Issue 24 / Winter 2021 / Special Issue: Pleasure
I woke up to the sound of muffled commotion. When I went into the living room, couch cushions were tossed all over the place and Mama’s arm was so deep in the lining of the couch it looked gone forever.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
She was quiet for a minute, her head craned to one side, eyes squinting and tongue touching the edge of her top front teeth. Finally, her hand emerged with a quarter and a nickel.
“Got it,” she said, smiling at the two coins before turning to me. “Trying to find enough money to get some coffee.” After the rush of finding the final thirty cents she needed, her body went from perked to almost limp. She moved with the hazy speed that comes from working three jobs and needing to get to one of them a bus ride and 12 train stops away in the next 45 minutes. I ran to my room and came back with three of my last five dollars.
“Here, in case you need anything else,” I said handing her the money. With her lunch bag, second-job-change-of-clothes bag, and purse hanging on her right shoulder, she grabbed me with her left arm and pulled me close, pressing her lips to my forehead.
I pulled back, looking at the ground for a moment. When I looked up, I saw that her right eye had watered.
“I’ll be home by eleven tonight. There’s some spaghetti in there. You and Mimi eat that when you get home, okay?”
The pot of limp noodles, ground beef and watered-down red sauce had been in there for three days, but I nodded and smiled like she was offering steak and potatoes.
After Mama left and the door clicked, I heard Mimi’s voice from the bedroom that she and Mama shared. “We should get her a Mr. Coffee for her birthday.”
“You know, a coffee maker,” she said emerging from the room, already dressed for school and pulling her braids into a high ponytail. “They have a Mr. Coffee maker in the school office.”
“You got Mr. Coffee money?”
“No. But we can figure it out.”
As we walked to school, Mimi talked through her plan. She would do a “pay what you can” babysitting service. She knew Keisha from down the hall would be a customer as well as Vanessa’s older sister.
“And maybe you can draw for people,” she said as we stopped in front of her school.
“Man, nobody is going to pay me to draw for them. People can’t even…people got other stuff going on.”
She gestured toward her friends as they smiled and waved at us. “They would pay.” I wished I was as popular with girls in my own grade as I was with these 7th grade girls that freaked me out with their smiles, stares, and animated whispers whenever I dropped Mimi off.
I gave Mimi a small squeeze on her shoulder. She lifted her shoulder, letting her head rest on my hand for a second, before speed-walking over to the girls.
I stopped in the pharmacy a block away from my school to get a pack of new colored pencils, thinking Mimi might be on to something. As I stood in line looking around at the candy with the thin layer of dust on it and plastic toys with the price stickers fading and peeling, I saw it. A Mr. Coffee Five Cup Coffee Maker. I stepped out of line to look at it. There were four of them in a neat row next to a line of dish liquid.
“Hey, yo, my man. How much for the Mr. Coffee?”
The man behind the counter looked up squinting like I woke him from a nap and stared at the coffee maker for several seconds.
My heart jumped. We could come up with that. I could ask Mr. Miller if I could clean the barbershop again for him. He always said yes and paid me right when I was done, even throwing in a quick cut sometimes.
The plan brought a smile to my face as I got back in line. But I wondered why Mama never got one for herself. She must have walked passed this store a thousand times from the E train to our apartment and back. Surely she dipped in from time to time to pick up something quick for the house or lady stuff for her and Mimi and saw this same exact coffee maker. Why didn’t she just buy one instead of tearing up the house every morning looking for loose change? In the same amount of time it took to throw around couch cushions and look in everybody’s jacket pockets, she could, as the box said, pour her desired amount of freshly ground beans and water (preferably cold) into the machine, turn it on, and she’d be set. She would save time, too, without stopping to buy coffee. I didn’t like her stopping in the bodega so early anyway. The leftover goings-ons from the night before were always still in hanging out in front as she was leaving for work.
One time, Nicco, who used to go to my school, was stabbed right in front of the bodega. It must have happened right before Mama walked out of the building because she said she found him balled up on the sidewalk holding his stomach. When she rolled him on his back, he was holding his stomach and blood was seeping through his fingers. She screamed for the someone inside to call 911.
“Stick to your art. Okay? You have a gift that will keep you off of them corners,” she said to me the night after it happened.
As I got to the checkout counter and paid for the pencils, I realized Mama barely had the $1.50 she needed for coffee every morning. When would she have an extra $19.99 plus tax for the coffee maker? I stuck the pencils in my backpack and figured we needed to not only get a coffee maker, but also one of those travel coffee cups, too.
“Y’all got any of those cups? You know, that you can pour your coffee in and take with you?”
The man pointed two isles over. I found one purple cup with black cursive letters that said “rise and shine” and another plain black cup. I thought she’d like the purple one, but the black one would hold more coffee to last her through the day.
I held it up for the sleepy man to see. “How much?”
“19.99? For a plastic cup?”
He went back to the newspaper he was reading.
So that was $40. Add on a card, a gift bag, tax – I knew we needed over $50, maybe $60, to make a nice gift. It would be hard to come up with that in a few weeks, but Mimi, always more optimistic than me, thought we could do it. I didn’t want to let her down.
As my backpack got searched after going through the metal detector at school, I thought about possible portrait clientele. The athletes were vain enough to want self-portraits as were the dance squad, cheer squad, and probably even the band. But my stuff was a little more “avant garde” as my art teacher, Ms. Melendez, would say. People would want something like Kehinde Wiley and would instead get Jean-Michel Basquiat. Plus, none of these people were exactly my friends so it wasn’t like I could just walk up to them and say “Hey, pay me to draw something”.
When I got to first period algebra, Jameela was already in her assigned seat behind me. We never really greeted each other, but every now and then she would ask what page we were on, how I did on the homework or if I had an extra pencil.
But today, as I was zoning out and doodling, she leaned up, smelling of coco butter and that strawberry candy that comes in a strawberry-printed wrapper and whispered, “I didn’t know you can draw.”
“Oh, yeah. A little, I guess,” I replied.
“How long did it take for you to get that good?”
“Well, I’ve been drawing since I could remember. Like, all the time.”
“I wish I could draw like that. I can’t even do stick figures.”
The bell rang, but I didn’t want the conversation to end. “I can draw something for you.”
“Okay.” I forgot to mention that I was selling drawings and began to think that maybe making money as an artist wasn’t in my future.
The next period was art so I asked Ms. Melendez about selling art.
“You’ve gotta draw for you, bud, not the money,” she said twisting her facing and waiving her hand, her five or seven bracelets clanking together as she did it. “This is your gift to the world. Love it and it will love you back. If you love it, are true to it — if you love you and are true to who you are — people will see that in your art. And that’s what they will want to buy. That’s it, bud. No secret formula.”
When I got home later that night, as Mimi was bouncing Keisha’s baby up and down, making her giggle and screech at the top of her lungs, I sat down to try to draw something for Jameela. “Interpret your subject,” Ms. Melendez would say. I looked over at the baby and listened to her squeal every time Mimi’s face would reappear while playing peek-a-boo. When my sister’s face would reappear, it was like the best thing that ever happened in her little life. It made me think about when I got to first period and saw Jameela there. Or when she’d wave and smile at me when our eyes would meet on the bus. With my new color pencils, I used brown softly for her skin, sharp lines to show how the corner of her lips draw up into perfect 45 degree angles when she smiles, and small circles for the coils in the afro-puff she wore on the top of her head every day. I also used pink and red to represent the strawberry candy she smelled like and a dark brown for her earthy eyes.
The next day, I gave her the portrait wrapped in tissue paper. She looked at me, smiled a soft smile, then slowly and delicately unwrapped the portrait. Then she stared at it. She was still staring at it when the bell rang and class started, and so I finally said, “It’s my interpretation of joy”. She nodded slowly.
“Can you do, like, Beyoncé or something?”
“Yeah, yeah, of course.” I made a mental note to call Mr. Miller to see if I could come clean up the barbershop that weekend since I didn’t think I’d make money any other way anytime soon.
On Saturday, after sweeping, moping, organizing and listening to trash talk and banter between the men the in my neighborhood, Mr. Miller gestured for me to have a seat in his chair for a quick cut.
He was a quiet man, never really commenting much on what was going on in his shop. But when he did speak, even the TV that was constantly streaming some type of sport or news seemed to quiet on its own. So I decided to start the conversation.
“Did you always know you wanted to be a barber?”
“I guess. Well, I don’t know if I can say that. Started doing it, got good, went to school, and got my license since I knew I could make a living off of it.”
We sat in silence again as he guided my head down so he could line up my nape.
“Does it makes sense to do something if nobody will pay you for it?” I asked.
He turned off the clippers and looked down at the ground. I watched him in the mirror as I he searched for his words on the brown linoleum.
“I wasn’t that good when I started cutting hair. I was alright, but really I just never had any money for a haircut so I started cutting my own. I was bad at first. And man, did I get clowned,” he said with a chuckle. “But I figured I’d get talked about anyway so I kept tryin. Then I got good and everybody wanted me to cut their hair.” He turned the clippers on and finished my lineup.
At school the next Monday, I brought Jameela the Beyoncé drawing, doing my version of the “Dangerously in Love” album cover. I embellished on the sparkles in the diamond encrusted spider-web like shirt and cartooned the eyes a bit. It wasn’t really my style but her gasped when she saw it caused her friend Ebony to come over and take a look.
“Oh, you really can draw,” Ebony said.
“This is so good,” Jameela said.
“You like it?” I asked
“I love it! Thank you,” Jameela said.
“Can you draw one for me, but on the back of this jacket,” Ebony said, turning her back to me to show me the back of her white denim jacket.
“Yeah. It’ll be $15 though.”
“$15! How much did he charge you?” she asked Jameela. But Jameela just looked down and smiled. Ebony looked at Jameela, then me. She giggled. I wanted to jump out of the second story window. “Alright, I’ll give you $10. $5 now and $5 when it’s done,” she said sliding her jacket off.
I was able to knock out a drawing of Beyoncé on stage during Ms. Melendez’ class, carefully using fabric paint on the stark white jacket. Ms. Melendez kept it safe and near the heater to dry until the end of the day and I met Ebony by the main entrance of school to deliver it.
“Yes! This is perfect!” she said looking at the jacket. She gave me the rest of the money and gently folded the jacket in half. “By the way,” she shouted over her shoulder as she walked away, “she likes you too!”
I floated home so Mimi and I could pool our money together. We had enough for the coffeemaker, a travel mug, a bag of ground coffee, and coffee filters. We bought each item, hiding it in my room until Mama’s birthday that Sunday.
Mama had the tradition of taking her birthday off from work, so Mimi and I packed the gift as she slept in. Mimi pulled just enough tissue paper out at the top so it looked like a small explosion of pink, yellow and white coming from the big pink bag. I added a single red rose wrapped in clear plastic, letting it stick out in the middle. It was a little dark brown around the edges, but it was the best one they had at the bodega. Then Mimi and I patiently watched TV until she woke up.
When Mama finally came into the living room, she pulled her pink terry robe tight across her chest.
“What is this!” she exclaimed. We looked at each other and smiled.
“Happy Birthday, Mommy!” Mimi said running up to her and hugging her.
“Oh, my goodness! Let me look at what we have here!” Mama pulled out each piece, ooh-ing and ah-ing at each part of the gift as if each were a rare gemstone.
“This is so thoughtful! I mean, so thoughtful! I have the best kids ever!” She started to tear up. “How did you manage to get all of this?”
“Mimi babysat, I worked for Mr. Miller a bit and even sold a drawing,” I said.
She clapped her hands together and threw them in the air. “My little artist! See? I told you — you are so talented. You’ll be in MoMA in no time! You two…” more tears cut her off mid-sentence. “You two are the best children any mother could ever ask for. I mean it. You are my gift every year.” She pulled us by our waists towards her and squeezed the life out of us. Her wet faced burrowed into my neck and I could smell the coconut oil in her hair.
“Ok, let me get dressed and let’s go out to breakfast!”
“Don’t you want to make some coffee, first?” Mimi asked.
“Oh, baby, I do. But it’s my day off. I don’t want to do anything extra today. I want somebody else to make the coffee and bring it to me!”
Charissa Annice is an emerging writer and nonprofit professional. In her nonprofit work, she focuses on supporting youth change makers and promoting civic engagement. In her writing, she focuses on people finding their power in a world that views them as powerless. Charissa lives in New York City.