"The Devil Be Here In a Minute"
Quinlan showed up to Shiloh’s Twelfth Annual Smokin' Barbecue Fest because his big sister Fawna had promised him two things. First, that he'd find out what she did on Saturday afternoons after her shift at Doddie's Diner. He figured her free time had something to do with her hickey, which Ma had grounded her for the previous week, but, when he had a question, he liked cold hard facts and not speculation, so his "figuring" would never suffice. Second, he'd been promised a Shiloh Cone with two scoops of butter pecan ice cream. The dessert he could almost taste on his tongue.
"Back here, Lanny." Fawna wore hot pink overall shorts with tan huaraches and a massive straw hat that made her look like a hick, or so that's what Ma had shouted as Quinlan and Fawna had left the house. Ma had also yelled, "Look after Lanny, now. You hear, Fawna?" To which Fawna had sucked her teeth and answered, "Yes, ma'am."
Now, pinching the flesh of Quinlan's triceps, Fawna pulled him away from the line of people that led out of Shiloh Park and down the main drag.
Shiloh was off of Highway 495. The road had been built in the Nineteenth Century "by blood," as Pop told it, to disconnect the mining town from the territories populated by the Muskogee Indians -- whom the federal government had moved to Oklahoma from the Southeast. When the road was constructed, it was for the "express purpose" of creating a barrier between the Indians and the white miners, ranchers, and train folks.
Nowadays, people arriving in Shiloh had to slow to thirty-five miles per hour when they hit the town, a twenty square mile stretch of frontier land populated by two thousand people all in manufactured or trailer homes. Main Street had a high school, a hospital, a city hall, a payday check-cashing store, a credit union for mineworkers, a pawnshop, and a tamale stand that backed up to a fried chicken restaurant all snaking down the road. Doddie's Diner was at the end of that block. And that was the whole town.
"Why back here?"
"I can show you better than I can tell you, baby brotha." Fawna let go of his skin. He was thin, so the pinch made his flesh red. It hurt too.
She stepped away from the crowd and sidled up to a row of pines behind the park. She led him to a gash in the fence and they entered through the rip in that green fabric.
In his eleven years, he'd never smelled barbecue this good. His mouth watered so much that his jaws ached. His stomach groaned. He hadn't even realized he'd been hungry until he smelled that delicious smokiness. Ma had made them biscuits and fried eggs for breakfast, but the aroma that currently surrounded him made his belly forget that he had eaten at all.
"Maybe you can get me some ribs instead of the ice cream?" He took Fawna's hand to slow her down. Callouses had grown on the inside since the last time he'd squeezed her palm during a scary film at Paiute Theatre, and the skin on the back wasn't as silky as it used to be. He felt bad for all of the dishes she had to wash at work.
She knelt in front of him and put her face real close. Her skin didn't have one blemish on it, and was the color of Pop's coffee. One time, a modeling scout at the mall had asked Fawna to chop off her long locks and take test photos for the magazines. The scout had told her that she had a beautiful, "exotic" face that resembled actress Cicely Tyson, that when Fawna smiled it was like sunshine. Fawna had pursed her lips, placed her hand on her hips and said that nothing would make her cut her Indian hair. And she'd said that she didn't want to model in no white folks' magazine neither. "I'm black," she'd said to Quinlan back then. "Doesn't even matter that Muskogee blood is coursing through my veins. One half of our ancestors they've relocated and slaughtered a half dozen times. The other half they've enslaved. They think they're white, so all they see when they look at me is black. To them, a magazine ain't gon' make me nothing other than black."
A fraternity of college men with red and white canes and cream-colored Jordans on their feet stomped a routine that took them through a crowd of babies with lollipop goo on their hands, of potbellied men with beers in their hands, and of grandparents fanning themselves, with canes in their hands. Every sweating, eating, drinking, laughing person stopped and stared. Quinlan watched with envy. He was an aspiring poet, but often felt he couldn't write his own story because the tale had already been inscribed for him centuries before he was born. That couldn't stop him from dreaming. When he went to college, he would have cream-colored shoes and stomp and dance too. But for now, his sneakers had been bought from the warehouse club that his parents belonged to. The tongues were ripped and loose, matching his frayed denim shorts. His tank top had a hole on the right side, but he figured he could cover it with his arm. His mother had told him that it didn't matter how beat up his clothes were as long as they were clean. And these clothes and shoes he'd cleaned twice on washday just for this event.
"Doesn't even matter that Muskogee blood is coursing through my veins. One half of our ancestors they've relocated and slaughtered a half dozen times. The other half they've enslaved. They think they're white, so all they see when they look at me is black. To them, a magazine ain't gon' make me nothing other than black."
The place was jumping. The banner at the top of the fair said "Howdy," and to the right there was a yellow and orange sign advertising "Bud's Real Good Fresh Jerky." The Museum of Laws, Motors, and Wild Game had set up an exhibit house with two men dressed as cowboys out front with real spurs on their boots. It seemed that every church-going miner's family in Shiloh and nearby Foley had come out for the barbecue and beer. It looked to Quinlan like there were hundreds and hundreds of folks around him, but he knew none of them. The people that they were familiar with lived on their street and were black or Indian. There were a handful of black folks at this fair. And though he knew none of the whites, he could feel the energy of everyone present as if they’d all been plugged into him. The white people who passed by mostly ignored him and Fawna. The few black people present acknowledged them, but upon perusal of his and Fawna's poor-looking clothes, showed disapproval. He was old enough to know that not-having was a sin punishable by disdain.
"How 'bout this, Lanny?"
He wondered why Fawna was all of a sudden whispering.
"You help me out, and I'll get you ribs and ice cream."
"Deal." He felt like crying, but he didn't want his sister to think he was a sissy. Since Ma hurt her back cleaning a home with tall stairwells out in Crestview, Ma and Pop had argued a lot. And then they'd fight with Fawna, saying that even though she was sixteen, she still wasn’t too old for a butt-whipping. "Hard head, soft behind," Pop had warned her. But being here at the barbecue fest, smelling all of the good meat, watching folks happy, and hearing classic soul hits from way back in the 1960s and '70s playing on the loud speakers -- songs by Roberta Flack, Ma's favorite -- he was remembering how his family used to barbecue in their own backyard. Back when both Ma and Pop were working and Ma wasn't in pain, and Pop didn't have to work overtime, and Fawna didn't have to pick up extra shifts at the diner, they'd all be able to spend Saturday in their own yard, watching the smoker make their meal. His mother saying, "Fawna, you know your job is to look after your brother. Why don't you take him with you to work sometimes? Give him something to do?" His father saying, "Lucinda, come dance with me." His sister saying through a grin, "Jesus, why are our parents so lame? Thank God I have one other sane person in this house, Lanny." He hadn't felt that happy until right now.
"Here's what I want you to do. Go around this tent here. The one with the frog legs sign. Look for a woman walking with a baby or a stroller. Tell her you're lost."
"What?" His stomach did a double flip. He didn't understand why Fawna was asking him to do this, but the uneasy feeling growing in his gut told him that something bad was going to happen. Like when Fawna got into a fistfight with a schoolmate, pulled out a steak knife, and stabbed the girl in the foot. He had seen his sister earlier that day removing the blade from the kitchen's utensil drawer and placing it in her backpack. He'd known it wasn't right, but she must have had a reason for everything she did, and he knew she'd eventually do better. This was Fawna. His sister. Of course she wouldn't involve him in anything too bad. He could trust her. He always trusted her. And he always would.
"Tell her you're lost, Lanny."
"I heard what you said. But I'm not lost."
"I know. But it's like a little game. Just tell her you're lost. You're scared. You last saw your sister over here. And then bring the woman behind the frog leg tent."
"But I'm no good at lying, Fawna. You know that." He remembered when Fawna asked him to ask Ma to ask Pop for twenty dollars so that he could purchase entry into an "advanced, after-school science class" that didn't exist and the plan had never worked because he couldn't remember the lie that Fawna had told him and he ended up asking for a twenty dollar advance on class science and his mother had shouted, "Lanny, get out of here with all that foolishness, now."
"Just go do it, Lanny." Fawna shoved him. His feet twisted, but he caught himself before falling. Fawna stood again. The smile that had been there moments ago had disappeared.
"But what for?"
"I'm doing this for Mom. Okay? I will explain it all to you when you have your ribs and ice cream."
"For Ma? What does Ma have to do with playing a game on someone?"
"Do you love your mother?"
"What do you mean? You're scaring me, Fawna."
"Do you love your mother?"
"And do you trust your big sister?"
He hesitated, but he didn't want her to think that he didn't trust her.
"Then I will explain it all to you later."
"And you're not going to do anything bad, right?"
"Just do as I say, Lanny."
"I do something wrong?"
Her smile returned. "Not at all. I just need this one favor and I'll get your food."
He didn't believe her. He must have done something wrong. For some reason she was pissed at him, and he didn't want her to be. But he couldn't make sense of it. This game wasn't one he had ever played or even heard of. What was she planning to do? Steal frog legs?
He turned toward the tent. In order to understand his level of trust in Fawna, a person would have to understand the degree to which he loved her. His love for his parents was secondary to his love for Fawna. Even when he didn't agree, or was worried, or knew that something bad was in the offing, he still did what she said. What choice did he have really?
He walked to the edge of the white cloth and watched a boy, with skin like tan stucco, who was a year or two younger, skipping by with a balloon tied to the strap of his backpack and a large, barbecued turkey leg in his hand, with the sauce pasted around his lips. He wished he could enjoy the event as carefree as this barbecue-sauced boy. The boy walked up to a white-haired man with a holstered handgun on his belt. The image of folks walking around with guns on their waists always mesmerized him. He scanned the crowd and saw that a dozen more folks in jeans and t-shirts carried guns as well.
In order to understand his level of trust in Fawna, a person would have to understand the degree to which he loved her. His love for his parents was secondary to his love for Fawna.
He remembered his teacher, Mrs. Kilso, discussing SB1733, passed by Oklahoma's House and Senate and signed into law by the governor. It was an open carry law. So folks with a license could walk around with a loaded handgun on their belts or in a holster, visible for all to see. He had asked his teacher, who had been in favor of the law, "Why would anyone want to walk around showing off their gun? Is it a threat?" He'd gotten a detention for the question. He didn't want trouble and had hoped to get into college so that he wouldn't have to wash dishes at Doddie's, so he stopped asking questions like that of Mrs. Kilso. The teacher, with her gray-spotted pale skin, was always suspicious of his "A" papers anyway. "Who helped you with this, Quinlan?" When he said "no one," Mrs. Kilso would nod but not make eye contact with him. He'd been on the receiving end of that line of questioning so often that even he started to wonder whether he had actually done his assignments alone.
He remembered the night of that detention he'd sat for dinner with his family. His mother's back was hurting less because she'd taken pain pills. Those days, she was always popping pills of some kind. His father was home early from the mine. Fawna was a couple hours ahead of a dreaded shift at Doddie’s with paltry tips that "weren't worth the gas money it took to get there and back." And Quinlan had finished his homework that night. It was rare that they'd all manage to sit at the same table together for a meal, but after his father said grace, Quinlan remembered staring at his mother. Ma was peering into her glass of water. Just staring. There was no fruit fly in it. No leftover soap from when he'd washed the dishes. What could his mother have been focused on so intently? His father and sister began loading their plates with food, and his mother just stared at the glass, the water trembling in it from the movements of the table. Quinlan put mashed potatoes and string beans on his plate and watched his mother. When she was in pain, she was normal. But this staring and seeming to float in place is how she behaved whenever her back wasn't hurting. His father noticed her too and said, "Lucinda, what's gotten into you?"
His mother looked up with the strangest, closed-mouthed grin on her face, made eye contact with Quinlan, then with Fawna, and then his father. Her grin became a toothy smile as she said, "First time I haven't had pain in months. And this water. This glass of water doesn't look right." Her speech was slow, as if she were listening to herself instead of talking.
"Doesn't look right, how?" His father already had that I-ain't-got-time-for-this-mess look on his face, but Pop was humoring her. Perhaps he was happy too that, for once, they were all together. Quinlan had noticed the changes in his mother recently yet had thought he was the only one. And Fawna, who typically had an opinion on everything, merely gazed at her food and kept her eyes on her plate. What was she not saying?
"It just doesn't look right. It looks like water they would have drunk at the Last Supper."
Near the tent, folks had plates of food in their hands stacked to their chins with ribs. In their other hands, they palmed beers or punch. Kids licked chocolate ice cream or ate cotton candy or funnel cakes. The weather was perfect for eating outside -- warm with a slight breeze but not enough to blow away their napkins. He didn't know why Fawna wanted him to go up to one of these ladies, but the sooner he could be done with it, the sooner he could enjoy the event, watch the steppers, taste the ribs. He glanced over his shoulder at Fawna one last time, and the harsh way that she stared directly into his eyes, he knew with certainty that his sister was capable of harming him or someone else.
Family legend had it that Quinlan and Fawna's ancestors were from Alabama and Georgia. Their forefathers were both black and indigenous peoples, and were forcibly relocated during the 1830 Indian Removal Act, a federal law meant to appease white settlers who wanted nearly twenty-five million acres of land inhabited by the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole peoples. All Indians east of the Mississippi were moved out west, many to Oklahoma.
Quinlan was always bothered that his history books taught him that some Indians went "peacefully." It was as if "peacefully" had been the right way and almost righteous way to leave one's land. Never mind the fact that the white settlers had been terrorizing the Indians before the removal act. Had been stealing livestock, burning their towns, and squatting on their land.
The language was carefully worded to make it seem as if the Seminole people, who had fought back, and the Cherokee, who had refused to leave, and for whom the U.S. Government had sent in seven thousand troops with bayonets to corral human bodies into stockades, as if those indigenous peoples had somehow been in the way of progress. Had been in the way of peace.
Quinlan was always bothered that his history books taught him that some Indians went "peacefully." It was as if "peacefully" had been the right way and almost righteous way to leave one’s land.
But what did the history books know about peace? Settlers were violent. The federal government was violent. White people with their gun powder and bayonets were a blood-thirsty, land-thirsty people, who had put half of his people in bondage through slavery, had massacred the other half through westward expansion, and had displaced those who remained. White settlers had been no different than the killers who stalked his video games, yet they wanted to talk about peace. They wanted to talk about how what they'd done had been for freedom. But freedom for whom? Was that what open-carry was about? Was that why white people carried guns everywhere in Shiloh? Because deep down they knew that they'd been lying to everyone and mostly to themselves. They didn't really believe in peace. They didn't really believe in freedom. They believed in taking, looting, bullying, pillaging, terrorizing and then pretending to not know that they had done it, all the while asking everyone else to be peaceful. That's why he read Amiri Baraka whenever he had a break from school or from scrubbing the kitchen when he was at home. His favorite poem was Monday in B-Flat:
I can pray
But if I call
in a minute!
That's why when he had closed his history book and stared at the photo of the white author, he told himself that he would never hold a gun in his hand. He didn't want to ever use the white man's weapon.
The woman he chose had two children actually. One was a baby strapped to her chest in knotted-up black cloth. The other was a little girl who looked old enough to not wear a diaper, but she probably hadn't lost any teeth yet. The mom was peering into her baby carriage, her blonde hair cut short, with the curls framing her head like a crown. In the right light, she could have been a queen. She pulled a bottle of milk from the compartment at the bottom of the stroller and swirled it in a circle near her eye before removing the top.
"Excuse me," his voice sounded nervous because he knew he was a bad liar and a hundred promises of ribs and ice cream couldn't fix that. He realized that he did sound confused though. At least Fawna would be pleased. "I'm lost. I'm scared. Can you help me?"
The woman looked at him. "Oh, you precious baby." She squealed in an eastern accent that he hadn't expected. She must not be from Shiloh. Her skin was nearly the same color as dryer sheets, and when she opened her mouth, he noticed a gap between her front teeth. How could he lie to someone honest enough to have a gap?
Only for Fawna. The last time that Fawna had asked him to do something dishonest -- go into Shiloh Hospital, ask to use the bathroom, and then instead prop open the door to the medicine dispensary room -- she'd told him that it had been so that she could help a little old lady customer at the diner who couldn't afford her medicines. Fawna and her two friends from school were going to help out that little old lady by getting her medicine for her.
When he'd found out, he'd said, "Thou shalt not steal. It's in the bible, Fawna. And you can go to jail."
She'd let that flash of anger show when she'd responded. "Look up imminent domain. Colonization. Evictions. Christopher Columbus. Our entire country is built on theft."
"But what does that have to do with you and me, Fawna?"
"Everything," she'd said, and had poked him in the chest and walked off, thereby ending any attempt by him to understand what she meant. In earnest, he'd searched those terms -- imminent domain, colonization, evictions -- but he'd been more confused by what he'd found. Other people stole out of greed, so that somehow made it okay for Fawna to steal to help people? He wasn't buying it, and Ma and Pop wouldn't either, so he never told them.
"You precious, precious, baby." The woman looked as if she took pity on him, as if she felt bad for him and all of the awful luck that must have led him to this moment.
He knew he looked young for his age. He was shorter than his shortest classmates in fifth grade. He was also the thinnest. But he could outrun them all. This Queen Mother with the gap in her teeth, with her crown hair, and with the baby on her chest couldn't see him run. If she did though, she'd know that he was no baby.
"I saw my sister over there, I turned around, and then she was gone." He pointed to the area behind the frog leg tent, which was now empty. Of course the frog leg tent was empty. Oklahoma was in the south, but, as Pop said every year, the folks of Shiloh weren't east enough to want frog legs.
Queen Mother walked beside him to the back of that orange- and white-striped big top. Her daughter followed on her heel. The baby still slept against her chest.
When they were all exactly where Fawna had asked Quinlan to take them, Fawna was not there. But a large boy was. He looked to be seventeen, with a neck as big as both of Quinlan's thighs put together. Queen Mother barely noticed the boy.
"Well, she's not back here now, sweetie. Let's get you to the security out here. They can have her paged."
She put her hand on Quinlan's shoulder. The touch felt like his mother's when she comforted him about that undeserved detention. He wondered where Fawna was and when she was going to jump out and say, Syke. He's not lost. He's my brother. He scanned the crowd. There were all of those happy folks, passing by with laughs and plates and drinks. Some were even holding hands.
With her palm still on Quinlan and the other hand caressing her sleeping baby's back, Queen Mother turned toward the crowd, toward the stage, toward the security booth that was on the other side of the quarter-acre lot. "I'll get you right to someone who can help."
He wondered where Fawna was and when she was going to jump out and say,
Syke. He's not lost. He's my brother. He scanned the crowd. There were all of those happy folks, passing by with laughs and plates and drinks. Some were even holding hands.
Fawna appeared from behind the gate. Her straw hat gone. In its place, a baseball cap that she'd pulled down just far enough to cover her eyes and most of the bridge of her nose. Her hot pink overalls gone too. Covered by a long black t-shirt. If he hadn't been familiar with her pigeon-toed gait, he wouldn't have recognized his sister at all.
Fawna hopped over the fence and snatched Queen Mother's purse and diaper bag from the compartment underneath the stroller. Fawna did not make eye contact with Quinlan as she walked past Queen Mother and the little girl, handing the diaper bag to the mean guy.
"Fawna?" He wanted to grab his sister. Snatch up Queen Mother's purse that Fawna had slung over her own shoulder as if she were entitled to what was inside.
Queen Mother howled and produced a keychain from her pants pocket and pressed a button on that ring of jangling metal that made the device hiss, spraying Fawna and her mean guy friend in their faces.
"Stop!" No one listened to Quinlan. Not even the festival worker with barbecue sauce stains on his shin-length apron walking by the frog leg tent. Queen Mother reached for Fawna's shoulder and tugged at her purse. Fawna screamed and that let the now-blind mean boy know where she was. The mean boy clawed at the air in Fawna and Queen Mother's direction.
Quinlan couldn't move. He wanted to grab Fawna and pour water into her eyes to wash out the pepper spray, to keep her vision clear for that future in the magazines that he hoped she'd want now, but he was frozen, watching the scene in front of him, his body not listening to his screaming heart. He was just like his mother when she stared at that glass of water – floating in place.
The purse was back in Queen Mother's possession. She reached inside. With the baby screaming on her chest, and her older daughter now backed all the way up to the stroller, her tear-streaked pink face crumbling into a wail, Queen Mother pulled out a shiny black and brown pistol. Quinlan's heart screamed but he was stuck floating in place. Queen Mother seemed familiar with this gun's weight and length. She knew how to hold it. The gun hadn't been holstered. It had been tucked inside of her purse like any old wallet or cell phone. She cocked the gun and shot at the mean boy. She shot at Fawna.
Time slowed. He sensed that he could see the bullet leave the gun. Could taste the gunpowder rushing over his tongue. Could smell the smoke filling his nostrils. And it might have been the high sun, but he was certain that he could feel the heat of that pistol spreading over his body as the bullet entered his sister. There was no shade. No cover. That was one thing he knew about the sun. When it was high and hot, all the money in the world couldn't stop it from shining on you. From exposing you. From laying you bare.
His sister fell to the asphalt.
"Fawna?" Quinlan rushed to her side, his knees scraping against the concrete as he knelt. He removed the baseball cap so that he could see her face. Her eyes. Her nose. The cheeks that the modeling scout had fawned over. He wanted to see Fawna's face. Her real face. The one that was beautiful and belonged in the magazines.
"Why'd you do this, Fawna?"
And it might have been the high sun, but he was certain that he could feel the heat of that pistol spreading over his body as the bullet entered his sister.
His sister actually grinned, though she was pained, and he could tell because she grimaced and then forced a grin again. "Because Ma's pills ain't cheap."
The mean boy landed next to Fawna on the ground. Quinlan hadn't even realized that Queen Mother had fired more shots beyond the one that had hit his sister. He tried to take the t-shirt off of her. To show the hot pink overalls. How could anyone shoot a person in hot pink overalls?
"Quinlan." His sister's breathing was ragged now. She'd called him by his full name. The first syllable she was able to get out. The last syllable was mouthed, but there had been no sound.
Queen Mother was still holding the pistol with smoke coming out of the tip when the happy, plate-holding people began to scream and run. Queen Mother screamed too and dropped the pistol as if it were a hissing snake. Her daughter ran to the gate, pulling on the chains, rattling them against the frame. Queen Mother kept screaming. That made the baby on her chest scream. Then Queen Mother paused and eyed Quinlan.
He stared at the hole in Fawna's neck. His sister's eyes were closed now and she wasn’t moving at all. He could have cried and screamed and called her name, but part of him didn't want to disturb her. It seemed as if getting older had made her angrier, anxious, and sullen most of the time. But with her eyes closed she seemed happy. He thought he even noticed a slight upturn of her lips, the look she got just before she yelled "syke."
"Stand up, you no-good thug." Queen Mother ripped at Quinlan's arm, yanking him from his position near Fawna. The tug hurt his shoulder. If someone had told him that his shoulder was dislocated, he would have believed them. "Look what you did!"
He was on his feet now and in Queen Mother's grip, but he stared at Fawna's face.
"Look what I did? Look what I did? You shot her for snatching your purse? You shot her? Do you even realize you shot her? You took out a gun and shot her for stealing your purse. A person. Not a bird in a tree. Not a squirrel. You shot another human being for taking your purse. She could have been in the magazines. She could have forgotten that she was black and let them put her face there so that everyone could see how she looked like Cicely Tyson. How when she smiled every bad thing she had ever done came pouring out of her mouth like sunshine. And you shot her!"
He reached down and picked up the gun. Looking startled, Queen Mother reached for it, reached for him, but he wasn't having it.
"How does it feel now?" The pistol was as heavy as his mother's cast iron saucepan.
Queen Mother began to cry, putting her hand up to her eyes as if her palm were a dam to stop her tears.
"To have a gun pointed at you for once, lady. How does it feel?"
He knew how this story was going to end. He wouldn't call on God. But he was certain someone had called 911 to alert The Devil. He couldn't even write a poem to save himself. There was nothing that he could do about this ending. His ending. "Doesn’t feel good, does it? To have the gun pointed on you. It doesn't feel good, does it? It just doesn't feel good."
Tamika Thompson is a writer, producer, and journalist. Her fiction is forthcoming in or has been published by Kweli, Huizache, Black Heart Magazine, and Flash Fiction Magazine. Her non-fiction has been published by The New York Times, The Huffington Post, MUTHA Magazine, and PBS.org. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.