Mack Street grew up knowing the story of how Ceese found him in a grocery bag and Miz Smitcher took him in. How could he avoid it, with neighborhood kids calling him by nicknames like
"Bag Boy" and "Safeway" and "Plasticman."
Miz Smitcher wouldn't talk to him about it, even when he asked her direct questions like, Why don't you let me call you Mama? and, Was I born or did you buy me at the store? So he got the straight story from Ceese, who came over every afternoon at four-thirty to take care of him while Miz Smitcher went to work at the hospital.
Mack would ask Ceese questions all the time, especially when Ceese was trying to do his homework, so Ceese made a rule: "You get one question a day, at bedtime."
Mack would store up his questions all day trying to decide which one would be tonight's bedtime question. A lot of times he had one that he knew was great, the most important question ever, but by the time bedtime came around he had forgotten it.
"You don't got to answer it now," said Mack. "Just write it down so I don't forget."
"Write it down yourself."
"I can't," said Mack. "I'm only four."
"If you can't remember it and you can't write it down, that's not my fault," said Ceese. "Now let me do my homework."
So that night, Mack's question was, "Will you teach me to read?"
"That's not a question," said Ceese.
Mack thought for a minute. What was a question, anyway? "I don't know the answer and you do."
"That's a request."
"If that one doesn't count, then I get to ask you another."
Mack hit him.
"Ow!" said Ceese. "When somebody say 'Hit me' it means 'Go ahead.' "
"What would you say if you wanted somebody to hit you?"
"Nobody wants somebody to hit them. And that's your question, and that's my answer, go to sleep."
"You're mean!" called out Mack as Ceese went back into the living room to watch TV till he fell asleep on the couch, which is where he spent every night that he tended Mack.
"I'm the meanest!" called back Ceese. "Miz Smitcher specially picked me to tend you cause I'm the most wicked boy in Baldwin Hills!"
That was why Mack Street started teaching himself how to read when he was four years old, by copying out letters, not knowing what they said, and then asking Miz Smitcher to tell him what the letters spelled. She could always answer when he copied them down in the same order as on the page, but when he changed the order she'd say, "It doesn't say anything, baby." Finally she gave up and taught him the sounds of the letters, and pretty soon he was sounding out words for himself.
But by that time he had already asked Ceese the most important and worrisome questions.
How come they sometimes call me Ralph's? "Cause it's the name of a grocery store. Like Safeway."
Well, why do they call me grocery-store names? "That's a second question so you better save it till tomorrow."
Next night, he remembered and got the answer. "Cause when you was found, Mack, you was a naked little baby in a plastic grocery bag, covered with ants and lying in a field."
The next night: Who found me? "Me and Raymo, only Raymo wanted to kill you like a cat and I wanted to save you alive."
Bit by bit Mack got the story from Ceese. He wasn't sure he believed it, so one of his questions was, "Is that all true? Cause if it ain't, when I'm bigger I'll beat the shit out of you."
"Who taught you to say shit?" demanded Ceese.
"Is that your question for tonight?" said Mack.
"My answer to your question, before you said a nasty word that Miz Smitcher going to wash out your mouth with soap, my answer is Yes."
But thinking about what Miz Smitcher might do drove out what he'd asked. "What was my question?"
"That's another question, which I don't have to answer, nasty-mouth baby."
"Shit shit shit shit shit."
"I'm going to get the stapler and fasten your tongue to your nose and see if you want to say any more nasty words."
"If you do I'll bleed on your shirt!"
"You bleed on my shirt, I'll pee on your toys."
Mack loved Ceese more than any other human on earth.
In good weather, which was most afternoons, Ceese took Mack out to play in the neighborhood before dinner. Ceese was way older than any of the children Mack played with, so he always brought along a book so he could read, but then most of the time Ceese would get involved in the kid games they played, sometimes cause there was a fight and Ceese had to break it up, but mostly cause kid games were more fun than the books Ceese had to read for school.
"Mack, if you happen to live to be my age and somebody tells you you going to have to read The Scarlet Letter I recommend you just kill yourself right off and get it over with."
"Ask me at bedtime."
Mack didn't know he was having a great childhood. Ceese tried to tell him one time. About how rich kids grew up in big empty mansions and never saw anybody except servants and nannies. And poor kids grew up in the ghetto where people were always shooting bullets into their house so they never slept at night and they got beat up every day and stabbed if they went out of their house. And kids from in-between families lived in apartments and never had anybody to play with but mean ugly kids at day care.
"But you, Mack, you got a whole neighborhood full of kids who know who you are. You're famous, Mack, just for being alive."
Mack didn't know what famous was. So what if everybody knew who he was? He knew them right back. Was everybody famous?
Okay, so everybody thought he was special or weird because he was found instead of being born or adopted. But that wasn't what made Mack different, he knew.
It was the cold dreams.
He tried to talk about it to Ceese one time. "I had a really bad cold dream last night."
"A cold dream."
"Where you dream and it's really real and you want it so bad, and when you wake up from it you're shivering so hard you think it's going to break your teeth."
"I never had a dream like that," said Ceese.
"You didn't? I have them sometimes when I'm not even asleep."
"That's just crazy. You can't have a dream when you're not asleep."
"It comes in front of my eyes and I just stop and watch and when it's done I'm shivering so hard I can't even stand up."
"You crazy, Mack Street."
Ceese must have told Miz Smitcher because the next day she took him to a doctor at the hospital who stuck things all over his head and then a bunch of metal rods made squiggly lines on a moving paper and the doctor just smiled and smiled at him but he looked all serious when he talked to Miz Smitcher and then they glanced at him and closed the door and kept talking where he couldn't hear.
But the cold dreams scared him. They were so intense. And strange. His regular dreams, even his nightmares, they were about things in his life. His friends. Miz Smitcher. Ceese. Grocery bags and ants. But the cold dreams would be about grownups most of the time, and more than once it happened that he'd see a grownup for the first time in his life, and it would be somebody from a cold dream.
"Miz Smitcher," said Mack, "I know that man."
"You never met him before in your life."
"He all the time sees this woman naked."
She was furious. "Don't you say such things! He's a deacon at church and he does not see women naked and how would you know, any way?"
"It just came into my head," said Mack, which was true.
"You're too young to understand what you're saying, which is why I don't beat you till your butt turns into hamburger."
"Better than my butt turning into a chocolate milkshake."
"How about beating your butt into french fries?"
"That doesn't even make sense," said Mack.
"Don't go talking about men seeing women naked," said Miz Smitcher.
"I was just saying that I know that man."
"You don't know him. I know him and he's a good man."
But then came a day when Miz Smitcher sent him out of the room when Ceese's mama came over and the two of them talked all serious and after Ceese's mama left Miz Smitcher came in to Mack's room and sat down on the floor and looked him in the eye.
"You tell me, Mack Street, how you happened to know about Deacon Landry and Juanettia Post."
"Who are they?"
"You met Deacon Landry and you told me you saw him looking at a naked woman."
From the look in her eye, Mack knew that this was something really bad, and he wasn't about to admit to anything. "I don't remember," he said.
"I don't know, Miz Smitcher," said Mack. "I don't know nothing about naked women. That's nasty stuff."
She searched his eyes but whatever she was looking for, she didn't find it. "Never mind," said Miz Smitcher. "You shouldn't be thinking about naked women anyway, I'm sorry I brought it up."
But she paused in the door of his room and looked at him like he was something strange, and he decided right then that he'd never tell anybody about those cold dreams, not ever again.
And he probably would have kept that promise if it wasn't for Tamika Brown.
Tamika was older than him and he only knew her because of her little brother Quon who was Mack's age, and they played together all the time cause the Browns only lived a few doors down.
Mack even went into their house sometimes because Quon's mama wasn't one of those women who wouldn't have a grocery-bag baby in their house. But he didn't see Tamika except when she was just going out the door or running around getting ready to go out the door. And she was always wearing a bright red swimming suit because that's what Tamika did—she was a swimmer.
Quon said she was in competitions all the time, and she outswam and outdived girls two years older than her and people said she was a mermaid or a fish, she was so natural and quick in the water. "She just lives to swim."
And one time Miz Brown told a story about when Tamika was a baby. "My husband Curtis and I had her in the pool, with those bubble things on her arms, and she wasn't even two years old yet, so we were both holding on to her. But she was kicking so strong, like a frog, that I thought, I'm just holding her back, and Curtis must have thought the same thing at that very moment because we both just let go, and she takes off like a motorboat through the water and we knew right then that she was born to swim. Didn't have to teach her none of the strokes, she just knew them. Curtis says there's a scientist who thinks humans evolved from sea apes, and the way Tamika took to the water, I could believe it, she was born to swim."
So when Tamika showed up in one of Mack's dreams, he would have thought it was just a regular dream about people he knew. Except that he woke up shivering so bad he could hardly climb out of bed and go to the toilet without falling over from the shaking.
In the dream she was Tamika, but she was also a fish, and she swam through the water faster than any of the other fish. They swam around her when she was holding still, but then she'd give a flick with her back and just like that, they'd be far behind her. She swam to the surface and flipped herself out and flew through the air and then dived back in and the water felt delicious to her, and she didn't ever, ever have to come up because she was a fish, not a girl. She didn't have legs, she had big flippers, and in the water there was nothing to slow her down or hold her back.
"Why would a girl want to be a fish?" Mack asked Ceese one day.
"I know a lot of girls like to eat a fish," said Ceese. "Maybe some want to meet a fish. And if they cooking they got to heat a fish."
"Playing cards they might want to cheat a fish," said Ceese.
But Mack was done with the game. "I'm not joking."
"Whazz wet?—that's how you greet a fish."
"Tamika Brown, she really wants to be a fish."
"She likes to swim," said Ceese. "That doesn't mean she's crazy."
"She wants to get down in the water and never have to come up."
"Or maybe you crazy," said Ceese. "Give it gummy worms, that's how you treat a fish."
"I dreamed about her," said Mack "No arms and legs, just fins and a tail, living in the water."
"You way too young to be having that kind of dream," said Ceese, and now he was laughing so hard he could hardly talk.
"I'm not joking."
"Yes you are, you just don't know you joking," said Ceese.
Mack wanted to tell Ceese about the cold dream he had about Deacon Landry and how it came true in the real world, with Juanettia Post, and nobody liked how it turned out. What if Tamika's dream came true, too? Quon wouldn't want no fish for a sister.
Ceese would just laugh even more, maybe die from laughing so hard, if Mack told him that he was worried about a girl turning into a fish.
That's because nobody but Mack ever seemed to have dreams like his. Nobody else knew how real they were, how strong, how they gripped him with desire.
You don't know, Ceese, how it feels to want something so bad you'd give up everything if only it could happen. But in a cold dream, that's how it feels the whole time, and then it leaves me shaking when I wake up out of the wish.
Curtis Brown woke up on that hot August night, covered with sweat and needing to pee.
Happened a lot, sleeping on a water bed. The motion of it sort of alerted his bladder. Either that or he was getting old—but he and Sondra were still young. Their oldest, Tamika, was only ten. Curtis was a long way from being somebody's grandpa who had to get up and go to the toilet three times a night.
It was Curtis's daddy who stalked through his house late at night, flipping lights on and off and cussing under his breath about how it didn't make no sense that he feels like he's got to pee but he can't get anything out. And when Curtis says to him, Daddy, that means you got to get your prostate checked, Daddy just looks at him and says, You think I'm going to let some doctor stick his finger up my anus and smear jelly all inside my rectum? You get your ass reamed out, you think it's so fun. You the crazy one, not me, sleeping on a water bed like a yuppie, you need your head examined, don't go telling me to have my ass examined, at least my head ain't up my ass like you. And then he laughed and kept saying to anybody who'd listen, Curtis gone to the proctologist to have his head examined, cause you got to go through his ass to get to his head.
Curtis lay there on the bed, wondering if he really had to pee so bad he couldn't just go back to sleep, cause if he got up then when he got back to bed the sheets would be cold and clammy unless he stayed up long enough for them to get dry and then...
Something bumped him.
Bumped him from underneath.
He was out of that bed in a second, standing beside it, looking down. It was still undulating from his getting up. But Sondra lay there peaceful as could be, snoring just a little the way she did, even as she rocked slightly from the bed's movement.
I'm going crazy, thought Curtis as he stumbled to the bathroom. Either that or the chemicals in the bed ain't doing their job and the algae gone and growed into the Blob. Now that's the kind of nightmare would have kept him awake all night, back when he was a kid. Except they didn't even have waterbeds then. No, wait, yes they did. There was that 1970s movie where the cop—Eastwood? Some white cop, anyway—busts into some black pimp's room where he's lying with some girl on his waterbed, and when he's done asking questions the white cop shoots the bed for no reason at all, just to be mean and make it leak all over.
When he was done he didn't wash his hands, because he was tired and he hadn't got any on himself and besides, urine was mostly uric acid so it was cleaner than soap, or that's what that guy said at that spaghetti dinner at the Masons' house on Memorial Day, so it didn't matter if you washed your hands after you peed, you could eat a banana with your bare hands and be perfectly safe. It was wiping yourself that made it so you needed to wash, that's where diseases came from. Little-known facts, Curtis said to himself. That's all I got in my head, is little-known completely useless facts.
He padded down the hall to look at the kids' rooms. The boys had kicked their covers off and Quon, as usual, was asleep with his hands inside his underpants, what were they going to do with that boy, couldn't stop playing with it like he thought it was made of Legos or something. Tamika, though, her covers were all piled up on top of her. How could she sleep like that? Too hot for that, she was going to sweat to death, if the pile of blankets didn't smother her.
He pulled the blankets back and she wasn't under them.
He looked around her room to see if maybe she had fallen asleep somewhere else. He went back into the hall and she wasn't in the kids' bathroom and she wasn't in the kitchen or the living room and then he knew where she was, he knew it was impossible but didn't she say she wished she could live underwater like a fish, live there all the time?
He was halfway down the hall when he realized that he'd need something to cut through the plastic. He ran to the kitchen, got the big, sharp carving knife, and ran back to the bedroom and started yanking the sheets off the bed.
"What you doing, baby?" said Sondra sleepily.
"Get up," said Curtis. "There's something inside the waterbed."
She got up, dragging the top sheet with her. "How can there be something inside there? You sleepwalking, baby?"
His only answer was to plunge the knife into the plastic—but near the edge, where he wouldn't run a risk of stabbing Tamika, if she was really under there, if he wasn't completely insane. The knife went in on the second try, and then he sawed and tugged at the plastic and the stinking water splashed into his face and now the opening was wide enough and he reached down in, reached with both hands, leaned so he could feel deep into the bed and there was an ankle and he grabbed it and pulled, and when he got the foot out of the bed Sondra screamed.
"Hold on to her," said Curtis, and he fumbled around and found Tamika's other leg and now they could pull her out, like she was being born feetfirst with a huge gush of water. They pulled her right over the edge of the waterbed frame and she flopped onto the floor like a fish.
She looked dead.
Curtis didn't waste a second except to say, "Call 911," and then he was pushing on Tamika's chest to get the water out and then breathing into her mouth, trying to remember if there was something different about CPR if it was from drowning instead of a heart attack or a seizure. When he pushed on her chest water splashed out of her mouth but did that mean he had to get all the water out before breathing into her lungs and was he still supposed to pump at her chest to get her heart started?
He did everything, sure that whatever he was doing had to be wrong but doing it anyway. And when the EMTs got there, they took over, and before they got her onto a cart she had a tube down her throat and they assured him that her heart was beating and she was getting air.
"How long was she underwater?" asked one of the guys.
"I don't know," said Curtis. "Took me a while to realize she was in there."
"You expect me to believe she cut through waterbed plastic herself, a little girl like that?" asked the guy.
"No, I cut it open to get her out," said Curtis.
"Come on!" demanded the other guy and they were out the door with Tamika, rushing her to the hospital. And Curtis and Sondra woke up Azalea Mason and she came over and stayed in the house so the boys wouldn't wake up to no grownups there, and then they went to the hospital to find out if the light of their lives had gone out on this terrible, impossible night.
Ura Lee poured coffee into Madeline Tucker's cup.
"I don't know why he even sticks with such a story," said Madeline.
"Sondra says that's how it happened," said Ura Lee Smitcher.
"Well she would, wouldn't she, seeing how she doesn't want her husband to go to jail."
"I'd want my husband to go to jail if he stuck my daughter inside a waterbed so long she was brain-damaged. That's if I didn't kill him with the knife he used to cut through the plastic."
"Well, that just shows you are not Sondra Brown. She is loyal to a fault."
"I suppose that's easier to believe than thinking Tamika could somehow magically appear inside a waterbed," said Ura Lee. "It's just a completely crazy thing. The Browns are good people."
"Those child abuser wackos always look like good people."
"My Mack plays there all the time with their boy Quon, he'd know if they were abused children.
Abusers live in secrecy, and their kids are shy and closed-off."
"Except the ones who don't and aren't," said Madeline.
"Well, I guess they better hope you aren't on the jury, since you already got that man convicted."
"Reasonable doubt, that's the law," said Madeline. "When he tells people she was inside the waterbed and there wasn't a break in it anywhere until he cut it open to get her out, then he better plead insanity because ain't no jury in this city, white or black, that would let him off. He ain't O. J.
and ain't nobody going to believe him if he starts talking about the LAPD framing him, not even if he got Johnnie Cochran and a choir of angels on his defense team."
"Johnnie Cochran ain't taking this case anyway," said Ura Lee, "cause the Browns don't have that kind of money and besides, Tamika isn't dead."
"Brain-damaged so she might as well be dead. Poor little girl."
Ura Lee looked over at the hallway and saw Mack standing there. "You need something, Mack?"
"Did Tamika go into the water last night?" he asked.
"It's not like we were talking soft," said Ura Lee. "Mack, don't you have homework?"
"No reason to treat you like babies," said Ura Lee.
Mack and Madeline both looked at her like she was crazy.
"That's why I don't tell jokes," said Ura Lee. "Nobody ever laughs."
"Nobody thinks you're joking, that's why," said Madeline.
"Yes, Mack, the Browns' little swimmer almost drowned and she was without air for so long it hurt her brain."
"She isn't dead?"
"No, Mack, she's alive. But there's things she won't be able to do anymore. Doctors don't know how bad the damage is yet. She might get some of it back, she might not."
Mack had tears in his eyes. He was taking it harder than Ura Lee would have expected.
"Mack, this kind of thing happens sometimes. Accidents that hurt people. All you can do is pray that it doesn't happen to someone you love, and then pray for strength to deal with it if it does."
"I should have told her," said Mack.
"Told her what?"
"To stop wishing she could be a fish."
"Mack, honey, this doesn't have a thing to do with you."
But Madeline was intrigued now. "She told you she wanted to be a fish?"
Ura Lee didn't want Madeline to start making something out of this. "It wouldn't matter if she did."
"Well it would too, if it would show she had a motive for getting into that waterbed."
"Motive or not, she can't fit down the hose hole in a waterbed, and that was the only way she could have got in."
"If Mack knows something," said Madeline stubbornly, "then he's got to tell."
"He's five years old," said Ura Lee. "Nobody is going to accept his testimony, especially since there's no way Tamika could have got in that waterbed except through the gash Curtis Brown cut in it."
Ura Lee turned to Mack. "Mack, this is a grownup conversation. Tamika's going to be fine in the end, I'm sure of it. It's sweet of you to care what happens to your friend's big sister. But now you need to let us talk."
Mack turned around and went back up the hall. Madeline was about to talk again, but Ura Lee held up her hand till she heard the door close. Then she got up and walked to the hall and looked down to make sure Mack wasn't faking being out of earshot.
"Well?" asked Madeline, when Ura Lee returned to the living room.
"Well I did not go over there to spy on them. I think you want to talk to Miz Ophelia for that kind of thing."
"Oh, she wouldn't go in that room, she called it the death room and said it had some powerful curse on it."
"Well, if you're reduced to asking me for gossip, Madeline, you are at the bottom of the barrel, cause nobody tells me anything and I wouldn't remember it if they did."
In his bedroom, Mack was afraid to go to sleep. What if he dreamed again, and someone else had something terrible happen to them? So many cold dreams. A whole neighborhood full of them.
And when they came true, it wasn't ever going to be like the dreamers hoped.
He stayed awake forever, it felt like. And then he woke up and it was morning and he knew that he'd have to find another way to stop the cold dreams from coming true.