"Shut-Eye" by Literary Awards Finalist, Quinn Calhoun

Queen Eva-Marie always did say every good-bye ain’t gone and every shut-eye ain’t sleep. Nightfall brings a hush over even the nosiest places and that includes the Quarters. A late spring breeze circulates air already too warm and kicks up limerock dust on the edges of Palmer Road. A slice of silver moon illuminates the sky and the spirit of the family’s matriarch looks over the inhabitants of 26 Palmer. There is a young married woman not even twenty-five yet sleeping in a twin bed with her four-year-old daughter, intertwined tightly as if the warm breeze is threatening their embrace. Their sleep is secure and deep, unlike the sleep of the six-year-old on the sofa in the front room. He is fitful. Twisting, turning, fighting the sheet and others, seen and unseen.

Even when the invaders go away, he is running, searching for the father he hardly ever sees anymore. When he’s exhausted from all the wrestling and running he will fall into a deep sleep joining his mother and sister, unaware of his great aunt rescuing the cotton sheet from the walkway and covering his limp body.

The great aunt, in another bedroom down the hall has carefully prepared for the evening’s rest. Her hair is pinned, secured over pink foam rollers, and wrapped in a blue satin scarf. She has fluffed her feather pillow and secured the window even in this late spring heat so that she can dream in peace atop a high Colonial bed. Even so, she is having trouble sleeping for the third night in a row. An oscillating fan nods in her direction from the armoire closest to the closed window. She hears the crickets and the occasional call of the whippoorwill, but they are not the reasons she cannot sleep. It’s the daughters of the sister and brother gone home before her. One of them is in trouble. She knows the kind of trouble for she has dreamt it often. Now she must find out who. She thinks of the grandnephew she usually keeps but knows he’s safe and sound less than a mile down the road, then she tries again to sleep.

In that house just down Palmer Road, the grandnephew sleeps soundly stretched out on his back. He dreams of flight on the backs of blackbirds, tails of red kites and he smiles, sometimes laughing like he’s been tickled. He will wake refreshed, eager to see his mother. At the opposite end of the hall that runs the width of the house instead of the length, his grandfather snores heavily. He will sleep well for four or five hours in the night then wake up missing the warm body that occupied the left side of his bed for twenty-five years. He’s still surprised when he calculates that he’s been waking at four in the morning reaching for her and finding she wasn’t there for going on eight years now. He will sleep only lightly after that because he worries about his health and his daughters, especially the one who sleeps down the road instead of eighty miles away in the home she shares with her husband, but also the one who just dropped in for two or three days to say hello and see her son. She has seen her son and is across the hall from him now. Although she has completed forty minutes of dance to the mellowest Miles Davis she could locate in her father’s album collection and knows she’s tired, she will sleep light. Always has. But now it’s different because she fears sleep. Fears the night prowler.

He has come every night for twelve nights and she’s afraid to find out why he’s there. She lies still thinking of that first night in years, almost two weeks ago, and silently asks for the strength to keep him away.

The last time he came she knew the approach and the instant paralysis it triggered. The sound. The tap, tap, tap as he slowly moved across the hardwood floor and she fought to free herself before he reached the foot of her bed, but she was too late. He had already taken over. Her body was no longer her own. She felt the weight of his body just beyond her feet. Again, she tried to move anything: arms, hands, legs, feet, head. She opened her mouth and screamed. Nothing. Not a sound. Only silence. “Shoo. Go. Leave,” she demanded but the words were lost soon after she formed them in her head. His only response: the glowing green eyes that stared back at her. She could see fur blacker than a thousand midnights shine under the filtered street light that slipped through the slants in the Venetian blinds and the gold collar glisten around his regal neck. A beautiful creature turned sinister under cover of night. Again, she tried to turn her head, lift a finger, close her eyes. Her will was strong; his was stronger. She screamed; but still, only silence. He was in control and he wouldn’t release her.

“Go away!” she hurled the words. More silence. Finally, exhausted from the fight, she relaxed and sank back into the feather bed. After a while, as if he tired of her motionless body, she saw him stand on all fours and leap to the floor. She felt the mattress rise with the unburdening of his weight and heard the welcoming thump as he landed on the floor and went tap, tap, tap across the hardwood surface. As soon as his silhouette passed through her bedroom door her arms and legs flailed involuntarily in defiance. Unable to control the shaking, she gave in to the tears and wrapped herself in Queen Eva-Marie’s quilt.

*****

Damaris Alexa lay still remembering that after he released her she’d covered her stomach with both hands. She prayed and she asked for the answer to why he comes. With her prayers said, she slipped out of bed and walked to the room across the hall. A night light illuminated the smaller bedroom where her five-year-old stretched out in flight. She kneeled by his bed and traced his hairline as she listened for the pattern to his breathing. She wanted him to be safe, to be strong. She lay her head on the edge of his pillow and wiped warm tears from her eyes. It all seemed so out of her control. Again, she had chosen badly. How many mess-ups would she get? The last time the prowler came it had been to warn her of danger she knew. This time she was afraid of what the unknown might be.

Two weeks before, in Manhattan, the day she stopped by Carla’s gallery after class was one of the saddest days of her life, but she expected Carla’s upbeat, always sunny smile to complement the bright spring day. She wore her new periwinkle pantsuit and stopped in at Nubian Nails to get a manicure. She didn’t have to wait for a chair and the manicurist had a nail color to match her suit and lift her spirits. She left the salon willing to accept the latest detour in the road called her life. She even stopped in at the florist on Bleecker Street and selected a spring arrangement of forsythia for delivery.

She tried not to think about the sidelong glance of his amber eyes when she said she “might” be pregnant. The last thing she wanted was for him to think that she was after him again, trying to get him back. But she knew Carla was right, it was the first thing all men thought. And even if he had seen it a million times before, she would never use an innocent child for anything, especially not to keep a man she knew she didn’t want. So she had expected him to question her intention; but she had never expected him to insult her by throwing his relationship with a twenty-two-year-old Bard student in her face. That had stung the most. And she’d never intended to care. For as long as she could remember, when the debate about men crossing the color line came up, she felt nothing. Carla said it was because she’d never been personally slighted. She said it was because she thought people had the right to choose whomever they wanted –even people as evil as her ex-husband. Plus, usually, the men she found interesting were the type who appreciated the sistah in her. That was part of why she liked them and only a small part of why she didn’t give a damn about him. But there he was, sitting at a cozy little table at her favorite French restaurant in SoHo (the restaurant she chose because she wanted to be relaxed and enjoying herself when she gave him the news) telling her he was sorry but he couldn’t risk losing Lauren over something like this. Of course her next question was “Something like what?” Then she had to know, what exactly had “this” been? She was even prepared for him to say it was a one-night-stand because that was exactly what she called it. But he didn’t say that. He said he would give her money to “take care of it,” and pleaded for her to be discreet. Her answer was a discreet “Go to hell,” with a smile and “Don’t worry. I would never do anything to jeopardize your relationship with your rich girl.” She had to talk herself out of screaming even though she believed he would be getting off easy since she hadn’t slapped, kicked, or shot him, yet. In all her piss-ocity, she did manage to make a graceful exit and slip into the backseat of a cab before exhaling.

It took four days to venture back out into the world. Two days to stop crying, a day to stop cursing, and a day to clear her head in order to be civil to others. Then, on her way to Carla’s in her new periwinkle for spring, she was expecting something positive –anything positive. As expected, Carla met her in the first floor gallery with a smile and preliminary plans to get them invited to some big time bourgie ball. Mari gave her friend a quick kiss-kiss and followed her into the office. Everything was cool until Carla’s fiancé ruined her day first by showing up, then by giving his own unsolicited assessment of her situation with her ex, whom he didn’t know. She knew she should have walked out when Carla was called away to her boss’ office and never looked back. But something in the way Donnie insinuated that she had gotten what she wanted out of the rendezvous stopped her at the door and she decided to listen. She wasn’t surprised that Carla had discussed her business. Other than the time she spent with Carla she had never seen her without Donnie. What she was surprised about was the fact that Donnie waited until Carla left to bring it up.

She walked out and by the time she reached 7th Avenue that she didn’t know which direction she was walking or where she was headed but she was afraid to stop walking. When she crossed Waverly she decided she was close enough make it to the Medical Center at 14th Street before passing out.

After the doctor-on-call convinced her that if she didn’t calm down she would surely bring on an attack. Mari sat still and followed the breathing steps of the respiratory therapist, but when the doctor took out her pad to prescribe a steroid to subvert any subsequent attack, she came clean about her condition and asked for an unplanned pregnancy counseling referral. After taking a cab home and sitting motionless in a dark apartment for hours wondering how she managed to hook up with two of New York’s finest jerks in less than two months, she called the number and the voice on the other end of the line was the warmest, calmest, most reassuring voice she’d heard since moving to the city and she made an appointment.

Ian turned on his side and repositioned his head on the pillow. Mari kissed her son lightly on the forehead and quietly returned to the room she had shared with Ria and then Lynlé for a total of seventeen years. It was lonely without them and not just there and not just bedtime. She pulled the sheet up over her shoulders along with the knit throw and closed her eyes. Her only prayer was to sleep in peace.

*****

When Mari had tiptoed across the hall to check on Ian, Ruby Jean woke up again. The whippoorwill was silent and only the persistent cricket chorus could be heard over the hum and rattle of the nodding fan. She had had the same kind of dream for three nights now. Fish, fish, and more fish. Couldn’t be mistaken about that. On the first night Zacharias and Willie brought two coolers full of catfish from Newnan’s Lake and she fried fish until she was laughing with exhaustion. The second night it was Pearl and Queen Eva-Marie standing in her kitchen describing the big blue-gill breams they were pulling from the river below the bridge on Seminole Road. She made them promise to donate the fish to the church for Sunday dinners. But then tonight she herself stood on the edge of the Kanapaha watching rainbow bass, speckled perch, and shell-cracker breams dance down the river in the clearest, coolest water she had ever imagined but she couldn’t hook a one. All she hooked during a full day was a scraggly cottonmouth and quickly slammed it against a rock. That’s when she woke up. One of her girls was in trouble.

Until last night she had assumed it was LaShaun. The only daughter of her only brother had called her early Monday morning for money –just enough to pay the light bill and maybe some of the phone bill. With that Ruby was sure it was her because she’d been told by more than one reliable source that her niece had visited a doctor in Gainesville twice in as many years to “take care of slip-ups.” But then Shaunie came back last night to repay the money and even Tamar backed up the temporary cash flow excuse. It wasn’t LaShaun and she had asked Tamar straight out if it was her and her niece answered with a quick “no, ma’am” but Ruby knew that before she asked because lately Tamar had spent more nights in Ruby’s house than her own and from what Anna Moses had told Ruby Jean, Tamar’s sorry excuse for a husband wasn’t ever home even when the she did go home. So she was sure Tamar wasn’t the one. And if it had been Ria, she’d have knocked down the door with name books and baby shower wish lists by now. That still left the four that lived out of state. She admitted that she didn’t know enough about her own daughter to make a call and Sha-Sha and Lynlé both would have called her by now. But then there was Lexie. Now it was clear she was as independent and unpredictable as ever, showing up out the clear blue yonder wasn’t no surprise, but since it wasn’t Shaunie or Tamar, Ruby Jean would be willing to put her numbers money on Lexie tonight. It would have to wait until the morning though because she was nodding again.

*****

Zacharias sat on the edge of his bed with his head in his hands. It was four fifteen and pitch dark inside and out. He hadn’t slept through the night or even wanted to in a years. No matter how exhausted he was when he lay down at night, after four hours or so, he was back up. He’d tried everything. After Pearl died he stayed on at NiBlack Roofing full-time but began to schedule more and more carpentry jobs after work. He would put in a full day of tarring, go home and change because he couldn’t expect people to let him in their nice houses to track tar all over the place, then spend five or six hours carving molding for a fireplace or replacing parquet or other hardwood flooring. Soon the carpentry jobs were coming so fast that he was putting in two full-time days and still couldn’t get a decent night’s rest even though he felt like the walking dead.

He could still recall the morning after his last good night’s sleep. He’d had words with his youngest daughter before saying good-bye to his wife and walking out to NiBlack’s truck. He couldn’t have imagined his wife not being there when he returned. After twenty-five years he would never have entertained the thought. He had walked out that morning with her kiss lingering on his lips and although he wasn’t treated with a good-bye kiss daily, he told himself she was being extra nice because he and their youngest continued to have the same argument that had lingered over the house for a week. It was about a boy. At this point he couldn’t remember exactly who the boy was but remembered that the boy was white. So his wife’s endearing kiss was to quell the flame his babygirl had unknowingly lit in the pit of his stomach. But he would have never believed it was the last kiss. He had expected to return home from patching Miss Lucille’s roof that Friday to a beautiful Pearl Ann, even when she was frowning and shaking her head, then laughing and singing “Thank You, Jesus” while she examined his soiled clothes that only hours before had been spotless with a shirt starched stiff enough to stand by itself. But when he arrived home after the sun had set on the Quarters there was no laughter or song, only tears and the heartbreaking silence.

It had been silent almost forty years ago when he came to Meroë for the first time. Since then he had learned that even when it doesn’t proceed it, quiet often follows death. He had come from Memphis after almost three years maintaining military vehicles in South Korea. Near the end of his tour there had been a fatal accident involving one of the Jeeps he maintained. The dead soldier was white and his service to his country was over. He only asked that with his excellent record of service he be discharged honorably. He got his walking papers and a seat on a plane bound for New York City the same day he got a letter from his aunt Hettie saying simply that his grandfather was dying. He came to Florida to say good-bye to the grandfather he’d left in Memphis. He had travel to the other side of the world because it was the law and because Memphis was dangerous for a black boy with time, idle hands, and a racing mind.

It was 1955 when he stepped off the Silver Star and onto the white dust of the limerock road in Palmer County, Florida. His spit-polished shoes and shit-colored suit quickly took on a soft gray hue as the dust seemed to rise to meet him as he walked. The first black man he met directed him to Five Palmer Road with a tip of his hat and a smile. Hettie Charles lived in a wide wood-framed house with jalousie window panes behind heavy cedar shutters. The grandfather who’d been his only family since his mother’s death sent him from Toledo to Memphis when he was ten years old was dying. Right there in the same room he sat in at four in the morning.

It had been a Saturday night and he was just in time to say good-bye. After his grandfather closed his eyes for the last time, Zach had walked the dusty road back to the river he’d crossed at the train depot. He sat on a large oak branch that paralleled the ground until he heard the roosters crowing, then began the slow walk back to his aunt’s house. As he made his way across the field behind Five Palmer Road he saw a church across the pecan grove and decided to say a prayer. He was still dressed in the mustard brown of the U.S. Army when he took a seat in the fourth pew next to his cousin Willie and was mesmerized by the voice of God’s angel. She sang Sweet Hour of Prayer and he knew he would cry. He couldn’t see her face that morning, not just because the tears blurred his vision but also because Darlene and Evangeline Jackson sat in front of him blocking the whole of the choir stand, which turned out to be a good thing because she was only ten that morning he sat crying in the fourth pew and his cousin Willie warned him that Queen Eva-Marie’s wrath was no joke. Soon after that he became the first black mechanic at the Town Tire in Gainesville. From there he got a line foreman’s job at the Sparrow Bus Factory in Meroë and worked until the layoff of ’79.

In 1958, he met the sister of the girl with the angelic voice. In 1961 he married the angelic voice. She gave him five daughters –no two alike and he never got back to Memphis. His oldest he named Miriam Elisabeth, but they never called her anything but Ria. She grew up, got married, and started her own family before he felt like he knew her as anything more than his baby girl. He didn’t realize she was grown and gone until the second one, Lexie who calls herself Mari now even though nobody else does, slipped off the first chance she got. That’s when he began to notice how eager they were to go. “Anywhere” was what Lexie had said when he went after her. But he couldn’t understand why. Lynlé was the third and the only one who wanted to stay, but she couldn’t. The Palmer County Regional Library didn’t have enough books to keep her there. The fourth, Princess Tamar, came into this world with flaming red hair and a .38 hot attitude destined to butt heads with him till the day one of them died. People liked to say Lexie had a hard head, but no, Lexie had a mind all her own. Tamar had the hard head and because of it kept a soft behind. He never thought he could put his child on the street, but when he knew the alternative was to kill her, he asked her to leave. It had broken his heart and probably would have killed Pearl had she not already been dead, but with or without his wife, it was still his house and Tamar couldn’t stay. He didn’t know how quiet it could get until the next summer when Lynlé left for college in Atlanta and his baby Asha went to New York to look out for her sister’s baby. Now he saw his grandsons, four of them, almost every day. But at night when it was time to rest, the silence was almost too much.

*****

Except for warning signs like fish, Ruby Jean always dreamed the same dream: Jerome coming home to her. It had been more than thirty-five years since her high school sweetheart boarded the Silver Star headed North with a draft card in his hand. She received twenty-nine letters in as many months all with his same promise to return home and make her his wife. The proposal was repeated in a blue and white envelope with the patriotic airmail stamp and a page and a half letter on matching stationery about the weather at the border and the food he hated and counting the days until he would return. She had saved them all and read them every day until the next one came. The last letter arrived the Saturday after Good Friday 1959. It wasn’t much different from the others. She read it and put it away because she had Easter pageant practice after dinner.

During Jerome’s absence she had attracted many suitors because there wasn’t a mother in town with an eligible son who didn’t know Queen Eva-Marie Ingram and thought that her daughter Ruby would make a good wife. The most persistent of those women was Hettie Charles. Hettie had already married her only son Willie off to Darlene Jackson, whose first husband drowned in ’57 when his fishing boat capsized on Newnan’s Lake; now Hettie was looking for a wife for her nephew, recently returned from the war. Ruby knew a set up when she saw it and so she went along with Mrs. Hettie and her mother when they insisted that Zacharias walk her and her siblings home from church on Sunday. She welcomed his visits but didn’t waste any time letting him know that she had every intention of marrying Jerome Silas.

Over the next six months she began to look forward to the approaching melody of the harmonica that announced Zacharias’ arrival before he emerged from the maple trees that lined Palmer Road. And even though she would never admit it to anyone, she was jealous when he began to show more attention to her little sister than to her.

It was the week after Easter when Florence Silas knocked on Queen Eva-Marie’s door saying she had news for Ruby Jean. It took a moment for Flo’s news to make sense to Ruby. Jerome’s mother gave her the letter with the President’s seal on it to read for herself. Condolences. The word stood out to her because as smart as she was she had never heard it before. Zacharias told her it was a fancy way to say they were sorry. It didn’t make her feel fancy. It made her feel alone. Jerome wouldn’t come home the way she dreamed of, instead he came home in a pine box draped in the Stars and Stripes.

The day that Florence Silas buried her middle son in Antioch Cemetery, Ruby took the Silver Star to Baltimore to work for Miss Eliza Palmer. When Miss Eliza asked her what was the first thing she wanted to do in Baltimore she said to go to the docks and the library. At the pier she watched the welders eat lunch and saw two tug boats guiding a ship. In the Enoch Pratt Free Library she first found the DMZ on the globe, then she looked up the word “condolences.” After returning to Miss Eliza’s stone cottage on Lombard Street, she put the one letter from President Eisenhower and the twenty-nine letters from Jerome at the bottom of the travel chest Miss Eliza had given her and never read either of them again.

It was 1960 when she enrolled in the freshman class at Morgan State. It was 1963 when she graduated with honors and took a summer trip to Europe in a production of Carmen. In Frankfurt, Germany she starred in a production of Aïda for nine months. There she met Lloyd Ramsey, a British composer who wrote sonnets and sonatas for her. She married him in secret and they had one child, a daughter, Lisa Gayle born the same day as her cousin Damaris Alexa. She called her baby sister Pearl and told her about this charming Briton she’d married and the beautiful daughter who had their father’s eyes but swore her sister to secrecy. Then when she called home in the summer of 1968, after three years of secret life and five years in Europe, her secret was not secret any more. Her mother, Queen Eva-Marie, had been given the news of her British son-in-law by an overzealous journalist and Ruby was disowned.

It would be five more years before she got the call to come home, but it wouldn’t be a pleasant visit. It wouldn’t be a visit at all. Queen Eva-Marie insisted she was dying and asked Ruby to make a choice. Ruby thought she could choose both. She returned to Meroë with her daughter to look after her aging mother and prepared for her husband to join her. But Lloyd never came –at least not to Meroë. He got as close as New York and eventually settled in Los Angeles where he now keeps a home six months of the year. Ruby didn’t go after him. For years she believed he’d come, but in the meantime she had a mother to care for and a daughter to raise.

In 1970 Lloyd filed for divorce and immediately remarried. At sixteen, Lisa Gayle went to London to visit her father and stayed. Now Ruby only gets a call from her daughter on holidays. She misses Lisa Gayle but she has had enough to keep her very busy. Throughout those years in Europe Ruby continued to talk to her sister Pearl almost every week and they always teased each other about Zacharias Strong and his harmonica. At least once during every holiday dinner preparation, the sisters would burst into sudden fits of laughter. For as long as she was around, Queen Eva-Marie voiced her disapproval of these conniptions and insisted that they control themselves. And they tried.

In 1978 Queen Eva-Marie died and seven years later Pearl suffered a fatal asthma attack, leaving Zacharias with three teenagers to manage still. So Ruby focused on caring for her nieces. Not just because the girls were young, she thought just a little spoiled, and missed their mother, but also because she missed her baby sister, too. On the first night of her return to Meroë he came. Being home made her miss Jerome even more and she began to meet him every night in her dreams. Tonight she had almost finished telling him about her favorite niece coming home when she nodded off without saying good-bye.

Quinn Calhoun is an elementary school teacher in Gainesville, Florida. She has also served as an academic advisor and teacher of English and creative writing to high school students in the Upward Bound program at the University of Florida. She received an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and a B.A. in English from Spelman College. She is hard at work on a novel.

3 Comments

  1. Satori Days

    I truly enjoyed it!! I could actually see the characters and feel every warm breeze of the story!!! GREAT JOB!!

    Reply
  2. Marie

    Great writing – the first line pulled me in, it was so familiar. I couldn’t stop until I read the entire article. I need more……………!

    Reply
  3. Michele

    I can see Palmer Road so clearly through your words. Beautiful story. I want to hear more of this story!

    Reply

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