In the north end of the parking lot, men in hooded parkas and fat pants cluster around a black GMC, joking, gesticulating, jumping, chumming to the sub-woofers. The pulsing Yukon sparks red, green and blue, and stories float and knock, though no one listens. Loose shadows, long limbs, everything moving—Honest John’s lets them be. Men need a place to hang with their own. It’s Christmas eve.
The rest of the block is quiet: Twilight Zone boarded up, three peeling bungalows dark. Beside a ratty vacant lot, a mustard-colored cottage with a hand-painted sign proclaiming Jesus Is Alive! Pentecostal Tabernacle has its doors closed, but one dim bulb lights the porch. Now and then a crow’s raucous cry rips the sky.
A silver Honda pulls in across the street, sidewalls rasping against cement. The driver, a woman named Billie (Wilhelmina), with sallow skin and nesty salt-and pepper hair, stares through the rain-beaded window. She bows her head, removes her librarian’s glasses, and rubs her eyes. Now that she is here, Billie does not want to get out of the car. She would rather lock the doors, lower the seat and lie down. Her nerves are shot from the long trip attended by a screeching wiper-blade and the strain of looking through a smeared windshield—and she got lost, twenty minutes going the wrong way. Her heart had beaten so hard into her throat it made her cough.
The lot is backlit by a single string of blinking Christmas lights and the office window’s rectangular glare, and Billie can’t make out her son among the circling silhouettes. When a figure detaches from the pack and sprints around the corner, she wonders if that was him, if he saw her car and took off. Her forgotten turn-indicator blinks on a dirty Burger King bag, a smashed plastic coke bottle, and the Colt 45 cans in the curbside rivulet. Billie breathes deeply, trying to clear her head, which is rushing like an ocean. What if the men accost her? What if her car is stolen?
Billie has come to Honest John’s because when her neighbor Marietta stopped over that morning with a plate of Christmas cookies, Billie was struck by revelation: take the cookies to Marcus. She believed it was from God. Marcus is Billie’s youngest child by ten years, the adopted son, the black son, though Billie has never referred to him that way; she refers to him as her youngest son. Also, her troubled son. She hasn’t seen him for two years.
She worries that Marcus won’t speak to her—in fact, no longer acknowledges her as his mother—and she worries that coming here will wreck the new life she has struggled to build. She doesn’t think about what it might do to Marcus’s new life. She has not imagined Marcus as having a new life.
But she can’t just sit and stare. She slides her purse under the seat with her heel, opens the door, picks up the cookies, and rises. She pushes down the lock and slams the door. She stops herself from checking. Hoarse complaint breaks out among the crows in the willows and a skinny little tabby bounds out of the weeds to leap across the sidewalk. It slinks under a car and the crow-grumble stops. Billy surveys the dark houses; she wonders where the little tabby lives.
Feeling neon-pink, Billie makes herself stride across the street carrying the plate in front of her like an offering, or a shield. She also carries the hope that God really does want her to be here, which would mean she is doing the right thing. Dave, her Pastor, also her boyfriend, always seems to know what God wants. A tall, serious man with warm, caramel-colored eyes, Dave also seems to know what is best for Billie, and she has leaned on him, acutely grateful for his guidance. Dave would be disappointed if he found out about this Christmas Eve mission, but he is busy preparing his sermon. Still, Billie feels like an apostate, sneaking off to the south end of Tacoma without telling anyone.
The drizzle is frozen spit. Billie’s squints her eyes, which skate sideways toward the pack trying to make out faces. Too much hood, indigos and purples—they all look alike. She gestures, half head-fake, half nod, and she makes herself smile. They ignore her. No one could tell the men even see a white woman hustling across their lot in the icy spatter but of course they do: they know she doesn’t belong and they know she is not a threat. Someone lights up.
Billie steps onto the stoop and fumbles with the wet door handle. Holding the plate against her chest, she pushes into the warm, brightly lit office, and the door closes behind her with a pneumatic shush. A display of tires with huge, multi-pointed star stickers, $59.99!!! $79.99!!! $104.99!!! Signs: Oil Change, Alignment, Shocks & Struts. The wooden bench beneath the plate-glass window is stained with grease. Behind a chipped Formica counter a wiry man is tapping on a clipboard and speaking into a telephone receiver cradled on one shoulder. Not wanting to intrude, Billie stops, shifts her weight, and settles in the center of the room, holding the gay little plate in front of her with both hands. The man does not turn.
The older kids were gone into their own lives, but that was to be expected. What was not normal, what threatened to sink Billie, was her belief that her Marcus could be dead. It has been two years of checking the machine for a blinking red light every time she walks through the door; two years of checking the newspaper in the morning the way some people check baseball scores, trying to judge by age and size if Marcus has been shot. The worst two years of her life.
The older kids, Philip and Angela, had observed Marcus proceed from skipping school to staying out all night to disappearing for days at a time. They had watched his appearance devolve, his evasive eyes go red-rimmed and flat. They thought Marcus was bad, not dead.
Billie’s older sister, Tommy (Thomasa), a scientist, said what is this, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny? She called it becoming black again.
The man behind the counter lowers his voice and glances over his shoulder at the white woman standing in his waiting room, the red ski parka, the wild hair, the misted wire-rimmed glasses and the plate wrapped in saran wrap and beaded by rain. He says into the telephone, All right, I’ll get back with you.
Billie hears something like Ayeeet, awlgebaakwitchooo, and it sounds like a song she knows. It makes her happy. The man grabs a pen from his blue denim work shirt, which has Dwight stitched in red above the pocket, and scrawls something on his clipboard. Then he faces her.
“Ma’am?” he says, his expression neutral. He thinks she must be lost. He lays his clipboard on the blue Formica.
The first time Billie understood the enormity of what she’d done was when Marcus was three. He had been watching TV with Philip when he crashed into her studio, flattening his wooly curls with both hands, crying I want hair like this, I want to look like the Lone Ranger.
Kids called him names. One time only one kid showed up for his birthday party. A little cub scout told Marcus he couldn’t get his Wolf badge because he was already a monkey. Billie had no idea what else. Marcus did not tell her everything.
But they were happy, a happy family, skiing in the winter and camping in the summer. Marcus loved splitting cedar and stacking it into a teepee for the campfire, he loved cooking hot dogs with his buddy Noah and then tearing around the campsite with marshmallow torches. Billie had always thought Marcus would be okay as long as she carried his wounded heart.
She peers into the garage through a dirty yellow door held open by a wire looped around a bent nail: an empty lift, some pink rags, another greasy wooden bench, a red Coats Tire Balancer, an iron jack. She can hear the umber throb of rap, but no human voices. The cold light of the shop fluorescents makes Dwight look transcendent.
“Ma’am?” Dwight says again. He can tell this old white lady is not a walk-in. Some kind of missionary lady, maybe. Is she looking for the Tabernacle? He scratches his neck and says, “Help you with something?” He hopes she’s not a crazy.
After the divorce, Billie and Marcus had moved from a suburb east of Tacoma to Seattle, and she had enrolled him in Garfield High, his first predominantly African-American school. She thought he would love it but on the first day Marcus was beaten up. Blacks don’t skateboard, he told Billie, and he threw his beloved deck off the porch. And for a long time at Garfield, Marcus would not speak. He said he sounded white.
He said he missed his dad.
“Oh, yes. Hello,” Billie says, nodding at Dwight. “I’m looking for Marcus? Marcus Milhouser?”
Dwight’s expression does not change.“What address.”
“No, he works here.”
The white paper with the address is on Billie’s passenger seat.
“I’m sure he works here. Um, Shakir?”
The man shrugs and shakes his head. He looks at his watch. Honest John’s closes at five on Christmas Eve, and Dwight has promised Momma Vi he and Miles would be there by six. He looks at his watch again.
Just two weeks ago Letitia, Marcus’s old girlfriend, called to share her customary complaints and to see what Billie had planned for Christmas. And she wanted to give Billie the address, with this disclaimer: it was old, and she had gotten it from Tronika, who did not know shit about shit. Oh, and if you believed Tronika, Marcus had a new name, too. The name he brought with him when he was eight weeks old was Stephen. Billie and Stu named him Marcus. Now he was Shakir.
Honest John’s address had sat unused on Billie’s desk. She had made a vow that until Marcus came to her with a clear plan to mend his ways she would not pursue him, a binding vow, signed by her, signed by every member of her Parenting with Love and Limits group, signed by Pastor Dave, and, by proxy, by God.
Billie glances again at the yellow door.
“Maybe someone in there would know? I just need to talk to him, you know. For a minute,” she says. She raises the plate of cookies and lists toward the garage, her feet fixed.
Dwight stares at the lady. She could be juvy. She stares back at him with a set smile. Maybe she is crazy. He can tell she is not going to quit.
Dwight says, “Let me—” and he jerks his head sideways. He nods, sighs, glances under the counter. He glances at Billie again. He picks up the clipboard and saunters out. As he walks by, he takes a closer look at the cookies.
Billie flushes. Marietta’s gingerbread men strike her as possibly offensive—no certainly offensive, silly, white grins on brown cutout men. She has the urge to apologize; she wants to say, but I have a black son.
“Wait here, please,” Dwight says, and he steps into the garage. There is a big sign by the door: Absolutely No Customers Allowed In Bays.
Two years earlier, after Marcus flunked out in his first year at Howard University, Billie began going to her neighborhood church, where she found the Parenting with Love and Limits Group, where she met Pastor Dave.
Tommy said, isn’t it a little late for the family that prays together stays together? Then Tommy called it “black humor,” raised her eyebrows at herself, shook her head, and said, See? My God. But Billie couldn’t hold anything against Tommy, who had not only long ago lost a five-year-old daughter to meningitis, but had recently lost her son James to AIDs. James had loved Baby Marcus. They all had.
Pastor Dave had opined that they treated Marcus like a pet, and Billie didn’t go back to the group until Dave came looking for her. She had to agree that nothing she had tried had worked, and a few weeks later, script in hand, Billie informed her son she was no longer willing to provide for him in his present unproductive lifestyle.
The group said using the word lifestyle was a way to separate the person from the behavior, creating less shame, although Marcus did not evidence a capacity for shame. Billie had substituted the word unproductive for the word criminal. All she knew for certain was drinking, a reckless driving arrest, and a misdemeanor possession arrest. Maybe he was stealing. Letitia claimed he was dealing. But she didn’t know.
Billie laid out a plan for the transition and gave him a month. Marcus said, you’re kicking me out? To him, the year since coming home from Howard was nothing— he was working on things, it took time. He sat on the wooden stool, a scowling, muscular young man with tiny dreadlocks like kidney beans all over his beautiful round skull, and stared at Billie until she left the room. Then he grabbed something from the refrigerator, slammed the door, stomped down to his lair and turned up his music so loud the house trembled. The next day, having thrown Billie’s grandfather’s Adirondack chairs across the yard, he was gone. Billie was at work. She thought he must have gone to his dad’s.
You kicked him out? Stu said when she called. Stu had remarried when Marcus was in tenth grade and he and Marcus were out of touch. Where’s he going to go? What’s he going to do?
Billie asked why it was her job to shape up an almost twenty-year-old, out-of-control…black man.
Jesus, Billie, Stu had said. What are you talking about? Marcus is our son.
She tried to explain about lifestyle, how it wasn’t about race.
Billie has wondered every single day whether she did the right thing.
In the cavernous garage, beneath the throb and palaver, Dwight speaks with his boys. In the parking lot, young men pass pot, paper bags and lies. The little tabby slinks from one car to another, sticking to the shadows. Billie stares out, watching the men, watching her car. The cat dashes across the street. Bille wonders who feeds the poor thing.
After Marcus left, something would occasionally disappear while Billie was at work—a couple of hot pads, plates and towels, a saucepan. The little cast-iron waffle maker. It made Billie happy to discover these disappearances. She would grab her fat old long-haired kitty, Snowball, and try to gaze into her eyes, as if she might glimpse Marcus moving around the living room, gulping orange juice from the carton, using the phone on her desk. Then her anti-anxiety medicine disappeared and Billie changed the locks.
Marcus had picked out the kitten when he was five, the “pure white one,” and named her Snowball. Billie worried she had not been black-positive enough—or too much—until Marcus said, like the cookies, mom.
“Sorry,” Dwight says. He stares past her, as though her face has some deformity that makes her difficult to look at. “No one here by that name.”
“Not here? He’s not here?”
Dwight shrugs and saunters behind the counter.
“But this is where he works. I mean, he works here, right?”
Dwight shrugs again and purses his lips. He scratches behind his ear. “Sorry.”
“Can’t you just tell me—” her voice is rising. The rushing sound is rolling into her head again.
“Ma’am? I’m going to have to close up, you know? It’s already past time.”
Billie stands in her spot, holding her cookies, staring at Dwight, her head whishing as though someone is holding conch shells over her ears. Dwight flips through the sheets on his clipboard and rearranges them. He sets it by the telephone. He opens the cash register, removes the cash drawer and stows it in the safe behind the counter. He does not look at the woman as he carries out his duties. She might as well already be gone.
The problem with the cookie revelation, aside from the fact that Billie could not be sure it really was a revelation, was that Marietta had brought gingerbread men, shortbread swirls, tree- and bell-shaped sugar cookies, rum balls, fudge, and thumbprints, but no snowballs, so Billie had had to bake. It had been an arduous, clumsy, almost impossible task, like dancing with your legs bound. First, she had forgotten that snowballs were called Russian Teacakes and she couldn’t find a recipe; she’d had to lie down and breathe for a while before she went and found her old recipe binder in the basement. But, really, it was doubt: what if the group threw her out? What if Dave left her? And what if she did find Marcus and he wouldn’t speak to her? What if he was a crackhead?
When the confectioners’ sugar would not stick, Billie almost gave up.
A man wearing dark blue coveralls and a do-rag ambles in from the garage, stealing a look at the white woman frozen in the center of the room. For a moment Billie thinks the man is Marcus and her heart starts clattering. She steps over to the window and lowers herself onto the greasy bench. The young man says something to Dwight in a soft baritone, peeks at the woman again, and slopes back into the garage. Dwight glances at Billie. He looks at his watch. He rubs his eyes with his thumbs and goes back to his paperwork.
Billie has an urge to follow the do-rag man, but she sits, listening to the ocean, trying to breathe.
She remembers making snowballs when Marcus was three. She was in a hurry—the family was coming and Stu was out of town—and she’d brushed him away. She remembers the spidery little hand all of a sudden flitting over the counter, snatching a hunk of dough and rolling it, raw, in the powdered sugar. It made her laugh, how badly that boy wanted to touch the dough. Little hands, brown velvet, with long, sensitive fingers and delicate bones. She’d always imagined he would play the piano.
“Do you think I might talk to that man?” Billie asks abruptly. Dwight looks up. “Maybe he knows Marcus.”
“Ma’am, I spoke with my workers. No one here by that name.”
“But did you also ask about Shakir?” Billie stumbles over the name.
“Yes, ma’am. No one here by that name, either.” After a minute, he adds, “Sorry.”
What the group, what Dave, what Philip and Angela and even Tommy could never understand, was how beautiful Marcus had been. How he looked in his little bassinet at that time of night when no one in the world was awake except the baby and her, how the streetlamp made the sheet, his nightgown, and the whites of his eyes luminous, almost phosphorescent. How, half asleep, it always surprised her, for a long time it surprised her in the middle of the night that her baby was black. How she loved him. Because he was her baby. Because he was black.
The music in the garage stops; the air becomes a solid.
“Ma’am?” Dwight’s sculpted, ebony face is not unkind. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave now. I got to lock up.” He looks into the garage and back at Billie. He hopes he doesn’t have to escort her out.
Billie stares at the garage. She imagines rushing in there, but instead she stands up, turns, walks to the entrance, balances the cookies on one hand, and pulls open the heavy door, admitting a frigid draught. She slips out, but before the door closes, Billie pokes her head back in and says, “Thank you. Merry Christmas.”
She stands on the stoop looking both ways, as though about to cross a busy street. The throbbing Yukon is bouncing fuzzy reflections. The street has picked up, parishioners arriving at the Tabernacle, and the parking-lot men are also revving up, waving, weaving, calling to cars, throwing slaps and signs and empties. Laughter flutters, the bass musters, and the men’s voices are merry, but Billie doesn’t hear it. It isn’t Billie’s language, and even if it were, her head is full.
This time she thought she knew what to do, the right thing to do, the good thing to do. Billie sits down on the wet stoop. She’s not leaving. She does not care anymore that she doesn’t belong. Maybe she’ll sit here all night.
The little tabby appears beside the farthest corrugated garage door. When the door trundles open the cat springs inside. Someone sets down a plate of food. A new beat starts up, tinny tambourines accompanying high hymnal harmonies.
Fuck Dave, Billie thinks, shocking herself. Not her normal language. But it is as strong as her cookie revelation: Fuck Dave, all of them. She does not want to go to his service tonight and she does not want to pick up Angela tomorrow and take her to Tommy and Harry’s. She wants to sit in this place in the ice-cold mist. She wants Marcus to have the snowballs.
A man ducks under the raised garage door. He hesitates, and then walks toward the white woman sitting on the stoop. His rubber-soled boots make small sucking sounds on the wet cement.
Billie hears nothing. She is studying the creased mound of saran wrap, the water-beads blinking blue and red and green and then spilling. She is puzzling over whether what she is feeling would be called giving up or letting go. The mist collects in her hair and trickles onto her shoulders. She thinks she has trouble with the concept of letting go. She draws slow, conscious breaths; now that she’s sitting down, the ocean in her head is calming. Not a bad feeling at all, Billie thinks, though she senses that beneath her calm ocean could be a very bad feeling.
The man stops in front of her. The parking-lot men throw quick looks at the tableau on the stoop and look away. Not their business. Soft, fawn-colored boots swim into Billie’s focus and she raises her head. Shadow and a sheepskin bucket hat hide the man’s eyes, but his mouth and one cheek catch silver from the streetlight. Her arms become too weak to lift even a little plate of Christmas cookies. The hat slants and a hand with beautiful bones and long elegant fingers floats down. He takes the plate and holds it in front of him, like an offering. The hat rises again and inclines, a slight nod; behind him, a sheet of specks, like sifted sugar, drifts through the faint luminescence.
There is an explosion of laughter as a rumbling truck pulls into the lot. Some shadows bop over to the driver’s window and an empty rattles against the curb. Billie struggles to her feet. The man nods again, and then turns and walks back across the cement toward the garage. Billie stands beside her stoop, empty hands dangling, and watches him go, tiny dancer. His graceful gait keeps time with the Pentecostal rhythms down the street.
Honest John’s office light goes out. Dwight and the do-rag man duck out of the garage and the three men exchange Ayeets, Laters, Merry Christmases. As the garage door grinds down, the little tabby scampers out into the drizzle. Marcus nabs it with one hand and holds it to his chest, scratching behind its ears. When it starts squirming, he lets it go. He swings open the skreaking door of a beat up Oldsmobile, leans inside, lays the plate on the passenger seat, backs out, removes his heavy denim coat and sheepskin hat, and tosses them in the back. He slides behind the wheel. Her hand over her stomach, Billie watches the Oldsmobile ease onto the shining asphalt and accelerate.
The crows are quiet; Honest John’s is dark. Just throb and drone from the parking lot, laughter and chatter from the street, call and response from the Tabernacle down the way. The little cat trots across the parking lot, stops to lift a leg and lick, and then streaks onto the street, heading toward the Tabernacle. Billie thinks maybe she’ll follow. Go sing some hymns.
“Snowball” first appeared in Short Story America, vol 2, T.D. Johnston, editor.