She listened to me, that much I know, because when they found her she was wearing house slippers and a blue cotton night gown. I’d told her to lock the door and go to bed. Yes, she’d listened to me and then forgot halfway through. Her body lay in a heap of weeds near an onramp to the Hollywood Freeway, wild anise a lacy shroud hovering above her small torso. The boy who discovered her thought she was homeless and asleep. I found out about it on the morning news in a live shot, only I had no idea who they were talking about. I had no idea that her son would call me that afternoon with a desperate apology, nor that minutes later I’d ring home for the first time in nine years, that I’d be hung up on and that I’d understand, at last, what she had meant about making family.
Along with a house key and seventeen cents, in her purse the police found my phone number. I know exactly the scrap, the torn corner of a manila folder from weeks earlier, quickly chosen because I wanted her to have something that wouldn’t immediately crumple. Above my number I simply wrote “Brian, Grocery” to distinguish myself from others with the same name whom she might know. I was a checker at a supermarket. When the police called, they ignored the comma and asked to speak with Brian Grocery.
Niola was 82. Sometime during the night she’d left her apartment and walked the length of Melrose Avenue, past shuttered iglesias and late night bodegas, a strip she must have traveled a thousand thousand times in her red and white Oldsmobile 98. A gift from her man in the 1950s when she was a cocktail waitress at the Down Beat. It wasn’t easy then to be Black in Los Angeles, she told me, but it was better than Little Rock.
At first I thought it was a wonder that nobody stopped this confused old woman wearing a nightgown out on the street, but then, it’s L.A. and such a sight wouldn’t necessarily call attention to itself. Or perhaps someone had reached out, in English or Spanish—she could speak both—and she’d called up the veil of lucidity that had fooled even me for a while. “Sólo ando por aqui,” she would have said lightly, or, depending on her audience, “Oh, I’m just headed right over here.” I’d heard the latter many times in the previous weeks.
Based on her injuries, the police surmised that Niola had been sideswiped by a car, but it was the blunt force of her head hitting the ground that killed her. The boy found her wigless, but of course, he wouldn’t have observed that detail. In the few years I’d known her, even in her latter, confused state, I’d only ever once caught the slightest glimpse of the gray hair beneath her wavy black wig. It had gone askew when she fainted in my checkout lane. Head in my lap, she looked up when I adjusted it into place. She was a bit dazed, but managed a sly wink. “Have you called your mama yet?”
I half-smiled, hand supporting the back of her head. She was with it enough to take advantage of the situation, or at least call up her most persistent question. Her wet brown eyes stared up at me, waiting. The answer was that I had not. My mother had married a man who hated “faggots” and “Arabs.” “A-rabs” as he pronounced it. Mom called it a tick. But I couldn’t bring Lutfi to the house anymore. Lutfi. I hadn’t spoken to him in years either. Niola knew this. Or she had.
When the police called, they asked about my connection to “an elderly African-American woman.” They didn’t use her name because she wasn’t carrying I.D. They didn’t tell me that she was dead, only that they were trying to locate someone who could identify her. I told them who she was and gave them my information and told them who I was and what had happened the night before. Maybe it wasn’t in that order. I could barely think because it had finally happened, Niola had gone off and gotten lost and now she was sitting in some police station frightened and confused. Breathless, I gave the police her son’s Oakland phone number. It was the second time I’d done that. Fucking Hebron. Fucking me. I slid to the floor, because for months I’d heard Niola but apparently only half-listened.
An hour before the police called I was at Niola’s apartment. I’d taken her car keys from her the night before. The 98 was in the store’s parking lot. After my shift I drove it over and parked it in her spot. She’d lived in the same apartment for over thirty years, part of a beige, mid-century modern cinderblock complex called The Zephyr that had gotten a little rough around the edges. Maybe I was being overly optimistic, but I was relieved when she didn’t answer my knock. Her son had listened to me. He’d come and gotten her. To be certain, I tried the security screen, and finding it locked, reached inside the pass-through and tried the inner door, which opened. I called to Niola but nothing. All the curtains were pulled and the lights were off. The stacks of hardcover books rising from the floor all over the living room were just as they were the night before, a diorama of skyscrapers in silhouette. Niola’s son would have to come back to empty the apartment. I tossed the car keys with their brass saxophone fob toward the coffee table and missed. A clink, and then silence. Niola had vanished from my life, a fact that left me deeply saddened but relieved. She’d be safe with her son in Oakland. I’d made that happen. At least some families could be reunited.
Before I walked back to the store to get my own car, I paused in front of The Zephyr to take one last look. A pair of tall, thin palm trees divided the view into four rectangles and towered well above the roof of the building. They stood entirely still, their shiny green bloom of fronds catching not even a zephyr. It was an establishing shot in reverse. I’d moved to L.A. to break into screenwriting. But I had no stories. Maybe it was time to write about Niola even though in a screenwriting workshop I’d been warned against that kind of work. Stay in your own lane.
Just the night before the police physically carried Niola into her apartment and it was violent. I had no choice but to make that happen. I’d been a good way through my shift, scanning the groceries of Snake Guy, the uninspired nickname given to one of our regulars, a White, tattooed dude who shopped with a small yellow python draped over his neck. My manager tapped me on the shoulder and whispered. “Your old lady is here.” He meant this literally. “Righteous,” he said, which was his exasperation go-to. Off the clock he was much worse.
Niola was standing a few feet away, clutching her brass handled purse, looking shaky and teary-eyed. It was too warm for the wool coat she was wearing, but she had it cinched around her waist as if it were about to snow, and her house slippers weren’t matched. “Man, they’re trying to kill me.” That’s what she called me, “Man.” If I didn’t understand, I might have leapt from the checkstand. Instead, I asked for my last break and had my manager bring a chair and set it behind me.
“Let me finish with these nice people,” I told her as she sat; “then we’ll see what’s what.” I turned, then came back to her and without asking, withdrew the car keys in her purse.
“Man?” she asked, unsure and trembling.
“It’s going to be okay,” I said, removing the tiny saxophone from her keychain. “Watch this for me?”
On my break I put a pre-made turkey sandwich in Niola’s left hand, my only option, and gave her a chocolate milk. In her early twenties her right arm was amputated just below the elbow, but she was pretty nimble about using the remaining, shiny nub which she moved not unlike the overbite of a sock puppet. With her coat off I saw that she’d left the apartment quickly because she was wearing only a thin pink nightgown. She’d lost weight recently, and there wasn’t much to lose in the first place. I guessed she wasn’t remembering to eat. “What’s this about someone trying to kill you?” I asked.
She looked down at her chocolate milk, and then at me, almost as if she was hoping I would answer the question for her. “The people,” she said. “And they stole my car.” I doubted the last part, because I had her keys in my pocket. She held out the tiny saxophone in her hand as proof.
“We’ll find it,” I said. “Let me send you home in a taxi, and I’ll check on you after my shift. Does that sound okay?” And that’s what we did. I called a cab, gave the driver the address, and stepped back into a checkstand. Ten minutes later the cab driver came through the doors and rushed my manager. “She crazy,” he screamed, hands flailing in the air and accented by thick gold pinky rings. “She won’t leave the car. She has no money. Who pays?” My manager looked at me and shook his head.
“She’s been a customer at this store longer than I’ve been alive,” I said, as I passed him and went outside. Niola was cowering in the back of the running car.
“Get out,” the cab driver yelled behind me. “Get her out.” But then something sudden and strange. “Wait,” he said, exhaling slowly. “I see this. I’m sorry.” He gently pushed me aside with his thick, hairy arm and opened the door. “Mother,” he said as he extended his hand. There was something about the way he spoke the word with respect and sincerity that caught me off guard. I heard myself, fifteen-years-old, sitting with my own mother in the hospital when she confirmed the Do Not Resuscitate order for my grandfather. I had sounded like this once.
“Mother,” the cab driver said again. “Mother, you’re here. Let’s go inside.”
She leaned forward and took his hand, whispering. “We’re here?”
“Man,” she said, seeing me as she gently stepped from the car, “I think Barbara has the hot plate. They’re trying to kill me.”
I knew nothing of a hotplate nor a Barbara. “Okay,” I said. “You’re with me now.”
“Someone can pay fourteen?” the cab driver asked.
It was nothing to take Niola’s purse from her hands, but useless. “Right,” I said, already knowing there was no money inside. I gave him what I had from my own wallet, which he didn’t bother to count.
“Does she have children?” the cab driver asked just before his head sunk below the roof of his car on the driver’s side. “If no. She needs you.”
“The store is dead,” I told my manager. “Let me take her home.”
Really just an assistant manager, he rubbed his moustache, confused as to what to do. “Righteous,” he said. “There’s liability here.”
“Then what? She moves in?” We were talking as if Niola weren’t standing right next to us. In a way, she wasn’t.
“I’ll have the police drive her home.”
“Yes,” Niola said unexpectedly. “It’s late. I would like to go home. Momma will have my hide.”
Just before the squad car arrived I thought about calling Hebron, but there was no time, and I doubted it would do any good. Niola didn’t seem to take special notice of the two police officers escorting her to their car. They may as well have been adult children walking their mother down the aisle at church. Instead of organ music, Los Angeles played the thrush of its street traffic. When the police began to close the door to the back seat, Niola put her hand out. “Man? Aren’t you coming?”
“I’ll clock you out,” my manager said, exasperated. “Righteous.”
Niola’s place was five blocks away, and for the first couple, she was fine, purse in her lap, placid expression, as if we were returning from a pleasant evening at a concert; as if the police radio offering its low grind of random information was a Charles Mingus piece. But when we turned onto Niola’s street, she stiffened with recognition, then frantically looked around. “Where are they taking us?”
“Just giving you a ride home, Miss Niola,” one of the police said. “Nothing to worry over.”
“I can’t go there. The people will kill me. They took Herman.” She was nearly hyperventilating and grabbed my arm. “Man, tell them.”
I played along. “What good would it do to shock her now with Herman’s long ago death? “That’s why we have the police with us.”
“No. No. They’ll kill me.”
The policeman driving the car looked at me in the rearview mirror. “Who’s trying to kill you Miss Niola?” His baritone was calm.
“The people there.”
As we pulled in front of her apartment building, Niola clutched my arm and pleaded with her eyes. “You’re not. . . ” she whispered, “Man, you’re not going to let them take me, right?”
The look on her face was devastating, maybe even more so because I no longer had any idea what was happening on the other side of her shiny brown eyes. I only knew she was terrified and I was about to lie to her. “They’re going to protect you from the people,” I said, even though I was certain the threats populating her mind were beyond the reach of anything the police could do.
The officer in the passenger seat stepped out of the car and walked to the complex, the dark blue strip of her disappearing around the corner. “How long have you lived here Miss Niola?” the remaining officer asked. “It’s a real nice place.” I knew that’s not what he was thinking, maybe it used to be nice, but he was trying to calm her down.
Niola was shaking, but she answered. “Herman gave it to me. . . ” She didn’t so much as pause as come to a red light. “Man,” she asked without looking at me, “just when was that?”
“The ’60s, I think.”
“That’s right,” she said as if she was pleased with herself. She looked out the window at the dark building studded with rectangles of light. The officer was already returning. Since that night I’ve thought often about how when I was a kid we raised rabbits for meat. The shriek of a terrified rabbit is one of the most horrific sounds a person will ever hear, and that’s about what Niola let out when the female officer opened the door and asked Niola to step out. She clutched at me and flung one slippered foot out of the car to fend off the officer who was firmly insisting on Niola’s exit. Now both of Niola’s legs where flailing in defense and she was screaming at the top of her lungs. The second officer got on the radio and asked for backup. In minutes three officers were carrying a writhing, screaming Niola to her apartment. I was frozen next to the squad cars where they’d told me to remain, red and blue lights angrily flashing against the apartment complex and the spectered faces peering out from the windows. I was standing, holding Niola’s purse, helpless. Please don’t let her wig come off, I thought, but wishing for her dignity felt like the merest of gifts.
In less than a minute the captain, a worked-out Asian man that reminded me a bit of my late father, jogged back to the car. “We need the keys and we need you,” he said. “You’re Man, right?” I nodded and ran with him to where Niola was crouched and cornered next to her apartment door, the porch light glaring down on her as if she was about to be interrogated. I saw her through the wall of three officers. Her eyes were glassy and defeated, the nub of her right arm slowly twitching like the tip of cat’s tail. It was an awful tableau and I wondered just then where Niola was, in Los Angeles or Little Rock where her father was killed. Was she afraid of losing another arm, afraid of losing him a second time? Pajamed tenants, a family of six, filled the adjacent steps, the father, dyed brown comb over askew, yelling in English and a language I didn’t know. “She’s crazy. Take her to the crazy people hospital.” The wife put her hand on his back and said something to which he replied angrily, sending her and their children back up the stairs. He turned and threw his hand out as if to be through with us. “She says everyone trying to kill her.”
By then the captain had opened Niola’s apartment with the keys I’d handed over. “Think you can coax her in?” he asked me.
“Niola,” I said quietly. “Come inside?”
“Man, is that you?” She squinted through the light and beyond the stiff bodies in front of her. She’d come back.
Inside, the female officer and I escorted Niola to her small kitchen table, its white Formica top decorated with a red heart at each corner. She’d earned it with Green Stamps. The captain stood at the front door while another officer checked the apartment. “She’s living like this?” the captain asked. The front room was not as I’d last seen it. All her books were off the shelf and stacked on the floor with barely any room to move in between, a maze leading in one direction to the kitchen and the other to the hallway. I thought to get Niola some water and something to eat. The refrigerator contained only expired bologna, crusted condiment jars, and a teacup holding half a lemon. I called to the captain. “Yes,” I said when he was at my side. I pointed to the open refrigerator. “She’s living like this.” I pulled a phone number out of my wallet and handed it to him. “It’s Oakland. Please call her son.”
Finally, I thought, as I watched the captain dial Niola’s green rotary. After a couple rings, a man’s voice answered. It was coming together. The captain explained who he was and the situation. “You need to get your mother,” he said. He listened for a moment and then interrupted. “Sir, two weeks isn’t going to do it. She’ll be dead before that.”
Minutes later I was standing outside of Niola’s apartment, a half dozen police behind me. They wouldn’t let me stay. I wasn’t a relative. I locked on her glassy eyes. She was veiled behind the mesh of her security screen looking tiny and scared. “I’ll check on you in the morning,” I said. “Go to bed and lock the door.”
“Okay,” she said with a suspicious glare, slowly closing the door against people who were trying to kill her.
A few weeks before the night I had Niola escorted home by the police I was on break and made two phone calls from the store with permission from my manager. I’d gotten the first number from Niola. The call was to her sister in Atlanta. I briefly explained Niola’s descent. “And it’s getting worse,” I said, “trying not to sugar coat the situation.”
“Well, honey, it’s sweet of you to call, and five years ago I mighta been of a body to get out there. But I’m eighty-four and my gears is about rusted.” Her voice was spunky, but graveled.
“Do you know how to get hold of her son?”
“Hebron? That son-of-a-bitch?” I heard her turn away from the phone and muffle the receiver as she said something to whomever was in the room. “Sorry, Honey,” she said, returning. “I asked my husband to hunt up my address book. Far as I know Hebron is still up in Oakland. And good luck getting him to lift a finger for Niola. He and I are not so close.”
“I’m getting that,” I said. “But maybe it’d be better if you called him?”
“Truth is, Niola and I haven’t had much to do with each other unless someone in the family dies and that well is about dry except for us.” She thanked her husband and excused herself to find Hebron’s information. “If it ain’t changed, of course,” she cautioned as she slowly called out the digits. I thanked her but she wasn’t ready to hang up. “She ever mention Herman? He was a fella she used to run around with. I come out to California and took up with him for a bit, and well, now you see. You can’t dip the coffee spoon in the sugar bowl and not expect a taint.”
“Herman,” I say. “Niola thinks he’s still around.”
“Well, that’s real sad. I thought he was a no account, messing around on my sister all the time, but then, well, I was one of ‘em, that smooth son-of-a-bitch.”
“I should go.”
“I expect,” she said. “Sorry to tug on your ear so long, but let me give you one stitch of advice on getting Hebron to tend to his mother. Tell him Niola’s on her way out and he might wanna come see that her affairs is in order. If I know that boy, he’ll be down quicker’n spit off a railroad trestle. That building of hers will set him up real nice. If he don’t give two shits about her, he’ll sure care about the money.”
In two minutes I was on the phone with Hebron, though I held off on playing the inheritance card. He was all “mmm-hmmm, mmm-hmmm” until I got to the part asking him to come down from Oakland. “What’s in it for you?” he asked.
I was a little startled by the question. “Peace of mind, I guess.”
“Right. And you say you’ve known Mother how long? She hasn’t once mentioned you.”
“Since I started working at the store. A few years I guess. We’ve had lunch.”
“Well I appreciate your concern but she gets a little confused is all. I spoke to her last week and she was fine. And anyway, I’m due down at the end of the month. I got a business to run. So if that’s all. . . ”
“The apartment building,” I blurted.
“What about it?”
“Your aunt said that you. . .um. . .might want to make sure Niola’s affairs are in order.”
He didn’t wait even a half a second. “Fucking Aunt Francis? She’s still kicking? Listen you little fucker, I don’t know what kind of shit you’re trying to pull here. . . What’s the name of where you work?”
“Just please come get your mother,” I said. And then I hung up. In front of me, on my manager’s desk was his calendar. The next day would be my mother’s sixtieth birthday. Fuck her for living another year, I thought.
Earlier on the day I called Niola’s sister and Hebron, Niola arrived at the store in a bright blue dress suit and matching pillbox hat and clutch. I’d seen the outfit under plastic in her closet, a remnant from her “fancy days,” as she called them. That day she was clear-eyed and walking tall as she approached me in my checkstand. “Excuse me,” she said to the woman whose groceries I was scanning, “I have to transact a quick lick.” It had been months since I’d heard Niola’s voice so strong and direct. She didn’t wait for a response, and I continued scanning as she spoke. “Man, I have a lunch date. That’s why I’m wearing the blue.”
I didn’t understand how it had happened but another world had gotten into Niola. I turned and caught the gleam of five large mother of pearl buttons up the front of her jacket “You look beautiful,” I said, and then to my customer “Doesn’t she look beautiful?” The woman understood what I needed, and agreed enthusiastically. “Niola,” I said as I pulled the last of the woman’s items across the scanner, “a lunch date? I’m jealous.” A bagger arrived but Niola hardly budged to let him do his job.
“It’s only Herman,” she said. I immediately halted because Herman died in the early ’70s. “But the strangest thing,” Niola continued, “I can’t place where I’m supposed to meet him. Man, where am I supposed to meet him?”
I raised a polite finger to Niola and finished the checkout. “Have a lovely lunch,” the woman said, pushing her cart past. Beyond both of them the shift manager was staring at me shaking her head. “Didn’t Herman postpone?” I pretended. “I thought you said he postponed.”
“I don’t think so. I wrote it down but I don’t know where.”
Only one of us knew this wasn’t true, or if it was, it was a thirty-year-old truth. I had to do something. “Let me see your purse,” I said. Without a second thought she handed it to me and I fished around for the small brown address book I knew she carried. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before.
Niola had no cash and no credit cards, but she had the book. No Hebron, but I jotted down the number of her sister, Francis, and checked to see if my number was in there. It was, but just in case, before I returned the purse, I tore the corner off a manila folder and wrote “Brian, Grocery” above my phone number. “Okay,” I said, hoping she’d go along, “really, I just remembered, you told me Herman couldn’t make lunch Friday.”
“I told you that?” she said as if Herman hadn’t been dead all these years. “Okay then, I wore the blue for nothing.”
“He doesn’t know what he’s missing.”
“Probably got one of them others on his arm instead. You men. . . ” She looked at me tight eyed. “What’s the name of your girl again?”
I took me a second because it’d been a while since my fictional girlfriend came up. She remembered one thing, but not the other. “Charlene,” I said, though I supposed I could have offered any name.
Niola nodded, though she didn’t look satisfied. “I best get the blue back in the closet.”
I think about it now and realize that the first sign something was wrong came maybe eight months earlier. I was about to clock back in from lunch and saw Niola at one of the checkstands just as the clerk, a new guy, was finishing her order. They were speaking in Spanish. “Where you headed?” I asked from behind her.
“Man!” she called out in a big, brassy voice as she turned, tan purse hanging at the elbow of her handless arm. She’d gotten a new wig, a wavy auburn that set off her large, happy eyes. “Headed just over there, you know, and I’ve got news.” She turned to the clerk and asked in Spanish how much she owed. Then she opened her purse and stared into it for a few seconds. “Now what was I looking for?” The clerk repeated the amount but it clearly didn’t register with Niola as she stared again into her purse. “Man,” she giggled, “I’m just not one for figures today. Be a peach and pluck out what I owe?”
At the moment I didn’t understand what was happening. I just thought, well, she’s close to eighty-three, and she was so adorable about it, so I took her purse from her and complied. “What’s your news?” I asked as the clerk handed her the receipt and we walked behind her cart to the time clock.
“Spoke to Hebron this morning and told him he could stay in one of my apartments for free.”
“Wow,” I said. They hadn’t spoken for months. “What brought that on?”
“He called asking for money because maybe he has to close the business, so we figured out how much it would cost to get him down here.” She was beaming. The one regret about her life I’d ever heard her express was that despite all her efforts, her son had drifted away. “Just did Western Union before my shopping.” Suddenly she was teary eyed with happiness.
“That calls for a hug,” I said, opening my arms. “I know you miss him.”
She stood on her toes and squeezed me tightly. “You’ll have dinner with us when he gets here, right, Man?”
“Of course,” I said, letting go after a few seconds. “We’ll celebrate.”
“Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve mentioned you to him.”
Niola was independent, but there was a courtesy she insisted on, that I open the car door for her when I picked her up for lunch and when I dropped her off. It was after one of these lunches as I opened the passenger door in front of The Zephyr, that she paused and looked up at me before stepping out of the car. Large brown sunglasses concealed her eyes, and the bright daylight gleamed on freshly applied red lipstick. “Man,” she said, swiveling her legs out of the car and offering me her hand. “I believe I’m going to have a martini. It’s been awhile.”
I laughed, not thinking she was serious, but she squeezed my hand to let me know she was. “A little early in the day for a cocktail, don’t you think?” I said, closing the door behind her.
She turned, raised her chin at me, and placed her hands over the large brass buckle that cinched in her brown jumpsuit. “Only,” she lilted, “if I was drinking alone.”
“Niola, you’re flirting with me.” The idea of it was preposterous, but I was touched by the effort.
“An old woman like me? Flirting?” she asked with a smile. “It’s just that today is my birthday.”
What was I going to say to that? It would be the first, but not the only time I was in her apartment before that night the police carried her across the lawn of The Zephyr. In a minute I was sitting on her plastic covered couch listening to her mix our drinks in the kitchen. The apartment had been lived in. It wasn’t dirty so much as densely packed, every wall lined with dark-spined books, the coffee table stacked with them too. The floor was covered by uneven layers of carpet square samples, giving the surface the look of a choppy, multi-colored ocean. “You never told me you were a reader,” I called out.
“After Herman passed,” she said, rounding the corner and carrying a tray on which stood two full-to-the-brim martini glasses each one with a toothpicked olive. She’d taken off her shoes, her child-sized toes tipped with peach colored polish. “You’ll have to help me with this part,” she said, leaning toward the coffee table, which I didn’t understand at first because it was easy to forget she was missing the lower part of her arm.
“Oh,” I said, catching on.
She sat down next to me and took her martini from my hand. “Haven’t had one of these in maybe twenty years,” she said.
I held my glass up to her. “Here’s to your birthday.” Maybe it was best to drink up and go.
Her sip left a thin lipstick print on the edge of the glass. “I’ve had a lot of birthdays,” she said, laughing, and butting my shoulder with her short arm, “but the truth is today isn’t one of them.”
“Shame on you,” I said. It was this playful quality that made her so fun to be around.
She pointed with her martini to the top of one of the shelves where a large black and white photo was propped against a line of books. I couldn’t make out all the details, but I recognized the woman in the crisp white dress clearly in mid song. “That’s me back in the day,” Niola said. “Pretty thing, wasn’t I?”
“Beautiful,” I said, “but you never told me you were a singer. Is that what you wanted to do?”
“Hell no. Only thing I wanted to do was work for the phone company.” She shook her head as if I’d asked the world’s stupidest question. “I had aspirations. Not every Black woman with a voice wants to sing professional. Now fetch it down here and I’ll tell you a little story.” With the photo in her lap she lay a finger next to the younger version of herself. “Makes me look three shades darker, but that’s how pictures come out back then.” In the photo she was standing on a small platform, front lit, a white hand and the fingerboard of an upright base just in frame on the right, and a few on lookers below and in front of her. She told me that she’d been working at the club serving drinks a few months while she was trying to get in with the phone company. One night, a regular at the club asked if she could sing and she made the mistake of saying she could, a little. Before she knew it she was upfront under one hot spotlight.
“What’d you sing?” I asked.
She was already a third of the way through her martini. “I didn’t take myself too seriously, even back then, so I started up with “These Arms of Mine,” which wasn’t really the kind of music they played, but I thought it would be funny. You know that one? Otis Redding?”
“Of course,” I nodded, mainly because I was feeling distinctly less cool than the woman sitting next to me.
“Now, this is a cappella, and at first everyone did kind of laugh because, well listen.” She sang the first few lines, These arms of mine, they are lonely / Lonely and feeling blue. / These arms of mine, they are yearning, / Yearning from wanting you. “There I am with arms out wide open, missing part of the one, but then a couple of the boys caught on and gave me a little backing and we sounded good. Even got a standing ovation.” She stood up and pointed with her glass. “Back there is Ornette and he’s whistling, and up front, right up front. . . This is the part I left out, Mr. Sinatra is smiling and clapping and those blue eyes are just fixed on me like I was the only person in the room. Ornette and Mr. Sinatra on the same night.”
I looked again at the photo, and though he’s not quite in profile, it’s him. “This is amazing. How come you never told me any of this?”
Niola sat down and set her martini on a copy of Ficciones. “It was just the one song.”
“But Sinatra,” I said. “That didn’t make you want to give singing a shot?”
“Ornette,” she gently corrected, indicating the pecking order. “And singing? All that smoke and uncertainty? No thank you. I had my sights on working full time at Pacific Telephone and Telegraph. Did it too. Started at Thornwall 6. That’s where I learned talking proper was like flipping a light switch.” Leaning forward, she gestured toward the wall. “There’s the plaque from when they retired me.” Niola plucked the olive from her drink, popping it in her mouth as she pointed to a man in the Ornette/Sinatra photo. “But one thing come of it. Herman was there that night. That’s when we met, and boy did we meet, if you know what I mean.”
In the photo, Herman was seated in the background, facing the camera. It wasn’t a crisp image, but it was clear enough. He was older than Niola, it looked to me, late thirties, early forties. White, hair tight to his head, he wore a gray suit with a dark tie, and his eyes were perfectly centered in black rimmed glasses. “Handsome,” I said.
“Handsome?” Niola laughed. “No. The man was right as pancakes and just as syrupy, but he wasn’t handsome.” She looked at the photo. “Now, he was a straight-shooter from start to finish, and not just with me.” She waved her martini around in a gesture that was bigger than the room. “Not to say he didn’t have ideas that sometimes maybe weren’t on the up and up, if you know what I mean. He told me every time he cheated on me.” She offered cheers with her eyes and brought the glass to her lips. “His first kids was besides themselves when it turned out I owned The Zephyr clean and clear. Some sort of tax thing I didn’t understand, but when he died, it was mine.”
“So, Hebron has siblings.”
She bottomed her martini and went to fix another. “If you can keep a secret,” she called from the kitchen. “Hebron’s my sister’s boy with Herman. Them two were at it a bit. Of course I didn’t know. Then Francis goes off to Atlanta and has a baby she didn’t want, and a year later Herman goes back east and brings home Hebron.”
I waited for the ice to stop shaking. “You’re kidding. You adopted him?”
Niola leaned out so I could see her face. “Got to open another jar of olives.”
“Which means to me it hasn’t been twenty years since you had a martini.”
“In housefly years.” She disappeared and I heard the pop of the jar. This time she returned with a pitcher and the olives. “Let’s not with this up and down,” she said, refreshing my drink, and hers. “I didn’t adopt Hebron outright. But I raised him and called him son. Still do.”
“Oh,” I said, looking at a drink made cloudy by a bleu cheese stuffed olive, “so he knows.
“Well, Francis got a Jimminy Cricket on her shoulder after she watched some damn show on T.V.”
“Didn’t go over?”
“Not since. I’m his momma but not his mother and that makes a difference to some folks.” She shifted a carpet square with her foot. “Makes it all the harder that’s what he calls me, Mother.” She leaned in close, martini glass under her chin. “But let’s talk about us. When are we going to get this going?”
I saw it in her bright eyes and happy smile. She didn’t have to define “this.” Then I turned into a slack-jawed idiot. Just that morning I’d left the bed of one of my regular customers from work, an attorney whose boyfriend was also someone I’d slept with. Best looking gay couple I’d ever seen and I needed their stamp of approval. . . separately and secretly. That was my thing. Gratification without attachment. Play.
“Is that your man, Niola?” I asked, pointing to a photo on the wall.
She looked confused. “Baby, that’s Herman. And I thought you was my man.”
I knew who it was, but I feigned. “Well, it’s in color. I didn’t recognize him from your singing picture. And, I’m sorry, but I have a girl.” Somehow I thought it would spare this older woman to think she’d been hitting on a guy taken by a girl rather than another guy.”
Niola, suspicious, leaned back and one-eyed me. “What’s her name?”
“Charlene.” Where that came from so quickly I’ve no idea.
“Well, don’t that beat all.” She set her drink down and scratched at her wig with her nubbed arm, one-eyeing me again, this time even more intently. “Say her name one more time.”
“Oh hell,” Niola said, slapping her knee and taking a drink. “I’m a fool. Sssharline. You’re a queer boy.”
I stood, surprised to find myself shaking. “Niola, I should go.”
“Man,” she called me for the first time, “you sit right down. I’m not done with you.” I complied. “Am I right?”
I nodded, and then I started crying, uncontrollably. I sob-spoke the story of my mother and her husband, and about losing Lutfi, about pretending I could be a screenwriter, all the while feeling like the only person I had in my life was this eighty-plus-year-old-woman who was a customer where I worked. I don’t know everything I said. I mainly remember only the sound of my voice and the images, like a movie collage, of parts of my life rushing through my mind.
Niola patted my back when I was finished, played out. “Where went you?” she asked softly. I looked at her but had no answer. “That’s what Momma used to ask when our minds went traveling.” She handed me my martini and winked. “When I woke up this morning I thought I was getting a man today, but it looks like I got a child. But don’t you worry. I’ll grow you up.”
“I’m sorry for all that. I was just thinking back to when things were easier.”
“Yeah,” Niola said, topping off her martini, “I think about them days too. But the only world we got to live in is now. You and me having martinis on Tuesday at 2 o’clock. That’s us living.”
I raised my glass. “Here’s to us. . . and Charlene.” Niola tinked her martini against mine and sipped, her partial arm resting on the back of the couch. At that moment I realized I’d got it wrong. I always thought of her as missing part of a limb. She was missing nothing. But, even epiphanies can lead one down the wrong road.
“Listen to Niola,” she said. “That far off will creep up on you now and then, but you may as well be dead if you try to live there. You got to have folks around. Call your momma. You need her and she’s going to need you in not too many years. If that don’t work out, you better start collecting some love. That’s what I do. Hebron and I aren’t close, but I got the comfort he’ll be there for me when I start living far off. And if he isn’t, guess I got you. I make family.”
“You do,” I said.
“Worst thing is to end up with nobody to look out for you.”
Like every toddler, I stumbled. “Hey,” I said, “maybe you’re my screenplay. Maybe I should write about you.”
“Man,” she said with an incredulous look, “This isn’t the movies. This is real life. You’re a Chinese-something gay boy and I’m an eighty-two-year-old lady. You don’t know me.” Her tone was stern and caught me off guard.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just thought. . . ”
She touched my shoulder with the nub of her arm, softened. “No, no. Man, you go right on ahead. I insist. We’re making family here. Type up my story. Everyone should do that, write other people’s stories. You won’t ever get it right, but you might learn something about yourself.”
Brian Leung, author of World Famous Love Acts, Lost Men, and Take Me Home, is a past recipient of the Lambda Literary Oustanding Mid-Career Prize. Other honors include the Asian-American Literary Award, Willa Award, and the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. His short fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals, magazines, online venues, and anthologies. “Shuhua’s Suite” originally appeared in Blythe House Quarterly. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from Indiana University. He lives with his husband in Lafayette, Indiana, where he is the Director of Creative Writing at Purdue University. http://www.readbrianleung.net/