Bethea thought that the August air smelled like an opera, thick and interminable. She was trying on the shoes she found in her grandmother’s wardrobe, balancing on one leg while looking in the mirror, when her perspiration damp skin snagged the hem of her skirt, and she fell. From her new position on the floor the room looked old and dirty. The house was an old lady’s museum, filled with figurines and collectibles. When she and her brother were children they got a whupping whenever they came to visit. Their play had always ended with damage to some knickknack. Grandmother kept a switch by the kitchen door.
Her grandmother had been dead for over a month, but her mother still wasn’t coping. The old woman had been stern, as unyielding as an iron bar, and she had bound Momma to her with her will. Now that she was dead Momma was lost, and it fell to Bethea to sort through the mountain of her possessions. School was going to start in less than three weeks, and she hadn’t bought her books. She desperately wanted to go to Julliard. She had applied but had never heard from them. Every day, for months, she came straight home from school to check the mail. Nothing. Momma begged her to go to the community college. They were a family of three, after all, and Momma couldn’t handle James alone. The community college had a small music department; it would have to do.
She lay on the carpet wishing she had been accepted at Julliard. It offered her sanctuary from the responsibilities of her emotional dependents, a brother disabled at birth and a mother disabled by life. She looked under the wardrobe. Something sparkled.
James always carried fifty cents in his front pocket. Bethea gave him the money every morning, and she always said, “Put it in your front pocket so you don’t lose it.” Fifty cents was enough for a jawbreaker at the Speedimart.
His hand was already sticky with a mixture of orange juice and dirt when he jammed it into his pocket to dig for the coins. The man behind the counter glared as he fished out one filthy object after another.
Two lug nuts.
Customers were starting to line up behind him.
A plastic army man.
Mrs. Bensen was getting milk from the cooler.
A crumpled white envelope.
The man behind him coughed.
He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his grimy hand and turned his attention to the candy. The cellophane slid neatly off and fluttered to the floor. The jawbreaker popped into his mouth as he opened the door. He was almost outside when the clerk shouted, “Hey, dummy. Pick up that wrapper.”
Bethea was sitting on the floor in the middle of the living room, surrounded by an army of porcelain figurines and blown glass animals. She was looking at her grandmother’s earring and crying softly. She hadn’t even liked the old woman, dammit. The earring was just junk, but there was something about the way it refracted the late afternoon sun that reminded her of all the time she’d spent as a little girl, sitting at her grandmother’s vanity trying on jewelry and listening to old records. She was blowing her nose when the front door flew open and slammed against the wall. There was James, and he was crying too.
James was almost twenty and spent most of his time watching cartoons on television. He was older than her by two years, but his intellectual development had stopped when he was about seven. Now he was standing there, crying and trying to talk at the same time. The jawbreaker in his mouth muffled his speech.
“Slow down,” she said. “I can’t understand what you’re saying.”
James opened his hand and spit the jawbreaker out. It bounced off his palm and arced through the air, a glistening blue meteor. It took out the most elaborate figurine first. The young man kneeling before the pretty girl on the park bench was decapitated. A cherub lost its wings. The jawbreaker clacked on the tabletop and went spinning off to rest among the shards of a former herd of glass horses.
James eyed the destruction with open-mouthed curiosity. He poked a little bird with his index finger and jumped when its beak broke off.
“Oh, man,” he said, “Now I’m gonna get it.”
“What’s funny?” he asked.
“Nothing. That was cool. What were you trying to say?”
“The man at the store called me a dummy again.”
“Now, what did we agree on the last time that happened?”
James grinned. “That he don’t know me, so screw him.”
“That’s right, he doesn’t know you. If he knew you like I do, he’d know that you’re not a dummy.” She patted the carpet. “Sit down here and talk for awhile.”
James dug the envelope out of his pocket and plopped down, cross-legged, in front of Bethea.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“I been saving this for you. Momma threw it in the trash, but I knew you wanted it.” He held it out. Bethea took the envelope. It was from Julliard.
The last rays of the fading summer sun had turned the room orange. James picked up the little severed head and set it on the pretty girl’s lap.