Wednesday, July 26, 2006

the scent of fried fish

The first Nyla story: Prodigal
The second Nyla story: Stranger

Mama should have taken me with her, Nyla thought.

It wasn't fair that Kevin got to go to Philadelphia with her and Nyla had to stay home. With Arlene. But they needed one more pallbearer for the funeral Mama was going to, and Uncle Junior and Uncle Billy couldn't take time off from work, so they couldn't go. Kevin was just big enough, thanks to this recent growth spurt, to go help carry Mama's cousin since school was out. And there wasn't enough Greyhound money for three.

Ever since news of the trip came, Nyla prayed to Jesus to be able to go with Mama. For two whole days, Nyla silently protested in her heart against being left behind. She was too afraid to poke out her lips or appear to be upset - that was a sure way to be left at home and earn Mama's displeasure. If she was going to get Mama to change her mind and tell them to get another pallbearer, or maybe even reach into that rusted coffee can Nyla knew was under the shed for more ticket money, she was going to have to be really good and make herself useful for the trip. She asked Mama who would carry the bags. She sat with Mama while she packed her bags and suggested which hat would be best. She asked Mama who would make sure her old pearl earrings from Granddaddy were safe. And when Mama assured her that everything would be fine on the trip, tears welled up in Nyla's eyes. She opened her mouth to cry out, you can't leave me here with that woman! But somehow she knew all was lost. So she simply sat on the bed after willing her tears not to fall, and watched Mama pack her Bible in the suitcase.

Mama sat down next to Nyla and put her arm around her shoulders. "Nye, baby. You shouldn't worry about me and Kevin being gone. We'll be back. Your uncles will be here, and Arlene is your own mama, and she loves you."

Before she could stop herself, Nyla flashed accusatory eyes at Mama, knowing full well that Arlene was no more her mama than Kevin was. A stranger, even. A stranger she couldn't remember ever being around without Mama or Kevin there, and now here she's supposed to believe Arlene loved her? Arlene doesn't even know how to get Nyla's grits right, leaving the sugar out and everything! An angry tear broke through her will, and Nyla looked down quickly to wipe it away.

Mama understood more than Nyla realized. "I'll call you every day from Philadelphia. I'm going to miss you while we're there, but we'll be back soon. But Nye, this is about family. I have to be there for Cousin Emma, and you have to trust me about Arlene. Be patient. Now, go on and get my hat box."

And that's how Nyla wound up at the bus terminal standing next to Arlene, waving goodbye to the only family she felt good around, save her uncles, who were always working. In fact, she and Arlene had to walk back home together, alone. Nyla hadn't realized this when they first set off from the house with Uncle Junior in the borrowed truck, or maybe she wouldn't have even come to say goodbye. Junior had to take the truck back in time to get back to work, so here she was, walking beside Arlene. Red toenail polish wearing, no slip under the dress baring, scar on her face having Arlene.


She felt so awkward walking home from the terminal beside her, scared to speak, scared to reach for her hand, even when they crossed streets. At some point during the walk, Arlene's heart resigned itself to the fact that they'd have no talk of her love for Nyla or her shame at letting things get so distant between them. Now she understood more of what her own mama went through trying to love her as a girl. Nyla's stoic little face didn't cry when Mama and Kevin rolled away on that bus. Her jaw was set. Her body, stiff. She's me, all over again, Arlene saw. A tough little bird, and she hates me.

The house loomed up in her vision from blocks away as Arlene realized that with Junior and Billy working until well after nightfall, she and Nyla would be completely alone for the first time since Junior carried her into the house weeks ago, bleeding and grieving and probably scaring Nyla to death with the very sight of her. How much did she understand about Fish? Did she know about Little Boo? Would Nye listen to an explanation? Did she need one? They climbed the steps, walked across the porch, and entered the house, in silence. Nyla grabbed a newspaper from the coffee table and went back to the kitchen.

Arlene stood, watching her, and took a deep breath as her eyes settled somewhat absentmindedly on the kitchen doorframe. Except her mind wasn't absent. It was keenly present, listening to Nye opening the newspaper, smelling the grease from that morning's fried fish, remembering how she hated to be approached when she was angry, and debating whether she wanted to walk into the kitchen or go outside to the front porch.

She took a step.