"The next morning was Saturday morning.
He and Olivia sat in miniature chairs around a miniature table dressed with miniature utensils and ware on the second story deck at the rear of Allison's parents' house. Olivia, now nine, spoke to her guests with calm cadence. There was a stuffed Chihuahua and a lion and her father and a little green parrot dressed as a pirate with a salty sneer on his face and another little bird sitting on his shoulder. He could hear her but he wasn't listening. She poured them tea, real Earl Grey off the kitchen stove.
From the deck, he could see across the stilted highway into the canopy of neighborhood trees on the other side. An apartment complex broke through it and stood against the flatness of the clear sky as the painting of a building, not a real place but a decoration. He was staring at the cosmic blue brushed against its edges without a thought in his head. All he could grasp or care to involve was the suggestion of a penumbra between the two. His brain meat barely sizzled with activity.
She ventured his name several times before it cut through to him. She could tell he hadn't been listening to her. Like most single children, she was accustomed to having her calls answered and her needs met immediately. The imitation of her mother, she gave him a pout and a tilt of her head and slowly backed her chair from under the table as if to leave. Wait, wait, he said. You're not listening to me, Daddy. I am, I am, here, introduce me to everyone.
She placed her finger on each of their heads as if she were pressing an imaginary button that released their information into the world. The lion's name was Cpt. Rhinehold. He had sailed the seas with Sinbad and the Little Mermaid all day yesterday. The bird's name was Jolly Peck the Pirate Bird and he liked teasing Cpt. Rhinehold about not being a very good sailor. And this, she touched the dog's button, is Beaner; he's new, just got him yesterday.
Beaner? her father asked. Yup. Who named him Beaner? did your mother tell you that word? She paused, her finger still glued to the dogs head but it had somehow become heavier and the weight of it bent the dog's little stuffed neck slightly. Mommy said it would be a good name.
Over the last few years, he thought he'd done a good job of choosing his battles with Allison. He sidestepped a few issues that maybe he shouldn't have but they allowed him some ground to object with certain things that he judged possibly more important than others. Yet, this racist seedling found him vulnerable. He heard the words from his mouth before he realized his muscles and his tongue and his vocal chords had formed them and pushed them into her world as if she had pressed the button on his head. Beaner is a bad word some people call Mexicans, Olivia; I think we should change his name.
A naïve terror raced across her tiny face and she bolted from the table, knocking Jolly Peck the Pirate Bird across the deck. He slid to the edge, teetered, and then dropped. Marcus walked to the rail and propped his elbows and peered down at the toy. Allison and her mother were knees down in a flowerbed together across the elaborately landscaped back yard. He watched them both pivot toward the house with faces that relayed the fact that Olivia was standing at the backdoor, crying. They made their way inside, dropping tools and removing gloves.
Allison tilted her eyes up at him in disgust.
She came stomping up the stairs theatrically. He was still on the deck. She swung the door to the house wide and it clattered against the cedar shingle siding. What in the hell are you trying to do? she asked him. Without turning to face her, he explained that the slur could cause problems if Olivia wasn't aware of its meaning. Allison ordered him to go downstairs and apologize to her. It's your fault, she said, she thinks she's done something wrong. He told her that she, Allison, was the one who should apologize. She was the one who made it okay to use the word, a word they both knew could be construed as hateful. Allison's face cooked red as he finally turned to her. You are gonna go downstairs and apologize to her and then you're gonna get the fuck out of this house, she told him through the clamped grip of her teeth.
He stood motionless for a few seconds, looking as if he were contemplating his next set of words or calculating his next move but in actuality, he wasn't thinking at all, or at least he couldn't feel any logical process motoring in his head. He just stood there in a trickling stream of time, time doing what time does, folding around him as if he were any darkened stone in some lost creek. Fine, he said. I'll go talk to her.
He stepped past her through the vaulted attic conversion to the stairs and descended the steps. Allison clung by her breath to his shoulder, reciting as many of his prior indiscretions and faults as she could render under short notice. They rounded the banister as her voice grew in concentric volume until they reached the grid of French doors that led into the dining room and kitchen. Allison reached for the handle and held it frozen. I mean it, Marcus. He hadn't heard what she was supposed to mean.
The doors opened. Olivia sat on the edge of the counter crying her face into a rose-colored clinch. Allison's mother had her hands on the girl's knees as if to hold her from floating away and gave a long sigh when she felt Marcus' presence in the room. She didn't look at him. But Olivia did. Through sparkling tears. It was at this point when he realized how off kilter his mind had cranked. Olivia, he paused, would you go to school and call a black kid a nigger?
Allison's mother snapped straight and flung a pointed finger into the air. You get out!
Because, Olivia, that's exactly what you would be doing to Mexican kids if you used that word to name that dog.
Out of this house! the grandmother shouted again. Allison had grabbed him by the back of the shirt at this point but failed to remove him from the doorway. Her mother was making her move now, coming around the dining room table at him. He was still preaching against racism when she reached him and pumped both open palms into his chest. Allison now wrapped her arms around his waist in a lurching struggle against his weight and strength. He grabbed the edge of the doorjamb as an anchor and said something about old white men in sheets hanging young black men in the night and something about Germans and Hitler throwing people into ovens.
Olivia's fountain of tears had stopped, replaced with catatonia. He knew instantly he had broken something irreparable. The golden irises of her eyes lasered the distance beyond the mangle of body parts swirling around him as if she had broken through him to a place where he did not exist. Something inside of him sank like a bowling ball tearing through the seam in a burlap sack and he released his anchor and all three of them went shuffling toward the front door, a six-legged three-headed beast whose sole purpose was to tear itself apart and once the door was opened and Marcus ejected, it was instantly two heavily breathing female bodies pressed against the sealed entrance.
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