If you can talk you can sing, if you can walk you can dance. .
Nothing takes you out of a dream like waking up in a nightmare.
It’s Ty, screaming his head off because he didn’t get anything under his pillow for the fourth tooth in a row, and somehow, there’s toilet paper covering most of the floor. Daja’s in the corner sucking her thumb and crying because Ty’s being loud, and mom’s in the middle of the Charmin Ultra Soft nest standing very very still with her eyes pinned shut, which she does when she doesn’t want to cry. I think she likes to keep the tears inside.
Mom has to go to work, and she tells me to make food for Ty and Daj. On her way out, she has to slam the door five times so that it actually shuts, and it sounds like a scratching record and our apartment falling apart. Ty is reading a book about dinosaurs that we got through the donation service. He tells me in his sophisticated eight-year-old voice that T-Rexes have wishbones just like chickens. “Those must be some huge wishbones!” I say while removing an entire solo cup from Daja’s mouth.
Mom works at the factory. It’s right behind the baby palace, and all she does is screw the caps onto oil bottles. It’s almost like Pusha T is looking at our life through a keyhole when he raps:
“twenty plus years of packing Johnson & Johnson,” it’s true, she’s working for “baby-faced monsters,” no wonder there’s “diaper rash on her conscience.” But she signed a waiver that acts as a pacifier, so she can’t join labor unions or leave until her five-year term is over. She comes back home sometimes around nine thirty smelling like lavender and vanilla beans.
It happened faster than Usain. I heard mom coughing more than usual one night, but she kept going to work until she couldn’t get up. And then, just like that, the factory shuts down because of the virus. They tell everyone to go get tested, and I have her arm around me on the way to the medical center and she’s wheezing and saying something about insurance and I’m not listening.
There is one nurse that is almost never there, and she’s moving so fast in and out of rooms it’s like I can see right through her. Mom’s in the room and I’m out of it. I’m seeing time go by and just letting it happen, I’m flipping my wrist up and down, mouthing the words to “Bite My Tongue” by Relient K: “I’m sweeping up the seconds that tick off the clock, saving them for later when I’m too ticked to talk.” It’s hard watching her go to sleep, because, like Nas says, sleep is the cousin of death. And I’m not allowed to go in but I’m pressing my face to the narrow window and seeing her sleeping, back to the bed and head to the sky, and I’m wishing she was laying on her side instead ‘cause maybe it’s just the movies, but no one dies sleeping on their side.
Bus ride home, and I’m thinking about the soft space between the womb and the tomb and where mom might be in that space right now. And about really needing a huge T-rex wishbone.
It’s day twelve of definitely not dancing in the rain when the nurse says I can go see her. Mom’s little heart rate machine goes up and down steadily like red lighting, and I’m crying to the beat of the beep beep beep and she’s propped up and all the way alive and all the way beautiful. I tap the beat on the wall and start rhyming.
Momma said that rapping won’t sustain us. But it keeps me going. After all, we are all born rappers. If you plug your ears when you talk, you’ll realize you’re just laying down lines to your own heartbeat, forever.
It’s nighttime now. There’s a song in the backyard singing do-do-dudu and if you listen closely you can hear it over the Atlantic City Rail Line. I’m walking to my job at Black Gold Records, a job I’ve wanted for a long time. The storefront says “We Put the Record in Recorded Time.” It’s not open now because of the pandemic, but boss told me I should go in and make sure everything’s all good in there.
I’m listening to Life after Death when I see Sabel. Sabel is Ty’s friend, he’s a few years older than Ty and he lives in a complex close to ours. He’s the typa kid that’s changing so fast you can see the growth pains on the back of his knees. I see him standing across the road under a streetlamp, stretching like a lost shadow. He does this when he’s got a verse he wants to show me.
Here’s the deal with Sabel: he wants to be something, but there’s this trench between his dreams and his realities, and it’s his speech impediment. He says the words in his head, but they come out all sliced and diced like he’s the Fruit Ninja of sentences. A lot of people can’t stand it, since sometimes there are long silences between syllables that give you time to think about your toes, or death, or the president. But I’m cool with him because he smiles like the Cheshire cat when I say that one lyric in “Heavy Metal Kings” that says “Without order, nothing exists. Without chaos, nothing evolves,” and I remind him that just because his words are out of order, it doesn’t mean that he is. And I need his erratic edge, because it makes me want to pull my hair out and dance at the same time and I swear every time he freestyles even the tables turn.
Sabel asks if I’m heading back and if we can take a detour through the park so we can talk about his verses, but I know it’s really because the guys in Crown Heights make fun of him. He pulls a laminated map out of his pocket and points at the trail in Prospect Park, and it takes me a moment because I hadn’t seen a map like that in a while, with a satellite image and everything in detail. There are houses on houses on houses and we call it New York. And there are shining cars and infinite people pressed between the boulevards, squeeze them together any harder and they might just fall into the sky.
When we get back to his place, we have the same last conversation as usual, where he asks me when I’m gonna put out my first track, and I tell him in time, and he tells me I’ll miss all the shots I don’t take, and I tell him that if you miss all the shots you don’t take, write them letters.
The next morning, I’m back at Black Gold, so I listen to my idols, Nas, Pusha T, Relient, and Tonedeff, and I start freestyling to the banging of the train and the ticking of the clock. And as I’m about to leave the place, I think for a moment that it’s like a graveyard, that all these voices that aren’t used today are trapped in the vinyl. But I realize it’s a sanctuary, and we are keeping them alive.
Humans, although made of calcium scaffolds, fall apart over time. Mountains of stone are governed by air, unbreakable rocks dissolve in rain. Everything seems to be penetrated with the unforeverness of it all, even trains of pure steel that fly like bullets down unsuspecting rail lines exist with impermeable momentum only for a brief moment.
When my first paycheck comes in, I run to the Union market and buy one thing, a bag of tangerines. They’re mom’s favorite fruit, she used to eat them when she was a kid and you can see them in her eyes when she opens them in the sun. She’s doing better, and I pick up Daja and Ty and her and we go to the park. The tangerines I bought blend right into the sunset when we hold them up. There are these moments that you will always save for harder times and I’m feeling like this is one. Mom under the sky with her tight black curls pointing everywhere, smiling awkwardly ‘cause she never uses those muscles. She has her eyes closed under the sun, and there’s grass between my toes, and I just want to ask her what it feels like right now, what she’s thinking; what’s under your eyelids when you close them and laugh?
Nine Reed-Mera received first prize in the 2021 Leslie Sanders Writing Contest Short Fiction category for “Wishbone Remix.” It was first published in “Issue 5: Heroes” of Please See Me online literary journal.