Happy Birthday, Jasmine!
The day before I turn fourteen the protective services lady comes to Momma’s house to take Deandra and me away. At first I don’t recognize her. She’s just a shadow outside the screen door. You know how sometimes it’s like that when the sun shines exactly a certain way and all you can make out is a person’s shape. Her shape is hunched and bony. When she steps closer, I see her flat, streaked hair hanging down to her shoulders like heavy drapes, and her badge dangling on a string around her neck. I realize she’s the same lady who came to my school the week before and asked me a hundred questions.
She looks different on the porch. Probably because she’s standing opposite Momma. And because of the way the sun’s throwing Momma’s shadow out the front door onto her. Momma, with her wild hair and big round body, looks like a ball pumped too full with air. Especially when she’s fixing to whoop somebody’s behind and she gets to huffing and puffing and goes short of breath. When the lady comes that day, that’s exactly what Momma does.
The week before when the lady comes to my school and they call for me at the office, I’m in gym class. I’ve never been called to the office before so I think somebody died. Momma maybe. But no, it’s just some tired-face lady, smiling and winking at me every couple of seconds while she tells me she’s from the Department of Family and Children’s Services. Her eyes are a funny blue color that make me feel like I’m staring into an empty hole when I look at her. Out in the hallway she starts in on me about Deandra’s daddy.
She asks, Jasmine, does Deon Wilkes live at your house?
At first I don’t know who she’s talking about because we call him Butter. Everybody on the street calls him Butter. When he first started showing up at Momma’s, I asked my friend, Teisha, if she knew him. She did.
“Why’s he called Butter?” I asked.
Teisha laughed at me, “You don’t know?”
I shook my head. I like Teisha but not when she gets all superior acting.
“He’s smooth. And slippery, too. Real good at making women fat. Like butter.” Teisha told me he’d been coming around for her momma, too.
“I guess his name’s about right for him,” I said. Then we laughed because what else was there to do?
In the school hallway, I look at the lady, smile back at her dull face without answering. She loses her smile a little and presses on her forehead with her index finger. She goes on, calls him ‘Deandra’s daddy,’ like it might make a difference.
Does Deandra’s daddy live at your mother’s house?
I tell her, Nobody lives at Momma’s house but me, Deandra, and Momma.
I don’t tell her how Butter comes and stays a few days here and there. How things are fine at first but then he and Momma get to drinking and arguing, sometimes shoving each other around and banging against the walls. I haven’t seen Butter since the last time the police came around.
When did you see Deandra’s daddy last?
I don’t answer because I don’t know for sure.
She says, Think, Jasmine. This is very important.
I ask her if she could just talk to Deandra since he’s her daddy and all.
She glares at me, makes her lips go tight. Then she gets back to smiling and says, Let me ask you this. What if I was to tell you Deandra’s daddy is in a lot of trouble?
I say, Okay.
What if I was to tell you that the police are looking for him?
I say, Okay.
That he did something so bad that he can’t ever be around children again?
I don’t say anything.
She says, See, Jasmine? This is important.
After a minute I say, I haven’t seen him in a couple of weeks. Maybe longer.
She smiles in a different way then, like Granny smiles after I finally tell her the truth. She doesn’t ask me anything more, just pats my hand and tells me to go on ahead back to Ms. Hayes’ class.
Later that night I ask Deandra if she got called down to the office, too.
Deandra nods but doesn’t look up from petting her cat. It’s not really her cat, just some stray that comes around begging, but she named him so she thinks he’s hers. It climbs into Deandra’s lap and digs its claws into her legs trying to get comfortable. I wonder if Deandra knows the cat is just hoping for some food, that he doesn’t really care about her.
Since this is about Deandra’s daddy and not mine, I don’t ask her anything more. I wish the lady had been asking about my daddy. That would’ve been easy to answer. Deandra’s quiet the rest of the night and I don’t know what to do with myself. Nobody said I can’t tell Momma, but I don’t. I know Momma will ask me from now until forever what that lady said to me. A lot of times Momma doesn’t listen and I sit there while she gets red-hot and screams. Then she starts crying and saying her life is too hard, and why can’t things be easy for once? She always ends up wiping her eyes and saying, “Thank God for my girls,” and hugging us tight, making us promise we’ll be good girls and stay out of trouble. Her hugs are the softest place I’ve ever been.
That night when Deandra isn’t talking to me and I’m not talking to Momma, I go to bed thinking about the protective services lady and all her questions. I wonder if what Teisha told me is true, if they really ask questions over and over again until you say something you don’t mean, then use what you said against you to haul you away to some foster care house and never let you see your momma again. Teisha knows a lot, but I’m never sure if she’s right.
I find out the day I turn fourteen.
When the lady comes to Momma’s house, Deandra starts whining as soon as she sees her on the front porch. The fan’s going near the screen door to get us a breeze, but the only thing blowing is hot air. The lady sees us and waves, like we’re going to get up. When we don’t, she drops her wave and starts knocking on the door. When we still don’t move, she takes to banging on the door, and frowning.
Momma’s in the kitchen frying bacon and smoking a cigarette. She yells, Answer the door.
Deandra and I are squeezed up on the couch, hanging onto each other, not knowing what to do.
I say, It’s for you, Momma.
She asks, Who’s at my door? Then comes out from the kitchen and goes to the screen.
The protective services lady says, D-FACS.
Momma says, D what? Like she doesn’t know.
Jennifer Wayne from the Department of Family and Children Services.
Momma squinches up her eyes. The ash from her cigarette falls on the carpet. After a minute she says, What do you want?
Ms. Wayne says, We need to ask you some questions regarding Deon Wilkes.
He don’t live here.
We already know he does.
The hell he does.
Are you calling your daughter a liar, ma’am?
Momma turns her face slow toward us. Her eyes go small and black, dart between me and Deandra, then back at Ms. Wayne. For a second I don’t want Ms. Wayne to leave without me. Deandra’s grabbing me even tighter now, tearing up. And I’m thinking this is all her fault because Butter’s her daddy and why couldn’t he just done like my daddy had and never come around on account of being dead.
Momma says, It don’t matter what Jasmine or Deandra told you.He ain’t been here. He don’t live here.
Ms. Wayne says, Miss Mona. Do you really want to play this game?
I ain’t playing no game.
You are well aware of Mr. Wilkes criminal charges.
You know you were to call the police if he came back around here.
He ain’t been around here, I told you that.
I know for a fact he’s been here.
Ms. Wayne stares right at me, mean and hateful. She turns her stupid, sour face back to Momma. She says, The girls need to pack a few things and come with me.
Momma says, My girls are staying right here with me.
Deandra begins howling in my earin between hiccupping and squeezing me. I’m saying Shhhh and Hush, and keeping my eye on the situation. Momma straightens her back, cocks her head, presses one hand in the crook of her heavy hip. Her cigarette’s about burnt down to her fingers. I can hear the bacon crackling and popping in the kitchen.
Ms. Wayne’s still on the porch, not moving, maybe making up her mind what to do next. She reaches for the screen door handle, real slow, without taking her beady eyes off Momma.
Now Momma’s eye to eye with her, just the screen between them. Momma snaps the lock on the door. Even I know that lock doesn’t work anymore. She says, Ain’t no baby-stealing bitch coming in my house.
Ms. Wayne takes her hand off the door. She says, We can do this the easy way or the hard way. She nods at the police officer waiting by the curb. I see him out the window. Around the neighborhood he’s known as Skunk. He sweats so much you can smell him before you see him. Ol’ Skunk never busted anybody, as far as I know.
Momma says, You go on, get the police. Have him come tell me what I done wrong.
Ms. Wayne sighs, Fine, Ms. Mona, Fine. She motions with her arm and up comes Skunk with a hat too small for his fat pig head. He stands behind Ms. Wayne, sucks in his gut and taps his sausage link fingers on his gun handle. Sweat stains his arm pits.
Skunk clears his throat and says firmly, Ma’am, open the door.
Momma puffs up her chest, every inch of her big body’s gone firm. Her jaw is working and her hands are balled up in tight fists. Deandra’s wimpering. I’m holding my breath to keep the trouble from coming. Both of us watch to see what’s going to happen now.
Skunk grabs the door handle, flings the door open and pushes in front of Ms. Wayne. He grabs tight to his gun handle and his club, his basketball gut hanging over his pants.
Ms. Wayne trails in behind him. She says, This’ll all be cleared up soon enough with the Judge, but for now we’ve got to get the girls somewhere safe. It’s just temporary.
Nobody sees what I see on Momma’s face just then. She’s gone, switched over to the same eyes she had when she found out my daddy had died.
Smoke curls across the ceiling from the kitchen. The house goes quiet from Deandra finally hushing up and from the fight that’s hanging in the air. It’s the kind of quiet you hear just before a wave crashes down on itself. Or just before thunder claps and lightning zaps the sky. You know it’s coming, but it still makes you jump when the noise finally breaks the silence.
Ms. Wayne says to me and Deandra, Girls, go get yourselves a couple of changes of clothes. Your toothbrushes. Clean panties. Whatever else you can fit in your pillowcases.
Skunk’s eyes are roaming around Momma’s place, his face in a frown. He isn’t paying attention to the tide rolling in. Ms. Wayne’s got her back to Momma while she’s going on about the things we need and don’t need packed.
Momma breaks the quiet with a hard and fast fist to the side of Ms. Wayne’s head. She jumps on top of Ms. Wayne, straddling her with her legs and they go down. There’s a thump and a grunt as Momma lands another punch, this time right in Ms. Wayne’s mouth. Blood comes quick to her lip. Momma yells, Ain’t nobody going nowhere.
Ms. Wayne’s flat on the carpet, thrashing around and holding the side of her head where the blood is coloring her yellow hair red.
The women are screaming and tussling and Skunk’s just standing there with his face hanging open. Deandra’s all but on top of me in my lap like a baby. A TV commercial’s blasting, the bacon’s burning and I’m wondering what to do. Do I help Momma, slap Deandra, turn off the stove, pack my panties, or run?
I can’t move.
Skunk jimmies his club free from his belt and starts whacking Momma. Each time he strikes, Ms. Wayne groans underneath her. Momma’s like a wild animal, grunting and screaming. Skunk’s sweating more now, big drops sliding down the side of his thick skull. He gets his club up under Momma’s chin and chokes her out until her eyes roll back into her head and she falls off Ms. Wayne. Momma makes a low growling noise then goes silent.
Skunk’s calling on his police radio saying, I need immediate back-up. A suspect is down and D-FACS worker is injured.
He asks Ms. Wayne, You okay?
Ms. Wayne’s panting and gasping and pulling her badge from around her neck. She sits up. She’s missing some hair on the side of her head. She gets up on one knee, nods and stands.
Skunk says, Get the girls out of the house.
I pry Deandra off me and tell her, Come on.
Deandra won’t go until Skunk pushes her out the front door. Ms. Wayne’s behind us, carrying her hair and her badge in her hand. She’s gasping for breath and wiping tears away.
When we get to the foster care house we smell like four-day-old grease and sweat, and our faces are messed up from crying. We get introduced to the foster lady, a skinny, gray-haired lady who doesn’t stop smiling. She acts like she doesn’t notice how bad we look and just goes on and shows us to our bedroom. Then she feeds us some hard cookies and Kool-Aid. She doesn’t ask anything but our names and we don’t tell her anything more than Deandra and Jasmine. She tells us her name, Loretta Roberts.
She says, Maybe you girls would like to watch TV awhile before dinner?
Deandra and I go sit on the edge of the couch. We don’t say anything, just stare at the TV like Ms. Loretta wants us to. I count six crosses hanging on the wall behind the TV. Different sizes but all wooden. One with a bible verse on it so small I’d have to get up to read it. The couch is firm like nobody ever sits on it.
It’s cold in here, Deandra says.
When Mr. Roberts comes home we eat meatloaf and he and Ms. Loretta tell us about their grown kids and all the kids they’ve had come to their house over the years. Kids with family troubles just like you, Ms. Loretta says. Deandra peeks at me and I know what she’s thinking. There’s no way that many kids came here with a daddy so bad he isn’t allowed around, and a momma who got choked out by a police for messing up the protective services lady. But we go on and nod and eat. The food doesn’t taste like Momma’s; it doesn’t taste like anything.
They buy us clothes for school and put us on the bus every morning until summer comes. Then they take us to the lake where we swim and then sit and eat sandwiches at a table on the grass. Deandra and I lie on beach towels by the lake, listen to the water splash around in small waves. The faint lap of the waves puts me to sleep.
Sometimes at night I hear Deandra crying. I think about Momma, what she’s doing. How we need to do what she said, be good. Stay out of trouble. Seems like Momma’s the one who’s got trouble, the one who needs to be good.
We see Momma every Saturday at the DFACS building. We go in a room with a chair set out in the corner where a worker sits and watches us. We get a different worker assigned to us than the one Momma jumped. The table’s dirty and marked up from crayons. Momma talks quiet and sweet and tells us how much she misses us and how nice we’re dressed and asks do we miss her? Kissing and hugging her isn’t enough; we’ve got to tell her we miss her. She asks about The Roberts’ and we say they’re fine, but we’d rather be home with her. She asks about the food every time we see her. At the first visit Deandra told Momma that Ms. Loretta makes the best sweet potato pie and that set Momma’s jaw to working.
Momma tells us she’s doing her treatment plan and dropping urine every time they ask her to. She tells us Butter’s in jail and that we’ll be home in no time. Deandra sobs and says she wants to go home with momma now, then makes a pouty face the rest of the visit. Momma tells her she’s going to be fine and we’re going to be fine and we’re all going to be one family again real soon. To me, Momma looks like someone let a little of the air out of her.
Momma starts skipping visits here and there. We wait for her in the room, every minute lasting an hour. First she says she’s sick. Then she says she missed the bus. Each time she doesn’t come we sit and wait. Deandra mopes.
The next time we see Momma, she says, I ain’t been feeling well lately. But I came to see my girls anyway. I had to see my girls. She doesn’t look so good. Her fingernails are dirty and her clothes are crumpled and smell.
She reaches for us, gathers us up against her so close. We smell the way her days have gone. This time Deandra goes straight past crying and makes her mad face. She doesn’t even look at Momma till the end of the visit and then she starts back to her usual fussing and saying she wants to go home. I want to go home too but saying so won’t help the situation.
Then Momma doesn’t come for a whole month. We stop going to the DFACS building altogether on account of it takes too much time out of Ms. Loretta’s schedule. We’re told we’ll go back as soon as they hear from Momma again. It takes all the way to my next birthday, three months almost, before we see Momma again. She’s lost weight. Her big, round middle hangs lower. Her eyes droop into small pools of dark skin that have gathered since I saw her last. Her teeth are like Mr. Joe’s. I haven’t thought about Mr. Joe since I saw him laid up against the building outside the gas station. His empty, crinkled up eyes, his mouth gaped open like he was about to say something. Momma’s got the same look on her face as him. When she talks, I hold my breath. This is some kind of birthday, again. I start crying and I can’t stop. Deandra squeezes my hand under the dirty table with the crayon marks. For once she’s got dry eyes.
Momma asks, What are you all up to this weekend?
Deandra pats my hand and says, Momma, it’s Jazz birthday tomorrow, remember? Ms. Loretta made a yellow cake with chocolate frosting. And fifteen candles.
I go stiff waiting for Momma to snap. But, she doesn’t even frown. Instead she nods her head, grins and says, Oh, that sounds nice.
The lady from the corner tells us our visit time’s over and to say good-bye.
Momma stands up from the table, grinning wide like Joe when you throw a dime in his cup. She grabs me for a hug. I wrap my arms around her and rest my head on her shoulder. I breathe deep, search for Momma’s powdery scent. I can’t find it. I squeeze her tighter, bury my face in the crook of her neck, close up against her skin. She smells hot and tinny, like she’s rotting from the inside out. She lets me loose so Deandra can take her turn.
Outside Ms. Loretta is waiting in her minivan. She’s got balloons tied up in the back seat, all kinds of colors, one has Happy Birthday Jasmine! printed on it.
When we get in she says, How’d it go?
Deandra says, Fine.
I don’t say anything. Just think about the yellow cake back at the Roberts’ house. I already know it’s going to taste like cardboard. Everything Ms. Loretta makes tastes like cardboard. And I know how the whole house is going to smell from those candles she burns all the time. How she’s not going to stop stealing looks at us like we’re some pitiful animals she’s rescued off the side of the road. She’s never going to stop smiling at us thinking that’s all it’s going to take to make our lives right again.
I slide the van door closed, but it doesn’t latch. When I try again, I slam it shut and move the whole van back and forth. Once I’m in my seat the balloons surround me and bob at my face. I tap my finger on them, one at a time. I like how they sound when I plunk at them, hollow and empty, yet full at the same time; the way they fly away from me fast then float back slow. I do that all the way home.