So I made my choice. I chose Adia and her mother and endless afternoons of muted, scratchy Fela Kuti records and scored and tattered copies of Assata. I skirted around our apartment at the Toneybee, with its Lionel Richie albums (“Sellout,” Adia hissed, if I ever dared to play one of his cassettes) and the copies of Jet magazine, interspersed with anthropology and primate journals, the lot of them arranged in an incongruous fan across the Toneybee’s coffee table. Mom didn’t push me to return. She decided to let me go, confident that I might wander back. Charlie just got haughtier. It was only Callie who cared.
Every afternoon, when I returned from Adia’s, I would find Callie and Charlie watching television on the couch. Stacked in a prim pile before them were her school books: proof that she had done her homework. Every night, they watched a Western, Charlie’s favorite kind of movie. Dr. Paulsen had given us a stack of them on videotape when we first moved in: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; The Good the Bad and the Ugly; even Johnny Guitar. When that one was on, Charlie sat as close as possible to the television and during every Joan Crawford close-up, he delicately pursed his mouth into a kiss and pressed it against the screen, fitting his own fleshy lips over her blood red trembling ones. For every film, he liked the sound effects best: the hollow thud of horses’ hooves and the whistling theme songs. Whenever these played, he would sit back on his haunches and rock back and forth, yes yessing the gunshots with a perpetually nodding head, riveted from the opening shots of big empty gray sky to the closing monochrome sunset.
It was jarring, walking into the apartment at the Toneybee, greeted only by the sound of gunshots, the soft purr of the VCR and Charlie’s heavy breathing. Adia’s house was loud. Adia and her mother’s two great passions were rhetoric and music. My dad loved music, too—his record collection was the one thing he insisted on bringing to Cortland County—but the Breitlings were different. They were not collectors and they were not merely fans. Their passion for music was both religious and profane: they revered and craved it at the same time. Their stereo was on from seven a.m. to one a.m., when Marie would realize her final revelation of the night, finally flick the switch and give the poor, overworked motor of the turntable a break. Dinners at their house were terribly loud: Marie liked to play very fast merengue while they ate and yelled good-natured insults at each other. When they were angry, they put on ominous Bartok and when they were trying to do their work, they put on a curious record that was just clicks and electrical sizzles and microphone pops.
When it was just me and Adia, Adia chose the records, but if it was Marie, she was the one in charge, constantly changing discs to keep up with the unending mix in her head. Nina Simone and Sly and the Family Stone–the only records she had the same as my dad, besides Harry Belafonte and Patti LaBelle. Marie even allowed rap music, a fact that astonished me. My parents hated rap, and I thought that hatred was shared by everyone over thirty. But Adia and her mother remained nonplussed. The only thing Marie banned were any white singers: white composers were fine, she said, but—she confided this with a laugh and a shrug—she couldn’t stand white people singing. Marie made one, loving exception for Joni Mitchell. Adia did not understand why I found this funny and I could not begin to explain it to her.
We lay on the floor and listened to music and to Marie expound over the hum of her potter’s wheel. Adia’s mother, Marie, was a potter, and that year she was working exclusively with a red clay that left a fine powder everywhere. When I came home, the back of my shirt was always streaked with red gashes, and Dad would joke, “Rough day, Charlotte? Who had the dagger? What did the other guy look like? You get him good?”—endless references to a joke fight that I would ignore, smug in the knowledge that he had no idea of the real fight going on, and that I was training to win.
The fight, of course, was surviving being black in Cortland County. Much to my puzzlement, I quickly learned that Marie and Adia’s main tactic for survival was to refine their long-standing list of rules about black people. This was an elaborate set of stipulations that I had never heard of before I met the Breitlings. Back in Boston, back in the South End, there were enough black people, at least in our neighborhood, that we didn’t need rules for ourselves. But it was different here. Marie constantly imparted the rules to Adia, who parroted them back to me, as if I had not been in the room at the same time she heard them. From the size and detail of the list, it was evident that they’d been adding to it for many years.
According to the Breitlings, these were the things black people did not do: eat mayonnaise; drink milk; listen to Elvis Presley; watch Westerns or Beverly Hills 90210; read Vogue magazine; appreciate Jack London; know the lyrics to Kenny Rodgers’ songs; suffer fools; enjoy the cold or any kind of winter. Here were the things black people did do: learn to speak French and adore Paris; instinctively understand and appreciate anyone from a small island or a hot place; spank their children; obsessively read science fiction and study Star Trek episodes; prefer sweet foods over salty. There was debate over whether you could read and enjoy Ayn Rand and still be black: Adia said no, Marie said yes. The question of whether or not black people were natural swimmers was a very old one between the two of them, an argument that was full of in jokes and constructed of rhythms I could not follow.
It was as if, living in all-white Cortland County, Marie gave her daughter all these specifications so that she could spot a real black person as soon as they came along, avoid all the mirages. That’s what I thought it was at first, and it put me on the offensive because surely, in this analogy, I—with my tennis shoes and wannabe white girl hair—would be the mirage. And who would ever want to think of themselves as not really water but actually a trick of the desert?
As I got to know them better, I realized the rules were for Adia herself as much as they were for the world around her. Marie had nursed Adia on a bitter pabulum of omnipresent oppression, injustice, and derision. To ready her daughter for this assault on her rights, which Marie was sure was coming, she had given Adia a very simple list of instructions on how to be black. All Adia had to do was follow them, repeat them to everyone, and she was covered: her blackness bona fide, her whole self secure. She could live in the middle of the frosted-over Berkshires. She and her mother could live without men. They could shave their heads and embrace in theory every bohemian excess—dirty dishes, drawings of breasts on the wall, children running wild. They could do it all because they knew the rules of what they were, and could tell them to anyone who questioned their credentials. Nothing was off limits for them because they could tell, immediately, if it was black or not and act accordingly.
There was, of course, no room in this list for the Toneybee; for our experiment, for my mother or Callie and not for Charlie. The only solution was to stay away from them.
At the end of the second straight week of staying with Adia, when I walked into our living room, Callie turned away from me and wouldn’t even say hello. She and Charlie were sitting on the couch: he had wedged himself between her back and the sofa cushions. They weren’t watching Johnny Guitar, so Charlie ignored the screen. If Joan Crawford wasn’t pictured, her preferred to spend TV time grooming whoever sat beside him. Just because he wasn’t looking at the screen, though, didn’t mean he wasn’t paying attention. If anyone of us dared to turn off the tape, Charlie would pout, turning his back on everyone and burrowing his head down on his shoulders, eventually flying into a shrieking rage if his distaste went ignored.
I stood in front of the screen and said hello, but Callie ignored me. Charlie narrowed his eyes in annoyance and rearranged himself at her back, the better to burrow his fingers in her hair.
“Callie, I said ‘hello.’”
I know, she signed. Then she reached for the remote and turned the volume up. Charlie tugged appreciatively at a snarl of hair at the nape of her neck.
“Look,” I said, “I’m sorry.”
Callie gazed steadily at the screen. I put my backpack on the ground and sat down beside the two of them on the couch. Callie shot me an annoyed glance. A few seconds later, Charlie did the same. She shifted closer to him.
“I’m sorry,” I said again. “I’m sorry I have a friend.”
“I have friends, too,” Callie said quickly.
“Who are your friends?”
“Charlie is my friend.”
This was too sad to hear, so I became annoyed. “That doesn’t count. Charlie doesn’t count. Who are your human friends?”
“Charlie is a hominid.”
“Callie, he is not your friend.”
“He is. Charlie is my friend. Max is my friend.”
Max was the experiment’s research assistant. This was even worse than Callie claiming Charlie’s friendship.
“They pay Max to be here. He’s not your friend.”
“Well, then, you don’t have any friends, either.” Callie said. Charlie had moved from grooming her hair to grazing at the lint on the arms of her sweater. She held out her arms patiently, limply, as he diligently moved his fingers up and down. On the screen, the actors were deep in conversation, an anxious piano playing behind their words. Every so often, Charlie clicked his tongue in time with the beat.
“I’m sorry,” I said again.
Callie shook her head. “Shh,” she said, “We’re trying to watch.”
“Well, good for you.” I got up from the couch.
Callie kept looking at the screen. “I’m doing what we’re supposed to be doing here, Charlotte,” she said. “I’m doing my job.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Max tells me all the time. Dr. Paulsen does, too.” Dr. Paulsen was the Toneybee’s research director: it was she who had come up with our experiment in the first place. “They say we’re one of the most important parts of the project, probably the most important. So, I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. You’re not doing your job,” and then she turned to me, her little face smug and triumphant.
If I had been a better sister, if I had been a better person, I would have given in to her then. I would have been kind. I could feel pitying kindness, a cragged and piercing stone stuck at the back of my throat, some bitter piece of coal I only had to spit between my teeth to make a diamond.
But Callie looked up at me, so sure of herself, so sure that what she was doing was right and that I was wrong that, in that moment, I could only hate her for so willingly believing them. I swallowed kindness and pity back down and it was then that I decided it was okay to leave Callie behind and follow Adia. It was okay because Callie believed them. Never mind that she was only nine: she believed Max with his goofy jokes and polite speeches, and she believed Dr. Paulsen and her damp and overly sympathetic eyes. I could only despise her for being so trusting.
Callie wasn’t stupid. But she willed herself to believe the Toneybee’s consolations and the Toneybee’s lies because—and here is where I failed her—she didn’t really have anything else to go on. Without me, she was lost. She had no one to run the halls of the Toneybee with; no one to roll her eyes at Mom and Dr. Paulsen’s edicts; no one to shrug off Charlie’s pinching fingers. But if she believed she was really the most important part of the experiment, the link, then it didn’t matter that we no longer slept side by side. It didn’t matter that my breath was no longer the first thing she heard in the morning and her breath was no longer the last thing I heard at night.It didn’t matter that she was ignored at school. It didn’t matter that we no longer signed to each other in love, only contempt, rolling our eyes while we did so, making hand gestures too large. None of that mattered. She had Charlie.
But Charlie didn’t want her. Callie’s love for him was too messy: a sweaty, desperate thing. Charlie was antic and demanding, but, just as a human would, he steered clear of desperation. Chimpanzees are social animals, this is true, but this does not mean they’re not discerning.
In any gathering of individuals, a chimp’s ultimate goal is to gain social dominance. They squabble with each other, they fight with each other, but they essentially need hierarchies to keep them happy. Left with his own kind, Charlie would have been the beta member of his group. There was something about the set of his shoulders—if you caught him alone, if he didn’t know you were looking at him, he would kind of slump them forward, already wary of the world, already preparing himself for defeat. And it is true what Mom and Dr. Paulsen said about him. He was, in his own way, beautiful. Large, deep-set eyes, well-formed teeth, perfectly circular nostrils. Despite all that, his face was unmistakably that of a wimp: his chin was weak and recessive, and his eyes—though they were beautifully formed, though his lashes were soft and full—his eyes never lit on anything for long. He was too nervous to look anything in the eye.
With his own kind, he would have been the one cringing in the corner, the one who ate last and got teased first. But with us, nobody teased him. With us, Charlie ate first. His every move was applauded. Every time he completed an experiment goal and learned a new sign, it was parroted back to him by Mom and Callie and Dr. Paulsen and Max, accompanied by wide, indulgent smiles. He was continuously embraced, kissed, ruffled, stroked. All this affection made him dangerous. Chimpanzees want to dominate whatever social group they are in, even if every other member of that group is human. They will try and challenge every member, until they win or until they are bested. They’re not dumb about it either. They are strategic. They start off with the weakest member of the group and work their way up to the strongest. Charlie looked around, saw the score. He knew the weakest member of our family was Callie, and he began to go after her.
The kisses he gave her had teeth. Every hug she gave him was met with a pinch. He swatted her hands when she tried to sign to him. Sometimes, he groomed her hair with perfect gentility, carefully trailing his fingers through the grease at the back of her neck, and sometimes he took the strands of her hair between his fingers and twisted and pulled until it was ratty, tangled, scratched at the root.
He tried to go after me, too. I was the next smallest person in the family, and obviously younger than Mom and Dad. I never got physically close enough to him for swats and pinches like Callie. Instead, he pissed on my things until I outsmarted him and put all my clothing in plastic garbage bags, bundled under my bed, and refused to hold him or carry him places.
But Callie could not defend herself. She had convinced herself that Charlie loved her best and that they had a special understanding. Charlie’s first sign with us, as a family, was “more.” To Callie’s eternal disappointment, he did not sign it to her, but to me and my mother, on a rainy afternoon, while waiting for a bag of microwave popcorn to pop. He knew how to sign, a bit, before the experiment began, but he was shy with us, silent for many weeks, until he proved he was learning something. Callie, not to be left out, began to claim that she saw him sign other, impossible words–“hippopotamus,” “quack,” “danger.” Mom and Dr. Paulsen were encouraging but skeptical. “Did he really?” they said, and the question made Callie cry, in rage and humiliation, protesting that she had seen it, she’d seen him sign a fabulous vocabulary.
They told her to keep an eye out and let them know as soon as she saw it again, but even Callie, sweet Callie, could sense their doubts. So she went further. When she slept, she began to dream whole conversations with Charlie. He spoke to her in the same sweet voice as our father’s Nat King Cole albums. In her dreams, he told her secrets of the animal kingdom; he told her his frustrations and he told her, again and again in his beautiful baritone, that he loved her. She reported every dream to Dr. Paulsen. “I know they’re not real,” she said carefully, hoping to be contradicted. If it was like one of her chapter books, the fantasy ones about psychic girls and changelings and children with gifts: she would be contradicted and this would mean, by the logic of fiction, that her dreams were real. But Dr. Paulsen only nodded, relieved, when Callie said the dreams weren’t real and told her to start recording them in a journal. “It’s good to see how each member of the family thinks of Charlie,” Dr. Paulsen told Callie judiciously. “It helps us understand how the experiment is going.”
Despite Callie even dreaming about him, Charlie still rebuffed her every advance. He raked his fingernails across her skin when she held him. He spit into the palms of her hands when she held them out to sign to him. And, this is what shames me, Callie always forgave him. She couldn’t back down. If she didn’t have Charlie, if she didn’t believe that every pinch and slap and bite and loogie was a sign of love, then she didn’t have anything.
Because we were apart, after school, Callie began to eat.
When she reached the Toneybee in the afternoons, before she went upstairs to Charlie’s room and the cameras, she would sneak into the cafeteria. At first, it was to steel herself against Charlie. A cut, a flick of a nail, was easier to bear when her blood was mixed up with sugar. When he turned his back on her, she could suck stray cereal dust off her bottom lip as a balm.
Her first few visits to the cafeteria, she stuck to the dining room itself. She pressed herself close to the cereal dispensers, cupped a hand to their funnels and turned the plastic dials to fill her open palms with stiff marshmallows and oxidized raisins. She turned the dials slowly, carefully: she didn’t want the rush of cornflakes against plastic siding to give her away.
As the weeks went on, though, she realized that no one noticed she was there. The cafeteria was empty and warm. She would crawl over the serving lines, hoist herself up to the bar reserved for hot plates, press herself against the chafing dishes, feel the hot, unclean breath of the heat lamps, inhale the stench of floor wax and industrial gravy, and marvel at her own invisibility.
Once she was over the serving trays and into the kitchen proper, Callie could really eat. Cold pasta salad from Saran-wrapped silver tureens; dehydrated flakes of mashed potatoes, tipped from the box and down her throat; croutons and breadcrumbs in awkward, malformed handfuls because she was trying to fit her fists into the narrow, cardboard canisters. In the walk-in freezer, she carefully tore at the cartons of concentrated orange and apple and grapefruit juice. She bent her head to each smooth surface and with her two front teeth, shaved bits of ice into her open mouth, all that sugar mortifying the taste of loneliness. For the rest of her life, Callie would look for something as sweet as frozen orange juice held underneath her tongue, in the chilled, mildew-y air of a walk-in refrigerator, at three o’clock on a school day afternoon.
The meat was in the back of the freezer. Row after row of naked chicken legs, the skin prickled with oversized pores, sausage links coiled like cornrows, and pounds of ground beef.
She always ate the raw beef last. She scooped small bits out with her fingers, then patted and smoothed the mounds whole to cover her tracks. The taste was sharp and metallic: she imagined it was like eating gold. Callie would lick the tips of her fingers until her lips shined with grease.
The first time she went upstairs, lips glossed with meat, Charlie bounded up to her and grasped her head between his hands. His grip was strong; she couldn’t have moved her head if she tried. It was probably the first time she felt afraid of him. She heard Mom shriek, Max mumble something, and she thought: Charlie’s going to bite my lips off. She did not even bother to struggle. She sighed, gave into her fate, smelled the dead milk on his breath as he bent his mouth to hers. But no pain came. Instead, her eyes closed, she felt the softest whiskering and then something unbelievably warm, something vibrating with heat, brush against her mouth. In one of his few displays of unambiguous affection, Charlie was very slowly and very carefully licking the last little bit of raw grease from her lips. After that, Callie made sure to eat the ground beef every day that she could. It was worth it to feel the warmth, the delicate delay of Charlie’s strength, as he kissed the greed off of her. After that she ate every afternoon, as much as she could, just to get that kiss.
It never occurred to Callie that she could become fat from all of this. She did not even really notice that her body changed at all until a few months into her routine, when Mom looked at the back of Callie’s pants and frowned.
They were playing a game in Charlie’s room, hiding toy cars and then seeking them. It was a game Charlie loved to the point of relentlessness: he could play it for hours and could not understand why nobody else would. Mom and Callie increasingly resented it, to the point of hiding the cars from his sight: anything to make him forget the game.
Callie leaned down to hide a plastic pick-up truck in one of Charlie’s potted plants and heard the pop of cotton thread ripping. It was the button on the waistband of her pants. She picked it up and put it in her pocket. She thought Charlie might like it later as a present.
Mom heard the pop too. She saw Callie bend over. Mom was making a queer frown when Callie turned to her, and Mom was still frowning when she marched over to Callie, shoved her hands down the back of her pants, and squeezed her buttocks. Mom weighed them in each hand, once, twice, as if they were grapefruit. She took her hands out of Callie’s pants and pronounced: “This could get to be a problem. You should be growing up, not out.”
Callie nodded briskly, fingered the loose button in her pocket. Everything went quiet for a moment, and when Callie looked up again, Mom was on the other side of the room, signing something to Charlie now, looking him full in the face and smiling.
Callie was unsure if any of this had actually just happened. Her heart told her that she’d just withstood some sort of cruelty, possibly a large one, but she knew with her mind and her soul that Mom was good and kind and on her side, so the action could not possibly be cruel, even as her heart shouted that this was so. She couldn’t reconcile the two, and so she wondered if she had imagined the whole thing, if it had happened at all, if it was really her fault and she had made up her mother’s cruelty. Callie squinted up at one of the security cameras in Charlie’s ceilings, the ones the Toneybee used to capture every last move in the experiment. She hoped the cameras, at least, had seen and maybe understood it.
But even that troubling moment couldn’t stop her from eating. She did not think she had to and was not sure it was even possible. When her clothing became too tight, and her feet grew three sizes, she still did not consider herself fat. She was genuinely shocked when other people began calling her that. How much was a ten-year-old supposed to weigh, anyway? She did not see the difference between 80 pounds and 140. All Callie knew was that now her thighs chafed together when she walked, rubbed themselves raw on each stride. And the skin on her arms doubled up into little pellets of flesh, “skin tags.” That’s what Dr. Paulsen called them. Mom asked her to examine Callie before she took her to an actual pediatrician. Dr. Paulsen, in her green rubber gloves, poked at the sagging undersides of Callie’s arms. “Skin tags are common for the obese,” Dr. Paulsen said simply, and Callie started at that word. The thousand humiliations of the flesh. It must be horrible to be Charlie, Callie thought.
It was painful for all of us to look at her in that state, so Callie became truly invisible. At school, she had always been invisible: she made everyone uncomfortable with her enthusiasm to please the teacher, her lisping voice, her signing and her desire to shout, with glee, the correct answers to questions. But now, at home, at the Toneybee, Callie was an overfed, slightly grimy ghost. The only two people who paid attention to her were Dr. Paulsen and Max. Both of them were as embarrassed by her bulk as the rest of us, but instead of politely ignoring it, they focused on her instead. Their embarrassment took the form of overly aggressive compliments. In the afternoons, after her secret gorging, when Callie came to Charlie’s room to play for the cameras, Dr. Paulsen and Max rushed to praise everything she did.
“Look at the camera, please, Callie,” Dr. Paulsen would direct. “You’ve got such a pretty face. Smile, please.”
“You look nice today, Callie, terrific,” Max always said, even when the stitching on the thighs of her pants were split, even when a blouse broke open directly along the seams of her back fat. When she told them stories in her reedy, insistent voice, they listened with dreading patience and they said the same thing, each time, no matter how sad her words, how lonely her stories of speaking in dreams. “That’s wonderful, Callie,” they said, again and again. “That’s really wonderful.”
All the compliments made Callie vaguely uncomfortable. She dutifully waited to hear them, politely said thank you, but something seemed wrong. When Dr. Paulsen and Max made a point of telling her she looked nice, Mom would always busy herself with Charlie or some equipment in the room. She never echoed them.
To Callie’s credit, none of these reactions made her lose her eagerness. She cultivated her fierce fascination for the world with a vengeance, trained her needling voice to sound even sharper, asked ever more intricate questions, which everyone either ignored or said they did not know the answer to.
She would have stayed invisible, but she found a way to make us all look. It started on a day when she missed the bus home: this was not like Callie, who was always on time for things, but she had been distracted by a book she was reading in class and had not gotten to the bus line in time, and as a result she had to wait at school until Dad was done with a faculty meeting and could drive her home. She was supposed to wait on the school steps. She was not supposed to walk anywhere else, but Cortland County Elementary School was in the center of town, right near the archived Main Street where Adia and her mother lived and where I was hiding out. Callie could not resist walking, just for a bit, just while she waited, up and down the block and look into the store windows.
She went to the Five and Dime first. She looked at the waxy Halloween candy in large glass jars, then at the plastic masks with their rubber band ties, suspended from the rack next to the register. She reached out her hand, tested the cheap elastic between her thumb and forefinger. Mom always made our costumes: we were never allowed to buy from the store. I was embarrassed by this, mortified how a request for a cheerleader costume produced a construction paper letter safety-pinned to an oversized sweatshirt and a pleated skirt let down to below the knee. But Callie was not embarrassed: she liked our bunk disguises. Now in the store, she noticed how the rubber on the masks was too slack, was almost set to break, and she smugly relished the better-quality one she and Mom would make at home out of balloons and papier-mâché. She let the elastic go, felt the sting of it slap her knuckle, and when she looked up she saw that the clerk was staring right at her. He was an old man with a full head of hair and all of him, his hair, his skin, even his eyes, seemed to have been leached of color, as if he’d been displayed behind the plate glass window out front for too long. Callie smiled politely at him and he did not smile back. He didn’t even blink.
She moved to the next aisle and behind her she heard the counter creak, something slam, and when she looked up she saw the clerk was following her from aisle to aisle in the Five and Dime. When she got to the last aisle, he unabashedly came beside her and began fussing with a display of vitamins. Callie had found the one place in town where she was not invisible, but she did not chalk it up to her being the only black customer in her store. She simply thought, “That’s weird,” and turned and wandered out.
When she looked down the block towards the school, Dad’s Volvo still wasn’t there so she walked further. She looked into the florist’s, but the flowers bored her. There was a bakery but she didn’t have any money on her so it didn’t seem fair to window shop. There was a vet’s office, a doctor’s office, an insurance agent’s, again, all too boring to look into. The last place on Main Street, though, was Griffin Books.
As far as Callie could tell, it only sold books with lavender and beige covers, books with heavy cursive scripts on their covers. When she opened the door, a heavy breath of New Age halitosis—incense and crumbling paperback bindings and cat dander—hit her in the face. The books on the front table all called to Callie. This was unsurprising because all of them had the word “You” in the title: The Power Within You; Your Personal Magic; You and the Universe. Callie eagerly responded to this shameless flirtation. She told herself that she had a good view of the curb in front of the school from the store’s front window, so she could see when Dad showed up. She took the closest book off the display table, leaned against the front windowsill and began to read.
The book she grabbed had the loneliest title in the world: Wicca for One. The first few pages were nonsense to Callie: prints of sextants and astrological charts and words she did not understand like “gibbous” and “godhead” and “adamantine.” She almost shut the book. But she skipped ahead a few chapters and then she found the one that promised what she most wanted in the world: “How to Master Those You Love.”
When Dad finally drove the Volvo up to the curb, Callie burst from the store. She didn’t get in the car right away, only panted on the sidewalk, so he powered the passenger window down. She stretched her hand through the gap. “Please, please, please,” she said, “you have to buy me this book.”
“How much is it?”
“Twenty dollars?” Dad laughed. “Jesus, Callie, you trying to hustle me?”
“Please, Daddy,” she said, urgently, half mad, “I need it for my soul.”
At this, Dad laughed, again, but it was sadder. He would have given her the money either way—he already felt guilty for leaving her behind for so long—but when she said, urgent and earnest and deadly serious, “I need it for my soul,” he reached down into his pocket for his cracked and doubled-over billfold and slipped her a ragged, wrinkled twenty.
The book said to master your loved ones you must master their likeness. The first step was contemplating your love, which Callie found impossible to do. Charlie hated direct scrutiny. A full gaze made him rage. So Callie took to sneaking down to the reception hall of the Toneybee, to stand in front of the oil portrait of the Institute’s founder: Mrs. Julia Toneybee-Leroy. Callie and I had been fascinated by the thing since we moved in, not least because, in the picture, to the left of the seated, stately Mrs. Toneybee-Leroy, balanced on an impressive, mahogany table, was an infant chimpanzee skeleton, rigged up to standing with wires. We’d been told this represented the very first chimp born at the Institute, who died young in captivity, which only made the thing weirder. Now Callie stood in front of the painting and narrowed her focus on the skeleton and imagined it alive and covered in muscle and hair and spirit, a placebo for ornery Charlie.
The next step the book recommended was creating an idol of your beloved. Callie asked Mom and Dad to drive her back to Griffin Books, and there she purchased, from the begrudging, unamused sales clerk, a block of soap stone and a set of small, sharp scalpels. At night, before she went to sleep, she worried that stone with a dedication that baffled our parents. She refused to show them what she was carving: they only knew how furiously she worked because in the morning her sheets and blankets were dusted with a flurry of mica and her fingers were red and swollen and cramped over. The actual work she hid, tucked it underneath her pillow, and Mom and Dad decided, after some talks, to allow Callie her privacy and not snoop on what she was creating. “She’ll show us eventually,” Dad reasoned optimistically.
The stone was harder than Callie thought it would be. It took her hours to shave off first the top of a round head, then the bend of a back, the humps for knees. She punctured the palm of her hand by accident, trying to add a flick of a tail to the stone idol of her love, Charlie.
She hid the carving before she showed Mom the wound. After she was bandaged and it was decided she was okay, Mom banned the carving tools. “Hand wounds are the most dangerous wounds,” she lectured Callie. “You could get an infection and never be able to use your hands again.”
But that was all right. Callie didn’t need the tools anymore. She had what she wanted, more or less.
She added the tail to Charlie’s idol because Wicca for One told her that the likeness of her beloved had to be as ideal as possible: she’d always been disappointed by the fact that chimpanzees did not have tails so it gave her great pleasure to add one. It told her she had to keep the likeness of her beloved with her at all times, sleep with it close by, and memorize its features so that she could manipulate it in her dreams. Callie did all of this, and dutifully dreamed of rocks that turned into half-formed monkeys with bulbous noses. But she slept with that stone under her head for weeks and Charlie still tormented her. His pinches did not become hugs. Sometimes, when he looked at her, she swore she saw him narrow his eyes slightly, sizing her up.
She couldn’t figure out what went wrong but she was sure it must be her own fault. She went back to the book, to the chapters she’d skipped, and way in the back she found an appendix with a list of magical fabrics. Velvet was at the top of the list. “To summon the magical,” the legend above it read, “one must feel magical at all times.” It was clear: her very skin had to be covered for her new cause. Callie decided to solve two problems at once. For Halloween, she asked Mom to make her a red velvet cape.
“I don’t understand,” Mom said. “What is that supposed to be?”
“It’s not supposed to be anything,” Callie explained impatiently.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Mom insisted.
“I just want it,” Callie said, with an uncharacteristic sharpness.
After the purchase of the soap stone, it had become a family rule that Callie’s interest in Wicca was just a phase. “You’re rebelling against what you think is science,” Mom told Callie, neatly diagramming her very consciousness with her maddening maternal logic. This logic, though, was Mom’s flaw. It was not knee-jerk rebellion or a desire for attention that drove Callie: it was true, pure, deadly serious love. Mom underestimated her. She agreed, with mock exasperation, matching Callie’s impatience, to make the cape.
I saw the fruits of Callie’s labor Halloween day. Adia and I skipped school: she caught me on the way to first period, hid with me in the bathroom stall while we listened to the bell ring and then sprinted, silently laughing, through the empty halls and out the school’s double-doors. Outside, breathless, Adia declared that she wished to lie on her back in the town cemetery all day and commune with the dead Indians of Cortland County.
“Dead Native Americans,” I corrected, but Adia shook her head.
“They told me they want to be called Indians. They like the clerical error.”
We walked through dowtown, back to the Breitling’s apartment. There, staring solemnly into their dirty bathroom mirror, Adia carefully brushed her whole face with white greasepaint. The lift of her brow, her full graceful lips, even her eyelids were brushed over a ghastly white. She artfully streaked the color so that her natural skin tone broke through in stripes. The effect was not so much beautiful as it was terrifying. She held the compact of face paint out to me, expectantly.
“I’m not doing that,” I said.
“C’mon, Charlotte, show some respect. It’s a gesture of mourning.”
“It looks freaky, and just wrong,” I said, uneasily.
“We’re in mourning for those killed by tyranny,” Adia said solemnly. Then she grinned. “It really looks freaky, right?”
“Oh, c’mon Charlotte just do it. Just pretend you’re dressing up like a vampire or something.”
“My mom would kill me if I painted my face white for anything. Yours too.”
“That’s why it’s fun,” Adia intoned, bored with playing instructor again. She sighed, exasperated, and began rummaging around their long low living room for a book. When she found it, she turned the covers back so I could see her revelation for myself.
“We’ll do you like this,” she said, pointing to some anonymous African tribeswoman, her forehead and eyelids checkered with prim, white dots. “Does that make it better?”
I nodded. I submitted. Adia tapped me with the brush.
The town cemetery was in a small, gated lot in the middle of the town green, the white marble headstones worn down to slivers of black and brown. The fence was so low, Adia and I easily jumped over it. Adia found the newest headstone she could, one marked 1918, and flopped down on the grass in front of it, heaping brittle leaves around her sides and then pulling them over herself like a blanket. I followed her lead. We lay for a long time, listening for spirits. The white dots on my skin itched. I bet Adia’s skin was burning under all that paint but she lay perfectly still, only occasionally letting out a low sigh. We heard the conversations of everyone passing by in the park: two mothers loudly debating the price of eggs over the squalls of their children; one of the tellers from the bank on Main Street eating a tuna fish sandwich with his girlfriend; an old man talking softly to the park’s pigeons in a broken-down voice.
Our fingers were numb and our grease paint was smeared and mottled by the crumbs of dead leaves when we heard the squabble of a group of kids shuffling through the park. We raised ourselves up on our elbows to see the procession. It was a ragged line of elementary students, all dressed up in their Halloween costumes, but the effect was ruined because they had to wear them beneath their fall jackets.
“They make them trick or treat on Main Street in the middle of the day because some dumb kid got swiped by a car trick or treating at night two years ago. Two years ago,” Adia said, incredulous that the town had not already moved on.
I watched nine princesses, three witches, and a horde of fighting turtles walk by. Then, at the very back of the line, waddling slowly and panting with the effort to keep up, I saw Callie. She hadn’t told me what she was going to be for Halloween. We used to always plan our costumes together but this year, because Adia had declared costumes lame, I hadn’t even thought to ask Callie.
She wore the cape. The hood drooped down over her forehead like a caul, and from underneath it, her face as unnervingly pure as an infant, Callie grinned happily at the world around her. She was secure, she believed, in her cape: secure and powerful. As she marched, the folds fell open and I could see that underneath the cloak was a costume that she must have made herself at school. I could not imagine my mother allowing Callie to leave the house in it. Her legs were bare and her feet, in thick white tube socks, were stuffed into a pair of my mother’s green Birkenstock sandals. She’d taken a heavy piece of oak tag and fashioned it into a kind of toga, then painted it with brown and yellow spots that I realized only later were supposed to be a leopard’s skin. She’d tucked a stuffed monkey under her arm.
The worst part was her hair. Callie had pulled the sparse strands of her Jheri curl up into a ponytail at the very center of her head. Then she’d pinned a construction paper bone to its base. She’d taped one to her nose, too, and it flapped back and forth in the wind. She must have traced and cut the bones herself: you could see the ragged edges of a safety scissor’s blade on the paper.
Later, when I got home, I cornered Callie in a hallway of the Toneybee, and demanded from her an explanation until she cried. She told me, tearful but defiant, that she had wanted to go as Tarzan. That was her intention. She wanted to go as a boy who lived with the apes. But of course, she was the only black girl in the class and she looked, in that getup, like a native caught by a roving band during safari, like some sort of spoil.
The line came to an abrupt stop and the teacher, in a red yarn wig, her cheeks painted with large pink circles, held up her hand. She made the students line up; she counted their heads once, twice, noting the number of witches and turtles and robots in line.. Callie, huffing and puffing, was still trying to catch up with the line. The teacher called out, “We’re missing someone. Who is it?”
And even through the park, even lying fifty feet away, under a bed of dead leaves, Adia at my side, I heard Callie’s reedy, eager, breathless voice: “I’m here. It’s me. I’m here. You just didn’t see me.”
She held up her hand, waved at the teacher. The teacher’s eyes glided over her as she turned to her check list, pity making her forget Callie as soon as possible.
“Is that your sister?” Adia pointed.
And I looked at Callie and said, “No.”
Kaitlyn Greenidge lives in Brooklyn, NY. She received her MFA in fiction from Hunter College, and her work has appeared in American Short Fiction, Canteen Magazine, and Green Mountains Review. “Red Clay” is an excerpt from her novel-in-progress.