There is nothing worse than Nana B’s barren futon. It’s wicked, cushion-less, always looking for a fight. If I sit up too fast, the wires will try to snatch up a braid. I lay down each night fearful of its metal spine; it welcomes winter’s chilliness; it flays my back with the summer’s heat. Whenever Nana B realizes she’s extended her welcome with the barren futon, it’s too late. She ascends carefully, but the frame always leaves her dark behind severely crisscrossed like a burnt waffle. Today was one of the days where Nana B’s had enough. She ventured into the basement to retrieve a half-completed blanket and some yarn from a forgotten popcorn tin. She sits with the ants on the cool kitchen floor while knitting.
“We will overcome,” Nana B says. Her heather needles are the drum sticks of war.
Baxter the Second rubs himself against my ankles and lets out a deep, melancholic sound. He sticks his hind leg behind his head and mournfully licks his genitals. He’s a very insightful tabby.
“We are all coping,” I say.
The night that my mom forgot to pick me up from Nana B’s, I stretched my small body out towards the four corners of the futon waiting to be saved from the small, dull house. It was cushioned then; cushioned, but never comfortable. I taught myself to imagine drifting out to sea on a large piece of toast until sleep dissolved the bread. Nana B stayed on the floor with a box of Saltine crackers and a word-find, but she also enjoyed searching for words in the ceiling.
We return from a long, hot day comprised of equal parts bussing and equal parts changing loads at the Quarter Laundaria.
Nana B squeezed our laundry sack between her generous thighs before each speed-bump. She didn’t look away from the growing baby-blue blanket on the bus or during the uneven walk down Connecticut Avenue or at the steamy Laundaria. While I dug for coins in her purse, she declared that the strong woman learns to do without. I asked whether or not the strong woman could afford laundry this week. She looped the needle slowly, assuredly, the same way that she taught me, and said that the strong woman often reeks of disappointment. She has a peculiar sense of humor.
The front door is agape like Nana B’s molasses lips. The barren futon is halfway between the edge of the short, dead yard and the house. She drops the blanket and laundry bag in the dirt.
“Did you forget to lock the door?” Nana B asks.
“No,” I reply.
“Are you sure you didn’t leave this god-forsaken door unlocked?” Nana B cries from underneath the slouching doorframe.
“I did not know the option was open to me.”
The room feels spacious without the futon, television, and tangle of wires in the corner. Nana B scans the room and removes a scrunchie from the empty fruit dish. She pulls her hair back again and again, but her wiry gray curls spring out of control. I stick my hand inside the wooden cavern where a utensil drawer used to be.
“Where is Baxter the Second?” I wonder.
Nana B cups her face.
Nana B crawled into the sheets the night before my first day of school. She flopped back and forth on the futon, cleared her throat, and pressed her cold feet against mine.
“With your permission, sweet girl, there are many things that I have to tell you,” she said.
“As you know, you are now my child,” she said.
“Naturally, there is nothing you can do to disappoint me because I’ve seen it all,” she said.
“Of course there isn’t. Of course you have.”
“Above all else, you are a Brown. You must remember three things if you are to be a Brown,” she said.
“I assure you, I have a great memory.”
“In this family, you will learn to dig for love. You will grow dirty from all of the digging you will have to do,” she said.
“Yes, but you must also remember that a strong woman, a Brown woman, learns to do without,” she said.
“Digs are sometimes fruitless?”
“Yes, sweet girl, it’s as though we’ve known one another all of these years,” she said.
“And the third thing?”
“Try, if at all possible, to bury the terrible things,” she said.
“That certainly explains all of the holes in the yard.”
Nana B smiled.
“I truly believe that you will make only good choices in this life,” she said before rolling over on the futon to sleep.
Nana B is with a few of the neighbors, who are happy to have a reason to leave their homes. They discuss the awfulness of today’s world. Their children cluster at the edge of the yard near the futon, which is turned on its head like an upside down V. They shove the littlest boy into the yard. He eyes a dirty blouse nearby and runs towards me. I grab the mesh laundry bag by the string before he can take it. The littlest boy stumbles forward and hits the ground.
“You will give me those panties.” He pounds the dirt with his fists.
“State your argument,” I say, clutching the last of our possessions.
The other boys regroup.
The smallest boy swallows hard and says, “What better way to unravel the mysteries of women than through their panties?”
“You will never understand women,” I say. “Next?”
A portly boy with a Slurpee breaks away from the others. He pushes the littlest boy back into the crowd.
“The little one lies, we desire to fashion a flag out of those panties. We will hang it high above the block and flaunt our reckless promiscuity,” he exclaims.
“Ha! You will repel the actual women with which you wish to sleep. They will see through your flag and to the core of your lecherous souls,” I remind him.
The portly boy throws the cardboard cup into the yard and subsides. Another takes his place, a slender boy with a backwards cap.
“I apologize for their lack of manners, Miss, but neither boy tells a complete lie. You see, we only wish to extol the opposite sex,” he says with great calm.
“Easier said than done, I assure you.” I look him up and down.
“One cannot appreciate women before studying them, before ruining their hearts. It’s a delicate process that these brave young men and I wish to see through to the end.” He clasps his hands together.
“Finally, someone with some sense.” His logic is infallible as far as I can tell.
“So, you’ll give us the panties?” He asks, elated.
“Only after some assistance.”
Whenever my father was in town, he held many conferences on the futon. His clients didn’t linger long enough to understand the full scope of its discomfort. I never saw their cars on the long walk home from the bus stop. They left no trace of ever being inside Nana B’s small gray house. They spent only a few moments on the futon: Usually they gushed over my father, took a small baggy, exchanged a few friendly slaps and then went about their day. Once, a woman paid with a cat. He took mercy on her tight financial predicament, tapped her behind, and sent her off with a baggy and a smile. Nana B returned home from the restaurant early the next morning to the cat’s mewing.
“What is this?” she asked.
“Father has presented me with a cat.”
“And do you know how to care for this cat?” she asked
“Father advised me on the subject. We gave him our left-over Chinese food.”
“And where is he now?” Nana B asked.
“He stepped out. It’s a shame that you only just missed him.”
“It truly is, but it isn’t the first time. We have more pressing matters, sweet girl.”
“This enigmatic cat deserves a name, in the very least,” she said.
“I am drawing a blank.”
“A woman can always tell a renegade cat from an easy one. This cat will present us with problems in the not-so-distant future,” she said.
“Oh, yes. I see it now. Just look at those stripes!”
“How observant of you. Baxter the Second seems fitting. He’s a lot like your father.”
“I implore you to keep digging,” I tell the boys. Their plastic shovels are no match for the dense, cracked earth. Just before the sun set, Nana B expressed how proud she was of me for watching over the neighborhood children during such a time of crisis.
“You truly are turning into a gentle woman,” said Nana B as she gingerly ducked into a neighbor’s house with a group of older ladies to curse in private.
The boys are covered in sweat and dirt, especially the smallest, who’s kicking away at the earth with his bare feet. I let the weak ones return home for a late-night snack. I send those with unwavering ferocity home for their fathers’ shovels.
“Do you think, with our forces dwindling, we can dig a hole big enough?” asks the slender boy with the backwards hat and common sense.
“If you want these panties,” I wave a silky pair from the front steps, “you’ll have to dig a hole deep enough to bury the futon, I’m afraid.”
The round boy who lives across the street returns with a gardening fork and a popsicle.
“Lose the frozen treat,” I say. “Distractions are not welcome.”
“But, I come to you with a gardening fork and valuable information,” he shouts.
“If it is fascinating news, you may share.” I stuff the underpants back into the bag.
The other boys continue digging.
“My older siblings said they witnessed the man who took your things,” he says with a blue tongue.
“How can they be so sure?”
“The man in question gave my brothers five dollars each to remove prime possessions from your home. They said it was their swiftest job yet.”
“What of the futon? Why was it left behind?”
“We unfortunately didn’t get into depth on the topic, for they were campaigning on X-box and I had a job to do.”
“You are extremely dedicated but also severely near-sighted. Please finish your popsicle and resume digging at once.”
Baxter the Second grew bigger just as my breasts grew bigger. The days I did not feel inspired enough for an education and locked myself inside the dark, gray house, he hopped on top of me. He despised the futon just as I had, enough to urinate on top of it. Nana B was forced to throw away the soiled cushions and we learned to cope, as Brown women do. Baxter kneaded my thighs, stomach and chest. My warm breasts were his favorite, though. He pawed them for a long while before moving along. I held onto the four corners of the futon and imagined dissolving along with a floating slice of bread.
A guttural sound emanates somewhere beyond our crowded block of locked homes. It’s followed by shrieking. The boys stop digging. They too must hear the horrible snarls. Nana B pokes her head out of the neighbor’s front door and smiles at us before the other women urge her to come back inside.
“There are underpants to be had if you dig for just a while longer,” I assure them.
The smallest boy, grimy from top to bottom says, “It’s not the noise that dissuades us from digging, Miss. It’s the man standing over by there by the edge of the yard.”
My father approaches. “My apologies, daughter, for returning at such unpredictable intervals of time. It’s been a while. You’ve turned into a fine Brown woman.”
“Yes, it’s indeed been a while,” I say.
I check on the hole’s progress. It isn’t nearly deep enough.
“I have to be honest. Your cat is the one making all that wretched noise. I forgot to lock the door earlier today and he wandered out,” he explains.
“That’s unfortunate, but maybe now he’ll lead a more positive life.”
“Yes, daughter, there are indeed more places for him to hide and do feline things in the real world.”
“On that, we agree,” I say.
A small group of boys idle by the hole. Some have given up and returned home.
“But that’s not the purpose of this visit. I’ve come to finish the job that was too strenuous to do in the height of summer’s heat.”
“What job do you speak of?”
“I’ve returned for the very futon that you intend to bury,” he says.
The boys pick up their shovels once more.
“We are prepared to fight for your honor, to the death if this particular situation calls for it. We are valiant young men who keep their promises,” says the boy with the backwards cap.
“That won’t be necessary,” I motion for them to lower their arms.
My father turns the futon right side up and it collapses in the opened position.
“Why are you in need of the futon?” I ask.
“My Daughter, I am leaving this state but I’m without a bed. As you are now a woman, you understand how expensive life can be.”
“I agree that you are making the thrifty choice.”
The futon is too heavy to lift alone.
“Boys, my father’s knowledgeable in the way of women. He will teach you everything that you need to know if you help him remove the futon.”
“Are you positive?” says the smallest of boys.
“What about the hole? We’ve labored for hours,” says the portly one.
I reach inside the laundry bag and throw him a pair of panties. “This should give you a good start. My father will provide the rest.”
“I will teach these boys everything I know in the way of women, daughter. I greatly appreciate the help.”
All of the boys, save the slender one with the backwards cap, push the futon on its side. The frame looks like the bars on a jail cell. He leads the sterling young men down the narrow sidewalk in a single-file.
“I was positive that under your great leadership we would successfully bury the futon,” says the slender boy. He removes his cap.
“I am indeed burying the futon, just as any Brown woman would.”
Photo by Veronica Foale