The Canyon

Scenes from the Scott Homes -- the mamas, the kids, the babies, the fight for dignity, the pall of despair

Word came the following morning. Of the 1000-plus eligible voters, 65 had endorsed Dorothy Perry, to just 22 for Annie Love. The new president trumpeted a new era. Annie Love, the Wicked Witch of the West, was dead. Ruby, the incoming treasurer, woke up with a splitting headache.

Junkie Baby
April had just come home from an outing with her boyfriend, Trey, and had brought a bag full of little designer outfits for her two-year-old daughter, Shaquietta. "We was going all over town to find these," she told her mother, drawing out a pair of mini Fila sandals.

"How come you didn't get nothing for Onarius?" Ruby snapped. "Whenever I go shopping, I get your babies something." She glared at her daughter, but April would not return the look and walked inside.

There was no arguing about the inequality, though. Shaquietta was the crown princess of Ruby's unit. She cried often and easily, and pronounced her name so that it nearly rhymed with one of her favorite expressions, which was "Gimme-a-qwahter."

Droopy-eyed and rubber-lipped, rarely dressed in anything more than a diaper, Onarius played court jester. Because his head was a bit large for his body, when he first started walking he would stumble after himself and sometimes fall forward.

"That one bowlegged little nigger," Trey said.
In defense of her grandson Ruby would respond, "Onarius a junkie baby," thereby reducing him from a who to a what.

As an intellect, a sack of genes, Onarius was no different from the other babies in Ruby's house. But the legacy of his birth -- a daddy in jail, a mama on drugs -- left him loosely attended. He had no one to scold him for violations of social mores, which meant, for instance, that when he picked at his butt or played with his wee-wee the others would tease him and laugh, which he understood to be good. Jacqui Colyer was forever urging Ruby to take Onarius to preschool every day. He rarely made it more than three times a week.

Once Onarius's mama appeared at Ruby's door. Too spooked to step inside, she left her son a Styrofoam box of French fries. He didn't recognize her, just grinned his gummy grin and began squishing the fries into his mouth while she melted away and the others clucked derisively.

Onarius loved Ruby. He would lie on her for hours and called her "mama" -- at eighteen months, his first coherent word.

He also loved Richie, who would play with him sometimes, holding up his hands for the toddler to smash at. Whenever candies were distributed, Richie made sure Onarius was given some, though he didn't bother to unwrap them or to teach him that unwrapping was part of the process, so that Onarius inevitably stuck them in his mouth and chewed through the paper.

"That nigger ain't dumb," Richie would say. "Onarius know what up." Hearing his name, Onarius would look up, colored paper tattooed to his cheeks, a purple thread of spit dangling onto his Buddha belly, and smile at his uncle with a forgiveness that was frightening.

Ruby Sick
"Ruby sick," said Cookie, and Boojay nodded. They were on the front walk, trying to keep Onarius from spooning dirt into his mouth.

"She upstairs," April said. "She sleepin'. All she do."
This was early January, a day washed by the indolent breezes of Miami winter. Ruby was fresh from a stint at the hospital, where she'd spent a few weeks. Her mind gummed with antidepressants, she had wandered home to lie in the shell of her body, to get some rest.

Ruby had tried to kill herself once, maybe twice, with pills, and when the black veil fell again, the doctors gave her. . . more pills. She kept the bottles in a plastic bag upstairs, beside her bed. When she wasn't napping, she was downstairs with Onarius or stumbling around outside staring at the Dumpster, the tree, the train tracks. There was food on her face long after she had eaten. Her hair stood on end, as if startled.

"Brin muh medsin!" she would yell sometimes from downstairs, and one of the boys would pad up then down, the plastic bag rattling. Her voice still carried, but she had trouble edging words around her tongue, which lay numbly in her mouth. Ruby was vaguely aware that the drugs had put her in another place, and for a time she seemed content there, outside Scott.

So the yoke of management slipped from her and settled uneasily onto April, who now prevailed over the kitchen and uncertainly directed the daily battle against entropy. She did not hit the boys, as Ruby would, did not provide counsel to her neighbors or rail against the larger demons, as Ruby did. Nonetheless, the house became hers.

On Ruby's 40th birthday, April hurried from meat market to grocery, readying imitation crab and yellow rice, arranging for the pickup of the cake, her ass rippling with industry, while Ruby sat on the couch gurgling at Onarius. The children looked upon her with curiosity, then concern, then unconcern. She was a part of everything else, and like everything else, she had broken.

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