“She Woke up With the Words in Her Mouth (novel excerpt)” by Mecca Jamilah Sullivan
The smells of Black Coconut and African Pear oils seeped from the tables that lined the street and wafted toward Malaya at the center of the pavement. There they met with the fried and jerk chicken, roti and rice pudding, plátanos and candied yam smells that oozed from storefront restaurants. The scents mixed together like the ingredients of a gumbo, spilling over her as she walked block after endless block, veering inward to make room for a hurried dreadlocked man, then outward to avoid colliding with a cluster of children giggling in bubble jackets and hoodies. As she walked, Malaya fingered the three purple braids that hung from her left temple and made games for herself, trying not to imagine what 125th street thought of her, this five-hundred-pound block of black girl, streaked with color, bounding toward the Big and Tall Men’s section of Harlem Jeans.
The melody of the girl group TLC’s newest ballad drifted across Eighth Avenue, and a bootlegger in the alcove between the Apollo Theatre and Tsitsi’s African Hair Braiding pumped Shabba Ranks’s deepest reggae bassline onto the street. The chords of these songs blended with the sounds of laughter, catcalls, arguments over the prices of African masks and homemade soaps. Children snickered as Malaya forced herself through the crowd, and an older man shouted “woah!” when she passed him, springing his arms back and making an exaggerated leap out of her way. But through all of this, Malaya’s ears were warmed by the soft foam pads of her headphones and the lyrics of the hip-hop song she had discovered last year, in the ninth grade, and claimed as her personal anthem, the first single from her newfound idol and kindred soul:
It was all a dream. I used to read WordUp Magazine.
Salt-N-Pepa and Heavy D up in the limousine…
Damn right I like the life I live/
Cause I went from negative to positive/
And it’s all good…
The song was an irresistible tale of rags-to-riches, chronicling the rapper’s rise from blinding despair to unfathomable, Technicolor hope. The artist was a bulging black man from Brooklyn with a lazy eye and a face as soft as chocolate frosting. His album was full of all the things Malaya’s mother hated and many of the things her father loved—sex and death and hope and fantasy—all mixed together like a fruit compote, baked into a hard but secretly sweet crust. Malaya loved the paradox of the rapper’s name—Biggie Smalls—how it was huge and diminutive at once, how it said so simply so many things she’d been feeling those fifteen years of life. When her mother saw the rapper’s CD, titled Ready To Die, in her bag, she arched her eyebrows and said “So this is the message supposed artists are sending our children now?” But her father only shook his head and said the album reflected a new generation’s struggle; that it was their job, as parents, not to understand.
Regardless of what Percy and Nyela thought, the album, for Malaya, was a 68-minute eternity in which anger, violence, and all kinds of pain seemed to coexist perfectly with a life of celebration and dream. From song to song and from line to line, the rapper switched personas, making himself a proud father here, a homicidal drug lord there, there a gurgling child. She loved the success stories he told, how he seemed to treasure the vestiges of hard living while painting the present as a gorgeous and unending feast.
This, for Malaya, was hip-hop’s hallmark, and the thing that made her rise to it every morning, as though called by name into her days. Hip-hop had even found its way into the halls of Sir Francis Galton Preparatory Academy, the private school on the Upper East Side that Malaya had attended since kindergarten. In the elementary days, Galton Prep had been as bland and tepid as pot of week-old grits left on the stove. Eventually, though, hip-hop brought its butter, smuggled in by the public school kids who entered Galton two years ago, in the seventh grade. It was then that Rachel Greenstein, Malaya’s wealthy white childhood best friend, began to hang out with Randall Creighton, a blonde girl from midtown, both of them dying their hair yellow-cake blonde and falling in love with Jack Kerouac and Nirvana. It was also then that Galton’s new black and Latino population formed its bond, absorbing both Malaya and her neighbor friend, Shanice, into its self-designated “Famille”.
It was La Famille’s patriarch, RayShawn Carter, who inspired Malaya’s trip to Harlem Jeans’ Big and Tall section today. RayShawn was light and tall and seemed to have pulsed on the verge of manhood since he was a toddler. He was both down-to-earth and definitively fly, with a sturdy, self-assured smile and a thick black sponge of hair that changed shape in perfect synch with music video fashion. When Shabba Ranks’s “Mr. Loverman” came out, RayShawn boxed and faded his hair into a shrewd Gumby. Then he grew it out and relaxed it into an S-curl when Bill Bellamy became the face of MTV Jams, and braided it into neat, long cornrows in time for “G-Thang” and the Doggystyle album. When Malaya ventured a comment about his hair after Spanish class one afternoon, RayShawn raised his chin at Malaya and gave her a wink. “The question is,” he said, “can the videos keep up with me?” Then he swept over his arrogance with a self-effacing laugh and returned to his lab report for Biology class. By now, he had started work on a crop of dreadlocks, little finger-widths of his knotted hair screaming up from his scalp just like Busta Rhymes’s.
Malaya had considered it an act of divine grace when she passed the advanced placement Spanish exam and ended up in Ray Shawn’s Latin American Poetry class. Then, the first time she heard him struggle through a recitation of Neruda’s 12th love sonnet, she saw it as an outright miracle and immediately offered her help. She had spent much of the spring semester thinking of him, calling him, waiting for him to call her back. And he did call her back, usually very late, after he’d laughed and chilled with whoever it was that consumed his daylight hours, after he’d finished his homework and kissed his mother goodnight. Malaya would lay in her room, listening to Biggie, shoveling fifty-cent bodega pies or leftover chicharrónes into her mouth, willing the phone to ring. Eventually, it did, and she and RayShawn would spend hours talking about music videos, watching reruns of Showtime at the Apollo, discussing books and movies, and imagining the future. In this future, Malaya saw RayShawn writing poems for her, as she often did for him. His poems would have the soul and angst of the classics, underscored with urban passion and grit. He would come to the page as a sort of Tupac-meets-Neruda bard, with the tender confidence of Langston Hughes and irreverent Baraka undertones for spice. But of course, as fervently as she imagined this future, it never came. Malaya was proud to inform Shanice of her late-night conversations with RayShawn as the two girls rode the subway to school each morning, but she would never have admitted that he was the impetus for her shopping trip today, that she had cut school in an effort to impress him, or that she had spent the day on 125th street alone.
The food smells receded and the acrid stink of new plastic bags smacked forth as Malaya pushed her way into the store.
“Big Woman,” said the cherry-colored West African man at the bag check counter, rounding his arms into a sumo wrestler pose. “I remember you. You’re strong. You have a husband?”
“Yes,” Malaya said plainly, taking the ticket. The man did not respond. He was friendly-looking enough, but he had wet, old eyes that seemed to catch on her body and drag away only full seconds after he spoke.
“You’re big!” He said. “But you have a pretty face. I’ll call you Big Woman, Pretty Face,” he concluded. But his eyes raked her stomach. “You give me your phone number before you leave, okay? I’ll take you out to eat.”
Malaya imagined her foot uprooted from its plot on the ground, striking the man’s cheek way above the counter. She smiled politely and put the ticket in her pocket.
These encounters were not unusual for her. This man was one of many who seemed to make it their mission to sever her head from her body, to discard the meat of her body and paint the small round disk of her face as her only hope. She was supposed to be grateful, she knew, for his attention and for his smile. And, in spite of herself, she was. The man would return to her as she lay in her bed that night on the phone with RayShawn. She would imagine RayShawn sitting among the kaleidoscopic lights of a video set, would see herself light and long and lean, laid over the back of his chair like one of her mother’s lace doilies. RayShawn would smile like the bag check man, would say the things the man had said, and more. Malaya gave her polite chuckle and retreated to the music. Dreaming of the denim that would change her, she let the man’s voice lick at her back like a curl of stale smoke.
There were no mannequins in Big and Tall Men’s section at the back of the store—only reams of logo-stamped cloth folded two or three times back, elbows pinioned together, hems rolled three times under to gesture at human-sized forms. Malaya pushed past the Paco and Boss and PelePele racks toward the EMCEE labels, which she’d chosen as her favorite when she made the twin discoveries, a year ago, that the brand both spelled out her initials with its logo and carried clothes in her size. When she heard the way her favorite rapper used it in a chart topping single, she considered it destiny:
Don’t fuck with B-I that’s that ‘oh I thought he was wack’
Oh come-come now. Why y’all so dumb now?
Throw down some ice for the nicest emcee…
Niggas know the steelo, unbelievable.
She scanned the racks for a purple EMCEE sweater and a pair of size 50 jeans, imagining giddily how the cuffs of the jeans would fold into the tongues of her Timberland boots like waves of soft-serve ice cream into waffle cones, how tight and slick the look would make her feel. She imagined another version of herself joining RayShawn in a room that glinted with color and lights, the two sprawled over each other, he in his hip-hop high-fashion and she in hers, a perfect curve at her chest and hips the only meaningful difference between them. As she hovered beside the banks of oversized denim, a slim saleswoman with skin color of Ritz crackers approached. Her eyes were apple-cider warm at first, but when Malaya asked for what she wanted the woman looked at her as though she had requested a side of crème fraiche with her McDonald’s Value Meal. “Um, they don’t make big men’s shirts in purple,” she said, running a green acrylic-tipped nail over her hairline. “And the biggest jeans we got is a 48.”
Malaya squeezed herself through the narrow dressing room door, praying for the 48s to fit. Undressing, she felt the air lick cool against the strip of skinless flesh that too-small jeans of the past had left around her middle. She pulled the 48s up, past thighs that cleaved together like colliding mudslides, past hips swaddled in sagging stomach flesh. Gulping breath, she pushed the ends of the denim together, willing them meet, but they wouldn’t. She tried again, six times, until her eyes stung and watered, the denim tearing at her raw middle. Under hot skin, Malaya struggled to keep her face together—to keep her cheeks from cracking, keep her eyes from melting into the fibers of the rug. She breathed in again, now wishing to suck in her skin, her fat, her muscle, and whatever it was that lay under those things, making her who she was: This person in this body, wedged between the walls of the Big and Tall Men’s section, wishing, at her core, to feel small and slight and, somehow, like a girl.
In that moment Malaya wished, as she had in childhood and so many times in since, to be gone. If the jeans would not give, she wished that they would take and take until her hopes of ever having a waist had vanished completely—until her body really became a separate thing from her smile, something she could leave there on the fitting room floor while she floated, above the clothes, above the noise, above the expectant whine of the salesgirl, away.
Malaya folded the clothes and handed them silently to the woman as she squeezed through the creaking door. She fixed her gaze past the shoppers and the stockers and the salespeople, heaving her way back to the baggage check as quickly as she could.
“Big girl,” the man said as she sat her ticket on the counter. “Do you really have a husband?”
Malaya strained to clear her eyes, brighten her face, and push her cheeks up into a smile. She stood silently for a few seconds, then tilted her head and gave a slight shrug, as she thought a video girl might do.
“What,” she said. “You don’t trust me?”
The man laughed. “No, I trust you.” He said. “I trust you a lot.” Then he paused. “So what is your name?”
“Alya,” she said.
“Oh,” the man smiled. “Like the singer? She is pretty. Like you.”
“Yeah,” Malaya said. “Like that. But smaller. My name is just two sounds. Al-ya.”
“Al-ya,” he repeated. “Very nice.”
He gave her the bag, along with a slip of bright green paper and a tattered pen.
“Al-ya,” he said. “My name is Clarence. Let me have your number. I’ll take you out to eat. Your husband won’t mind.”
Malaya took the pen and paper—a flier for a club she’d heard advertised on the radio but knew she’d never enter. She wrote the name as she imagined Al-ya might write it, all capital letters, the Y a lazy loop in the center and the As arched perfectly like a pair of upturned smiles. She began to write a fake number, then changed her mind, crossing the digits out and writing her beeper number instead.
“Nice to meet you, Clarence,” she said in the slow, syrupy voice she thought Alya might use to dismiss a man after a night of lukewarm sex. “If I don’t call back for a while don’t worry. It means my husband is there, but I’ll call you when he’s gone. You don’t have to call again.”
The man nodded. “Al-ya,” he said, his eyes on her stomach. “Big girl. Okay.”
Malaya’s mother paged her three times in a row that evening, waiting only a few minutes between each try to see if Malaya would call her back, which she did not. When she finally did check her voicemail, she heard her mother’s voice strung carefully into sweetness, inviting her to dinner at Wilson’s Restaurant on Edgecombe, where they served cornbread as sweet and fluffy as birthday cake and collard greens so good both Malaya and her mother often forgot they were vegetables at all.
Malaya ordered her dinner hesitantly, knowing that her mother had just come from her weekly Weight Watchers meeting, and would be paying even closer attention than usual, not only to her own food choices, but to Malaya’s as well. Malaya herself had attended these meetings from the time she was six until last year, when she finally abandoned the Program—along with church, and African dance classes, and regular attendance at any classes other than English, Spanish, and Art. She could pretend to wash and dress and prepare for school each morning, and could pack her bag each Saturday afternoon with leotards and lapa skirts she knew had not fit since the sixth grade, setting up shop at Manna’s Soul Food Cafeteria when she should have been dancing at the Harlem Art Academy. But defecting from Weight Watchers was something Malaya could not lie away. The issue had come up several times in the past year, as her weight had mounted, along with her mother’s, prompting Nyela to scrutinize every inch of Malaya’s body and every bite she saw her eat, and pushing Malaya to spend as much time as possible out of her mother’s sight.
Lured by the promise of delicious corn bread and ham-hocked greens, Malaya did not regret going to Wilson’s, but she had to be careful. Fresh from the Meeting, Malaya knew, Nyela Clondon would not be hesitant to voice her disdain if Malaya ordered what she really wanted—barbecue ribs, macaroni and cheese, candied yams and an order of fries on the side. Trusting that her mother would order cornbread for the table, Malaya settled on baked chicken, collard greens, and a diet coke, with a side of French fries as a decent—if defiant—compromise.
Her mother did order the corn bread to start, along with seared salmon, string beans, cabbage, and a glass of chardonnay. When she asked Malaya about her day, Malaya constructed an elaborate tale about a debate she’d had in Social Studies class over whether or not Latinos and Caribbeans could be considered black. Nyela nodded as she listened, proud to hear that her daughter was engaging in these conversations, that Malaya was hard at work in the polished classrooms of Galton, disillusioning the privileged and educating the ignorant, ensuring that the tuition money Nyela worked so hard for was being well-spent. Once Malaya’s lie was done and the basket of cornbread had crumbled down to sweet yellow pellets and pale gold dust, her mother looked at her, her face washed over with concern.
“The women at the meeting ask about you every week,” Nyela said, sipping her wine. “Do you think you’ll start coming back soon?”
Malaya filled her mouth with chicken and chewed. After a few seconds, she shook her head.
“I don’t think I have time,” she said. “I need to focus on school.”
Her mother nodded and pushed the string beans around on her plate as music began to play from behind the restaurant’s wood-paneled bar. Malaya recognized the album as Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. Her father had loved to play this record on Saturday mornings when she was a child, and Malaya considered it a treat when she was allowed to skip the meeting, to lay in bed, instead, and listen. As a child, she’d enjoyed the way the record’s piano and saxophone notes trickled down over the bass like drops of warm shower water into a porcelain tub. The album reminded her of freedom, of happiness, of days as long and clear as the blank pages of a sketchbook. But now, as her mother sifted through the bread basket, gathering loose crumbs of cornbread and running them along the buttered edge of her knife, the saxophone struck Malaya as sad, and the trombone seemed heavy with longing. After a few chords spent chewing in silence, she felt her mother’s eyes on her again.
“Have you given up?”
Malaya said nothing, trying to let the question fall down toward the Formica table. She began to tackle the heap of fries on her plate instead. She showered the fries with salt, then picked at them, starting with the crispiest, brownest strips and working her way around the edge of the plate, pushing aside the soft, pale wedges that looked like they might flop helplessly in half before reaching her mouth. She smacked the side of the ketchup bottle with her palm, releasing red globs as thick as acrylic paint onto the side of the plate, and slid each crispy fry through the pool, blending the salt with ketchup in what she knew would be a perfect balance of sweet and tart. She worked her way through all the crispy fries and most of the limp ones, but still she felt her mother’s eyes on her, her question hanging thick in the air. Maybe if she cried, Malaya thought, Nyela would swallow the question on a smear of butter, and turn the conversation to other things. But her mother would not stop, and the question lingered, floating softly through the restaurant as though clinging to the notes of Davis’s title track.
When the food was almost done and there was nowhere else to look but at each other, Malaya and Nyela sighed.
“We’ve had this conversation before,” Nyela said. “But nothing seems to work. I wish you would tell us what you need, Malaya. You must weigh, what? Close to four hundred pounds now. We don’t know what to do.” She ran her finger along the knife and brought the butter-caked crumbs to her mouth. “We love you too much to watch you die.”
As her mother’s face went gray with these words, Malaya could say nothing, could think nothing. She could only lower her head, close her eyes, and drag the last French fry across the plate.
In her room that evening, Malaya perched on the edge of her bed, the bedsprings squealing under her like a flock of piglets as she shifted her weight, waiting for RayShawn to call. She put on “Ready to Die” and listened, pulling an economy-size bag of sour cream and onion chips from among the trash and junk and candy wrappers collected under her bed, chewing to the rhythm of “Juicy” as she waited. After an hour or so, the weight of waiting struck her, made her slump down into the mattress and tuck herself gratefully into the sheets like a whale into a wave. She reached back under the bed for the shoebox where she kept her pens, markers, and colored pencils. The box was studded with spills of green and purple nail polish, and collaged with glossy images of Biggie and Queen Latifah, Method Man and Mary J. Blige, DaBrat and Dr. Dre. These figures were splashed across all sides of the box, their faces frozen in smiles, arms raised, chests puffed grandly, with awards, microphones, and champagne flutes waving like flags from their hands. Malaya had clipped the pictures from the pages of flimsy rap magazines back in the seventh grade and pasted them to her art box to remind her of color, and of celebration, and of hope. Now, though, the images felt to Malaya like happy old family photos, relics from another era whose memory had already begun to fade.
Malaya fished her CD remote from the pile and pressed rewind, letting “Juicy”’s glittering hook play again. As the thick bassline thudded from the speakers, and as the phone sat numb and mute, Malaya pulled the slimmest, darkest marker from the box, dragged her sketch pad from her backpack, and began to draw. She slid the marker across the paper, first in random shapes, then in a series of series of ovular dots that looked a handful of raisins scattered haphazardly onto a plate. Eventually she found herself drawing a jagged line, crossing that line with another, and then adding a third so that an A shape formed on the page in a handwriting nothing like her own. She followed that A with a B, and then a C, adding new letters, inventing new swirls and leans until she had created a whole system of inking, the kind of handwriting a beautiful, generous, gritty dreadlocked poet might use.
When the song was over and her alphabet was complete, Malaya sat in the silence between tracks, surveying her work until next song, “Everyday Struggle,” began to play:
I don’t wanna live no more.
Sometimes I hear death knocking at my front door.
I’m living every day like a hustle. Another drug to juggle.
Another day another struggle…
Malaya lay back under the creamy tones of the synthesizer, pouring chips into her mouth, the thick grease smearing her mouth like lipstick, the salty crumbs brushing her cheeks like rouge. She pushed herself onto her back and ate, the Sharpie still in her hand, waiting for the phone to ring or the pager to beep or her mother to call her name from downstairs. Or perhaps she was waiting for something else—for some kinds of words to come to her, or for the music to thud to its end.
When the song was over, Malaya pressed rewind and put it on repeat. She uncapped the marker again and flipped the sketchbook open to a new page. As the lyrics of the hook clanged over the walls, Malaya stretched herself back into the handwriting she’d invented, flinging letters onto the page like rice grains into popping-hot grease, pulling letters into lines, stretching lines into stanzas, pinching stanzas into the best poems she could produce. When she’d written six good poems and had finished the last of the chips, she left a space near the bottom of the page, signing it with the best salutation she could think of:
All my love for Malaya,
— Clarence T. F.
[author_info]Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, Ph.D. is from Harlem, New York. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Callaloo, Best New Writing, American Fiction: Best Previously Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Writers, Crab Orchard Review, Robert Olen Butler Fiction Prize Stories, Baobab: South African Journal of New Writing and others. She is the winner of the Charles Johnson Fiction Award, the William Gunn Fiction Award, and scholarships, residencies, and other honors from The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, American Short Fiction, Glimmer Train, Hedgebrook, Yaddo, and, most recently, a 2011 Emerging Writer Fellowship from the Center for Fiction. Her short story collection, Blue Talk and Love, will be published later this year. She received her Doctorate degree in English Literature from the University of Pennsylvania, and is currently completing her first novel. An earlier version was printed in Homeboy Review 2. [/author_info]