Naomi Benaron’s debut novel Running the Rift won the 2010 Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Her short story collection, Love Letters from a Fat Man, won the 2006 Sharat Chandra Prize for Fiction. Her fiction, poetry, and reviews appear in many in print and online journals. Currently, she teaches writing online for UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and is a mentor for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.
The Weight of Grace
Jimmy does the math. It took him roughly fifteen minutes to get from the 7-Eleven to Yvette’s front door, running as fast as he could and then faster. Four minutes now, plus or minus, he’s been standing in the dark, hands on knees, trying to recover, to breathe, waiting for her to open. He left behind two guns and two bodies: Rich and the clerk. A third gun smolders in his jacket pocket.
The Tucson night squats heavy and hot on Jimmy’s back. Mesquite branches droop, and even the leaves on the cottonwood that always have something to say in the slightest shudder hang mute over the carport. In the desert’s fevered sigh he hears his sister Chantale’s last breath, carried from the camp in Zaire, back in 1994. He looks up at a dizziness of stars. They tip and whorl, zigzag toward a single point, one of those black holes where gravity gets all messed up.
Jimmy counts to twenty and knocks again, louder. He knows Yvette heard. He saw the light flash on and off—flick-flick—like she thought she was dreaming. Like he can’t really be here, in the flesh, at 2:00 a.m. after all that happened with her daughter. And now, Jimmy just a dark spot in this black hole of night she will never see if she looks through the little eye in the door. A bad ghost.
So who’s the shooter? Him or Rich? Whose finger hit which trigger to send what bullet singing into that clerk’s heart? Red flower opening in the guy’s chest, a geometry of red on the wall behind. His crime to say, “I ain’t openin’ this fuckin’ register.” Stupid tweakers, he must have thought. And not even any money he would hold onto longer than to count it. So why’d he have to pull out that piece and jack up all their plans?
Jimmy does the math. One African refugee plus one white gangsta wannabe equals two zeros. Lining up the variables, he tries again to come to some solution. Rich and the clerk falling forever at the same time. Then Rich on the floor, half his head gone. Already, the episode has darkened around the edges, as in a dream, the moment before you wake.
“Y-vette,” Jimmy whispers. “Please, please.” He presses his face to the wood. If he closed his eyes, he could call up the sight of her in the shadowed hallway: burnt-honey skin, hair sleep-messy, head cocked to listen. He remembers the way she bent over a cup of strong Burundi tea, back when she was more than his social worker, more like a mother, an older sister, a friend.
Jimmy hears the sound of a door, its squeaky hinge.
“Angelique, go back to your room.”
“But Mom – ”
Angelique’s door slams shut. “Yvette,” Jimmy says, “it’s not her I came to see; it’s you. I’m in enough trouble as it is.”
If he were home with Tante Thérèse where he belonged, the party would just be revving into high gear: folks hanging out on stairways because the air conditioner is broke again, getting high between the buildings, leaning against their fancy cars that no longer run. He’d hear a babble of TV, salsa, T-Pain, Papa Wemba, the international ruckus fighting with indefinite integrals for space in his brain. He’d be banging on the paper-thin walls for them to shut-the-fuck-up because he had a calculus exam that afternoon, and he had to leave for work in four hours time. But in Yvette’s neighborhood, tucked in the shadow of the Catalina Mountains, there is only the landscape expanding and contracting in giant breaths. He looks out over rows of neat, squat homes with ordered gardens that tingle memories of Kigali, of Mama and Papa’s house in that time when he was someone else, some little boy with a Rwandan name living in someone else’s skin. Don’t go outside, Mbabazi, his mother said. But he did, and he saw, and for once he misses the noise, the tumult of Section Eight housing, anything to keep his mind from digging up earth that is better left unturned.
Anyway, school and work for him are finished now. Eight shots (roughly) and goodbye, future. When Tante Thérèse finds out, it will probably kill her. Succeed where a hundred days’ bloodbath, a two week’s death march, a year of disease and starvation failed.
Jimmy imagines reaching through the black hole’s warp and unraveling those eight beats of time, traveling back to an afternoon when he sat on a baking-hot step and listened to Rich spout his usual nonsense. For some crazy reason—maybe the sun, maybe the loneliness sizzling in his chest—he thought that fool white boy made sense. If Jimmy could, he would rip the words he was about to utter from his mouth, shake his head and instead say, “No, Rich. Take your guns and your dumb-ass schemes and get lost.” Even if he had to trade his own life for this chance, he swears he would. He owes Tante Thérèse that much, although she is not really his aunt, not any kin to him by blood.
The first time Jimmy saw Thérèse, he was with Chantale, huddled together by the side of the road between Kigali and Goma. The rebels had taken Kigali, and the Hutus—hands bloodied or not—had grabbed what they could carry and fled.
“Where is your dadi? Your mama?” The old woman squatted barefoot in her filthy pagne beside Jimmy and Chantale, cloth bundle on her head. Already, his sister shivered with fever.
Jimmy couldn’t say the word lost. Chantale had said no words at all since Papa was pulled from the car and killed. All around them, a lethal surge of refugees flowed toward the border.
“Come with me.” The woman touched Jimmy’s wrist. “If you stay here, you will be crushed.” For himself, Jimmy didn’t care, but he couldn’t let Chantale die. “I am Thérèse,” the woman said. “I’ve lost everyone, too.”
He took her offering of beans and put them in Chantale’s mouth. Hunger ate him from the inside out. Before he forced the bottle Thérèse gave him between his sister’s lips, he took the smallest sip of murky water for himself.
“I am their aunt,” Thérèse told the soldiers at the border. And who was to say? They were all shedding their skins, leaving clubs and machetes in piles at the crossings to Zaire.
Jimmy feels a growing collapse inside him. His knees wobble, and he sags to the ground, body squeezed against the door as if he could squeeze between the fibers of wood. He looks at his watch, the one Yvette gave him when she loved him like a son and he still believed he could be someone. It’s too dark to see the time. He’s afraid to close his eyes because there will be only this field of red and falling. The thought of red bothers him greatly, the woozy terror of falling.
“Yvette, nyumva. Mfasha. Help me.” He pleads in the language that binds them, curses and blesses their blood. Yvette is from Burundi, from the tribe he is supposed to hate, but that is a foolishness neither one of them supports. “Let me talk to you amaso ku yandi.” Face to face.
Sirens ride the night’s stillness. Jimmy’s heart bangs in his head until they recede. He can’t tell if he’s relieved or terrified, if he wants to escape or be caught. Fifty-fifty, he calculates and staggers to his feet. He takes the gun from his pocket and stares at it as if he has no idea how it got there. As if it fell from the sky, space junk spit out of orbit. The gun belongs—belonged—to Rich, but Jimmy’s no fool. Ninety-five percent chance it’s stolen.
In the desert, shooting at cans, the grip had fit neatly in his palm. It felt good, the trigger twitchy as a tweaker buzzed on meth. Jimmy posed like a gangsta and aimed at his reflection in the car window. “Johnny Too Bad, huh?”
“Are you fuckin’ nuts?” Rich shouted. “That thing’s still loaded.” Jimmy laughed and pointed the gun at Rich. Rich dove to the ground. Once, twice, Jimmy shot into the air. “Fuckin’ psycho,” Rich said. He stood and dusted off his pants.
That night, back in his room, Jimmy googled the pistol. “GLOCK 26: The baby glock. CONCEALABLE YET POWERFUL 9MM SUBCOMPACT.” He imagined the gun with four tiny wheels, driving down the street. Pictured it with a baby bonnet and a blanket. The technical data stuck in his head, because numbers always did. 6.29” long, 3.46” barrel, trigger pull: 5.5 lbs., weight: 19.75 oz. empty. Magazine capacity: 10 rounds standard. This magazine held twelve. Jacketed hollow point.
He wonders now how many rounds are left, how many shots were his. Everything happened in one exploding second: muzzle flashes pale in the store light, the pop-pop ringing his skull, the coppery backward arcs of spent shells.
In Jimmy’s other pocket is a cell phone. He could stop this talk-talk-talking in his head, call 911, and force the situation to its written-in-stone conclusion. Gun and phone trade places. The numbers glow greenish. Push me, they say.
Pls hlp, he texts to no one. Then to Angelique, although he knows Yvette confiscated her cell, r u there? No one is. He tosses the phone into a tangle of mesquite.
Jimmy takes out the Glock and nearly sends it on the same path as his phone. Instead, he puts the muzzle to his mouth, finger on the trigger. But he won’t end up like his papa, trying to speak with no jaw. He can’t let Angelique see that.
He hears a rustle. A sigh. She wants him to leave, and she’ll wait as long as it takes until he does. So many nights she stayed up with him, drinking milky sweet tea, quiet and listening until one night, he finally told her what she had been waiting to hear.
“His name was Muhirwe and he was my best friend and we were ten years old. My mother told me to stay inside, but I didn’t. I hid in the bignonia while the soldiers dragged them all into the yard.”
A door opened, Angelique gliding from her room. Nervous, girl-hipped, she watched only him.
Yvette’s voice brings him back. “You know I can’t let you in. Please just leave.”
He releases his breath in an exhale as long as a grandmother’s life. “This has nothing to do with Angelique – I swear on the Bible.” His hand hits the door, but he’s clutching a Glock, and the noise is too loud. “I did a bad thing.” His head hits the door. “Again.” He feels like a little kid. “Please say something. Anything.”
“What is this bad thing? Tell me from there.”
A cat lands with a thump on Yvette’s car, then skitters off into the brush. A black cat. Bad luck. Umwaku.
Jimmy closes his eyes, and there they are: Rich and the clerk. They float and turn in a river of red like the bodies that filled the rivers in Rwanda. “I can’t say without seeing you.”
“My father was a police chief,” he told Yvette during the intake interview. It seemed such a harmless statement. Then, out of nowhere came the image, and he felt as if he were breathing glass splinters. His father’s face in the moonlight, light knife-blading from the buttons on his uniform. Jimmy couldn’t place it, but he knew it was real. He wondered from Yvette’s expression if she had seen it, too.
Again the sirens. This time they come from all directions at once, compressed and distorted inside the black hole. He can’t recall the speed of sound but remembers the speed of light—3.0 X 108 meters/second—and a bunch of other crazy shit like Avagadro’s number and the equatorial radius and mass of the earth, numbers that can’t help him now and probably will never help him again. He concludes he is running out of time and options. Soon he will be down to zero.
Probably, he didn’t shoot the guy. Probably, he hit the floor, the counter, the displays of chips and candy. The sirens don’t go away, and Jimmy knows his mind is telling him lies as it pleases. He starts coughing and can’t quit.
Before Jimmy can stop it, he is calling the name he swore he would never say aloud again.
“Angelique,” Yvette shouts. “Go back to your room.”
Angelique screams for him again and then her door slams. In the silence she leaves behind, Jimmy summons the shape and texture of her taut parted lips. He tastes their salty heat and releases a solitary moan.
“I’ve had it,” Yvette says. “If you’re not gone in twenty seconds, I’ll call the police.”
“They’re coming anyway,” Jimmy says, quiet now.
“Yvette! Help me!” He bangs on the door. Across the street, a light goes on. A shadow pulls back a curtain. One ghost at the window, another at Yvette’s front door. The light goes out. Jimmy wonders if the man saw the pistol.
He listens closely but doesn’t hear Yvette move, doesn’t hear her on the phone. He counts to twenty. To sixty. He travels the numbers by powers of two to calm his mind.
When Jimmy was seven and his name was Mbabazi, he already knew his times up to thirteen. His mother couldn’t believe it. Even now, he can’t say how he learned. Numbers just made sense to him, their unbending logic like threads he could pick apart, tie together again in complicated knots. He was sitting at the table at his home in Kigali, Muhirwe in the chair beside him. They ate fried sweet potatoes dipped in warm milk, his favorite treat.
“Thirteen times nine: one-seventeen, times ten: one-thirty.”
“Hey! You don’t know,” Muhirwe said. “You’re making that up.” Muhirwe’s laugh, his silly, crooked smile, front tooth missing, mushed-up potatoes orange on his tongue. Drops of milk on his chin. Chantale with a doll on the floor.
“Times eleven: one-forty-three, times twelve: one-fifty-six, times thirteen: one-sixty-nine.”
Jimmy’s mother, grading papers, at first had only glanced up. By times seven, she let the pen pause mid stroke. By times nine, she set the pen down. At thirteen she said, “Mbabazi, I’m going to call your papa. Say the times for him, eh?”
The sun wrapped the table in a yellow sheet. Through the open window the sweet haze of frangipani swirled. His mother handed him the phone, and he repeated his times for his papa at the police station. All the way to thirteen squared.
“So smart, my son. He’ll grow up to be minister of finance.” Jimmy pictured the two rows of buttons on Papa’s uniform like bright pairs of eyes.
An animal wail tears itself from Jimmy’s throat. How could they have guessed on such a sunny afternoon that they were hurtling at the speed of light toward the singular point where all logic implodes?
“Yvette. I have.” What? A wish? An ache? A hunger? A thirst? A Glock 26 weighing 19.75 oz. to cure all need? He wails again. A keen for all that cannot be cured.
“Jimmy, calm yourself. Are you ready to talk?” Yvette speaks in her social worker voice, all business. As if he had never been anything more than the sum of the papers in his file.
“Through the door?”
“Yes, through the door. If you yell like that again, someone else will call the police for me. This is not the kind of neighborhood to tolerate your scenes.”
Jimmy has no one but himself to blame for the change in her. He forces his lips against the wood like a kiss. It tastes of dirt. Of grit and grime and years of sweat. He practices the words I killed a guy. Bullshit. How can he say? He wants his phone back. Maybe if the words travelled through on the anonymous waves of wireless, they wouldn’t count as truth.
“I’ll be right back,” he says. “Don’t leave. Tell me you won’t leave.”
“Jimmy, what are you doing?”
“Two seconds. Trust me.”
“OK. But one word to my daughter, and I call the cops.”
There is enough worry in her voice to give him hope, and he bounds into the yard. He thinks he sees Angelique’s silhouette in her window, but he can’t be sure. The black cat yowls and scurries from its hiding place. Its eyes gleam yellow in a wedge of moonlight. Jimmy hurls the gun after him to chase away the evil luck. He already has too many curses on his head.
Thorns scratch his face and steal his cap when he reaches into the mesquite. He coaxes the phone into his palm. A thorn nicks his eye. Maybe Yvette did call the police. Maybe by now they’re listening in, waiting for a confession. He lets the phone drop and sits on a rock to untangle his thoughts. He can’t put a finger on the spot where reason ends and fear begins. Can’t identify the flashpoint where past and present ignite.
Angelique was twelve the day she drifted into Jimmy’s life, but he mistook her for much older. Yvette had come to drive him and Tante downtown to get social security cards. A dazzle of sun reflected from the sidewalk, turning the air sparkly. When Jimmy guided Tante from the shade of the apartment building, the heat made him gasp for breath. Even in Zaire, he had never known such heat. Angelique slumped in the passenger seat, sandaled feet propped on the dash. Her head was down, and she was concentrating on something in her lap. The sun through the windshield sprayed copper across her plaited hair and gave her skin a golden tint, a dash of toffee stirred in. Until Yvette scolded her and told her to sit up straight and be polite, Jimmy thought she was another client, another lost refugee. He didn’t yet think of Yvette as a woman with a life of her own. She didn’t look so far removed from a girl herself.
He was still Mbabazi then, only sixteen himself, newly uprooted from the continent of his birth and reeling from the constant barrage of take-me that was America. From the moment he stepped off the plane in Tucson, he couldn’t believe his luck. How ripe and new and rich with possibility the world seemed to him, as if he could pluck it, chew it, swallow it. After so many years of shoving moldy cassava flour into his mouth to stave off hunger. Of cooling fever with mosquito-fouled water, of loss and loss and loss.
Yvette stood by the curb with a folder clasped in her arms. Jimmy didn’t know it yet, but his life from Rwanda and the camps had followed him. In the coming months, both folder and life would grow complicated and messy, a complex equation with real and imaginary parts.
When Jimmy ducked inside the car, the woman-scent of powders and perfumes engulfed him. It brought back his mother so vividly he began to sweat. Like a stupid muturage, a country boy, he sat on the backseat while torrents welled from his armpits and his pants stuck to his legs.
Angelique turned a glimmering smile on them, her eyes a slow, smoky burn trapped inside grey glass. They were the kind of eyes that whispered trouble. Even so, if God had jumped down from the sky and told him he’d be the one to find it, he would have laughed out loud.
“Nice to meet you, Madame,” she said. She flipped a CD between her fingers. “Mbabazi, do you like jazz?” Her voice was fluid and musical, water rolling over smooth stones.
“Sure,” Jimmy said. “It’s my favorite.”
“No doubt,” Angelique said to the dashboard. She put the CD back in its case and tossed it onto the seat. Bill Waters Plays Monk, Jimmy read. “I hate jazz,” she sighed. “What do you really like to listen to?” Her fingernails were black, and it took Jimmy a moment to realize this was not some strange disease.
“Silence is fine,” Yvette said. She scooped up the CD and dropped it into her purse.
Jimmy knew the sound of ice when he heard it. He let the girl’s question go unanswered and concentrated instead on the way her filmy sleeves billowed in the breeze the AC made and how her plaits shimmied as her head kept the beat of her internal tunes.
Thirty minutes later, he stood at a window in the courthouse and told the bored official in the pointy glasses that the name he wanted on his card was Jimmy—not James—Mbabazi because he had seen it in a magazine and thought it was cool. The name belonged to the former president, Jimmy Carter. It sounded to Mbabazi-Jimmy as American as the Red White and Blue, as American as the welcoming smile on Jimmy Carter’s face. What a great country this was, he thought then. He could start out fresh, make up any person, any past he wanted. He could seize the American Dream by the throat and grow up to be president himself.
“You can call me Jimmy now,” he said to Angelique when he sat back down to wait for Tante to finish with the clerk. He felt as if he had just won the lottery, but she just rolled her eyes.
In a sudden pinch of panic, Jimmy wonders if Yvette is still by the door. He wiggles back into the mesquite to retrieve his phone. A car rumbles nearer. Headlights scavenge the darkened yards, and Jimmy presses down into the dirt. Headlights slide over his body, possess him, and then move on. Before he can stop it, the memory of the rebel advance fills his head.
Shouts, a chaotic staccato of rifle and mortar fire, the whine of engines, fused into one unending racket.
“We’ll have to leave now,” Papa said. “No time to pack. If the RPF finds us here, they’ll kill us all.” He ran to get the car, Mbabazi screaming that he couldn’t leave his schoolbooks, screaming and screaming until Mama said OK.
Muhirwe’s house next door stood empty, ruined, gutted. The paneless windows stared at Mbabazi like accusing eyes. To this day he believes that as he watched the killings from the bignonia, Muhirwe turned his face and saw him there. Saw him hiding and doing nothing as the machete came down and down and down again.
Until the night his story came pouring out, Jimmy had told Yvette he remembered nothing about the genocide. Such a lie! Muhirwe’s last gaze never left him. How could he forget one scrap?
Now, phone in hand, Jimmy limps back to the door. Gnarls of sorrow and regret entangle his joints. He wishes only to lie skin to skin with Angelique, to unwind this night inside her cinnamon scent. Hear me out, Yvette, he wants to say. I was not the first. You can’t put such a burden on me.
“Yvette,” he says. “Are you still there?” What he means is: Will you ever forgive me? A forgiveness that does not involve denying him her daughter. Neither death nor starvation ever made him ache as sharply as this love.
“Yes. I’m here.”
“I’m going to call you now.” He opens the phone, thumbs the first numbers, then snaps the phone shut.
“Why are you phoning me, eh? You’re not making sense. What’s going on?”
A slight vibration tingles his palm, but he can’t tell if it’s real. When he puts the phone to his ear, Rich’s voice comes through.
Don’t worry, dude. You’ll never have to use it. Wave a piece and they’ll turn the cash drawer upside down and inside out. You’ll be snorting coke through twenties. Jimmy told him he didn’t use drugs, didn’t care about the money. What,then? Girls? You think your college e-ji-cation gonna impress ‘em? Or baggin’ fuckin’ groceries at Albertson’s? This is the ticket to anything you want. As if Rich could ever know what want was. As if anyone or anything could take this lifetime’s worth of want away again. Think about it, man.
So that day on the steps, Jimmy thought about it. He imagined his own car, Angelique sitting beside him. He thought about a box with a pair—maybe two—of those dangly earrings she loved. A ring with a fancy stone. He saw her in the back seat, spine arched with pleasure. And then he saw the word yes. He said it. “Yes. All right. I’m in.”
Jimmy knows he hit the No U Turn on the road that brought him here the last time he walked away from Yvette’s door. Since then, there has been only a slippery downward slope, a condensed mass of nothingness waiting at the bottom. There are more sirens, coming closer, and the night slants away, steals the breath from Jimmy’s lungs.
He could run out into the street, aim his Glock at the cops, let them do him a favor. Let the integration around all his paths come to zero. Big Fat Zero. He laughs out loud. Minister of Finance, he told Yvette one night when she asked him what he wanted to be.
Jimmy reels backward into the yard. Synchronous with his movement, an origami butterfly floats from Angelique’s window, followed by a tiny orb of light. The light traces an arc through the air, lands on the ground and glows. Jimmy sprints to retrieve flashlight and butterfly. “Jimmy, unfold me,” written on the butterfly’s wing. Glitter drifts earthward when he does. The girl-scent of Angelique’s fingers unfolds inside him. He returns to the door with his sparkled shirt, butterfly and flashlight tucked in his pocket.
The first time Angelique walked through Jimmy’s dreams was during a bad week in a bad month. The visits, as he called them, were back, those movies that played behind his eyelids whether or not he paid for a ticket. The dizziness came first. Then a swirl of events all mixed up together. It felt like jumping into a kaleidoscope, bits of broken glass disassembling and reassembling in random patterns, accompanied by the hip-hop scratch of a stylus dragged across a record. Then fingers around his throat. Hands crushing his ribs one by one. And then the image of his father in his uniform, the light-glinting buttons. Transitory: a nanosecond and gone.
“My mind brings back those days as it pleases,” he told Yvette when she asked him yet again to speak about his last moments with his mother. She believed if he told the story often enough, it would lose its hold on him, but shoving the past into ill-fitting words had changed nothing.
A mass of humanity swelling on the road to Goma like a chaotic and unstable wave, although it would be years before Mbabazi—Jimmy, by then—would know to call it this. Papa’s car progressed in a series of stalls and lunges until finally, out of gas, the engine sputtered and died. They were about to get out when an RPF soldier banged on the windshield with the butt of his rifle.
“I know him; he’s a police chief from Kigali,” the soldier shouted.
Foolishly, Mbabazi thought that recognition meant salvation. Instead, his family was jerked from the car and shoved to the ground. RPF soldiers kicking and kicking. “Killer!” They taunted. Then the shot, and his father’s face shattered. He tried to speak with something that was no longer a mouth. Mama, bloodied, kneeling beside him but then somehow swallowed from Mbabazi’s sight. She became a grain of sand on the lakeshore, Mbabazi and Chantale swept away in the human wind.
“Mbabazi, don’t let go of your sister’s hand.” He could still hear her voice, but her face was lost to him.
This particular “visit” started while Jimmy was doing his schoolwork. It was his first semester at community college. Without warning, the dizziness nearly yanked him from his chair, tore open the floor beneath him. He knew from the curving walls and the ghost-glimmer in the corners of his eyes it would be a bad one.
Angelique stepped unbidden through the wall. Or maybe she floated through the window; he can’t remember now. She wore one of her wild, lacy skirts, a shimmery, translucent blouse, chain belt low-riding her hips. She touched his cheek, the pressure as real as if she stood there, truly, in front of him, and the fingers around his neck relaxed and melted. His mother and father shredded like mist. Chantale stopped dying and dying in his arms.
Angelique’s grace, her body saved him. As her presence in his waking and sleeping dreams grew constant, her blouse slipped further down her shoulders until it slid below her small breasts, her dark encircled nipples. And then, God help him, one day she stepped from her skirt. Between her legs, an airy triangle of reddish gold. Even Muhirwe disappeared with this vision, Muhirwe with his betrayed face, his wounded gaze.
Yvette’s voice yanks him back to the door. “Jimmy, say something. I need to know you’re still here.”
“Yego. I haven’t moved.”
Sliding out from Angelique’s window, Chaka Khan’s high notes shiver the night’s heat. Barely audible, but he knows without hearing what the song is, knows every word by heart. Through the fire, to the limit, to the wall. It brings back Angelique’s heft beneath his hands, her sweat-rivered skin against his belly, as keenly as if her legs still yoked his hips to hers. I’d gladly risk it all.
Late afternoon. Nervous and needing to talk, Jimmy stood at Yvette’s doorstep. Muhirwe’s face appeared whenever Jimmy closed his eyes, leaving him exhausted beyond belief. His A average had slipped to a C, and for the first time in his life, he was skipping classes. When he got caught stealing a shirt, Tante’s heart threatened to break. He couldn’t bear the disappointment on her face, so he did what he always did –called Yvette for help.
Angelique opened the door. “Didn’t you get Mom’s message?” She leaned against the doorframe, folding a sheet of yellow paper with blue-nailed fingers.
Igicucu. Foolish boy. He hadn’t turned on his phone after school. He shook his head and moved a step closer. Hand on the wood, half his foot inside.
She held up the paper and turned it slowly. Beneath her tank top, her nipples trembled. “Origami. It’s a bird. Do you like it?”
“Yeah. It’s cool.” Need a fiery nettle in Jimmy’s belly, his mouth too dry to swallow.
“She had an emergency. One of her clients died, and she had to go help the family. Do you want to come in anyway?”
“I’m sorry.” Heart hammering. Both feet inside now.
Angelique shrugged. “Shit happens.”
Indeed. “Your mom won’t mind?”
“Of course she would, but she’ll be gone for hours.”
Closing the door, she brushed Jimmy’s arm, her skin damp and fresh-scented. A force field of swampy air traveled in her wake. A wisp of something sweet and musky. Jimmy doesn’t do drugs, but he knows pot when he smells it. Reaching onto her toes, Angelique whispered toward his ear. “You were so dumb to get busted.”
“What are you talking about, huh?”
She tugged on his shirt. “Don’t try to play me. The shirt. I listen in on my mom’s calls.” From her bedroom came the steady thump of her music, the scrappy poetry of rap. Mostly, rap came too fast, in too much tumult for Jimmy to understand, but he liked its rage, its naked longing. I wish I could buy me a space ship and fly past the sky. That he understood.
The bird’s second wing appeared and then the tail. Just as in Jimmy’s visions, the strap of her top slid down her shoulder. He took this as a sign. “I did it for you,” he said and stroked her cheek. “I thought you’d like the way I looked in green.”
Angelique placed the fully formed creature in Jimmy’s palm, next to Muhirwe’s ghost-hand. “I have an origami zoo in my room. Come see,” she said. Muhirwe hopped onto Jimmy’s tongue, waiting to be told.
“What does Muhirwe mean? I know those names always mean something.”
Angelique asked this question after Jimmy told her a little about his friend, something safe and easy. He had gapped front teeth. He died in the genocide. After she consoled him in her wiry arms and his fingers found her breasts and then the ruby-feathered prize. She lay naked beside him on the sex-tousled sheets, her leg draped over his.
“A person of luck,” Jimmy said and kissed his teeth. “Muhirwe’s luck was to be born into the wrong skin at the wrong time.” The rap music had been traded in for Chaka Khan. Jimmy had never been this close to anyone before.
“What about Mbabazi?”
“My name is Jimmy now.”
“And your luck?” Angelique slid her hand over his ass.
He tongued her nipple and sighed. “Mine? To be born into the right skin at the wrong time.”
“Does that mean Muhirwe was Tutsi, like my mom? And you’re Hutu?”
Out of nowhere, rage and panic whelmed up in Jimmy’s throat. To distract his mind, he picked up a CD poking out from its smashed case on the floor.
“Bill Waters. You had this the day I met you. You threw it onto the seat.”
“God – you remember that?”
“My memory is long.”
She grabbed the disk and flung it at the wall. “My precious daddy. He sends CDs instead of money. Like we can eat music. And the fucker’s rich.” Taking Jimmy’s sex in her hand she said, “I don’t want to talk about him any more. I don’t want to talk at all.”
Right down to the wire even through the fire, Chaka Khan belted out.
A red origami airplane nosedives out Angelique’s window. Jimmy runs and grabs it, shines the flashlight on the message. “Fly me away with you.” Angelique’s hand emerges from the darkness of the cracked-open window, extended toward him. Jimmy flies a kiss from his fingertips. He hears Yvette tell her to turn off the music and then say his name. Fear pulls him in two directions at once. He thinks of shoving the airplane into his mouth, a red-hot chili pepper. Instead he launches it into the ocotillo and sprints back to the door.
“Jimmy, are you going to answer me?” Yvette says. It’s what she asked him on another day, through another door.
Winter. Sunset the color of a mango’s skin. Jimmy knew he should have left already, knew Yvette could come home from work any time, but a heat like burning sugar welded skin to skin, kept him there on Angelique’s bed. The noise of the key in the lock floated into his head like someone calling from a distance in a dream.
“Oh my God.” Yvette’s face in the bedroom doorway and then the door shutting. Through the door came words like a prayer. As for Jimmy, he had thrown out prayer with his abandoned name.
Angelique clung to him, legs a locked chain about his pelvis. Desire a fierce ache that would not loosen its hold.
“Jimmy, I don’t care if she kills me. Don’t leave.”
But Yvette had cried with him, lost sleep with him, shown him the love she would have shown a son. He felt suddenly so sick he could have collapsed on the floor and emptied his insides and never moved again.
Yvette gave him five minutes to leave. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” He could hear the slight shudder in her voice, like the sigh of a wounded animal. He wrenched free and pulled on his pants. “Jimmy, are you going to answer me?”
He knew she wanted him to apologize, to beg forgiveness, but the words had swelled inside his mouth. They had grown too big to come out. He buttoned his shirt.
Angelique screamed at him, but he couldn’t understand a word, and he wondered if she was speaking another language or was speaking in tongues like those people in church. Still naked, she began to slaughter her origami zoo, pulling off wings and tails and trunks. Ripping. Shredding. Decapitating. A genocide of paper scattered at her feet. Madness was something Jimmy understood. He had known enough of it in his life to fill a field of mass graves.
“Are you still there? Say something, Jimmy, or I’ll call the police right now.”
Muhirwe emerges from the ocotillo, bare feet scratched by thorns. When he holds up his hands, Jimmy sees he has the paper airplane. Muhirwe crumples it, and the paper becomes a trail of blood dripping from his palms. Tell her, Mbabazi. The ruckus of all this killing is overmuch in your head. Muhirwe steps too close, and Jimmy pounds on the front door to drown him out.
“Yvette, I maybe killed someone. No. I didn’t. This guy I was with did. But I need to come in and talk things through.”
The silence is so long, so harsh, Jimmy thinks she’s finally made the call. Then the door opens and she says, “OK.” She has on jeans and a t-shirt, flip-flops, as if she’s just going to run to the store.
She offers him a chair but no tea, no water even. From the pout of her lips, he knows she detests him, his incurable weakness. When he sits down, he hears a squeak from Angelique’s door, sees a tiny crack open into her darkened room. He looks at Yvette but can’t tell if she’s noticed. This is the last thing he wants Angelique to hear, but what can he do?
Slowly, shakily, he finds the words. He begins with the conversation with Rich on the steps in the sun. Jimmy curses his bad luck. If he hadn’t gone at that particular moment on that particular day to do his and Tante’s laundry, he wouldn’t be sitting here now.
“Mana yanjye, Jimmy. Why did you even give a guy like that the time of day?”
Jimmy shrugs. How can he explain that Angelique’s absence has blown open such a wound he would try anything to close it? This is not the first time Jimmy jumped into a mess of trouble. But before Yvette crumpled him up and threw him away, she was always there to grab him like a puppy by the skin of his neck, pull him out and clean him off. To give him tea, assure him he was not just smart but gifted.
Jimmy keeps talking, because that’s all he can think of to do. When he gets to the part about the gun, his stomach twists. He sees it, shining and cold in a patch of dirt in the yard, pointing the way for any cop to find him.
“I hope to God you didn’t bring a weapon into my house.”
“No, I threw it in some bushes.” This is not really a lie. He should stop, but he doesn’t. “True – I don’t think I fired.” Sweat beads on his forehead as he lands squarely in the territory of deceit. Muhirwe steps toward him and sucks his teeth. Coward. Will you ever stop running?
Again the silence is harsh, and Jimmy wishes Yvette would curse him or beat him – anything but her motionless body, her expressionless eyes. “According to Arizona law,” she says, “it doesn’t matter if you fire. If you are armed and someone dies, you are guilty of murder.”
Jimmy shakes off her sentence. Muhirwe drags it back. “But I didn’t kill him. I didn’t even want to go.” Jimmy’s head hits the table and he covers his face and all he wants is the touch of Angelique’s fingers.
He feels cool hands on his, but they belong to Yvette. “I’m sorry,” she says. “If I don’t call the police, I’m an accessory. I can’t risk that with my daughter.” Her voice hoarse, breaking. She moves her chair close, and he smells her powders and creams. Did that mean otherwise she would have let him go? The floor tilts upward. “I’m going to phone now, OK?” she says.
Jimmy can’t raise his head for the dizziness. He no longer knows the difference between yes and no. Muhirwe says, Umva sha – just say it. Yego. Yes. Eyes like two shards of a mirror.
“Jimmy.” Gently Yvette lifts his chin. He thinks of Angelique bringing his face to hers and kissing him. “Look at me amaso ku maso. I want to help you.”
“Then let me talk. I wouldn’t have come, but I had nowhere else to go. A few minutes longer, and I promise I’ll leave and never come back. No one knows to look for me here.” Muhirwe presses his bloody palms to Jimmy’s heart. Only I can heal you, he says.
“No, Jimmy. There’s no other way.” Yvette strokes his cheek where a few ragged wires of beard sprout. She keeps coaxing, and he feels himself alternately leaning toward her and pulling away. In the end, her tenderness undoes him. He nods yes. Maybe Muhirwe will shut up now, leave him in peace. Yvette squeezes Jimmy’s shoulders. “I’ll call, then.” She gets up, walks to the phone, and picks up the receiver. She has not yet dialed when Angelique’s door flies open.
“Mama, put down the phone.” Angelique steps into the room, Jimmy’s Glock in her hands. She waves it around, points it at the ceiling, the phone, then at Yvette’s head. Her eyes don’t focus, like she’s on something. Jimmy sees her finger on the trigger, and his breath turns to ice. He knows how itchy that trigger is, how it’s never more than a blink away from firing.
Slowly he gets up and moves toward her. It feels like he’s swimming through soup. He talks to fill up the space, angles around to her back. She’s got both hands around the grip now, a bead on her mother’s forehead.
“Jimmy, let me,” Yvette says in her soft calm voice. She replaces the phone in its cradle.
But he needs to make just one thing right. Taking small, easy steps, he closes the gap. “It’s OK, baby,” he whispers. “You can give me the gun.”
“Bitch!” Angelique screeches. “I won’t let her fucking do this to me.”
He’s behind her, close enough to sizzle in her heat. A sour, chemical odor reaches his nostrils.
“It’s OK,” he says again.
Spittle hangs from the corner of her mouth, and he wants to wipe it away.
For a moment, everything is in freeze-frame. Then he senses the slightest relaxation in her muscles, and he lunges, gets his arms around hers. His intention is to grab her wrists and knock the gun away, but he’s too pumped on adrenaline to do it smoothly, and at the last second, she moves to escape him. The combined momentum sends them both tumbling forward. They are still falling when a shockwave sweeps Jimmy into darkness.
Mbabazi squats in the bignonia, hidden amongst the tangle of leaves and yellow flowers. The grounds are awash with light, soldiers and policemen everywhere. Bursts of gunfire come from the road. Unearthly screams. The soldiers drag Muhirwe’s family out into the yard. They cut his father and tear Muhirwe and his brother from his mother’s grasp. Muhirwe refuses to let his little brother go, protecting him with his skinny, trembling body. Mbabazi tries to close his eyes, but he can’t, and every strike of the machete strikes his heart as well. More than anything, he wants to die together with his friend. He prays for God to grant his wish, waits and waits, but nothing happens to him.
When all the family lies dead, a policeman steps from the shadow. Mbabazi has watched this scene so many times he could recite its choreography by rote. The policeman pushes open the heavy gate that leads to the street. The gate squeals, and the trucks rumble through. In slow motion, Mbabazi sees the policeman raise his head before he follows the last truck out.
Usually, the movie ends here, but not this time. This time, the policeman’s head keeps lifting and lifting until Mbabazi looks directly into his father’s eyes. The face terrifies Mbabazi; it is at once animal and expressionless, at once his father’s and not his father’s. The two familiar rows of buttons reflect the light like little spears. Then he steps into the road and closes the gates behind him.
“Mbabazi,” Muhirwe whispers. Mbabazi clasps his friend in his arms. Muhirwe’s blood warms Mbabazi’s leg. It binds them.
Forgiveness is what Mbabazi’s name means, so he doesn’t know if Muhirwe is pardoning him or merely calling out to him in death. He wonders at the smell of blood and gunpowder, at the sharpness of all his senses. He wonders why it has taken all these years to get back to the movie’s end, and he wishes instead he could have kept on walking out and walking out.
“I forgive you,” Muhirwe says in English. He floats from Mbabazi’s arms. For a moment he remains a bright shimmer in the air, then he is gone. Mbabazi can still feel the warmth of Muhirwe’s blood on his legs, the weight of his body.
He opens his eyes and it is not Muhirwe but Angelique in his lap, jeans pulled down to her calves. Yvette kneels beside her, a towel pressed into her leg just above the knee. A dark flow soaks towel and leg. “You’re going to be all right, angel,” she says. “It’s not as bad as it looks. The ambulance is coming.”
“Mama, I’m scared,” Angelique says. She lifts her chin, and Mbabazi sees her delicate necklace: a bird, wings spread, flying from a silver chain. If life had gone his way, he could have bought her any necklace she wanted.
In the light, the wings flash like his father’s buttons, and he has to turn away. He remembers the day she perched an origami bird on his palm, and in his heightened state, he senses its delicate mass hovering just above his skin. It’s as if the bird is waiting for him to say something. He doesn’t know how to find the words.