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Lita

A Novel
By Jervey Tervalon

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Chapter One

The phone rang at 4:00 A.M. with news that Daddy was on his deathbed and I needed to come home to New Orleans. Confused, I took a minute or two to get my head clear, then I panicked. Suddenly, I was a little girl about to lose her father, sinking below despair, but that despair vanished when I got my wits about me.

It was Daddy she was talking about.

I had detested him all my life. Why should I pretend to care about him on his deathbed? Waste of time and money to go to New Orleans, rushing home to say last words. I had no last words for him, this man who never did a thing for us -- except to beat Mother when he felt like it.

I was surprised that it took me a moment to recognize that voice I hadn't heard in more than ten years. Made me want to laugh, Aunt Dot trying to sound like a sane person.

"Lita, you need to come back. You've been gone too long," she said.

I shook my head.

"No disrespect, Aunt Dot, but I don't think I've been gone long enough."

"Lita, that's all water under the bridge."

"Guess it is," I said, with so little enthusiasm even a lunatic like her should have picked up on it.

"How are the kids?" Aunt Dot asked, as though she cared.

"Just fine. Everybody is about as fine as they can be."

She hummed a bit, as if she wanted to say something, but couldn't bring herself to get to it. I imagined it was a bit of poison that she had been carrying around for the last decade, waiting for that right moment to slip it to me. That's what I expected from a woman who sicced her crazy boys on me, scratched my face bloody the day before my wedding over forty dollars she said I owed her.

"I saw her," Aunt Dot said, like I should know what she's talking about.

"Saw who?" I asked tentatively, regretting the question as soon as I asked it.

"At the house on Gravier. I saw her in the bedroom."

Too tired to play Aunt Dot's guessing game, I wanted to be done with the conversation. I should have hung up -- I had every right to hang up on Aunt Dot -- but I was fool enough to listen, now I was fouled up in her line.

"Helen."

"Mother? What are you saying? You saw Mother?"

"Yeah, I did. Other people saw her too, your sisters, not just me."

"Stop joking. I don't have time for this."

"Lita, it's a sign, a sign for you to come home."

I slammed the phone down so hard it sounded like a gunshot in that sleeping house.

I had a clue of what was going on down there; I had an inheritance coming. Once Daddy's dead we're to sell Mother's house and divide the proceeds. I got Mother's will and I read it, and unlike Aunt Dot, I understand it. If I don't agree to sell, Aunt Dot won't get her cut, and even though I could use the money, I don't want to sell.

Aunt Dot calling with crazy nonsense might have jarred me awake and wasted my time, but I almost welcomed the distraction. The way things have been going in Los Angeles, getting stirred up about New Orleans is almost a relief.

L.A. isn't the promised land I thought it would be when we first arrived, and certainly not now. I don't know what I could have been thinking -- streets paved with gold, platinum toilets -- that kind of nonsense. Los Angeles is just another city, brutal and cruel, but with palm trees and freeways and dreams of a better life.

Ten years ago we arrived and moved into Winston's cousin's house on Second Avenue that we bought from him sight unseen, and the lousy bastard had the lights and heat turned off on us, I guess to save a couple of dollars and get his deposit back a couple of days sooner.

We rolled in after three days of hellish driving across hot miles and miles of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona deserts. I was six months pregnant, trying not to throw up out the window, doing my best to keep the kids from driving me nuts, but I was already nuts from that husband of mine whistling every song he learned in three years of army life.

I have no words to describe how happy I was to get to Los Angeles, even if the sky was brown and the air burned my eyes. I was out of that stupid car after days of being packed in like funky sardines.

That first night we ate ham and cheese po'boys by candlelight. That was nice, but I have good ears and I could hear skittering in the plaster walls of this house that I expected to be some kind of wonderful.

"Your goddamn brother's house has rats!" I whispered to Winston, so I wouldn't wake the children. "You better get rid of them tomorrow or I'm turning around and going back to New Orleans."

He looked at me like I had lost my mind.

"Lita, I don't hear no rats."

"Then you're deaf," I said, and turned over and went to sleep.

Winston missed sounds and words you'd think he'd catch, having damaged one ear in the war; he always managed, though, to hear what you didn't expect him to, specially whispers under my breath about how he was making me crazy enough to kill him.

The next morning the air was crisp, the smog had blown off, and we could see mountains in the distance. I even saw the Hollywood sign for the first time. It was a plain beautiful day, crisp and sharp with seagulls flying in the blue sky. The neighborhood was clean and the neighbors friendly; the streets broad, the houses Craftsman, not shotgun. I thought I could be happy. Winston certainly was happy with the big garage he could work on cars in. The children ran wild in the big yard with lemon and peach trees to climb and thick St. Augustine grass to roll on. For a time I was pleased with our decision to move to Los Angeles. I forgot all about that first night: lack of heat and lights, and even those rats in the walls of my little dream home.

Ava and Ana didn't seem nervous about their new school, the Holy Name of Jesus Christ, but after watching Sister Patrell escort the girls to their desks, it was obvious that this brown-skinned Oriental woman didn't care for them. They sat next to each other, twin bookends in their black-and-white-plaid school uniforms with their tightly braided and oiled hair, and their hands crossed like attentive angels. It didn't matter that the teacher didn't like them. They did fine in school, and nothing Sister Patrell could do or say touched them. They were beautiful, and I was proud to be their big sister.

I had no idea that my little sisters were plotting to escape; they were sick of me and of my heavy-handed ways.

Richie, too, would be heading back to Louisiana as soon as he could figure out how. Richie, my young cousin that Mother took in, was like a dog that had been beaten once too many times; something was wrong in his head. Even if he wanted to do right, it wouldn't happen. I asked him to go up in the attic to take out a rat Winston had poisoned. Usually Winston would get them down, but he was off chasing down parts for a transmission, and I couldn't stand the reek wafting from the ceiling. Richie scrambled up the ladder and found that rat in no time. The boy was more excited than he had a right to be. The next few days he continued sneaking up into the attic, looking for more poisoned rats. I guess I should have been happy that the boy wanted to help out, but something about him all juiced up to crawl around in the blackness searching for rotting rats unnerved me. I told him not to go back up into the attic, that he had no business up there.

He gave me such a sullen, disrespectful sneer that I slapped him down. I wasn't Mother, but he had to respect and listen to me.

He wouldn't go to school unless I threatened to beat him, but that didn't work. Because of Aunt Dot he knew how to take a whipping, and wasn't afraid of them. I'd wear my arm down beating his butt, and it wouldn't change a thing. I didn't have to worry about his attendance for very long because he spit on a nun and got thrown out of Holy Name. I put him in a public school, but soon the truant officer called, trying to find him. Richie stopped going after his first day.

Winston tried talking to Richie, and of course that was a big mistake because he ended up yelling at him. Richie ran away. A neighbor found him sleeping in a doghouse with the man's hunting dogs. We brought him home and got him clean, but a few days later he took off again. He spent the night at the bowling alley on Crenshaw, then the next night it was beneath the trees at Rancho Park. Then he found his way to the Greyhound depot miles away. Each time we found him, I whipped his behind, but it didn't matter. Quick enough, he was gone again, vanishing into the night.

He was practicing to leave us for good.

I don't know how far Richie thought he'd get with no money -- to New Orleans? Even if he did, I hoped he didn't believe that Aunt Dot would take him back. She had to be the meanest bitch of a mother who ever lived. I'd bet my last dollar that if he could manage to find his way to New Orleans, Dot would kick him off the porch like he was the mangiest cur that ever wandered up the steps.

If anybody would be able to take care of himself, it would be Richie. He was big for thirteen and the kind of kid who would have gotten a job in New Orleans on the docks in the old days.

He missed Mother more than any of us, and his want for her just got worse. Being around us was just another reminder of his loss.

I understood.

Though Mother died years ago, it still felt like a fresh wound. The twins grew up with that too, as though at any moment Mother would come through the door, puffing from that bad heart of hers, struggling with a pot roast or some such thing she'd be planning on cooking for Daddy's dinner.

Wasn't a thing I could do for Richie but not get too furious when I discovered that he had slipped fifty dollars from my purse.

I got word that he did make it back to New Orleans, and found a bed with the Sisters of Mercy. I wondered how long it would be before he'd sneak out of the orphanage on his way to somewhere else.

Copyright © 2003 by Jervey Tervalon

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