URA LEE'S WINDOW Ura Lee Smitcher looked out the window of her house on the corner of Burnside and Sanchez as two boys walked by on the other side of the street, carrying skateboards. "There's your son with that Raymond boy from out on Coliseum."
Madeline Tucker sat on Ura Lee's couch, drinking coffee. She didn't even look up from People Magazine. "I know all about Raymo Vine."
"I hope what you know is he's heading for jail, because he is."
"That's exactly what I know," said Madeline. "But what can I do? I forbid Cecil to see him, and that just guarantees he'll sneak off. Right now Ceese got no habit of lying to me."
Ura Lee almost said something.
Madeline Tucker didn't miss much. "I know what you going to say."
"I ain't going to say a thing," said Ura Lee, putting on her silkiest, southernest voice.
"You going to say, What good if he tell you the truth, if what's true is he's going to hell in a wheelbarrow?"
She was dead on, but Ura Lee wasn't about to say it in so many words. "I likely would have said 'handbasket,' " said Ura Lee. "Though truth to tell, I don't know what the hell a handbasket is."
And now it was Madeline's turn to hesitate and refrain from saying what she was thinking.
"Oh, you don't have to say it," said Ura Lee. "Women who never had a child, they all expert on raising other women's children."
"I was not going to say that," said Madeline.
"Good thing," said Ura Lee, "because you best remember I chose not to give you advice. You just guessed what I was thinking, but I refuse to be blamed for meddling when I didn't say it."
"And I refuse to be blamed for persecuting you when I didn't say it either."
"You know," said Ura Lee, "we'd get along a lot better if we wasn't a couple of mind readers."
"Or maybe that's why we get along so good."
"You think those two boys really going to hike up Cloverdale and ride down on those contraptions?"
"Not all the way down," said Madeline. "One of them always falls off and gets bloody or sprained or something."
"They a special way to walk for that?"
"Jaunty," said Ura Lee. "Those boys looking sneaky."
"Ah," said Madeline.
"Ah? That's all you got to say?"
Madeline sighed. "I already raised Cecil's four older brothers and not one of them in jail."
"Not one in college, either," said Ura Lee. "Not to criticize, just observing."
"All of them with decent jobs and making money, and Antwon doing fine."
Antwon was the one who was buying rental homes all over South Central and making money from renting week-to-week to people with no green card so they couldn't make him fix stuff that broke. The kind of landlord that Ura Lee had been trying to get away from when she saved up and bought this house in Baldwin Hills when the real estate market bottomed out after the earthquake.
They'd had this argument before, anyway. Madeline thought it made all the difference in the world that Antwon was exploiting Mexicans. "They got no right to be in this country anyway," she said. "If they don't like it, they can go home."
And Ura Lee had answered, "They came here cause they poor and got no choice, except to look for something better wherever they can find it. Just like our people getting away from share-cropping or whatever they were putting up with in Mississippi or Texas or Carolina, wherever they were from."
Then Madeline would go off on how people who never been slaves got no comparison, and Ura Lee would go off on how the last slave in her family was her great-great-grandmother and then Madeline would say all black people were still slaves and then Ura Lee would say, Then why don't your massuh sell you off stead of listening to you bitch and moan. Then it would start getting nasty.
Thing about living next door to somebody for all these years is, you already had all the arguments. If you were going to change each other's minds, they'd already be changed. And if you were going to feud over it, you'd already be feuding. So the only other choice was to just shut up and let it go.
"So you saying you going to cut them a little slack even though you know they scored some weed and they going up to that open space at the hairpin turn to smoke it," said Ura Lee.
"Up to the 'slack,' that's what I'm saying. How you know they got weed?"
"Cause Ceese keeps slapping his pocket to make sure something's still there, and if it was a gun it be so heavy his pants fall down, and they ain't falling, and if it was a condom then it be a girl with him, and Raymo ain't no girl, so it's weed."
"It's a good window," said Ura Lee. "I paid extra for this window."
"I paid extra for the rope swing in my yard," said Madeline. "You know how fast boys grow out of a rope swing? About fifteen minutes."
"So I got the better deal."
"And you sure they going up to that nasty little park at the hairpin turn."
"Where else can kids in Baldwin Hills go to get privacy, they can't drive yet?"
"You know what?" said Madeline. "You really should be somebody's mama. Your talent being wasted in this one-woman house."
"Not wasted—I'm here to give you advice."
"You ought to get you another man, have some babies before too late."
"Already too late," said Ura Lee. "Men ain't looking for women my age and size, in case you notice."
"Nothing wrong with your size," said Madeline. "You one damn fine-looking woman, especially in that white nurse's uniform. And you make good money."
"The kind of man looks for a woman who makes good money ain't the kind of man I want raising no son of mine. They enough lazy moochers in this world without me going to all the trouble of having a baby just to grow up and be another."
"Thing I appreciate about you, Ura Lee, you live next door to my Winston all these years and you never once make eyes at him."
Madeline seemed to think everybody saw Winston Tucker the way she did—the handsome young Vietnam vet with a green beret and a smile that could make a blind woman get a hot flash. Ura Lee had seen that picture on the wall in the kitchen of their house, so she knew all about what Madeline had fallen in love with. But that wasn't Winston anymore. He was bald as an egg now, with a belly that was only cute to a woman who already loved him.
Not that Ura Lee would judge a man on looks alone. But Winston was also an accountant and a Christian and he couldn't understand that not everybody wanted to hear about both subjects all the time. Ura Lee once heard Cooky Peabody say, "What does that man talk about in bed? Jesus or accounts receivable?"
And Ura Lee wanted to answer her, Assets and arrears. But she didn't know a single person well enough to tell nasty puns to. So she still had that witticism stored up, waiting.
Anyway, Madeline thought her husband was so sexy that other women must be lusting after his flesh, and she'd be the one to know. They were lucky they had each other. "A woman's got to have self-control if she expects to get to heaven, Madeline," said Ura Lee.
"Meanwhile your boy Ceese is going to have his first experience with recreational herbology."
"If heredity is any guide, he'll puke once and give it up for good."
"Why, is that what happened to Winston when he tried it?"
"I'm talking about me," said Madeline testily. "Cecil takes after me."
"Except for the Y chromosome and the testosterone," said Ura Lee.
"Trust a nurse to get all medical on me."
"Well, Madeline, I say it's nice to have some trust in your children."
"Trust, hell," said Madeline. "I going to tell his daddy when he gets home, and Cecil's going to be sitting on one butt cheek at a time for a month."
She got up from the couch and started for the kitchen with her coffee cup. Ura Lee knew from experience that the kitchen was worth another twenty minutes of conversation, and she didn't like standing around on linoleum, not after a whole shift on linoleum in the hospital. So she snared the cup and saucer from Madeline's hand and said, "Oh, don't you bother, I want to sit here and see more visions of the future out of my window anyway." In a few minutes the goodbyes were done and Ura Lee was alone.
Alone and thinking, as she washed the cups and saucers and put them in the drying rack to drip—she hardly ever bothered with the dishwasher because it seemed foolish to fire up that whole machine just for the few dishes she dirtied, living alone. Half the time she nuked frozen dinners and ate them right off the tray, so there was nothing but a knife and fork to wash up anyway.
What she was thinking was: Madeline and Winston have about the best marriage I've seen in Baldwin Hills, and they're happy, and their boys are still nothing but a worry even after they get out of the house. Antwon, who is doing fine, still had somebody shoot at him the other day when he was collecting rent, and twice had his tires slashed. And the other boys had no ambition at all. Just lazy—completely unlike their father, who, you had to give him credit, worked hard. And Cecil—he used to be the best of the lot, but now he was hanging with Raymo, who was studying up to be completely worthless and had just about earned his Dumb Ass degree, summa cum scumbag.
Last thing I want in my life is a child. Even if I was good at it—no saying I would be, either, because as far as I can tell nobody's actually good at parenting, just lucky or not—even if I was good at mothering, I'd probably get nothing but kids who thought I was the worst mother in the world until I dropped dead, and then they'd cry about what a good mama I was at my funeral but a fat lot of good that would do me because I'd be dead.
Of course, maybe I'd have a daughter like me, I was good to my mama till she got herself smashed up on the 405 the very day I had finally decided to take the car keys away from her because her reaction time was so slow I was afraid she was going to kill somebody running a stop sign. If I had taken the keys away from her, then she'd be alive but she'd hate me for keeping her from having the freedom of driving a car. What good is a good daughter if the only way she can be good to you is make your life miserable?
It only means that I'll never have a son like him, or a daughter foolish enough to marry a man like him, and that makes me about as happy a woman as lives on Burnside, and that's saying something, because by and large this is a pretty happy street. People here got some money, but not serious money, not Brentwood or Beverly Hills money, and sure as hell not Malibu beachfront money. Just comfortable money, a little bit of means. And only a block away from Cloverdale, and that street have real money, on up the hill, anyway.
She only got into Baldwin Hills herself because the earthquake knocked this house a little bit off its foundation and her mama left her just enough money to get over the top for a down payment—a fluke. But she was happy here. These were good people. She'd watch them raise their children, and suffer all that anxiety all the time, and thank God she didn't have such a burden in her own life.