I’m asleep and I don’t know it until Michael is shaking me awake, his fingers digging into my shoulder. My mouth is so dry, my lips are sealed shut.
“The police,” Michael says. The road behind us is empty, but the tension in his hand and the way his eyes widen and roll make me know this is serious. Even though I can’t see them and don’t hear any sirens, they are there.
“You don’t have a license,” I say.
“We have to switch,” he says. “Grab the wheel.”
I grab it and push my feet into the floorboard and raise my rear off the seat so he can put a leg over in the passenger seat and begin sliding over. He takes his foot off the gas, and the car begins to slow. I put my left foot over near the pedal, and I am sitting in his lap in the middle of the car for one awful, hilarious moment.
“Shit shit shit.” He laughs. It’s what he does when he’s frightened. When I went into labor, my water breaking in the snack aisle of a convenience store in St. Germaine, he scooped me up in his arms and carried me to his truck, laughing while cussing. He told me that, once, when he was a boy, a cow kicked one of his friends when they were out cow-tipping with flashlights in the middle of the night: his friend, a redhead with pencil arms and a mouthful of rotten teeth from years of not brushing and chewing dip, braced himself as he fell, and his arm snapped like a tree limb. The elbow bent wrong, a piece of bone sticking out of his upper arm, pearly as a jagged oyster shell. Michael said his laughter then scared even him: high and breathless as a young girl’s. Michael lifts me off his lap, slides into the passenger seat, and I am behind the wheel when I see the lights behind me coming up fast on this two-lane highway, flashing blue, siren stuttering.
“You got it?” I ask.
“The shit. You know, the stuff from Al.”
“Fuck!” Michael fumbles in his pockets.
“What?” Misty wakes up in the backseat, twisting to look back. I begin slowing down. “Oh shit,” she says when she sees the lights.
I look in the rearview and Jojo is looking straight at me. He’s all Pop: upside-down mouth, hawk nose, steady eyes, the set of his shoulders as Michaela wakes up crying.
“I don’t have time,” Michael says. He’s fumbling for the carpet, about to shove the plastic baggie out of the hole cut into the floor of the car, but there’s too much in the way, with a balled-up shirt I bought for him in a convenience store when we stopped to get gas, with plastic bags of potato chips and Dr Pepper and candy we bought with the money Al gave us. “And it got a fucking hole in it.” The bottom of the plastic baggie is scored and jagged, the white and yellow crystal dry and crumbly at the corners.
I snatch the small white baggie. I shove it in my mouth. I work up some spit, and I swallow.
The officer is young, young as me, young as Michael. He’s skinny and his hat seems too big for him, and when he leans into the car, I can see where his gel has dried and started flaking up along his hairline. He speaks, and his breath smells like cinnamon mints.
“Did you know you were swerving, ma’am?” he asks.
“No, sir, officer.” The baggie is thick as a wad of cotton balls in my throat. I can hardly breathe.
“Is something wrong?”
“No, sir.” Michael speaks for me. “We been on the road for a few hours. She tired is all.”
“Sir.” The officer shakes his head. “Can you step out of the car, ma’am, with your license and insurance?” I catch another whiff of him: sweat and spice.
“Yes,” I say. The glove compartment is a mess of napkins and ketchup packets and baby wipes. As the officer walks away to talk with a static-garbled voice on his walkie-talkie, Michael leans in, puts a hand on the small ribs of my back.
“You all right?”
“It’s dry.” I cough, and pull out the insurance paper. I snatch up my whole wallet and get out of the car and wait for the officer to return, everybody but Michaela frozen in the backseat. Michaela flails and wails. It’s midafternoon, and the trees list back and forth at the side of the road. The newly hatched spring bugs hiss and tick. Off to the side of the shoulder, there is a ditch filled with standing water and a multitude of tadpoles, all wriggling and swimming.
“Why isn’t the baby in her car seat?”
“She been sick,” I say. “My son had to take her out.”
“Who is the man and the other woman in the car?”
My husband, I want to say, as if that would validate us. Even: My fiancé. But it’s hard enough to choke out the truth, and I know with this ball in my throat, I will surely choke on a lie.
“My boyfriend. And my friend I work with.”
“Where y’all going?” the officer asks. He doesn’t have his ticket book in his hand, and I feel the fear, which has been roiling in my belly, rise in my throat and burn hot like acid, push against the baggie on its slow descent down to my stomach.
“Home,” I say. “To the coast.”
“Where y’all coming from?”
I know it’s a mistake soon as I say it. I should have said something else, anything else: Greenwood or Itta Bena or Natchez, but Parchman is all that comes.
The handcuffs are on me before the n is quiet.
I sit. The ball in my throat is wet cotton, growing denser and denser as it descends. The officer walks back to the car, makes Michael get out, puts him in handcuffs, and marches him back to sit next to me.
“Baby?” Michael says. I shake my head no, the air another kind of cotton, humid with spring rain, all of it making me feel as if I am suffocating. Jojo climbs out of the car, Michaela hanging on to him, squeezing him with her legs: she has her arms wrapped tightly around his neck. Misty climbs out of the backseat, her hands palms-forward and her mouth moving, but I can’t hear anything she’s saying. The officer looks between the two and makes his decision and walks toward Jojo, his third pair of handcuffs out. Michaela wails. The officer gestures for Misty to take Michaela, and Michaela buries her face in Jojo’s neck and kicks when Misty pulls her from Jojo. She’s never liked Misty: I brought her with me to Misty’s one day after a run to the convenience store by the interstate for cigarettes, and when Misty leaned into the car to say hello to Michaela, Michaela turned her face, ignored Misty, and asked a question: Jojo? “Just breathe,” Michael says.
It’s easy to forget how young Jojo is until I see him standing next to the police officer. It’s easy to look at him, his weedy height, the thick spread of his belly, and think he’s grown. But he’s just a baby. And when he starts reaching in his pocket and the officer draws his gun on him, points it at his face, Jojo ain’t nothing but a fat-kneed, bowlegged toddler. I should scream, but I can’t.
“Shit,” Michael breathes.
Jojo raises his arms to a cross. The officer barks at him, the sound raw and carrying in the air, and Jojo shakes his head without pausing and staggers when the officer kicks his legs apart, the gun a little lower now, but still pointing to the middle of his back. I blink and I see the bullet cleaving the soft butter of him. I shake. When I open my eyes again, Jojo’s still whole. Now on his knees, the gun pointing at his head. Michaela thrashes against Misty.
“Son of a bitch!” Misty screams, and drops Michaela, who runs to Jojo, throws herself on his back and wraps herself, arms and legs, around him. Her little bones: crayons and marbles. A shield. I’m on my knees.
“No,” Michael says. “Don’t, Leonie. Baby, don’t.”
I snap. Imagine my teeth on the officer’s neck. I could rip his throat. I don’t need hands. I could kick his skull soft. Jojo slumps forward into the grass, and the cop is shaking his head, reaching under Michaela, who kicks at him, to cuff Jojo with one hand. He motions to Misty, who runs forward and grips Michaela under her armpits, wrestles her like an alligator.
“Jojo!” Michaela screams. “Have Jojo!”
The officer stands in front of me again.
“I need your permission to search the car, ma’am.”
“Take me out of these cuffs.” If he would come close enough, I could head-butt him blind.
“Is that a yes, ma’am?”
I swallow, breathe. Air shallow as a muddy puddle.
Jojo only has eyes for Michaela. He twists his neck to look at her, speaks to her, his voice another murmuring, like the trees as they sway in the wind. The clouds, like great gray waves, are sliding across the sky. The air already feels wet. Michaela is beating Misty around the neck, and I am sure Misty is cussing, her words indecipherable, but her syllables split the air as cleanly as railroad spikes riven into wood.
“He put up the gun, baby?” Michael asks.
I nod and groan.
The officer is picking his way through the trunk, which is all junk. I see that now, handcuffed, suffocating. Plastic bags filled with faded, misshapen clothes. Al’s bag of sandwiches. A tire iron. Jumper cables. An old cooler littered with empty potato chip bags and cold-drink bottles, mold eating at the seams. The baggie down my throat disappears to my stomach, my breath coming in a great whoosh. I can breathe but the high from the meth comes fast. It squeezes me, a great hand, and shakes. It is a different kind of suffocation. I shudder, close my eyes, open them, and Phantom Given is sitting next to Jojo on the ground, reaching out as if he could touch him. Given-not-Given drops his hand. Half of Jojo’s face is in the dirt, but I can still see his frowning mouth, quivering at the corners: it is the face he made when he was a baby, when he was fighting the urge to cry.
“Have Jojo!” Michaela shrieks. The officer straightens from the car and walks over to Misty, who hoists Michaela up in the air to wrangle her. The Phantom Given rises, walks to the officer, Michaela, and Misty.
“You all right, babe?” Michael asks.
I shake my head no. Given-not-Given reaches out again, this time to Michaela, and it looks as if she sees him, as if he can actually touch her, because she goes rigid, all at once, and then a golden toss of vomit erupts from Michaela’s mouth and coats the officer’s uniformed chest. Misty drops Michaela and bends and gags. Phantom Given gives a silent clap, and the officer freezes.
“Fuck!” he says.
Michaela crawls to Jojo, and the officer yanks at Jojo’s pocket, pulls out a small bag Jojo had, and looks within it before shoving it back in Jojo’s face like it’s a rotten banana peel. He stalks back to stand in front of us again, and he is opening our cuffs, and he shines. The bile glistens, the blue flashes.
“Go home,” he says. There is no cinnamon and cologne anymore. Just stomach acid.
“Thank you, officer,” Michael says. He grabs my arm and walks me toward the car, and I cannot hide the shudder of pleasure as the meth licks and his fingers grip and the officer undoes Jojo’s cuffs.
“Boy had a damn rock in his pocket,” the officer says. “Go home, and keep that child in the seat as much as you can.”
Phantom Given frowns at me as I slide into the passenger seat. My body lolls. I can’t blink. My eyes snap open, again and again. Given-not-Given shakes his head as the real Michael slams the passenger door.
“Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck,” Misty breathes in the backseat. Jojo straps Michaela’s legs in her seat and hugs her and the whole contraption: the plastic back, the padding. Michaela sobs and grabs handfuls of his hair. I expect him to tell her it’s okay, but he doesn’t. He just rubs his face against her, his eyes closed. My spine is a rope, tugged north, then south. Michael puts the car in gear.
“You need milk,” Michael says. Phantom Given wipes his hand across his mouth, and it is then I realize that streams of spit are coming from my mouth, thick as mucus. Given-not-Given turns away from the car and disappears: I understand. Phantom Given is the heart of a clock, and his leaving makes the rest of it tick tock tick tock, makes the road unfurl, the trees whip, the rain stream, the wipers swish. I bend in half, my mouth in my elbow and knees, and moan. Wish it was Mama’s lap. My jaw clacks and grinds. I swallow. I breathe. All delicious and damned.
Excerpted from Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., in September 2017. Read two additional excerpts in the Oxford American’s Spring and Summer 2017 issues.
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