Fiction

A new short story from an award-winning author. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Louisiana heron

“I know you a black boy,” Bronson’s mama say, back turned to him, lookin down into the soapy sink. “But I don’t want you buyin no black-boy car with that money you saved. An I got a say in that too, since I topped you up that last lil bit.” Her grey-knuckle hands plunge deep in the dirty dishwater, scrubbin the burnt bits off-a the tater-bake tray. Then all a-sudden she stop: turn to Bronson, searchin his face.

“What you even mean by that, Mama?” Bronson avoid her gaze, wipin off the dinner table. “Any car-a mine gonna turn into a black-boy car anyhow. Once I got the papers for it.”

Usual when she laugh, Bronson’s mama got a chortle like thunder rollin in. Low, an deep, an rattlin, so’s your bones can feel the truth of it. She don’t laugh right now. She point the dish brush at her lanky six-foot son, bits-a soggy tater droppin down onto the tired tile floorin, as she stab at the air between ’em.

“Don’t you try me. You know what I’m sayin.”

“Sorry Mama.” Bronson know sure what kinda car she don’t want him to get. But he been savin hard, workin down the scrapyard after class. Figures he earned the right to be a daredevil hoon for a bit, if he so incline. Bronson sick-a bein that always-good kid. Cause you a black boy cause you daddy gone cause people already lookin down on us cause life gonna be hard enough for you already Bronx why you gonna make it even harder huh?

His mama still starin at him, in the faded dusk-a their tiny kitchen: eyes death-black, like pull over get out shut your mouth put your hands real slow on the hood move away from the car step away you hear me get down on the concrete I said stay down.

“Don’t you buy no fucken black-boy car, you hear me, Bronx? I ain’t foolin.”

 

Luce sit sweaty on the saggy brown couch, windin a long strand-a limp mustard colour hair roun her finger. Her baby Leroy lyin face down in front-a the television, his nappy bladder-fat cause she ain’t had the fight to change it yet. Leroy’s thick straw-coloured curls are plastered down on his chubby forehead. He push his body flat-down against the floorboards, tryna absorb their coldness into his skin. Luce close-watch her son: the lopside way he move his two-year-ole body ’bout. Leroy look like he wanna become part-a the house. Like he tryna sink down into its foundations an jus disappear into the woodwork: camouflage himself like one-them heron birds.

These last few weeks, Leroy object to goin outside, so they mostly stay in. Feel like cage, this house, even at the best-a times. ’Bout twenty-by-forty foot. Not a proper house, really.     

“Built hundreds-a years back. Ole workers’ cabin,” the owner say, when he showin her roun hopin to rent it out. His lip do that lil up-curl when he say workers’ cabin – let her know now she jus some knocked-up white girl gon be livin where some field slaves did. Luce ’magine how much worse he look at her if he see that baby’s daddy. Maybe lucky he long gone after all.

Luce’d walked roun the place, openin an shuttin the broken-seal fridge, slowly lookin in all the cupboards an the corners, like she had options. She’d purposely left it two days ’fore she called the man to say she take it, an even then, she hear the satisfaction in his drawl.

Luce lever herself up from the couch, move over an close the window. Heat risin, even at this earlyish hour.

“Bah-buh-bab-buh-bub…” Leroy still huggin at the floorboards, babbling like they a dear ole friend he ain’t seen in some time. He tired, but somethin else also wrong with her baby. Not a wrong-somethin quarantined to this exact moment in time, somethin general-like. Leroy not talkin the small words he used-a speak no more. Not laughin neither, when she try to play peek-a-boo. Clinic say she oughta get him tested, but Luce don’t really understand what for, an don’t got money for that anyhow. Maybe she get lucky come October, if her ma send birthday money, but Luce don’t know if it can wait that long.

Luce’s ma sent money year before last, on Leroy’s first birthday. Surprise Luce, after the way her ma left the hospital when he born.

“You lucky, Luce.” Woman’d fixed her hat to her head, after only visitin for five minutes. “Without them blond afro-curls, y’almost wouldn’t know the baby half negro. Pro’ly get darker as he get older though. Shame. Here some money. Don’t you tell your daddy I come.”

Negro. Shit. Don’t nobody use that word no more.

Afternoon-a Leroy’s next birthday – last year – Luce look out the window an the blue car was sittin at the edge-a the long driveway, the card tucked ’neath the wipers writ in her ma’s pursed letterin. Luce still don know if her ma ’rrange for it to be dropped, or if she bring it herself, an never even knock.

 

Bronson know this vehicle the one the moment it pop up for sale on Facebook Carpark. Bright blue. Look like it made-a giant blocks-a Duplo. Description say it a Nissan Cube. Bronson screenshot; upload the picture to a text.

I think this the one.

Bronson lean back on his creaky-spring bed, wait for his mama’s reply. She on shift down the ole folks home, so he don’t expect no fast response, but his phone buzz back almost immediate.

Look good.

While he still starin at the screen, his mama follow up.

What you like about it?

Just like it. Why you ask?

Bronson look up at the plastic white glow-stars pasted on his bedroom ceilin.

Look like the little Matchbox car your Daddy give you for Christmas when you about five. Just before he deployed. You played with that thing till the wheels fell off.

Bronson don’t let his mama’s words penetrate. His daddy been dead nearly 12 years now. It nothin to do with that, he jus independently like the car.

You better go see about it then.

 

Luce can see the black boy out there, standin on the porch. He a-knockin-knockin-knockin but she ’tendin she don’t hear him a couple seconds more, so’s she can size him up proper. Look nice. Friendly, like his photograph on the computer. Thank the Lord for that. After she message him back to come look at the car, she start thinkin it weren’t such a fabulous idea. Nobody but Leroy out here to hear her scream.

“EEEeeeep eeeee eeeeeep.” Leroy make soft chirpin sounds, lyin in his cool spot on the hard cabin floor. Is how he sing hisself to sleep these days. His big green eyes roll exhausted back in his cherub-head, an he finally fall comfortable-still.

Luce breathe a sigh-a relief. Seem like her baby only happy these days when he asleep an dreamin.

 

Bronson knock again, quieter this time. He take a few steps back from the door so’s whoever hidin in there can get a proper look at him, but also so’s he can run away cross the patchy devil’s grass should the need or sawn-off arise. Bronson already got awareness what a six-foot black nearly-man knockin on the door mean to some. The door open a crack.

“What y’all standin back from the door like that for?” the woman say. “I ain’t gon bite, you know!”

She younger than her profile picture looked. Maybe only ’bout four or five years older’n him. Long yellow hair, limp roun her shoulders. Rail thin. Tired roun the eyes like she ain’t sleep a full night in some time. Yellow T-shirt. Blue jeans so faded they makin to be white. She close the door behind her quick, like there something in there she don’t wan him to catch sight of. Bronson guess maybe the house in a mess, but he happy not to set foot in the place anyhow. Glass been put in the windows, an runnin water piped in, an ’lectricity line run, an the shutters painted bright blue like maybe that could cheer away the history of the place, but Bronson still feel the ghosts, hoverin.

 

“Ain’t no other car like this roun here,” Luce say, tryna work up a sales pitch, the tips-a her fingers shoved into the back pockets-a her jeans. She need the kid to buy the car. She watch impatient as he circle the thing, sweat patches darkenin under the arms-a his sky-blue T-shirt.

“Bout 15 years ole, but it run like a dream.”

He pop the bonnet. Lean both hands on the sides-a the car like he thinkin deep, check the radiator water, fiddle ’roun with couple-a things.

“How you gon get ’bout the place, when this vehicle gone?”

Luce not expectin the question at all. What he care? “Ole wagon out the back. Rusty as hell, but it get us where we need to go.” Soon as she say us, Luce full-a regret. He lookin at her now like he wonderin: who us? Us ain’t none-a his goddamn business. Leroy still inside the house, sleepin soun. She ain’t heard a peep outta him.

“Can I take a ride? Jus a bit down the highway? Ten minutes. Everythin look good. ’Sides bein dusty like you ain’t washed this precious chariot in forever.” His laugh make her wanna chuckle too. “But I gotta see how it run.”

Luce don’t know why she never think ’bout this part-a the transaction. Look like he trustworthy, but what if he ain’t bring it back.

“Okay. Let’s go.” She open the passenger side door, jump in, look ahead, so’s he can’t meet her gaze. “You do got a licence, don’t you?”

Leroy cross Luce’s mind, but he surely out for the count by now, surely. He always sleep a few good hours this time-a day. Ain’t gonna take but a short while. He be ’right. She get the money they need for the testin.

 

Bronson amble the car down the long dirt driveway an away from the cabin, hit the 80 an let loose a lil. Car’s fairly purrin, but he don feel complete-comfortable cause the white woman – Lucinda, she say her name was – she drummin her hands on the dash, like she scared or impatient ’bout somethin. Bronson tryin not to smell the spray she drenched in. One-a them cheap girly brands smell like toilet cleaner mix with candy. Make him feel dizzy.

As he drive, Bronson narrate everythin he do patient-like, so the white lady stay comfortable. He assumin he makin her uncomfortable same way he make most white folk uncomfortable: jus by existin as his big-ole-blackedy self.

“Gonna ’djust this mirror so’s I can see better. Puttin my foot down a lil to a-ccelerate so’s I can hear the engine.” Bronson try out everythin his mama an his boss down the scrapyard tell him.

’Ventually the white lady sit back, though she still checkin her wristwatch what seem like every damn minute.

Country passin by: hot an dusty, an so dry it look like the oaks an fields gonna catch alight any second. Leaves sunburnt half-brown, an lookin mighty sorry for theyselves.

The car wheel feel easy ’neath Bronson’s fingers, like the vehicle jus meant to be his.

 

Bronson’s daddy hand him the lil blue Matchbox car-truck, not even wrapped up or nothin, but the boy love it instant.

“Merry Christmas, son.” Bronson’s daddy hug him so tight, feel like he barely breathin. Tight like he sayin goodbye. Bronson reach up an touch his daddy’s face. He knead it all over, like he pattin down some playdough.

 

Luce put her hand on the dash. Check her watch. She shouldn’t-a left Leroy. She the only one even know he alone at the house. She turn her head as they pass a small huddle-a Louisiana heron, grouped together by the roadside. Luce wonder what they doin so far ’way from the water, on a scorcher like this.

The car’s speedin up now, the black boy’s eyes glaze over, like he thinkin on somethin elsewhere.

“Might wanna slow down there,” she laugh, nervous.

 

Bronson clutch the lil blue truck, an look over his daddy’s shoulder. His mama’s face wet with tears, but Bronson don’t know why. He break free from the hug an crouch down on the worn grey carpet, pushin the lil blue car along the floor, ’roun the base of the tree he helped choose from the Walmart last week. “Broooom broooooom broooooooooooom. Beep-beep-beeeeeeeeep.”

 

The black boy cryin. Luce don’t know why. She see his watery eyes same time she see the patrol car in the rear view, speedin toward them.

Bronson blink, tryna clear his eyes. He look at the white lady shock face. Follow her gaze into the rear-view, an spot the cop car. His heart pump deep inside his chest. Blood rush loud inside his ears. Pulse throbbin in his temples.

Pull over get out shut your mouth put your hands real slow on the hood move away from the car step away you hear me get down on the concrete.

The white lady yellin somethin in his ear. Bronson don’t know. He don’t know what-all is goin on right now. The world blurred. He can’t think straight.

Don’t you buy no fucken black-boy car, you hear me, Bronx.

 

A moment-a clearness settle over him, an Bronson press his size-11 foot down flat on the accelerator, feel the power surge up outta the engine.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 22, 2018 as "Louisiana heron". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.