By Dillon Fernando
They called her Miss Americana when she licked that Popsicle on her porch in the summertime. Sun-bleached blonde, pool blue eyes, white, no older than eleven—in a race between her and the sun to lap up a sweet treat on a blistering day. Neighbors beamed when they snuck a glance at Indigo. Like she was apple pie incarnate.
Fuck. As a brown boy, I was jealous.
The evening breeze lifted Indigo’s curls when she lounged with her Popsicle. Most days Indigo got the American flag kind, but sometimes Cynthia, her mama, whipped out an extra dollar—enough for a warped SpongeBob Popsicle missing a gumball eye, like it survived Chernobyl and dripped radioactive yellow. A finger of sunlight traced a path for the melted drops, down the stick to her elbow. Right behind, Indigo’s tongue would luge down her forearm at Olympic speeds to get every last sticky sugar bead.
When Damon and I rolled up to her driveway, him on his scooter with clear red wheels, he hollered, “Why you eat so many Popsicles?”
“I keep the sticks for the jokes,” Indigo replied after a chomp of the red stripe—her tongue the color of fresh blood.
“How many ya got?”
“Sixty-two,” Indigo said. She treasured each one in a metal jewelry box. It was wrapped in cream leather and wore a dainty lock on the front, just small enough for Indigo’s soft fingers to twist it open with ease and fill her with the illusion of security.
Her daddy gave her that jewelry box on her fifth birthday, before he left for a newer and shinier family. The sticks were Indigo’s, but the box stayed with Cynthia.
Few noticed that Cynthia had a lot of visitors. Mostly men. A few women. Whenever one came over, Cynthia sent Indigo out for her Popsicle. The regulars entered around the back, cutting through the woods, but the others came to the porch steps where Indigo sat. Their towering shadows interrupted her golden lighting.
“Uh, is—?” one would say with a quiver of shame. Indigo never lifted her eyes to theirs, but instead would scooch to one side to permit them entrance.
Indigo didn’t talk to strangers. That’s what her mama taught her.
When the smell of cigarette smoke and the sounds of the radio wafted from Mama’s bedroom window, Indigo knew the house was theirs again. Cynthia would come outside, done up decent in a lemon-colored sundress, and gently sway on the porch swing. She was an enviable beauty. High-cheekbones. Chestnut hair that twirled when she trod. Scarlet lips carrying conversations with men at the Macy’s perfume counter.
As the sun vanished below the line of identical houses, Cynthia swirled a tall, sweaty glass of brown drink she passed as ice tea. Her fingers knuckled a lit cigarette. She’d watch Indigo perform the joke etched on a clean-licked stick: What did Mr. and Mrs. Hamburger name their daughter? Patty!
She’d feign convincing chuckles and applaud on her thigh saying, “Got me good, Indy.”
Then, Indigo would hop up next to Cynthia on the swing and nestle her head into her mama’s shoulder as they welcomed the twinkle of fireflies and stars alike.
Mama loved Indigo. And Indigo loved Mama.
“Look what I got,” Damon said with a Cheshire cat’s grin. He pulled out four cigarettes, bent from the journey in his pocket. He fiddled with a Zippo, flicking the spark wheel in vain as the breeze extinguished any flame. I shrugged off Indigo’s nervous glance at me.
“You don’t have—” I quickly added before Indigo replied, “Gimme. You’ll burn yourself.”
In one fell swoop, Indigo slid the cigarettes from Damon’s knuckles and lit one immediately. After a long drag, she fixed her lips into a circle and exhaled a plume of smoke in Damon’s face. He coughed and hid his embarrassment by tucking his head in the neck of his shirt.
With a girlish giggle and a trail of smoke, Indigo dared us to follow her to the woods. We did.
“Where’d ya learn to smoke like that?” I said.
Indigo stared past the both of us through the branches, fixed on a window of her house and exhaled, “I wanna be like my mama.”
A day before the Fourth of July, Indigo sat on a porch step with a Popsicle.
There was smoke without music. A crackling spit, like milk poured over Rice Krispies. Indigo was overcome with a coughing fit. A screaming shadow rushed to the porch, and Indigo looked up. It was a firefighter.
Everyone had their own theory of what happened—forged at church services and in grocery aisles. Some blamed a faulty gas line. Others pinned it on an arsonist at large. A drunk policeman mentioned a violent struggle. I figured one of Indigo’s cigarettes finally set the house ablaze.
But whenever anyone passed the charred house, they all said, “That poor girl.”
Indigo stayed with my family while her mama fought for her life in the ICU. I heard my door creak open one night, and Indigo saddled up to my bedside. She whispered, “I wanna go home.”
“It’s gone,” I said.
“No no,” she pleaded. “It’s there. I wanna go home.”
We snuck out. Ducked under the police tape around Indigo’s home, the scene oddly unguarded. Indigo stood in Mama’s room, a skeleton of burnt wood frames and surviving furniture. On the floor, a trail of incinerated Popsicle sticks—the jokes now soot and ash—led to the metal jewelry box splayed open.
I watched Indigo smile as she cradled the box, splotched with dried red and the lock busted open. Fireworks erupted in the sky while we stood in a house licked clean by the flames. The lingering smoke from yesterday’s fire waded through the sky like a thin fog and bled into the nascent smoke from the burst rockets.
Everyone watched this, and they said, yes, this is Americana.