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This Kind of Red

“Think of the good things, Avis,” the caseworker tells me.  Keep alive that way.

So I close my eyes and try to remember colors.

My head used to be filled with counting things out and checking them off, with keeping track of all my time and all my chores.  I made supermarket lists for just how much I could wheel home in my basket, when I was not allowed to drive.  What all needed cleaning and cooking.  And lists of homework and laundry and what the kids needed.  New tennis shoes and leotards and backpacks and decent socks, and how much every thing cost, so I could ask Jerrell for the right money.  Lists of what all I was supposed to do, and how many minutes I had to get all of it done right, to keep the peace.  How much time before he got home.

But what’s the point of keeping track in here?  Every day is that very same last one.

I try to think of colors, but not too many or too much.  I try to do one at a time.

I knew green, but I think it has forgotten me.

Green is hard, but I try and remember July grass.  And the just-coming leaves on the bushes at the edge of our corner lot, yellow-green and the size of your baby fingernail, the itty bitty fringe opening out from the bare dark of winter twigs.

And red.  Red is easy.

There’s the red of the bricks of our building, growing up.  There’s red and yellow trees way out there in the distance, it being October, so they say, it’s all the same to me.  And there’s the sun, coming up and going down red, though I can’t see neither from my cell.  And purple-red, like communion wine.  Dark, but letting you see almost through.

And there’s blood, which they say is blue inside you and only red when it hits the air.  It comes each month, or used to anyways, mocking with the reminder that you can still make life.  But the good things.  The good things.  There’s the red of fresh tomatoes, pulling heavy on the vine, and the meat of strawberries bitten through.

I remember a cardinal I saw once, from the corner of my eye.  Pay attention, Avis, it seemed to whisper, this can happen, this kind of red.  It was gone so fast, and the flash of it, so surprising, so beautiful, it kind of hurt.

Red makes me think of Uncle Rush.  He made it home after getting stabbed and laid there bleeding on his living room couch.  He must have called for help, and then died in the middle of waiting for it to come.  After trying to scrub it clean, Granny had that couch taken to the dump, stained as it was and reminding her of what she wanted to forget.  Now that’s a bad story, and they say you got to stay positive to make it through your time.  But I gotta say, I don’t picture much that’s good.  My kids’ faces and little things, I guess you’d call them, that just plain are.

And mostly, in my mind, there’s angry-red, strong and thick.  And I think that’s a clotted red, staining everything, turning to black at the middle and no way to see through.

His red words ring out in the night, telling me he’s still alive:  fat bitch ho fuck-up selfish stupid cunt.  And they’re mixed with his sorry’s that follow, and the love talk that came out less and less: sexy fine adore mine promise baby forever.  That last one was the truth.

What’s bad remembers me.  And I try to keep these things from getting out of hand.  I can’t keep them away, but I keep them small.  And it’s funny how a certain little thing won’t disappear.

Feet pointing up from the foot of the bed, I can see that plain as day.  Feet I kissed and licked once, even, in our early, passion days.  His feet.  And him laying there, proud and satisfied in his victory, rubbing his knuckles.  He wants me to minister to his hands, which are sore from hitting on me.  “Go get the witch hazel, Avis,” he says again and again, and I just remember watching his mouth opening and closing with those words, without being able to hear a sound coming out until I realize what he was wanting.  He looks silly, childish, even, but scary, too.  And those feet pointing up, feet I had recognized and trusted, turned enemy as they kicked at my ribs and back while I curled, like a round beetle does when you take it from the dark safety of a stone or log.  I look from his no-sound mouth down to his feet, look the length of him and then at the heels and toes without the hard leather and buried steel of his work boots from the plant, his feet soft and naked now, but still sinister and yet, too, they are still the feet I know and love.  And I can’t take my eyes off them until I catch his smile, and then the hard-on, another traitor in our tumbled-up, twisted, broke-down love.

In the glance from feet, to face, to dick, and back again, I know I have to make him stop.

As I said, what’s bad comes back to me without the asking, and that’s one piece of the story of me and Jerrell that I never can forget.  Those feet.  And all his words.  forever sorry fat bitch ho selfish stupid cunt sexy fine adore mine promise baby sorry fuck-up  I try, Lord knows I work at forgetting, and think of other things instead.

Like green.  I knew green.

Green I try to get ahold of, but it fades and red’s as clear as yesterday, as this day, whatever, they’re all the same.

And I wish I could say I didn’t, but I do, I do know the rusty, red taste of blood.

Before I stood and looked him over head to toe while he laid there on the bed, he had beat my face to a swollen mess, and was working on my chest.  He had me pinned down on the floor, my lips swollen and bleeding as he sat across me, and he reached over and scooped the meal I had made, mashed potatoes and corn it was, which was so bad, so ‘unacceptable,’ so ‘wrong,’ as to be the reason for my beating, scooped a pile of it off the floor, and shoved it in my torn mouth, mixing it with my blood.  “Eat it, bitch.  There’ll be more later, but see what your failure tastes like.”  All I could think, while I gagged on food and blood, was how long before my kids get home?  How long before they see their mama like this?  How long will they be safe? “Eat it, bitch,” he said, and forced it down my throat.

So I went where I usually did, making myself small as possible and fast-forward to what would come later.  The apologizing and taking-it-back.  To the I-adore-you-baby and the that’s-why-you-get-to-me-so-bad.

Some way, he stopped, and staggered into the bedroom with the rest of his six-pack.  And called for me to bring him the witch hazel, which I did.  And while I got myself and the kitchen put back together, he forgot about his hard-on and passed out on the bed.  Later, as he begins to stir, I check on my face and the clock and his gun.  I need to know just where everything is, in case he isn’t finished with me yet.   I  tiptoe to the door and check on him.  And there they are,  those feet.

Who knew that would be Jerrell’s last day on this earth?  Well that’s the way it started, and while I didn’t know how it would end, I knew things would be mighty bad.

sorry fat bitch ho fuck-up selfish stupid cunt forever sexy fine adore mine promise baby sorry 

I used to be careful over every little thing, knowing just what time it was and what was supposed to happen, what was expected of me.  I was real good at planning and timing and counting.

In here at Oak Hills, you got to make sure you keep the right company and mind the rules, still.  I keep to myself.  And you don’t have to wonder what’s coming next or what to do.  They sound a buzzer and tell you what to do.  And I sure don’t need a calendar, like Keisha and Ranita, for crossing off the days.  They got reasons to count.  My sentence has no ending.  I got “Natural Life.”

I’m done with counting, but I try to keep things tight enough to fit in this coffin of a cell.  Not wanting or missing too hard.  I try to manage, and then the caseworker comes talking about imagine.  Imagine the good things.

Are we still alive?  Can a pulse tell you that?  I take my meds and try to say that Yes, I am alive in here.  I will make a blanket, and type in the codes and numbers on the keyboard for my work detail.  And a little bit at a time, I’ll try to imagine the good things.  But I’m afraid this is the afterlife Granny was always talking on and on about, and it’s not the just reward she thought.

These walls are haunted, and not just by the ones still serving time.  By everyone who came before.

But some folks do keep on living hard behind these walls, still fighting and getting degrees and writing poetry and letters, training in food prep and cosmetology, learning to garden, falling in love and hoping and praying.  And some are just hibernating, waiting til their out dates to come alive again.  I’ve heard of big old men men hooking up with queens inside, and I’ve heard of men who married women from the free world, even though they’ll never get released.  Most folks, I guess, their hearts do keep on beating.

Some in here still get to having sex, but it seems like that part of me’s just dried up.  Even my monthly’s stopped coming regular.  I guess it’s The Change.  You got to work hard around the rules against touching, but even so, sometimes I can hear Gwen and Ilene going at it in their cell.  They’re married, or might as well be, and they act just as crazy jealous and silly as you would not believe.  I done it a couple of times in here, or let myself get done.  It’s as good as anything else, I guess.  If you can get it, love’s the thing to have.   I laid there while Gwen did me, and it was like I could hear her moaning from a long ways off while I was disappearing, and it didn’t really matter in the end.  That part of me is all spent up; the bank is empty.  With my husband, now that was something…that was some love that rocked me.  It nearly killed me, do you hear what I’m saying?  I’ve had enough of marriage to last me forever.  Any way you cut it, somebody’s always on top.

I work on this, where someone with a crochet hook can be supervised.  “Occupational therapy,” I guess they call it, and it gets bigger and bigger.  That’s how I know time is passing, after all.

I never thought I could make anything this big, and I never can seem to decide to finish it off.  I work on it in the morning in the recreation room.  People watch the stories, mostly, and long ago there was fighting over which ones they’d follow.  I don’t go in for them, myself.  They never let any of the characters stay together.  You can watch and watch and watch to see a reunion, and before you know it, they’re broken up again.  Well I guess nothing lasts, even in real life, but it seems like just another addiction to me.  Some of the folks in here need a twelve-step program for the stories, but I guess it does make you feel like you’re living in something that keeps keeping on.

This blanket is ten feet long and all a kind of nothing-dirt-red brown.  The color in the crayon box that no one ever uses, the one that’s always sharp.  I wanted other yarn, that rainbow kind that turns a different color every foot or so.  But I was lucky to get this, from the charity craft shop.

There’s not much that’s bright in here but there’s no white, neither.  Just the ugly that happens when you mix all your colors together.  And gray, like our sheets, and the waist-high panties that never will look bright and fresh.  Every kind of dirty and faded you could ever find.   Nothing is yours, alone.  Everywhere in here, someone else has been.  I can picture those white sheets Granny used to boil and bleach and stretch out on the clothesline, so that even if nothing we had was new or extra nice, where we slept and what we put on our behinds was spotless.  Nothing in here will ever be clean again.

There’s the browns of most of our faces, and the brown of shit and dirt.

I see yellow in my eyes when I can’t avoid the infirmary mirror.  I see the yellow of my pee.

Orange is the loud cry of the jumpsuits the new ones wear.

It’s the eight-box of crayons in here.  You can find a little of something, a little blue, but it’s one, single thing.  Yellow, too.  You know that 64-box is out there somewhere, in another child’s hands.

Yeah, we have the things we tape up on the wall, photos and pages from magazines and posters.  Flat color, trapped on a page, or pictures on a T.V. screen, looking like they’re beamed in here from Mars.

That card Lamar made me I only had half of, and I kept that torn piece folded against the binding of my Bible.  That CO Roberts took it in the shakedown my second year in, but then I got it back, torn, it’s true, only to lose it again last week.  Oh, I miss the robin’s egg blue he used on that card, even if his little sky was just a sliver above a rooftop on the ragged edge, like this.  How DID I lose it, practically the only thing I had from her?  Must be reckless missing that’s to blame.

I haven’t seen my kids since Mama got too sick to bring them, and they haven’t written in so long.  Maybe it’s best that they forget me, now that they’re with my cousins, all the way across the state.  Maybe, in their minds, I’m the bad that won’t stop surfacing.

fat bitch ho fuck-up selfish stupid cunt sexy fine adore mine promise baby sorry forever sorry  

Mama died three years ago, while trying to get my kids from childhood to adulthood.  And here I was, not able to help.  Not able to see her and tell her a last little thing.

They let me go to the wake and see her, after everyone else was done saying goodbye, in shackles and waist chains.  I just did what I was good at:  shrink and fast-forward once again.

I guess they thought I’d get away.  But I know there’s more to getting free than most folks know.

Yes, plenty of bad things remember me. His fists and all the backhands I get for “disobedience.”   The phone torn from the wall and smashed with a hammer, its wiry guts spilling out.  The ringing of his phone calls every twenty minutes, while I’m still allowed to work.  Seeing his car as he waits just outside the school to make sure I come right home.

Jerrell always did say I kept a sloppy house.  Said I put my job ahead of him and my kids.  I had worked so hard for that teaching certificate, studying in the bathroom late at night after everyone else had gone to bed, scraping together the money for each class, that I held on to it as long as I could.  What about your own kids, he would say, when I was getting ready for school or working on my lesson plan.  I had wanted to be a teacher ever since I was ten years old, and I used to sit the neighborhood kids down in a row and play like I had a school.

It didn’t last long, though.  He called in mid-semester and told the principal I had to quit.  I wasn’t well, he said, and that was true.  There’s that feeling, right here, inside, of knowing that me teaching school was over.  There’s the taste of my blood and the taste of a gun in my mouth, too, and the way our little house seems to get further and further away from everyone and smaller and smaller, so that I can barely see myself.

Me, locked inside with the safe where he keeps the alternator he took off the car, the money and the checkbook and even my ID, safe from the world and safe from me.  The way he pounds and drives himself into me when he has a notion to take the sex he thinks is his, and how it turns to hitting when the beer and vodka make him limp.  The faces of my kids as they are watching while I yell for them to go to their room and lock the door.  And in-between it all, my sorry’s.

And there was a day I realized, just by his tone of voice, that he was turning on Lamar, that he was next.  He could go for him in the night time, and in the morning, say that he was sorry and be proud.

Proud of his desk and his starched white shirt.  Don’t let no one dis him or ignore him when he was plant manager, working evenings.  I hope, I hope, Lord, please let him meet his quota today.  Always checking in the mirror that his clothes, his hair, his shave was right.

The only good thing about the piece of stainless steel that fills in for a mirror is that I don’t have to hide from my body, and the sad, sad story it tells.  The soft stomach and stretch marks from being pregnant and the saggy breasts that I swear still ache sometimes from the babies lost to me now.  The fat I carry now from the starchy food in here and from being penned, and the healing my skin has done.  Faded marks where his cigarettes burned the softest, hidden flesh, and the torn places that did their best to close.  Who cares about it anyways?  No one sees me and this body’s just a shell that never did belong to me.

forever fat bitch ho fuck-up selfish stupid cunt sorry sexy fine adore sorry promise baby mine  

Last night?  Was it the night before?  Whatever, I was lying on my bunk, trying to block out the noise enough to picture my kids’ faces the last time I saw them. It was all fuzzy and bleached, but I could see Lavonne with that missing tooth in front and her clumsy eight-year-old smile tries to hide it.  Rhonda with her fuzzy hair that just refuses to stay plaited or ponytailed. And Jerrell, Junior, who I call by his middle name, Lamar.  My baby, who can’t stay still long enough for me to kiss his dimples and talks in whole sentences, even though he’s only just turned three.

I know they’re all different, because time just keeps moving on, or so they say.  For me, they’re still just like the last time I saw them, four years ago, just before Mama died.  And I try not to miss them too, too much.

Anyhow, they came and told me Mama was gone.  Her pressure had been spiking, and the stroke just came.  Lord knows, re-mothering three kids didn’t help to keep her calm.  She was getting ready for church when the stroke hit.  Had her stockings and shoes on, but she hadn’t finished buttoning up her dress.  I know that would have irked her, because she was particular and thorough about everything she did.  It must worry on her that she didn’t finish with her very last task.

Mama was in the middle of raising my kids, and in the middle of doing her buttons, and when she died, I was in the middle of a life-long apology for wrong loving and wrong choices.  For dropping out of school and marrying Jerrell against her warnings that he would lead to trouble, by and by.  For leaving all of them behind.  Now I’ll never get my sorry’s finished.  I’ll never get them said.

People don’t die in-between things.  Even if they know death’s coming for them, they’re in the middle of something when they go.

Iva Jean, from Cellblock A, they say she was in the middle of watching her story, waiting to see if Tad and Dixie ever would get back together and stay.  She had complained for days about the pain in her side, but the CO’s said she was faking, and she never did get to see the doc.  No telling how long she watched that story to see what would happen, and she never did find out.

We knew Granddaddy was passing on, and we were collected all around his big carved, mahogany bed, trying to see him off.  He was peaceful, whispering things none of us could understand.  I guess he died in the middle of loving us.

Uncle Rush, like I told you, was waiting for help. And Cece was just about to finish school.  Planning and hoping for better things to come.

Most of the folks locked up in here, they just keep on hoping.  Maybe I’ll get a commutation.  Maybe a judge will see it a different way.  Maybe I’ll get numbers `stead of alphabets.  Maybe I’ll get free.

I’ve stopped counting and let go of all my maybes.  But I go over and over what I did in little bits and pieces, trying to see how I could have stopped him.  Trying to reassure myself that I really did.

Every day is that day, and I am right there, stuck, no matter what colors and good things I try to think about.  His last day and mine.

I’ll never finish killing him.  He’s after me, still and yet.  It will never be done.

mine sorry fat bitch ho fuck-up selfish stupid cunt sexy fine adore promise baby sorry forever  

I see his feet point up and I am ready, knowing just what the clock says, and where the gun is, and waiting to see what will be.  Folding the clothes I’ve ironed, then stacking them, I am counting it all out.  Ten minutes before Mama brings Lavonne and Rhonda home and Lamar’s still sleeping, but I’ve locked him in his room in case.  In case…in case.  Nine minutes until they get here.  One step to reach the gun.

The starch is working good and I will do it perfect, just right, no wrinkles, no creases, no buttons that are burned or chipped, I have almost got the collar, almost got it, and there’s only three in the basket left to do.

And I hear him rising from the bed like thunder, coming through the doorway with his fists in the air, like the picture of some vengeful god I’ve seen in books, and I can tell he isn’t finished, not yet.  Eight minutes and my babies will be here, and if he comes for me I will reach it, I’m deciding with my body, with my arms and hands and stomach, I will save myself I will help myself I will get free I will live.  And he does come, like always, like I knew, he comes with thunder in his hands that he has somehow gotten in a flash, the iron in his raised right hand, its cord whipping like a snake, the steam hissing and bubbling where he has yanked it from the wall, and I have six minutes and I’m still close enough to reach and stop this, stop this storm.

I reach for it.  I reach for the gun and shoot.  And he is down and there is blood and burning metal and too many sounds to sort, and the red, red blood has ruined the perfect white, starched and ironed shirts, and I know that I will get a beating for this.  I shoot him, not even seeing where but just trying to stop it and to live, and then, who knows how much later, Mama gets here, who knows how much later because I have stopped counting and I am working on disappearing now.  It must have been only minutes because the kids are due from school, and she says that when she gets here with Lavonne and Rhonda, when she sees him and the red, red blood, she tells the kids to wait, wait, just you wait now on the porch, and she breaks a window with a brick to get inside, cursing Jerrell that he refused to let her have a key.  And she finds him dead and the gun right there on the floor, and me in the closet with Lamar, screaming that he is coming and the shirts are ruined and he will never let me go.

I keep getting up and washing my face, and tying my shoes, and putting on my clothes,  and then doing it all in reverse.  First on.  Then off.  Beginning and ending the very same day.  This is the routine of my hours and my days. On and off and on again.

I stopped counting how long since I’ve had a visitor, and the last one was my brother, Will, who could barely look me in the eye and seemed like he came to keep a promise to Mama he had made.  People say life goes on, but is it true?

Seems like it goes and goes until it stops, right in the middle of one thing or another.

When Aunt Irene died, she was cutting coupons from the Sunday paper, talking about what she was gonna buy.  Mama said her hands grabbed the table and sent the coupons flying up, and then they drifted down all around her like fanfare, like confetti flags.

And my cousin, Mamie?  She was in the middle of talking trash when she went. You just wait until…” she said, and fell over.  We were running a Boston, and I never did enjoy a game of bid whist since.

My first cellie died in the middle of getting herself together, as soon as she wrapped up.  Got some dope that was too good a promise to turn down.  She was on her fourth step.

Even if you got it all in order:  bills paid, house cleaned, dinner ready, kids bathed.  You’re showered and combed and dressed.  Even if everything’s taken care of, no loose ends, you’re still doing something, you’re not in-between things.  You’re breathing, hoping, waiting.  Something’s going on.

When Jerrell died, there I was, trying to save my own life.

Who else was going to do it?  The police, who took him outside and told him to calm down before they sent him back in to beat me worse?  Mama, in one of the only visits he allowed me, who told me to try not to set him off, and then to just leave?

Leave, I thought, is that what you did?  Maybe she’s wiped her memory of my own daddy clean.  Or she hasn’t seen my bruises, or heard a word I say.  Maybe she doesn’t realize I haven’t worked in two years and I got these kids and a baby still in arms.  That I don’t even have a house key,  that I got no money or driver’s license, or way to start over again.  She doesn’t know that things could change if I can just get a handle on them and not make him mad, or that I know it’s true what he says about me being a stupid fuck-up and no one else will ever love me like he does. Maybe Mama doesn’t remember how he tracked me across three states when it was just Lavonne and Rhonda, and he swore to hell he’d kill me if I left again.  Maybe she doesn’t realize that I’m far too much like her.

She brought the kids to see me and tried to provide for them.  She was with me, through the jail part and the court part, too.

The booking and the trial, they’re all a blur that just gets further and further away.  I could barely hold myself together, either shaking in fear, pleading for my children, or numb from the meds they had me on.   I was so jumpy I expected him to come thundering through the doorway to the courtroom, not finished, not finished with me yet.

That’s the way it went for me, six years ago, when they locked me up.  I lost everything except my sometime memories, my today that’s just the same as yesterday.  He took it all.  I may not have saved my life, though I was trying.  But I saved my kids from Jerrell, and now they’ve got to raise themselves.  I try to keep from wishing I could see Lavonne’s full set of grown-up teeth and whatever Rhonda’s done about that rebel hair.  And Lamar, whoever he’s become.  Wishing hurts too much. And I wish I could see Jerrell again, in a good minute, when he was happy with me and his words were the good kind.

But there are his feet, again and again, and the blood in my mouth, and the spitting iron and his ruined shirts, and the safety of the closet, Lamar in my arms and me making us smaller and smaller until Mama opens that door.

I kill him every night, and I am sorry.  But like I told you, I was in the middle of trying to save my life.

No need to hold a funeral, or a wake for me.  Who would come, anyways?  No need to cry for me, for what I caused to happen and what all I’ll never see or do.

This is how my story ended.  And after all, everyone dies in the middle of something.


Permissions and Credits:  This Kind of Red by Helen Elaine Lee.  Originally published in Best African American Fiction 2009.   © by Helen Elaine Lee.  Reprinted with permission of the author.

  1. Louis Postel on

    One part of me was so frightened for her, for her kids, for what she was about to do; and another part was so indignant about the system it saw red, and still another part simply enjoyed the hero’s tone of voice, her perspective, her poetry. i guess that’s what a really good story does – it makes all those parts of me feel safe enough to come out in the light.

  2. Linda Davis on

    After reading Helen Elaiine Lee’s “This Kind of Red,” I am drained and yet filled with admiration for this courageous, totally abused woman whose life was a tragedy. I’m also reminded of a Needham woman who, even in her 80’s, transported children from the inner city to their mothers in Framingham Prison/ She did this for decades and brought a bit of joy to parents and children. This was her gift.

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