New York |


by Charlie Schneider

First Place, Open Border Fiction Prize 2018

Shana White was as dumb as a manhole cover, and she said stupid, stupid things. She was a Flat Earther, a dinosaur bone denier. Not even that the bones were here to test us. She just thought they weren’t here. “ I’ve never seen one,” she said. When she got out of debt to me and skipped the neighborhood three years ago, I thought, good riddance.

So when she came back into my store, Heyday Loans, on a hot Detroit day last June, you can bet I was surprised. I acted like I wasn’t, but I was. Mom had told me Shana was back in town—they’d been going the Deeper Way Assembly of God together—but she didn’t say Shana was wearing pin-striped pantsuits and pointy heels and carrying around a magenta leather-type briefcase like her next stop was the deputy mayor’s office. Shana said she had a proposition for me, and I remembered what Mom said about Shana’s last scheme years back: “Do you know any rich Flat Earthers?” But maybe there are, because apparently a lot of people wanted beige t-shirts with the words “Let Go and Let God” on them. Selling those shirts got Shana out of debt to me.

Here’s what I do when I don’t want someone in my shop: I hold up my hand, tell them to save it, and rattle my bracelets to ward them off like I’m a rattlesnake. Usually I do it in time with the beat of whatever’s playing on my speakers. That day, it was “992 Arguments” by the O’Jays. I was singing along, like I do. I can’t even go down to the corner to get myself a cold, cold beer—

“Gloria, you’re a businesswoman,” Shana said before I could finish the line. Her yellow blouse with its fake pearls sewn onto the collar wasn’t sticking to her like my Heyday shirt was sticking to me. My A/C was broken but as Mom used to say you pay your suffering no mind and your mind gets paid.

“Payday every day,” I said.

That’s Heyday’s motto, which was also Mom’s coinage. Mom started Heyday after they laid Dad off at the Packard plant and he took a dirt vacation, but I, Gloria Robinson, 39, daughter of Rhoda Robinson, 76, am now sole owner , as I said to the notary about a week before Shana showed up. Mom asked me to buy her out. She wanted to put the money into the church, and I told her fine, if that’s what you want to do, but don’t expect to see any returns.

“I’ve got some good news for you,” Shana said.

Shana’s big-time briefcase told me it wasn’t the Jesus kind of good news.

“Where you been?” I asked, like I wasn’t surprised to see her. “You go to college or something?”

“Wayne State Community. I’ve got stories you wouldn’t believe,” she says. “Audited a geology class. Shit is old.”

She was on board with the dinosaurs, then. I crossed my arms and looked out at Hyacinth Avenue behind her, which was empty and baking. The foreclosed mattress store, Layman’s, gaped at me from across the street.

“Gloria,” Shana said, “I’m here representing the Summit Heights Neighborhood Alliance. I want to invite you to a meeting.”

People come into my shop and represent all kinds of things, usually their own mistakes. They always, always, always want a lower rate. I tell them right up front I don’t change rates, but still they tell me about their landlord with halitosis and a wandering eye who’s breathing heavy down their neck, or about the utility companies who have never once been known to accept an IOU, or about their stock of groceries running low, about a prescription for mom who can’t stay awake, for dad wobbling on a pair of crutches, for grandpa who’s shuffling around the house saying Robby the dog looks prettier than usual. My favorite sob story: “iguana issues.” I loved that one.

“You ever read Revelation?” asked Shana. Her voice was smooth and, I have to say, a little sexy. I could see her practicing her sales pitch in front of the mirror, imitating voice-overs from toilet paper ads. Silky soft.

We will hunger no more, Gloria,” she said. “We will hunger no more. We want grocery stores. Have you looked at the broken curbs lately, Gloria? Broken curbs, broken windows, broken homes. It’s time for a comeback. We’re organizing. We want senior services. We want family planning and new stop signs. We want banks, Gloria. We want a playground. The Summit Heights Neighborhood Alliance means we get what we deserve.”

“Say what you mean. You want glassy apartments and dog-walkers and no Heyday. You want to push out local business and destroy Summit Heights. Heyday keeps people afloat. Banks don’t.”

Harry from Layman’s liked to tell Mom and me that angels would visit every couple nights if we bought the Deep Sleep Elite Twin. Even as a child I knew he was lying, but it was a good lie. He tried to sell us a water bed after that but we bought a twin I still sleep on. I think of that every time I look at Layman’s.

“You don’t want to get me started on credit,” Shana said. College girl tapped the cactus on my counter with her Bic pen. “I just want you to come to a meeting and be a featured speaker. I want you to talk to us about what Heyday Loans offers to the community. That’s all.”

I didn’t need to show up to a meeting to know that the same people who called me jackal, who called me usurer, who called my shop “Mayday Loans,” were the ones sitting in their rows of little chairs in front of the podium at Shana’s Alliance.

“I won’t have to buy tomatoes for Mom that week, then.”

Shana looked at me blankly. I mimed a throwing gesture for her.

“Gloria, where is your faith? The Summit Heights Neighborhood Alliance is inclusive. All businesses, voices, and faith backgrounds are represented. Speaking of which, you’d call yourself an atheist, is that right?” She had a survey-giver’s eyes, a TV lady’s voice, and a Loan Officer’s wardrobe. A predator, in other words. She probably had a knife in that briefcase.

“A Deist,” I said, because God and I have a mutual non-aggression policy.

Shana nodded. “I’ve got something else if you’re hesitating about public speaking.” She took a folder out of her big-time briefcase and opened it up to the front page of a spiral-bound document entitled Your Chamber of Commerce. A cartoon of a little white man with a comb-over and a suit smiled at us from the front cover. “The Alliance is starting up a Summit Heights Chamber of Commerce, too, for local businesses. You pay us some dues, you can join.”

This was a long way from the midnight phone calls she was making to us years ago, when she was telling us she had nothing and couldn’t sleep from fear. She was begging then.

“There are good things in Summit Heights already,” I said, thinking of the grass-split sidewalks ending in little beds of daisies, the dirty, street-dog yellow awnings, and the occasional figure swaying in the heat, wondering how he can make rent, thinking of coming to my shop. In a certain light, they’re all nice. “There’s history here. You want to fundamentally change the character of the neighborhood.” Thought she’d like those words.

“Easy to love the status quo when everybody owes you money.”

“Everyone’s going to owe a lot more when you make the rent go up. Where does everybody go after you have your way? Who’s putting you up to this?”

“Me, myself, and I, Gloria,” she said. “The city will just keep on yessing us along until we all die and they can build a stadium here or some bullshit. That’s what they do. You’re a smart woman. Do you, of all people, think it’s an accident we don’t have banks?” She put her pen behind her ear and unbuttoned a button. If it got hot enough maybe she’d get heat stroke.

“You should hydrate,” I said, but she just kept talking. Words flowed out of her mouth: journal, website, training, networking, government contracts, on and on, and all I was hearing was you, of all people. She was poking me like I wronged her. But I didn’t make Shana White take out the bad mortgage that killed her credit years before. I didn’t put six leaks in her savings. And I certainly didn’t push her into a pyramid scheme involving scented candles and home entrepreneurship. Now, out of some payback drive, she wanted to shove Heyday and all its clients out of the neighborhood and then fill up the void we left behind with Brooklyn. And what would Mom and I do then? Start from scratch? Open a pet shop?

“You join the C-oh-C,” Shana said, “we’ll give you ad space.”

“We don’t need ads. We’re part of the community.”

“We’ve got partners. Backers.”

“Who’s we? You and who? And what’s this training? Tie-dye workshops? People know to come to us, Shana. You come to us.”

“I came to you. And I escaped. I had to borrow from my mother and two cousins to make those shirts and pay you back. One of the cousins still won’t talk to me.”

“What, you get his size wrong?”

Shana’s voice caught on something she probably thought she’d swallowed a long time ago. “I’m not going back to what almost killed me,” she said.

“Shana White, I will ask you something.” Pantsuit or not, she wasn’t going to come in and make hints. “Did Mom and I make your debt?”

I give people exactly what they ask for. You want $750? It’s yours, plus a fee. The information’s right up front. You can’t pay it all back at the assigned time, we’ll re-finance for a fee. You can’t make that, we’ll do it again for a fee. We’ll do it again and again until you can make it.

“No,” she said. “And you didn’t get me out of it, either.”

Her mouth curled into a strange smile. I smiled back, and there we were, standing on opposite sides of the Heyday counter, smiling at each other. It’s amazing what questions can do. Questions are your breadcrumbs in the city. Questions lead you back to the place you got your thinking wrong. It’s humbling, but some people need humbling.

“Has your mother told you why she wanted to sell her share of Heyday back to you?” Shana asked.

“Who told you she did?”

“Rhoda herself.”

Since they’d started going to that church together, I’d been worried, I admit. I’d walked into the house to hear Mom jawing on the phone with her more than once. Having her there in front of the counter like that, I wanted to say, Shana, I’m tired. Let it rest. Let me keep something. Don’t take this away from me if what comes next is worse. That’s what I wanted to say.

“Of course she told me,” I said. “It’s the Month of Justice at the Assembly. Mom made a pledge.”

“Yeah, well,” said Shana with a bigger smile. “It’s interesting, isn’t it.”

“Sure.” I didn’t blink. If you don’t blink, people think nothing disturbs you.

I heard a brick fall off a building somewhere nearby, or maybe I just thought I heard it. Shana looked around the shop and flipped through the pages of her book with the little man on it. She’d become a pin-striped woman with expensive dreams. What Shana saw when she looked at me, I didn’t know. I didn’t look any different, and I still don’t. I don’t own suits, I don’t carry briefcases. My closet stays the same: half green shirts with the Heyday logo, half blouses I never wear—old floral patterns from Mom. They smell like whiskey and orange juice.

Shana told me she’d come around again in a week to see if I’d changed my mind. “Your way has no future in it,” she said.

“The future doesn’t make the future,” I said back. That was my reply, and I thought then it was a good one. Now I don’t know what I meant by it.

When I got home that night, I found Mom humming in her wing chair by the window like one of those important-looking boxes you see on a telephone pole. She had her periwinkle blazer draped over her knees, and her eyes were wide, looking a few inches above the eight o’clock news on the TV. I knew prophecy was coming.

“You know what I saw today?” she asked. Her voice was shaky. I never could tell if she was excited or terrified. There was no talking to her when she’d had one of her visions. You had to ride it out.

“You hungry?” I asked. She wasn’t hard to cook for, even when I was tired. She ate only bubble gum and rice, and if she was really hankering she’d have a cut-up tomato with salt and pepper. She used the same mint tea bag three times.

“Dead heat simmering. Drought. A famine out in the hinterlands. Then a blizzard. Then a flood. A tornado, picking up Grand River Avenue and slamming it back down again. Then a volcano downtown, and a giant sinkhole in Dearborn. Cars, schools, highways, and all of Ford and everything, down they all went, and then the fires started. They came in from nowhere and swept into our vacants, and the smoke and the fire from our vacants swept into downtown, and the smoke and the heat from downtown poured into the river, which boiled the boats, the swimmers, and the fishes. And then a tidal wave came in, mad. There’s never been a tidal wave on the Detroit River in all recorded history, so far as I know, but I saw it. It’s coming.”

Since she started going to that church, Mom had been waiting for disaster to visit the neighborhood all at once. If not a tidal wave, then at least a few bulldozers rumbling up Hyacinth. But a Summit Heights death is slow as a broken gutter puddling up the sidewalk, drip by drip. You barely see it, and then in six months there’s no sidewalk.

What I mean is, I’m not friendless. I’ve just lost them. Abel Connors, complications from diabetes. Tya Freeman, heart attack at thirty-six. Ruthie Irvine, Akron, Ohio. With her brother. Not near her brother, with him. She’s close enough to forty years old with a child, and she’s living in her brother’s house. It makes me question sometimes, am I glad or not glad for no siblings? My house is clean and swept up and I wait on nobody but nobody waits on me. Mom hasn’t lived here for near a year. I can tell you what she’s doing this very moment, in fact, and I’m not even with her: she is slumped over in her wheelchair in Room 111 of the Sweetbriar Home on Gerard. And guess who’s paying. Sometimes it makes me want to join the Assembly myself, even now. It would be nice to know Mom and I could one day have a real conversation again, up in the clouds. But for me, the only thing waiting on the other side of the day is another day.

“Whatever the ending is,” I said to Mom, “it won’t be pleasant.” I went to the kitchen and put my knife through a tomato. As the skin split, I thought of the Mom who managed Heyday at the beginning. The woman filed the paperwork, refused to change rates, and came up with the strategy where we call you four, five, six times an hour if you don’t pay your debt. That woman had a killer instinct until she quit the game.

“Well, I won’t be here for it,” Mom said, but she was only 75. Plenty of living left to do, even if she spent it thinking of how it was all going to end. I looked at her short gray hair, swept to the side with a clean part. She had time.

“Oh? And where you going?” I asked. A little twinge in my wrist as I shook salt and pepper onto her tomato.

“Nowhere you’re likely to be,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m sad to say it, Gloria, I truly am.”

She took out her pumice stone and started grinding her foot away. The Christian thing to do, I thought. Scrub away what you don’t like. Leave it all behind like it was never yours. Tell your daughter she’s going to Hell.

You’re the one who made me, Mom. Don’t forget we worked Heyday together.”

“I made a good woman, honey, but that business is why I tithed my share.”

“Your friend Shana White came into Heyday today.”

“You know she’s been coming to my church.”

“She’s got some ideas.”

“She’s done some work on herself, I can say that.” Mom turned her eyes to the news. Always the same stories in Summit Heights. Telephone wires the city forgot about drooping too low, setting dead houses on fire. I call it a Summit Heights cremation. I washed the cutting board and suddenly Mom was laughing.

“People used to live in those houses,” I said.

“No, I just remembered something Shana said to me at church. I was complaining about how my feet get all swollen and too big for my shoes, you know, and she said, good thing you won’t need them in Paradise, and I said, what, you mean my feet or my shoes? And she said, both. She said, have you ever seen an angel’s feet? No. Their robes are always too long. And they fly all the time. They don’t need feet. She said, you’re not gonna need feet where you’re going. And I told her she had a point. She did, she had a point.”

Mom’s knee was going like a piston and she had this look like she was trying to solve a math problem. Tongue poking out the side of her mouth, her forehead all scrunched, eyes looking far away, pumice stone grinding. Wherever she was, it wasn’t with me.

“I think she’s trying to shut us down,” I said. “She’s got this whole Chamber of Commerce thing going on one hand and an Alliance on the other. It doesn’t make sense.”

“She’s just trying to get back on her feet. You should rejoice.”

“She’s got it out for Heyday, Mom.”

She still wasn’t looking at me. The pumice grinding was a nervous habit, maybe. Maybe she had reason to be nervous.

“She seemed to think you had extra reasons for selling your share back to me.”

“My money’s going to the church, honey. I told you.”

“Then why was she smiling?”

Mom grimaced for a second, stopped her pumice, and got her face back to neutral.

“You know I love what you do for me, Gloria,” she said. She finally looked at me. “You know I love this house.”

Her eyes got watery. Mom looks about sixty years younger when she cries. It’s in the way her lips turn down to the ground like a clown’s. It’s not fair when she does that. Most of the time you can’t stay mad. I leaned on the sink and waited with the unwashed knife in my hand.

“It’s the Month of Justice,” she said. She pointed to the counter, right where I’d been standing with the tomato. A pamphlet I hadn’t noticed: Manage Your Debt, brought to you by the End Usury Campaign of the Deeper Way Assembly of God of Summit Heights. Mom must have known Heyday would be a target. And the Assembly, the Chamber of Commerce, the Alliance—I could hardly keep them straight. It didn’t make sense. Why would Shana push me to join the Chamber if she wanted to put Heyday out of business? “You know Shana’s in charge of it,” Mom said. “She’s enterprising.”

Enterprising. This from the woman who once said Shana would sell her own heart as a metronome if she weren’t so jittery all the time. I’ll never know when Mom let her mind get all turned around.

“Let’s be clear about this,” I said. “You’re calling your own daughter a usurer. Your daughter who runs the business you founded. Who’s making you dinner.”

I held up the cutting board with the tomato like it was an award.

“I’m not against you,” Mom said.

“I will not be called a usurer in my own house. You know how many people default.” Forty percent of borrowers within their first two loans, and you need new borrowers to cover the old ones. It’s work, and work is time, and time is short. I rarely get my hair cut. I’m on my feet all day, and I can hardly remember the days I used to enjoy that. There was a time I liked running, even. I had these comfy shorts the color of traffic cones. Long gone now. I’m a usurer? A usurer lives like a fat cat. Not me, I’m laboring. “I give and I give,” I said.

“Gloria, I have to live my conscience. That’s all I’m doing. I just need to live right.”

“Can your conscience cut a tomato?” I put the dirty knife in the sink and walked into my bedroom.

“I have no choice,” she called out. My mother.

Hurt like that, it put me in mind of the tidal wave Mom was talking about. I pictured it, what it would look like down at the river: God presses pause. All the water’s receded and it’s miles of dirt and sand and silent buildings. You could walk over to Canada, or you could lie down right there, make a dirt blanket in there riverbed, and go to sleep. Everything will be quiet until the big wave comes, and like Mom prophesied, it’s coming for sure. At that point you’re not getting away, so why run? If you’re going to move at all, move slowly, because those moments are your last in the world.

I had a calm mind as I grabbed my toothbrush and some underthings. I looked for the better duffel and grabbed the photo of Dad and me at the Belle Isle Aquarium in 2005 right before it closed. I dusted off the dresser. I scratched my nose, thought of practicalities: go to Peewee’s, find Bibby, my on-again, off-again behind the bar there, stay at his place. Find a place of my own, research MBA’s. Plus now there was real estate work to be done. Mom had signed the house over to me, and well, it was mine to put on the market, even if it was just a symbolic gesture. Nobody was in a hurry to get to Summit Heights.

On my way out, I asked if Mom wanted me to turn the TV off for her.

“Sure, honey,” she said, with a pained look on her face, like she was doing me a favor.

“That’s too bad,” I said, and walked to the door. Mom’s face hardened into that look that said, I’m not playing, and the sad thing is, that was the Mom I loved most. That face was the one I grew up with. That face belonged to the woman who came up with the name Heyday.

“It sure is, Gloria,” she said. “I’m fading away, you know.”

“No, you’re not.”

“It’s coming, Gloria. You know I’ll love you when it does.”

That was low, her saying that. But of course she was right. You know what she does all day in her wheelchair now? Rubs her thumbs over the eyes of a stuffed bird I gave her. Hardly remembers anything, is losing even my name. Every time I visit, I throw out the Jesus stuff Shana gives her.

“I’m sure Shana’s campaign or whatever it is will take up a collection for you,” I said. “Or maybe the church will refund your donation. Maybe with interest.”

“The only interest I’m interested in,” she said as I shut the door, “is Jesus’.” The words chased me and my nice leather duffel all the way to Peewee’s.

Of course I walked straight into karaoke night. Multicolored lights scurried over the walls like some drunk was having his way with a disco ball, and a tuneless version of that Bill Withers classic— Lean on me when you’re not strong, I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on— made its way from Manny Rivera’s mouth into the room. He took out a loan from Heyday to buy his kid a bike for his birthday and got laid off right after. Only a couple hundred in debt to me, but he had his fat fingers tight around the mic stand like it owed him money.

Bibby was behind the bar like always, and that night I was glad. If I don’t want to touch, I don’t touch. But that night I needed to touch and you could count on Bibby. I’d have called him Bobby, but Bobby was the barback’s name. He tasted like Listerine and sour apple Jolly Ranchers. He was a lifter. You could have sipped soup out of his clavicles.

“Bibby baby,” I said as I slid onto a barstool. “Gloria wants her usual.”

“Tulip,” he said—he called me Tulip—“we’re very low on cherry pucker schnapps.” I clucked my tongue at him, poked his pec. “But if you sing a song for me I bet I could dig some out of the back room.”

I have an excellent voice. My dad only sang under his breath and mostly to himself, but he sang on key, and I got my tunefulness from him. He sang those rusty soul classics from The O’Jays, The Spinners, The Ohio Players, and on, and on, and that’s what I sing when I sing.

“You got a can of peaches for me?” I asked Bibby. That was our code.

Bibby put his forearms on the bar, hands together like he was going to pray. He eyed me up and down. I didn’t blame him. I’d have stepped out of my body and eyed myself up if I could have.

“We definitely have those in the back room,” he said with a smile.

“I was thinking a candlelit dinner at home.”

“I haven’t been to chez toi in a long while,” he said. He pronounced it shay-toy.

“No, Bibby baby,” I said, holding up my duffel. “Gloria needs a break. Home’s not home tonight.” He nodded and stowed the bag under the bar without a word. He could see it wasn’t the time for questions.

Bibby was about $1500 in debt to me. Psalm 37 says the wicked borrow and do not pay back, but this is why I distrust that book. Bibby wasn’t smart enough to be wicked. He’d dead-lifted himself into a hernia. I’d told him there was no reason to dead-lift, because it’s not like he was slinging sheets of drywall behind the bar, but he paid me no mind. When the hernia hit, I stayed silent. You come to learn a man never forgives you for being right. Plus, we weren’t official. Insurance covered most of his injury, but I gave him a grand at a cut interest rate to cover the rest. In my heart I knew it wasn’t good business. I can be a little sentimental.

“Unless you’ve got other plans,” I said.

As he shook his head, his neck muscles rose and fell under his skin in a pretty way, like pistons on a nice piece of machinery.

“None at all, Tulip. I wanted to talk to you after the shift, anyway.”

My body hadn’t betrayed me, at least. Needs could get met. I couldn’t imagine the last time Mom had a night of love, not even before Dad died, and despite everything I pitied her for that. No one wants to meet an old woman’s needs. That wouldn’t be me, not that night and not for a long time. Bibby wasn’t sharp, but not every tool has to be.

I headed to the dance floor with its cheap disco lights. There were a few others out there, swinging their hips. One couple, Tony and Evangeline Biggs, did a shuffle they’d been practicing for decades. Tony danced with his belly out, Evangeline side-stepped it, and there was a grace to it. The moves weren’t special, but they both knew them.

I’d been singing and dancing at Peewee’s since I was sixteen, when I got in on a fake ID and a smile, and don’t think Holy Rhoda wasn’t a regular there, too, back before the church days. She loved the place just as much as I did. For her, it was the sad cases. Mom loved listening to them, nodding her head at them, and gossiping about them afterwards—this man cheated and got chlamydia for his trouble, this woman stole a dead man’s bicycle, this one had another family in Charlotte, that one sold pills in an alley somewhere. When the two of us went to Peewee’s, Mom headed straight for that tubey-looking juke box in the back like the yellow tubes were full of Cheez Whiz, which she also used to love. When I sang the classics, I sang them for her.

That night I chose The Spinners, “I’ll Be Around.” Some scattered applause greeted me as I went onstage. Manny Rivera clapped the hardest, like he thought it would get him a better rate.

This is our fork in the road, love’s last episode.

I’m no screen-reader. I’ve got most of my songs memorized, because in karaoke, words are just a pretext. You have to get past the words, get past getting the melody right. People don’t want to hear a pretty song or see the dance moves you practiced in your hallway last night, not really. People want to see a woman close her eyes and turn into music. That’s why the crowd never laughed at me. I struck them dumb. No less than Frank Bliss, the owner of Peewee’s, once told me my voice could take the rust off an old toolbox.

At that moment, Mom was making prophecies in my ex-home in front of a TV she wasn’t even watching, and I was singing front of a thin crowd in a bar, looking at bald Grant Cochrane standing next to Manny Rivera. Grant Cochrane was the janitor at Mom’s church who said someone slammed a door on his pinkie and severed it when in fact he cut it off for the disability insurance money. He claimed that as a janitor, the injury “significantly impaired his ability to do the manual labor involved in pastoral upkeep,” and I don’t know which two-dime lawyer fed him that line, but it worked. He rocked back and forth in time with the music.

Whenever you need me, I’ll be there, I’ll be around, I sang, and I saw none other than Shana White leaning over the bar with a cosmo in her hand and that dumb pin-striped jacket hanging over her forearm and her low-cut blouse buttoned another button lower. She’d appeared from nowhere. I sang louder. There’s always a chance a tiny spark will remain, yeah, and sparks turn into flames. The Biggs couple kept on with their shuffle in their little universe of love. They’d have kept dancing even if a frog was singing.

I’ll be calling out your name to let you know, I’ll be around.

I let that last note float for a few seconds after the song ended, reaching for the pleasure of it, and Bibby turned away from Shana to put his hands together for me. I wanted to kiss him for it. Shana took a delicate sip of her cosmo and snapped her fingers. A few others clapped and went back to whatever they were doing. Someone else came onstage and launched into a passable version of “A House Is Not A Home” as I walked to the bar, where Bibby gave me a thumbs-up. I winked at him and asked Shana if she was following me.

“I’m following me,” she said. Bibby had one of those books with the little man on it in his other hand. When did she give him that? She was like a thief in reverse. She gave you things when you weren’t looking. Bibby saw me looking at him and tossed the book under the bar like it was trash.

“Still handing out your bedtime stories,” I said.

Shana took another sip of her drink and nodded. I tried again.

“You’ve got your Alliance, your Assembly, your Chamber of whatnot. I can’t piece it together. What’s the plan, Shana? What did I do to you?” Bibby polished a glass off to the side. The way he wasn’t looking at us, I knew he was listening.

“You’ve always been a good singer,” Shana said. She had her eyes on the stage.

“It’s in my blood. My dad had a beautiful voice. So does Mom, actually, but she never sings anymore.”

“You should hear her sing ‘Just As I Am’ on Sundays. She sounds just like you.”

When I was a child, Mom sang as she cooked for Dad and me. Just wordless tunes, but if people sang birdsong, that’s what I thought it would sound like. Quick, high, and giving. I liked to think birdsong was her first language, that whatever she was saying with her voice as she chopped garlic would break my heart if it was in English, and that’s why she kept it untranslated. Now she was singing with God’s words. I have to live my conscience, she’d told me. Once Mom got Heyday off the ground, she set her sights on Heaven.

“You’re not closing me down,” I told Shana.

“Just here to sing, Gloria,” she said as she put her empty glass on the bar. Bibby picked it up, gave her a nod, and off she went to the stage. She’d left her blazer on the chair next to mine, and when Armband Albert, another local sad case, asked her with his eyes if he could sit there, she mouthed “of course” and made a little shooing motion from the stage. He sat down and breathed out a cloud of vodka. His wife and child were dead, but I heard he had money, at least, from the online collectible armband trade. Whatever that was.

“Give it up, baby, give it to us,” he yelled as the first keyboard notes of Chaka Khan’s “Roll Me Through the Rushes” plinked into the room. I laughed a little, thinking that Shana chose a showstopper with a key change on a slow night with no show to stop, but then I noticed the dance floor had gotten crowded with swaying bodies. The room had that scent of beer and sweat with the faint touch of urine you get from too many people in one place. All those smells mixing with Armband Albert’s breath made me nauseated. I rolled up my sleeves, which were suddenly sticking to my elbows.

Shana put her head down and asked God, in a low, trembling voice, to lead me to the new woman who waits. A couple people cheered her on, and the crowd swayed a little more. Armband Albert put his fingers in his mouth and made one those awful whistles.

My stomach hurt and I wanted water, but Bibby didn’t look at me. He kept his head down, his biceps pumping away in a steady rhythm as Shana’s first chorus stabbed at everybody’s ears. A woman alone on a river, she can’t stay in the water too long. Her tone was even richer than her speaking voice, and a few people in the crowd sang along. The Biggs couple kept at their stupid shuffle. The key change was coming fast. Maybe Shana wouldn’t be able to manage it.

Armband Albert snapped his armband and yelled, “Show it to us, baby,” again and again, and I swiveled my chair and waved a few cocktail napkins at him and said shut up, just shut up, all while Shana shook her head slowly. Roll me through the rushes, she sang again. The key change was about ready to tumble on us, and Armband Albert turned and whistled straight at my face. His vodka-and-sadness breath crawled up my nostrils, and before I knew it I was walking away fast as my stomach heaved, but I was walking toward the stage. If I can stare Shana down at the front of the crowd, I thought. If I can stare her away from that note. I made my way through the drunks and debtors and got close, but Manny Rivera sidled up with a gin-grin and took one of my hands and tried to twirl me. I rattled my bracelets right up in his face, so hard I hoped they’d knock his teeth out, and he raised up his hands with a “Whoa, sister” and backed off. But it was too late. Shana’s voice was already soaring over the key change like it was nothing— Moses, make my journey, make it short and straight, she sang, and I stood still and stared, and she didn’t even know I was there. Her eyes were shut. She had a satisfied little smile on her face. Her lips looked extra-red and wet and healthy, and I fished into my mind for something else to think about. Bibby? What was he going to do. Mom? Forget it. Maybe business school. Let me lose this hardness that I got now, Lord. Not even this new Shana with her suits and plans had an MBA. She was just improvising herself into this new woman, and everybody was clapping for her, whistling, cheering her on. Shana finished up and bowed, and I walked out into the black sky and the orange street.

I leaned my butt on the padded door of Peewee’s, kept my hands on my knees. Armband Albert’s breath was still in my nose, in the back of my throat, like a bad cold or words you should have said. A couple of plastic bags rustled down the street in front of me and got tangled in a shrub. A car passed, another car passed. The crowd was still clapping for Shana, and the door didn’t muffle it to my ears in the least. Then it opened and I almost fell back into the bar, but big hands found my shoulders, propped me up, massaged my neck.

“You want to go to my place, Tulip?”

I kept my eyes closed and nodded. Swallowed.

“Take my keys,” Bibby said, and dangled them in front of my face. A dog sniffed the fencing on the other side of the street, looking for a way into the grass behind it. “Gloria,” Bibby said softly. “I’ll bring your duffel when my shift’s up.”

When I got to Bibby’s, I began my researching schools, part-time programs, aid, and so on, and when I applied to the Eli Broad College of Business a few months later, I got in. And that’s what I’m doing on weekends now. I live alone in the house I didn’t end up selling. I’ve got some big plants but they don’t make up for the loss of Mom’s chair in the living room. There’s a dart game every week at Al’s Paradise, but I’m bad at darts. I never go to Peewee’s. At some point I’ll open another storefront, one of the many empties in another neighborhood. One the Assembly doesn’t picket on Tuesday mornings. Anyway, what they don’t know is I’m starting an Anti-Gentrification League of Summit Heights.

As I was falling asleep in Bibby’s bed that night, he turned on the light and rolled over to me with the debt pamphlet and a spreadsheet in his hand. The pamphlet might as well have had a little white man on it. “Look, Tulip, I’ve been thinking,” Bibby said. “ Most creditors respond to a specific request that is backed by a detailed proposal, ” he read, slowly. “ It should include what you owe, a copy of your budget, and a plan showing exactly how much you can repay each month.

I turned away, and Bibby shuffled his papers and said my name a few times until he gave up. When his leg started twitching against the back of my thigh, I knew he was dreaming. I stared at the orange sodium fizz coming out of the streetlights while I talked to Mom’s God.

I said, I’ll make you a deal. Bibby, Heyday, Mom, the house—I’ll pick two.