year before the divorce, Reba climbs into the cab of the packed U-Haul. Reba’s helper cannot get the back door of the U-Haul down, so Bartholomew leaps onto the bumper. He has the back half way down when he notices–behind the oak dresser, peaking out from underneath piles of curtains–the silver and black edge of his mother’s trunk.
“It’s trifling of you to keep Shanessa’s things,” Reba says as Bartholomew carries the trunk off the U-Haul. “You never wanted Shanessa. Stop pretending now.”
Unlike the City of Boston, Oakland Children’s Services will not be paying to complete Shanessa’s orthodontic work. The estimate from the recommended dental office is one thousand dollars. “Why don’t you wait and finish the work here?” Bartholomew says, laying the letter on the table.
“You want Shanessa to miss starting school?”
“It’s only kindergarten.”
“Could we ask Inez?”
“For the money?”
“For some of it.”
Reba crosses her arms. Bartholomew opens a Budweiser. The cold beer shocks his throat. During a sunny, spring afternoon, Bartholomew’s senior year at Northeastern, he and Reba exit the building where Reba takes court reporting and transcription classes. At the Burger King they sit in a booth by the window, Reba watching Bartholomew bite into the first of seven double cheeseburgers, Bartholomew watching students spill out of the music school across Massachusetts Avenue, thinking of his father’s trombone which he misplaces one day after junior band. His punishment is to join Rayford on the football team.
After leaving the Burger King Bartholomew and Reba ride the subway where Bartholomew admits he doesn’t have the money to help pay for the abortion. “Get the money from Inez,” he says. “Tell her I’ll pay her back.”
“With what?” Reba says.
“My per diem.”
“Soon as Rayford and I get back from Florida. The Broncos are definitely sending us tickets.”
Only one airline ticket arrives, and it has Rayford’s name on it. In Saratoga, the team doctors discover a hairline facture in Rayford’s clavicle. The coach at Northeastern telephones the scout. “Why don’t you take another look at Bartholomew? You put the two Evers boys side-to-side, I’ve always said Bartholomew’s the better athlete.”
Reba refuses to ask Inez for a loan to pay for the abortion. Reba refuses to make an appointment at the clinic. Nine pound Iona Inez Evers lives just fifteen minutes, barely the time it takes to stop Reba’s bleeding. A rare form of umbilical failure, the doctor says. A year after Reba completes the custody papers for Shanessa, the doctor delivers the news: Reba will have no more biological children
Cocktails of detergent toxins such as chlorine and ammonia, good for decontaminating linoleum in operating rooms and for scouring parking lots, can leave an acrid residue long after the scrubbing is done. In the three and four bedroom apartments on the lower floors of Tower II, the antiseptic smell wafting in from the parking lot eventually dissipates, but questions remain–did Rayford Evers wake up on the morning of April 17th loving Mavis, or did he wake up resenting her because she no longer joined in the drinking every evening? Hadn’t Rayford recently sold Mavis’ diamond bracelet (and not his Camaro) to settle his account at the dog track? Did Rayford cradle Mavis in those big arms or his and carry her off the roof? Then again, wasn’t Mavis the hot headed one? In the arguing heard through the door of apartment 8-F that very afternoon—hadn’t Mavis’s voice drowned out Rayford’s? Hadn’t Mavis slapped Rayford (and Shanessa) a few times when she was drinking? Did Mavis shove Rayford from the rooftop then jump herself?
A single row of framed pictures lines the wall in the hallway leading to Bartholomew’s bedroom. Reba halts at a picture of Rayford and Mavis. “I told Mavis she ought to stay off the roof.”
“You told her,” Bartholomew says.
“Wish she’d have listened.”
“Mavis could be hard headed.”
“And Rayford drank too much.”
Reba’s tight face slackens as she points at a picture of Shanessa. “I believe that’s the only one of Shanessa before she was three.”
“Look at how plump Shanessa is.”
“That’s what I like about it.”
Reba takes the picture off the wall. “Come look, Shanessa.”
From the living room Shanessa looks over the back of the sofa. Reba presents the picture and the bag of cookies again. Shanessa turns back toward the television.
“I have an idea,” Reba says.
“I’ve got that picture, the one with you, Rayford and Shanessa, and your mother. Trade you for this one.”
Bartholomew looks at the picture but it’s hard to focus with his mind clouded with images of Shanessa taking off in a plane for California. That is a trip he wants to prevent. Bartholomew exits the Upham’s Corner Learning Center with Shanessa riding on his shoulder. They drive to the air show in Fall River. On their return, while Bartholomew gathers the bags of MacDonald’s from the back seat of the Camaro, Reba exits the rear door of the Sojourner.
A policeman approaches with Reba. Reba brandishes the dog-eared custody papers. Bartholomew lowers Shanessa back to the ground: a misunderstanding is all this is, he explains to the policeman. Reba straps Shanessa into the seat of her car, hands Bartholomew the warm strawberry milkshake and soggy bag of fries. “See, this is why Vanessa never has an appetite for what I fix. You need to stop feeding her junk food.”
Bartholomew politely declines to trade pictures. He re-hangs the picture, which Reba straightens with a forced a smile. Reba lays a hand on the picture of Crystal but she and Bartholomew know better than to discuss that one aloud. Any mention of Crystal is enough to send Shanessa into a fit of depression.
Reba quickens her pace as she passes the bathroom. If the information Bartholomew learned in the Home Depot Associate seminars is correct, it takes centuries to degrade the plasticized poly lactic acids and the synthetic resins in bubble gum like the kind nineteen-year-old Abigail Dufferin chews as she enters the bathroom. In the cramped space, Bartholomew is overpowered by Abigail’s scent. He lifts Abigail’s skirt. His belt buckle feels cool to the touch. Abigail wants to do it on the sofa, but Bartholomew cannot stop. Abigail presses her gum onto the lip of the sink as Bartholomew enters her from the back. The sex is quick and intense, like the evening before a championship football game.
Three quilts, Mavis’s yearbook from Archbishop Carroll High School, Crystal’s silver earrings, Crystal’s band uniform, the Sports Illustrated with Rayford’s picture on the cover—everything is here in the trunk, still in good condition.
Bartholomew carries the tools into the bedroom, the saw and a hammer. He sets down the hammer and starts to saw. Reba finally takes off her coat. “Come here, Shanessa,” she says. “Come see what Mavis and Crystal left you in the trunk? Come here, Shanessa. I mean it this time.”
Shanessa comes to the doorway with the balloon, the string wrapped around her wrist. “I want to finish the movie.”
“The penguins can wait until we get home,” Reba says.
“Don’t be a baby.”
Shanessa runs over and picks up the hammer. At the foot of the bed she falls to the floor and strikes the Mylar balloon. After taking a few hits the balloon deflates in a slow hiss. The scale at Tennison’s Funeral Home registers two hundred and sixty pounds for Rayford, one-hundred and thirty pounds for Mavis, ninety-eight pounds for Crystal.
Reba joins Shanessa at the foot of the bed. Reba walks the perimeter of the Mattapan Courthouse with her co-worker Deidra, going through her list of reasons why she ought to cancel the U-Haul. In Inez’s kitchen, for the third time today, Reba empties Shanessa’s untouched plate of food into the trash. At the foot of bed, with what looks like great effort Reba sits down beside Shanessa. “You’re probably hungry,” she says. “Why don’t you eat something?”
“She’s not eating again?” Bartholomew says.
“It’s gotten bad.”
“It’s been three days.”
“What ‘cha doing about it?”
“Took her to the doctor.”
“There’s nothing wrong with her.”
Shanessa remains on the floor. Bartholomew begins to saw again, feeling Reba’s eyes on him. Reba believes Shanessa is trying to starve her way back to Crystal. Where is the sense in that? For the first time ever Bartholomew begins to fret about what happens between Reba and Shanessa when he’s not around.
The BSB-133 blade starts to blue-up from the heat, but Bartholomew knows the blade’s tolerance. The Hardware Associate’s certificate he receives the day he gets his promotion, the same day he makes a visit to a real lawyer, attests to that fact. Mavis and Rayford are laughing on the roof. Someone says, Come away from the edge, fool, before you fall your ass off. Who is saying that?
Bartholomew and Reba are driving down to Alabama for the burial of little Iona. At Logan airport, Rayford’s plane lands from Saratoga. Rayford and Bartholomew stride through the chilly terminal. In the sweltering Camaro, Bartholomew tells himself he will never be as beaten down as Rayford seems.
At the air show in Fall River two planes collide in midair. Bartholomew hurries Shanessa to the car. Bartholomew assures Shanessa the two pilots parachuted to safety, but she remains uneasy with the sharp smelling smoke filling up the inside the car. On the highway, Bartholomew remembers the whipping he got for losing his father’s trombone, thinks of his mother barely a year in the grave. When he thinks of Rayford a swelling begins in his head. When he stomps on the brake, the Camaro drifts to the shoulder of the road. Shanessa sits calmly beside Bartholomew, the balloon bobbing against the roof of the car. When Shanessa lays a hand on Bartholomew’s shoulder, he feels as though he has been pulled a thousand feet underwater. Bartholomew sits back in the car seat, listening to the traffic. What is this feeling?
Here in the bedroom, Bartholomew knows the feeling now. At least he thinks he does. Neither he nor Shanessa have any known relatives walking this earth. Is that it? Bartholomew attempts to stand up. His foot slips, sending him back to the floor. His thumb strikes the teeth of the BSB-133.
Bartholomew’s shoulders tense. Defensive linemen are trained to slice up time the way the blade slices into Bartholomew’s thumb. During the million milliseconds before the blood comes, Bartholomew hears bodies crashing. Where? On some field in Alabama? On the shore in Fall River? In the parking lot of Tower II?
Bartholomew picks up the hammer. Blood coats the fiberglass handle. On the second swing he misses the lock and strikes the trunk. Bartholomew looks at the scar on the trunk, several inches long, hearing his mother’s voice: See that’s why I left the trunk to your brother. Rayford knows how to take care of things.
“Go back and watch the movie,” Bartholomew tells Shanessa.
Shanessa stands but does not move. She looks at Reba, her eyes compliant now, as if wanting Reba’s approval. Reba’s eyes remain on her coat and the mint cookies.
As Bartholomew grips the lock in his palm, a thought occurs to him. Tomorrow he could contact another lawyer, surely somehow he can get what he wants, another year with his daughter.
But tomorrow is Sunday.
Too late. There is only now.
Bartholomew strikes the lock again, sending a shock jolting his hand. Bartholomew remembers the sound of those bodies landing in the parking lot. On the rooftop Bartholomew cannot recall the sound, but here in the bedroom, the memory comes to him. It is a sound from his life in Alabama, a country sound. The sound a sledge hammer makes when striking the head of a goat, the sound of slaughter.