We are in the emergency room, Grandma, Jamal, and me. Jamal won’t stop crying, eyes are invisible, drowned by tears, snot keeps running out of his nose. “Rubena, get him back here.”
“His nose still runny, Grandma!”
I can’t find enough tissues; Grandma is yelling at me not to bother the nurses. Her sugar is high and Jamal is crying because he thinks his electricity caused “Grandma’s sugar to run out.” I tell him to stop crying but he won’t. I tell him Grandma is old, old people get diabetes. He does not believe me even though he can tell when I’m lying or telling the truth.
The people in Grandma’s building say Jamal is psychic. Grandma’s friends always bothering Jamal to pencil in winning numbers, give them the first six numbers that pops in his head. Those old people so happy a seven-year-old won them thirty, forty dollars. Grandma stopped him because it’s a sin to gamble, she’s stingy, wants Jamal’s powers for herself. Jamal says Grandma pulls him close to her whispering, “Baby, what’s your favorite numbers today?”
But this morning, Jamal’s magical power is not working. He still crying, despite Grandma telling him to hush. The doctor, an African with every letter of the alphabet in his last name, cannot control Grandma’s blood sugar. He tries to cheer Jamal up, placing the stethoscope around Jamal’s neck letting him hear Grandma’s heart is working. This works far better than Grandma telling him to hush as his crying is now a whimper.
The doctor says unless Grandma’s blood sugar comes down, she may be admitted. Jamal’s eyes are as large as saucers. Grandma dismisses the doctor saying she ain’t staying unless her real doctor says so, ordering the African doctor to contact her doctor but either he did not hear her or he ignored her. Grandma shouts she has private insurance as the door closes behind the doctor.
We still don’t know where Ma is. Grandma real pissed about it, that’s the reason her sugar is up. Ma promised to take Grandma to her doctor’s appointment. She called reminding Ma, but Ma neglected to tell Grandma the repo man took the car a couple of months ago. She had a ready-made lie every time Grandma asked about the car Grandma and Uncle March gave Ma the down payment for. When the latest wig arrived, Ma blew her off, forgot about Grandma. She depended on Ma driving because her legs were bothering her. After waiting, she realized again, Ma is not dependable. The pain forced Grandma to catch a cab with Jamal and me in tow to the emergency room.
Grandma proudly handed her private insurance card to the ER clerk now in our cubicle using a computer on wheels. She then gave the supplemental insurance card to the lifeless girl banging away at the keys, not bothering to acknowledge Grandma talking about her primary, secondary, private insurance. She says her insurance is of working people, not charity insurance. It is shade, a diss; Ma and Jamal, they have state insurance. I’m on my father’s private coverage, but Jamal has welfare insurance, Grandma calls it. She says Ma better get a job real soon cause the government getting tired of taking care of sorry people like her daughter. She knows Jamal and I would not repeat her words.
She still gushing about her coverage to the uninterested girl who forces a fake smile, returns the cards and leaves without saying goodbye or feel better. Grandma put off by the non-responsive clerk, commenting about young people’s lack of respect, not possessing an ounce of manners loud enough for her to look back and leave.
Like a ghost, Ma waltzes in with a smile and a stench revealing she has not seen soap and water in days.
Ma’s voice cracks, fake tears ready. “The neighbors told me to go to the ER,” she says. Grandma’s face tightens into a big knot, her eyes, her nose, gone, like a car disappearing into a black hole. Slowly Ma approaches Grandma, rubbing her hands, walking on eggshells like befriending a rabid dog. “How you feeling, Ma?”
Grandma’s face is completely gone. Gone are her happy brown eyes twinkling when she is talking to God, giving me a hug, or making a joyful noise in church. Jamal moves side to side looking for her face.
Ma looks over at me for rescue as I tuck in my arms without saying a single word. Beads of sweat march down the side of her face, she shifts her weight, cracking her knuckles, another Grandma irritant.
Grandma barks at Jamal and me to get out of the room then roars like a wounded lion for Ma to shut the door behind us. I take one last look as Ma’s smile dissolves, stiffens, chest puffed out, and tells us to wait in the lobby. We are going home with her.
I run after Jamal who thinks we are playing a game, laughing, screaming down the corridor until a blue man with a thick accent inquires who are we and where are our parents.
“My daddy’s in jail,” Jamal says like it’s a badge of honor. He makes a gang sign and says, “You step to me, my daddy’s gonna check you.”
I grab him by the collar as Jamal yells at the security guard, calling him a punk. I yank him by the arm and apologize to the guard for his behavior. His feet refuse to cooperate as I drag him down the hall, navigating us to the lobby.
“Grandma gonna give Ma a beating?” Jamal asks as his spindly legs dangle off the plastic chair in the waiting room.
“Nah, Ma’s too big. She’ll give Grandma a beat down.”
“She gave me a whipping,” Jamal reminds, referring to the other morning Grandma whipped him for breaking her favorite coffee cup after warning him three times to use a plastic one for his milk.
“You’re hardheaded.” I playfully slap him upside the head.
He punches me hard on my arm. “Ma’s hardheaded too.”
We did not wait long, Ma fast walks out looking for us like lost children in a store. Her tear-stained face, runny mascara says Grandma has won again. We follow her quietly outside and sit on the sidewalk in front of the hospital entrance. She rummages through her bag, hands Jamal a box of sugar-coated cereal. I warn Ma of Grandma no sugar edict for Jamal.
“A little won’t hurt him.” Her voice is empty, defeated. Jamal indulges victoriously beside her, eating the cereal.
Ma fires up a stick, exhales a thought on her face. She’s scheming again. Every time Grandma wins, she has the urge to hide from her. She ain’t no match for Grandma. No one is—except Jesus. Grandma does not fear anybody but God. God and Jesus are the only things that can make Grandma cry.
Ma catches me staring hard at her, returning the stare long enough to take a second puff then quickly away, fearful of exposure. What happened to her dream date? Was she dumped, why so early? Where is her pretty Beyoncé blond wig, why is her makeup melting? Did the polar bear come out? Did the polar bear frighten him away? Why didn’t Miss Tamara come to her rescue like she always does? Did she finally listen to Grandma?
“I’ll be back,” Ma says.
She does not bother looking at me as she lifts herself up from the concrete sidewalk, dusting off her dirty booty jeans. The bags under her eyes tell me she ain’t seen sleep in days, hair electrified, breath smells of alcohol and Newport 100s; her pores reek too.
She flops back down on the concrete for a second, then shoots up as though she sat on a spike, searching the sky, cars whizzing by, waving at strangers like lost friends, ignoring the twisted look on their faces. She stubs her cigarette, rummaging in her bag for a lighter and another Newport 100.
“You disappear like you always do. You’re irresponsible.” I shake my head waiting for the scowl to appear on her raggedy forty-year-old face, what I know she knows I know. She can’t handle what Grandma said to her, preparing to run away. She can’t fool me anymore.
Ma freezes, staring down at me. The truth has paralyzed her. She lies so much she don’t know what the truth feels like, looks like and it cannot blind me anymore. She narrows her eyes, fists ball tight, wanting to slap me silly but she won’t for public display.
If she were standing near the edge of a cliff, I’d stand up to push her off.
“Can’t I go with you?” Jamal now too hyper from the sugar cereal Grandma and I warned about. I told her not to give it to him and she, as always, undermines Grandma out of spite. Ma is too childish to have children. Grandma said that too.
“No baby, I got business to take care of,” she cups Jamal’s sugar-stained face while eyeing me at the same time. “Stay with Beenie.”
I lean close to Jamal. “She lying again, you can’t go where she’s going, she is—”
The unfinished cigarette flies across the concrete, she grips my arm so tight the blood flow cuts off. “I’m sick of people disrespecting me.” Ma grinds her teeth at me, spit lands on my face. “I’m sick of it! You better respect me, you hear me? I’m not gonna stand for it!” she snarls like Busby’s pit bull Tiny, exposing her once perfectly aligned teeth now ruined by neglect.
She is hurting my arm, but I will die before I let her know this. We are engaging in a staring match so fierce, I’m thankful our eyes aren’t shooting missiles. We would obliterate each other before Jamal’s hysterical ashy face.
Jamal is no match in the strength needed to separate Ma from me. His face washed in snot, tears running down his cheeks again. I will not break, neither will Ma, each grip on my arm is a life jacket in the rip tide of lies that will drown her. For a brief moment, I let up, feeling sorry for what she reads on my face. I see the pain in her eyes, how much I hate her, but then redouble my efforts to punish her before she hurts me. She can’t hurt me if I don’t let her.
“I want you to respect me!” She is yelling but it sounds like begging, not caring people in the hospital parking lot are now looking at us. They gather around us like witnessing a terrible storm approach.
I add gasoline to the fire. “You said you had somewhere to go. Go!”
She jerks at me again like a child wanting to be picked up. Jamal is jumping up and down pleading with Ma to stop. The storm picks up speed; more and more people are gathering. Ma releases her grip, stepping back, hands raised up. “What da freak y’all looking at?” was all she said to the crowd.
“You all right, honey?” an old white woman with fried hair and bright red lipstick gingerly approaches me, watching Ma, fearful. I’m impressed by her bravado that she would risk her life for me.
Ma blocks her, obstructs her view, bucking her eyes at the woman not to take another step.
“Shall I call the police?” asks a Black man, gut belly stretching his cotton shirt at the seams, a comb-over in full view. Standing next to him an Indian man with a turban holding a baby. He has a curious look on his hairy face, waiting.
Jamal yelling, shaking his fists at the man, “You better not call 5-0, you big belly pig!”
Ma collars him to quiet, then over to the nosy people. “We’re fine.” She shoos them away with one hand, the other firmly on Jamal squirming under her talon grip. “Keep it moving.”
The people exchange looks, some mumbling to each other, like a jury undecided whether to convict or acquit, conferring what to do, then at me. I am keeping them in suspense. I appreciate faces of concern, leaving me with Ma, but I’m fine. Ma cannot steady her legs to keep upright, letting go of Jamal using his small shoulders to balance her. She has no powers, she has lost. Again.
A collection of eyes jumps to Ma then me, and back at Ma, my rescuer old woman shifts her cane to distribute her weight, as the comb-over black man leans forward waiting.
“All good in the hood,” I announce to the waiting crowd with the widest smile almost strangling me, cheeks burning not looking at Ma.
“Yeah, keep it moving.” Jamal moves towards the crowd, waving them away. “We cool, right, Ma?”
Ma too, waits for people to leave, shaking the cramp in her leg left to right, rubbing her face. She looks hurriedly at them, then at Jamal, but not me. She won’t look at me. “Stay here with your brother,” her voice trails as she walks briskly away. She nearly collides with a van pulling into the entrance, the driver’s screaming at Ma as they exchange curses, flipping each other the bird.
I space my fingers in front of me with Ma in view. As she gets smaller and smaller within the space between my thumb and index finger, I press together to squash her like a bug. Jamal watches quizzically. “Whatchu doing?’ He shoots up before me ready to fight.
“Making Ma disappear.”
“Stop.” He pulls at my hands.
I elbow him away as my fingers press so tight it burns.
“Stop it, Beenie!” Jamal ready to cry again.
He resumes his seat beside me, loudly chomping away at remains of cereal. I have no psychic powers, but I know what will happen to Ma.
She gonna die.
But I cannot share this with Jamal, he’ll start crying, hollering, become too hyper for Grandma to deal with.