She whips me cause I need it. My mother. She does. Keeps the devil out. Skinned knees, shrill voice. Dope calms her nerves. Like vitamins, she says. Sometimes what you need ain’t inside you yet. She says go down easy, but what she really means is get the hell out of her way. Winter is long. No money for heat. Wood burning stove glows in the back of the house. One of her friends stole a truck that turned out to be filled with Hostess snack cakes. We eat good. Garbage bags full of snack cakes. Church bags full of hominy, sauerkraut, field peas, baked beans. Bootleg cable. We are so far out in the sticks that no one checks. A French composer, a plumber, a paramedic. The men come and go. None are Michelangelo.
In school, I pretend to be okay. I’ve got enough problems. Besides, I’m smart. Teachers like me. They think I’m weird, but they like me. At home it’s all dodge the needles, the pregnancies, the abortions, the pot, the booze, the rage tossed around like underwear on the floor. Never an extra dime for anything. It’s not okay to hate. I know this from the preacher and church ladies.
How do I love thee? I devour the classics, that’s how. One teacher asks me if I even understand what I’m reading. Clearly she’s lost her durn mind. I tell her what the poems mean to me, and she stands there slack jawed, staring.
Slack jawed. Funny term.
My uncle’s dog has babies, and they all die except one. I got many uncles, but this one has hung around awhile. The babies come into the world dead, and I stand there in the room wondering how you can be pushed into a living world dead. Their still, brown bodies are wet and slick and bloated. The dog sleeps, exhausted. All the life that is ruined by the broken. How could you ever count that high? All of that life gone. The stack of names would touch the sky. Broken people are everywhere, my uncle says. He disappears after a fight one night, and I don’t ask what happened to him cause I know better. Mama is gonna take the baby to the pound to die, but when I cry real hard, she lets me have the dog. I name her Fancy.
Fancy and I are best friends. I beg money off of everyone, will do any odd jobs for cash, anything to buy her treats and toys. When she runs, her big, floppy ears flap in the wind. I love her more than anything. Sometimes, we don’t have bread or cans of food, but I keep boxes of treats hidden in my closet. Fancy’s soft fur sweeps over my hand as she eats each one.
Fancy and I explore a ditch near our house. I find a full can of hairspray someone done thrown from a car window. It’s treasure for sure. I have always wanted a can of hairspray, but mama won’t buy it. Costs too much. Don’t need. I curl my hair with rollers my dead gramma gave me. I spray my hair. Yes, sir, I do. The can is rusted on the outside, but the inside is still good. My mother slaps me across the face. Says I stole the money outta her purse to buy hairspray. I tell her I found it in a ditch. Hope I find you there one day, too, I think.
I go. I go. Deep into the woods I go. No one can find us there. Fancy runs wild, smiling. I can be like her. Together, we find an old abandoned house built in a perfect square. Four rooms. One whole corner has collapsed. We can walk right in. The walls are covered with newspapers from the year 1911. I stand and read. So long ago. We go back everyday, hiking down dirt paths, crossing streams. Back to the room from so long ago.
Too smart for your own good, my mother says.
She don’t know anything. Everyday me and Fancy leave and go to the house. I take supplies. A can of field peas, pears in syrup. I take only a few so no one knows they’re missing. There’s an old barn. If I strap Fancy in my backpack, I can climb the ladder and sleep in the loft.
No one asks where we’ve been but at home we got rats. Don’t know why. Barely got anything to eat back there. All I get for lunch now is one peanut butter sandwich. I give half to Fancy. We gonna live in the woods and trap rabbits to eat. I read that in a book.
One day, she don’t just hit me, she hit Fancy, too. I take my hairspray, and we run. The loft is cold, but we cover ourselves with scratchy hay. Fancy eats a mouse. I seen her do it. We go into town at night and dumpster dive behind the fried chicken joint. Fancy loves fried chicken and does a dance. We eat good and have to stay off the highway. One night coyotes smell our greasy bags of goodness and enter the barn below. They chatter and howl. Fancy stays glued to me, staring down. I worry that someone will hear them, worry they will come back after dawn.
The Sheriff finds us weeks later. A man on a nearby farm seen us coming and going. I cry, say I’ll never go home. He say, ain’t no home to go back to. I ask him what he means. The neighbors found mama, he says. Her face was blue. The blue crayon was my favorite. I colored many faces blue. That’s how prophecy works. Those church ladies told me. Blue is real fancy. The color of Kings.
Lis Anna-Langston is a maverick misfit outlaw storyteller, punk rock Harper Lee, word ninja, snake charmer. You can learn more about all the fancy things she’s done on her website by clicking the link above.