The Orange Houses,
Table of Contents
chapter 1 - TAMIKA
chapter 2 - FATIMA
chapter 3 - TAMIKA
chapter 4 - JIMMI
chapter 5 - FATIMA
chapter 6 - TAMIKA
chapter 7 - FATIMA
chapter 8 - JIMMI
chapter 9 - TAMIKA
chapter 10 - FATIMA
chapter 11 - JIMMI
chapter 12 - TAMIKA
chapter 13 - FATIMA
chapter 14 - TAMIKA
chapter 15 - JIMMI
chapter 16 - TAMIKA
chapter 17 - JIMMI
chapter 18 - TAMIKA
chapter 19 - FATIMA
chapter 20 - TAMIKA
chapter 21 - FATIMA
chapter 22 - TAMIKA
chapter 23 - JIMMI
chapter 24 - TAMIKA
chapter 25 - JIMMI
chapter 26 - FATIMA
chapter 27 - TAMIKA
chapter 28 - JIMMI
chapter 29 - FATIMA
chapter 30 - TAMIKA
chapter 31 - JIMMI
chapter 32 - FATIMA
chapter 33 - TAMIKA
chapter 34 - FATIMA
chapter 35 - TAMIKA
chapter 36 - MOM
chapter 37 - TAMIKA
chapter 38 - JIMMI
chapter 39 - TAMIKA
chapter 40 - FATIMA
chapter 41 - TAMIKA
chapter 42 - FATIMA
chapter 43 - TAMIKA
chapter 44 - FATIMA
chapter 45 - TAMIKA
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Copyright © 2009 by Paul Griffin
Photos by Paul Griffin and Robyn Meshulam
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All characters and incidents depicted in this work are fictitious.
Any resemblance to real persons or events is purely coincidental.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Griffin, Paul, date.
The Orange Houses / Paul Griffin.
Summary: Tamika, a fifteen-year-old hearing-impaired girl, Jimmi, an eighteen-year-old veteran who stopped taking his antipsychotic medication, and sixteen-year-old Fatima, an illegal immigrant from Africa, meet and connect in their Bronx, New York, neighborhood, with devastating results.
eISBN : 978-1-101-05273-0
[1. Interpersonal relations—Fiction. 2. Hearing impaired—Fiction.
3. Veterans—Fiction. 4. Mental illness—Fiction. 5. Illegal aliens—Fiction.
6. Africans—United States—Fiction. 7. Bronx (New York, N.Y.)—Fiction.] I. Title.
You’re my angel, bomb blast bright,
No slight heaven, no minor light.
You are the way,
How you love me, girl,
The world a swirl,
Will you still love me,
When you find out I true be,
Lost with a fire’s need,
A man from sands,
No bonds or bands,
The Devil’s hands?
Only you, child, can save me.
James Semprevivo changed his name to Jimmi Sixes when he came back from the desert, but most folks called him Crazy Jimmi. His military service ended with a mandatory discharge—honorable—after army psychiatrists determined he was incapable of carrying out his duties. He’d enlisted at seventeen, shipped out his eighteenth birthday and was sent home six months later.
What follows here happened a few months after Jimmi came home, shortly before he was supposed to turn nineteen. He sketched this rhyme into a newspaper margin, then whispered it to the rats that shared his cave so as not to wake his friend fifteen-year-old Tamika Sykes, sleeping restlessly in the stove light but not bleeding anymore. She’d been cut bad. Jimmi’s other friend Fatima Espérer was aboveground but in no less danger.
An hour after Jimmi wrote the poem the vigilantes hung him.
Bronx West, a high school classroom, a late October Thursday morning twenty-seven days before the hanging . . .
Everybody’s eyes were like, Say what?
The teacher said the word again: “Taphophobia.”
Spelling bee. Hate It scale rating: somewhere between scrubbing toilets and PMS, say 8 out of 10. The big-boned girl in the corner did not speak in front of crowds. She would write her answer on the board or be dumb. She studied the shapes made by old lady Rodriguez’s mouth: Ta. Fo. Fo. Bee-ya.
Meningitis struck her ten years before, when she was five. Technically her hearing loss was “moderately severe,” what lawyers looking to sue hospitals pegged 50 percent deficient. Being halfway to sound was like never being able to catch your breath.
She got by just fine when she kept her hearing aids turned on. She didn’t much. The machines were what City Services could give her, old technology that jug-handled her ears and rattled her with phone and radio static, a high-pitched whir. They sharpened and dulled everything at the same time the way water will just below the surface. But turned off and plugging up her drums, the aids screened out the world. She lived for this silky silence.
“I seen more activity at sleep clinics,” Teach said. “Somebody stand and deliver. Mika Sykes, save us.”
Tamika rolled her eyes. Meek-a? Call her Mik, like nick.
Her thick hip caught a desk corner as she hopped over the outstretched foot of the pretty girl Shanelle just back from juvie. Word was Sha kept a box cutter tucked into her sock, its blade home-ground plastic to sneak it through the metal detector but sharp enough to slash and spill some gal’s cowhide backpack last week.
Mik stabbed the blackboard with fresh chalk and spun back to her seat. She propped her head on stacked fists and closed her eyes. She was up late again last night doing her secret thing, slinking away into her dream world: drawing. Add to the no-sleep night a sugar hangover to pound the gray out of her dome. She’d washed down a box of Fig Newtons with a snuck beer. Eyes shut she saw what she drille
FEAR OF BEING BURIED ALIVE
At lunch another outcast bum-rushed her loner spot under the stairs. The G he called himself. So sad. He handed Mik his homework. Mik eyed the paper, algebra, held up three fingers.
“For ten questions?” The dude fished his pockets and came up with lint and dirty pennies. “All I got is a buck and some.”
Mik squinted, taking in The G. Thick glasses bugged his eyes. A mouthful of metal failed to tame his buckteeth. That twisting sting pitted her stomach: repulsion, lust, both. She had a thing for losers. She grabbed the coins.
“Yo, I like y’all’s braids bunched like that,” he said. “Cat’s ears is crazy sexy.”
Mom had rolled them that morning as Mik ate breakfast—an annoying ritual. Mik fought a blush as she flipped up her phone. She clicked a hot key for a ready reply text: WUT EVR.
“Mik, lemme watch you do it, the math.”
Another hot key: NOT NEVR. Last time she let him watch he faked a yawn and dropped his arm over her shoulder. So corny. She had let him brush her breast, his hand clammy and shaking. That was either too disgusting or too exciting, and she’d nailed him, elbow to ribs.
“Y’all are mad beautiful.”
“Y’all are blind.” The words were out before she realized she spoke them. She sounded twice as good as she thought she did, half as good as she thought she should. With her ears plugged her voice was a hollow echo trapped in her head. Stick your fingers in your ears and talk, you’ll get the idea.
“Same way, slip it through my locker slot, text me after you make the drop?”
That got the BET button. She watched the player wannabe pimp limp away. Sucker would get his fool butt shot off during some bagman errand—a corpse before he hit the right to enlist. Mik blinked away that sadness and checked the boy’s math. G did not stand for genius. Poor baby, she almost said.
Doing other kids’ homework for small change wasn’t glamorous, but she had her eye on this dope ergonomic pen that cost forty-six bucks at that Japanese bookstore downtown. She worked old-school style with Speedball ink and crow quill points. She did not dare dream the pen could be more than a hobby piece, maybe even her ticket out, a one-way escape from Mom’s fate: slaving behind the Dunkin’ Donuts counter when she wasn’t humping the overnight restock shift at Target.
She tucked The G’s buck-and-some into her pocket and started in on his algebra. The half-off discount was no sweat. She helped out when she could, but on the down low, no need to get friendly. She’d do a slow kid’s math or help a blind lady cross a street. Hit and run, over and done, like that. She didn’t know why she did these things. They didn’t make her feel good. They didn’t make her feel bad either. She couldn’t figure it out.
She pulled her hair out of the bunched braids to hide her ears.
Atlantic Ocean, five miles southeast of New York Harbor, Friday, twenty-six days before the hanging, 3 a.m. . . .
“Don’t be afraid,” the ship’s mate said from the hatchway above. “Come.”
The women tiptoed onto the deck as if they were treading landmined sands. For nine days they had been hiding in the backup engine room of this oil tanker fit for hauling two million barrels of light sweet crude and, this time around, thirty-four refugees. Each woman’s passage cost twenty-five hundred dollars. This blind faith cash had been raised a coin at a time, person by displaced person, family by fractured African family. Those who had endured were sending their best shots at survival, if not by bloodline then heritage, west.
Of the thirty-four, most were going to Camden, where the Immigration police did not go. Camden was written off as a city lost to drugs, prostitution and the nation’s highest teen mortality rate. The rest of these travelers were going to a city somewhat safer yet no less rife with illegal employment, Atlantic City. The rest save Fatima Espérer.
Her mother had given the young woman her first name, but for her new life Fatima chose the last, a French word meaning to hope. She taught herself the language from schoolbooks that somehow escaped burning—English too. At sixteen she was headed where all told her not to go: New York. She had to visit the Statue of Liberty.
“A silly tourist trap,” one of her sister travelers said.
Fatima smiled. Trap or not, she was going to see Liberty up close.
The refugees huddled at the bow, their shawls drawn tight around their heads and shoulders. The ship’s mate ordered the deck lights turned off. He pointed overhead.
Fatima looked up. The night sky swung as the freighter wrestled a broken wave. The stars were nearly the same ones she saw back home before the raids, the fires, the smoke. On the horizon were the lights of Brooklyn, Staten Island, Manhattan and somewhere in the glow the Great Lady. Fatima leaned on a somewhat friend’s shoulder. “If we see only this, the trip was worth it.”
The other woman furled her lips and eyes as she relit a half cigarette she’d earned by way of a grabby kiss with a mechanic. “If I see only this, I want my goddamned money back.”
Courtyard of a Bronx West housing project, Saturday, twenty-five days before the hanging, 6:30 p.m. . . .
The Orange Houses were not orange. They were beaten brick the color of the sky this drizzly dusk. Some long-dead architect Casper Orange slapped together the nine jail-like towers way back when. Small, deep-set windows grayed cinderblock hallways noisy with need.
Mik hustled her grocery bags into tower #4 to beat the rain. The elevator was grounded again. After a ten-flight hike up the fire stairs she found NaNa passed out on the couch. Tostitos Natural Blue crumbs buckshot the old woman’s chest. Nosebleed channel TV teased with an info mercial for an exercise machine nobody could afford. The floor vibrated with the TV’s fake enthusiasm jacked all the way up. NaNa was not Deaf, but old-lady deaf. Whajou say? Whajou call me?
The woman had no folks, but everybody called her NaNa because she would sit your kid for a free meal. If you left a beer or two in the fridge for her, that was fine too. Going on three years now Mik and Mom didn’t have the heart to tell the old gal she wasn’t needed anymore.
Mik clicked to MTV to taunt herself. Some cutie was getting down with a guitar.
She put her hand on the TV speaker. Slow-strummed chords buzzed her fingertips and triggered a memory of Mom working that big body acoustic gathering closet dust the last ten years.
She clicked on her hearing aids. The music was ruined in them, the notes crackly edges and angles. Outside her window the city thumped with the coming night crowd: sellers, buyers, screamers, liars. In the background NaNa snored to cure comas.
Mik clicked off her aids.
This was what it was all about—the sadness muted. She could live and die without hearing another people-made noise. Except that guitar.
She changed the channel to the news. Closed captions flashed. HOUSE OVERRIDES PREZ’S VETO. CONTROVERSIAL IMMIGRATION BILL MOVES TO SENATE. BILL OFFERS REWARD $ TO ENCOURAGE REPORTING OF ILLEGALS.
Mik had enough problems without worrying about Mexicans stealing Americans’ delivery bike jobs. She aimed the clicker, killed the TV and tucked a blanket around NaNa. Sure the old gal was asleep, Mik pecked a kiss onto that brow lined with seventy-some years of disappointment. She went to her room and pulled a throwaway briefcase from her closet. Inside were sketchbooks, pens and inks of all colors.
She kept the briefcase hidden behind her off-season threads. In her mind she heard Mom: Why you spending all that time drawing instead of studying? You make all A’s, you get yourself a free ride to college. You wanna end up like me, double shifting Target and Dunkin’s? My daughter gonna end up slinging Hennessey cocktails at Applebee’s for thug pimps, blah, blah, blah . . .
Moms, Moms, Moms . . . How I want to love you.
Who wanted to go to college? After X463, aka Bronx-Orange high school, yo, Mik was out.
She studied her sketches. Cityscapes to the last one, they were remarkable, odd, the world a century after the plague. Buildings miraculously defied decay beneath gorgeous skies, no one around to enjoy them. Her streets were empty.
She checked her ink bottles. She was out of the most important color, the bones of every drawing, black. She tucked the briefcase into its hiding spot and crashed facedown into sheets that needed washing.
A Bronx West halfway house, Sunday, twenty-four days before the hanging, noon . . .
Jimmi Sixes the street poet eyed the bathroom mirror. He picked up the glitter lipstick the cross dresser down the hall left on the sink ledge. Over his cracked reflection he wrote:
Jimmi’s story: no Pops, his Moms a slave to the pipe. She put Jimmi in and out of foster care. With no prospects he signed on for what seemed a fair wage and adventure: the army. He left Bronx West for Basic without knowing he’d knocked up his girlfriend, the love of his life. He didn’t find out she was getting heavy till he was overseas. He set the wedding for his next three-day leave. It never happened.
One morning a five-year-old with an IED strapped to her stomach skipped past Jimmi into the heart of a city market. The bomb malfunctioned. The half explosion tore the girl apart but didn’t kill her instantly. Jimmi got to her on her third to last breath. As she died she asked him something in a language he didn’t understand. The wounded man next to her coughed up, “She said, ‘I know I am going into a coffin, but where will my face live?’”
PFC James Semprevivo sat in the smoking rubble and closed his eyes. He opened them nineteen days later to find out he was going home. He was eager to get back to the Bronx. His girl hadn’t written him since a month before the suicide bomber. He left messages on her machine and her mother’s, but neither woman called him back. Thirty feet into Bronx West he got the story. His gal lost the baby late term, then slit her wrists.