Good Morning, Heartache

Published in the Winter 2000 Issue of Glimmer Train

HE CAME TO HER because his mother was going through some hard times moneywise. Of course it was not money really; there was a man who’d almost married her, a lost job, a car stolen from their parking lot. The schools, the neighborhood, even the weather seemed to play into the decision. Milwaukee was a city with no jobs, Yvonne said, and cold in winter, ice reaching into the gray lake. Maybe it was time to try Chicago (Miss Fisk didn’t say it was the same lake, the same cold, the same city finally). Yvonne called her night after night, sometimes swearing bitterly, sometimes crying, and Miss Fisk could not say no.

He was ten when he came, a wick-thin boy with a high forehead and tiny ears. He had turn, a brisk way of saying “Ma’am” and “You’re welcome” that she recognized as her own–a gift her daughter had passed on to him. He was a bright child, talkative, and quick to pick up on what she needed. He didn’t cry when his mother got in the dented Chevy and drove away. At supper he ate everything on his plate and then asked if he could watch TV if he did the dishes. He wanted the bedroom next to hers, he said, and that first night how could she deny him?

Nothing changed. Maybe it was because she was a grandmother, ready to give everything, nothing left to save up for. She flattered herself that he favored her; wasn’t it plain in the slope of his forehead, the just-enough-to-whistle gap in his big front teeth? He knew when she needed to be alone and when she needed a little sugar. He could always get what he wanted from her, not like Yvonne. She wanted to think it wasn’t weakness on her part, that she didn’t give in to him just because he was a child. But didn’t she secretly smile to herself in the kitchen, making cornbread for him, thinking she’d been blessed? He was a gift she hadn’t known she’d needed. He was hers.

He was her good boy. That’s what she wanted to say when the police came and then the one reporter from the Courier. Smart as day in school too. She didn’t know how he got mixed up in all that nonsense. But it wasn’t completely true, no, not by that time–she’d found things in his closet, tucked deep in the toes of his winter boots–and so she told the reporter it was a shame, and that just last week he’d started a program at the Vo-Tech, he and Chris (the other boy, she said, so he’d know), the two of them together. Graphic design. He wanted to be an artist, she said, wondering if that really was true.

Yes, it was true, an artist. Why did she have to question everything now, as if his life with her had been false, had never happened?

There were people who needed his liver. The doctor said there was nothing else they could do, so if she would just please go ahead and sign the papers they could begin the procedure. She needed to call her daughter, she said, and then there was no answer, the phone ringing in Milwaukee, in the new apartment she’d visited just once, marveling at the plush, just-vacuumed carpet, the frost-free refrigerator, the view of the freezing lake–marveling at Yvonne’s hard-won success, after all her troubles. Benny only had another year in school, and he was on the honor roll again. It didn’t make sense to take him away from his friends.

“Legally you are his guardian,” the lady in the office reminded her, and turned the form so Miss Fisk could write on the line. It wasn’t like he was alive and she was saying take him off the machine; he was already dead, the blood stopped, his body cooling. There was someone who would die if she didn’t sign this, that’s what it came down to. She was not a selfish woman, Lord knows. She would do anything to save another mother this pain. Then why did she have to call Yvonne again?

The woman turned her phone to Miss Fisk, and she punched in the number, then waited. She pictured the empty apartment and then wondered where Yvonne had gone off to. The corner store with its Miller sign and its high-priced milk. She thought of her walking the dark streets, smoking her cigarettes one after another like when she was angry. Was it raining there too? The phone rang five, six times. She put the receiver down and looked at the woman. “You say we need to do this now.”

He was ten when he came and seventeen when he was taken from her, but there was another time before that when he was a baby, her first grandchild. She’d flown to Minnesota to be with Yvonne when the time came. She wasn’t in the room, but she was right outside, waiting with her third awful cup of coffee, reading the classified ads from a discarded Star-Tribune as Herman stared out over the city. He was her boyfriend, and Miss Fisk knew he wouldn’t be around to see this child raised right, but there was nothing she could do about it and every time she said something, Yvonne would stop calling. And he did leave, eventually. He was still in St. Paul, still doing something in radio (she never knew quite what it was that he did). He came to the funeral, bending to her, accepting her arms as he never had before, saying, “Bertice,” sadly, as if there were no words.

And where were you, she wanted to say. Call yourself a father. You have no right to grieve over him–no right. Benny never liked you because he knew what you are, and that is a no-count man who will never come to nothing.

Instead, she held on to him, told him to take care of Yvonne, something he’d never done, and never would.

They laid him to rest beside her Sherman, in the plot they’d bought for Yvonne. It seemed strange, standing there as the motor lowered the box; it was the first time Sherman had met Benny. They were neighbors now, and she liked that idea. Sherman would have liked the boy, mostly. In fact, if Sherman had been around, none of this would have happened.

But it did, it had. She had to remind herself sometimes, warming Rashaan’s formula, that Benny was not going to be home in a few hours. When Vanessa came by after work and thanked her and took Rashaan home, cooing to him, tickling his chin, the house went quiet, only the clinking of the radiators, and she remembered everything. She had to turn the radio on to stop it.

“Yes, ma’am,” the woman said, “it’s no good after twelve hours,” and still Miss Fisk hesitated, didn’t pick up the pen. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with him, just the bump on his head, a few scrapes. How many hours had it been–two, three?

Some days she escaped completely, reading to Rashaan on the sofa, fixing his strained peas, but then he left and the night spread endlessly in front of her, the rotation of the earth–the entire universe–her enemy. After Sherman, after Yvonne left for college, she thought she’d learned how to be alone. Then Benny came and changed that, dragged her back into the world of the living. Now the opposite was happening. Dusk congealed in the trees, crows flew over. She walked from window to window, stood with a hand gathering back the drapes, peering out over Spofford as if expecting him to come home for supper, his boots muddy from the new busway. Once, suddenly waking up in the present, she saw some of the Coleman children eating ice cream on the sidewalk, pointing up at her; when she waved, they scattered as if she was a witch.

“The tissue is what’s important,” the doctor said when they called him in. “The individual cells can live for a time by themselves, but eventually without nourishment from the blood, they die.”

Yes, Miss Fisk wanted to say, I understand, but can’t I just call one more time?

Supper was the hardest. Rashaan was with Vanessa again, and she could hear the clock above the sink tick off the minutes. The news was always the same. Sometimes she didn’t make anything, just reached into the fridge, lifted the tinfoil and picked at a cold chicken, a butt of ham. She’d found a frozen macaroni she liked, and two or three times a week she pre-heated the oven and slid the little pan in, actually thankful for such convenience. It was thick, the crust on top brown and crunchy, the cheese inside steaming and heavy, burning the roof of her mouth. She ate until it was all gone, and then, disgusted with herself (remembering the velvet bite of her mother’s, the pride she took in her own), she scrubbed the little tin and stacked it with the rest under the sink, thinking she could use them for something. For what?

And then there was the TV, the book from the library, a long biography of Mrs. Roosevelt. Now that her life was almost over, Miss Fisk was interested in history, as if to appreciate what she’d been through. Vanessa was taking a course; she always wanted her to read about people like Ralph Bunche and Adam Clayton Powell. Miss Fisk couldn’t explain: Mrs. Roosevelt meant more to her, especially back then. Adam Clayton Powell she didn’t particularly care for, though she couldn’t remember why.

It was her Sherman, he must have suspicioned him of using the people for his own good. Sherman didn’t trust a one of them, not even Martin Robinson. Oh, he’d listen to them talk, he wasn’t close-minded, but the smoother they were, the less he heard.

It had been hard for her after Sherman died, but she had come through that. When Yvonne asked if she thought of him every day, automatically she said yes. It was so long ago, but she couldn’t say that. People forget. And she had. It was natural. But now she found herself thinking of both Benny and him, the two of them over in Homewood Cemetery, lying there while the grass knotted its roots around their boxes.

He would have a long scar where they plucked it out with their instruments. No, not a scar, the skin wouldn’t heal. Under the suit Yvonne bought for him would be a zipper of stitches. But how could she say this to the lady without seeming crazy?

Outside a siren boloed over the housetops, a car ripped past. Last month she’d been broken into, someone kicked out the basement window and stole her mother’s silver. The screen was bent, glass all over the washing machine. She knew Yvonne was afraid for her, living in such a big house all by herself, but Miss Fisk was used to it. The only thing that scared her was the furnace. She’d get into bed and listen for it clicking in, the radiators knocking. When it didn’t, she wondered if a gust had knocked out the pilot light, the basement slowly filling with sweet-smelling gas. Her greatest fear was going to investigate, flipping on the light at the top of the stairs and suddenly being engulfed by a fireball. For that reason she kept a flashlight slung over the doorknob, and when she went down to do laundry, even in the summer she clicked it on and picked her way through the cool, mildewy darkness like a burglar, sniffing.

Now the furnace kicked in, the radiator next to her bed gurgled. She closed Mrs. Roosevelt and set her on the night table and cut off the light, fixed her pillows just the way she wanted them. She could sleep, it wasn’t like she stayed awake all night, but there were a few minutes at the end of the day, in the dark, when it seemed there was nothing to do but think about Benny, and then Sherman, and these were the hardest times for her. Sleep would be merciful. And it was, it was, just not quickly enough.

Rashaan was a help. He was something to look forward to. In the morning Vanessa would ring the bell and then come right in, carrying his diaper bag, the big red dinosaur he slept with, and Miss Fisk would be fine again. But now, here in the dark, she remembered Benny eating cereal at the sink before running off to school, or in his room with his headphones on, doing his homework, and she closed her eyes tightly, wishing it away. Not him, no, she never wanted him to leave her–just as she would always have Sherman–but she was tired, so tired, didn’t he understand?

In the morning it all began again. Five, five-thirty, rising with the sun. Tuesday, then Wednesday. August, September. Making her poached egg and toast, she noticed she’d forgotten to change the calendar. She ate with the radio, and still it didn’t stop her from falling.

“We’ll need your consent before we can do anything,” the lady said, like she’d forgotten, and Miss Fisk picked up the pen and angled the paper so she could write her name. “Press hard,” the lady said, “you’re making three copies,” and then when Miss Fisk sank back in the chair, the one gesture exhausting her, she had more forms. Miss Fisk signed these without reading them, her perfect signature–practiced diligently, a source of pride to her as a girl–degenerating into scribble, huge loops and slashes. What was the date again?

June he did her hedges for her, him and Chris, working without their shirts to impress the girls, blue bandanas rolled into headbands to stop the sweat. He cut the lawn with the old push mower, oiling it from the same little red can Sherman did, replacing it in the same spot in the garage. She made lemonade for them because he didn’t like ice tea (another part of Yvonne in him), and then they drank it on the porch, watching the Colemans playing whatever crazy game they’d made up. A week after the accident, Harold Tolbert came to the door and said he thought he might trim her bushes out front if that was all right. She didn’t have to ask, just showed him where the clippers were, rolled open the garage door. She even made lemonade, and he was kind enough to sit there on the porch with her, sipping it slow.

“Chris says hello,” he told her. “He really wanted to be there.”

“Well,” she said, “it’s not like he had a choice in the matter,” and she asked after him. A wheelchair–for life, the doctors said. She couldn’t imagine it, a young man, and so she said she was sorry and to please send him her regards. They didn’t get into Chris and Vanessa breaking up, or Rashaan, though it hung in the air a minute. They didn’t talk about how Harold never much cared for Benny, thought it was all his fault, a bad influence on Chris. It was just mischief, neither of them was wild like Harold’s older one, though folks said he’d gotten Jesus in prison.

The ice in Harold’s glass rattled, and they both stood up.

“If there’s anything we can do,” he said.

There was and there wasn’t. He could come and rake the leaves and shovel her walk and dig the garden in spring, but really there wasn’t a thing he could do. It was exactly like after Sherman, she thought. She’d been so selfish. She’d thought that Benny would last her the rest of her life.

The one question she had for the lady was selfish, in a way: Who would get his liver?

The lady shuffled through a file to one side.

Miss Fisk expected her to say it was privileged information. She was ready to tear up the papers. Give you my only grandson’s liver and you tell me it’s none of my business?

“A Richard Skoda,” the lady said. “Age sixteen.”

White boy, she thought. Figures.

The lady went on to tell Miss Fisk about the condition he was born with and how he’d been waiting since he was eight, but Miss Fisk was picturing the doctors lifting it out of Benny and fitting it into Richard Skoda, the white boy all better, laughing with his family, and Benny being rolled away under a sheet.

Was it wrong to think this way?

She knew she would get past it eventually. She knew it was just grief, a temporary weakness, a susceptibility to all the things that had gone wrong in her life. And she knew just as strongly that she would return to her life, just as she had after Sherman. It would take time, that was all. Vanessa helped, and Rashaan. Sometimes she thought it was unhealthy how much she loved to hold him in her arms, that it would spoil him later. “You know your Auntie Bertie loves you, you know that, little boy, don’t you?” she said, and tickled him the way she’d tickled Benny so long ago, the way she’d cooed to Yvonne, wrapped safe in her arms. Her sorrow now made those times seem that much sweeter, and she was grateful, yes, truly she was. This hurt of hers would pass, become a memory, join with all of her other ones, and those were mostly, oh, overwhelmingly happy. In time she would be fine.

But until then she was powerless in the grip of this, paralyzed, and knowing it was little help and no real comfort. She made lunch for the two of them, turned on the noon news while she spooned up Rashaan’s diced turkey and potatoes, his whipped beets. There was weather and then sports and then it was his nap time. She did the few dishes they used, draped the dishrag neatly over the faucet. In the living room, Mrs. Roosevelt waited, no longer the first lady, gallivanting around the world now, an ambassador of goodwill. One son had been killed in the war. They mentioned it just once, and Miss Fisk thought that was wrong. Did it really go away so easily? Wouldn’t she–like herself–look up from some book she was reading and think of him? Wherever she was, wouldn’t her son be with her?

She had called Yvonne twice that night, hoping she would be home so she could make the decision. She was Benny’s mother. But she wasn’t home, and Miss Fisk had signed, and they’d taken his liver and given it to Richard Skoda. She was afraid of explaining this to Yvonne, and when she finally did get through, she waited until there was a lull and she could hear Yvonne clicking her nails the way she did when she was distracted and trying to think.

“Baby,” she said, “they asked me if Benny would want to help some other people.”

She waited but Yvonne just clicked, went mmm-hmm.

“They said his insides were fine.”

“They wanted him to donate his organs,” Yvonne said, making it plain.

“I said I’d have to talk to you.”

“I think he’d want to help other people.”

“Oh, good,” Miss Fisk said. “Oh thank goodness.”

“What?” she came back fast. “What? You didn’t say they could, did you?”

“Now wait a minute,” Miss Fisk said, but it was too late for that, and she knew this would stand between them for the rest of her life, would live in Yvonne long after she was laid to rest next to her Sherman. But hadn’t she done the right thing?

Yes, she would answer herself, those steamy afternoons when the fan only pushed the hot air around the living room. She folded her clothes, fresh from the line, the TV on low so as not to wake Rashaan. Outside, the Coleman children were running up and down the sidewalk with their dog, a big German shepherd named Joey. One of the boys had a ball, and every time he threw it, she was ready to hear the squeal of brakes, the thump of the dog’s heavy head against the bumper.

There was nothing, just the shrieks of children playing, the occasional car. Calm, bright. Shadows on the lawn. A day like today he’d be playing baseball down at the park with Chris, the two of them dragging back when it got too dark, grass stains on their ashy knees. He’d apologize for missing supper, then gobble down seconds and go out again with a new shirt and hang out on Chris’s stoop and smoothtalk the girls.

She finished the laundry and put it away, then checked on Rashaan, still sleeping, curled around his dinosaur. She stood there looking at him in the heat, a bright square of sun on the carpet. Soon he’d be grown too, off to a life she’d never see, and that was good. Time kept them moving on, that was the way of the world.

It was when she had nothing to do that she got in trouble. Like a child. Like a willful boy. In this house she’d lived in so many years, she could not help but have memories. But why couldn’t she choose the ones she wanted to visit with?

It was the phone there in the front hall she answered, maybe a week after it happened. The funeral was done with, the expensive stone in place, Yvonne back in Milwaukee, Herman in Minnesota, Chris still in the hospital. When the phone rang it could have been anyone. Those phone people were always trying to sell her windows that saved energy.

“Hello,” a white woman said, overly polite, “is this Mrs. Bertice Fisk?”

“This is she.”

“This is Maxine Skoda, Richard Skoda’s mother. I just wanted to call and thank you and express our condolences about your grandson. I just wanted you to know how much your Benjamin’s gift means . . .” Her voice wavered, broke and she began to cry. “What this means,” she tried, but she couldn’t stop.

“That’s all right,” Miss Fisk said. “I understand.”

“I’m sorry, I know it must be so hard for you.”

“It is.” But you don’t see me crying, do you? she wanted to say. And my boy’s dead.

It was a brief conversation, and pleasant, but while Miss Fisk said she was glad she called, in truth it meant little to her. She did not know these people at all. Yes, she was pleased they’d taken the time to acknowledge her loss, and she was genuinely relieved that her son would live because of Benny, that the operation had been a success, but she could not let the woman’s happiness and grief touch her. She would not let it. There was so little left she could call her own.

This house. Yvonne’s calls every Sunday. Vanessa returning from work to pick up Rashaan. It was enough, along with her memories, to fill the seasons. Fall was almost on them, then winter. She’d have to get Harold to come over and turn her garden, hang the storm windows. Have to have him look at the furnace, clean the burners.

There was always something that needed taken care of. The fuzzy rug in the upstairs bath sorely needed a wash. Those old Ebonys in the cellar she’d been meaning to get rid of, and the green duffel bag with the stain. They could wait till spring, she supposed.

That was the kind of thing she needed to keep her eye on, not all this mooning over what was already done with. Drive you to distraction, sure.

She had everything she needed right here. Oprah was on in fifteen minutes, and she had to wake up Rashaan, get him dressed and looking good for Vanessa. She had to start thinking about supper.

Changing Rashaan, she found herself thinking of what his life would be like, how she wished she could see how he turned out. She thought of Richard Skoda. His mother never called back, and since Miss Fisk hadn’t seen his name in the obituaries (she read them every day, still shocked to see people she knew), she supposed he was fine, that he would grow to be a man and marry and have children to carry on his blood. Not like her and Sherman. Benny was the end.

Was that why he was so precious?

No. It was those tiny ears, and the way he couldn’t stop asking questions at supper. The birthday presents he drew for her. The birdhouse he made in woodshop. It was because he favored her so, because for all those years she had raised him like he was her boy, and he was, despite anything Yvonne might say. It was not a lie: he was her good boy.

“Who’s my good boy?” she asked Rashaan, lowering her nose to his. “Who’s my bestest, goodest little boy?”

Later, when Vanessa had come and gone, she went back into the living room. Oprah was over. It was suppertime. She looked in the fridge, then searched the freezer for a tin of macaroni and cheese. She struggled with the plastic wrap, lifted off the cardboard instructions, pre-heated the oven to 400. It would be dark in another hour, the world shrunk to a room, a light, the book she was reading.

Outside, the Coleman children were squealing, running Joey into a lather. She stood at the window, a hand gathering back the drapes. The dog knocked one of the littler girls over, and she sat on the sidewalk, bawling and cradling her hand. Miss Fisk thought she should go out and help, but in a minute the girl’s brother came by and knelt down, examining her hand like a doctor.

And then Miss Fisk was on the porch–oh, years ago, when Benny had just come from Milwaukee. He’d been riding some other boy’s bike and lost control, and his palms were torn raw. The scrapes were filled with grit and she had to take him in to the sink and scrub them with hot, soapy water. He screamed and wrenched back and she had to pin him against the counter with her body, grip his wrists hard under the running water as he struggled. “It’s the only way,” she said, trying not to be angry with him. When she was done, he looked up at her, trembling, tears leaking out his eyes as if he didn’t understand how she could be so mean. “Oh, baby,” she said. “I’m sorry. Come here.” She went to her knees and held him then, saying she was sorry, that she loved him. Didn’t he know that? He had to know that.

“Benny,” she said. “Baby, please.”

“I know that,” he said, and she crushed him against her, grateful–oh yes, blessed–vowing that as long as he was with her, she would never let anything hurt him ever again.

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