Right before the devastation, I had a good day. God should have pulled my coattail then and there: “Enjoy this while you can, honey, because Satan beat me in a poker game last night, and he’s claiming you and yours sometime soon.” After all the praying and tithing I’ve done, I deserved a heads-up. Damn. Whatever happened to sending a sign? Lean cow, fat cow. Burning bush. Dove with an olive branch. Yoo-hoo! Something.
It was probably better that the events evolved with no foreshadowing. Preparation wasn’t possible. And what difference would it have made anyhow? Knowing that the hounds are tracking you doesn’t mean you won’t get caught; it means you have to get to the swamp fast.
So there I was, clueless: lolling in the bed, stretching my legs and my toes—which needed a pedicure—ticking off a list of things to do in my head, I began to wake up. It was the second Saturday in April. Sunshine was making its way through a thick haze. Rising up, I stared out of my bedroom window, squinting a bit as I tried to discern the LA skyline, framed neatly between the two huge palm trees in my backyard. Thick pea soup almost obliterated the view, but I didn’t look away until I sighted those buildings. Once I knew the city had survived the night, my shoulders came down. Anything can happen at any time in an earthquake zone, and I’ve learned to take nothing for granted. I’ve gone to bed some evenings only to awaken at dawn to broken windows and cracked dishes. That the Bank of America and Wells Fargo headquarters hadn’t been shaken and dashed into oblivion during the night meant I had survived as well. I’m always grateful for a morning with no tremors, no frantic dogs barking.
Trina was beside me, not a heartbeat away, her hip pressed into my thigh. She felt warm against me, the pressure of her body weight comforting. The day after her eighteenth birthday, when most girls were declaring their independence, my daughter was still creeping into my bed. Even when she hated me, she wanted to be close. She was still fresh from last night’s bath and smelled like Dove and that pale yellow lotion in the big plastic bottle. That staple of American vanities and kitchen counters promises to banish dry skin forever but can’t even begin to handle seriously crusty feet. My grandmother’s feet at the end of February would have had that lotion begging for mercy. But then, when you grow up plowing Georgia clay barefoot in the hard times, nothing on or in you remains soft. For Trina’s smooth, buttery skin, that watery lotion worked just fine. The toes pressed against my calves were just as supple as the rest of her and just as lovely. Gazing at my sleeping daughter, I could take her in without annoying her. Such a pretty child, I thought. There wasn’t a blemish on her honey-colored face. When she was a little girl, I was lulled by the well-wishing smiles of strangers who were bewitched by the dazzling enormity of her round eyes and endless smile, her marble-sized dimples and naturally sandy hair. Trina seemed to take the attention in stride, but it inflated me. My gingerbread-brown face was symmetrical, with two eyes placed where eyes should be, lips that weren’t full or thin, a nose that would keep me alive, hair that was thick and strong but otherwise unremarkable. Nobody turned to stare at me when I walked down the street, not the way they did with Trina. I used to think of her beauty as an insurance policy that would guarantee her a perfect life. A lot of people who aren’t beautiful think this way.
It was six o’clock, and I had a standing appointment with the treadmill and some free weights. Trina stirred, then turned over and stared at me.
“Hey, grown woman,” I said, teasing.
“My back hurts,” she said, her voice still tinged with sleepiness. She yawned and arched her body, then settled herself beneath the covers.
This was a setup, and we both knew it. “Well, you should get on the floor and do those exercises I showed you. That will get the kinks out.”
“Aww, Mommeee!” she wailed, fully awake.
“Aw, Mommy, what?”
“Can’t you rub it just a little bit?”
I felt a twinge of annoyance. She knew I worked out every morning. “Turn over.”
Her motion was languid, a movement befitting the idle rich.
I leaned over my daughter and began kneading her back and shoulders. There were no knots of tension anywhere. She became limp beneath my fingers. In a few minutes she was asleep again.
Downstairs in my kitchen, I stopped to get a bottle of water before going into the small gym located next to the garage. Thirty minutes on the treadmill at five miles per hour, followed by fifteen minutes of lifting free weights, then about twenty minutes of floor exercises—that was my routine. I’ve always been into fitness. I opened the windows, turned on loud salsa music, and began my workout. By the time I had finished running in place, my forehead was dripping and my clothes were damp. I reached for the free weights, lifting and lowering, extending and holding, until my biceps were ready to secede from the rest of my body. I forced myself to do two hundred sit-ups and fifty leg thrusts, panting and sweating like a beagle on crack. Forty push-ups to go. I counted from one to ten, then ten to one, then twenty to one. Shrink the challenge—my way of psyching myself out. All my muscles seemed to be bursting when I finally began stretching. Time for euphoria. I did it!
“Let’s go somewhere, Mommee,” Trina said when I returned to the bedroom. She hadn’t moved from the spot where I’d left her.
Trina paused for a moment, considering her options, confident—now that the morning had begun with her first request being granted—that her every bidding would be honored. “Let’s go downtown and get some flowers.”
Her voice was childlike, with a smooth, unperturbed lilt, a tone that made her sound so vulnerable. This eight-year-old voice gave me reason to pause, to ponder. She hadn’t sounded like that in a long time.
Trina was incapable of moving fast in the morning. If prodded, she turned first irritable and then insufferable. I, on the other hand, dressed quickly. But then my uniform for Saturdays was easy: sweats and sneakers, no makeup, no hairdo, totally unlike my fashion-plate weekday attire. I glanced in the mirror in my bathroom; my mother stared back at me. Impossible to escape her: same eyes, same mouth and smile, same cheekbones. I closed my eyes and untied the silk scarf that held my short bob in place. Two strokes of the comb, a few little flips with my fingers, and I was done.
From the kitchen I could hear Trina thumping around inside her room, opening and slamming drawers. She was her own personal tornado; the mess she’d leave behind her when she finally descended would be a viable submission for a Guinness record. She had on both the television and the radio. Hoping she wouldn’t take forever, I made breakfast, cleaning up and putting things away as I cooked. The birthday cake I’d baked was still on the counter, the eighteen candles intact. The stove, floor, and sink were spotless. If I couldn’t control my child, at least I was in charge of my kitchen.
When she was finally dressed, Trina bounded down the stairs like an exuberant puppy. “You fixed breakfast. Yummy.”
There it was again, the baby voice.
I made breakfast most days, not that I’m such a little Betty Crocker but because Trina had to eat well. We sat at the kitchen table and gobbled up the nonfat bran muffins, scrambled eggs, and oatmeal I’d prepared. I poured hot coffee for me and orange juice for Trina. Taking the plates to the sink to scrape them, I could see Trina from the corner of my eye, stealing a sip from my cup. My shoulders tightened, inched upward. Trina wasn’t supposed to have caffeine. But then she reached for the small bottle of pink pills that was between the salt and pepper shakers. She shook out one, placed it carefully in her mouth, and swallowed it with the hot liquid. For the last three or four months I hadn’t had to remind her. She took another sip of coffee and then several more. Maybe she was having trouble swallowing the pill.
“You don’t have to keep staring at me,” she said, when I sat back down.
“I can’t look at my own gorgeous child?” I always tried to stop myself from watching Trina, or at least being caught at it.
“I know what I have to do. I want to go to school in September.”
“I’m not worried, sweetie.”
Some days that was true.
Crenshaw Boulevard was just beginning to open its eyes as we made our way down from the hills of View Park, the quiet neighborhood that looms above the usually bustling business district. It was just after eight o’clock and the mall was still closed, of course, as were most of the stores that lined the street. But the small army of hucksters whose domain was the block just north of Slauson Boulevard had already queued up.
Their wares were arranged neatly on tables near the backs of their vans or on portable shelves that were as close to the oncoming traffic as was legally possible. Or illegally possible. CDs, tapes, African garb, a few food items, some household products, and clothing were for sale, as well as the occasional bootlegged video. “Pssst. Got that new Chris Rock, right here. Gimme five.” The most colorful items were the T-shirts and caps hanging from the chain-link fence that surrounded a vacant lot and served as a backdrop for the makeshift outdoor mall. There were no hordes walking along Crenshaw. Customers had to be hunted, then captured. Several salesmen waded into traffic, vigorously waving their goods.
I beeped my horn as I passed Fish Man, a portly gentleman who sold fresh salmon from the back of a white van at prices that were far lower than at the grocery store. A few feet away Mr. Bean Pie, representing the capitalistic interests of the Nation of Islam, clad in the requisite suit and bow tie, hawked newspapers and mouth-watering pies created from the lowly navy bean to drivers stopped at the red light. Beyond the bakery section, young men were approaching idling cars, holding up T-shirts, caps, and all manner of Lakers regalia, not to mention American flags in every size, for every conceivable place. I whizzed by them. I had a flag sticking in my lawn and one on my car and no longer braked for Old Glory.
The last enterprise zone belonged to Crenshaw’s most ubiquitous sales force: the Incense People. Later in the day they would prop themselves in front of Laundromats and beauty parlors, slouch against the exterior walls of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, Rite Aid, and Savon Drugs, waving their wares and chanting “Buy some incense” to anyone who ventured close enough to be considered a possible sale. Based on the sheer size of the IP workforce, it was a wonder that a mushroom cloud wasn’t hovering over South Central at all times. Either we were the dope-smokingest folks in the city or we were meditating around the clock. Maybe both. Several young men were eyeing my car, their fists dangling the telltale plastic bags, but fortunately the light was green. Among the legions of hucksters, the IP were the risk takers and had been known to jump in front of moving vehicles, defying death and dismemberment for the sale of a one-dollar bag.
Half a block away, Crazy Man was standing near one of the IP. Some of my neighbors referred to him that way, and even though I, of all people, should have known better, I did too. Mumbling to the air around him, he appeared to have schizophrenia but seemed harmless. According to some neighbors, he had been normal until he came back from Vietnam. Others swore his troubles began during high school. Crazy Man trekked in and around the community all day long, returning at night to his mother’s house. His hair was a matted clump that hadn’t seen shampoo, comb, brush, or scissors in a decade. He was clad in ancient dirty pants and a ragged shirt. His feet were bare and filthy. It would take heavy-duty equipment to get him clean. That and a crew. If mania and hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia have an odor, then that’s what was rising out of his pores. Maybe pain, loss, and fury too.
The light ahead of me flashed yellow, and I sped up to get across the street. Just as I pressed down on the gas, I heard “Trina! Keri!”—a loud, exuberant yell. Trina turned around, and I glanced in the rearview mirror. A teenage boy in the car next to us was waving and shouting.
“Mom, that’s PJ. Yo, PJ, whazzup?” Trina screamed out the window. I waved. My ex-boyfriend’s son was one of my favorite people, and I hadn’t seen him in the months since I’d broken up with his dad.
“Thanks for the cash!” he yelled as his car sped away. When I caught a glimpse of him, he wasn’t smiling. Sometimes he looked so sad to me.
“You’re welcome!” I hollered back, then chuckled. Only two weeks earlier I’d stuck three twenties into a birthday card and mailed it to him.
I craned my neck to get a better look at PJ, and at that moment Crazy Man stepped off the sidewalk against the light, directly in my path. There was no time to stop. To my right was an SUV; a man was driving and there were children in the back. Another man stood on the median, holding a bag of incense in his hand. If I braked and then aimed toward the median, maybe the concrete riser would slow me down enough for him to get out of the way. It was my only option.
When my front tires hit the concrete, the huckster jumped back and his incense went flying into the air, along with some hand picked words for me. I froze momentarily, grateful that the move I’d executed had been successful, then caught my breath, put the car in reverse, and backed up into my lane. Around me horns blared as I put my car in drive and continued forward, feeling a surge of rage as I passed Crazy Man. His face was placid as he stared vacantly straight ahead, seemingly unaware that he’d ever been in any danger.
“What’s up with that stupid fool?” Trina asked.
“Not thinking, I guess.”
“Dag.” She brightened. “Did you see PJ?” She started laughing. “He was trying to look all hard and everything. He has a mustache.” She giggled again.
“Does he really?” I always thought of PJ as my little boy, which of course he wasn’t.
Trina and I had been going to the flower district since we first moved to LA from Atlanta, nearly ten years earlier. Located downtown, only blocks away from the huge aquamarine convention center and the massive Staples Center, home court of the Los Angeles Lakers, the flower mart was part of a larger area that housed the city’s garment, jewelry, and fabric districts. In cramped, airless buildings, immigrant women who couldn’t say union in English bent over sewing machines, stitching the bodices of prom gowns and swimsuits. Koreans mostly sold not-so-well-known brands and designer knockoffs. Israeli wholesale jewelers played dialing for diamonds. And Iranian merchants offered fine silks, woolens, and blends for less than a third of the price of the city’s retail fabric shops. It was Seoul meets Tel Aviv meets Tehran as borders blended.
The flowers were the province of the Latinos, and there was as much Spanish as English, not to mention Spanglish, in the air as Trina and I meandered from florist to florist. Sellers were set up in adjacent stalls under one gigantic roof. Prices and quality varied, and years of experience, as well as my southern-girl origins, had taught me that it paid to compare. Trina, on the other hand, was not the child of a grandmother who’d survived the Depression and had instilled in her the belief that frugality and deferred gratification were the only entrance fees for Baptist heaven. I had indulged my daughter when she was a child. I hadn’t overindulged her, but I had wanted her to grow up feeling as entitled to lessons and trips as the white kids at her private schools. That Saturday morning, her sense of entitlement was in full display; she stopped at each flower stall and said, “Mommee, let’s get some of these,” with no regard for cost.
That baby voice again. My daughter acted more like a preadolescent than someone now legally entitled to do whatever she wanted without my permission. Watching her drift from flower to flower, I had the feeling that she would be a child for a while longer.
The birds-of-paradise caught my eye. They were huge and bright, and even though the same flowers dotted many of the lawns in my neighborhood, they didn’t grow on mine. “How much?” I asked a stocky man who had just wrapped up flowers for another customer.
“They very beautiful now.”
“Yes, they are. How much? ¿Cuanto cuesto?”
As he added up numbers in his head, a young white couple behind me chatted animatedly. I heard the words screenplay, producer, and green light and turned to see the requisite bony blond girl and her handsome, scruffy boyfriend. They weren’t much older than Trina. In Los Angeles, Hollywood hopefuls are as ubiquitous as the lattes grandes they slurp. There is no escaping their driving ambition. Irritation swept over me. Just looking at them, I wanted to slap both those faces, to knock away the self-assurance that was etched there. They were bubbling over with enthusiasm and confidence, so sure they were on their way. I didn’t want their oh-so-important moneymaking dreams to come true. The last thing on this earth I wanted to see was more of their images on screen, more of them kissing, having fun, being dramatic, or saving the day. I gave them a surly glance, but they didn’t even notice.