“Dang it, Ralph, hurry up!”
Ladybug lifted her eyes from the 180th page of Runaway Ralph to see Roundtree Johnson’s fists bang against the door. He stood first in a line of men slumped against the mint green cinderblock wall. They reminded her of the police lineups on Law and Order SVU she and Momma watched way back when they still owned a television. On the other side of the door, a single stall mens room where a bath, a change of clothes or a moment of safety before a return to an unpredictable world accompanied the usual public restroom bodily functions.
Ladybug, needed to pee but couldn’t so she inelegantly rocked her hips and squirmed in the wood chair, trying to wiggle down a blood-soaked wad of toilet paper fashioned into a menstrual pad, making its way towards the rear waist of her jeans. For the past three weeks, Ms. Riddick, the librarian, let her use the employee restroom “as a safety precaution.” Ladybug still didn’t know if she was more scared or embarrassed by the man who made her stomach tighten and her fingers grip around the space reserved for the comfort of her mother’s hand. The yellow of his eyes made her scream. He muttered “my bad” and stepped on her toe as he skittered into a stall and slammed the door behind him. To this day, she remembered the eyes, but the rest of his indistinguishable face melted into the dozens her mother warned her to stay weary of.
The library’s employee restroom had the same ammonia slash body funk smell as the high school bathroom, but laced with lavender from the bar soap sitting next to a clear crystal box filled with free tampons. Ladybug could take what she needed and a few extra for the time in between visits. She wasn’t ready to stick the short cotton sticks in her pee hole so she pulled them out of their plastic casing, pressed them flat then wrapped them in toilet paper. These makeshift pads lasted longer than the wads made only from TP. She still ain’t told Momma she started her period since the cost of pads would be an additional strain on Momma’s distressed budget that barely covered food, gas and her asthma inhalers. Not to mention, there was hardly any space to store a gigantic pink tampon box in the over-packed car they called home since the demolition of their apartment.
With no where to go after school, Ladybug waited for Momma at the library. From there, they drove in search of a woman’s shelter for the night. The DC shelters reached capacity by sunset, and Momma couldn’t afford to waste gas driving out to Maryland on a long shot. If they failed to secure a room, the Corolla’s uncomfortable worn pleather seats transitioned into uncomfortable worn pleather beds. If Ladybug wasn’t a minor, she could go by herself to reserve a room for the two of them.
A room at the shelter also meant they had a shower to bathe, and a provided a tabletop for dinner and Ladybug’s math homework so she didn’t have to carry the sevens of long division under the Corolla’s dashboard light. Under the cloak of night, the car’s cabin glow attracted nosey cops and the taps of their nightsticks against the glass. These bored authority figures demanded to know what they were up to and who they worked for but never surmised the laptop, notebooks and chewed up pencils were for homework. They snickered the disintegration of Momma’s dignity as she pleaded for continued use of the parking space and responded to her with threats of a ticket, an arrest for trespassing or violence. Ladybug figured if she and Momma had a fancier car, and the blow-up doll of a white person in the backseat, the cops would ignore them on their way to harass a different family living in a fifteen-year-old jalopy.
“This ain’t for much longer,” Momma said as she cornrowed Ladybug’s freshly washed hair. “I promise.” Momma’s soft voice was barely audible over muffled voice of a woman in the hallway screaming out for her own momma as security guards restrained her.
“Little girl, why you reading that white mess?” Ms. Anderson clutched a People Magazine and lowered her wide hips into a tiny seat meant to support the behinds of children.
“This ain’t white, it’s Beverly Cleary.” Ladybug revisited this story of the mouse and his motorcycle every couple of weeks. She loved how the resourceful mouse escaped his surroundings on a toy motorcycle. “Ms. Anderson, if I ever found a toy motorcycle big enough to ride, I’d hop on and speed out of Northwest headed west, not stopping until Grand Canyon cuts off the road in front me.”
“Evel Knievel, that book is too young for you.”
“That chair is too young for you, but there ain’t no age limit to minding your own business.”
Mou was used to being on his feet for hours, but he bounced on his toes for the last twenty minutes like he was trying to rock his bladder to sleep. He worked as a doorman at The Willows on M and First Street the two years before workers’ compensation replaced a minimum wage salary. He herniated a disc in his lower back carrying an antique trunk from the trunk of Geraldine Dumas’s Tesla up to the home office of her luxury condo.
“Have you ever seen the view from the penthouse, Moustafa?” Geraldine asked. Platinum blonde hair curtained her Botox frozen face as she wrapped paper thin lips around the butt of a silver vape pen. “It’s quite a sight to behold.”
“No ma’am.” He said as he rubbed a soreness he knew by morning would spread around his lower back like the vape cloud exhaled from Geraldine’s nostrils.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” she said as she pulled open a refrigerator door; its shelves stocked like the refrigerators inside the neighborhood Safeway he could barely afford to shop at anymore. “I can get you some ice.”
Mou bounced on his toes as he waited for her pull open her wallet and stock his hand with a tip. “Yes ma’am. I’m sure I can walk it off.” He didn’t want her ice any more than he wanted her view of the city above the Weeds.
He called The Willow “The Weeds” since the concrete and glass grew from the demolition debris of the only home he’d known since birth. He shared a one-bedroom apartment with his Momma and two brothers until she passed and the lease passed onto him. Until the day he returned home from his porter job at the Four Seasons to his building full of zombies holding eviction notices as they muttered to themselves and each other, “What are we supposed to do now?”
“I tell you, you got to own your own,” Jefferson said. “Or else you blowing in they wind.” Jefferson said this damn near every day but he ain’t own nothing but the worn work boots on his feet and the rolled up wool cap circling head like a styrofoam pool noodle. He barely owned the coat on his back since Mou fronted him the three dollars to buy it from the Goodwill. Jefferson took a drag from an unlit cigarette. It only had two-seconds of contact with his lips before Ms. Ellen pulled open the woman’s restroom door.
“Hello, fellas,” she said through a gap-toothed smile. Aside from that model lady, Mou had never seen a white woman with what his momma called a “mouth of parting curtains.” But he knew plenty of his own folk with a gap in their front teeth. Jefferson ignored Ms. Ellen’s salutation and kept talking.
“You heard they demolished that Kaepernick mural in Atlanta yesterday? First day of Black History Month, two days before the Super Bowl, they gonna take down an image of the most important sports figure in decades. Remind me of when they teared down Ellington. I’m tellin you, when the murals get to crumbling, that’s the second horse of the gentrification apocalypse.”
“What’s the first?”
Jefferson’s laugh turned into a cough that bubbled throughout his congested chest. Before the demise of the Ellington mural, his late wife loved to walk past it on U Street and recount her father’s stories of playing alongside the Duke when he was young drummer.
“You get somebody to look at that cough yet?”
“Yes sir. Dr. Ben Carson listened to my forehead with a stethoscope and tole me I sounded just fine.” Jefferson laugh coughed again.
“Hey, Ms. Lou Ellen,” Mou called. Ms. Ellen paused her conversation with Roundtree Johnson. “Why’ont you convince Roundtree to let me go ahead of him. I got to get to wourk!”
“I thought you only worked on Fridays,” Lou Ellen responded with a smile. She seemed impressed with her memory of his sparse work schedule.
“Of course, I’ll join you for hoagies.” Mou bounced and hoped his performative desperation wiped that stupid grin off her face. “But I ain’t got no time for a date.”
“She said, she thought you only worked on Fridays, you deaf fool.” Jefferson laughed again. Then coughed again until his caramel skin went as red as Ms. Ellen’s embarrassed face.
August wiped the buffalo wing sauce and fried oyster crumbles—left by a group of day drunk soccer fans—from the resin covered face of Sean “Puffy” Combs. A few hours ago, the men stumbled in Boy Boy’s Fried Chicken and Oysters to shit talk and gormandize their way through the end of a match playing on the overhead screens. A guy named Wally sat with the group, but he usually came to the restaurant solo. Each time this dude came to the restaurant, August wished Wally quietly ate his food and went home. Whenever August wiped tables within earshot, Wally asked him about paintings hanging on the restaurant walls as if he wasn’t a bus boy but a concierge with the sole purpose of entertaining the stupid ass questions of the neighborhood colonizers. Wally’s assumption that August’s blackness automatically qualified him as a hip hop historian superseded the fact he was born almost a decade after the murders of Tupac and Biggie. He understood the Death Row reference in the painting of Snoop, Dre, Shug Knight and Tupac, all with chicken beaks replacing their nose and mouths. He knew the chicken in the Coogie Sweater and Versace sunglasses represented Biggie Smalls. But the inspiration for the mock album covers for “Gizzards with Attitude,” “Grillmatic” or “Ready to Fry” went over his head.
August knew the artist. Adderall Jones, a blond former prep school brat, worked out of a rundown loft in Georgetown. Another frequent patron of the restaurant, he insisted he knew more about Tupac than Tupac’s momma and yet didn’t know the name Afeni Shakur when mentioned by Mr. Tyco.
“Young brother,” Mr. Tyco popped a morsel of mussel in his mouth. “I’m surprised the waitresses don’t tap dance to the tables in blackface. These white folks like their black culture like they like their chicken; batter dipped, deep fried and lacking a nutritional value they never knew existed. Say, where them oysters come from?”
“I don’t know, sir.” Roy looked over to see Mr. Tyco’s bushy Gordon Parks mustache collecting a mustache of crumbles underneath it. Mr. Tyco criticized gentrification as much as he partook of it. He owned a bunch of lots he rented to local vendors for weekend thrift markets until built a condominium on and turned the rest into a parking lot vendors could no longer afford to rent.
August checked over his shoulder to see if Tommy was watching. Tommy owned Boy Boy’s and knew August’s shift ended at five, but he always made him stay late since the next busboy ran late almost daily if he bothered to show up at all.
“Where are you going?” Tommy asked as August untied his apron.
“My shift is over and I’m late to pick up my brother.”
“You need to wait for Jose.”
Tommy’s words didn’t slow August’s momentum as he threw his folded apron in the laundry bin.
“If you want to keep your job—” the appearance of two customers hijacked Tommy’s attention.
“No disrespect, but Jose’s late all the time and you ain’t even fired him.
“Daddy should have skeet you to the wall,” Junior’s brother mumbled as he jammed his fists into his pockets.
“Then he would have skeet you to the wall too,” Junior responded. “We are two halves of the same fertilized egg. Not two fertilized eggs from separate ejaculate streams. If we were parasitic wasps, there could have been 2000 of us split from the same egg and a gene would determine which siblings were queens and which were soldiers. So August, are you royalty or a protector?”
“Shut up, Junior!” August demanded.
“About ejaculate or Ms. Patrica’s?”
“About everything. Please. Stop. Talking.”
Junior’s bottom lip quivered as the heat rose from the back of throat like the beer bubbles in Ms. Patricia’s glass mugs. Crying would only make August angrier and his feet springier; propelling him down the sidewalk at a pace Junior could not match. Junior wanted to eat dinner at Ms. Patricia’s like he did the other nights August came late. Tonight she was making his favorite potatoes out of the box with the crispy tops and creamy insides. She only made it for him since her family didn’t care for potatoes, but as soon as she closed the oven door, August’s knocked on the front door. Junior’s pleading did not convince August to wait the potatoes’ thirty-eight bake time.
“August!” Junior called to his brother’s shrinking back. “August!”
August turned, but he kept walking backwards like he had no fear of tripping on the cracks Junior avoided.
“She said you could have some too!” Junior cried as he repeatedly. He pounded his fists into his thighs as if the impact could reverberate through his legs, into the ground and create the shock waves necessary to bounce his brother back in his direction.
“For the last time, she was bein nice,” said August. “Now, shut up fo they keep us from coming in.”
Junior had the compulsion to run back to Ms. Patricia’s, but they were approaching the library with the massive entomology book collection. Last week he counted all the beetles of the world. This week he focused on the butterflies.
“Junior,” August turned around and walked up to Junior. “Ms. Patricia would give you her last can of beans if she was starving, but because someone offers something, don’t mean you should take it.” The breath escaping with each word fogged Junior’s glasses.
“But she’s a big woman. Not starving.”
“I know she’s big—that’s not the point. She got mouths to feed and she don’t need an extra one that ain’t blood. Feel me? Why you think she watch you after school? Cause she like you?”
“She likes me.”
“Nobody likes you, Junior. She likes the money the state gives her. Here.”
August reached in his backpack and pulled out the grease soaked white paper bag of cold chicken wings and stale fries Ray the cook saved for him when Tommy wasn’t looking. He shoved the bag into Junior’s chest.
“Wait for me in the study room and keep this hidden, okay?”
“I mean it, Junior.”
Junior unrolled the top, pulled out two fries and dangled them in August’s face.
“Chill, man,” said August as he swiped away his brother’s hand.
“You eat yet?”
“Nah. I’ll get some later.”
“What’d you do that for?” the boy asked as he rubbed a cheek, freshly grazed by the palm of Ladybug’s hand.
“You know what you did,” Ladybug crossed her arms and stared into his face as if she could slap him again with her eyes. He looked to be about her age but she didn’t know his name or his school. She’s been sick of him since he touched her booty. “Two days ago by the magazines. Memba?”
The boy remained on the floor, rubbing his face. His long legs twisted like a soft pretzel. He seemed more annoyed than stunned, and if she didn’t know better, she’d think he kinda liked it. She hoped she slapped some sense into him. She rolled her eyes, then rolled the heels as she turned to walk off.
“Mercade dies from a virus Thaddeus brings from the future because she had no immunity.”
Ladybug’s feet paused. Her finger held her place halfway through “The Psychopath’s Intrusion,” a book she started three days ago. She kept it hidden in the outdated and neglected Technology section so no one else could find it.
“You ruined the end of my day,” the boy laughed a sinister laugh. “So I’mma ruin the end of your book. Good day, sir!” He resumed reading his book.
“You’re gaslighting me,” Ladybug said. This was Ladybug’s first opportunity to repeat a word her mother used to say to her father.
“I said good day!” the boy said as he waved her off. This time his eyes wide in feigned seriousness. “You never told me what I did. Whatever ever result was you wanted, you’ll never get it now.”
“You know why. You touched me.”
“No. I didn’t.”
“Yes. You did. Two days ago. When I walked by the magazines.” Doubt snuck up on Ladybug, but she tried to maintain the conviction in her voice.
“The magazines over by the entomology section?”
“Yes, Brother Nature. Those magazines.”
“For real, that wasn’t me.” Deep set wrinkles formed over coarse eyebrows tilting inwards towards the bridge of his nose. He had that old man's forehead on a young man’s face like Childish Gambino. “I’m serious. But I know who it was. What’s wrong with you?”
For a quick second, Ladybug forgot how she needed to pee. She wrapped her left foot around the back of her right ankle and locked her thighs together.
“Then why you doin the piss dance?”
August wanted fries with that shake. And some fries and a shake. The cold fries left with Junior were long gone by now. August originally planned on giving his brother the greasy bag for dinner, but he needed something to placate Junior until he could figure out where they were sleeping tonight. His foster monster, Ms. Anderson, only spent their money on babysitting so she didn’t have to spend time with Junior when August wasn’t around. She pocketed the remaining meant for their food and necessities. If they came home after midnight, she was too sleep to question their whereabouts. But if they arrived before dusk, she insisted they find somewhere else to stay that night. She knew they wouldn’t turn her into social services because she was the only foster host willing to take in a pair of Black twin teenage boys. August would rather sleep on a park bench with his brother than sleep under separate foster roofs.
“But Ms. Riddick said I could,” the girl said in a loud whisper. She still tried to suppress the “potty dance.”
“She’s not here, and neither is the key,” Ms. Lou Ellen wouldn’t even turn from organizing the book cart to face the girl.
The girl wiped her hands against her pants legs as if they were clammy.
August recognized the fear behind the girl’s eyes as she stared at the door with the W. It was the same fear that debilitated Junior until he slept it off in his brother’s arms. A palpable and contagious fear that infected August with every teardrop, but for Junior’s sake, he couldn’t let on. And this girl—she damn sure wasn’t trying to let August know her fears.
“What are you looking at?” she turned to walk past August. She didn’t ask him to follow her.
“Just go behind the dumpster,” he suggested.
“You’re not funny,” she said.
“I’m serious. I’ll stand guard. But only for number one. No number twos.”
“So your brother be grabbing booties, huh?” Ladybug hoped her voice camouflaged the pee stream hitting against the asphalt. Squat in the corner next to the dumpster, she saw the back of the boy’s head as he stood guard.
“I do… I mean, I try to stop him,” he defended. “But we have an older brother whose influence speaks louder than mine.”
Ladybug pulled wad of Kleenex stolen from the librarian’s desk from her pockets. She folded them into a pad thick enough to get her through the next few hours.
“What the deal with the bathroom?” The boy asked.
“That’s a weird question,” Ladybug responded.
I mean—there’s a reason why instead of going in, you’re out here with a stranger,” he said. His toe crunched his toe into the gravel. “So what’s the reason?” A ribbon of sunset wrapped across the horizon, silhouette his stance and reminded Ladybug of Momma’s mantra, “the day is a gift.”
“I dunno,” she said after a long pause. “I mean. It might have been nothing.” The tone of her voice high on back end, as if she was asking a question.
“My momma told me the gut is the only voice with no reason to lie,” he said.
“Last time i walked in the bathroom, the first voice in my head said ‘Good job Ladybug, you forgot your bag.’
“Your voice nicknamed you ‘Ladybug’?”
“No, jerkface. That’s my name.”
“Well, Ladybug, nice to meet you. I’m August.”
“Nice to meet you, August. I’d shake your hand, but I’m peeing. Anyway, I turn to leave and almost get hit in the face with the door. This dude flung it open so hard it crashed against the wall. And for a second, I was like ‘that could have been my face.’ But in the next second, I noticed his face. And my gut was like “get the hell out, Ladybug.’ He had, like a confidence, but was he confident no one was on the other side? Or confident he was alone? Or maybe—or maybe he was just startled. Or maybe he was confused. Anyway, he pushed past me rambling about how he was about to piss himself and went into a stall. Anyway, it was probably nothing. Right?”
“I find it’s better to err on the side of— it’s probably something. You know who he was?”
“Shit!” said Ladybug. Momma’s footfalls marched through the gravel.
“I think someone’s looking for you,” said August. “How you doing ma’am?”
“Don’t ma’am me! Where’s my daughter?”
Ladybug’s fingers couldn’t button the top button of her jeans faster than Momma’s eyes could find her.
“Momma, it’s not what you think!”
“Get in the car, Ladybug.”
The anger in Momma’s eyes terminated Ladybug’s sentence.
August pursed his lips as Ladybug walked past. Their eyes met in a mutual moment of “I get it.”
“Momma, we need to go.”
Momma sat motionless, clutching the steering wheel as the time to get to the shelter waned.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this?” Momma asked.
Ladybug’s eyes searched the parking lot for August. She didn’t want him to see her in a car stuffed like a sausage casing.
“That man is gone, Ma. There’s nothing to worry about.”
“From now on you wait with me at work,” Momma shifted the car into gear. The engine rumbled. The engine stalled.
The breeze carried the liquor smell to August before his eyes could adjust on his second brother, Mou as he crossed the street walking towards him.
“Nah, man. It’s August,” he responded as they dapped and came in for a hug. “Where you been?”
“Had to take my buddy Jefferson to the hospital,” said Mou.
“We need to stay with you tonight.”
“You know I’m in between places,—”
“It’s cool. We’ll figure it out.”
“And Junior ain’t fare too well last time.”
A car engine sputtered and died before kicking into a full rev. Headlamp beams cut through the dusk.
“Forget it,” said August as he watched the nose of the car pull forward. Ladybug sat in the passenger seat, half covering her face. A confusing move until the library lights revealed all the clothes, dishes and books stacked as high as the front seats. Ladybug moved her hand and stared in his direction the way she stared at the door with the W. But not at him, at Mu. Her lips parted as if she wanted to say something and her eyes shifted to meet his. And at that last moment, August got it.