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32 Candles 123



So you’ve probably heard of this thing by now. It’s called life. And it’s hard. Even when it looks easy, it’s hard. That’s pretty much everybody’s situation, and it was mine, too.

And on top of the usual business of life, I was ugly. I knew this, because I lived in Glass, a little town in western Mississippi, where people aren’t ever afraid to tell you how they feel – especially if they’re women. In fact, it’s impossible for a Southern black woman not to state a thing as she sees it. So they would often come up and say what they were thinking on the subject of my looks, while I was out with Cora, whose beauty offended them.

Cora had caramel-tinted skin – not light enough to be called yellow, not dark enough to be called plain. She was just right, with a heart-shaped face and large brown eyes that kept the title of ugly far from her door.

And there was another thing about Cora that offended the women in our town. She was a whore. But not the kind that walks the streets. I once read in a magazine that that kind of prostitution really only accounted for about ten percent of the hooker business in America.

No, Cora was the kind of woman that you met in a bar. She laughed at your jokes, got drunk on the drinks you kept buying her, and then she came back to your place.

Or if you didn’t have the kind of situation you could go back to – maybe there was a wife or a girlfriend there, waiting up, knowing, but refusing to admit to themselves where you were – then Cora would let you come back to the one-bedroom shack that she’d inherited from her mother. She wouldn’t even shush you as you walked past her daughter (me), sleeping on the couch.

And she’d show you a good time, take you back to those days when sex was fun and exciting and real loud.

Then, as you were pulling up your pants, she’d say something like, “You was good, sugar. Real nice. I just want to make sure your wife/girlfriend/[insert whoever you don’t want to find out here] doesn’t hear about this. You got any ideas about that?”

Then she’d grace you with her prettiest smile as you put some bills on her nightstand, between 50 and 100 dollars, depending on the year and her bill situation. But if you put down too little, she also had sweet sentences to loosen your wallet.

Either way, you’d walk out of there, past her sleeping daughter, feeling dirty.

And you’d like it.

I’d guess about 70% of Cora’s business was repeat. I’d also guess that by the time this story begins in the spring of 1984, she had slept with at least half of the husbands and boyfriends in town.

And that’s why black Southern Ladies, who wouldn’t deign to walk on the same side of the street as her most days, would go out of their way to come over to us in Greeley’s Mini-Mart and say things like, “Oh dear, when you planning on putting a comb through this child’s head?”

Or, “She sure is dark, ain’t she? You’d lose that child in too much night.”

Or, “Why, she didn’t inherit none of your looks, did she? Maybe she got that face from her daddy.” A beat. “Whoever that is.”

And Cora would smile, mean as a snake, and say, “She named after him.”

Which of course didn’t tell them nothing, since my name was Davidia, and there were at least fifty Davids in town. Cora never said, but I always suspected she’d done that on purpose.

I had serious doubts that she actually knew who my daddy was. I wouldn’t be surprised if she had just decided on the name that would hurt the most people. I think she liked the idea of wives and girlfriends, lying awake at night, wondering, “Is that his child? Is that dark, nappy-haired thing his child?”

And in their eyes, this made me even uglier. It made me so hideous that they could justify going up to Cora and calling me ugly straight to her face, like I wasn’t standing right there.

I always wanted to tell them not to bother, that insults against me slid off Cora’s back like the hot water of the quick five-minute showers she took after her men left.

Cora didn’t like me. Sometimes I thought she might have even hated me. But I knew for sure she didn’t like me.

It wasn’t the hitting. All Southern black mamas hit. It’s in their nature, like it’s in a jaguar’s nature to attack on sight anything that ain’t a jaguar.

But the only time Cora ever touched me was to hit me. That’s how I knew she didn’t like me.

So when those women would come over to us in the mini-mart, I’d look at them, thinking, “Don’t you see you can’t hurt her through me? She’s not even holding my hand for God’s sake.”

Still, I never said anything when they called me ugly. I wasn’t much of a talker. This is actually an understatement. I should say that I never ever talked unless I absolutely had to – and sometimes not even then.

My grandmama took care of me until I was five. Then she died and Cora moved in. It actually took me a while to figure out that this woman was my mother. I had never met her before and my grandmama had only referred to her in passing as a poor lost soul who still hadn’t found her way to Jesus.

I’m still not sure when I put two and two together, but by the time I was six I had figured out who she was, how alcohol smelled, and what sex sounded like through a couple of thin walls.

Also, I had figured out how to amuse myself after Cora went out for the evening. And the night that I stopped talking was like many of the ones that had come before it.

As soon as the door clicked behind Cora, I went to get two towels out of the linen closet. These towels were my Tina Turner hair and my Tina Turner dress.

I took off all my clothes and wrapped one towel around me. Then I secured the other one to my head, using a shoelace from one of my Payless ProWing sneakers.

Hair in place, I got some lipstick out of Cora’s make-up tray and put it on my lips. I made dark red circles on my cheeks and smeared it on my eyelids, too. This was my Tina Turner face.

Then I dug Cora’s red high heels out from behind the radiator, where I had been hiding them all summer. These were the magic shoes that made my entire Tina Turner transformation complete.

Cora didn’t really believe in buying me anything beyond what was strictly necessary for my ongoing survival. But a week before that night, one of her men had given me a black Barbie with yellow wood glue in its hair.

“We can’t get the glue out,” he said, and that was all. He handed it to me and walked to the back of the house with Cora.

I ran my finger along the smooth yellow stripes that bound her strands of hair together and made her unwanted by some other black girl.

“Your name is Gloria. You can be my back-up singer,” I said to her.

Gloria and I were both outcasts, which is probably why we worked so well together.

The night I stopped talking, my black Barbie introduced me to the imaginary forms of the other 20 kids in my kindergarten class.

“Presenting, Davidia Jones!”

I imagined the crowd clapping, while I loaded Cora’s “Live! Ike & Tina Turner Show” album onto the record player.

Then I sang the entire thing for them, word for word, from “Proud Mary” to “Fool for Love.” By the time I got to the end, my classmates were on their feet and clapping.

“Sang another one! Sang another one, Monkey Night!” Everybody was cheering and crying and jumping up and down like they were at a Michael Jackson concert.

In real life, “Monkey Night” is what the other kids in kindergarten called me. Mississippi may have had some of the lowest standardized test scores in the nation, but I’ll tell you this right now: the kids at my school excelled in creative cruelty. They nicknamed me Monkey Night within three weeks of making my acquaintance, because I was “ugly like a monkey and black as night.”

I was going to reset the needle on Cora’s record player for an encore, but Gloria stirred in my hand. “No,” she said, her falsetto voice shrill with anger. “Not unless you stop calling her Monkey Night! Her name is Davidia!”

The imaginary faces of the kids in the audience filled with remorse.

Perry Pointer, who was always putting gum on my seat and kicking me real hard in the shins, was the first to speak. “I’m sorry, Davidia,” he said. “Please be my friend.”

He brought a candy bar out of his pocket. “I’ll give you a PayDay if you be my friend.”

“No,” Gloria said for me. “She don’t want to be your friend, Perry Pointer. You don’t deserve no friends.”

Perry started to cry, but Gloria ignored him and said to the other kindergartners, “The rest of you can be Davidia’s friend, if you stop calling her names and talking about her. If you do that, she’ll be your friend and sing you more songs.”

Everybody cheered, including Tanisha Harris, who was the most popular girl in kindergarten because she always wore cool beads at the ends of her cornrows, which her mama changed out everyday to match her dresses.

That night, she was wearing blue beads and a blue sequined dress. I always took the time to plot out exactly what Tanisha would wear in these imaginary scenarios, because she was usually the one that led the crowd in chanting my name.

“Davidia! Davidia!” she shouted. And the rest of the kids joined her, getting louder and louder until I put back on the Tina Turner record and started singing and dancing to “Proud Mary” – my encore song.

Big River keep on rolling… Proud Mary keep on –

“What the fuck you doing?” came Cora’s voice from behind me.

I was worried even before I saw her face, because I didn’t smell the alcohol on her. Cora’s general hatred for everyone and everything only seemed to burn hotter when she didn’t have on her whiskey goggles. But I was a little braver back then, so I did turn around.

My eyes searched for and found the reason for her return. There was a green and white packet of cigarettes in her hand. Only Cora would come all the way back from the bar to get her cigarettes, the particular Virginia Slims she liked, because back then, their ad campaign slogan was, “You’ve come a long way, baby!”

How she managed to figure these liberated ads had anything to do with her, I do not know. But she was faithful to them, would even drive back from the edge of town to make sure she had them, since no self-respecting Glass man would ever smoke Virginia Slims, and no self-respecting Glass woman would ever talk to her, much less allow her to bum a cigarette.

“What the fuck you doing?” She took a step towards me. Loomed. “What the fuck you doing?”

“I’m Tina Turner,” I said, before my mouth could catch up to my good sense.

She back-handed me, sending my Tina Turner hair flying off my head. Then she beat me. Beat me until both of us were exhausted and I lay on the floor burning all over and naked except for the red high heels. There were tears coming out of my eyes. I knew, because I could feel them on my hot face. But they didn’t feel like they were coming from me exactly. They felt like my body’s physical reaction to the situation, like sweating in the summer. I knew the tears weren’t coming out of my heart, because all I felt was anger at myself.

I stared at my Tina Turner dress crumpled on the floor. Away from the magic of my body, it had morphed back into a towel. If only I was bigger, if only I was faster—

“I better stop before I break something,” Cora said. I had no idea whether she meant break something on herself or me. She snatched the shoes off my feet. “Don’t let me catch you in my shoes again, you hear me, heifer?”

I heard her.

“You sounded like a goddamn saw, carrying on like that.” The click of her cigarette lighter came from above me. She lit her Virginia Slim and took a drag.

That’s when I decided to stop singing and, while I was at it, to stop talking. At that moment, it seemed like it was probably in my best interest.

The thing about being really dark is that you don’t bruise. I went to school the next day, and nobody noticed anything different, except that I had stopped talking all of a sudden.

Miss Karen, my kindergarten teacher, told me to my stone silent face that I was just going through a phase. But a few months later, she started withholding toys and other things from me unless I said thank you. Out loud. I guessed she had let go of that phase theory.

Quitting toys cold turkey was like most things, I discovered: hard to be without at first, but after a while you got used to it.

With enough time and patience you can get used to anything. Believe that.

Those were Dark Days, which is why I remain grateful for the discovery of Molly Ringwald movies, two years after I lost Tina Turner.

There was one particularly sad man of Cora’s named Leo. Either he was in true love with her or a straight fool for lost causes, because he seemed to adore my mother.

It wasn’t her fault. She didn’t encourage his love, still made him pay before leaving her bed every time, even though that meant that he could only afford to see her once or twice a week on the wages he made on the assembly line at the Farrell Hair factory.

One night he showed up with a box-sized bulge in his left pocket. Even at eight, I recognized it as one of those boxes that jewelry came in. That’s what living with Cora had taught me.

“I got something for your mama,” he said when I answered the door.

I opened the door wider and looked back at Cora, who was watching a re-run of Good Times in her big easy chair.

“I got something for you,” he said to her when he got inside the living room.

Cora’s eyes lowered to his left pocket. “What you got, baby? Is it in your pants?” She was the queen of saying nasty things in a sweet voice, and Leo deflated a little. I supposed it was hard for any man to have his jewelry box reduced to a hard-on.

“I got to talk with you about it, first,” he said. He pulled a five dollar bill out of his pocket and handed it to me. “You wanna go into town? See the dollar show on me. And get you some popcorn, too.”

I looked at Cora. Sometimes she let me have presents. Sometimes she didn’t. And five dollars was a lot of money to give to an eight-year-old.

“She don’t need five dollars,” she said to Leo. “Come back with four,” she said to me.

I nodded and walked out.

“She still not talking?” I heard Leo ask Cora behind me.

“I guess not,” Cora said. And then the door closed on that conversation.

The dollar theater in Glass wasn’t picky. They pretty much played whatever all the other dollar theaters in the chain were playing, especially if there weren’t any black movies available. It was August 1984, and everybody must’ve been playing Sixteen Candles, because that’s what was showing at the one movie theater in Glass.

I gave the old black man at the box office window my folded five dollar bill, and he gave me back four wrinkled ones. Then I went into the theater and watched a white movie that didn’t have a single black girl in it and loved it. The first time I saw it, I loved it.

And as the credits rolled against the backdrop of Molly Ringwald kissing the most popular boy in school over a birthday cake, I cried, because before then, I had not known that unpopular girls could make good.

In fact, I thought to myself, maybe you, Davidia Jones, might one day have the same kind of ending. A Molly Ringwald Ending. Maybe that will happen for you in high school, just like it happened for Molly Ringwald. Yes, maybe a boy, a boy just like Jake Ryan, will come along and transform you from Monkey Night into the luckiest girl in school, because he sees you for what you really are. Special in a good way.

I floated home on long dirt roads and found the house dark when I got to our cement front steps. Leo’s car was still in the driveway, so I supposed that he and Cora had already had their gift conversation and moved into her bedroom.

But I was wrong. Leo was still in the house, sitting hunched over in the easy chair when I walked in.

He looked up at me, his eyes red like mine from crying. “Your mama gone to the bar.”

My eyes went to the jewelry box that was now in his hand and not on Cora’s vanity, as I had expected. At the time, I thought it strange that Cora would turn down jewelry. It would take me years of mainstream movies before I realized that the velvet box had actually housed a wedding ring, the one kind of diamond that Cora’s general fucked-up nature prevented her from accepting.

“She don’t love me. She don’t care if you got a daddy or not,” he said. “She don’t think about nobody but herself.”

More shocking than finding him sitting alone in the dark living room, was the realization that this was actually news to him. I was glad that I had already decided to stop talking then, because I did not have any words for somebody that blind.

But I also didn’t have anything else to do, so I sat down on the couch and waited with him. About an hour later, he got up and left, silent as a ghost. And I never saw him again.

I’m still not sure why that scene wasn’t enough to kill my newfound sense of romance. I thought about it often during my first year in L.A, and I wondered why it didn’t occur to me then that if I kept on down this road of impossible hope, one day that would be me walking out of Cora’s house a shell of a human being. Just like Leo.



The first time I saw him, I loved him. Just like I loved Sixteen Candles from day one. I spotted him across the street, and I loved him. As he walked towards me, skin the color of sunshine, smile whiter than snow, I loved him.

I was fifteen, and I didn’t know his name.

But I knew my mama had lied.

Two years beforehand, she had sneered into her brandy-laced morning coffee and said, “All them people on TV and in the movies falling in love. Now these movies got women in real-life losing they mind, talking about, ‘I want me some big love.’

“But there ain’t no such thing. Believe me, I done slept with too many mens talking about, ‘I loves my wife. I loves that girl I go around town with. I got BIG love for them.’ Fuck them bitches, I’m telling you, there ain’t no such thing.”

However, I was now watching this boy walk towards me. Gooseflesh appeared on my dark arms and every nerve in my body rose up like antennas finding their station. And even as my brain turned to static, I recognized these things for what they were. Big Love.

He was tall: six-one, maybe six-two. He had brown eyes that were soft enough to be appealing and a buttery face that was hard enough not to be too pretty. He was wiry with muscle, but not the regular, descended-from-slaves, black boy muscle. He had the kind of body that comes from machines and weights, from actually working out.

That’s not what made me love him in an instant, though. I loved him because I could see all the beauty that he carried inside of him. It was practically pouring out of him and spilling onto the sidewalk as he came up to me, awesomely turned out in jeans and a short-sleeved polo.

“Excuse me, do you know where Greeley’s Mini-Mart is?”

He had a Southern accent, but he wasn’t from around here. I knew this because I had laid eyes on everyone in Glass, and I had never seen him before. I also knew this because his accent was smooth, polished, like he ran all his words under the faucet for a couple of seconds before letting them fall out of his mouth.

I could barely hear his question over the static in my head. It was so loud, and I was at a loss as to how to function now that this vision had walked into my life.

I wondered if this was how Molly Ringwald felt when she met Andrew McCarthy in Pretty in Pink.

The first thing I thought to say was, “I used to sing Tina Turner at the kindergarten concerts I threw in my head.”

The second thing I thought to say was, “Everybody calls me Monkey Night.”

And the third thing I thought to say was, “Cora lied. I believe in Big Love now, because I am in love with you.”

In the end, though, I didn’t say anything. I pointed across the street, keeping my eyes just beyond his shoulder.

He turned around and chuckled. “Right behind me. Aw, man.”

He looked back to me with an embarrassed smile. But it wasn’t really embarrassment. Even then I could tell that he was one of those boys who only pretended to be ashamed of himself. I could tell that just from the way he ended our conversation

with a “Thank you very much.”

I didn’t answer. I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t even smile.

I just watched him walk back into the sunshine. I wondered if that was where he had been born, where he came from. The sun.

No, our first conversation did not go as well as I had been dreaming it would since 1984, but I could already feel it. The grabbing hold, the transformation that was now starting to take place just because I had met him. He was my Jake Ryan. And more importantly, he was my Molly Ringwald Ending.

Everybody at school was talking about him the next day. That’s how I found out that the boy I was dreaming of having my Molly Ringwald Ending with was named James C. Farrell.

“His great grandmama started Farrell Fine Hair –I ain’t lying,” I heard one girl say to her boyfriend as I put my books away.

“He got two fine-ass sisters,” a basketball player said to his buddy, while not paying attention in math class.

The three Farrell siblings, according to hallway and classroom gossip were the main heirs of the vast Farrell Fine Hair fortune. Their father, who was the president of one of the oldest black hair companies in the United States, had moved his family from Houston, Texas. And now he was working out of the Farrell Fine Hair offices in Columbus, Mississippi and sending his kids to Jensen E. Glass High School.

No one could quite figure out why he had decided to do this. Sure, the main factory was in Glass, but even the executives there didn’t make their kids go to public school. It was like planting silk trees in a cotton field.

“Coach talking about making him quarterback, even though he ain’t never been played with us before,” Corey Mays, a large football player, said to Dante Hubbard, another football player; they were both in the lunch line behind me

“Man, that’s fucked up,” said Dante.

“Well, you know, he from Texas. They for real about playin’ that shit out there. And it not like we exactly threatening up state with Pointer.

Perry Pointer was now the most popular guy in school: cute, athletic, dumb, and mean as shit, so of course he was king of Glass High. But from the sound of it, he was about to get his throne straight snatched from him.

And that only made me love James more.

That afternoon I saw the Farrell sisters for the first time.

I was walking down the cement steps when they came out the school’s main entrance. They strutted like Charlie’s Angels, in acid-washed jean skirts and baggy, off-the-shoulder, neon-colored sweatshirts that somehow managed to hug their bodies in all the right places. They even wore heels – and mind you, this was at a time when teenagers never wore heels outside of prom.

Every head turned as they glided past in a cloud of designer clothes and expensive perfume. Even mine. Because seriously, I had never seen anything like them outside of a magazine ad.

I could not help but stare.

Not that they noticed. They walked with straight ahead stares and thrown back shoulders, seemingly unaware of us pie-eyed regular folk. It wasn’t a manner I recognized back then, but now that I live in L.A., I realize that the Farrell sisters moved like women who were used to lots and lots of attention. Like celebrities.

They were spectacularly gorgeous, though not necessarily in the same way.

The tallest sister had the glowing skin and open face of a Disney princess. You almost expected a bluebird to land on her bare shoulders. But the other sister was chilling to look at, with sandy brown hair and green eyes so cold, they made Alaska look like a warm destination. I guessed that this was the one named Veronica.

Earlier in the bathroom, I had heard Tanisha Harris, who was now the head cheerleader, say to her friend, “Tammy – that’s the younger one. She real nice. She want to try out for the team. But the older one – Veronica – think she too good for that shit. You should see that bitch. She think she all that.”

After my first glimpse of Veronica, I would have to accuse the head cheerleader of being wrong. Veronica didn’t think she was all that, she knew. Knew in the way that only the very beautiful and the very rich can.

Up until that point, I had trained myself out of wishing for things. I thought that I had learned down to my very bone that I would never be pretty or rich or even liked. And I had accepted it, because at least I was smart, and at least I had books and Molly Ringwald movies to keep me busy.

But now, I stood there with my matted fro and my oversized thrift store dress and my shoes that were run down at the heels. I watched those beautiful girls jump into Veronica’s red convertible, like they were the Sweet Valley High Twins, and I wished. I wished I could be like them. Easy and breezy like a cover girl, with the wind blowing in my naturally-straight hair as I whipped out of the parking lot.

I began to stalk James the next week. Of course, it didn’t start off as stalking. It almost never does. It was more like a research project at first.

The school newspaper did a Page 3 article, entitled “New Kid on the Field,” with a pretty complete background on the school’s new quarterback, and I clipped it.

The Glass High Call informed me that James had been on the honor roll at his old high school. Also, Notre Dame, USC, and just about every college in Texas had sent him letters of interest – but he hoped to attend and play for Princeton. He’d probably get his wish, since he’d scored 1450 on his SAT his junior year – being next in line for the presidency of Farrell Fine Hair probably didn’t hurt either.

According to the article, James didn’t have a girlfriend back home in Texas, but the reporter hinted that a certain TH (the same initials as the head cheerleader) already had her eye on him.

I cut the article out and placed it reverent-like between the pages of my hardback edition of The Color Purple. It was my favorite book and home to Celie, the black character I identified with most in the world, because she was ugly and got treated ugly but still found her way to a happy ending. Sort of like Molly Ringwald. And exactly like me. Eventually. I hoped.

So I clipped that article and put it in my book. Then I started stealing looks, which was not as easy as it may sound. I was a sophomore and James was a senior, and we didn’t have any classes together.

On account of that, getting my daily fill of James required me to first nail down his schedule. For a full week, I carried my entire class load of books around in my backpack, so that I could stand down the hall from his locker and follow him to his classes. If my fellow classmates hadn’t already taken to ignoring my silent presence, my stuffed-to-the-gills backpack might have drawn stares or, even worse, questions. But luckily they had grown disinterested in me over the years and had ceased believing that I could get any stranger. It lent me a certain invisibility, which I used to my advantage in tailing James that first week.

He had three classes in the same hallways as me.

So every day in chemistry, at 11:05 a.m., I raised my hand. From the very first time I did this, Mrs. Penn could tell that this meant I needed a bathroom pass. All the teachers at Glass High knew/were warned that I didn’t ever speak, so this would be the only reason for me to raise my hand. Within a month, it became so clockwork, that Mrs. Penn would hand me the pass without breaking in her lecture.

I would then walk down the hallway and crouch outside the door to college biology to look in on James.

He usually sat slumped back in his seat, taking notes while the teacher talked.

I would stare at him for three minutes, which I timed on my green plastic watch. Then I’d walk back to class, because I didn’t want to spend so long away that Ms. Penn started suspecting that I was doing something other than using the bathroom and stopped giving me passes.

I would have done this during gym and advanced algebra, too. But unfortunately his calculus teacher kept the door closed with the window shade pulled down, so that was no good. And a bathroom pass during gym only meant that you could go back into the locker room to do your business.

So 11:05 cued my best three minutes of the day, the time I looked forward to the most.

When I sat alone at lunch, I thought about the next day’s three minutes. When I fell asleep at night after watching Sixteen Candles or Pretty In Pink or whatever Molly Ringwald movie I had chosen for my bedtime story, I also thought about those three minutes.

And when I woke up in the middle of the night because of Cora’s dramatic moans

– she always laid it on real thick for the new guys, like this was the best sex of her life and they were just blowing her mind – I’d just lie there, listening to her performance and thinking about James.

Then I’d fall back to sleep with a smile on my face.

The reason that James and his sisters had been transferred from their nice private school in Texas to our real less academically-stellar public school in Mississippi became apparent about two months into the semester when signs on wooden sticks started popping up like flowers all over town.

They said: “FARRELL III,” in large white letters, “JAMES C.” above that in smaller white cursive, then “U.S. REPRESENTATIVE ‘91” in red letters across the bottom.

At first it was just the signs in yards. Then they started appearing in store windows, then regular people’s windows, then the next thing I knew, it seemed like the town was fair to wallpapered with them.

I liked that they all said “James C. Farrell,” even if it wasn’t my James. I took to brushing them with my fingers whenever I saw them hung up on a gate. Without exception they were all cool to the touch, even though the summer heat had yet to let up and the air was still hot and sticky.

“That’s why he put them kids of his in this monkey house,” I heard a lunch lady say to another lunch lady while I was waiting in line with my red Free Lunch ticket in hand. “It don’t matter if he a Farrell. People ain’t going to vote for him if his kids ain’t in school just like the rest us kids.”

My James, I had figured out from the signs, was a IV. I wondered if when we got married, I would have to take the IV along with his last name.

Davidia Farrell the Fourth.

I liked that. It was a name with history and resonance. And it occurred to me that after I married James and we moved away from Glass, the new people I met would never be able to tell – unless I chose to let them know, which I wouldn’t – that I came from nothing and that I used to be nothing. James would change my life in that way.

I should say that stalking James wasn’t all about sneaking looks and clipping articles. Sometimes I found things through no intention of my own. I guess it’s what other people might have called luck.

Not having a steady source of money, I’d fallen into the habit of hanging back a little after the end-of-class bell rang. You’d be surprised what kind of stuff kids left behind. I picked up change just about every day, and once in a while somebody would leave a bill. Sometimes I’d find whole wallets, but that’s not as lucky as it sounds, because it’s a lot harder to steal money when you know who it belongs to. I much preferred the orphaned bills, which came without guilt. Usually, if it was a whole wallet, I would just turn it in to the principal’s office.

One day after chemistry class, I found something better than money. A Polaroid. A two-shot of James and another guy, who he had in a friendly headlock. They were both laughing – not just smiling for the camera.

I recognized the other guy as Corey Mays, the football player who I’d heard talking about James replacing Perry Pointer as the team’s quarterback.

He and James had become best and instant friends of the sort that only football can make, and they could often be seen walking the halls of Glass High, side by side but not equal.

Corey wasn’t as smart as James – I mean he was in chemistry with me, a sophomore, even though he was a senior. And of course, James had a lot more money. Corey’s mother bought his polo shirts from the mall during the Dillard’s one-day sale – and only because Corey had asked her for them within a week of making James’ acquaintance.

James bought all his clothes in New York from stores that bore the same names as the labels on the inside of his jeans and collars. He never wore the same thing twice in a week, and he never wore anything with a designer name plastered all over it. His clothes were so expensive, they were completely simple. Flat-front Calvin Klein khaki’s with polos or T-shirts that stretched just enough across his chest to let you know he had muscles – but not so much that you thought he was gay, even subconsciously. His sunglasses had “Ray-Ban” stenciled in tasteful cursive on the handles and were perfectly suited to his face. The only time he looked cooler than when he was walking the halls of Glass High, was when he walked out to his car, the mirrored handles of his Ray-Bans twinkling in the sun.

He would jump into his forest-green Saab. “His daddy gave him that car. It’s only three-years-old,” I heard Tanisha Harris say to another cheerleader during gym.

James was too cool to insist on a brand-new, showy convertible like his sisters. But even his hand-me-down vehicle reeked of expensive habits and expectations that Corey, in his 15-year-old dented Hyundai that he had inherited from his tired, single mother, would never know.

I liked Corey. He had chosen me for his partner in chemistry by taking the empty seat next to me and saying, “You smart. You going to be my partner.” Real simple.

He didn’t seem to mind that I didn’t speak. And even better, he spoke to me, a steady stream of sports teams and people I didn’t know, but that was okay. I liked his voice and the real emotion that ran through it when he talked about Ozzie Smith or the ’87 Lakers line-up or the pass his boy James had thrown at the last game. He must have really understood me, because he never expected answers and he never asked me questions. Also, he never offered to help me with any of our assignments.

“I’m gonna stay out your way,” he said during that first week. And he was true to his word. He’d stare off into space or tell me about last night’s football game while I poured and calculated.

He was like a radio that knew instinctively when to turn on and off while I worked. Plus, he always clapped me on the back and said, “Yeah, boy!” or “Yeah, that’s how we do it!” when the teacher passed us back our papers with red A’s on the fronts – which made him the only person outside of my mother who ever touched me. So I liked him. But unlike most girls my age, I knew the difference between affection and love, because I didn’t love him. Not like I loved James.

Besides, Corey was for real in love with Veronica Farrell. He followed her around like a homeless dog, even though she had a reputation for only dating college boys and even then, only college boys with some change in their pockets.

But Corey had plans for getting rich that Veronica’s disinterest only encouraged. All these scouts out here looking at James, well, there was also scouts looking at him, he told me. “They can only be one quarterback, but they got all type of room for running backs,” he told me. “Especially if you real consistent-like. Colleges like that. Flashy don’t cut it if you cain’t get that ball down the field.”

And Corey made sure the ball got down the field. He was James’s fiercest ally: he never showboated, and he did his job.

While James liked football and seemed to take it as seriously as any young man of talent raised in Texas should, everybody knew that after college that was it. According to Corey, “James already been said it don’t matter if the NFL come knocking on his door. He supposed to take over, so his daddy can retire.”

It made me feel sorry for James. When I made it to 18, everything would be different. Because of my good grades, I would go to college on a scholarship. I would start talking again, and then I would go on to be anything I wanted. My life would be mine. I could work at the library.

Or maybe I would do something else. You never knew.

But James knew. He probably had always known exactly how his life was supposed to turn out, and that was kind of sad.

It was a Monday when Corey dropped the Polaroid. It fell out of his open backpack while he was pretending to fight with another football player. Black high-school boys were an enigma to me. They fought when they disliked each other, and they pretended to fight when they were good friends. I had never seen two boys hug at my school. And I wondered if this was just a phase or if it was always like this. Did black boys who liked each other go on play-fighting forever?

Anyway, Corey and his friend were play-shoving each other, and that’s why Corey didn’t notice the picture fall out of his backpack and onto the floor underneath our lab table.

But I saw it from my chair. Saw who was in it immediately, even though it was halfway under the chemistry table. But I didn’t dare pick it up.

Maybe I could have pretended that I was picking it up to give it back to Corey, if anyone caught me. But then I’d have to give back the only non-newspaper-generated picture that I had ever seen of James.

So I waited. And I prayed that Corey wouldn’t look under the table and see his dropped picture.

I faked more interest than usual in his sports analysis during class. I turned my face to him and pasted on what I hoped was an open expression.

Finally the end-of-class bell rang and Corey left, his backpack still hanging open. This happened often with Corey. Usually, I tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to the open backpack.

Today, I let him walk out of there, dropping pencils and other backpack paraphernalia like an unwitting Hansel.

As soon as he cleared the door I ducked underneath the desk and picked up the Polaroid.

“Hey, Monkey Night!” I looked up. Corey was standing in the doorway.

“Did you see a Polaroid back there of me and James? I think it fell out my backpack.”

I stood up and shook my head, quickly stuffing the picture in the back of my jeans.

He came further into the room. His eyes searched the floor as he picked up all the pencils he had dropped.

“What was you doing under the table?”

I bent back down and came up with a pen that he had dropped and handed it to him.

I had learned that in a mute existence, an action often took the place of an answer.

In this case, an action took the place of a bold-faced lie.

I was picking up your pencil, Corey. See? Here you go.

He smiled at me. “Thanks! Tell me if you see that picture.”

I took the picture out again when he left. I could imagine the person behind the camera saying, “Hey, over here.”

And instead of James putting his arm around Corey’s shoulders, he took him by surprise with a playful headlock. Everybody laughs and the camera flashes. Even Corey, though if any other guy had put him in a headlock like this, it would be an act of humiliation, an affront to his manhood.

But not with James. This was a picture that Corey kept and apparently liked enough to come back for when he realized he had lost it.

And now I had stolen it.

I let my eyes sink deep into the sunshine of James’ smile and marveled over his effect on people.


That day after school, I opened my locker and took ten one-dollar bills out of the spaghetti sauce jar where I kept all my found money. On my way home, I detoured down Main Street and walked into Greeley’s Mini-Mart.

In those days, Walgreen’s had yet to find its way to Glass, and Greeley’s was where you went when you didn’t have the time to run to four different places for everything you needed. The selection was small and a little overpriced, but usually it did in a pinch.

And it especially did if you were lazy like Cora. Mr. Greeley, the owner, was a client. He had been coming to her on the second Tuesday of every month, ever since a stroke took his dear wife, Hattie Mae. He had confessed to Cora that second Tuesdays had historical significance. After his children had grown and moved out, apparently Hattie Mae had moved into another room and informed him that he could only visit her on the second Tuesday of every month.

This was on account of Mrs. Greeley having an appointment at The Perfect Cut on the second Wednesday of every month, so if Mr. Greeley messed up her perm with all his moving and sweating on top of her, she didn’t mind so much.

Cora told me this on one of the rare nights that she had come home drunk but without a man. Somehow, this always put her in the storytelling mood. And I suppose I was easy to talk to, seeing as how I never said anything back.

Cora told me Mr. Greeley had broken down crying after the first time they did the do, then thanked her for helping him remember his dead wife.

I’m sure that Cora had comforted him, took him in her arms and whispered words in his ear that made his tears taste like brown sugar. The secret of Cora’s success was that she was always nice. The first time.

But in the retelling of the story, she had snorted and said, “Lord know if he really wanted to remember that witch, he should have chose himself a ugly woman to lay down with.”

Still, if we came into Greeley’s when not too many people were there to see, Cora could count on a significant discount. She’d give me the list and exchange sweet talk with Mr. Greeley while I worked my way down the narrow aisles, picking up soap and detergent and all the other necessaries that Cora didn’t like to think about until she absolutely had to.

The day after I stole the Polaroid, I walked past all the essential aisles, making my way to the fifth aisle where the books, office supplies, wrapping paper, and stationary were sold.

I stopped in front of two large scrapbooks. One had holographic rainbows on it and the other was a simple, elegant brown.

This was bad, because while one reflected how James made me feel on inside, the other reflected who James actually was.

I must have been there, trying to make that decision, a long time, because Mr. Greeley came and stood over me with his saggy jowl and rheumy eyes. “You buying it or casing it, girl?”

I picked up the rainbow scrapbook and handed it to him.
As I followed Mr. Greeley back to the cash register, I imagined myself handing

the scrapbook to James in the hallway right before prom. “What’s this?” he’d ask. And I’d cock my head to the side, all of a sudden shy, although it had been bold to

offer him the scrapbook in the first place. “It’s a scrapbook. I got it because the rainbows

made me think of…” I’d trail off and look away, too embarrassed to say it. But he’d make me. Maybe he’d touch my shoulder, or try to catch my eye. “Made you think of what?” he’d ask. Firm but gentle. And I’d finally meet his eyes and answer, “You.” Then the music would start up and we’d kiss. “You know you ain’t going to get no discount on this, right?” Mr. Greeley said.

“That’s just for your mama.” The image of James and me rushed away as I offered Mr. Greeley the ten-dollar

bill. He looked at it over his reading glasses. “Actually, that’s going to be $10.50. You got tax on top of that $9.99.” I stared at him. “You don’t got fifty cents?” He moved around, annoyed, like he was thinking of

not giving it to me.

I wondered how Cora could bear to have this horrible old man on top of her. At that moment, I did not blame his dead wife for barring him from her bedroom, and I did not blame Cora for thinking he was full of shit.

I put the bill on the counter. I hoped this action translated into Do you want this ten dollars or not, old man?

Though I suspected he was reading it as, I’m trash and came in here trying to get one over on you, because you’re having relations with my mother every second Tuesday of the month.

Either way, he took the money. But he grumbled as he put it in the register without ringing up the sale. “Next time you come around here without your mama, make sure you figure out the tax.”

I took the scrapbook and walked out of there. Angry at him for making such a show of it, and scared of myself.

Growing up, I had learned to hold on to my pride in little ways. If I didn’t talk, then I didn’t get beat or made fun of as much. On the other hand, there was power in not talking, because people didn’t like it when you didn’t talk, and it was a certain kind of aggression, when you knew people didn’t like a thing, but you did it anyway.

And of course, finding cash like I did wasn’t exactly honorable, but on the other hand, I always had a little of my own money to spend. I had Pretty in Pink, Breakfast Club, Say Anything, and Some Kind of Wonderful on VHS. And those were all tapes that I had bought with my own money, without having to ask Cora for anything – not that she would have given it to me if I had.

But the best pride holder I had learned by far was the Not Wanting Of Things. That just made life a whole lot easier.

Because who cared if no one ever paid you attention if you didn’t want it in the first place?

And who cared if Cora had me going to school in hand-me-downs – I didn’t want clothes.

I didn’t want a fancy house, I didn’t want to be popular or even liked. I didn’t want anything.

Except James.

And when Mr. Greeley had hesitated like maybe he wasn’t going to let me have this scrapbook, a thought had flashed through my head: Maybe I could find fifty cents on the floor.

I knew better than anyone that people were always dropping things. If I dug around for it under the counter, I’d probably find enough pennies, or maybe even some nickels or dimes.

I could see myself on my hands and knees looking for that fifty cents while Mr. Greeley watched me with a sour look on his face.

And it scared me. Not the thought of doing it, but knowing that I would do it. For James.

It felt to be about 100 degrees as I walked out of the air-conditioned store into the Mississippi sun. But I was cold all the way home.

That night, I listened to the game while I transferred all the articles from between the pages of The Color Purple to my new scrapbook.

I used a glue stick and pasted in the articles, two to a page. Though if the article had a picture of James, it got its own page.

I saved the first page for last and stapled the Polaroid to that one. Then I used a faded green marker from my junior-high days to draw a heart around the whole thing.

I stared at the picture.

I wondered if the house that James lived in was as nice as the one in Sixteen Candles. I knew that they had moved into the old Glass Plantation house. I had never seen it, since like most plantation houses, it was located in such a way that you didn’t just pass by it during your daily routine.

The house was about four or five miles from where I lived, down a long dirt road that led to the Glass House and nothing else but the Glass House. Corey had been invited by James a few times to hang out, and he described their house to me in a series of monologues. He told me that the family was installing an indoor pool, even though there was a large lake on the property. He said that they had their own butler and even a live-in maid to keep the place clean, because the house had six bedrooms and a kitchen that was bigger than Corey and his mom’s entire apartment. James and Corey had eaten in the kitchen the times that Corey had gone over, and the maid had served them after-school snacks on a silver tray, which had just blown Corey’s mind.

From what I could tell, he had never been invited to stay for dinner, because he had never described the dining room. But I assumed that it was just as grand as the rest of the house.

And the dining room was where I imagined James and me kissing for the first time, just like Molly Ringwald and Jake Ryan in Sixteen Candles. We’d be sitting on top of a large glass table in that dining room, a birthday cake between us. He’d thank me for coming, and I’d thank him for inviting me, and then we’d both lean forward and for The Kiss. The Kiss that would mark my final transformation from Monkey Night into the girl who got a Molly Ringwald Ending. I couldn’t wait.

At around midnight, I woke up to the sound of Cora screaming. “Oh, fuck me, baby. Fuck me real good. Oh God, baby. I cannot believe this.”

New customer.

I turned on my back and stared at the ceiling. I would have to wait for them to finish, so that I could get back to sleep.

I hadn’t heard them come in, but I could smell someone’s cologne on the air. A strange but nice scent in our musky house.

I started to turn my thoughts to James again. I imagined him standing outside my window with a boombox held above his head, because he loved me so much.

Then there was a break in Cora’s screaming and I heard something else in the night. A car idling outside the house.

Uh-oh. This had happened a few times. An angry wife or girlfriend finally got sick of her man not showing up at night and would show up on Cora’s doorstep.

But it almost never happened with new customers.

Someone must have followed him here.

And that someone was now sitting out there in her car, maybe thinking about loading a gun.

Cora had once almost gotten stabbed once by a client’s girlfriend, and I had often thought that it was just a matter of time before somebody showed up here with a gun.

I sat up on the couch and peeked out the window. If I could see that the woman had a knife, I would run and hide in the basement. If I could see she had a gun, though, I would have to call 911 before she came in here and started shooting people.

But when I looked out the window, what I ended up seeing was Veronica and Tammy Farrell’s convertible. It was idling out on the street in front of our house, but no one was in the driver’s seat.

I looked around and eventually my eyes found Veronica Farrell, standing on the cracked path that led to our house. She was standing perfectly still, like a tree. And she was staring at our door with such a look of hatred in her eyes.

My stomach dropped. But my eyes went towards our driveway anyway. Went before I could stop myself.

A Saab was parked behind my mother’s car, a larger, newer, nicer version of the one that James drove.

My mother screamed out in the bedroom again.

I wondered where in the hell a woman like my mother would run across a man like Mr. Farrell. I had once seen an austere photo of James’ father in our local newspaper, and he didn’t seem like the type that hung out in bars.

But I stopped wondering when I felt eyes on me. I looked back to the sidewalk and sure enough, Veronica Farrell was staring straight at me now. She lowered her right hand, and I thought for a second that maybe she really did have a gun.

Maybe she was going to shoot me and my mama and her daddy for lowering himself enough to come into this place. But then her keys jingled in her right hand as she turned and walked back to her car.

The engine revved as she turned the key in the ignition. She looked like a beautiful robot as she drove off into the moonlight without a backwards glance. That I could see.