When Ilana Randolph left her house that Saturday night, the only people outside were on their way. It was April, and past midnight, and so the air was black and wet as a glass of diet cola. The dealers, the addicts, the stoop ladies, everyone who populated the block at more reasonable hours was now somewhere else—hidden under the skirt hems of their lovers or grandmothers for the night, or at home, alone, dreaming of dead husbands and children raised and gone. The women of the Harlem Grange Homeowners’ Council were elsewhere, too—in their brownstones, packing lunches, rinsing their pantyhose, preparing for the next day’s climb. Only a few moving shadows splashed under the streetlight as Ilana pushed through the blocks toward Convent Avenue, a garbage bag full of babies in tow.
Even before the babies, everyone knew Ilana Randolph was strange. She couldn’t have denied it if she’d wanted to—which she didn’t. It wasn’t just that she was wide as a refrigerator and always wore purple, orange, and blue extensions in her hair, purchased from the Wigs & Plus on Canal Street, further downtown than the rest of the neighborhood’s teenagers would bother to go. Her difference was deeper, even, than that. While most of the Grange’s young people seemed to spend their free time hopping turnstiles in feeble defiance of authority, smoking loosies in Riverside Park, and plotting epic romances with one-another that all ended with masters’ degrees from Harvard and multimillion-dollar weddings in opulent condos downtown, Ilana spent much of her time alone, meditating on a single idea: verticality. Not in the dull, sentimental, lift-as-you-climb, movin’-on-up-to-the-east-side, sense—though she felt that was important in a historical way—but in the vaguer and more meaningful sense of the subterranean; the core. She was ever on a quest to get to the depths of things, and to mess with them. She pondered this notion constantly, doodling diagrams of soil strata in her History and Spanish notebooks, writing songs about chicken hearts and nectarine pits and the penny-studded floors of park fountains whenever she got the chance. While everyone around her plotted toward triumphal attractiveness, doing whatever they could to suck as many people as possible toward them and keep them there, Ilana was sure the body must have some better use. She dreamed instead of lodging herself under the world’s skin, irritating it, making it itch.
The Grange Women, Ilana knew, would attribute her obstreperousness to her father’s death from bone cancer, a year before the babies. But Ilana knew it began much longer ago than that. Once, when she was fourteen, she won $100 for taking first place in the local High School Heroes essay contest, and when she went to the check cashing place on Edgecombe Avenue to cash the check, the nasty man behind the counter hailed her entrance by remarking “Aw yes! Look at those baby-bouncin thighs!” with a gin-soaked but not insincere smile. Unsure what to say, Ilana stared at him until she could feel herself buzzing just below the gray hair on his left arm. It was a good feeling, and so she focused harder, maintaining eye contact as she handed over her check and ID. Staring for all those minutes wasn’t easy, but it was gratifying—many times, she felt the need to blink, but she rallied and instead intensified her stare, thinking of nothing but the meat of the arm, and the heat of the itching. Then, as the man handed her the cash, just before she began to turn away, he raised his right hand, brought it to the arm, and scratched. It was glorious.
By the time she made the trip with the babies, three years later, Ilana had turned her feats of irritation into a practice, an art. When the girl at the weedspot rolled her eyes at her stankly, Ilana smiled and sent herself to blister the girl’s inner thigh. And when the Grange Women commented on her hair color or her weight gain at her mother’s holiday parties, turning the corners of their mouths laboriously upward into brittle smiles, Ilana chose the falsest of the women and concentrated on the point of her nose, focusing there until the woman burst into a huge sneezing fit, which eventually turned everyone’s stomachs and scattered the party for good.
It was not that Ilana did not like people; she liked most of them well enough. What she didn’t like was the way they handled each other. It was all or nothing with people, a symptom, she felt, of strictly horizontal thought. People either rejected you out of pocket, with an eye-roll and a fake smile, or they insisted on sucking you into a system of fidelities and physiologies—marriages and coituses and births and extended-family Thanksgivings–that would bind you to them, wholly, impossibly, and forever. Most often they did both, shutting you out and stitching you in at once, which was the hardest thing of all.
She noticed this habit first in her family, then in the neighborhood. But as she got older, she saw it replicating itself in the halls of her high school, which was nowhere near Harlem and was filled with well-off white teenagers who looked nothing like her. So eventually, Ilana took her irritation practice to the city streets. She began skipping school to make trips to Canal and the West Village, where she bought her multi-colored hair and cans of the deepest blue and purple spray paint she could find. Then she would take the 1 & 9 line back up to Harlem, where she would tag abandoned buildings with the elaborately drawn names of made-up gangs like “Laydeez Mansion” and “Tha Patriarchy,” ducking cops and dealers and anyone else who seemed like they might be part of a real crew. Then would sit on the front stoop of her parents’ brownstone, eating chips or cereal, writing rhymes, watching groups of people pass, privately wondering if she would ever bother to make a family of her own.
Mrs. Randolph (whose first name nobody ever said—not even Ilana), did not acknowledge these changes in her daughter. Since George’s passing, Mrs. Randolph had learned to fold her face into a pleasant smile whenever he came up in conversation. She would tell anyone who asked that she and Ilana were doing just fine, thank you, and invite them to her next holiday party.
The conversation was always more or less the same:
“How’s Ilana doin’, Mrs. Randolph?” one would ask. “Getting big, huh? Got a nice face, though.”
“That girl of yours is different, huh Mrs. Randolph?” another would chime in.
“But she’s smart. Usually the quiet ones that are.”
“Well that’s kind of you,” Mrs. Randolph would say, standing perfectly still, a smile plastered to her face. “And will we see you at the Arbor Day Almond and Praline Picnic? We’d love to have you there.” Then she would walk away, still smiling as primly as she could, whether they’d answered or not.
It wasn’t that Mrs. Randolph didn’t like people either, exactly. She simply did not like their mess. Never had. As a child, she was often scolded for failing to play well with other children, which always surprised her—both then and now—because in her mind it was the children who had turned their noses up at her. If you wanted contact, it seemed to her, the best way to make it was by clear and deliberate request. The improvised rules of hand clapping games and tag tournaments had always been mysterious to her; she never knew when the game was over, or what to do with herself while she waited for it to begin. The rise of the make-believe tea party was a revelation for her first-grade self. Unfortunately, by that time, her reputation as an uppity brown-skinned girl had already solidified and she often found herself sitting in the playground, surrounded by paper napkin place-settings and imaginary teacups, alone.
But later in life, as a professional, a wife, and a mother, her hosting ability had become her most prized trait. By the time she and George had joined the Grange, with its elaborate social protocols and mysterious, unspoken rules, Mrs. Randolph was certain: the best way to be in touch with the world was by formal invitation only.
The Grange Women wondered—well, some of them did—why the woman who could celebrate the wind blowing through her favorite tree and invite the whole of Hamilton Heights to her garden to enjoy it could not part her lips in favor of her own girl. For this reason and others, Mrs. Randolph was a neighborhood mystery. She was a thick, sturdy woman with a billowy mass of salt-and-pepper hair, which she kept unpermed and pulled back into a great bush, which the Grange Women all secretly envied, imagining the length and fullness of it when—or if—she let it out in the evenings. She worked as a nurse practitioner at Presbyterian University Hospital, and was also on faculty at the School of Nursing. This always made the Grange Women chuckle, as no one could imagine her breathing warmly over the incapable, much less training young, frenzied nursing students to do as much.
Mrs. Randolph had always been as cool and sharp as a shard of hail, and ever since George died, the September before the babies, she’d become even more distant. Everyone remembered the date of George Randolph’s passing; it happened on a Saturday, two days before Mrs. Randolph’s annual Labor Day Lambchop Luncheon. Rumor had it the man had keeled over behind the brownstone while Mrs. Randolph pruned the pumpkin leaf centerpieces in the next room. Since then, Mrs. Randolph had floated further and further from the fold, missing most of the Grange meetings and making herself available only by posted RSVP to one of the affairs she held in her small backyard garden.
Mrs. Randolph’s affairs were always held in the garden, with crisp white tablecloths and ornate centerpieces that featured fresh azaleas in the spring and summer, and heaps of dried fruit in the fall. Even in winter, rather than have folks inside, she rented heat lamps and had the garden’s small deck professionally enclosed with temporary tarps so that her guests could sit in perfect warmth amid the gray, dirt-tinged snow. Upon arriving, the women were always ushered quickly through the garden floor parlor, past the kitchen, and into the yard. Some eventually began to take offense to this, and they started to speculate as to why no-one was allowed to spend time in the Randolph home. It was a major topic of conversation at Mrs. Randolph’s last Flag Day Starfish and Striped Bass Fête, the summer before George’s death.
“Ain’t like it’s that pretty a garden,” Celia Wallstone had said, craning her neck back so that her meaty chin pressed into her neck. “I don’t see why we have to have our hoar-durves out there.”
“Pssht,” replied Sarah Prince, a petite, angular woman. “You know Mrs. Randolph doesn’t like too much of people’s funk in her furniture. Gets under her skin, you know? And ain’t nuthin generous up under there but a KEEP OUT sign.”
“Well I’ll tell you,” Celia said, stuffing a piece of fish into her mouth. “I’m starting to think that’s exactly what we need to do.”
In the months after George’s death—the months before the babies—Mrs. Randolph grew increasingly withdrawn. Ilana grew quieter and stranger, too, until no one saw much of the girl, with the exception of Ann Master, one of the most active Grange members, whose son, DeShawn, had been close with Ilana, against Ann’s best efforts. Ann was a slim and well-raised corporate tax lawyer with speckled eggshell skin, which she had always traced vaguely to her “Creole” ancestry, though she wasn’t able to provide much more detail on her lineage than that. Luckily, no one ever asked. Ann had always greeted the thought of Ilana with a raised eyebrow. In her view, the girl was born as strange as her mother was mean, and the two seemed to dive miles deeper into their personality flaws when the man of the house passed on. It bothered Ann, as it had bothered all of the Grange Women, to see Ilana grow from different to flat-out weird, marching down the streets of Harlem with pink and blue and purple braids swinging wildly from her head like loose electric wires, mouthing the words to some rap song without a single care as to who was watching.
For most of the fall, Ann tried to be patient with DeShawn regarding his friendship with Ilana—the girl had just lost her father, she reasoned, and consoling her would give DeShawn useful practice in soothing unhappy women, which he could use as a husband down the line. But around Christmastime, strange things began to happen. Traces of Ilana started to show up in places where the girl herself could not have been. It began with a few strands of synthetic blue extension hair coiled in the bottom drawer of Ann’s filing cabinet at work. Then a handful of green press-on nails appeared in her grocery bag, lodged between the pine nuts and the Stahmanns candied pecans. By the time a whole braid turned up on the seat beside her on the subway, its end wrapped around the nozzle of a spray paint can, Ann forbade DeShawn from saying so much as ‘yo’ to the girl. She put her foot down, telling him that he was risking his allowance, his college fund, and his future, for what that was worth. As far as she was concerned, that had been that.
With the exception of Ann, most of the Grange Women had little to no contact with Ilana and her mother in the months after George died. Still, it didn’t take more than two eyes and a scrap of sense to know that something was amiss with them. That was not the sort of thing you would speak on, of course, at least not to a woman’s face. So, in January, after Mrs. Randolph missed her fourth consecutive Grange meeting with the excuse that she was planning her annual MLK Day Mountaintop Supper, the Grange Women resolved to discuss the matter over Copeland’s Sunday Brunch.
“Poor girl,” Mary Pitts said, pointing her lips and sloshing the butter around in her grits. “No wonder she acts so strange. Mother can’t speak a good word on her to save her life.”
“Since the father passed, seem like the girl don’t have nobody.” Celia Wallstone shook her head, raking the stiff ends of her wig over her shoulders. “Course George didn’t hardly say nothing when he was around. Guess that woman scared him so. Nice man, though.” She took a sip of her coffee, her eyebrows raised behind the steam.
“Well, I imagine most of what goes on in that house ain’t zactly what you’d call normal,” said Wilma Fridelle, folding her napkin and placing it on the table. “You know they talk on the phone.”
“What’s that have to do with anything, Wilma?” Said Joyce Turner, a round brown-skinned woman with dreadlocks and a face as slick as a gumball.
“I mean,” Wilma retorted, “they call each other on the phone. From one room to the other.” She surveyed her audience and sighed. “I mean rather than go see each other in person. I saw it when I was there for the Juneteenth Champagne Toast and Jubilee. Mrs. Randolph called the girl from the downstairs phone to see about the place settings, even though she was right upstairs. They got disconnected and Mrs. Randolph just gave that little frown she has, you know,” Wilma tightened her face as though she’d discovered a pepper in someone’s bad potato salad. “And she just kept on about the place settings. And don’t you know not a minute later, the girl just dialed her right back from right there, not a fly swat away. Come to think of it, I don’t think I ever seen all three of them in the same room for more than fifteen minutes, even when George was alive.”
“Mmm. It’s a shame,” Sarah Prince said, leaning into the table. “You know, I heard he died of bone cancer. Lungs just as airy as springtime, prostate and pancreas you could bet money on, and he ups and dies of bone cancer. Who ever heard of that? Seems to me living in that house ate him up from the outside in.” She frowned and dropped her hands in her lap for emphasis.
Ann Master was silent during these sessions, for fear she might be charged with hypocrisy. DeShawn often made news on the whisper mill for small things like tagging church stairs with graffiti or stringing his FILA sneakers up on telephone poles for no reason she could think of. But DeShawn was ultimately harmless, and much better than most of the upper-Harlem kids. He had been a start member of the Boy’s Choir of Harlem Junior League, and had continued to sing almost as sweetly well into puberty. He still liked school well enough, and did almost of all his homework, as far as she could tell. For a teenage boy, he hadn’t given Ann much trouble, and, now, watching him grow tall and lean as a walking stick, Ann had started to wish she’d had more children. Frequently, she dreamed of the bland, mealy smell of baby formula and the feel of hot milk splashed for temperature testing against her wrist.
Now, at thirty-nine, these pleasures of motherhood were lost to her. In recent years, her hips had begun to spread lazily out and down toward her knees, and her small breasts had grown resigned, and had slid down her torso like two little globs of paint on a wall. It seemed the generation to whom motherhood remained—the Talk Show Girls, as she thought of them, with their fake hair and their cheap, gold-plated nose-rings—was completely unequipped to handle it. Lately, Ann caught herself sighing audibly at the turned backs of these silver-sneakered and ponytailed mothers as they lifted to their tip-toes to reach high shelves in the grocery store. On bad days, she found herself eying hungrily their unmanned strollers and bassinets.
She had even begun to curse her flighty sister, Rhonda, now thirty, for having had five children and made no real efforts to support them. Rhonda spent her time pursuing worthless scraps of men and mindless, menial jobs with which she barely managed to scrape together a living. Had Ann been blessed to have young children at this stage in her life, she often thought, she’d do even better than she’d done with DeShawn, because this time she’d do it alone. Her major mistake in rearing DeShawn was to attempt to do so with his father, a useless man who seemed to think sending a pack of subway tokens every few months constituted supporting a child. But now, even if her spirit was willing, her body was not; and moreover, there were no men in sight. All she could do, Ann decided, was mother the child she had, keep crack, the police, and bad women away from him, and pray he would find a decent girl to one day give him the family she craved.
“That house is strange for sure,” Ann said finally, dabbing her napkin at the corners of her mouth. “It’s no wonder that girl turned out the way she did.”
“What you mean, Ann?” Joyce asked haughtily. She sucked in her round stomach and smoothed her blouse down as if to keep her gut from view.
“Well, now, I’m not saying,” Ann began. “You know, Ilana Randolph is not quite like these other young people.”
“You mean she’s not simple?” Marietta Mann ventured, pushing a cube of melon onto her fork.
“No,” Said Celia Wallstone. “She means the girl don’t talk, right Ann?”
“Well,” Ann said, brushing crumbs from her lap. “I don’t like to tell tales, but you know she isn’t a woman yet.”
“How’s that?” Wilma Fridelle and Sarah Prince asked in unison.
“I mean,” Ann said, her face going hard with impatience. “She’s going on seventeen and hasn’t had her—her red-headed visitoryet. She told DeShawn she didn’t plan to either. Said it just like that: ‘I don’t plan to.’”
“Hmph.” Joyce snorted. “If that’s true, that’s the kinda thing make you think twice before sitting at someone’s table. I don’t care how good the greens are.”
Mary Pitts sucked her teeth and chuckled. “Naw, can’t be. Keep talkin,’ Ann.”
Ann shrugged. “I’m just telling you, is all,” she said, folding her napkin and placing it on the table. “Believe it or don’t.”
It didn’t matter that Ilana never heard these conversations herself—she only needed to read the women’s tight smiles when they greeted her to know they were happening. She thought about these conversations late at night as she lay in bed, gazing up at the dolls that encircled her bedroom, caked with dust.
In her nearly-seventeen years of life, Ilana had amassed an impressive crew of teddy bears, My Little Ponies, black Barbie dolls, and others. There were handmade rag dolls with black yarn hair and skin that had thinned to the texture of old paper bags. There were antique brown china dolls with painted swirls of black hair and eyes that closed lazily when jostled, as though silly with delight or begging for sleep. Her favorite had been a bushy-haired doll with a gleaming white faux-fur jacket that engulfed it like a marshmallow and bubble-gum colored dots on its cheeks.
Until Ilana was four or so, the dolls had been her peers. She had once enjoyed waking up on Saturday mornings, spreading her blanket on the floor and joining her dolls for a morning of cold cereal and cartoons. But when her classmates began to refer to their dolls as their children, Ilana was done. She stopped combing their hair, stopped offering them cereal, stopped taking them to swim in the bathroom sink. She let their eye sockets cake with dirt, let dust settle deep into their fur and hair. She had never bothered to box them, perhaps out of laziness. She simply let them lounge atop her desk and dresser, sit in her chairs, hang from her mantle, and press their paws and fingers against her window sills as they pleased. Still, for years, the dolls kept coming, gifts from her mother, and from cousins and uncles too distant to know that, since she was four years old, Ilana had had no interest in dependents.
Now, under the watch of the dolls, she would think of the Grange Women. She would think about what tragedy of life must have made them who they were—what error kept Joyce Turner’s lips running and eyes darting in her doughy face as though calamity would come if she let her mind be still? What indiscretion made Marietta Mann so quiet she seemed to be shocked by the sound of her own breath?
These women had been defeated, it seemed, by the quest to fall in line with domesticity’s parade—find a good man, find a good job, keep both, have good children who would be willing to lather, rinse, repeat. But the cost of this process, the lint stuck in the trap, seemed always to be the women themselves. Their imaginations, their joys, the brightness of their smiles all seemed to vanish in the tumble of family life, their bodies warn to laundry bags for other peoples’ futures.
So Ilana had decided to do things differently. She would handle life selfishly, and never give it to anyone. Sometimes, she was sure of it: she would create no family, no children, nothing but herself. And, only if she truly and deeply felt like it would she consider sharing that selfish life with somebody else. In the meantime, she would make the ornate ballet of Harlem’s social life her entertainment. She plotted ways to get beneath the Grange Women’s skin, to prick the hairs around their rigorously twisted dreadlocks and melt their meticulous smiles into shock, and to bring herself—if not pleasure—at least some amusement in the process.
The most delicious of her plans involved DeShawn Master, whose mother was arguably the primmest and most anxious of the Grange Women, and who was also smart and, truth be told, pretty cute. Ilana had seen him for the first time in a while at her father’s the funeral, six months before the babies, and immediately came down with a terminal crush. It wasn’t the kind of crush most tenth-grade-girls would have, she was sure, despite how it might have looked. Most of the Hamilton Heights girls admired DeShawn for the regular reasons: he was known for his deep red skin only lightly peppered with pimples, his pretty voice and his elaborate tags on the walls of the abandoned school on 145th street. He was also rumored to have single-handedly masterminded the Destino 2000, a phantom gang whose only real criminal activity was spray painting neon-colored peonies over parking signs and turning traffic signals the wrong way.
Ilana plotted her first major encounter with DeShawn carefully. It was no small feat; DeShawn was a senior at the roughest Catholic boys’ school in the Bronx, and Ilana was tenth-grader at a small, artsy nerd-nest on the Upper East Side. There was no chance of unplanned encounters outside of Harlem, and given Mrs. Randolph’s awkward standing in the Grange, to trade on their neighborly connection wouldn’t have been much help either.
After weeks of planning, Ilana decided to meet DeShawn on his own terms. She skipped school for a week and left the house each day with spray cans, stencil sheets, box cutters, and colored chalk stuffed in the bag where her textbooks should have been. Starting at the rock wall on Riverside Drive where DeShawn and his friends smoked weed after school, she began to place elaborate, sprawling letters in paint so thickly glossed it shimmered in the streetlight at night. She placed these letters beside the Destino 2000 tags, working her way south and east from the Hudson, past her home off of Amsterdam Avenue, past the Grange office, moving quickly with DeShawn’s flowers as her guides until she reached the row of tidy brownstones on 145th and Convent, where Ann Master’s home sat proudly on the corner. There, she swapped the spray cans for the chalk, crouched to the pavement, and placed the biggest and most ornate letter yet—a lemon-yellow “I” shimmering with glints of eggshell and lime.
It took only two days for news of Ilana’s work to wash back on the whisper mill. ShaLondra Prior, a slim tenement girl from Broadway known for her elaborate and frequently-changing hairstyles, suspected Ilana immediately. ShaLondra had been DeShawn’s girlfriend in the sixth grade, and had maintained a de-facto claim over him ever since, at least in her own view. She approached Ilana one afternoon as she was eating a bowl of cereal on her stoop, her hair pulled into thick, mile-long box braids and piled on top of her head like Janet Jackson’s in Poetic Justice.
“Do you know the bitch who’s fucking with Destino?” ShaLondra demanded, patting at her temples where the braids pinched her skin.
Ilana shook her head and studied her Craklin’ Oat Bran.
“That’s some weird shit, yo,” ShaLondra said. “It’s just a bunch of random letters. What the fuck is an L or an E supposed to mean anyway?” She watched Ilana’s face for a beat. When Ilana said nothing, ShaLondra pursed her lips, pivoted on her heel and turned away, the burnt ends of her braids taking flight behind her. Ilana knew then that she was on the right track.
The next morning, she marched to Ann Master’s house, armed with her paints and stencils. She posted herself behind a dumpster on the corner and waited for Ann to leave for work. When Ann was out of view, Ilana pulled her tools from the bag and shook a can of silver paint as violently as she could, its metal agitator ball rattling loudly just beneath DeShawn’s bedroom window on the brownstone’s first floor. The window rose as though on command.
“What the fuck, Ilana?” DeShawn mumbled, his voice still gravelly with sleep. “I knew that shit was you. All them Is and Fs and shit. What the fuck is that supposed to mean? But how you gonna tag my mother’s house though?”
“Oh, you live here?” Ilana asked, still shaking the can. “I didn’t know. Plus, rhododendrons and azaleas don’t exactly say ‘step off.’ I halfway thought Destino 2000 was a group of kindergarten girls from Park Avenue.” She shook the can again.
“But damn, why you gotta be so loud?” He mumbled through a smile. “Hold on.” And he came downstairs in flip flops, socks, and basketball shorts to let her in.
He rolled a blunt, and the two spent the day writing rhymes and blowing smoke out of Ann Master’s parlor window, taking care not to disturb the Senegalese masks and statues that decorated the room, or to ash on the Strohmenger & Sons piano, polished to an indignant shine. When enough time had passed and DeShawn seemed high enough to have forgotten himself a little, Ilana turned to him and laced her fingernails between the hairs on his knee. She tilted her head to the side, pushed her chin toward him, and softened her lips for a kiss, but DeShawn jerked away.
“No,” he said, his voice unsteady. “I mean, that can’t happen. You’re cool but, you know. My mother and shit… She wouldn’t… you’re not, you know…” He continued to talk, sputtering explanations and stopping mid-sentence, gathering his voice and trying again. For Ilana, all of this was completely unnecessary—she didn’t need to hear the words. The next day, she called DeShawn to tell him that she understood what he’d meant, and that she wanted to be friends.
In the following months, she established a tight liaison with DeShawn. The two skipped school together, tagging buildings and writing songs, stealing icies from the Coco Helado man while it was still warm and snatching knishes from the hot dog trucks in Central Park when it got cooler. By January, Ilana had succeeded in becoming his truest homie. They even had their kiss, and a few others here and there, but Ilana assured him each time that she wouldn’t mention that aspect of their friendship to anyone. Even when ShaLondra Prior gusted up to her stoop one day, a fresh weave of auburn curls floating behind her like rings in a ringtoss, and demanded “yo, what the fuck is up with you and D?” Ilana only stirred her cereal and said “What do you mean? We’re friends” and watched ShaLondra spangle away. Ilana understood what their touching meant, she told DeShawn: nothing.
During those months, she made herself a fixture in Ann Master’s home. Ann would return from work many evenings to find Ilana and DeShawn sitting on her front steps, scrawling in their notebooks and moving their heads back and forth in synch like a pair of twin gulls. Ilana enjoyed watching Ann struggle to be pleasant each time she found her in her home. It was a sweet irony, Ilana felt. The imperious restraint that made Ann hate Ilana also kept her from voicing her disdain. No matter what Ilana did, Ann would greet her with the same ached eyebrows, the same squinting eyes, the same dismal lip-raise that strained to pass for a smile. It was good exercise for Ann, Ilana decided. She began to imagine herself as Ann Master’s personal trainer, forcing her into a calisthenics of the spirit. And so she decided to focus her irritation on Ann. She pulled strands of synthetic hair from her rainbow-colored packs and stuffed them in the crevices of Ann’s bags, tied them around the clasps of her necklaces, stuck them down into the legs of her daysheer pantyhose. She watched Ann’s smile grow stiffer and her face more flustered each time she saw her—a good sign in Ilana’s book. Sometimes, DeShawn would report finding whole braids in the cupboards, where Ilana hadn’t planted anything at all. Ilana didn’t understand it, but she didn’t complain.
It was gratifying to watch her efforts work on Ann, but Ilana hadn’t anticipated annoying DeShawn as well. He confronted her one afternoon as they smoked blunts sitting on the fence at Edgecombe park. “For real, I wish you’d stop fucking with her. I know it’s nothing, but still. She’s an unhappy woman,” he explained, blowing smoke over the park’s stony cliff. “She’s lonely. But you don’t like people. You don’t understand about loneliness.”
Ilana stopped going to school shortly after that conversation. It wasn’t a decision so much as it was something she observed, as though on the TV screen. She saw herself waking up day after day, the silly morning D.J.s on the hip-hop station bantering in her ear for only a few minutes before she turned the radio off, rolled over, and continued to sleep. With the exception of a few forays to the Crown Fried Chicken around the corner, she recused herself from the world’s major dramas and retreated to her room.
During those weeks, Ilana spent time with her dolls, and nearly no-one else. DeShawn became distant, too, and soon new rumors foamed up on the whisper mill—some saying that he was dating a light-skinned girl from Stuyvesant High School, others saying that ShaLondra Prior was pregnant with his child.
Mrs. Randolph did not notice her daughter’s transition into sloth, so busy was she conducting the quiet symphony of her own life, each moment of which had become hard to manage now that George was gone. Like always, she rose promptly at five every morning in order to press her clothes, smooth her billowy hair into a bun, and take a 6:30 train to work, not returning until after nine. It had always been difficult to talk to Ilana about her day, because the girl was so quiet and because how did one talk to a teenager about anything, really, anyway? And now, it seemed that George’s absence had become a film between them, making it impossible for each to see the other clearly, or even to talk to each other, much less to touch.
Then, one Saturday afternoon, while mopping the floors outside of Ilana’s bedroom, she decided to peek in. Ilana had left the house hurriedly to who-knew-where, and though she had no idea when she would be back, Mrs. Randolph took her time surveying the room, horrified. Her good mahogany dresser and vanity were covered in pen marks and paint stains, and smears of electric blue and green chalk clung shamelessly to her elegant salmon walls. Pens and spray cans rolled lackadaisically over her antique rug, surely an injury waiting to happen.
It had been a beautiful room, once, but there was so little to be admired here now. This was the thing with teenagers, she thought. Their vision was so clouded with the fantastical dramas of their own lives that they failed to see the very real dangers before them—for Ilana, not just death-by-spray-can, but also the long and lonely life of a woman uninterested in keeping house. But Ilana had not always been that way—Mrs. Randolph was almost sure of it. Ilana had never been as neat as Mrs. Randolph would’ve liked, but as a girl she’d always used her creativity around the house to good result, decorating her bedroom room with symmetrical—if gaudy—drawings of rainbows and flowers, and bringing beautifully-iced cupcakes to school whenever there was a birthday. And then there were the dollbabies, which Ilana had treated with a meticulous love as a child. She had talked to them, bathed them, fixed their hair and clothes with a fastidious and thorough interest that even Mrs. Randolph had struggled to understand. And even though she’d neglected them later, she never threw them away.
Mrs. Randolph looked for the dolls, ready to admire the collection she’d amassed for Ilana, the decades of floral print dresses, the years and seasons of perfect pinafores and the generations of patchwork in the oldest dolls’ dresses. She wanted to see the touch the yarn hair her favorite doll, given to her by her own mother, to run her fingers slowly over its faux fur jacket, which, only by these generations of effort and commitment had remained a snowy white. It was probably only five minutes or so, but it seemed she’d searched at least an hour before it dawned on her that, in fact, the babies were gone.
The dolls were lighter than Ilana thought they’d be. She made a game of tossing them into the bag, some feet or paws first, some flicked head down like boomerangs or flung like frisbees, their hair spinning cyclones of plastic around them. As she worked, she imagined Ann Master waking up to the spectacle she had designed for her: stuffed bears smoking cigarettes on her dining room table, Barbies necking nude on the antique sideboard, ponies in plastic-bag bikinis, soaped up and backfloating in her kitchen sink. It would scandalize Ann, shake her from her stupor of meanness, and perhaps even amuse DeShawn a bit in the process. They both would suspect her, but it wouldn’t matter. She would give Ann Master something more interesting to fret about than the skin tone and temperament of her progeny, and DeShawn would arise, the responsible son, to comfort his mother and join her in condemnation of strange pranks like this. It was an act of benevolence, really, and a thoughtful one. She had wrangled his spare key weeks ago in preparation. Tomorrow, after the dust settled and the spectacle had sunk in, he would throw the dolls away, have the locks changed and renew their lapsed security system account. Then he would call Ilana out of obligation to his mother, and the two might even share a chuckle. Perhaps that chuckle would even lead to more.
At two that morning, everyone on the street was moving. The sharp brass of merengue music and the laughter of flirting couples that usually the thickened the night were absent. As she moved into the block, she saw that this was because the cops were out, sprinkled in pairs under the awnings where the dealers and corner-dwellers usually stood. Instead, the cops’ presence cast an even quiet over the pavement. Sometimes Hamilton Heights was like this—so still and quiet it felt like a replica of a Harlem that had never existed. This kind of quiet usually meant that something was going on—that the cops or the dealers or somebody else had taken some mysterious and potentially dangerous action, or that they soon would. She tightened her grip around the bag and pushed forward down the block.
She had just made out the spokes of the Masters’ front gate when she heard a series of loud pops behind her, like a run of burst balloons. The noise was loud, and hard—staccato—but it was and gone just as quickly as it came, and soon there was more stillness. Ilana thought it was a scare—a child maybe, playing with firecrackers on his mother’s stoop. She adjusted the bag and moved on. But as her foot hit the ground the pavement in front of DeShawn’s house, the popping struck up again, now so close that she thought she could feel the sound brushing the back of her neck. She turned around to see the feet of several men and a couple of women flailing, running in all directions just steps behind her. The silence of the evening broke into a garble of noise: a man grunted loudly and heaved, a woman shouted “get the fuck…” then stopped short, choking on air.
Ilana ran like she hadn’t run in years. She felt her fingers flex and air smack cool against her empty palms. Tripping over yarn curls and dingy cheeks, leaving brown plastic fingers grasping upward, stepping on the gleaming white fur jacket, she ran. She felt free in the running, like a small part of something large, a streak of sound in a cacophony. Hands open, she ran away in a jumble of runners, wondering what had happened, wondering what would happen, wondering if a life could feel this way.
Two weeks later, Ilana still had not heard from DeShawn. She wondered if Ann had seen the torn bag and scattered parts on the corner, but there was now way to find out. The whisper mill was totally silent on the issue. She had heard a little about the gunshots that night—that they were caused by a bad crack deal a few days earlier and a dirty cop who had unexpectedly gone straight. But Ilana heard nothing about the babies. There were no tales of plastic limbs trampled by police boots, no reports of fake baby bottles or miniature pacifiers strewn about Sugar Hill like confetti. She walked down to Convent Avenue several times, looking for scraps of yarn hair or scrambling plastic eyes, pink-dotted cheeks growing black in the gutter. But there was nothing beyond the multi-colored crack vials, juice containers and newspaper pages that normally studded the streets.
Ann Master, too, was absent after the babies. Ilana hadn’t expected to see her right away, but she thought, for sure, that she would see her at her mother’s next party, at least. But Mrs. Randolph’s Abolition Day Ice Cream Affair came and went, and no one in attendance had seen neither skin nor scowl of Ann.
The crowd was much thinner than her mother had expected, which meant less for Ilana to do. It was mid-April, but still cool, and so Mrs. Randolph had ordered heat lamps as usual. Ilana spent most of that afternoon standing at the garden doorway, just close enough to feel rented warmth on her nose and knuckles, listening for some mention of Ann Master or DeShawn. But none came. Instead, the women talked about their children and their jobs, what they had planted in their gardens and window boxes, what new curtains they would hang for the spring. The ones who had men bragged and complained about them; the ones who didn’t pushed cranberries through their baked brie, gazing out at the heaps of melting snow.
Ilana occasionally caught Mrs. Randolph’s eye as Mrs. Randolph flitted around the walled garden, arranging seat cushions and plucking unused name cards from the tables, assessing her spare spate of guests.
May 1st was George Randolph’s birthday, and though she would not say it, Mrs. Randolph had been dreading the day since she closed the door behind the last guest after her April affair. Conveniently enough, May 1st was also May Day in the Continental U.S., and Lei Day in Hawaii. She’d never been to Hawaii and didn’t particularly care for false flowers or canned pineapple, but those things did remind her of George—queer, comical George who insisted on wearing neon striped or floral print socks tucked into his oxfords because, as he put it, one always had to have “a little hoo-ha” on one’s person to get through the day. George was capricious and unpredictable, but he always carried his strangenesses out silently, like Ilana. Mrs. Randolph appreciated this quality of his in more ways than she had been able to articulate when he was alive—somehow, his silence allowed her to enjoy the weirdness of him, as if the strange thing he was was made wonderful, because it was reserved only for her.
And so, in this spirit—George’s and Ilana’s—she decided to host her first May Day/Lei Day Luau. She could not be seen dragging a dead pig through the streets of Harlem, so she determined that a beef brisket would have to do. The pineapples would be fresh and the flowers would be real, and there would be May Day baskets full of prettily-iced cakes and cookies for the sweet-eating Grange Women, under the pretense, of course, that they were for any children who happened to stop by. A May Day/Lei Day Brisket and Basket Luau. She let the idea caramelize in her mind.
On the morning of the Luau, the sky over Hamilton Heights was as clear and blank as an ice cube. No one had RSVP-ed for the event yet, though Mrs. Randolph asked for the appropriate one-week’s response on the invitations. She attributed this lapse in etiquette to the apex of spring and an unfortunate triumph of Colored People’s Time—a condition that sometimes reared its scruffy head even in the best circles—and so went on about the preparations. She cleaned and covered the tables, pinned the seat cushions in place, and directed the installation of the makeshift luau pit, watching as delivery men spread bags of dirt over her yard’s limestone floors. She spread the baskets, filled them with reasonably expensive pastries, and strung fresh carnations into necklaces no one had signed up to wear.
Ilana watched quietly and from a distance, saying nothing as Mrs. Randolph prepared for the event, her spine curved into a question mark over the stove, muttering her dissatisfaction at batch after batch of Hawaiian pasta salad. It didn’t matter that the production was a waste of time. The busywork kept her mother at a distance safe for both of them, and it seemed pointless and cruel to break the seal between them now. Still, it had stung a bit to see how poorly attended the April event was, and it was even harder to see her mother at it again now. So she stuffed a few spray bottles into her backpack and left the house, offering to bring ice on her way back.
When she returned that afternoon, the house was tinkling with sound. The laughter of several voices lunged at Ilana, not from way out in the garden, but right there, chiming thickly through the walls of the first floor. When she pushed through the French foyer doors, she saw Mrs. Randolph sitting in the middle of the dining room, stiff as a scarecrow.
And then she saw children. Children and more children of several ages. Neat toddlers in cornrows and overalls, a messy nine-year-old with distressed, afro-puffed ponytails and a floral-print skirt. Some clutched juice boxes or stuffed animals, others held hands, their tight, well-greased box braids brushing the hem of Mrs. Randolph’s ivory tablecloth. One child, a girl, wore a crisp white faux-fur jacket that looked freshly scrubbed to gleaming, save for what looked like a faded foot print on the left arm.
When she stepped into the dining room, Ilana saw that Ann held a leaky-nosed infant on the table before her, the bulge of its diaper resting squarely on Mrs. Randolph’s white lace runner. And there beside her was DeShawn, careening over on the two side legs of Mrs. Randolph’s mahogany chair to help a toddler with bright pink cheeks tie her shoe.
“Mrs. Master and her family decided to stop by and surprise us,” Mrs. Randolph said to Ilana, her face trick-knotted into a smile. “Isn’t that nice?”
Ilana nodded and looked at DeShawn, who tied the shoe into a tight half hitch and hoisted the child onto his knee. The sideboards were covered with folded cloth napkins and baskets of cookies, and a large pitcher of bright purple juice sat uncovered at the edge of the table. Ilana eyed the juice pitcher, so wide and brazen against the thin white cloth.
“It’s so nice to see you, Ilana,” Ann said, wiping the infant’s mouth with its bib. The baby gave a wet gurgle. “It’s been such a long time. We’ve really missed seeing you around.” The was a casual sweetness in Ann’s tone that made Ilana think Ann might have forgotten herself completely—that she might actually have convinced herself she liked Ilana after all.
Ilana nodded and gave some kind of smile. She looked at DeShawn over the mass of children—five, altogether, she now saw, though they felt to her like many more. DeShawn began to bounce the fur-coated child on his lap, and the girl gave a series of shrill giggles, her black eyes rolling with delight.
“So you were saying, Ann? About your sister?” Mrs. Randolph placed another basket of cookies on the table and walked to the sideboard again, trying, Ilana could tell, not to seem too eager for details.
“Well yes, like I said. They just showed up on the stoop one morning, a few weeks ago now,” Ann said, her face firm and bright as a pat of butter. “All of them together, and Rhonda nowhere in sight. I do wish she had sent word in advance, but you know—some people just don’t know how to be.” She shifted the child onto her knee and sighed. “Of course, I was worried at first, with all the things that go on around here. There was a shooting just the night before they got here, right there on my block. “She switched the child to the other knee and patted its bottom. “But children need mothers, and women need children, is what I told DeShawn. Men need them too, whether they know it or not.”
She looked at DeShawn, who nodded dutifully, his lips turned stiffly upward as though he were posing for a photo. Ilana had never seen this version of him before. Sitting side by side amid a sea of children, their slim faces cast in twin smiles, DeShawn and Ann looked like two halves of a quotation mark.
“Well, we had to fix them up, of course,” Ann continued. “They were a bit discombobulated, at first.” A child waddled by and Ann stopped it with her free hand. She licked her finger, cleared a smear of cookie frosting from one of the pink cheeks, and released it to its game. “But we’re having a good time putting them together, aren’t we?” She wiggled the infant’s booted toe, and the baby reached up and put its palm on her face. DeShawn bounced the lapchild again and gave his camera-ready smile.
“Reminds you of how it was when they were young, doesn’t it, Mrs. Randolph,” she said, gesturing with her eyebrows to DeShawn and Ilana, the child’s fingers still on her nose.
“Well, yes,” Mrs. Randolph said.
Suddenly, the fur-clad child on DeShawn’s lap jerked forward and lunged for a basket of cookies, tripping over a buckle in the rug and sending the basket, the napkins, and the juice pitchers crashing to the floor. Ilana, DeShawn, and Ann watched as purple juice spread slowly over the rug and began to sink in. The child grabbed onto Mrs. Randolph’s skirt and hoisted herself up again, leaving a wide smear of purple liquid and cookie grease on the pale gray cotton.
Ilana stood, stunned, for a few seconds. Then she hurried to the foyer closet for cleaning supplies. DeShawn moved beside her mutely. She handed him a rag and a bottle of cleaner. As the two ducked down to the floor, she checked his face, hoping to share an eye roll or some other hint of recognition. But he looked up at her only once to offer a wild, panicked smile.
When the spot was cleaned, Mrs. Randolph began moving the remaining baskets and tablecloths to the sideboard, keeping her face turned away from the company. Ilana waited for the moment when Mrs. Randolph would put the visit to an end, coaxing the sprawling new mess of the Masters out of her house. She couldn’t imagine her mother taking much more of this messiness, and for a moment, Ilana was glad. DeShawn was his own kind of mess to her, and she wanted him gone.
“Oh, Mrs. Randolph, I’m so sorry about that,” Ann said pleadingly. She took the child in her arms and looked sternly into its face. “Tell Mrs. Randolph you’re sorry,” she said.
“I’m sorry, miss Mand…” the child stammered, clutching the hems of her jacket sleeves with her small fingers. Her face began to tremble, and her eyes grew slick.
“I’m sorry, miss man…” she tried again.
Mrs. Randolph kept her back angled away as she scrubbed at her skirt, and Ilana imagined the look of gussied-up annoyance that would show on her face when she turned around. But when she finally turned back to the group, her face was smooth and easy, and Ilana even thought she saw a small smile beginning to sprout between her mother’s cheeks.
“That’s alright, sweetheart,” Mrs. Randolph said quietly. “Here.” She held a bright pink cookie in the air. “Now, remember: next time, just say ‘May I have a cookie?’”
“May I have a cookie, Miss Man-off?” The child repeated. Mrs. Randolph nodded. She placed the cookie at the center of a napkin, and gave it over. “Yes, you may. And my name’s Joy.”
Ann Master beamed, her smile so thick it could have oozed from a tube. DeShawn took this as his chance to jump in, prodding the child: “Say ‘Thank you, Mrs. Joy,’” which the child did between mouthfuls.
“Very good,” Mrs. Randolph said in a lilt that stunned Ilana. “That’s right. You’re welcome.”
Ilana watched her mother talk to the child, her face and body transforming like the features of a blow-up doll slowly filling out with air. A brightness shone in both Ann’s and her mother’s eyes as they instructed the child in the social choreography of this house, this world: Say please, Mrs. Say thank you, Mrs. Very good. That’s right. It relieved Ilana and nauseated her at once.
DeShawn bent to gather the wet rags and Ilana moved with him, eager to be out of sight.
“Look at them,” Ann said to Mrs. Randolph, her voice heavy with conspiratorial warmth. “Makes you wonder how long it’ll be before they’re having babies of their own.” She darted her eyes first at DeShawn and then at Ilana.
Mrs. Randolph nodded, her smile full-on now.
“Ilana–” Ann and Mrs. Randolph said in unison. Then they laughed. Mrs. Randolph’s laugh was timid at first. But Ann’s was deep and hearty and from the gut, and Ilana could hear her mother’s laugh start to take root, too.
“Why don’t you join us?” Ann said, moving the baby bag aside and patting the cushion of the seat next to her.
“Yes.” Mrs. Randolph looked up at Ilana, her face simpler and stranger than Ilana had ever seen it look before. “You should. Feel free.”
Ilana paused, wishing she could take a picture of the moment and keep it in her pocket for later—a havoc of babies wreaked on her mother’s dining room floor, two Grange Women merrily peeling layers off themselves to put things back in order, and all this the work of several utterly uninvited guests. She felt happy enough for the people that filled the room, but thrilled for her own freedom to leave it. She regretted only that there was no one she could tell the whole story to—at least no one she knew yet.
“No, thank you,” she said. Her voice was a polite perfection.
A child whined and a baby gurgled as Ilana walked around the brownstone, gathering her box cutters and her spray cans, placing them carefully in her backpack, one by one. By the time she made it back down to the vestibule, the laughter had struck up again, louder this time, and now DeShawn had joined in. She zipped her jacket, slung her bag over her shoulder, and locked the door behind her, not bothering to say goodbye. The chill of the afternoon sank deep into her skin from all directions, against her legs and her empty palms, pushing her forward as she walked, and hummed, and reviewed the days.
“A Magic of Bags” appears with permission from the Magnus imprint of Riverdale Avenue Books, which will publish Sullivan’s Blue Talk and Love in 2015. The story was first published in From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth, Tiny Satchel Press, 2011.
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, Ph.D. is the author of the forthcoming short story collection, Blue Talk and Love (Riverdale Ave/Magnus 2015). Her fiction has appeared in Callaloo, Best New Writing, American Fiction, Prairie Schooner, Crab Orchard Review, TriQuarterly, Narrative Northeast, Kweli, Feminist Studies, All About Skin: Short Fiction by Award-Winning Women Writers of Color and many others. Her critical essays on gender and sexuality in African Diaspora culture have appeared in Palimpsest, Ebony.com, The Root.com, GLQ: Lesbian and Gay Studies Quarterly, The Scholar and Feminist, Ms. Magazine Online, and The Feminist Wire, where she is Associate Editor for Arts & Culture. Born and raised in Harlem, NY, she has received the James Baldwin Memorial Playwriting Award, the Charles Johnson Fiction Award, and honors from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, the Mellon Foundation, the Social Sciences Research Council, and the Center for Fiction in New York City, where she held the 2011 Emerging Writers Fellowship. She earned her Ph.D. in English Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, and is Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at UMass Amherst. Visit her at www.meccajamilahsullivan.com