Paper Mushy

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Three

Special lived in an area of Michigan called Morrow Square, right in the nitty-gritty of The D (Detroit for you lame folk). The township is literally surrounded by the city of Detroit. Her house was at the end of a dead-end road named Williamson Street. Sometime in the mid-90s, the city council abandoned the idea of connecting the road to its twin on the other side of a grassy field. They abandoned a lot of projects like that around then. They even removed half of the streetlights in Morrow Square because they couldn’t pay the monthly electric bill. At night, the place was a blackout zone. There were times when I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. At the end of Williamson Street was a yellow DEAD END sign hanging on for dear life. It had been vandalized, shot, and even driven into, courtesy of Mr. Zastrow and his lead foot. Special’s house was the second to last one on the right, with the green awning above the porch. It was, for lack of a better term, a blot on the landscape. So were many of the other houses on the street, and that didn’t include the overgrown lots where only a crumbling brick foundation remained. The yard was patchy and covered with sticks. The exterior paint was peeling. The front door had a crack in the center where someone had tried to kick it in during the last owner’s residency. The roof was full of loose shingles that were slowly making their way to the edges. Even the address, nine-eight-two-one, was out of sorts. The nine had spun around, making it a six. The mailman had told them about it many times. Ianchelle joked that they never received as much junk mail as they did when it was correct. Special didn’t mind her broken-down house. She had a bed, a TV, toys, and a mama who loved her. It was more than suitable enough for her. But there were times when she wondered what it would look like all fixed up. New paint, new decorations—maybe even new grass that didn’t hurt her bare feet when she ran through it. The thought of something new intrigued her. There was a time when the house didn’t look so bad.

Special could hardly wait for the car to stop when Ianchelle pulled into the driveway. She unbuckled her seatbelt and started to open the door.

“Special!” Ianchelle said. “Wait until the car’s stopped. I don’t need you getting hurt because you can’t sit still.”

“I’m just so excited,” Special said.

“I know.”

The car finally came to halt. Special flung open the door and rushed over to the front porch. Her knees began to bend, unable to hold up all of the joy that was swirling around inside of her. Ianchelle locked the car and joined her on the porch.

“Hold on,” Ianchelle said with a smile. The keys jingled in her hand as she shoved the house key into the lock, turning it harshly to the left and opening the door.

Special kicked off her shoes and went straight to the living room window. She pushed aside an old potted-plant that had died weeks ago and made room for Ivory. The bird’s legs were too misshapen to stand on her own. Special pressed on them hard to flatten them. Ivory’s ball-shaped body was wedged into the corner where the glass met the windowsill, her little perch to look out into the world.

Ianchelle closed the front door behind her, making sure to lift on the handle so it locked properly.

“What’s for dinner, mama?” Special asked from the living room. All of the excitement surrounding Ivory had made her hungry.

“Hamburger Helper,” Ianchelle said. “With extra cheese.”

Special internalized a long Mmmmm! before retreating to her bedroom. She sat on the carpet and set up a half-circle of stuffed animals and played pretend. She wanted Ivory to get adjusted to her new living space before she checked on her again. Ivory needed to be alone.

Special’s creative mind had not gone unnoticed at school. Her fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Woodfork, had told Ianchelle during a parent-teacher conference how blessed she was to have her daughter in class. Special was known for giving long-winded answers that brought a smile to Mrs. Woodfork’s face. It wasn’t because Special was always right; it was because she had a well-thought-out reason for coming to her conclusion. Right and wrong were easy; Special lived for the why’s. She tried her best to figure out why things were the way they were, and why some things never seemed to change. Figuring out the why meant that certain problems could go away. It eliminated the questions. It brought a sense of relief. And even if she was wrong, even if the why couldn’t be figured out, she would still have a smile on her face, for she knew that she had tried her best.

Sometimes, my friends, your best is good enough.

The aroma of cooked burger and cheese filled the house. Special checked on Ivory, watching other birds fly around in the yard. If there was one thing she could have changed about Ivory, it would have been her lack of flight. Ivory deserved to have what the other birds had. She deserved to be free.

Bright headlights turned into the driveway and shined into the living room. The Glug! Glug! coming from the loose muffler underneath an old Chevy Nova seemed to mimic Special’s racing heartbeat. A man stepped out of the car and slammed the door. He wasn’t angry; that was just how he liked to shut it. Hard. Negligent. No wonder there was an indent in the rubber seal. He wore a leather jacket with tight blue jeans, not the kind you see those twig-shaped millennials running around in today, but old school, like from a movie. His head was neatly shaven down to almost nothing. There was a cigarette tucked in the corner of his mouth puffing out smoke. Whenever he walked, loose change would rattle in his pockets, like he was wanting you to look over and see him coming, see what he was all about.

Shawn.

He was bad news.

Shawn opened the front door, filling the entryway with smoke. He looked over and noticed Special near the front window. “Hey, Special. What’s kicking?”

“Nothing,” she said, looking down at the carpet.

“Nothing? Well, that ain’t much of a hello for your old friend Shawn, is it?”

She looked up and faked a smile. “Hello.” It took more strength for her to do that than ten jumping jacks at recess.

Shawn smirked and took one last drag of the cigarette before placing it in an ashtray full of others near a coatrack. Some were beginning to spill onto the carpet. He hung up his coat and found his way into the kitchen. Ianchelle was assembling dinner. She gave him a quick kiss on the lips.

Special had never met her birth father. She didn’t know his name or where he lived. Ianchelle kept those things from her (and from me). Special didn’t understand why, but she trusted that her mama had necessary reasons to hide those truths. Still, she often wondered what those reasons were.

Before you begin to judge people you know nothing about, know that if times are tough, if family and friends are scarce, you tend to look for help in places that you never fancied yourself looking. You got blinders on. You can’t see what you’re getting into because all you can see is what you’re getting out of. You trade one problem for an even bigger one.

It’s like this: imagine the people you know in your life are parts of a house. The foundation is your parents and grandparents, the building blocks for your entire family. The beams and walls are your friends, holding you up and surrounding you with support. The lights and fixtures are your coworkers, important people who keep your house functioning properly. The roof is your spouse, shielding you with their love, while the furniture and keepsake items inside are your children, rare artifacts that only could have come from you. But somewhere under the dirt, where the roots grow wild and the worms dig feverishly, there’s a crack in the foundation. You might think it’s no biggie. You might even acknowledge it and say, ‘I can deal with this; the house can manage one crack’. But if unaddressed, that crack will branch out and expand to the point where the entire house will crumble and fall.

That crack is Shawn.

I don’t exactly know how Ianchelle got set up with Shawn, but he had one thing that she didn’t have: money. Money to help her get by. Money to prevent the house from being foreclosed. Money trumped the logic of associating herself with a man like Shawn. The money he loaned to her was generous, but it also gave him leverage over her family. He wasn’t really her boyfriend, or even her friend at all. He was just there.

To collect.

To annoy.

To abuse.

The first time Special heard Shawn and Ianchelle fight, she thought that someone had gotten hurt. After the twentieth time, she realized someone was getting hurt. Her mama. Ianchelle started wearing long-sleeve shirts around the house. One time, there was a noticeable amount of makeup dabbed under Ianchelle’s left eye. She told Special she had bumped into the fridge trying to grab the milk. Special may have been young, but she wasn’t dumb. She noticed the irregularities in Ianchelle’s behavior. It wasn’t just the bruises, it was the way she spoke to her, like she had lost a spark or something. The why’s started piling up.

Why did her mama keep acting as if she liked Shawn? Why couldn’t Shawn leave them alone until the money was paid back?

Why did he have to smoke so much?

Why did her mama lie about her injuries?

Special felt trapped, like she was in someone else’s house every time he came over.

“Special, time to eat,” Ianchelle said.

Special patted Ivory on the head and went into the kitchen. She admired the steaming plate of Hamburger Helper on the table. Ianchelle sat next to her and held her hand while they prayed. Shawn sat next to Ianchelle and didn’t partake in the prayer. He had already shoved a cheesy noodle into his mouth before they said Amen.

I have met many repulsive men in my life, but those that disrespect another person’s religion rather than saying thanks for what has been given to them are the lowest men to walk to earth.

There was little talk during dinner, nonsensical conversations about the weather and the news. Tomorrow was supposed to be cloudy. A man had been shot on Nevada Avenue by the cops. Same-ole, same-ole. Ianchelle was almost finished with her dinner when she looked over at Special and said, “Why don’t you show Shawn what you made at school today?”

“Ivory?” Special said.

“Yeah. Show him Ivory.”

Special reluctantly got down from the table and went over to the window. Ivory was titled to the side after Special had patted her head before dinner. She had missed out on a lot of bird action outside. “Sorry, Ivory,” Special said and carried her into the kitchen.

“Look what Special made today,” Ianchelle said to Shawn.

Shawn was looking at his phone, uninterested.

“Shawn, will you please just look?”

“What?” Shawn said. He turned around and saw Special holding Ivory in front of his face. “What the hell am I looking at?”

“Shawn!” Ianchelle pounded her fist on the table.

“I was just asking!” He set his phone down and looked at Special. “What is it? Some sort of bird or something? Did you make it?”

“Yes, I made it,” Special said. “Her name is Ivory.”

“Ivory, huh. Why Ivory?”

“Because that’s her name.”

“I would have chosen something different, but that’s just me.”

Special stormed into her room with Ivory and shut the door. She could still hear her mama and Shawn arguing in the kitchen.

“Why do you have to be so mean to her?” Ianchelle said. “She’s the sweetest thing and you treat her like dirt.”

“I wasn’t being mean,” Shawn said. “I was busy looking at something when she came up to me. All I was saying is that I would have named it something else.”

“You were being a dick and it was unnecessary.”

“A dick? No, this—this is being a dick.”

Special heard a plate smash on the floor.

“Why did you do that?”

“I was making a point.”

“And what is the point?”

“That you’re not in a position to call me a dick! Show me some goddam respect for once! I’m sick of it. You’re ungrateful. You think with all the money I gave you, you would be able to provide a decent meal, not some afterthought from a box.”

Special heard her mama sweeping up the broken plate.

“The money’s coming, Shawn. Do you need to bring it up every time you come over?”

“Where’s the money coming from, Chelle? Where? That salon you work at cutting ugly bitches’ hair?”

“Enough, Shawn! I can’t tonight.”

“Can’t what?”

“Do … this! I can’t stand it anymore. Your manners are intolerable.”

The slap that came next was so loud that, at first, Special thought another plate had been dropped on the floor. The argument moved into the master bedroom, where more vulgarities and blows were traded. Special knew that it would stop the same way it always did: with an apology and makeup sex. That was her family’s life, their routine. Some people work nine-to-five jobs, come home to the kids, hug them, watch a movie, hug them again, tuck them in bed, say good night. Some people work out five times a week, get strong, get healthy, post pics online, gain a following. Shawn and Ianchelle had their fights—nasty, evil fights that seemed to start for no reason other than because it was familiar.

That was their life. Their routine.

Special’s routine was that she would always have tears in her eyes, listening, wondering why.

After things quieted down, the scheduled apologies were said between Shawn and Ianchelle. Special didn’t want to stay around to hear the yucky sex part. She slipped on a hoodie and her shoes and tip-toed out the front door with Ivory. There was a red wagon turned on its side in the yard. She flipped it over and set Ivory in the back. She slid her hand into the black handle and pulled Ivory down the street. The bird bounced around in the wagon bed.

Special pulled the wagon around the DEAD END sign and onto a dirt trail that cut through the grassy field. Two read dots floated in the air ahead of her, strange things that kept disappearing and reappearing in the evening light. The area around her smelled like skunk. It wasn’t until she got close to the dots that she realized it was two men walking toward her, smoking.

“Sup, Special?” the first man said.

“Kinda late to be playing outside, don’t you think?” the second man said. “Shouldn’t you be playing inside?”

“I want to play outside,” Special said. “Excuse me.” She pulled the wagon around them.

“Does Chelle know you’re out here?” the first man said.

Special didn’t say anything back. She was on a mission and nothing was going to stop her.

“Be careful, Special,” the second man said, then to his friend: “Crazy-ass girl.”

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