The Protagonist was a Black Girl | Tzynya Pinchback
I stopped on the second-floor landing. Housekeys, three plastic grocery bags, and my seven-year-old’s fingernails boring into my right hand. There was a yellow envelope tacked to my apartment door.
“Do we get to use the hurricane lamps again, Mom?”
I stuffed the envelope in my pocket, unlocked the door, and was surprised to see the green power button on my computer glowing under my desk in the living room. We had electricity, at least for the night.
“You put away the low-shelf stuff and I’ll put away the tall-shelf stuff, okay?”
“I can put away the middle-shelf stuff, too,” she said. “If I’m allowed to wear my snow boots in the kitchen?”
“Deal, but what’s the rule?”
“Nobody but Mommy touches anything on the tall shelf.”
I called the utility company and was directed to the financial department. “And what is your reason for requesting an extension?”
I explained the child support was months late, and half the earnings from my $12 an hour administrative day job and freelance writing side hustle went to pay for childcare. What I did not say to the cheerful voice on the other end of the line was that for months I ate one meal a day because I could not afford to feed my daughter and myself, and retain a divorce attorney. That I hid in the bathroom stall at work crying during lunch to get as far away as I could from the smell of food in the employee kitchen. That I know what it is to be sick with hunger, sick with fear, and to resign to having nothing besides your child, your name, and a house of your own even if the heat has been shut off due to nonpayment when the air outside is two degrees.
“I can’t guarantee your service,” the operator said, her voice thin. “But pay whatever you can before 10pm.”
I dictated my debit card number into the cordless phone balanced on my shoulder and chopped fresh cilantro for the leftover enchilada casserole warming in the oven. Next, I sent a text message to the editor of a jazz magazine about the late payment for the Grammy’s article I penned and delivered. Read through Liz’s homework. Signed a permission slip allowing her to run for Second Grade Student Council Representative, which included a pledge to provide the entire class with cupcakes, monthly. Bathed, sang, and put her to bed, reciting an off-the-cuff bedtime story as I often did on nights my eyes were too strained to read the small text inside of a book. But none of this took place prior to double bolting the door, securing the window locks, looking in the closets, sweeping a broomstick underneath the beds, pushing open the shower curtain, and removing the firearm from my small leather backpack to place it in a metal box that lived on the tall shelf in my bedroom closet.
I had been home three hours and had yet to take off my shoes. My shoulder-length hair pulled high into a ponytail, I sat at my desk listening to the local news while my inkjet printer churned out the last 40 pages of a supernatural thriller someone hired me to edit. The phone rang.
“Elizabeth is asleep.” I said, bypassing a greeting.
“Why didn’t you tell me you had pneumonia?” He asked.
“You are not allowed to call here after 8PM.”
“Wait, wait. I saw a wedding in the park today and the bride looked like you. Remember we said we’d renew our vows at 12 years? We almost made it, just a few years shy—”
Just a few years was right.
It was “just a few years” since I asked you to leave our home. Since you squeezed the ring off my finger, threatening to destroy me for giving up on you. Since you tore up the divorce papers. Since you surreptitiously took all our money, canceled our joint credit cards, emptied the investment portfolio. Since you did everything you could to ensure I was penniless in the dead of Colorado winter with no way to buy food or pay the mortgage. Since I walked into the bank with our child, the top of her head full with springy hair barely reaching my hip, begging the manager to explain how joint accounts could be closed without signatures from both parties. Since coming home to find my favorite painting, an original work, covered in paint thinner, our wedding china broken and scattered on the dining room table. Since you stood in court, well dressed and articulate, told the magistrate I was a terrible mother, from a family of junkies. It was just two years since you kicked loose the security chain and splintered the door jamb trying to force your way inside. Since you cried about just needing to make me understand our marriage was not over. Since illicit photographs of the two of us in bed were sent from my hacked email account to every contact in my address book. And not yet a few weeks since any knock at the door sent Liz running to her bedroom closet to hide under blankets until either I or the police came to retrieve her.
I hung up the phone and turned off the ringer just as the printer jammed. After I removed the paper tray, ejected the print cartridge, shook it hard, blew air and spittle into the oblong hole on the side, and re-inserted it, the print screen displayed READY. I wiggled a little dance as the machine churned to life and spat out the remaining pages of the manuscript..
I walked to my bedroom, stopping to check on my daughter in hers, tossed the manuscript on the blue Ralph Lauren duvet folded covering my bed that matched the curtains and pillow shams. The whole set was five dollars from the Salvation Army in the good neighborhood. Three months earlier there was no duvet, there was no bed. No sofa or chairs. No table. Only a 13-inch TV and a week’s worth of clothes between Liz and me. Our first year in Omaha, we slept on the floor on four thick blankets and six throw pillows I hand sewed using silk remnants and bags of poly-fill. Liz called it The Island. Our bright-colored floor haven in the living room. She ate there, did homework there, made up stories about the adventures of mother and daughter clowns pantomiming through the streets of Paris, slept there with my body curled around hers. I survived pneumonia there. Careful to sleep sitting up, my back against the wall, so I could breathe. I survived strep throat so pernicious I had to take Vicodin and a course of Prednisone so my throat would open enough to swallow saliva, cough, or produce clear speech.
I turned on the shower, laid out a pair of old sweatpants and a pink t-shirt. Untied my hair that had not been washed in days. I thumbed through the first few pages of the manuscript. The title, Principality, called to mind the blessing recited over me as the pastor plunged my head and shoulders into a baptismal tub, first Sundays seated in the choir stand with my legs crossed at the ankles beneath a navy blue pleated skirt, and the sight of my father’s prayer shawl draped over his desk chair. .
I stood at the sink reading the story’s opening. It was good. So good, I went to my bedroom to get my glasses and returned to the bathroom to sit on the small stool next to my vanity table and read.
The story opened with its protagonist, a dark-haired Black girl, in good spirits standing with other parishioners gathered outside a church, the wind whipping around them, unaware evil was afoot. A scene involving a person’s face contorting into something unrecognizable in a flash foretold her undoing. I shuddered. How easily my story, placed in the hands of a husband, had been twisted into something alien. The more I read, the more I wondered what the writer who wrapped tendrils of darkness in lyrical beauty might make of me: a once-girl now assembled into a marionette of circumstance.
During my freshman year of college, on the first day of my campus job as an art model, the professor posed me on a platform in the middle of the studio in a manner that ensured no seat in the class had a full view of my face. “I want them to focus on the landscapes of the body.” She said. “An obscured face invites the viewer to insert herself into the finished portrait, to see herself as the subject. Women want to imagine our shadows made over into light.”
Part of my task as editor is to evaluate character construction. What is the protagonist’s goal, her motivation, her flaws? Would she find her way? Be saved? Would I? Was I, up until then, a device used to further other people’s stories? A daughter, a wife, a mother. Was I more than the portrait of names I’d been given and the landscape of womb, breasts, and mouth drawn so only recognizable when turned upward in a smile?
The lights flickered. Maybe we would lose power after all, I thought. I had read in the dark before. The hurricane lamp was on my dresser, its fuel on the closet’s tall shelf. It would be okay. But first, I would get my daughter and bring her into bed with me. I would read myself to sleep, steam from the hot shower still warm on my shoulders.
Tzynya Pinchback (she/her) is a disabled Black mermaid and author of the poetry chapbook, How to Make Pink Confetti (Dancing Girl Press, 2012). Themes in her work center on trauma’s effect on the black woman body, and gratitude. Her poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in American Poetry Journal, Deaf Poets Society, Oddball Magazine, Mom Egg Review, and broadcasted on WOMR’s Poets Corner. She is a Poets in Pajamas Reading Series poet, a Writer in Residence at the Cordial Eye Gallery & Artist Space, and a finalist for 2020 Poet Laureate of Plymouth, MA. Tzynya is a staff reader for Lily Poetry Review and is boldly surviving cancer and New England winters.
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