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?”
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.