Jamel Brinkley

If a child was going to behave recklessly on the internet, Anita thought, as she tasted the yellow glaze of sauce on her cooking spoon, a mother had every right to know. No offense to Horace, but she was the adult here, so hers were the only accusations that really mattered in this house anyway. (It was just an apartment, as she well knew, but she called it a house.) Anita stirred the carefully measured blend of spices into the yellow curry she was making for dinner. Behind her, Dandy, her daughter, kept going on with her loud complaints. Besides, she thought, while deciding instinctively on a bit more turmeric, how could a word like spying be meaningful when her daughter had been alive on this earth for barely sixteen years? That wasn’t long enough to lay claim to any privacy at all.

Out of nowhere Anita said, “Plus you’ve never earned a solitary dime of your own. Not one red cent.” Random eruptions of thought were often her habit. “When you were little, you didn’t even want a lemonade stand.”

“A lemonade stand?” Dandy cried. “Who do you think we are? Where do you think we are?”

“Not a real lemonade stand,” Anita said, turning to the girl. “I’m obviously making a point.”

Horace grunted in agreement. Meanwhile, Dandy primed her face for weeping, eyes squeezed nearly shut, mouth so deformed it seemed to be stretched apart by two hooked fingers. This wreck of a face only proved Anita’s point, that her daughter was still a child, still—especially with her disastrous new haircut, a self-inflicted Caesar—the funny-looking baby she had been, maundering and defenseless, constantly bungling her way into some mess or another. Until she was ready to leave the house and make wise decisions, capable of that colossal task—taking care of herself—she still needed to be watched. “But what is your point? What are you even talking about?” Dandy blurted. She trembled in her unfashionably loose jeans and oversize T-shirt. “I never understand a word that comes out of your mouth.”

Dandy, who could often seem subliterate, would occasionally surprise you by using words like nincompoop and busybody, which were outmoded, weren’t they?

Leaning against the counter, Horace didn’t know what Anita was talking about either, judging from the expression on his lopsided face. But after taking a noisy sip of his pre-dinner coffee, which he said roused his digestive juices, he seemed to remember the order of his allegiances. “Here’s the long and the short of it,” he said to their daughter. “You just can’t be out here doing stuff like that.”

“I didn’t do anything!”

“Lower your voice,” he told her. “You know exactly what you did.”

“And then,” Anita added, “not even five minutes later, guess what, you somehow thought it would be a good idea to keep going, to escalate the situation.”

Dandy had informed her alarmingly high number of followers online that she despised the president and wished she had enough money to have him assassinated.

“Meanwhile you don’t even have enough money to hire a flea.”

“Why would I hire a flea? And why do you two keep spying on everything I do?”

There was that word again. Plus, Horace hadn’t really been involved, as usual. Anita was the one who had tracked down the social media account in question, all on her own.

Anita tried a variation of the speech she frequently gave. The mule of the world. Maybe Dandy would understand this time that her dual burdens, being Black and female, meant she had to be more careful and more intelligent than any other sort of person, more so than the grossly unfinished mind of a teenager could possibly imagine. The fact of the matter was, people like her got hurt, or even worse, just for walking down the wrong street at the wrong time, merely for having the audacity to exist. Anita concluded this version of her speech by saying gravely, “There are certain things you just can’t do.”

“That’s your message to your daughter?” Dandy asked. “That’s your great feminist slogan? There are certain things you just can’t do?”

“I didn’t say a word about feminism.”

“Of course you didn’t,” Dandy said. “You would never.”

Horace’s attention was going back and forth between mother and daughter, the same way it did when he followed a basketball game on television.

“And why are you defending the president anyway?” Dandy continued. “Why? Aside from being an idiot, a cheat, a sociopath, and a liar, he’s also, let’s see, racist, sexist, xenophobic, ecocidal. . .”

Horace, obviously pleased to have the opportunity to dole out some sweeping fatherly wisdom, replied that life itself was all those things too.

Dandy rolled her eyes. An insipid gesture, so conventionally and disappointingly adolescent.

“I can’t worry about the White House,” Anita said, turning back to the stove. “My job, my God-given vocation, is to worry myself—to death, if need be—about my house. I don’t care very much who the president is. I care very much who my daughter is.” Horace hushed Dandy before she could talk back again, so Anita gave him a little smile. Horace. He had begun to lose even his very modest good looks, which in the past might have made you take notice the fourth or fifth time your eyes passed over him, but his sturdy reliability was only deepening. For Anita, he was merely reasonable as a husband but ideal as the father of her child.

“I saw all those awful responses to what you posted,” Anita said. How long would it take to unsee them, she wondered, all that terrifying abuse hurled at her daughter, all those strangers calling her a “bald monkey” and a “little nigger bitch,” their Jim Crow–inspired warnings promising harm and even death. Dandy had gone so far as to reply to some people, daring them to act on their threats. She, a not-yet-grown Black girl, seemed to be saying, over and over again, go ahead, hurt me, rejecting safety and security, which to Anita was a kind of insanity. Practically immoral.

“I’m not worried about bots and trolls,” Dandy said.

“Well, your mother is worried about them, and the elves and the goblins too, okay? We’re both worried,” Horace said. “I don’t think that you understand how serious this is. My buddy at work, he told me this white guy in Idaho or wherever-the-heck did the same thing you did, the exact same thing, and guess what, the Secret Service came after him. The Secret Service, Dandy, came after a white man. This isn’t a fucking game.”

Anita raised her eyebrows. She disapproved of swearing in general but Horace tended to use it judiciously, only when he seemed to think she needed that kind of support. He had figured out quickly that she didn’t even like the play of profanity in the bedroom. Anita made a constant effort to keep her own imprecations tightly shelled within her skull.

“Here’s what’s going to happen,” she said now. “Before you go to sleep tonight, you and I are going to delete your social media accounts. Every single one of them, you hear me? I will sit there and watch you do it. Then you’ll hand that phone over to me and I’ll hold on to it until I’m good and ready to give it back.”

Before Dandy could protest, the rice cooker beeped out a tinny version of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Everyone listened quietly, almost respectfully; for some reason the device’s tune was sacrosanct. When it finished, Anita talked over Dandy, telling her to make herself useful and fluff the rice. When Dandy refused, Horace slammed his mug down.

“Do what your mother says,” he told Dandy, but she just slipped her thumbs into her pockets and glared at him. “And fix your face so we can have a nice dinner.”

“I’m not hungry,” she insisted. “I had plenty of food for lunch. But I guess you already know that too.”

“Just go sit at the goddamn table,” Horace said through his teeth.

Dandy seemed on the verge of an all-out tantrum now, but apparently she had enough good sense not to go that far. She stormed to the table crammed between the couch and the wall in the living room, then dropped with exaggerated heaviness into a chair, Anita’s chair. Anita turned and opened the lid of the cooker, releasing a puff of vaguely popcorn-scented steam. She gazed at the hot smooth cake of rice for a moment before carving into it with the edge of the paddle. On top of being irritating, Dandy’s behavior made Anita feel diminished. She had conditioned her daughter to be much better, starting when the girl was only a fetus. Anita had done all she could to make sure her womb was a conservatory of stimulation and nourishment. But when Dandy was driven out of the lush uterine bath and, a little later, placed clean and snug in Anita’s arms, she was disappointing. Ugly as sin, first of all, and the intoxicating new-baby smell Anita had been anticipating ended up being little more than the mellow funk of a cheese. Horace reminded her that most newborns are funny-looking, but as weeks and months passed, the ugliness remained.

Dandy wasn’t ugly now, thank goodness, but she wasn’t beautiful either. She looked fine, fine enough anyway, though there was a maddening suggestion of a mustache above her lip, and even worse than this persistent shadow was the tarnishing effect of her new haircut. It was decisions like the unflattering hair and the lunatic declarations about the president, the latest of her daughter’s many acts of defiance, that gave Anita the sensation of dwindling. Things like the casual lies the girl often told—maybe she thought lying was acceptable if you didn’t happen to be the president—and the dismissive attitude she’d developed toward her education. Or the nightmare back in middle school, when she’d gone so far as to send a topless photo of herself to some boy she liked. Or, during her first year at the all-girls high school, her sudden refusal to eat lunch in the cafeteria, despite already being quite thin. Dandy seemed committed to being as foolhardy as possible. There was still time, however, still time to get her on the right track.

Horace had taken care of the utensils, the paper towels, and the serving bowl of salad. After Anita fixed each plate of bright curry and rice with painterly care and attention, he brought it to the table. He told her to hurry before her food got cold, but there was one more thing to do. Whole milk, honey, avocado, almond and cashew powders, protein powder, and two cracked eggs, blended briskly with a spoon. For more than a year, she had been forcing Dandy to drink this concoction twice a day, to counter the campaign of weight loss and malnutrition. Anita gave the drink to her daughter and then came to a tactical decision. She sat not in Dandy’s chair, since Dandy had taken hers, but in the fourth one, the seat they kept for a guest, though there hardly ever was one.

Horace ate with gusto, Anita slowly and self-critically, and Dandy not at all. She just poked at a smothered wedge of sweet potato with her fork. Anita took a close look at her. Who was she anyway, underneath that barbarian self she insisted on presenting to the world? The frightening thing about her, and maybe about all children, was that she seemed to exist in a state of temporal confusion, inhabiting various eras at once. Dandy’s preternatural ease with technology, for instance. Or the music she listened to. So many irritating bits of noise. On the other hand, Dandy had her great-grandmother’s eyes: not only the same shape and dark brown, amber-specked hue but also that old dignified woman’s weary impatience with the state of the world as it had been back then, and the simmering disappointment she’d surely have now, if she could see how little things had changed or how, in some ways, they had gotten worse. And Dandy, who could often seem subliterate, would occasionally surprise you by using words like nincompoop and, yes, busybody, which were outmoded, weren’t they? The girl was an ancestor and an evolvement all at once.

“Why are you staring at me?” Dandy muttered from across the table.

Anita forced a smile onto her face. “I’m wondering why, instead of eating your food, you’re just messing with it like you’re a toddler.”

Dandy lifted the fork but there was no food on it. She peeked her tongue out and tasted the dots of sauce on the points of the tines. “Happy now?”

“To tell you the truth,” Anita said, “I could be much happier. Why don’t you just eat your food?”

“I told you I wasn’t hungry.”

“Well then, have your drink.”

They both looked at the beverage, mud green with yellow slivers of yolk.

“You know I hate this,” Dandy said.

“If you ate the way a growing child is supposed to, you wouldn’t have to drink it.”

The girl started to say something but flung her hand up to her chest instead. A shade of color drained from her face, and her gaze seemed to direct itself inward.

“Dandy?” Horace asked.

“What is it?” Anita asked. “What’s wrong?”

Dandy’s expression was vacant somewhat alarmed; and then she was back from wherever she had gone. She settled back into her usual state of annoyance. “This shit you keep making me drink gives me diarrhea,” she said. “Just looking at it right now is making me gassy.”

“Watch your mouth,” Anita said. “Why do you have to be so vulgar?”

“Don’t talk to your mother like that,” Horace said.

“She asked a question, I answered it.”

“Look,” Horace said, “you’re gonna swallow every drop of that stuff and you’re gonna eat every grain of this food your mother took the time and care to make for you.”

Dandy glared at him and picked up the drink. It slid into her mouth slowly, like sludge, until there was nothing left in the glass but a skim of grit and froth.

Her preference was for destinations, not for wanderings, the fact of arrival rather than the fraud of roaming under a spell of impressions.

“Now go on and eat your food too,” Horace said. “I want to see you clean that plate.”

“It’s okay, it’s okay. She’s not hungry,” Anita said, rigidly smiling again. Horace was doing too much. “So,” she said to the girl, “this lunch you had at school today. I would like to hear more details about this enormous lunch. Why don’t you tell us all about it?”

Dandy looked up from her plate and glared. “Why don’t you—. She went on to say something so shocking to her mother that it struck like the first blow in an ambush. Anita flinched. Dandy tore from the table with her hand at her chest again and closed herself in her room.

Horace jumped up. “That child must be out of her mind,” he said.

“It’s okay,” Anita said.

“Okay? How is it okay?” Horace asked as he lowered himself into his seat again. “If I even thought about talking that way to my parents, they would have slapped the black off of me.”

Anita had never liked that phrase, which Horace nevertheless persisted in using. Even now as she tilted her head way back to conceal her eyes from him, she couldn’t help but see the scenario played out literally, like a projection on the ceiling. Horace as a child shrinking from his mother.

Then Anita saw herself opening Dandy’s door (the lock had been removed) and striking her and then what? The girl’s skin peeling off like a layer of cheap paint? Would her entire phenotype change or only her skin? Would her nose split in the middle to reveal a thinner, pointier one? Or would she just become a faint echo of herself, a pallid, ghostly twin? Every possibility was a horror show, but Anita kept seeing more and more of them. Entering the room, hitting Dandy as hard as she could. In one vision, whatever defect the girl had that allowed her to speak to her mother that way, the way the crustiest foul-mouthed strangers spoke to women on the street, was imperceptibly but instantly corrected. Other corrections and realignments followed, each as relentless as a wish. “. . . and do you have any idea how much it wounds a mother when she’s unable to feed her own child?” she said to her daughter, before slapping her again.

A hand squeezed her arm on the table. “Of course I do,” Horace said. His hazy reflection appeared beside hers in the glass of the now-darkened window. When she looked directly at him, confused for a moment, his forehead was wrinkled in concern. “Are you okay, baby? You’re trembling.”

Anita wiped her face dry with her free arm. “A cup of sliced peaches,” she said.


That’s what she had for lunch today. That’s all. Peaches—bruised to death, I bet—swimming in that disgusting syrup.”

Horace slumped back into his chair and gave a nod of resigned understanding. Anita hadn’t told him explicitly that their daughter was still being kept under watch. But the operation was so simple. It didn’t take much for that other girl at the school to inform her mother what Dandy did and didn’t eat, and it didn’t take much for that other mother, Maria, a coworker at the bank, to inform Anita in turn. It was just a bit of chatter, as easy as that. All the baggy clothing Dandy had begun wearing around the house after she started high school couldn’t disguise the fact that she was getting even thinner. The first time she was caught in a lie about what she had eaten, she attempted to hide her spindly legs underneath her enormous sweater, knees pulled to her chest, rocking back and forth on the floor with an expression of fury and bewilderment. She grew more and more paranoid after that, unsure how Anita could tell when she was lying or telling the truth. She distanced herself from her teachers, began casting off her old friends, and refused the possibility of new ones. She spent an increasing amount of time on the internet and began to decline intimacy, if it could be called that, with anyone familiar.

Horace patted Anita’s arm and said he would take care of the after-dinner cleanup, as if he didn’t do exactly that every night. While he washed dishes, the room filled with fine blue shadows and she remained seated in the guest chair. Back when they were new parents and the going got tough, he’d try to reassure Anita by telling her, half-jokingly, “Don’t worry, this is just a trial run. The first one is always an experimental child.” As if, despite being old when this first child was born, they were certain about having more. As if Anita herself, who had no siblings, didn’t know that the result of most experiments is failure.

A lot of people assumed Dandy was a nickname for Dandelion or some other ridiculousness, which Anita took as an insult, and which was maybe what made the other mother, the mother of the actual spy, say mistakenly one day that the girl was “as thin as a weed.” But Dandy (“Fine and dandy,” Horace used to say in his imitation white man voice) was short for Dandridge, as in Dorothy. “A Black woman of accomplishment in a very difficult time,” Anita said out loud now to no one, pleased with the phrase. But it was impossible to get up from her seat. She couldn’t extract Dandy’s awful, pornographic remark from her mind. A blasphemy.

Lying in bed, she was unable to free herself from the agitation of her thoughts. Time passed with a strange combination of speed and sluggishness. She turned away from Horace, who was sound asleep, and finally allowed her whole body to shake from sadness. But then her breath caught. Horace’s arm had fallen over her like a plank of wood. Anita could smell the spiciness of the curry through his pores, the slight tang of mustiness from his armpits. She wiped her face as he began to whisper some comforting words into her ear. She listened, more to the soothing sound he was making than to the words themselves. His touch and his tone had a sedative effect. She noticed her breath slackening. As she began to drowse, he pulled himself closer to her. Her eyes widened as she listened more carefully to him. She felt it as he pressed himself against her, wriggling his hips slightly but firmly, erect. One of his bulky legs edged over and around hers, locking her in a carnal embrace. It didn’t take much to deter him, however, just a disappointed utterance of his name, said almost meekly despite the rage filling her chest. He knew exactly what she meant—no—and he immediately gathered the heavy splay of his limbs from her body and curled himself away.

But he couldn’t be more embarrassed than she was, degraded even. He must have lost his mind, trying something like that, as if he had forgotten who and what they were—who and what she was. Tonight of all nights. Despite the filth that had come out of the girl’s mouth. Anita dwelled on his reckless lack of consideration until she noticed the sky starting to shed its darkness. Horace eventually got up to begin his deliberate ritual of getting ready for work, and by that point she was convinced that the nature of his attempt had been even worse than she’d imagined. He hadn’t thrown himself on her that way despite their daughter’s nasty words, he had done so because of them. They had apparently stirred something in him, a sensation as agitating as Anita’s anger.

For the first time in almost three years she called in to say she needed to stay home from work. She remained in bed instead of making breakfast for the family. Horace peeked in warily at her a few times and then, after an interval of silence, soaked thick with masculine helplessness, she heard him opening and shutting cabinets and the refrigerator to throw something together. Finally, he and Dandy zipped up their coats and left for the day.

At first Anita enjoyed some measure of ease, but it didn’t take long for her to realize how infrequently she spent time alone at home. Now as she moved about without her husband or their daughter, the space contracted. Oddly, it felt less like a house instead of more. The walls seemed to tighten, and in her imagination they collapsed into something like a frame around a spot of murk on the kitchen ceiling, which she fixated on even though she couldn’t do anything about it. Glancing at a clock, she was surprised to see that it was only midmorning. She decided to take a walk.

Anita found, however, that the concept was foreign to her. Her preference was for destinations, not for wanderings, the fact of arrival rather than the fraud of roaming under a spell of impressions. With her gloved hands stuffed into her coat pockets and her scarf wound snugly around her neck, she made a beeline for the subway station and then to the local fruit and vegetable market and then to the dry cleaner’s. Each time, she stopped short before entering and asked herself what in the world she was doing. With sustained focus she managed to walk more slowly and frivolously, but despite her leisurely pace she soon became exhausted by the mental effort involved. After a while she found herself crossing a broad street and then she sat on a bench. Her watch told her it was nearly afternoon. The air was raw and gray.

“They sure are something, huh?” a raspy voice said.

The voice and body belonged to a woman, perhaps close to her age. Her large shapeless torso was oddly twisted. Now that the drapes of her concentration had been parted, Anita also saw that there were other people, all around, standing precariously still or in full stride. The bench was on the lip of Prospect Park, she realized, just outside of a playground. “Not a day goes by that they don’t crack me up. Am I right or am I right?” It was the woman with the raspy throat again, but the quality of laughter that followed, clean and shrill, was entirely unexpected. “Hey, are you saditty or just hard of hearing?” she added.

Anita didn’t respond.

“You’re from around the way too, so you know how it goes.”

“Excuse me?” Anita said.

“Don’t act all inclined unless you want to be straightened out.”

Excuse me?”

“You’re excused.”

“Are you talking to me?”

“Maybe there is wax in those ears. Well don’t worry. I can be just as loudmouthed as anybody.” Then the woman, distracted again, cried out, “Just look at them!”

In the playground behind the bench, several small children, too young for school, romped on the equipment as parents and caregivers looked on. Two kids in particular, the rowdiest ones, held the woman’s attention. About the same size, crouched close to the slashing swings, they wore hooded purple coats that obscured their faces and stiffened their movements. They rolled a marbled ball between them, shrieking with such flagrant, ungoverned laughter.

It was conceivable to say she had saved Dandy’s life, and it was conceivable as well to say she had nearly killed her.

“I swear they must be geniuses,” the woman said. “I swear to God!” She faced Anita directly. Her packed-tight skin, faintly pocked, suggested plentiful eating and questionable hygiene, exactly the habits of the kind of person who would be raising little hooligans. She wore a purple coat too, if more faded and threadbare. She smiled toothily when the children shrieked again. “You got any of your own?”

Anita hesitated and then shook her head.

The woman chuckled and leaned in. “You sure?”

“I don’t have any children.” Usually she had no trouble guarding her life from the prying of strangers.

“Me neither,” the woman said with a shrug.

“What?” Anita looked pointedly into the playground again. “Nope, they’re not mine.”

Before Anita could respond, the two children’s cries turned ferocious. They were standing now, and instead of rolling the ball, they threw it clumsily back and forth, pelting each other with it. The woman in the purple coat yelled at the children to stop, and it was a surprise when they immediately did so. When she told them to come on, they abandoned the ball and obediently ran to meet her at the entrance. She fussed at them, but did so with obvious levity, as if rehearsing an inside joke. The grinning faces of the children were more visible now, their cheeks paled ocher by the cold. When the woman extended her hands, each of the children eagerly took hold of one. They too seemed to be in on the joke. For a second that felt much longer, the woman lifted both children off the ground simultaneously, opening an inch or two of indestructible air beneath the soles of their thin, tattered shoes. Then they walked off like that, all three of them blameless, hand in hand, hand in hand, dangerously close to the street.

The noise of the playground resumed. Cars rumbled past. Anita’s windpipe felt blocked and she was unable to clear it without making a repulsive sound. As she looked around cautiously, her eye caught on a colorful object, golden with vivid blushes of red. It was the ball the children—were they boys or girls, she suddenly wanted to know—had been playing with. The toy. The weapon. It had rolled to the edge of the playground, close to where Anita was sitting. Instinctively she reached behind the bench and through the wide gaps of the metal fence and picked it up. Though it retained a rocklike firmness, it was flattened here and there into something that wasn’t a true sphere, and there were several spots of exposed yellow-pink flesh. It wasn’t a ball, as it turned out, but an immature nectarine. Anita dropped it into the first wastebasket she could find and brushed off her gloves. She walked back home as quickly as she could.

Anita worked efficiently at the bank over the next few weeks but succumbed to a state of torpor when she was at home. Dandy’s outburst and Horace’s transgression merged with the unusual encounter she had had at the playground. She felt weighed down. She kept thinking of what to say to her family, or about the incident outside—that woman and those children, the odd disturbance of that piece of stone fruit—but nothing articulable would resolve in her mind. Instead she mooned around the apartment. The meals, which Horace prepared, became bland, and the furniture, which no one cleaned, collected dust. Anita even stopped giving Dandy her special drink.

One evening, during a dinner of overboiled noodles swimming in burgundy-colored sauce from a jar, she observed her husband and child, the relaxed set of their shoulders and the lack of tension around their mouths. They clearly were happier, though they had enough consideration not to be brazen about it. Dandy had made a habit of sitting at Anita’s place at the table, however, as though the rearrangement had brought about the changes in the house. It was unclear what her eating had been like lately at school—Anita had given up the habit of checking—but her appetite had been better at home. She and Horace rose from the table. It was time for them to watch their favorite reality show, some nonsense they had conspired to enjoy together. But after Dandy dropped off her dishes (unwashed) in the kitchen, and walked back, her face was stricken and her hand was pressed to her sternum.

It didn’t really hurt, Dandy would admit later to the doctor at NYP Brooklyn Methodist. The sensation was alarming, but it never became more than a dull discomfort, an oppressive awareness of the possibility of pain rather than pain itself, and the most overtly dramatic thing about Dandy’s hospital stay was the unyielding bureaucracy they faced when they arrived. But Anita expected bad news anyway. For weeks now, ever since the girl’s malediction, everything had been worse than it appeared to be.

Nine days later, Dandy was back at home. Quiet, withdrawn, she stayed in her room and, as if following her lead, Anita and Horace spent the afternoon in theirs. It was hard to remember the last time they had been in bed together during the day. Anita was on her phone, searching term after term. It turned out there was a whole new lexicon—it felt like an entire new language—that she would have to learn to fathom her daughter’s existence. Lipids, autosomes, metabolic processes. An extremely heightened risk, eventually, of severe atherosclerosis. Campesterol, sitosterol, stigmasterol—sterols of many kinds. The key term, the defining one among all these polysyllables, essentially described a mutation in the genes.

The disorder was, as she understood it, a bodily greed, which caused the blood and organs to cling to much more than they could safely bear. Dandy’s possession of this chaos, or its possession of her, made her, in a way, what Anita had always wanted her to be. To date, medical literature had recorded only one hundred people in the entire world who were bound to the condition. By her very nature she was in peril, but also special, rare. The doctor had seemed fascinated, almost thrilled.

He had shown Anita and Horace the visible signs: the girl’s swollen Achilles tendons, and the small yellowish growths on her elbows and behind her knees. There was even one between the pinkie and ring finger of her left hand. Anita mouthed the word: xanthomas. They had been there for months, Dandy admitted. But why hadn’t she said something sooner? How was it possible that Anita’s hawklike eyes hadn’t noticed them? The doctor responded to this in an ambivalent tone, both censure and congratulation. He said it was probably thanks to the twice-daily feedings of that drink that the condition—he was careful not to say “disease”—flared up enough to call attention to itself. For someone with Dandy’s genetic makeup, he said, each of those cocktails, full of fat and sterols, was like a heart attack in a glass. Anita immediately understood what he meant. It was conceivable to say she had saved Dandy’s life, and it was conceivable as well to say she had nearly killed her. Each was ineradicably true. But what did this say about the kind of mother she had been these past few weeks? Had that span of neglecting her child made things better or worse?

When she looked up from her phone, Horace was watching her. A few more seconds passed before he dragged his gaze away from her face. In those moments, Anita saw something she’d never seen in him before, an appraisal of her that culminated in doubt, if not something worse. He could leave me, she thought. He wouldn’t, she was sure, but she could no longer say that leaving had never occurred to him. He’d had the thought—that’s what those crawling seconds had seemed to communicate—and he would possibly have it again. After a moment of panic, however, Anita told herself that a little skepticism in a marriage was fine, healthy even. Or maybe what she was feeling was the release of a pressure she hadn’t known was bearing down on her. She almost laughed.

By a trick of light, afternoon had imperceptibly given way to evening. Anita got out of bed and said she felt like fixing dinner. She hadn’t done so since the day she made the curry, but Horace just flipped a page of his magazine in response. When she left the bedroom, she heard him shut the door behind her. She went to the girl’s room, tapped on the door, and waited before entering. She didn’t go far past the threshold. The room was settled in a heathery darkness. The overhead light was switched off and the curtains were shut. In bed, lying supine with her knees bent on top of the covers, Dandy didn’t acknowledge her mother’s presence. Anita wished the room were more illuminated. She wanted to examine her daughter, to find evidence of some kind, of any kind, as long as it was conclusive. She wanted to prove that she could. Through the focus of her attention, she managed to make out the rise and fall of Dandy’s chest. Okay, so now what? Now what? What would a good, attentive, superheroic mother do now? What was she supposed to do? It was unbearable, Anita felt, to be a bystander to your own daughter’s life.

“How are you feeling?” she asked. Her daughter didn’t respond.

“There’s so much I want to say to you, but I don’t really know what to say.”

No response.

Anita remembered the lie she had told to the woman by the playground. I don’t have any children. “Listen,” she said. “You’re the most important thing in my life, and now, now you must be scared.”

Dandy’s chest rose and fell with no discernible change in her breathing.

I’m scared,” Anita said. By a degree or two, she could sense the light of day finally waning behind the curtains. “Well, okay. I guess I’ll leave you be for now,” she said. “Are you hungry?” She perceived then an infinitesimal shift, a faint flicker of motion from the bed.

“Yeah, whatever,” Dandy said in a stale voice, as though she hadn’t used it in a very long time.

I love you, Anita cried, but only in her mind. “I guess I’ll go get some dinner on the stove then,” she said, shutting the door behind her.

“This is a house,” she caught herself saying as she passed through the living room.

It was almost like her daughter had known it instinctively, that food, so many foods, could enter her body and turn toxic.

In the kitchen, she opened the refrigerator and peered inside, remembering when Dandy was nine and insisted on calling it the “icebox.” The doctor and the dietitian had been clear. There was little confusion about the foods her daughter had to avoid now, and for the rest of her life. However long that would be. However long they could stave off any blockages of her blood. The list featured nuts and seeds, margarine, vegetable oil, shellfish, chocolate, yolks. That morning, for the first time in weeks, Anita had shopped for groceries, and for the first time in years she had done so without buying avocados. And instead of whole eggs, she purchased liquid whites. What might Dandy say about it? She’d say it was snot in a box. Don’t be so vulgar.

Dandy had to take medications too. The diet alone would make some difference, but almost any food at all posed considerable problems. It was almost like her daughter had known it instinctively, that food, so many foods, could enter her body and turn toxic. Weren’t there animals that could do that, somehow detect with fine accuracy the venomous things of the world? Anita would look them up later on her phone.

She felt exhausted, so she decided to make something quick, just a simple stir-fry with rice. She cleaned and chopped broccoli, carrots, green beans, bell pepper, red onions, scallions. Anita gazed up at the mark on the ceiling as a wave of despair knocked against her. The doctor had said she should cook with water instead of olive oil, another sly poison. “Water,” she said aloud, incredulously. No. “This is a house.” Instead of doing that, she found some celery, some garlic and ginger, and a yellow onion, and she decided to use them with some of the carrot. It would take more time, but she was intent now on making a fresh stock. She nursed it for well past an hour, until its fragrance was rich and bold. “This is a house,” she said, and the house remained quiet. She would use this to cook, adding just a little at a time to the pan. The rest she could use tomorrow for a soup. As the vegetables brightened on the stove, she spiked the dish with wine and more ginger and other spices, happily improvising. She sampled the food as she went, and was pleased with how the flavor began to evolve. This was a lot of labor for something so simple, but it was good. Damn good.

The vegetables were done right before the rice cooker sang “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Anita turned off the burner and fluffed the rice. She set out three napkins and three sets of utensils on the table. She set out the vegetables on a serving plate, the rice in a serving bowl. She prepared one of Dandy’s medicines too, a chalky powder mixed into a glass of orange juice, the new concoction she would have to drink every day.

She announced that dinner was ready, and waited before she sat down. She wasn’t sure how everyone would arrange themselves at the table. She was hungry; they must be too. After a few moments, there was the sound of a door opening and then closing. Then it happened again, a door opened and it closed. But Anita didn’t see her daughter or her husband. Where are they? They sure are something. She stood there by the little table and told herself to keep waiting. Be patient. They’ll come. This is a house, this is a house, this is a house.

From Witness by Jamel Brinkley, out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux on August 1, 2023.

Jamel Brinkley is the author of A Lucky Man, a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction and winner of the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, and Witness.
Originally published:
June 26, 2023


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