When Grandmam called from across the apartment her voice was thin and sharp, like her needle-point fingernails, brittle sounding but just as unbreakable.
“Girl!” she yelled thirty seconds after the door opened. Long enough for Gabe to hang the key on the hook and drop her backpack on the floor next to Bobby’s tennis shoes. Usually she answered right away, but today her grandmother’s voice made her angry, a sullenness that burned in the back of her throat, and she scuffed her flip-flops on the dirty mat without answering.
“Girl!” Grandmam yelled again. This time, because she hadn’t answered, it was a get-your-butt-in-here-right-now-or-else yell.
Gabe paused in front of the mirror long enough to button the top of her blouse, then went to the back bedroom. It was meant to be a living room, so it was bigger than the bedrooms upstairs. The covers on Aunt Ruth’s bed were neat and dusty; Grandmam’s were lumped around her, disheveled like the wrinkles on her face.
“You didn’t come straight home, did you?”
“I stopped at CVS for some milk,” Gabe said, picking up the dirty mug from her grandmother’s bedside table.
“There was a whole carton in the fridge.”
“It went sour.”
“Probably spent half an hour looking at those trashy magazines.”
It wasn’t a question, so Gabe didn’t say anything. She had glanced through Seventeen in the checkout line, but that took less time than she was wasting standing here, waiting for Grandmam to finish talking at her. Her grandmother squinted at her, her wiry grey hair refusing the barrette at the nape of her neck, her feet two humps beneath the covers.
When Grandmam got out of bed, those feet moved with surprising softness, so that even though she limped you didn’t know she was coming, if you were thinking about something else. Since she couldn’t afford new hips, she stayed in bed half the time, but she didn’t like it. She’d get up and creak across the apartment and sit at the table to watch Gabe do her homework or make mac and cheese, even though the folding chairs in the kitchen hurt her as much as walking. This pain was part of what made her sharp, Gabe knew, but she also figured Grandmam had been whittled to a point long before her joints went bad.
Now that point focused on Gabe. “Where’d you get that shirt?”
“Goodwill. Five dollars,” Gabe answered, and couldn’t help feeling proud. “I babysat Maria’s kids last Thursday.”
Grandmam grunted. “Hunh. Five dollars to waltz around the school in trashy clothes.” She readjusted the covers in her lap. “Tell Bobby to turn down the television. I can’t take care of him by myself whenever you decide to be late.”
Gabe deposited the cup in the sink on her way to the stairs. The steps creaked under her bare feet, which scuffed at the worn carpet. As she passed the bathroom, Gabe caught her own movement in the mirror out of the corner of her eye, and she paused to look at herself. She had Grandmam’s thick hair, in the same dark color that was still left in her grandmother’s eyebrows. Grandmam hadn’t let her buy the straightener she’d saved up for last year; but now when she turned her chin and the waves fell just so, she smiled at herself, at the shape of her eyes, the rise and fall of her breathing chest.
Her shirt wasn’t trashy. What Grandmam really meant, she knew, was that it was too old for her. It was tailored to a woman’s shape, with ruffled edges at the sleeves and neck that fluttered against her skin as she walked, all grace and feminine movement. She didn’t quite fill the chest, but if she arranged it right you couldn’t tell. She unbuttoned the top button and adjusted the shoulders.
Bobby was sitting cross-legged on his bed in front of the TV, watching SpongeBob and eating jelly out of packets from the school cafeteria. Good thing Grandmam can’t see you, Gabe thought, although she didn’t say it out loud because her grandmother’s hearing was sharp like everything else. She turned down the volume, then grabbed a kleenex and wiped his mouth. Bobby crinkled his face but didn’t move otherwise, his eyes riveted to the television.
Gabe went back downstairs, dug the milk out of her backpack and stuck it in the fridge. There was a pile of dirty dishes in the sink and if she didn’t do them soon, the ants would come in— or Grandmam would see them. She started the water running and opened the window that faced the street. It was just warming up outside. Spring was her favorite, the way the sun mothered her skin while the breeze played around with everyone. She closed her eyes and smiled at it.
Outside kids were playing in the road in clumps. A knot of them were playing hacky sack in front of the kitchen. They looked over when the window creaked open, waving.
“Gabe! Come outside!”
“Nope,” she said, tucking a worn dish towel into her collar and jeans to protect her blouse.
“Eh,” said the oldest boy, “you’re just boring.”
Gabe stuck her tongue out at him. Then one of the little ones shouted “Car!” and they scattered to the sidewalk. One of the girls came up to the window. “What about Bobby? Will he come out?”
“I’ll tell him,” Gabe said.
The girl ran back to join the group. Gabe ducked into the hallway and grabbed Bobby’s sneakers from by the door, throwing them up the stairs at him. “Ow!” he said when one of them hit his shoulder, but he kept watching the TV.
“Put ‘em on,” she said, grabbing her biology textbook out of her backpack on the way back to the kitchen. By now the sink had filled with lukewarm water. She slipped last night’s dishes in and set on the tea kettle while they soaked. Grandmam would start asking for tea in the next hour.
“Do you have that window open?” Grandmam’s voice came to her both through the wall and around the corner. Gabe finished rinsing out cereal bowls from Bobby’s breakfast and lunch before answering.
“Aren’t you cold, girl?”
Gabe closed the window, but left an inch for her breeze. She scrubbed at burnt pasta on the bottom of a pot, looking every couple of minutes at the microwave clock. She did her biology as she washed the dishes, careful not to splash the open pages of the book as she read about photosynthesis.
Sometimes when Aunt Ruth worked a night shift at the diner Gabe would sit up and do homework until she came home, long after Grandmam and Bobby were asleep. When she was little they’d paint each other’s toenails and drink iced tea or instant cocoa. Now they talked in quiet voices. When Gabe’s friend Angela got pregnant, then had a miscarriage, the only person she told (not even her parents) was Gabe; and when the secret got too big for Gabe she told Aunt Ruth, and knew that it would sleep safely with her. That was around the time when boys starting saying disgusting things to her in the hall at school.
“You don’t listen to them,” Aunt Ruth said. “You’re the woman; you’re the one in control of you.”
A couple times when Grandmam had made Gabe cry, Aunt Ruth looked sad. “Grandmam’s had a lot of people let her down in life,” she said.
Gabe guessed she was talking about her mother, Aunt Ruth’s sister, who used to live a couple streets over but ran off when Bobby was eight months and Gabe was almost nine. But she could’ve been talking about Gabe’s Uncle Paul, who sometimes wrote letters asking for drug money. Gabe tore these envelopes up before Grandmam ever saw them. Or it could’ve been Gabe’s grandfather who got hit by a train after they’d been married for twenty-three years. Gabe sometimes fell asleep to the rumble of those tracks on July nights when they opened all the windows.
It could’ve been anyone, even Aunt Ruth, because if you asked Grandmam, pretty much everyone let her down. Except maybe Bobby, because he was still so young. Gabe was just fifteen, so she hadn’t messed up anything big yet. But Grandmam was always watching for it, asking her questions in case she missed it. Why is your head filled with clothes and makeup, Gabe? Why can’t you get dinner on time? Why do I have to tell you everything, girl?
Gabe finished the dishes, drying her hands on the towel that had shielded her blouse. The tea kettle was creaking. She turned it off before it whistled and poured it into Grandmam’s cup, adding half a teaspoon of honey and stirring it.
“TV off. Shoes!” she said to Bobby as she passed his room. Then she shut herself in her bedroom and crouched in the square of sunlight from her window, a mirror resting on her knees. It was one of Aunt Ruth’s, the handle broken off when Grandmam sat on it because it was left on the bed. The mascara was from Aunt Ruth too, although Gabe had bought her own lipstick with the same money she spent on the blouse. She put on both the way her aunt had shown her and turned left, then right, examining her face at all angles. She almost closed her eyes and puckered her lips, trying to see what she’d look like when she got kissed, but the image was too blurry. She unlocked her door and started shoving laundry from the hamper into the wash bag.
When she’d finished Bobby was still fiddling with his shoelaces. Gabe came in and tied them for him, ignoring his protest, and came down the stairs with one hand full of him, the other full of laundry. Grandmam had limped to the kitchen and discovered her cup of tea, and when she looked up her eyes for once were not all sharp and squinty. She almost smiled. “Hey girl,” she said, softly, the way she used to when Gabe was little.
Gabe grabbed a handful of quarters from the jar on the hall shelf on her way past. “I’m going to do the laundry,” she said. She shoved her brother outside and closed the door behind her.
“But we just did laundry,” Bobby whined. “Just two days ago.”
“Quiet,” Gabe said.
* * *
Because he was ten years younger, sometimes people thought that Bobby was her son. This always made Gabe mad. She knew that sort of thing happened so much it wasn’t really an insult, but she didn’t intend to ever let it happen to her. That was one of the ways Grandmam expected her to turn out like her mother; but it wasn’t going to happen.
Gabe passed by the laundromat on their street and went to the one several blocks over. After loading up the machines she gave Bobby a quarter, telling him she’d make cookies when they got home but only if he didn’t use it on the candy. Candy was gone quickly; the little toys were trash, but they kept him occupied longer. He got himself a stretchy rubber hand that stuck to things when he flung it.
“You stay here,” she said, “on the bench. Don’t bother people. I’ll just be outside. Okay?”
He didn’t answer, throwing the sticky hand at the wall and making exploding noises. “Robert Michael!” she added in a loud voice, and finally he nodded.
Once she got outside Gabe looked through the window one last time to make sure Bobby wasn’t climbing on the washing machines before she ducked around the corner of the building to the alley on the side. It was empty, save for the remnants of someone’s fast food lunch that scraped across the pavement with the breeze. She leaned against the brick wall, arranging her hair on her shoulders and fixing her collar. She opened her two-month-old magazine to a story about prom dresses. One eye scanned the page without really reading it; the other watched the alley.
Minutes passed, and she thought with a sick feeling that he wasn’t coming, after all. Soon she’d have to go back and check on Bobby, anyway. But what if she left too soon, if he came and she wasn’t there like she said she’d be? Would he come back next time?
She’d been staring at the same page for some time when she heard him. His step was unmistakable. She smiled and looked up as he walked down the alley towards her, hands in his pockets.
He came and leaned against the wall next to her, looking at her, not saying anything at first, and she looked back, her throat all tight. “Hello, Gabrielle,” he said.
She smiled. “Hey Mike.”
He pulled a pack of menthol cigarettes out of his pocket. His eyes were blue, and Gabe could see her reflection in them when he looked at her. He lit a cigarette and stuck it in his mouth and pulled. “Want some?”
Gabe took the cigarette gingerly between two fingers and pulled the smoke into her mouth. She let it sit there a moment be fore tilting back her chin and blowing it through pursed lips. When she gave it back to him, she saw she’d left a pink smudge, but luckily he didn’t seem to notice.
He stuck the cigarette back into his mouth, and she watched the way his lips puckered around it, studying the dark stubble on his chin. She could pick out one or two strands of silver in his sideburns. “How’s school?” he asked.
“It’s okay,” she said, although she didn’t like talking about school around him. He felt different than the boys at school, who couldn’t speak to her without staring at her chest. He talked about real things, about life and loneliness and love. And he looked her in the eyes when he told her she was beautiful.
His eyes landed on the magazine in her hand.
“Going to prom?”
“I don’t know,” she said, and with a thrill she wondered if maybe he was jealous. You know more about men than you think, Aunt Ruth said once. “It depends.”
“Depends on what?”
She shrugged. “We’ll see.”
“No one asked you yet?”
No one had. “I’m picky,” she said. “The boys at school are pretty immature.”
He smiled and tapped the ashes of his cigarette. “Don’t get your hopes up. Men aren’t all that different.”
Gabe lifted her chin. “Some men are.”
“I guess so.” He looked up at her. “I like that shirt on you.”
She touched the ruffled sleeve. “Thanks. How’s work?”
“Just work. Pretty boring.” But he told her stories about that week, the different houses he’d delivered packages to and the people who lived in them. None of his stories were boring to Gabe.
Eventually he finished his cigarette and dropped it on the ground, scuffing it with his foot. Then he came and put his arms around her. One of his hands was in her hair, and the other traveled across her back. His face was inches from hers and he stared at her lips. “You are so beautiful, Gabe,” he said. “You have no idea how beautiful you are.” She remembered the way he’d kissed her last time and felt butterflies in her stomach.
But when he did start kissing her—her lips, her cheeks, her neck—she found herself distracted, wondering if Bobby was talking to strangers or wandering to the drugstore across the street. She would let him kiss her just a minute longer.
She put her hands on his chest. “I gotta go.”
He kissed her. “Why? You wanna leave?
“No, but I need to check on my brother.” She pushed away from him, but he pulled her in closer, both his hands falling to her waist and his fingers hooking through the belt loops on her jeans.
“He’ll be fine,” he said. “Nothing’s hurting him.” And he started kissing her again, guiding her backwards until they were against the wall. She followed the pressure of his hands, kissed him back. She was okay with this. If he tried anything more she’d make him stop. But as he pressed himself against her, rubbing his thumbs on her skin in the space between her shirt and back, she kept repeating it to herself. I’m the woman. I’m in control.
He stopped and stepped away from her. “Okay,” he said. “Go to your brother.”
She hesitated, still leaning against the wall. “Will I see you next Wednesday?”
He shrugged. “We’ll see if I can make it.”
She watched him go, then picked up the magazine from the ground, sticking it in the trash can on the street. Inside, Bobby’s toy was dangling from one of the benches. “Bobby,” she shouted, stooped to look under the bench. Nothing. Her heartbeat started to creep up her throat. She called him again, running down the line of driers and checking inside all of them. Just before she rushed outside, a stifled cough caught her ear. She whirled around and looked behind a washing machine; he was there, wedged in against the wall, his hair sticking straight up and tipped with dust.
Gabe grabbed his arm and yanked him out. “What are you doing,” she said, recovering her big-sister voice. “It’s disgusting back there!” She dragged him across the room and pushed him onto the bench. Her hands were shaking so she clenched her fists. “You don’t even think of moving,” she said. As she set about switching laundry she kept glancing in his direction, letting him know she was watching, and although he pretended not to notice she caught his eyes darting away from her. He would stay put this time.
As she bent to grab clothes out of the washer she noticed her shirt was rumpled, gaping at the chest. She fastened the top button and pulled it smooth, adjusting the darts so they settled where they belonged.