Art by Tom Jarmusch
Lunch is tuna fish and milk. Not for my brothers and me. For Precious. Nana is folding money tightly, pressing it into my big brother Poke’s hand. She gives an order she’s given a thousand times before. “Poke, go on down to the store and get Precious’s lunch,” she says.
This morning, breakfast was a slice of bread and water at dawn. That’s not enough for me. I know it’s not enough for Poke, him being bigger and all, but he never says a word about it. Now we will have to wait for supper leftovers for sure; greasy string beans from last Saturday with pork fat jiggling on top or salty six-month-old beans pulled from the freezer. Nothing as fresh and eat-it-now as tuna fish and milk.
I am dying to go to the store with Poke. Maybe along the way we’ll find some money, coins accidentally dropped or a dollar bill stuck in the sewage drain. Maybe even enough to get a couple of Mary Jane candies or a bag of lemon drops. I can taste the peanut butter and feel the sugar rush as I follow Poke out the door.
“Where you think you going?” Nana barks.
“To the store with Poke,” I say.
“No you ain’t. Poke’s the oldest. Poke’ll go. You don’t need to go nowhere.” She points to the white gardenias painted on the sofa. “Sit,” she says.
The flavors of delight sour in my mouth and give way to cardboard-flavored spit. I sit down on the hot, plastic-covered sofa and it sears the back of my thighs like a griddle. The room is stifling. I can’t breathe any more than the gardenias beneath me, the white petals stretching wide into exhausted yawns, hollow as my stomach. A layer of sweat coats my skin as the cracks in the hard plastic slice into my thigh.
“The thick philodendron leaves bury the heads of the little white ceramic angels sitting on the tabletop. Nana’s stories are on the television, and she sits in the easy chair without looking away from the screen. My little brother haunts the other end of the sofa sucking his thumb, now a permanent part of his mouth, his face, his soul.”
Nana won’t open any windows. She says she’ll be damned if she lets her “good air” out. That raggedy machine, shoved into the weary window of her bedroom in the back, pushes out nothing but hot breath. Nana swears the air from that thing is as cool and crisp as the morning breeze. So did the junkyard man who sold it to her with a sly smile. But you can’t tell Nana anything.
I look at the plants in the corner next to the sofa that climb halfway up the wall and spread over the glass end table. The thick philodendron leaves bury the heads of the little white ceramic angels sitting on the tabletop. Nana’s stories are on the television, and she sits in the easy chair without looking away from the screen. My little brother haunts the other end of the sofa sucking his thumb, now a permanent part of his mouth, his face, his soul. Together we float on the barge in silence.
When I shift to give my slashed flesh relief, I accidentally knock the lace coverlet to the floor. Nana hears the swish and jerks her head to look at me. Her big bumper curls, freshly done by Ms. Jackson down the street, bob back and forth in the thick air like buoys on water. Just a minute ago, her eyes were light and bubbly from the latest twist in who is having an affair. Now they are glowing charcoals at the bottom of a grill.
“Damn it, boy,” she snarls.
“Sorry, Nana,” I say.
Nana sucks her teeth. She loves to suck her teeth. “Yeah, you always sorry,” she says. You ain’t got nothing else in your cup but that. Your mother didn’t leave me nothing but you kids and a sorry.”
And then I feel it again. I can’t even hear Nana’s words anymore or feel the heat burning at me from her eyes because there it is again. Suddenly, there is coolness on the back of my neck. It vanishes and the chill turns again into hot sweat.
Nana gets up from her blue easy chair, huffing and puffing. She bends down, struggling, and picks up the lace I knocked to the floor and fans it into the air and carefully places it back on the sofa. The leaves of all the plants quiver. My little brother sucks his thumb harder. I take the chance to escape. “I have to go to the bathroom,” I announce, and move away quickly.
Normally, Nana makes me hold it. My brothers too. She says she doesn’t know one man who can control himself. “You damn well better hold it,” she likes to say. And we hold it until our bladders churn bile to butter. We clutch our privates until our stomachs do somersaults and sirens in our heads bang and clang us deaf. When our eyes bulge out like a full moon and we walk like old men, she is satisfied.
Precious is let outside anytime she paws the front door.
But my timing is good and I know it. Between messing up the sofa lace and interrupting her stories, I know she can’t focus much on how much urine I’m holding. She rolls her eyes and sits back down. The pleading man on the TV has already told his wife that he is sleeping with her sister. Nana throws her head back. “Lord, you made me miss it, boy!” she says.
But by then, I am already halfway down the hallway to the bathroom. My brothers and I share a room. First door on the left. There is nothing much in there: one bed for the three of us, a closet, and a seven-drawer chest with a green desk lamp on it. The lamp is just for show. Nana never puts a bulb in it. She says that whatever we need to do, we can do before dark. Our shoes line a bed that takes a day to dry out from us sweating through it all night. The windows are nailed shut. Nana says a fan would run up her light bill. Some nights I lie on the floor along the wall. The rats living behind the crumbling plaster crawl in and out of the tunnels they make, and I can feel the air moving through their tiny halls.
Nana’s room is the second door on the left. She always leaves the door open halfway; half-open to remind us that it is her house and half-closed to remind us that we are forbidden to enter. There is a yellow cotton quilt spread over her bed, a matching runner on the floor. All day long the preacher shouts from the clock radio sitting on the crowded nightstand, the air conditioner gasping and heaving in the background.
And there in the middle of the bed, turned toward the muggy breeze, is Precious.
Nana says that Precious is a special-bred cat but I know she’s a mongrel. For one, the thing is cockeyed and her one good eye has a river of muck running from it all of the time. Second, she looks Siamese from the back and calico from the front and it all crashes in an explosion of fur and patterns. Always, she is looking over her empire, perched on the bed like a queen on a throne.
God, how I hate that cat.
I reach the bathroom at the very end of the hallway. At the toilet, I decide this time I’ll hold it. Not because I have to but because I can. In the hidden spaces of my body, I have the kind of dick control Nana never thought possible. Now I prepare for a delicious thing. I turn the cold water on full blast and dunk my head in the sink.
And I let the cold hold me, caress my brow. Mama is coming back. Soon. After ’while. One day. She just has a lot of things to take care of first. Business to tend. That’s why she kissed each of us on the forehead at three o’clock in the morning in Nana’s living room the day she left. “We don’t want to wake Nana,” Mama had whispered. “You know Nana works hard, and it wouldn’t be right to wake her up in the middle of the night. Ain’t that right, my little men?” We little men nodded. Mama held up a bright, shiny gold key. “See babies? Mama’s got a key to the front door, so I can come right on in any old time. Don’t you worry. Mama’s got some things to take care of. Got some business now. But I’ll be back before you know it.”
At the sink the cold nestles me and I think. She’ll be back before I know it. Soon. After ’while. One day. I blow air bubbles from my nose and they tickle my cheeks on the way to the surface. I listen to the silence underwater. I wonder about the place that cold comes from. Must be a fantastic place.
There were a few times before when I felt the frost from that special land outside of the sink. Like when Nana slapped my cheek for eating her apple. It fell out of the sack she keeps in the locked cabinet and rolled under the kitchen table. I watched it sit there for three days, red and turning brown. On the fourth day I picked it up and I ate it, and she slapped me. She belts me plenty so the slap wasn’t really nothing to care about. My face always flames when her fat paw hits it. But that time my cheek went icy. Chilled like a body on a slab. Nana went to hit me again, but when her hand touched my face, she drew back. That’s when I knew that the other world, the cold one, was real.
I raise my head from the water. Can’t take too long in the bathroom or Nana will be at the door, checking if I’m running up her water bill or using her good towels. The ones with the three red tulips emblazoned on the front. I take one out and dab it on my face, then brush and rub the cotton this way and that. I fold it exactly the way it was and put it on top of the linen stack. Nana never checks for wetness, only for the neatness of the tulips. She doesn’t use the towels but likes to open the closet and look at the order of the pile. I flush the toilet (for show) and click out the light.
My brother Poke is back. He is standing at the kitchen table clutching a brown paper bag and thrusting his fingers into the bottom of his pant pocket to get Nana’s change.
“You get the chunk tuna in vegetable oil?” Nana yells from the easy chair.
“Yes, Nana,” Poke says.
“You get the pint of whole milk? Not that two percent mess, right?”
“No, Ma’am. I got the regular kind.”
Nana comes in the kitchen humming. She reaches up to the top cabinet above the refrigerator and pulls out two delicate glass bowls. She takes the bag from Poke’s hand and opens the can of tuna fish. After carefully forking out the flakes of tuna into the bowl, she grabs the pint of milk and shakes it vigorously. The foam fans out in fluffy splendor when she pours it into the crystal. Perfection.
Lunch is a wonderful thing. The whole world stops whatever it is doing at some point in the day for it. People wait on it all morning and feel funny when they haven’t had it. That’s just how special it is. Bet the President stops for lunch too. You can tell how certified a guy is by his lunch. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is okay but shows haste and a lack of style. Baloney or ham is something to respect. But the kind of lunch that requires a napkin, the kind that is better hot but still tastes dynamite when it’s cold, well, that is something out of this world.
Nana sits the dishes on the floor. “Precious!” she chimes at the top of her lungs. She never has to call Precious twice. The cat arrives in the kitchen on cue for a two-course meal, moving from one bowl to the other. Nana stands over the thing smiling and cooing, “That’s it, baby. Enjoy your lunch. You know Mama wouldn’t forget about her Precious.”
We watch Precious eat.
A violent cough breaks Poke’s stare. Bet he has asthma. Probably from the fur floating through all this good air. The cough takes Nana’s attention away from the feast, and her eyes go from Saturday-night-bliss to Monday-morning-piss. “You little bastards always sick,” she says. “Poke, go in there and get the cough syrup. Take a little and give some to your brothers. Can’t have all of you sick in here. There’s soda crackers on the table to settle your stomach.” Nana pets Precious on the head and goes back into the living room to her stories to see if someone else is confessing a sin.
So that’s lunch. Soda crackers and a swallow of cough syrup. Precious turns her tail up in the air. Her purring rings loud in my head. Milk dangles on the ends of her whiskers and hits the floor in little raindrops.
And then the coldness from that place rushes all over me. I don’t know how it found me through all that time and space it must have taken to get to me but it did. The chill stays with me all day and into the night. I even stop sweating. In the late evening darkness, everything feels cool to the touch, and the spot in the bed where I lie stays cold long after I sink into the dents.
Maybe it’s the cold that makes me think about it.
I walk down the hallway and into the living room after everyone is asleep. Oh, how fresh the air all around me feels. The floor is a frozen lake. The streetlight pouring in from the window is an October moon.
I see the fiend on the sofa. She is luxuriating in the silver beam. The thing purrs briefly, a careless, thoughtless greeting to me. Me, who was left in favor of tending business. Me, whose cup is full of sorry. I snatch the lace sofa coverlet and wrap the little beast in it tight. She struggles but her clawless paws are no help and her hiss cannot be heard. And I am not surprised when I feel my hands strangling the flesh, squeezing the fur, my nails digging, because I have felt this feeling in the cold before, long before I got to the end of the hallway.
The headless angels on the end table wait for me. I pick one up and smash it into the creature’s skull. I remember reading in Webster’s Dictionary that the word “precious” means something held dear. Am I held dear? Am I precious? I look down at the purple dripping from my hands in the moonlight. And right then I know I am more precious than business tending. More precious than soda crackers and rat tunnels. More precious than confessing husbands and choking gardenias. More precious than this damned cat. Yes. I know because the cold told me so.
Morowa Yejidé, a native of Washington, DC, is the author of the critically acclaimed novels Time of the Locust, which was a 2012 finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize, longlisted for the 2015 PEN/Bingham Prize, and a 2015 NAACP Image Award nominee; and Creatures of Passage, which was shortlisted for the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, longlisted for the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction, and was a 2021 Notable Book selection by NPR and the Washington Post. She lives in the DC area with her husband and three sons.
Tom Jarmusch is an artist and filmmaker in New York. His films, videos, installations, and photography have been shown at Anthology Film Archive, Rotterdam International Film Festival, New York Underground Film Festival, BBC Short Film Festival, Cinema Texas, Locarno International Film Festival, Paris Underground Film Festival, Rencontre Internationales Paris/Berlin, and Chicago Underground Film Festival. His first feature, Sometimes City (2011), won the Experimental Documentary prize at the Greenpoint Film Festival. Tom has worked as an actor, art director, prop master, and location scout for Robert Frank, Claire Denis, Aki Kaurismaki, Ang Lee, Michael Almereyda, and his brother Jim Jarmusch.