SUPERHEROES by Mathea Morais
NINE-YEAR-OLD OCTAVIAN didn’t know how to take care of a dying woman, but he learned.
“Breast cancer,” his father, Cyrus, said.
She’s only thirty-four, thought Octavian. Is that even possible?
Cyrus had asked the doctor the same question and was answered only with a soft nod. There were more words later like “fast-moving,” “clusters,” “irrevocable” and “succumbed.” Words that Cordelia would hold onto and that Cyrus would erase, but both left the office like sleepwalkers with the understanding that she only had time enough left to die.
By 1983 Cordelia was a published, venerated poet. Her book The White Man Talk earned her nominations on all of the prestigious award lists and invitations to read around the world. She taught classes at St. Louis University to inspired young writers who adored her and to prisoners who wept when she read to them on Tuesday afternoons. She saw no other way but to crack herself open and write about what she discovered inside: her children, her scars, her rotting breasts, her disintegrating mind. Always, she wrote love poems to Cyrus, her now iron-gray husband who cried into her back while he thought she slept.
After school, when Octavian walked through the door, the tenuous scaffolding around Cyrus tumbled around his feet and he would pat Octavian gratefully on the head and disappear into his study, locking the door behind him. Octavian learned how to make chamomile tea without burning his hand on the teakettle. He learned to lift his mother gently when he helped her sit up, to take the pillows from behind her and plump them and, just as carefully, help her sit back.
Octavian brought his homework out of his Spiderman backpack and spread it out on the floor while Cordelia watched The Jeffersons and One Day at a Time. When he was finished, she helped him practice his times tables and he read to her from the Wrinkle in Time series until she fell asleep. Sometimes Cordelia told him stories that she said she wanted him to remember for her—often the one about the day he was born.
“They put you in my arms, and I put my nose in your soft little plum mouth and breathed in the sweet newness of the world,” she said.
Sometimes she told him things Octavian thought she wouldn’t tell him if she hadn’t been dying, like the story about the time she smoked pot with a white girl at a party and they kissed in the hallway.
On good days she read to him: Gwendolyn Brooks, Garcia Marquez, Audre Lorde, Faulkner and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.
No matter what, she eventually said, “Go and find your brother. Bring him home to me.”
Octavian could stand the wincing noises Cordelia made when she rolled over in her sleep, and the way she left her sentences suspended in air when her morphine pill kicked in. He could even stand the sharp smell of her yellow-brown urine in the toilet that she forgot to flush. But he hated having to go and look for Francis.
The St. Louis suburb of University City was divided right down the middle by Delmar Boulevard. On the south side sat Washington University and the gated communities with grand homes and elegant apartment buildings where professors like Octavian’s parents lived. On the north side, middle income housing gave way quickly to low income housing and neighborhoods lined with rows of houses like Cracker Jack boxes and poverty.
As far as Cordelia was concerned, Francis was where he said he’d be: At the U. City library. But really, Francis was over in Eastgate, a neighborhood on the other side of Delmar where Cordelia had forbidden them to go to. Eastgate was a place of angry voices that tumbled out of apartment windows, where the streetlights never worked and dogs on unreliable chains barked from behind broken fences when he walked by.
Sometimes Francis and his friends were in the park that ran down the middle of Enright, and sometimes he was there by himself, hidden except for the orange glow at the end of his cigarette. Those nights, it was easy to get him home.
But when he was over at Chris Dumar’s big cousin’s house on Clemens with Dante Nickerson? That’s when things got complicated. Chris Dumar’s cousin, known only as City Ass Cedric, was much older than the rest of them and big. Big like a football player with giant square shoulders and no neck. He had gray eyes, a gold tooth and skin that was the color of cold butter. And he was always the one to open the door when Octavian stood there, hands shoved deep into his coat pockets, ready to be mad that Francis was over there in Eastgate getting high and drunk with City Ass Cedric while their mother was dying. But then he’d look through the crack in the door beyond Cedric to where danger seeped out under the cover of weed smoke and see a handgun on the table or a pipe in an ashtray and remember that somewhere in there was his brother and be afraid.
"Francis needs to come home,” he’d say. “My mama’s sick, you know?”
"Aight, lil man, aight, chill. Frankie be right out.”
Always Cedric said he’d be right out, and sometimes Francis did come right away. But usually, Octavian sat down on the hard, heavy steps of the hallway where the blue fluorescent lights flickered and the voices from the neighbor’s television echoed through the building. He leaned against the cold wall, ran his index finger up and down the grooves of dirty grout between the broken tiles on the hallway floor, and waited.
It was on one of those nights, a night when Octavian had fallen asleep on the steps and woken to Francis shaking him by the shoulder, that Octavian felt his heart beat for the very first time. Octavian didn’t know what time it was but knew it was very late when Francis pushed open the front door of Cedric’s building and let it slam hard on his little brother scampering up behind.
Outside, the cold grabbed him and made the anger that hollered within him wake up, made it protest at having the door slammed on him, and he said, “What the hell, Francis?”
Francis, who was many steps ahead of him already, turned and walked back. He wrapped his hand around Octavian’s face and mushed him hard, forced him to fall to the ground. Francis didn’t help him up, he didn’t even look at him, just started walking again, faster this time. Octavian, sat on the frigid sidewalk and waited for Francis to come back the way he always did when he knew he’d been too mean. But this time, he didn’t turn around, just walked away from Octavian.
Octavian felt a chasm open inside him that separated him even further from Francis and shook him more than the distant idea of his mother’s death. No matter what, he had always had Francis. Even if he was sometimes cruel, Francis would never let anything bad happen to Octavian, would threaten to destroy someone if he thought they’d hurt him. But now what was he doing? Not caring that he was leaving his brother behind in the dark, in a neighborhood where their mother didn’t even want them to be in the first place.
Quickly, Octavian got to his feet and began to run toward his brother’s receding back. He ignored the dogs, ignored the man who yelled from somewhere down the block, “Why don’t you just shut the fuck up, you stupid bitch!” The lights on Delmar were bright enough that Octavian could see the yellow stripes on Francis’s rugby when he crossed, and Octavian was grateful to be only three blocks from home. He waited for the walk sign before he crossed the wide boulevard even though only one lone car passed and he could have easily run for it.
Francis disappeared down Melville, and Octavian didn’t see him again until he turned onto Washington and saw the blue, the red, the white lights of the police car. Octavian stood transfixed on the corner, the lights burning his eyes, his breath taut in his throat. There was a cop and a white woman. A neighbor Octavian had seen a few times before. She stood next to the cop clutching at her bathrobe. Francis stood five feet from them, his hands in the air, his body entirely still. And yet the cop’s hand rested on his holstered gun.
"Ma’am,” the cop was saying to their neighbor in the robe without taking his eyes off of Francis. “Is this the kid?”
Standing in the shadows, Octavian could see that the cop was afraid, his jaw shifting, his eyes locked on Francis. And Francis—big and bad Francis; Francis who’d just mushed Octavian and left him on the sidewalk; Francis who hung out in Eastgate every night like it wasn’t nothing—stood there completely frozen, even more afraid than the cop.
The woman looked Francis over. “I...I’m not sure,” she said. She shifted uncomfortably on her feet in their slippers.
"Thank you,” the cop said. “I’ll take it from here.”
The woman thanked the officer, looked at Francis one last time, and shuffled back into her apartment building.
The officer moved closer to Francis, his hand never leaving his gun, like Francis was some kind of feral animal that might attack at any moment. “You been drinking? Smokin’ a little refer? Shooting dope?”
Francis caught Octavian’s eye and in his head Octavian heard what their father told them every time they passed someone getting pulled over, “Boys, if you ever find yourself in an encounter with the police: be polite, don’t talk back. Say, ‘I’m sorry.’ Say, ‘I’m sorry, sir.’” He waited for Francis to say something, to apologize, but Francis just stared at the cop, at the hand on the gun. He didn’t say anything.
Francis’s silence made the hair on the back of Octavian’s neck stand up, and it electrified the cop with a new sense of courage. He moved quickly then and grabbed ahold of Francis’s arm with one hand and with the other he wound up and swung deep and hard across Francis’s face.
Octavian gasped, saw the spit, the blood fly out, saw them splatter across the hood of the cop car.
What happened after that was as bitter as coal on the tongue. A black boot striking, a club smashing Francis’ handsome face, his slender body rolling across the sidewalk under the impact. And Octavian could only stand there in the haze of the flashing lights and watch. Inside his head the screaming was so loud he wished he could hold his hands over his ears, but outside he was silent until he saw his brother’s golden eyes close and he was sure he was dead. Then he ran, ran right for the cop who had the club up over his head, ready to bring it down hard, again.
"Please, please, Mr. Officer. Sir,” he said and grabbed the suspended arm. “That’s my brother. Please stop. We live right here. I promise you. Please. I can go inside right now, get my father. Please, my mother is sick, she’s dying. I was just supposed to bring him home. Please.”
The cop looked at Octavian like he just came out of a dream and found himself standing on a dark street with one young black child hanging from his arm, another bruised and bleeding laid out on the sidewalk in front of him.
"Who the fuck are you?” he said.
"I’m his brother, sir,” he said. “My name is Octavian. That’s Francis.”
"Where’d you come from?”
"I was right there, I was bringing him home, like I said. My mother is sick. She wants him home with her.”
The cop shook Octavian off his arm and looked down the empty street. He lowered his body down so he could be sure Octavian saw his eyes and said, “You didn’t see nothing, you understand me? Your fucking brother, he fell down and that’s what happened. If I find out that some nigger parents have reported their son got pushed around by a cop, I’m coming for you. Not your brother. You. You hear me?”
The cop stood up and gave Francis a shove with the toe of his boot.
"Remember,” he said to Octavian, “I know where you live.”
Octavian waited until the car, lights still going, turned the corner before he fell to the ground in a frightened ball. That’s when he felt his heart. It slammed hard against his ribs, made it so his lungs grasped at threads of air. He wondered if he were going to die, die right there on the sidewalk next to his wounded brother with his parents just a few hundred feet away, the light from the living room window glowing down on the both of them. He felt nothing but his heart and the squeezing of his lungs until Francis’ fingers, long and scraped, intertwined in his own and Francis stroked the back of his hand with his thumb.
Slowly, Octavian’s heart began to ease its incessant beating. He focused on the soft rhythm with which Frankie’s thumb ran across his hand and willed his heart to match that beat instead. They lay there holding hands until Octavian’s breath came easy, until Francis could push himself to sit up. He pulled Octavian to his feet and they both looked up to the lamplight that came from the window on the second floor.
Octavian felt as fragile as the lavender tissue paper that lined his mother’s lingerie drawer and he tried to press his feet hard into the ground to help him stay up. Francis’s lip was split wide and his angled cheeks were swollen, crusted over with dark brown blood and he looked young in a way he rarely looked. So young that Octavian hesitated before he said, “What do we do now, Frankie?”
Francis, hunched a bit to the side where the cop had hit him the hardest, looked again at the window and said, “We wait for Pop to go to sleep.”
"And then?” he said.
The youth that had been in Francis’s face for that brief, kind moment was gone. Francis had hardened anew.
"What do you mean and then? And then you take your ass to sleep and don’t say shit.”
"What are you going to tell Pop about all those bruises?”
Francis shrugged. “I don’t know. That I got in a fight or something.”
"You’re not going to tell him that it was a cop? You wasn’t doin’ nothing wrong, Frankie, he shouldn’t a done that to you.”
"Don’t be stupid, Tave,” he said. “You heard the motherfucker, didn’t you? He knows where we live. Believe me, he will come find my ass and yours, too. Just like he said he would. So do me a favor and keep your okie-doke mouth fucking shut.”
Octavian felt his heart again and swallowed down hard on the breath that tried to catch. “Okay Frankie,” he said.
Octavian no longer saw the point of kickball or dodge ball or even playing hopscotch with the girls. Instead, he concealed himself inside the big cement climbing-tunnel where he could watch the gray playground and listen for his tormented heartbeat. After the night with the cop, Octavian thought of little other than his heart. It became like the bird that once flew into their grandmother’s house and, unable to understand Francis and Octavian’s desperate movements in the direction of the open front door, had flung itself again and again towards the blue sky on the other side of the window. Finally, it landed in a clump on the floor. Francis had picked it up tenderly, its neck like a wilted flower, and cradled the bird in his open palm. The two brothers had sat beside each other, and Octavian ran his forefinger along the dappled brown breast until the bird’s body stiffened and Fabiola told them to dispose of the damn thing, would you please?
Inside the tunnel, Octavian’s heart bashed against the window of his rib cage over and over, and he wondered if it too would wilt, would stiffen into a hardened stone. He searched the landscape of the Delmar Harvard playground: the thick black of the expanse of asphalt, the unsympathetic brown of the bricks of the school, until he found some point of color, a flash of a pink coat on a girl playing tag, or a red hat on a second grader crossing the monkey bars hand over hand. He followed it with his eyes until he felt his heart begin to slow. Sometimes afterwards he was exhausted from the effort and fell into a short, deep sleep only to jerk awake to buoyant, happy children running relays on the other side of the tunnel’s wide, cold opening, a boy with a red hat far in the lead.
The first time Mina Rose saw Octavian in the tunnel with his eyes closed, she cursed. Her one escape from the terrifying stew that was the playground had been usurped, and she was left with dismal alternatives. She resolved to take cover in the last stall of the angry girl’s bathroom, surrounded on all sides by pink metal walls spotted with the names of classmates and excrement wiped from errant fingers. There, Mina read her comics. She didn’t care really. The stall worked just as well as the tunnel, was less distracting even, and she was satisfied until the playground monitor’s thick brown shoes appeared under the stall door, and she was forced back outside.
Soon after the third grade, Mina came to the understanding that she was the weird one. She had no father, no Jordache, no jelly sandals. She had crooked teeth, ate sprout sandwiches for lunch, and her mother had thick, black hair like a man’s under her arms. Mina gathered, from thinly veiled whispers, that she had nothing but loneliness to look forward to as the world stretched out in front of her nine-year-old eyes. Until one day, while waiting with her mother, Kanta, at Williams Pharmacy, she held up a copy of The Mighty Avengers: The Wraiths Walk Among Us, and in very untrue form, Kanta had nodded, handed the comic book to the blue-haired lady behind the counter and paid the extra fifty cents.
After that, what Mina read, she became. Her powers were endless. She could freeze the world around her, skate over the frozen shapes of children with fingers pointed, mouths open in laughter. She became huge, strong, her muscles stretching out her skin that turned blue, turned green, was instantly cloaked in armor, in invisibility. At home, she played alone until the chill of darkness overcame her backyard. But the playground was problematic. There, her powers were only operational if she were reading.
Mina circled the climbing tunnel for a week until she came to the reluctant conclusion that Octavian wasn’t going anywhere. No matter how fast she got outside, he was always there in huddled desolation, his face hidden between his knees, or leaned back, eyes closed, sometimes even looking like he’d fallen asleep. She gave up hoping that he would leave and did her best to join the fray, but after one particularly long recess, in which she was somehow convinced to join an unfortunate game of dodgeball, she determined she had no other choice but to scoot in next to him.
Right away she knew something was wrong. He looked at her with eyes that showed too much white, his irises black dots of terror. His breath came in and out of his open mouth in dry, short bursts, and he grabbed hold of her hand and held it when she tried to get up and go.
"Don’t,” he said, his voice pitched high with fear.
"I’m not leaving you,” she said, “I’m going to get help.”
Octavian closed his eyes and swallowed so hard Mina saw the skin of his neck fold in and out around his throat.
"Just wait,” he said. “It goes away.”
"What does?” Mina asked. She turned her hand around in his so that he was no longer hurting her fingers, but so that she still held his hand.
"My heart,” he said, his voice barely audible.
"Your heart doesn’t go away,” she said and smiled.
He smiled just a little bit around the corners.
"The beating does,” he said. “I just got to hold on.”
"Okay,” Mina said, but didn’t let go of his hand. “Do you mind if I read my comic then?”
She pulled the rolled up book out of her coat pocket, spread it across her thin knees and started to read aloud. There was something hushed and warm in her voice that made his heart slow down enough for him to look over at her. Octavian had seen her before. There had once been a lot of white kids at Delmar Harvard, but most of them had moved away. Mina was the one with the long, stringy hair and holes in her sneakers, whose pants were always flooding. Her hand was small and cold.
When his breathing went back to normal, he said, “Who’s your favorite? I mean, of the characters.”
Mina felt the danger recede and was grateful for a chance to stop reading and talk.
"I like all the X-Men, and Daredevil is one of my favorites, and the Amazing Spiderman. Oh, and I like Powerman and Ironfist and Firestar,” she said. She told him that she also loved Rogue and Wonder Woman and thought Superman was stupid.
Octavian was impressed and he nodded. “I can’t stand Superman, either,” he said.
From that day on, Octavian and Mina sat side by side with their feet up on one wall, backs against the other, and comics open across their laps. Neither said much to the other, but when Octavian’s heart began to act up, he would reach over and grip her hand and she would know it was time to start reading aloud.
One day Mina brought a new comic with Wolverine on the cover and Octavian looked closely at the beast’s angry face, his razor claws, the torment in his eyes and said, “I could draw that.”
Mina moved her hair aside to get a closer look and said, “Probably,” then motioned for him to trade her his copy of Fantastic Four.
The next day, Octavian brought a pencil, a piece of paper and a hardcover book to lean on and carefully copied the picture of Wolverine. When the bell rang, he showed it to Mina. She studied it and smiled big enough that Octavian saw her crooked bottom teeth for the first time.
"It looks just like him,” she said, and handed it back. “You should sign it, like a real artist.”
Octavian looked down at Wolverine’s pointed fangs, the menacing saliva on his lips and he turned the paper over and wrote, For Mina Rose From Octavian Munroe. He handed her the drawing and tucked the book under his arm, the pencil behind his ear and scrambled out of the tunnel. He walked fast toward the building without looking back.
That night, he went home and drew the Hulk saving the Scarlet Witch from an alien with legs like a praying mantis, a mouth like a great white shark and a long serpent’s tail. He was especially pleased with the alien because he hadn’t copied him from a comic, but had made it up himself. Octavian took the drawing to show Cordelia.
She sat up a little on her pillows when he walked in. She took the paper from him, and he noticed how her wedding ring slid down and caught on the dark knot of knuckle of her thin finger.
"Did you do this?” Her glassy eyes brightened a little.
Octavian nodded and sat down on the bed so he could watch her face. She pointed at the alien and said, “I like him the best.”
"I got the idea from a Doctor Who episode I watched last week.”
"Cyrus still letting you watch that show? Doesn’t it come on at midnight on Sunday or something?”
"Not midnight, Mama. It comes on at ten. Pop said it’s all right since I don’t want to watch nothing else.”
"Anything. You don’t want to watch anything else.”
"Right. Anything. Sorry, Mama.”
Cordelia looked at the drawing again. She pointed to the Scarlet Witch. “I thought there were black girls in comic books,” she said.
"Then why’d you draw her?” she asked.
Octavian didn’t have an answer.
"You know what Malcolm X said about white women?”
Octavian shook his head.
"He said they were the black man’s poison.” She widened her eyes and Octavian saw that the yellow of her eyeballs went all the way back behind her eyelids.
"Yes, Mama,” he said. He wanted to leave, but he wanted his drawing back, so he waited, felt the bird fluttering in his chest.
"Don’t hate who you are, Octavian,” she said.
"I don’t, Mama,” he said.
He took the drawing from between her thumb and forefinger, kissed the fine gauze of her cheek.
In the living room, Cyrus sat reading in his orange chair. He looked up when Octavian entered the room.
"You alright, son?”
"What you got there?”
Octavian walked over and handed him the drawing.
Cyrus pushed his reading glasses back up and looked it over. “This is real cool,” he said. “You got an eye for this, Octavian. I didn’t know that. Did you show your mother?”
"I showed her.”
Cyrus looked over his glasses. “What’d she say?”
"That Malcolm X said white women were poison.”
Cyrus moved his slippered feet off the ottoman and motioned for Octavian to sit down. He reached into his pocket for one of his soft, white handkerchiefs and cleaned his glasses.
"Life hasn’t been easy for your mother,” he said.
"Death isn’t going to be any easier.”
Octavian felt the thick promise of tears that would come if he looked at Cyrus, so he stared instead at the knotty ochre of the ottoman.
"You know Tave, your mother spent most of her life working hard to find love and compassion for people who never once thought to give it to her. Trying to continue doing that? When you’re dying? It’s a tall order for any of us,” Cyrus said still trying to reach his son’s eyes. “Your mother doesn’t think white women are poison.”
Cyrus stopped talking and waited for Octavian to look up before he said, “but it seems like a lot of the things she didn’t want to think, didn’t want to say, because she was working so hard not to be hateful all her life, are coming out now. Do you understand?”
"She’s just worried about the decisions you’re going to make since she’s not going to be here to help you make them.”
He hated when Cyrus talked about her death like it was real.
Cyrus reached over and rubbed him on the back of his neck. He handed him the drawing and said, “It’s really good, son, really. Keep it up.”
On the day everyone got their school photos back, Octavian met Mina in the tunnel at recess and worked hard on a picture of Lt. Monica Rambeau. He had brought along a dark brown pencil for her skin, blue for her giant afro and silver for her body-tight suit. But his face got hot as he tried to draw her long, curvy legs, her cleavage, her hips, and he was relieved when the bell rang and he could shove the drawing inside his hardcover book without showing it to Mina.
Mina called to him as he hurried toward the building.
He stopped and turned around.
"I have to say goodbye.”
"What do you mean?”
"I have to go to a school in Clayton now. My mom got a new house.”
Octavian didn’t know what to say so he said, “My mom is dying.”
"She has cancer. Doctor says she’s going to die soon.”
Mina’s eyes filled with tears, and Octavian wished he hadn’t told her.
"I didn’t mean to make you cry,” he said.
Mina wiped her eyes. “That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Octavian was about to tell her how he wanted to cry all the time, but that even when he tried, really tried, it was like all his tears had just dried up or something, but Mrs. Korchoran screamed at them from the door to get their butts inside.
"I guess this is goodbye then,” he said.
"Goodbye, Octavian,” she said. He saw that her eyes still shimmered with tears, and he felt her shove something into his hand as she quickly kissed him on the cheek. Her hair against his ear was soft, not like straw the way he thought. She turned and ran, and Octavian watched her skinny legs in too-short jeans as she dashed across the playground and through the double blue doors of the building.
In his palm was one of Mina’s wallet-sized school photos, her knotty hair hastily tucked behind her ears. She was smiling, but not enough to reveal those crooked bottom teeth. He wondered why no one had bothered to brush her hair for picture day. Cordelia exhausted him on picture day, washing behind his ears and smoothing down his eyebrows. He wondered whether she would still be there next picture day and, if not, whether Cyrus would know to slick down his eyebrows with spit or if he’d have to do it himself. The late bell rang and Octavian shoved the picture in his coat pocket and ran inside.
After school he looked for Mina so he could give her a picture, but instead he found Francis, Michael Ivy, Matty Rosenthal and Brendon Graves who had gotten off the bus from Brittany and gone to U. City Grill for Now and Laters and sodas. As they walked together past the post office, Octavian took his gloves out of his pocket and Mina’s picture fell on the ground. Francis snatched it with a crooked grin before Octavian could pick it up.
"Aw shit, look at this,” he said, his eyes taunting and alive. “Tave got hisself a girrllfriend.”
"Ooooh, lemme see,” said Ivy.
Ivy had been Francis’s best friend since the two got into a fight on the first day of kindergarten. No one ever called him Michael or Mike. For a while, he was White Mike, White Mikey, but these days he was just Ivy. Ivy lived down the street with his wayward mother, but spent the majority of his time at the Munroe’s, mostly because his mother was the kind of crazy that went for months without doing the laundry or cooking any type of food, but bought Ivy hundred dollar pairs of sneakers. Ivy was small and clever and hopped around Francis and Brendon in his shell-toe Adidas like a Jack Russell Terrier.
Brendon, also known as Big Brendon or just Double B, was dark skinned and massive. He wore thick glasses that were often foggy or smudged and he had a habit of licking his lips. Brendon had at least two inches and fifty pounds on Francis and he grabbed the photo out of Francis’ hand. He held it up high over his head as Octavian jumped about frantically trying to get it.
"Oh, look,” Brendon said, “she wrote on it.”
Octavian stopped jumping. “She did?”
"Give it here,” Francis said snatching it back. “To Octavian the artist, love, Mina. Ooohh,” Francis said and slanted his eyes towards Octavian, “Love.”
"Frankie,” Octavian said. “Can I have it back, please?”
Francis ignored him and studied the photograph carefully, moving from side to side when Octavian tried to take it.
"I can’t believe it,” he said. “Tave got him a white girl.”
Octavian kicked a rock down the street with a curse.
"She’s white?” Matty asked.
Nobody ever paid him too much mind to Matty, who was related distantly and in a way no one could ever completely understand, to Ivy. Which is why he was around more than anyone ever remembered asking him to be.
Francis looked at the picture and said, “Yeah, but she’s wullaford. Anyone can get a white girl like this here. But it’s motherfuckas like me that get the pretty ones.”
"Don’t say motherfucker,” Octavian said under his breath.
Francis acted like he didn’t hear him and kept talking. “They say ‘Ooh Frankie, you got such pretty brown skin and such pretty, light eyes’ and then they let me put my tongue in they mouths, let me feel on their little pink titties.”
Octavian looked down at the sidewalk: Don’t step on the crack or you’ll break your mama’s back.
"You ain’t never gonna get the kind of white girls I get, Tave. You’re too dark and your nose is as wide as all outside.”
They had reached the corner of Waterman where Matty lived, and he and Ivy gave Francis a high five and punched Octavian lightly in the shoulder.
"You comin’ Brendon?” Ivy said.
Brendon looked at Francis and said, “What you up to Frankie?”
Francis shrugged. “Prolly going over to see Dante and them,” he said. “You want to come?”
Octavian saw a shadow cross over Brendon’s face.
"Nah,” he said. “I think Ima go play Galaga with these white boys. Whyn’t you come?”
"Maybe,” Francis said. “Gonna take Tave home first.”
Brendon tried to snatch the photo of Mina out of Francis’s hand, but Francis was too quick. Brendon smiled at Octavian and laid his massive hand on Octavian’s shoulder.
"Don’t worry Tave,” he said. “Ain’t nothing special about white girls. Your brother is just color struck. It happens to light-skinned cats sometimes.”
"Whatever B,” Francis said.
When they were down the block, Francis turned to Octavian and said, “Mama’s going to be mad, you know?”
"You know what Malcolm X said about white women—” he said, imitating Cordelia’s voice. “She’s gonna give you a whoopin for sure.”
Octavian knew his mother wasn’t going to whoop him, she could barely stand up, but he still didn’t want Francis to upset her so he said, “Okay, Frankie, what do you want?”
"What do you mean?”
"What do I have to do so that you won’t tell Mama?”
Francis stopped walking, looked at Octavian and said, “Serious as a heart attack: I won’t say nothing if, from now on, when Mama sends you out to find me, you don’t. You hear?”
Octavian looked up at the dirty white of the winter sky and tightened the collar of his blue and black lumberjack coat against the gathering wind. He looked at his brother’s sharp cheekbones, his full lips and thought about how easy it would be to draw his brother’s refined, angular face.
"I’m waiting,” Francis said.
Octavian thought about his mother laid up in the bed, her pillows wilting behind her head. He thought his heart might start up, but it was quiet. He looked back at Francis and nodded. Francis smiled his lazy, handsome smile and started to walk away. A moment later he threw the picture of Mina over his shoulder.
It caught the wind and flew into the air, and Mina’s sad smile, her stringy hair, fluttered about like a butterfly lost and left over to find its way in the cold. It landed face down on the sidewalk, and Octavian picked it up, saw her neat, clear handwriting. Octavian, the artist.
The artist, it said.
Down the block, Francis’s shoulders were broad inside his Raiders starter coat. Buying the coats had been one of the last things Cordelia did before she couldn’t do things like shop anymore. At the corner, Octavian stopped. There was a wide opening in the sidewalk that led down to the sewer system and Octavian crumpled Mina’s photo in his fist and threw it in, sending Mina down to the Mississippi.
At home, Octavian quietly put the envelope of photos on Cordelia’s bedside table. The section of the 8x10 that was visible showed his gap-toothed smile and the nose Francis called “wide as all outside.”
Cordelia opened her heavy eyes. “Hey, baby,” she said and reached out for his hand.
For a moment, all Octavian wanted was to fall into her long, brown arms,to be consoled by her careful hands, have her scratch the hollering out of his head with her crescent moon fingernails, but her eyelids had begun to droop again and he knew there was no space left in his mother for him to curl up anymore and so he let his small hand drop into her thin, shaking one.
"Got our school pictures back today,” he said.
Cordelia pushed herself up. “Let me see,” she said.
Octavian handed her the envelope and she pulled out the 8x10 and smiled, showing her bottom teeth that, unlike Mina’s, were straight and even. Cordelia traced the side of Octavian’s face in the photograph and looked at him. There were tears in her eyes, but she was smiling.
"You are the most beautiful boy,” she said and pulled Octavian into her arms.
He tried not to think about how different it felt than he wanted it to.
"I love you,” she said.
"I love you, too,” he said into her neck.
She sat back on the pillows, and Octavian stood up.
"You got homework to do?”
"Nah, I finished it already.”
"What are you going to do?”
"I was thinking about drawing a picture of Francis.”
"Now that’s a good idea,” she said and put the 8x10 back into the envelope.
Octavian began to walk out of the room.
"Hey, Tave,” she said, and Octavian turned around.
"You want any of these wallet-sized ones to give to your friends?”
She was still elegant, he thought when he looked back at her, even though she seemed to be getting dimmer and dimmer every day.
"No thanks, Mama,” he said.
MATHEA MORAIS (@MatheaMorais) was raised in St. Louis, Missouri and earned a degree in literature from NYU. Her work has been published in Arts & Ideas, Anti-Heroin Chic, and Disclaimer. She lives on Martha’s Vineyard where she teaches English and creative writing to children and young adults.