Beauty, A Boy, Burns, and a Shopping Cart

Author Susan Straight on writing books and raising daughters in a world of beauty and burns. posted on

1.

I want to tell you a story.

A handmade book is here on my desk. Six little pumpkins sitting on the fence — one fell off and how many left? My middle daughter Delphine made it in kindergarten. Her name is printed carefully on the back. She wrote those letters 15 years ago.

That year I met Deon. On Mondays I volunteered in my daughter’s classroom. My job was to help with scissors and glue, making “books” of trees with leaves that fell off, and then jack-o’-lanterns. Five little pumpkins sitting on a fence — one fell off and how many left?

Deon became my charge because I tied his shoes and talked to him. His hair was uncombed, and his sneakers were dusty hand-me-downs the size of bread loaves on his small feet. Kindergarten seemed exhausting to him. All the listening, and gluing, and reading — he would sit on my lap and try to stay awake.

One afternoon I met his grandfather in the parking lot — an elderly man with a plaid flannel shirt and fingers thin and dark as licorice. He said his daughter needed help with her kids. He lived out in the country near here, but she lived in an apartment building near me. Three blocks from my house — down the arroyo. I started collecting used sneakers from my nephews.

During recess a few weeks later, Deon kept tugging at the waistband of his jeans. I asked if he had to use the bathroom, but he shook his head, his eyes clove-brown, glittering. When I turned away, he lifted his striped polo shirt absentmindedly, and I saw the burns on his lower belly.

I almost threw up.

“Hey, little man, let’s go inside and put some cream on that ouchie,” I said, trying to keep my voice casual, though my throat was closed and burning. “Does it hurt?”

He shook his head vehemently, and then my daughter and her friends came running up to say, “Why is Deon going in?”

“He’s got an ouchie.”

Inside the nurse’s office, she looked at the blistered skin where his waistband chafed. He said quickly, reciting, rote: “A pot of soup fell on me.” He wouldn’t look at us. When she unsnapped his jeans, there were round pink burns like rosettes lower down. That was not soup. That was cigarettes. I had seen those burns on friends and strangers. You can’t mistake those puckered flowers.

“You can go now,” the nurse said to me, turning him away by his narrow shoulders.

Child Protective Services was called. His grandfather said it was soup. His mother said it was soup. Deon said it was soup.

I met his mother in late October, in the parking lot. She was about my age, and she looked vaguely familiar — had we seen each other in school, at a football game or a dance? She asked how many kids I had — I said three. She said five. She smiled at me gently and said, “You gave him all those shoes?” I said yes, I had 10 nephews around his age. I said it was hard to see Deon in pain after the spilled soup. She smiled again and said, “I don’t know how it happened.”

In November, I took her a frozen turkey, clothes, and books. At the blue stucco apartment, Deon was on the second-floor balcony, and he opened the door for me and Delphine. His mother sat stiff on the couch, with the same protective crescent of smile. Two burly men in their twenties sat in chairs, assessing us. The floor was bare. The men controlled every particle of oxygen. I put the bag on the formica counter, and Deon’s mother got up briefly and touched the cement-hard hump of turkey shoulder. Deon studied Delphine’s spiral curls, like a thousand Slinkies; he liked to pull them down in class. He hugged me briefly around the waist, and we left.

After the holiday, Deon didn’t come back to school. We never saw him again.

He would be 22 now. My daughter is 22. She read the pumpkin book, and then the snowflake book, and in spring, the daisy book. How many petals are left on the daisy? She went to that same school for seven years, and then the schools near them, and then she went to college.

Every evening when I walk our dog toward the arroyo, I look at the place where Deon lived. I don’t even know if he’s still alive, or if that’s him hanging out at the complex across the street from his old house, leaning off the balconies, watching me drive my youngest daughter to school every day.

All I did was give his mother a frozen turkey, which she looked at as if it was space debris. The utter ridiculousness of a gift requiring defrosting, cleaning, stuffing, and roasting for hours hadn’t occurred me. I have never brought anyone a frozen turkey since. I give cooked hams.

All I did was imagine him, for the past 15 years. I started trying to write a novel about a boy punished for not smiling at a stranger in an apartment, about his beautiful mother who didn’t know how the cigarette had happened. I did not write the truth. I invented a man, a scary man who visited a beautiful mother one day, who waited until she finally fell asleep to force the boy to smile. The burns were on the boy’s back because I couldn’t bear to even think otherwise. I couldn’t bear to think that someone could look at a boy’s face while that happened.

Two of the author’s daughters, Gaila and Delphine. Via susanstraight.com

2.

When I was 18, I used to ride a bus to work in Los Angeles with the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. She was Helen of Troy beautiful, Elizabeth Taylor beautiful, Iman beautiful. Her skin was like hammered gold, the gilt of ancient picture frames. Her eyes were aubergine — do you know that deep purple color? Her eyebrows perfect and black like precise tail feathers of a hummingbird. Her hair was always in a high bun, tightly pulled from her forehead, as if with the black flowing down her back, it would be too much for her to walk down the street.

It was a dangerous neighborhood. Another bus I often rode was robbed that year at gunpoint, and the men took radios, wallets, and jewelry from the passengers. She sat just behind the driver most of the time. I think he was in love with her, along with every other man who approached her on the sidewalk, on the bus, and after we got off. There were men who watched that bus for her, who waited to see her face. “Just take my number, baby,” they would say. “Just give me a chance.” “Look, I’ll wait. Come on. Come on! Just let me walk with you a little ways. Let me sit right there beside you. I’m not gonna hurt you. I just want to talk to you for a minute.”

She was about 25, I thought. Maybe 28. She was also the most melancholy woman I’d ever seen. Her eyes were mournful — and she kept her lips pressed together while the men spoke and whispered and shouted at her. I tried to not stare. I was anonymous-looking. Small, thin, invisible. I tried to imagine how hard it might be to be so beautiful that men thought of you as object, gift, reward, obsession, refusal, or even prey.

She would get off the bus just before me. She wore the high-waisted self-belted double-knit pants and Qiana shirts we all had back then. We both held mail in our laps a few times, so I knew that like me, she must work in an office.

That spring, at a concert at the Los Angeles Coliseum, I thought I saw her, hair blown out into a soft Afro that fell around her shoulders. The Bar-Kays played “Your Love Is Like the Holy Ghost,” and a few rows in front of me, in a halter top, shoulder blades gleaming in the sun — was that her? On the left one was a dark-brown etching of a tic-tac-toe game. The lines were perfect, graphlike, as if drawn on.

I kept leaning forward to see the markings more closely. Then she turned, so the ridges were visible. A burn scar. It had to have been from a wall heater, the old-fashioned kind with the metal wires that glowed red, the kind we’d always been afraid to go near. She had fallen against it, or been pushed against it, or held to touch it for just long enough to make that design.

The summer after Deon left, I began to write about a beautiful woman because my three small daughters had turned beautiful and people stared at them, which frightened me. My cousins and childhood friends who were lovely seemed to end up with heartbreak and lots of children by the time we were 30. That kind of vivid, spectacular beauty inspired suspicion or ambivalence in other women, and that loveliness mixed with melancholy seemed to make men want to own the face, the body, but not to love the woman.

One afternoon, an elderly relative told me the story of his cousin Daisy — my mother-in-law’s mother, who was born in Mississippi in the early 1900s. “She was fine,” he said. “She was so fine, so beautiful, that her first husband took her up to Oklahoma, and then he told her, ‘You’re so fine some man’s gonna steal you away from me, and I might have to kill you before that happens.’” He had a gun. She waited until he was distracted, and then she took her baby daughter and ran.

Her third beautiful daughter was Alberta, my mother-in-law. My three girls have her eyebrows, her lovely teeth, a certain slant of her gaze, and sometimes my own fear for them resembles the feeling I had on the bus.

Early one morning, I drove to work past the corner of my in-laws’ street, where a young woman was found dead, her body stuffed into a shopping cart parked there. She might have been there most of the night. At around 7 a.m., my husband’s eldest brother walked past the shopping cart with its indistinguishable burden of clothing on his way to visit someone. By the time he got back, someone had called the police and people had gathered around the body.

Her mother, when interviewed for the sole small article in the local paper, said sadly, bitterly, that the police would probably never find out who’d killed her pregnant, 17-year-old daughter, who did not use drugs. No one will care, she said. And it seemed true. Nothing further was ever published about the death.

But we in the neighborhood heard what had happened. She was killed to send a message to her boyfriend, who owed money to drug dealers.

3.

Fear and beauty and burns. I stayed up all night, writing in small notebooks. I found in an obscure anthology a story about a mixed-race woman, a freed slave in Louisiana forced to buy her 10-year-old child, and then remain not his mother but his owner on legal documents, because of the laws that mandated he could not be freed until he was 30. She was cheated out of money and land by unscrupulous men, and she mortgaged her son, then sold him, and then bought him back. But during the last transaction of his body, he somehow disappears from court records and is never mentioned again.

She was Manon Baldwin. She never learned to read or write. She signed her name with an X. But she filed court documents quite often, as was true of freed mixed-race women in Louisiana. Those bloodless few lines of court proceedings were her sole history.

I wanted to give her a story. I wanted to give her son a story. I spent five years writing, going to New Orleans and Plaquemines Parish, the southernmost leg of Louisiana that extends into the ocean. I went before Hurricane Katrina, sleeping in an ancient plantation house built in 1790 where Jean Lafitte used to house stolen slaves, hearing ghost stories from the mixed-race people who lived nearby. I went after Hurricane Katrina, after the storm made landfall near that very same plantation house, and heard stories of ghosts and survival in 40 feet of water.

I finished A Million Nightingales first. Moinette is born in 1793, the daughter of a Senegalese mother who arrived on a slave ship, and a visiting French sugar broker to whom she is given as “a gift” for a week. She has to purchase her son from his own father. She survives her beauty for as long as she can. Some of her descendants leave for California after the 1927 flood in Louisiana, and their daughters are young women who survive their beauty as well as they can. One daughter is Glorette, the woman with night-purple eyes and eyebrows like hummingbird feathers whose body is left in a shopping cart; her book is Between Heaven and Here. Her son Victor, who refuses to smile one night for a stranger, makes his own journey back to his ancestors in Louisiana in Take One Candle Light a Room.

During this trilogy, my own trio went to school and played basketball and studied history. They went to college and began their lives away from me. Every morning, I made eggs and toast, lunches for the day, and checked the books — Six Little Pumpkins, and then AP Art History. Every night, I imagined myself very different mothers.

4.

I write by hand. This is my notebook. This is Deon’s name, written 15 years ago.

I would cry some nights and think, What good is it to write him? I didn’t save anyone. Even to write this feels selfish.

Recently someone asked me if writing about a child is like an exorcism. No — that means a spirit is cast out and sent away, right? — I still think of this boy all the time. Someone else asked if it was a way of honoring him. No — he might never know he was in a book, but he still wears those scars.

Readers have written me letters and emails. “Your book made me cry. I cried when he talked about his scars. I cried looking at my son in his crib.”

Delphine called me one night; she had read A Million Nightingales. “You made me cry,” she said. “I guess you’re right — that’s your job. That’s a terrible job to have.” Then she hung up. She works at a museum now. Last summer she was home, and she heard me read about the boy with the burns, and afterward she told me with some heat that she didn’t know that story. Of course she didn’t. I never told her, back then — how could I say that a boy who sat next to her had been tortured and scarred? They were both 6 years old.

I think about them every day even now, my own girls, and Deon and his mother, when I pass the blue stucco balcony. Every day I drive past the corner where the girl was left in the cart. I think of Manon Baldwin and her son. I see their faces and hands and knees and the parts in their hair and their braids and even their teeth, and I remember so many things they said, in great detail and as if they are still here.

***

Susan Straight’s new novel, Between Heaven and Here, is the final book in the Rio Seco trilogy. Take One Candle Light a Room was named one of the best novels of 2010 by the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and Kirkus, and A Million Nightingales was a 2006 Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her novel Highwire Moon was a Finalist for the 2001 National Book Award. She has published stories and essays in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Harpers, McSweeney’s, The Believer, Salon, Zoetrope, Black Clock, and elsewhere. She is Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at UCRiverside. She was born in Riverside, Calif., where she lives with her family, whose history is featured on susanstraight.com.

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