As Us

A Space for Writers of the World

Lyndsey Ellis—Fiction

BETTER

Someone was stealing things from the garage. Raynah kicked at the door’s broken lock and lugged the morning’s emptied garbage cans inside. The scent of wet rat fur hit her hard. She couldn’t remember the last time it rained, which meant there was probably a pipe leak in the walls or ceiling. Just something else that needed to be fixed with the fizzling funds from her scant community grant.

On her way back to the house, Raynah saw Theo’s white Lexus pull into Justine’s driveway next door. She hadn’t seen him since Sir’s funeral last summer. It wasn’t like Theo to stay in touch, especially during the last weeks of his city council campaign. Raynah suspected he was using their mother again to revamp his public image which had faltered during the Ferguson crisis. Either that, or he was in some kind of trouble.

“Hey, stranger,” Raynah called out. Theo looked thinner than she remembered. His chocolate, chiseled face needed a shave, and the boyish sparkle in his eyes was gone. Raynah imagined how happy Beth, his ex-wife, would be to see him look so miserable.

“Let me guess,” she said. “Trailblazing St. Louis alderman halts his campaign for re-election to comfort his widowed mother?”

Theo let out a wry laugh and signaled for her to join him in the car.

“So, what’s the special occasion?” probed Raynah, closing the car door behind her. “Don’t you have a press conference to be at?”

“Not today. Just thought I’d check on Mama.”

It was a lie, Raynah knew, or at least not all of the truth.

“Did she tell you we’re not on speaking terms?” she asked Theo.

“No, but Lois did.”

“Figures.”

The mid-March humidity was turning Theo’s closed car into a sauna, but it felt unusually nice and reminded Raynah of their childhood. She saw herself racing her brother and sister to Sir’s Oldsmobile when he let them go with him to buy beer and lotto tickets at the local mini mart. They’d race each other back to their father’s car after buying snacks to wait on him while he socialized and played his numbers.

Raynah loved winning the front seat in the summertime. She liked being alone in Sir’s sweltering vehicle before her siblings returned, with the oily tar smell in her father’s seats. The way heat made her belly contract and softened her Starburst candies so they melted in her mouth.

“You and Mama are hilarious,” said Theo, lowering their windows.

“What’s that mean?”

“It means what it means. You two are so much alike and have no clue.”

“My eyes are wide open,” Raynah said. “Mama’s the one without the fucking clue.”

The newspaper clipping in Sir’s basement resurfaced. Dated December 1972. Yellowed with age. A side of it singed, like it had been rescued from a fire.

The girl on the front page was definitely Justine. Raynah hadn’t intended on coming back from California to expose their mother, this underground activist. Not that she regretted it. Raynah didn’t care if she wasn’t permitted to use the old photo as part of her social justice exhibit, but she wanted answers about Justine’s untold history. She couldn’t believe Theo and Lois were giving their mother a pass on something that was this valuable.

“You can’t hate her for wanting better,” said Theo. His voice was hard and resolute, but his eyes skittered across Raynah’s sweatpants.

“Theo, stop being a politician for two minutes. We’re family. Be real with me.”

“I’m being real,” he fired back. “Because I’m not taking your side, that means I’m phony?”

“This is about more than wanting better. Mama shouldn’t have to hide who she was. If anything, you two sound the most alike, being closeted and all.”

Theo traced the inside of his steering wheel and shifted uneasily in his seat. Raynah knew she’d said too much. She closed her eyes to chase out the image of Pete’s broken body under a bloodied sheet being rolled into the back of an ambulance. She waited for the pinch of remorse to disappear and stiffened in the soured silence between them in the car. Secrets or not, who was she to make her brother relive his first love’s unresolved death?

Theo pulled out a wad of bills and quickly fingered through them.

“I don’t want your money,” Raynah told him.

“Take it,” he said. “No one ever thought you’d be dumb enough to come back here and move into Sir’s house. You’re in for a lifetime of routine maintenance and safeguarding against these hard-up neighborhood thugs.”

“I said no.”

“Come on,” insisted Theo. “Do it for my poor niece. She can’t keep bouncing between you and Mama’s place forever.”

“Yes, she can,” Raynah said defiantly, but stuffed the bills inside her bra. It was good seeing Theo and having the first real conversation she’d had with him in a long time. Too long.

*

Inside the house, Raynah burned incense and removed her sneakers. She sat cross-legged in the center of her living room, lit a cigarette, and surveyed the furniture-less space. So much still needed to be done before the place looked like a real museum. The pressure to make it happen within a month’s time was overwhelming, especially when Raynah still needed a new intern. So far, the online job postings hadn’t brought much luck.

As if on cue, the phone rang and with that, came unwanted memories of Gail, the last pseudo-radical Raynah fired. All the girl did was stay on her cell phone and name-drop community figureheads she didn’t really know. Her spelling and grammar were weak. She’d never heard of George Jackson or any of the Soledad brothers. She laughed too loud at things that weren’t funny, and she responded to all directives with phrases she thought were cool, like ‘right on’, ‘that’s jive’, or ‘stay woke’.

“Yeah?”

“Hi, I’m calling about the internship ad at the social justice museum.”

“You interested?”

“Yes. Is the position still open?”

“You see the ad’s still there, don’t you?”

“Yes,” the voice said, hesitant but calm. “Should I send my resume?”

“No. Can you write and keep things clean?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Don’t call me that. I’m old but not that old. Are you a student?”

“I start college this fall.”

“My sympathies.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Are you social media savvy?”

“Yes.”

“Not that I care about that, either,” Raynah said. “No one’s changed the world with a hashtag yet, but it’s the best way to get a message to the masses right now. Plus, it’s one of the conditions required to keep the grant.”

“Got it.”

“One more thing. You heard of George Jackson?”

“The Black Panther? Of course. I loved his books.”

“Come tomorrow at 2. Be here on time or don’t bother.”

“Yes ma’am. I mean, yes—wait, I didn’t get your name—“

Raynah hung up and finished her cigarette.

*

Her name was Claire Frazier. She brought her resume anyway, along with a list of references. She was albino with a freckled nose and lips. The nest of hair on her head was beige and woolly, cascading down her back in corn rows.

“Where’s the social justice museum?” she asked.

“You’re looking at it,” Raynah said, leading the way into the living room. “You come to all your interviews 30 minutes early?”

“I’m not familiar with this area and didn’t want to risk being late.”

“You’re not from St. Louis?”

“I am, but I live in Ladue with my folks.”

“Ladue.”

Raynah sighed and plopped down on the floor. She motioned for Claire to sit beside her. “Nice times you’re living in.”

“Well, it’s not The Ville or Ferguson, but it has its issues.”

“I suspect none that have to do with spotty incomes, police brutality, or high crime rates.”

“No, just good old-fashioned racism.”

Raynah sat on her hands. She decided she liked this girl who wasn’t a ditz or easily ruffled. Claire was plain-spoken with a quiet, comforting presence. Her powder skin and wire hanger frame showed she’d never been on popularity’s good side. The regal way she carried herself suggested she’d never cared.

“What interests you most about working here?” Raynah asked. “By the way, this area you’re in right now is still North County. It’s not the city.”

It was horrible having to spell that out, even if it was true. Raynah felt like the hypocrite she called her mother. Here she was, flaunting the ride-or-die principles from her time in Oakland to create a sacred space for honoring activism and underserved communities and still, she found it humiliating to have ties to St. Louis’ bleakest sections.

Raynah avoided the inner city as much as she could, only going if an errand called for it, or to visit relatives she’d remained in touch with over the years. Each time, she hated it. Then, she hated herself for hating it.

There was something criminally demeaning about seeing crater-sized potholes in the streets, boarded and abandoned storefronts, and the skeletons of badly burned houses next to residents living a few feet away. All of it was sore on the eyes, memory, and spirit. The ghastly message that poor people deserved constant reminders of their powerlessness.

Tori, an old friend of Raynah’s from the Bay Area, once warned her not to be fooled. “The ‘hoods in Oakland were just as bad,” she’d said.

During Raynah’s first semester at UC Berkeley, she and Tori traded one afternoon of studying to sight-see the East Bay. Raynah sat in the passenger seat of her friend’s car, feeling shocked, relieved, and a little betrayed by word-of-mouth assumptions and news media outlets that, for as long as she could recall, denounced Oakland as San Francisco’s dysfunctional shadow.

Contrary to what Raynah was told, Oakland didn’t look like one of the nation’s violent hotbeds. There were a few whinos, prostitutes, and deserted areas that had gone without attention for a while, but many of the city’s most forbidden areas seemed livable with their chipper, multi-colored bungalows and tiny, clean yards. What Raynah witnessed in the East Bay made St. Louis’ scarred spots look like a Third World warzone.

It was pointless to argue with Tori. Raynah had a reputation for being outspoken, but shame held her tongue. She felt overseen—big and disarranged—in her friend’s small Corvette that roared down International Boulevard. She wanted to fade away as she swelled, a process that continued throughout her life as a student, a college drop-out, and then, a moonlighting demonstrator.

The California Raynah left was certainly not the same California that welcomed her, but that didn’t make the return to St. Louis easier. Sir’s death, the vortex of family drama that followed, and witnessing the stark change in her old stomping ground had a new and lasting effect. Instead of expanding, Raynah started feeling herself slip away. Eroding with the suburban perks that once defined her middle-class childhood.

Everything was different. Littered sidewalks outshined wooded parks. Pawn shops, check cashing centers, and liquor stores were replacing indoor malls and prominent grocery chains. Vagrants paraded intersections in search of food and money. It wasn’t quite the horrors of Pruitt-Igoe that Raynah’s parents once knew, but the lines between county and city, suburban and urban, the haves and have-nots, were grossly blurred. Black still meant less. Only now, there was no class, either. Just people scrambling to live.

“You can’t hate her for wanting better.”

Theo’s words found their way back to Raynah. Maybe Justine was right about some things that determined the way she chose to live her life, but the better they both wanted didn’t match. Raynah didn’t want to be that person. The one who, in her quest to fight back, became jaded, patronizing, and frightened of her own. She had to resist letting what she saw diminish her. Staying who she was meant everything, especially in front of this bright-eyed girl with tremendous care and hope in her voice who reminded Raynah, in a lot of ways, of her younger self.

“I want to help change things around here,” Claire answered.

“You can start by doing me a favor,” said Raynah, handing her a W-9 form.

“What’s that?” the girl asked.

“Always, always remember you said that.”

*

Together, they finished preparing the social justice shrine for May’s grand opening. Claire was detailed, eloquent, and business-savvy. She eased into her internship, spending countless hours with Raynah at the Missouri History Museum, ironing out facts on documented events. She replaced the garage door’s broken lock with a deadbolt, recruited renovation specialists, and ordered Bamboo plants for every room. She re-sized and framed old photos, encased the exhibits, and doubled the museum’s social media following with posts that were timely and engaging.

Claire quickly synchronized facts, blending bits of the past with pieces of current themes for cross-generational appeal among community organizers. Raynah developed a deep respect for the girl’s work ethic. She always demanded excellence, sometimes at the cost of Claire’s weekends, but she wanted to drill into Claire the unique value of social reform.

Still, Raynah never liked to see herself as a mentor. The thought wasn’t flattering. It terrified her. She dreaded failing Claire like she once failed Isha. In Oakland, all Raynah had was her world of ideals and soon realized she couldn’t feed a child on grassroots pamphlets. Now, she saw the line between mentorship and motherhood was starkly thin and, unlike the latter, she had no one to compare herself to, in terms of mentorship. No one to use as a model for cultivating skills.

Claire’s teachability moved Raynah. Maybe this was what it looked like for Raynah to fully forgive herself. Where she failed to show one how to be human, she could make up for by teaching another to love humanity.

“Did she make her favorite Ramen noodle dish for you yet?” Isha asked Claire.

It was the end of another long day of planning. They sat sprawled on bean bags in a corner of Raynah’s living room over a candle-lit White Castle dinner. Thanks to Claire, the wall of distance between Raynah and her daughter was slowly crumbling. Isha didn’t see Claire as a nuisance or a threat and clearly admired her worldliness. She was sleeping over more in the room Raynah reserved for her, the only space—besides the kitchen and Sir’s old bedroom—that still had traditional furniture. She still called Justine “Mom”, mostly out of habit, and a lot of her conversations with Raynah were strained, but things were better than they were. For once, timing and circumstance was being good to both of them.

“The one with hot dogs and mustard?” asked Claire, holding back giggles.

“Yep,” Isha said. “And, when she really wants to get fancy, she’ll throw in some lettuce.”

Raynah took off her jacket and stretched out her legs. She spread her palms across the hardwood floor until her fingers were touching both girls on either side of her. She thought about her mother who was probably frowning now at the bag of cheese fries Raynah had stuffed inside her mailbox. She considered sending Isha to go check on Justine later, but that would mean explaining why, after all this time, Raynah couldn’t just call her mother like a decent, forgiving role model that she resisted being.

“I still bet it’s much healthier than these gas burgers you all call food,” said Raynah.

“Maybe you should give your secret recipe to Ms. Claire before she goes off to school this summer,” Isha suggested. “She’ll probably need something cheap to hold her over in the dorms.”

A twinge of despair hit Raynah. She was excited for the museum’s grand opening in a couple weeks, but she also tried not to dwell on how much closer the date would be to Claire’s leaving her. She was losing someone who’d turned into a mentee, another little sister, a second daughter, a special friend.

It wasn’t for good, Claire claimed, but Raynah knew too well the thrill of undergraduate life. Soon the studying, extracurricular activities, after-parties and dating would pull Claire away, regardless of her good intentions. Raynah could only force herself to find the bright side: Claire’s experience would shape her into a person she could never break out of or away from, no matter where she went, who she returned to, or what she did. She needed to find her own version of better.

“Nah,” Raynah said, and reached for another boxed slider. “I just have an excuse to raid her dorm and make sure she’s on her game.”

Claire smiled, her freckles dancing in the candles’ flames. She playfully snatched the slider from Raynah’s hand. Before she could raise the small burger to her mouth, Isha bit into it, stuck her food-coated tongue out at both of them and laughed mercilessly.

Lyndsey Ellis is a St. Louis-born essayist and fiction writer who lives in Oakland, CA. Her work explores the juxtaposing forces that often define African-American life and how these experiences–influenced by the overlying social climate–determine how we treat each other. Ellis is an MFA graduate from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. She’s a VONA/Voices alumna and was a recipient of the San Francisco Foundation’s 2016 Joseph Henry Jackson Literary Award. Her writing appears, or is forthcoming, in The Offing, Nomadic Journal, The Stockholm Review of Literature, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Eleven Eleven, and Golden State 2017: Best New Fiction & Nonfiction from California.

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This entry was posted on September 17, 2017 by .

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