There The Prisoners Rest Together - novel extract
‘He sure cry awful lot,’ Caro says pouring a handful of peanuts into her mouth.
‘Where’s y’Mama at?’ Collier says. Her hair has gotten even lighter this summer; so blonde and sun-bleached it’s almost white. You’d think she was an angel if she wasn’t always flying so south to hell all the time.
Collier and Caro sit across from Harper at her daddy’s kitchen table. Every now and then Caro rolls her eyes at Collier who sinks low into her chair, feeling her pocket to make sure her mama’s cigarettes are still there.
‘Dunno,’ Harper says, ‘prolly sleepin’r sumthin.’
‘Let’s dooo sumthin,’ Collier says, shoving peanuts into her mouth.
‘Like what?’ Caro says.
‘Dunno,’ Collier said. ‘Sorta hungry, y’got anythin else t’eat?’ Collier eats the rest of the peanuts as Harper opens the refrigerator.
The door just down the hallway opens real suddenly and the girls turn towards Her. She gently ricochets through the hall and into the kitchen. The unravelling hem of Her shorts grace the tops of Her thighs. A tattered black bra covers most of Her chest and She sighs when She sees the three of them.
‘Mornin gals,’ She says, pushing passed Harper and Collier to get to the fridge. It’s nearly four in the afternoon. She runs Her fingers through Her hair and gazes into the fridge before slamming it shut. She kisses both Caro and Collier on the tops of their heads. She leans down, brings Harper’s face to Hers, kissing her on the mouth. She breathes into Harper, Her lips thin; they taste sour but wonderful. Opening the fridge again, Her eyes widen as if new items have taken stock in the minute the door has been shut. She pulls rum, a label-less bottle and orange juice onto the counter.
Job’s wails hit a higher pitch. She winches, shuts Her eyes.
‘Jesusfuckinchrist,’ She mumbles as She pours the three liquids into a small tumbler. She’s heavy handed in Her pouring. The colors mix into a cloudy, dead brown. Excess juice and liquor lap over the rim of the glass and settle in shallow pools on the counter. It’s too early, or maybe too late, in the day for Her aim to be any good. She flings a handful of ice towards Her glass and two cubes fall short, landing on the floor. Collier picks them up and drops them carefully into the glass. ‘How long he been cryin now?’ She says.
‘Dunno,’ Collier says before Harper has a chance to answer. Collier never takes her eyes off Her. Collier seldom blinks in Her presence and it’s the way that Collier watches Her that Harper doesn’t like. It always seems to Harper that Collier knows something about Her that Harper doesn’t. She wonders if Collier has a secret about Her. Something Collier thinks Harper might not understand. Something Collier keeps close inside her and away from Harper. But Harper doesn’t know why Collier would keep something from her. Collier has her own mama to keep secrets with. Harper wishes she is strong enough to hate Collier. But she’s not.
‘Harper,’ She says again, ‘said how long he been cryin now?’
She takes a long swig and sighs. Turning towards the girls, she kneels in front of Harper. ‘Y’never cried, not never. Thought youse dumb till I done spilled at glass on ya,’ She says running Her thumb over the faint scar on Harper’s forehead. ‘Y’laughed heaps, not cryin never. You gone do y’mama a favor now—you girls go right’n ere’n help’m back t’sleep. I dont feel no good so how bout yall just gone there hug him a bit alright? Just hug’m bit so he feel good’n stop all his fussin now.’ She exhales a breath into Harper again who feels dizzy.
‘Yes m’am.’ She kisses Harper again, stands and grabs the glass from the counter. As She leaves the room She pinches Collier’s hip gently and her body coils into itself, she giggles at the touch. She then leans across the table to Caro and whispers, ‘Make sure they stay outta trouble.’ She kisses Caro on her neck and Caro tries not to flinch, doing her best to smile.
‘Be good,’ She calls walking back into Her bedroom. She slams the door.
Job’s hysterical sobs ring through Harper’s daddy’s house.
Collier walks to the counter and drags her thumb through the puddle She’d left. Collier sucks on her finger as Caro stands, then does the same.
‘Well, gone then,’ Caro says to Harper. ‘Yo’turn.’
Harper picks up the dark bottle left out on the counter and takes a swallow before handing it to Collier. It takes all Harper’s strength not to spit it out. Collier coughs a bit and spits onto Caro after her swig. Harper laughs, Caro rolls her eyes and then wipes her arms and chest. The rum slides down Harper’s throat and burns her insides. It’s like a fireplace is lit inside her chest and people are warming their hands inside her. It’s probably happening like this for Collier and Caro because this is how it’s happening for Harper.
They pass the slick bottle back and forth twice, until Caro throws up in the kitchen sink. Collier hides the vomit-soaked dishes with three paper towels and dumps her mama’s cigarettes on top.
She beats Her clamped fist against the wall yelling, ‘Fuck yall not understand?’ Her voice slinks through the plaster wall and into their ears.
‘Maybe he's—he's, he's, uh, he hungry,’ Harper says as they sway through the hall into his room. Harper’s body is a pinball retracing Her steps. Her head spins, it’s light and her arms and legs are real heavy but somehow, still kind of loose. Pink flushes her chest and creeps up her neck into her cheeks.
Job stands in his crib, a skinny underfed weeping prisoner, gripping the plastic bars. His small body convulses as he sobs. He’s thrown his blanket and stuffed sheep onto the floor. Caro picks them up and sets them back into his crib. His body and face are smeared with tears and spit-up. He beats his balled up fists against the side of the crib. Holding onto the bars and shaking them as hard as he can, Collier places her own hand on his small fist and whispers something to him Harper can’t make out.
‘We ought make’m stop,’ Collier says quietly. ‘Maybe he shit.’
‘Nah, Harper’s right. He’s hungry,’ says Caro. ‘Lets take’m t’kitchen.’
Harper struggles to untangle his limbs from the spokes of the crib.
‘You dunno shit bout feedin no babies,’ Collier sneers.
‘Know more’n you do,’ Caro calls walking out of the room.
Collier clears Harper and Caro by about five inches. Harper’s head barely makes it to the top of the crib, but Collier easily reaches in and pulls Job out by his arms. She turns to hand him to Harper as his body thrashes with each sob and she loses hold of him. His small body meets the floor and rolls into a fleshy puddle. Collier’s paralyzed limbs hang at her sides.
Harper picks Job off the floor and holds him real close to her chest like she’s seen Her do a few times. When She’d hold Job real tight and he would fall asleep so quick with his left ear pressed into Her chest, Her heartbeat pulsing against his soft ear, keeping time for him and his little baby body. Those couple of times when She finally convinced him to get some sleep. With his eyes shut, mouth open, baby fingers twitching, he was a right beautiful little boy when he slept. He could be so pretty that sometimes Harper wonders why God didn’t just make him a little girl. Looking so beautiful and all that when he sleeps. And when he sleeps—he’s safe.
Job’s snot, tears and puke paint Harper’s neck slick. He buries his face into her chest and she presses him into her, trying to shush him and make him feel her quickening pulse. Harper cradles him the best she can and his cries die, but his heavy silent sobs continue to shake their bodies. Collier rubs his back a bit.
‘Please, please, please Harper—dont tell Her I drop’m,’ Collier says under her breath. ‘Didnt mean to, honest I didnt.’
Harper nods, says nothing.
‘Here,’ Caro says walking back into the room, ‘all I could find.’ She holds a rotting banana with its peel stained in black dead patches. Caro peels it and smears a bit onto her fingers. ‘S’alright cause it’s soft so he can eat it.’ Caro places her fingers into his toothless mouth. The gaze of his glassy dark eyes bounce from the banana to the shame on Collier’s unwashed face. He sucks on Caro’s fingers and she smiles. ‘See, he just hungry s’all,’ Caro says smiling right at Collier. ‘Told ya so.’