track one Eye of the Tiger
she was a large woman, not like birds. China Lynn, like fine; fine China, fine powder, and like leaving baby girls out on windowsills to die, she’d heard. She’d heard they did that there. She pictured the Chinese baby girls cooing on windowsills with the potted plants while the sun was shining on them till night when the cold took their breath.
She was a large woman, not like her birds, and she never would have left a baby girl out on the windowsill to die. Even if she only got one. Oh, if she were only allowed one baby, she would have been pleased if it was a girl.
“Eye of the Tiger.” That was the song that was playing and also that was what was reflecting in the mirror as she painted her blue shadow up to her brows: an eye of a tiger printed on the rug that hung on the wall behind her. That big, sparkling velvety tiger perpetually purred at her and her little birds; seven Cockatiels, three Parakeets, and five Lovebirds. One of the Lovebirds had died, leaving an odd number. Even birds mourn. The widow didn’t sing anymore, and China imagined it would go along too, soon enough, but she told it to be strong. “Down a gin and tonic and take a look around you, lady,” she told the bird when it first stopped singing.
“Death’s gonna come fast enough as it is without you calling him on with your silence.” China figured Death must be drawn to silence.
Death is so silent, he must be drawn to silent people, silent places, silent things like widowed Lovebirds that have given up their song.
“Death ain’t coming in here, hump ump um,” China said, and tapped on the widow’s cage. “Sing sumpin, pretty girl.” Then she took it upon herself to start the singing as she rubbed some gloss on her lips.
There was a tap on the door before it opened, but they didn’t really even need to knock. They coulda just walked in.
“Hey, baby sis. Oh, this motherfucker been after me for something. I need to settle here for a few hours.”
She wasn’t even through the door and she’d started hollering, a cigarette cascading smoke from one hand, her daughter holding tightly to her other. China replaced her makeup to the drawer and turned. Her sister smoked. “Well, you look all nice,” her sister told her.
And China did look nice. Today she had on a white and silver dress shirt that hung loosely from her buoyant frame, ornamented here and there with silver necklaces and pins. She was wearing thirteen rings. On some fingers she wore two or three piled on top of each other. There were two silver spoons, smashed and bent, an opal, some thin white gold bands tied together that made clinking noises, a wedding ring with diamonds, and a tough-looking silver cat head. Her blond hair was crimped and hung down past her shoulders, pulled back with a gold headband that highlighted her high blue eye shadow.
But she never felt she looked as nice as her sister, even though her sister seldom put any effort into her upkeep. Her sister was thin, and that’s all that she needed to be. She wore no makeup, let her long dishwater hair go naturally, hanging down around her face. She wore tight, tight jeans, a man’s work shirt, and somehow she was stunning. Endlessly. Simply. But the most stunning thing about her, to China, had nothing to do with her present body. The most stunning thing about her was a thing that had been extracted from her body and now held tightly to her hand.
Together, her sister and her sister’s little daughter looked more sensuous than China believed should be legal. The little girl was a thin thing as well, but serious, with long, straight red hair. They looked like they were naturally and permanently attached at the palm, the way they were now holding hands like they might still be one body, the eight-year-old girl walking in time with her mother,
letting go a moment to hug China and then finding her mother’s
hand and holding again without effort or communication. And something of the summer heat, the little sweat that collected on her daughter’s bare shoulders and her sister’s gold tan, gave them a lusty, juicy look, like maybe they were some tropical fruit plant, something tall and thin, all dewy and wet in the early morning light, waiting to be plucked.
“Panama, you in some kind of trouble?” China asked.
“No, nothing. Crazy ole boy wants me to pay up the seventy I owe him I aint got. It’s the last for Lotus.”
“She is a beautiful puppy. How much did he charge you all together?”
“That’s good for a pit.”
“I know, sis. An allllbiiiino.” The word came out long and dramatic like she was lusting over the thought. She was lusting over the thought. She had a new albino pit bull puppy named Lotus. She leaned over to put her cigarette out in the ashtray. “But I only paid him fifteen. I told him I’d have it in a few days, but I aint got the rest of the money,” she said, laughing and groaning about it while she reached her cigarette around her daughter for the tray. The hot cherry of the cigarette got her little daughter on her bare shoulder. The girl jumped and covered the burned place with the hand that wasn’t holding onto her mother. The other hand kept holding on. The girl pursed her face but didn’t cry. Such a serious, beautiful little girl, China thought.
Panama let out a shriek, “Hunny, you okay? I’m sorry. You got some ice, sissy? Ow, hunn, I’m sorry.” She put the cigarette in the tray and told it, “Bad cigarette.”
China went into the kitchen for some ice. “This guy’s on me for it. I told him not to get his britches in wad,” Panama hollered. “I’m good for it. I’m not going nowhere.” She made her way around to look at all the birdcages with her daughter. “God knows, I’m not goin no fuckin where,” she muttered to herself. “Although I gotta say though, it would be nice. It would be fuckin nice if I were goin somewhere. Gotta get the hell outta here someday, aint that right, hunny? Someplace tropical. Whatda you think?” The girl tilted her head to her mother. Her mother kept on. “Someday you and me gonna go, gonna get. Or how bout New York City? You like that one? Aint nothing beautiful and big and bright as that Empire State Building. I seen pictures folks took from on top of it. On top of that building, you can see everything. It’s so tall you can see the whole world, see all of civilization. You can see the ocean looking like it’s spilling off. You can see how the world is round from up there. If I was standing under that thing, I’d know I could do anything. I’d be free. Be that big. That bright. Big old sparkling building like a lighthouse showing us the way outta this storm. Up on top of that Empire State Building, we’d be free, baby. Free as a bird.” Panama was always going on like this. “New York City’s where dreams live. What do you say, baby? You gonna go be free with me in New York City someday?”
The girl whistled. “What’s this one called?” she asked, scooting herself up to a white bird with a green Mohawk-like tuft on its head.
“That one’s a teal cock. No, cockatiel! Oh my god,” she gasped. “China, I just told my daughter this was a teal cock.”
“You better tell her to stay away from anything with a teal cock! Come here, hunn, let me see the shoulder.” China took a knee on the girl’s level and melted the ice where the cigarette had burned her. “Panama, you have to be careful with those things.”
The ice melting on the girl’s shoulder stirred feelings in China’s stomach. They were motherly feelings, she guessed, but something about them, if she had to describe them honestly in words, would have probably disturbed some people. Her motherly feelings were sensuous. There was sensuality in the ice melting on the helpless bare skin and the serious quiet eyes that seemed always suspicious and yet always aching for and accepting of love. These were the eyes of little girls, and these eyes drove her mad with wanting, wanting them to look at her with the most intense aching, begging love from a mother.
“Okay, then. You just hold the rest of it there. You want some juice or something, baby?” The girl shook her head left-right, in the no direction.
“You got anything to drink?” Panama asked.
“I got some whiskey. Got something else you don’t drink, too.”
“Oh really? Hunny, you stay out here. Your aunt’s got to show me something in the bedroom,” Panama told her daughter.
China flipped the volume up on the cassette player and they exited, leaving the girl alone with the birds. from the cassette player, the guitar started its anticipatory trills before the heavy bass and drums came in dunt dunt dunting. Then the sound of a tambourine set a syncopated beat between all the rest, making way for David Bickler to proclaim, in a rusty near-falsetto, “Rising up, back on the street, did my time, took my chances . . .”
The girl let her body rock to the beat and mouthed along with the words before losing herself in the fantasy of the birds. The little white cages looked like castles and gazebos, and the birds became sleek royalty, runaway princes and princesses, and she, a magical fairy god. She squeezed the cool liquid left by the ice through her fingers and rubbed it on her face. The birds chirped, and she whispered words into their chirping. She moved, as if in a trance, from cage to cage, followed by the sound of bell-like bird whistles, whispering words over the whistles that told the stories of her mythologies of birds.
“I love you. I’m running away tonight. Meet me in the gazebo when the moon is full.” Chirp chirp, whistle whistle. “But how will you get through the bars, Goliath? Oh, that’s easy, my beak is very strong. And I have the help of a fairy god, anyway.”
china leaned over the mirror, holding her heavy, dangling necklaces against her chest so they wouldn’t knock anything of value. “I don’t got much left, so we just get two each. I’m gonna want some later when I get back.” She snorted her line up through a cold metal tube and handed it to her sister.
Panama snorted half a line and tilted her head back. “That ole boy’s a trip. I think he’s hot for me on top of me owing him. He’s like glue. Won’t leave me alone.”
“You can hang out here for a minute. I got to go, though, in a few. I have a court date.”
“What’d they get you for?”
“They didn’t get me for nothing. I got them. I’m suing the mayor.”
“You still doing that? Over that fall you took in December?”
“It was on his property.”
“You was the one walking on it. Isn’t that trespassing?” Panama bent down and sucked up the second half of the line.
“It was on the sidewalk, and you know him and all his boys were givin out tickets all winter for not clearing the ice. They gave Tanya a seventy-five dollar ticket for not clearing the ice off her walk out front of her beauty shop. And there he goes, his walk as slick as a wet willy. That’s god-damned hypocritical. I fell right down on it. Turned my ankle. You seen. I’ve got the doctor’s reports and all right here. I don’t think it’s ever healed right. Look.” She pulled the bottom of her pant leg up to show her ankle, but Panama didn’t see anything wrong.
“I hope you do win,” she said. “Maybe if you get that money outta him, I can borrow some from you to pay off for Lotus? I’d rather owe you than Mister Looney Tunes.” She bent down and inhaled her second line. China picked the mirror up from the waterbed and leaned it against the wall. “China, he’s a real weird fella.
Deals exclusively in albino animals. If an animal comes in albino, he can get it. Don’t know where he gets them from or who for.”
“He got one for you, didn’t he? I guess that’s who for. I don’t know how he’s making any money though, selling them cheap like that.”
“Aw, he doesn’t always do that. I told you, he’s sweet on me. He’s stuck like glue.”
“I gotta get going.” China collected her purse and a folder full of papers from her drawer and opened the bedroom door.
As she stepped into the living room, something yellow and feathery flapped past China’s face. Panama’s daughter was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the floor, whispering to a bird on her finger. Two others perched on her bare shoulders as the rest flew about the room, occasionally stopping to land on a knickknack or chair before returning to the air.
“What in God’s name?” Panama said, walking out to her daughter. “Did you let them out of their cages? Why the hell did you do that?”
The girl turned her attention to her mother, but said nothing.
“It’s all right, sissy,” China told her. “I let them out sometimes.”
“You do? Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s got into her. I guess she’s just like her momma, don’t like to see nothing caged up.”
The girl walked over to her mother, keeping a bird on her finger, and took hold of her mother’s hand with her other. Panama wiped the girl’s forehead, then kissed her on her cheek, like the girl had been through something.
“I let them out sometimes, but not all at once though.” China turned the cassette tape off and began gathering her birds back to the cages. “This one didn’t go out?” she asked, stopping in front of the cage of the widowed Lovebird. The small cage door was open, but there the bird sat on its perch, silent as ever, uninterested in flight.
“She’s sad,” the girl said seriously. “She’s sad and she’s not having any visitors.”
China raised a slightly blue brow at the girl. “That gives me a real uneasy feeling when you talk like that.”
“Can I have some of your whiskey?” Panama asked, wiping her nose and lighting a cigarette. “You want one before you go?”
“No. I gotta get out of here now. I gotta have a clear head for this court thing. You can have whatever you want though.”
“Okay, then I’ll help myself,” Panama said, taking a long drag and resting the hand that was holding the cigarette across her front, so that the cigarette fell again, the hot cherry on her little daughter’s bare shoulder. The girl started and the last bird flew away from her finger, back into its cage. “Oh fuck, I did it again.” Panama was laughing, with an embarrassed and sorry expression on her face, but she was laughing. She bent down to her daughter, “Baby, I’m sorry! You okay?” She took her daughter by the shoulders to comfort her, but she still hadn’t put her cigarette away, and she did it again, right then, one more time, same shoulder, same cigarette. The girl stepped back quickly away from her and rubbed her burned skin. China came over, snatched the cigarette out of Panama’s hand and extinguished it in the ashtray.
“I don’t guess you should have any more of these today. I’ve heard of people that can’t handle their drinking, but this about beats it. You all right?” The girl nodded yes from heaven to hell; up, down. Her eyes were reddening and wet. “I gotta go,” China said. “Try not to set fire to this place. I’ll just be gone an hour or so,” she told them. “Lock the door behind me.” And she took off. The girl locked the door behind her.
Panama made her way into the kitchen to pour herself a drink. Her daughter followed behind her. She handed the girl a piece of ice. “Here, put that on it. It’ll feel better soon, baby. I didn’t get you bad, did you?”
“Did I what?”
“What are you talking about? You okay?”
“I’m okay.” She let out a long sigh and rolled her eyes, letting the ice melt between her hand and shoulder. Panama sipped the whiskey and soda.
“Mom, are we going to uncle Nam’s now? I wanna see uncle Nam.”
“No, hunny. He got called off on a truck route this morning. He’s gone for four days. We’re gonna stay here today, all right?”
“Then can we go see uncle Thai?”
Panama was one of seven children. She had five brothers and one sister. They all bore the names of various countries. Oldest to youngest, there was Thailand, Panama, Vietnam, China, Brazil, Egypt, and Chad.
Naming in the family was a funny thing. Panama’s mother and her nine siblings had all been named after flowers. Panama’s brother, Thai, had named his three girls after the seasons, Spring, Summer, and Autumn. China was intending to name her kids names beginning with the letter X.
Panama had started with her first and thus far only child adorning her in the strangest of all dresses yet fashioned by her family. She had named the girl a name that wasn’t a name, a name that wasn’t even a word. She had named the girl an onomatopoeia-type thing that even when pronounced correctly was incomprehensible as a name to most and nearly impossible for anyone, upon the first meeting, to pronounce at all. Most people didn’t even try to say it. When introduced to the girl, they just nodded and said, “Oh, isn’t that nice?” Smiling down at her too big, the type of smile that made her stomach hurt.
“What do you want to see Nam for?”
“Maybe he would take me on a ride today like last time. He said he would again when it’s not raining.”
Nam didn’t have any children and Panama hoped he never would. He was too crazy and tough for kids, and had spent too much time in jail for more than unscrupulous activity for her to feel at all comfortable at the prospect. He was a father to his Harley, she figured. That was enough.
“Maybe next weekend, then, he can take you for a ride. It’s supposed to be sunny. We’re staying here now, though. Let’s go into the living room and find something to do.”
panama sat her drink on the side table and laid herself down on the zebra-striped couch. Her daughter sat on her stomach and played with her mother’s hair. “Baby, hand me my drink, can you?” The girl handed her mother the whiskey from the table. She sipped at it.
“What are we going to do today?” the girl asked, shaking her mother’s hair like horse reins.
“You want me to tell you stories?”
“Tell me stories. Tell me the one about the naked woman. The one you painted a picture of.”
“You love the story about the naked woman. The one with the long hair?”
“And the horse.”
“Are you riding a horsey?” The girl bounced on her and laughed. “Her name was Lady Godiva.”
“Like the chocolate!”
“Yes, like the chocolate. And she had hair so long it could wrap around her body three times, and a horse sooooo big it had to kneel to let her on it and it wouldn’t let anybody else on it but her.”
“And she rode through the towns naked on the horse with her hair wrapped around her?”
“Yes, babygirl, she did. You know the story!”
“But why did she do that, mom?”
“I don’t know, hunny. Why do you think?”
The girl let herself go into a giddy, childish stream of consciousness: “I think she did it to stop all the wars. I think she did it cause when a town was at war, she’d ride through naked on that big horse, then she would unwrap her hair that way when she got right into the middle of the town and let it trail behind her for miles in the wind while she rode fast around the town, and all the people saw her and how beautiful she was and that made them remember life was beautiful and not to kill anybody anymore.”
“That’s beautiful, baby.” They gave each other big smiles. But her mother’s smile was resentful. “You think she was doing it for world peace.” Her mother’s eyes laughed at her. “That’s real sweet, babygirl.” The laughing look in her mother’s eyes gave the girl the feeling that her mother thought she was being dim.
“Now you tell me why.”
Panama took a near final big gulp of her whiskey and her eyes went serious and gray. She rubbed her daughter’s cheek with her thumb. “I know why she did it, babygirl.”
“Why?” the girl whispered, serious and anticipating.
“She did that, because . . . you remember, she had a sword?”
Panama scooted herself up on her elbows and let her voice go low and tough. “Well, she had her beauty, but she had a sword too. Her beauty was for her and not for no one else to touch. That’s why she had to have the sword, to keep it that way. She liked the feeling of being so powerful and free, she could ride around with her naked body and long hair wild and free and nobody, not even no man who wanted to, could touch her. She did it to show them that she could do whatever she wanted, let it all hang out, and she was still in control and no one could fuck with her, even when she was naked. That’s why she did it.”
Panama sucked the last of the whiskey from a piece of ice and handed the glass to her daughter to replace to the table. “You know where evil people come from, baby?”
“Same as everybody,” the girl shrugged.
“No. That’s not right.” Panama took the girl’s head in her hands and held it so that her daughter had to look her in her now serious eyes. “A long, long time ago, the demons from the devil came up to the earth and took on male human form and mated—you know what mated means? Yeah? Okay—they tricked women into mating with them, and the ones who wouldn’t they forced, and now some people is born with the demons in them. I saw one. He levitated me when I was little like you. He had pointy ears, and his name was . . .”
The girl pulled her head away from her mother’s grip, interrupting her. “Mom, I’m thirsty. Can I have some juice now?”
“You don’t want to hear any more stories?”
“Later, after the juice.”
Panama scooted the girl off of her stomach and went into the kitchen. She poured her daughter some orange juice and poured herself another drink too. Her head was feeling like a ship swishing, the way she liked it.
Her daughter stayed in the living room and messed with the cassette. The birds were chirping. “This one’s only got one song on it,” the girl yelled to her mother, turning the cassette over in her hands. “It’s the same song on both sides.”
“That’s called a single, hunny,” her mom hollered.
“I wanted to have a dance party, though.”
“We can have a dance party with one song, baby. It’ll just keep going. Put it on.”
Panama sat the drinks on the table. The girl put the tape into the player, closed the box, and pushed the play button down. Her mom flipped the volume up high.
the melody exists somewhere unknown inside the rhythm. The rhythm begins hard like a scruffy hot lover and you can sense the melody that exists within it. But it doesn’t come out just yet. Not yet. The rhythm is still blasting hot, still dropping and picking itself up. The melody is brought finally by a quick touch of piano keys, that melody, rusty and pink as it is, intoned in a drunken falsetto, blushing at the cheeks and five o’clock shadowed. And suddenly you are rising up. You are back on the street. You have done your time from taking your chances. What did that time look like? It doesn’t sound as if it has stifled anything in you. It sounds as if it has actually grown your passion rather than suppressed it, that time you spent in the cage. You are back on your feet. You are just a man and his will . . . to survive.
the girl rocked her head and shook her small hips. Panama bounced up and down and took her daughter by the hands, spinning her round. Their thin frames went for it, both stomping and shaking as they howled along. The drums beat heavy again and a guitar squealed out something visceral. Panama took her thin hands and placed them on her daughter’s chest, shoving the girl backward. The girl jumped and howled and pushed back hard against her mother’s stomach. They crashed again and again, always bouncing back, singing on: “Face to face, out in the heat!
Hangin tough, stayin hungry!” They raised their fists in the air, shaking their hair hard, then fell to the floor, exhausted. The song kept on as they lay there panting.
“Aunt China’s house dance party number three!” the girl squealed.
Her mom rolled on the floor and patted her on the head. “I’m tired now, baby.” She rose to her feet and turned the volume down, then made her way over to the couch, collected the half-smoked cigarette from the ashtray and lit it. “You have fun? That was fun!” she said, the cigarette dangling from her lips as she shook the match out.
“Yeah, I like having dance parties with you.” The girl pushed her now tangled hair out of her face.
Panama took a long drag of her cigarette and sat down on the couch. “Come here, babygirl. Come sit by momma and drink your juice.” The song was still playing on repeat, but low.
“I’m gonna just stay here right now,” the girl told her, pulling at the threads of the white carpet.
“What? I won’t tell you any more scary stories, unless you want to hear another story. But you don’t, do you?” her mother asked her, almost accusingly.
The girl shrugged.
“Come over here now. I miss you all the way over there.”
She didn’t move.
“Come over here and drink your juice. It’s gonna be time for you to eat something soon.”
The girl got up and went to the couch. She sat a ways away, but Panama pulled her over and cuddled her into her side. Panama took a big sip of whiskey and the girl took her cup of juice from the table and sipped at it, humming along to the end of the song, then humming along to the beginning of the song. The birds chirped again and she just let her mind rest on them while her mom was petting and kissing her head, drunkenly fumbling, letting the hot end of her cigarette rest on her daughter’s bare shoulder. Same shoulder. Same cigarette. Same burning feeling, almost. But she felt it differently this time. It was something she was beginning to accept. They were all alone now and there was no reason to jump or fuss. The birds should be named Bible names, she thought. They should be named Ezekiel. They should be named Goliath. In Ezekiel there were birds. They said the land turned to flesh from a curse and the birds came and pecked the flesh of the earth till the rivers were rivers of blood. That was a good name. Her mom lifted the cigarette for a moment taking a drag, then pretended to be overwhelmingly sleepy, keeping her girl up against her side, she rested her head on her daughter’s head and put the newly hot part of the cigarette back on her shoulder. Goliath was a good name too. Goliath was a big giant who got killed with a sling. Big, big giant. Little David. Little stone. And David, she thought, didn’t he also kill a lion?
“Baby, what’s wrong? Oh my God!” Panama wiped the tears away from her daughter’s face. The girl was making no outward expression of crying, but there were tears running all over her face. “Babygirl, I was burning you again! Oh my God, what the fucking hell is wrong with me? I must be out of it! I’m so sorry, come here.” She wrapped her arms around her daughter to comfort her, but again, she still had the cigarette, and again she burned her with it. Same shoulder. Same cigarette. The girl flinched slightly. Panama jumped, stood, and extinguished the cigarette dramatically in the tray as if it had a life of its own.
“Goddamnit to hell! I don’t know what the fuck is wrong with me.” The girl just stared at her, but she wasn’t hearing anything.
She was listening to Survivor talking about guts and glory and the little sound of the chirping birds. Panama grabbed another cigarette out of the pack and held it to her daughter. “You must hate me. Do you hate me?”
The girl made an effort to shake her head no, but didn’t get very far.
“Here. You want to burn me with one? I’ll let you. Baby, I’m sorry. You can burn me with one.” Panama got down on the floor and put her head on her daughter’s knees. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me today. I guess you just look like an ashtray today.” She smiled up at her daughter, tears in both their eyes.
her daughter wiped her own tears away. “How could I look like an ashtray?”
Panama got up quickly, went to the kitchen and came back with some ice. “Here. Put this on again . . . Oh my God! Again! What the fuck is wrong with me?” The girl took the ice and put it on her shoulder. The cigarette her mother had offered her was sitting on the table. Panama picked it up. The girl kept her clear, cold serious eyes on her as she lit it. “You must fucking hate me. You wanna do it?” She held the lit cigarette out to her daughter. The girl stared into the red-eyed cherry glowing on the end and made no response. “Fine. I’ll do it. I’ll fuckin do it. This is for you, hunny. I’m sorry.” Panama held her arm out dramatically. “I want you to watch this so you know I mean it. So you see I’m really sorry.”
The girl did watch, without expression, as her mother pressed the hot-eyed cherry into her own forearm, just below the wrist. Panama’s flesh made a hissing sound as the cigarette extinguished. Panama squared her jaw and nodded as if she had just accomplished a task she had been meaning to do for a long time. The girl thought she could smell the burned flesh.
There was a knock at the door.
Panama put her finger to her lips, motioning for her daughter to keep quiet. She tossed the cigarette near the ashtray and began darting around the room in little hops, like she was chasing a bunny that kept disappearing. The knock came again, harder this time, followed by the gruff bass of a man’s voice.
“Panama! I know you’re in there. Open the goddamned door. Come on. You can’t do this forever.”
“It’s him,” she whispered at her daughter. “It’s Mister Looney Tunes.”
Her daughter’s face brightened at the thought. Or maybe brightened is not the right word. Her expression had been one of someone viewing a pile of shit burning at the bottom level of hell; it rose just a bit above that.
Three big booms came once more. “Open the goddamned door or I’m gonna kick it in. I swear to God, woman. I aint expecting you to pay up this minute. But we gotta at least talk, figure something out.”
Panama pointed at the girl, cupping a hand over the burnt place on her own arm. “I’m going to go into the bathroom. You tell him I’m not here. That you don’t know where I am. You understand?” she whispered hard.
Her daughter nodded yes. A small nod, not from God to the Devil, but from the trees to the grass. Panama skipped into the bathroom and closed the door shut.
“Now listen, woman, I can hear you shuffling around in there, and Ed said he saw you come in and he aint seen you come out.” He pounded again, four times. “Now I’m gonna count to ten, and then I’m not waiting anymore for you to open this door. But that don’t mean I’m leaving. One. Two.”
The girl rubbed the cold water from the melted ice through her hair. She stood and walked over to the cassette player and turned it off. The silence surrounded her, dotted here and there with the chirping of birds. She whistled back at them.
She made her way calmly to the door, undid the two deadbolts and let it open. Mister Looney Tunes was standing there. He had on a black leather jacket. She knew the jacket. It had an American flag sewn on the back with some silver studs. He wore blue jeans that just barely fit with black cowboy boots and a pencil mustache under his nose. He was balding on top, but had grown his hair down nearly to his shoulders and combed it all back. His hair was black and slicked from grease, and now slicked too from the sweat that also dotted his stubbled, red face, which softened when he saw that little girl standing there looking up at him with those serious, calm eyes.
Her eyes, he thought, maybe they weren’t really calm. Maybe they were just blank. Or maybe they were seeing something that wasn’t there at all, or seeing right through him. That gave him the feeling that, if they were seeing him, and seeing right through him, maybe he was the thing they were seeing that wasn’t there. Maybe he wasn’t there. That’s not what the eyes of all little girls did to him, but that’s what the eyes of this little girl did to him: made him feel self-conscious about the very basic fact of his own existence. She was strange, but she sure was a pretty little girl. His face softened when he saw her standing there.
“Can I help you?” she asked, too politely for all the hammering he’d been doing.
“Is yer momma at home?”
“Nope. She went out to get some milk.”
“She go out this front door here?”
“No she didn’t. She went out the back door.”
“Well dolly, you mind if I sit myself down in there and wait on her till she gets back?”
“Fine.” She turned from him, leaving the door open, and made her way over to the birds.
He plopped himself down on the couch and took a look around him. The girl was whispering to the birds and fidgeting with the latches on their cages. “You keep doin that, they liable to get out.” She didn’t turn to look at him. “You got anything to drink in here?”
“There’s a whiskey and coke in that glass there.”
“That’s not yours, is it?” She didn’t respond. “Well, all right.” He took a sip at the drink and puckered his face. “That soda’s flat.” He dropped it hard on the table. She didn’t turn to look. He just stayed there a few more minutes looking restless. Then he fidgeted in his pockets and took out a big key chain. There were about fifteen keys on the chain as well as a Rubik’s Cube, but the colors were different than on regular ones. This one was white with different animal patterns in black. There were zebra stripes, white spots, little tufts of fur prints, and some squares were totally white. He started fidgeting with it for a few moments before he noticed the girl had come over and was standing next to him, watching him intently. She pulled on the strap of her tank top shirt and shifted her weight. “You like this?” he asked her.
“Yeah, I done those before. But this one’s different from the ones I did.”
“Come here. Sit down, little lady.” He pulled her over onto his knee and handed the cube over to her. “It’s the same thing. Just instead of colors, it’s got patterns. It’s still got six sides, see.” They turned the cube. He pointed with a rough, meaty finger to the little squares. “See. This is a mathematical equation sort of thing. It’s got six sides and nine of those little squares on each side. So how many of those little squares you have to deal with then? Hmm? What’s nine times six?” She looked at him blankly. Then she turned her head to the ceiling and he figured she was mulling it over. Her mouth opened, but instead of giving an answer, she just started whistling like a bird. Like maybe she’d even forgotten he was asking her a question. “Dolly, you should know that. How old are you? Here, come here, this leg’s bad. Why don’t you scoot over here on my good knee?” He put his hands round her tiny waist and shifted her to his other knee. As he was shifting her, he heard a rumbling from the bathroom. He looked suspiciously toward the rumbling, but the girl kept on turning the Rubik’s Cube. After a couple seconds of rumbling, the door swung open and Panama came out, fierce like a soldier stalking in the woods, the blade of a small army-grade knife held out in front of her. She was pointing it in the direction of Mister Looney Tunes.
“You get her the fuck off yer lap you goddamnedsonofabitch.”
“Panama! Well, I thought you wuz out getting milk. Why you pointing that knife, woman?”
“It’s a good thing I wasn’t out getting milk. Leave you alone five minutes, and you getting sweet with my baby.”
“Panama, I’m just showing her something.”
“I know what you’re showing her.” She was walking slowly at him, making sticking motions with the knife as she came, her face squared, set and angry.
“No! I wasn’t doing nothing to her. Why don’t you two switch places and I’ll show you how good I am at not doing nothing?”
“You piece of shit.” She hollered her daughter’s name. “Get off his knee.” The girl stood calmly and sat down beside him on the couch, still engrossed in the cube. “You think I’m jealous? You think I’m one of those bitches who gets jealous of their babies? I’ll tell you what kinda bitch I am. No one ever gonna do to her what’s been done to me. That’s my babygirl. And if you try, I’ll cut your balls off with a rusty knife and feed em to ya.”
He held his hands in the air like surrender. “I wasn’t doing nothing. Now, come on. Dolly, tell her I was doing nothing to you.” He nudged the girl’s shoulder. She put her hand over it and grimaced.
“Nothing.” She shook her head at her mother, and looked back down at the cube. “He wasn’t doing nothing,” she whispered.
“What’s more than that,” Panama said, circling him with the knife still out, “if I don’t have a rusty knife, I’ll tie you up, put my knife in water and wait for it to get rusty. Then when yer hungry from being tied up all that time, I’ll cut yer balls off with it and feed em to you. Your Cockatiel too.”
She was inventive with her ideas of what to do to him when it came to ways of killing him. He stood abruptly, smacking his hands on his thighs. “I’ve had about enough of this!” he hollered. “You’re acting like a paranoid bitch. You start saying I’m like that to people, that I’m sweet for kids, well, I don’t know what. I guess I’ll have to cut yer tits off and feed em to you. How do you like that? Huh? Crazy woman! I wasn’t doing nothin! I don’t want nothing with no kids! No little girls. Jesus fucking Christ, woman!”
She jabbed the knife in his face. “You better not!” she hollered.
Panama shook her head and stuck the knife down in the back of her pants. She turned to her daughter. “You like that puzzle, baby?” The girl didn’t look at them. “She’s crazy about puzzles.” “Yeah, I got that,” he said, still recovering from the insanity.
“You can keep that if you figure it out, girl.” The girl turned her head up to him, and he thought he detected a smile. It was trembling at the sides of her mouth. “Oh, what, you gonna make her earn it?” Panama asked, accusingly. “Jesus. Fine. Whatever, she can have it. I just gotta get my keys off it. Look, you and I need to have an adults’ conversation about the money. Don’t pull yer knife out on me again. I have some real work, nothing funny, real help I need that you can do in two days’ time to pay me back that way if you want.”
The door opened. “What’s that van out there?” China pushed her way through, a beaming look on her face and a folder full of disheveled papers under her arm.
“Hey, sister. That was quick. You get it? You win?”
“I better than won. Oh, he found you, huh?”
“Won what?” Mister Looney Tunes asked.
“She’s been suing the mayor. Can you believe that?” Panama told him.
“I better than won. They met me outside the courtroom and settled right there. Guess they didn’t want no public display. That’s what they said, public display.” She set her papers and things down on the coffee table and went over to check herself in the mirror. The blue eye shadow swept up like a storm from her lids to her eyebrows. Her lips were full, pink, and executive looking. She took her large size into account and enjoyed the way her white and silver shirt and necklaces cascaded from her frame. She bounced her large breasts as if they were powerful pectoral muscles and combed her hair. “I’m getting the money, anyway, without even a trial.” But that’s what she had wanted, maybe more than the money—a trial, a public display. She’d got all dressed up and the only ones who had the chance to witness her were the two lawyers and the mayor himself. But she figured maybe importance of people trumps quantity of people. “What’s that big van out there?” she asked Mister Looney Tunes again.
“That’s the business I was coming here to talk to Panama about.”
The girl stood with the Rubik’s cube and key chain dangling from her hand. She tugged on her mom’s shirt. “Can I go outside? I’m tired of being in here.”
“All right. But stay close.”
She made her way slowly out the door, turning the cube as she went. The sound of the keys jingled against the birds’ constant whistling, and her whistling too, as if to return their whistles, as if to say goodbye.
“She sure is a strange one,” Mister Looney Tunes told Panama.
“What’s that mean, she’s strange?” Panama gave him a fighting look.
“She is a little odd, sissy,” China told her. “But it’s in a good way. We’re all a little odd.”
“She’s just too smart,” Panama came back.
“She needs to learn her math,” Mister Looney Tunes told her.
“Naw, me and her, we’re smart in special ways,” Panama said. “You ever heard that line, ‘Where you stop, that’s where I begin?’” Panama was being strange and dramatic now too. Maybe they were strange in the same way. But Mister Looney Tunes didn’t know if he would call them smart. Then again, he didn’t know who exactly he would call smart. But when he thought about it, he imagined someone like a chess player with thick owl glasses.
“I guess that’s probably true, Panama. I guess that’s about right.
But I come to talk to you about something, and you all aint gonna believe what I got out there.”
China went over to the cassette and pressed play, turning the volume low. “You talking about what you got in that big white van?”
“That’s not a van, hunn. That’s a wagon hitched to a pickup. I got something in it that’s gonna blow your minds. I gotta drive it out west to Nevada. It takes about two days driving. I don’t want to drive it alone. I figured your sister could pay me back in work trade. Drive some and help me with the maps and the care and all.”
“There’s something in there that needs a lot of care. I got a special order six months ago from this guy. Now I don’t have nothing to base this on, but I got a hunch he works for those fruits, Roy and that German guy. You know who I’m talking bout?”
“Why you think that?”
“Cause this is just the kinda thing those fellers like, and it’s real hard to find. I’m not even at liberty to tell you how I got hold of it.”
“What do you have in there, Mister Crazy?”
He leaned in and whispered. “You heard the term, ‘getting a tiger by the tail’? Now, you know what else they say too? Yeah, but what I got in there isn’t any kind of dark thing. What I got in there is pure whiteness. White like the morning light that will jump up and bite you in the ass. What I got in there is an albino white tiger in a cage.”
“You’re not serious?”
“As a heart attack.”
“What the hell’re you thinking!” hollered China. “Driving a tiger around this little town. That’s not legal! And wanting her to ride with you in it! With it in it and you!” China’s face was all scrunched up. “My God, you are a crazy sonofabitch! And bringing it here in my yard. Get it outta here right now! Get it out!”
“Calm down, girl. It’s in a cage, double reinforced steel, and
I got five locks on that thing. Four deadbolts and one heavy-duty combination. It’s not going anywhere. I got a license for handling this kinda thing. You women are hysterical today.”
“Well, then, I guess I just don’t know anything about anything,” China said, fanning herself.
“Calm down. Come on and loosen up. You wanna see it?”
“I wanna see it. I really do, sis,” Panama said.
“I knew you wouldn’t have any problem with it. Tell your sister to calm herself down.”
“Come on, China.”
“I aint going out there to see no white tiger.”
“If you don’t, you might regret it someday.”
“Oh no, I’m not going to be regretting nothing.”
“Why don’t you sniff some white tiger, calm down, and come see it?” Panama told her.
“You girls got some?” asked Mister Looney Tunes.
“Sure we got some.”
“I’ll trade you a glimpse of mine for a glimpse of that.”
“What do ya say, sis?” asked Panama.
“Why am I trading a glimpse of mine when I don’t want to see any part of what he has?” China said.
“Come on, girls. Come on, let’s go look. You don’t want to do that first anyway. Liable to scare her more than she already is.”
Panama grabbed her sister by the arm and pulled her toward the door. “Let’s do it. There’s nothing to be scared of. He’s got it in a cage, with locks, and the cage is inside the wagon too.”
“No, I think I better do some now, beforehand, if I’m going to go.” China went into the bedroom and came back with a small plastic bag of white powder. “Give me yer key. We’ll just do a bump.”
Mr. Tunes reached into his pocket. He fidgeted for a minute and his eyes darted around the room, searching.
“I got something,” Panama told him. She pulled the knife out of her back pocket. They dipped it in the bag and each took two bumps, quickly snorting it back.
“The last known survivor stalks his prey in the night,” Mister Looney Tunes incanted along to the song. “This sure is a good fucking song!”
Panama made a big sniffing sound and let it sink in. Her eyes got distant and hard. “Where’d you go if you could go anywhere in the world?” she asked.
“I wouldn’t go nowhere. I go where I want to be and here I am,” Mister Looney Tunes told her.
“I always wanted to go to Hawaii,” China said. “That’s where I always wanted to go.”
“You still got time. Find some fella to take you there. That shouldn’t be too tall an order.”
“Sure, people go there all the time. It’s part of America. It’s nothing.” He tilted his head back letting the cocaine glide down his throat, and gulped. “Get married and demand it as a honeymoon. He’ll like it too. Hell, I wouldn’t mind going there myself. And with a good looking lady to top it. I’d spring for that.”
“I want to go to New York City,” Panama said. “Do my art there.”
“What!” Mr. Tunes squealed. “New York City’s full of Jews and niggers. Satanists and hippy freaks. You don’t really want to go there.”
“I sure as hell do!” she came back.
“Come on. There’s gotta be somewhere good you wanna visit.”
“I want to go live in Siberia,” Panama said, looking off into a distance underrepresented by the walls of the room surrounding them.
Mister Looney Tunes let up laughing. “Might as well go to Ten Buck Two,” he hollered.
“I wouldn’t mind going there too.”
“You can’t go there, girl. It’s not a real place. It’s an expression. You know the phrase, ‘He went all the way to Ten Buck Two and back.’”
“No,” Panama told him. “It is a real place. It’s not Ten Buck Two. It’s Timbuktu. It’s in Africa.”
Whether she was right or not, he didn’t know. But she sure seemed to know what she was talking about. And it suddenly surprised him that she knew something he didn’t, and with such clear certainty. Maybe she and her little girl were super smart and strange about it. The thought of her being smart made his stomach cramp up and scared him. He liked her, and had been wanting her bad for a good while. This smart business was making her feel even more out of reach to him than she already had.
“Why the hell you want to go on to Siberia and that other place?” he demanded.
Panama stuck her tongue in the side of her cheek and nodded hard, giving him a look like she was threatening him. But it wasn’t him she was threatening. It was something else she was threatening. “I want to get out of this godawful hellhole. What do you think? Those are the places that seem to me to be the ends of the Earth, and they sound as far away and as opposite this place as anything could be.”
He slanted his eyes at her disapprovingly. “That makes me sad, you talking like that. You don’t like it here, why don’t you just get up and go? Just go do that then?”
Something about this statement bothered her all the way under her skin. She couldn’t even look at him anymore, but turned her face away, a menacing expression spreading across it, directed toward nothing in particular. She lifted her fingers in the air and snapped them loud. “Why don’t I just get up and go? Just get up and go!” she repeated, vociferously. “That’s a fucking brilliant idea. You’re right. Why didn’t I think of that?” She turned her face back to his, anger melting over her eyes. She ground her teeth and rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. “Well, then,” she said slowly, loudly, nearly pressing her nose to his, “I guess I’ll . . . JUST DO THAT THEN!”
Mister Looney Tunes backed away from Panama. China picked up the little white bag. “All right, you crazy fucks. Let’s see it,” she said, laughing and taking a deep breath.
Panama suddenly and inexplicably snapped out of her anger. She pinched her nose and tilted her head back. “I’ll bet that thing’s really beautiful, boy. I’m getting excited about this.”
Mister Looney Tunes rubbed his hands together. “You ready then, ladies?”
“One sec.” China went back into the bedroom with the little bag. She stood at the mirror several minutes, fixing her makeup.
“Come on, get on out here, woman,” Mister Looney Tunes finally hollered. “That tiger don’t care what you look like.”
They headed to the door in a pack, Mister Looney Tunes taking the lead, and China holding tightly to her sister’s arm. “Now yer not gonna let that thing get us are you?” China asked.
“Naw! Now stop yer worrying. That thing’s gentle as a kitten,” he laughed. He opened the door and the three of them stepped excitedly into the driveway.
But they came to a syncopated halt as a cold air filled their lungs and fell out from their mouths. That ice cold air kept coming from them and seemed to occupy all the space all around them, freezing them to their deep insides.
The first thing Mister Looney Tunes noticed was the Rubik’s Cube still attached to the pile of keys lying in the gravel at the wheel of the wagon that sat directly in front of them. The Rubik’s Cube was done. Done perfectly. All the shades and patterns matched up, as did the two sides of white. “How the hell she do that so fast?” he said audibly.
China and Panama were not looking at the Rubik’s Cube or the key chain. They were looking at the girl with the unpronounceable name who was sitting on all fours in the open mouth of the cage. She was whispering in her strange way, her face full of joy. The two open cage doors clanged in the gentle breeze against the metal bars. One, two, three, four, China counted in her head. Four deadbolts with keyholes and one combination lock. Mister Looney Tunes didn’t look anywhere but at the Rubik’s Cube. He just kept repeating, “How she did that so fast?”
But the women were looking somewhere else. They were looking into the eye of the void. And it was not black or spiraling as they had imagined it would be. It was like a sunlit storm, bushy and brilliant and muscled and void of any color, shining with an absence, white. Even at the center point, even in the eye, that emptiness did not fail. Even the eyes were shining, fierce whiteness. Shining not only with an absence of color, but shining with absence of the world as it was known to them. Whatever world was in the eye of the tiger, for them, it could only be an absence, an absence of caring for anything they had ever thought to care for. Not an absence of life, but at least an absence of their life was there. The absence of their life was there. Their life was shining at them in the whiteness of the tiger’s eyes as an absence.
The girl turned her also empty eyes to them, her lips coming up at the corners. Her face and cheeks were bursting her pure and strange happiness. “Look, mom,” she said, “it’s smiling.”
You know that phrase, good as gone? That’s what they were.
Excerpted from The Albino Album by Chavisa Woods. Copyright © 2013 by Chavisa Woods. Excerpted by permission of Seven Stories Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.