She read the cards and they said a king would bring her roses and fruits (—whatever)
His mother is late again. When she comes in she brings her hurricane and switches and a fog of a mood—you can't see her face because it’s creased up and bothered, and it's everyone's fault, including his. We know this trouble he's giving me is anticipation for being slapped up-side his head. It’s usually Derrick and Taniqua who are the last 4th graders left, and when her brother, who comes in smelling like grape-flavored marijuana, picks her up, Derrick makes no peace with the seat. “Ms., let me walk out with T and see if my mom is out there.” I tell him no, he sighs from the depth of his oppression, and I eye the basket of fruit we’re given for the kids’ snack. He couldn't be bribed with an orange because “Ms., I got an orange tree in my backyard. Please with that.”
Well then. Never before have I experienced a person rejecting a piece of fruit because they have a supply growing in a place they can easily access. Never had I a fruit tree, or a backyard for that matter. This is my first time teaching in Oakland, since moving from Brooklyn a few months ago. He’s leaning on the doorframe, waiting for his mother’s footsteps. “Derrick, considering this new information you’ve shared, I proclaim you the King of Fruitvale. How about you make me some art?” I walk over to him with loose leaf. After the side-eye appraisal, a long drink of a stare down the hallway, he takes a sheet and then takes his time shaping the paper into a gun.
Once his origami is done, he searches all the crayon baskets, and markers too, for the black ones. Colors it until it is blue, and tells me to put my hands up, showing me he did a good job. I can't resist—I give him more paper, tell him we need some flowers. He tells me cardboard makes a better vest. His eyes are on the empty box that the reams of post-consumer paper came in, and he cocks his head to the side, eyes full of charm and says “It’s good to recycle.” I roll my eyes and give in, respond, “Grab a ruler off my desk.” We will do this right.
I measure the width and length of his chest and back, and let him know we’re going to make this in three pieces and duct tape the parts together. He agrees that’s a good idea and tells me about the time his older brother made a robot costume out of “boxes from the liquor store because those ones were the stronger ones, and then he used some of that silver pipe stuff that goes on the drying machine.” He takes the measurements for the panels in his composition notebook and suggests that we “use the sides of the box for the chest pieces.” I ask what will we use for your back? He looks at me, confident and smirking, shifting into his boysplaining mode, “Ms. White, it’s obvious. The bottom of the box.” I check him, tell him, “You better watch yourself.” He’s tickled and his smile is genuine.
We get to drawing out the shapes, using only pencil, “just in case we make mistakes,” and the design gets modified along the way. We cut out the pieces, and then when it comes time for the duct tape, he says, “Ms. White, you must be kidding me?” He’s holding hot pink and leopard-printed duct tapes. “Why would you even have these?” The look on his face—like he has his grandma’s panties in one hand and a sack of shit in another—and I’m tearing up with laughter. I got them because they were on sale, and he shakes his head at me because that is a poor excuse by his standard.
He decides on the leopard print, and I agree that the leopard is quite a fierce and fearless cat. He pulls off a piece of tape, and rips it off with his teeth. “Not a cat, Ms., a leopard. I want people to have that in their minds—not those cats they be seeing in the streets or their cats they name Whiskers or Tiffany.” This is a good point, and I offer him the scissors for the next strip, but instead he holds out the piece of duct tape for me to cut and we work like this, for nearly an hour, until the vest is almost complete and we hear the mother’s footsteps coming down the hall, but mostly we hear her voice, that tension as she tells the other person on the line, “I got to call you back. I’m at Derrick’s school picking him up.” And by the time she reaches the door and tells him “Hurry up now, I don’t got all day,” he has his vest on underneath his cardigan, and the gun is inside his composition notebook and the notebook is in his backpack, and he tells me “I’ll make some flowers at home, and pick you an orange, Ms.”
Her eyes opened and the world seemed to open its mouth and out came the petals of grandmua’s favorite plants—the succulents need very little water. She’d put her finger into the soil to feel how dry it was. I heard the quiet crunch when they were in need. The crunch, I believe, that stayed under her finger became a way to remember—when I held her hand going across the street, there was the thirst of the plants.
Maybe too there was a thirst we held in both our hands and our holding was the drink.
I looked into her eyes. Now I can see something fading, and I reach into her pupil—just before she shuts me out with a blink—and water her irises. They are pickled and slick and there’s nothing to peel back, to prune, nothing to wound, so she grows.
But in my palm, there’s her life. All those years, one on top of each other, one going around each other, they going into each other, and that’s what is most frightening and calming at the same time—not being able to figure out her beginning and end.
I take my hand from her eye, and grandmua sighs.
She sighs and I smell the red clay on her breath, the greens pulled from the dirt by her father’s sharecropping hands. She shows me her left pinky. Crooked, it leans further left.
“People think I got some kind of arthritis in this finger”
I stick it in my ear before she starts into story and I hear her adolescent cry, so sunny and sharp. The wheel on the wheelbarrow and its rusty turning, carrying 10 or so watermelons that looked like those schoolroom map globes. I hook my pinky into hers and swear, “I’m sorry.”