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Mary Rees

This is a headlock

Me and X were out looking for Lucky when I saw how late it was getting and we had to head home. We didn't want Grandma to know Lucky was missing because she'd expect the worst. The Lewis's dog had run off with rabies last week. Lucky was X's cat and he kept me looking for him every day and kept crying every night. I grabbed his hand and as we neared the house I caught a whiff of Grandma's baking. It wasn't a holiday so something must be going on.

"Cakes, cakes, cakes," shouted X, racing up the steps. We stepped in and let the door slam behind us.

"Sadie," said Grandma, fiddling with the yellow fly swatter she kept by her chair. "Where you been?" She leaned forward, and as my eyes adjusted to the dark house I imagined the bulk of her toppling out of the chair.

"Nowhere," I said. X ran past me and to the cakes as I walked behind her chair to the kitchen. There were three wedding cakes in a row on the kitchen bar. Grandma never baked the right amount or for the right occasion. For Christmas, she baked six cakes shaped like turkeys. Each of today's cakes had yards of purple and lavender ribbon-icing and yellow roses nestled in the edges.

"Give me a piece," X said, sticking his fingers in a tower of cake. I stared at the mess. Grandma had left frosting drying on the counter and different-colored icing hardening in bowls.

"Come on," said X around his frosted fingers. I cut him a piece and he took it in his hands and settled in front of the TV.

"Who's coming?" I said to the back of Grandma's head.

"No one," she said.

"Do you think I'm ignorant?" I said, gesturing to the cakes although her back was toward me.

Grandma said nothing and I shoved cakes and dishes aside to get some counter space. She always got pissed after a big bake. It'd sometimes take up to twenty minutes to get the news out of her.

She cleared her throat. "I hope you ain't gonna leave X looking like that."

I could see him over the top of her frizzy gray hair. He was sitting Indian style in front of the TV, sucking on his fingers. I remembered he had a big smear of dirt across his cheek and his nose had been running. I guess crumbs and frosting were added to that now.

"He's fine," I said. "You don't worry about it."

"Someone's got to take better care of him than that," said Grandma, and her sagging forearm dipped over the arm of her chair to pinch snuff out of the can on the table beside her. "Maybe Sheila," she said.

"Sheila's not here," I said, turning on the hot water and washing crumbs down the drain. Sheila was my sister, Xavier's mom. "I'll raise him as I please."

Grandma spit in the Maxwell House can she kept next to her recliner.

"More cake!" said X, holding his empty hands up, eyes on the TV.

"Sheila might have something to say about how you think you're gonna raise her child," said Grandma, tapping the fly flap against her leg.

"No more cake now," I said. "You go back outside." X glared at me, but slouched out the door.

I walked around to ask Grandma, "You heard from Sheila?"

"Yeah." Grandma reached for the snuff.

I shook my spatula at her. "Well?"

"She'll be here tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?" I looked around at the dust on top of the TV and the muddy hand prints X had smeared onto the faded yellow wallpaper.

"She's not staying," said Grandma. "She says she's taking Xavier."

"Well, she ain't," I said, returning to the kitchen and viciously cutting the top out of a tomato.

"It's her right."

"Why you want her to have him? You can't stand her."

"She's his mother," said Grandma.

I slammed the knife into the sink. "I'm not letting her go nowhere with him."

"You'll do what I say," said Grandma. "I raised you from a baby."

"Big deal," I said.

"You better believe," Grandma's voice rose. "You better believe it was a big deal."

I didn't say anything. Mama left me and Sheila with Grandma right after I was born. Grandma made great cakes, but Sheila was the fun one. She used to give me makeup and taught me how to shoot the 12-gauge. She took me to the fair every year until she met a guy there and ran off with him. His name was Corky, or Romeo, whichever you believed. He had blue eyes with circles of sleep-wrinkles around them and black curly hair.

"He is fine," Sheila had said, tearing a hunk off of my cotton candy with her red fingernails. She had hung around the dart-throwing booth with him all night. The lights of the ferris wheel washed over the two of them again and again as I watched. The next day the fair left town and Sheila left with them. She came back two years later with a baby, Xavier, in her arms. She dropped him off and took the Greyhound bus out of town.

That was five years ago, with short visits now and then, and now another one. I got up early and took out the trash. I swept and mopped with Lysol and dumped and rinsed Grandma's spit can. Sheila's always been real neat, though she doesn't mind if her boyfriends are dirty. She wrote me six letters from six different places. She used stationery.

She didn't get home until five o'clock anyway. I was sitting on the front steps with X in my lap. I'd told him she was coming and we were waiting when a gray Plymouth pulled up with a freckle-faced guy grinning over the steering wheel and Sheila beaming out of the passenger's side. X slid off my knees and ran up on the porch. Sheila walked all the way around to kiss Freckles through his window, and then he left. Her black hair was in a ponytail with one of those puffy red bows and she wore a red halter top.

She walked up, grabbed my hand, and pulled me up for a hug.

"Sadie! You're all grown up! How'd you do that?"

"Seventeen," I said. "Not quite grown up." She smelled like Luv's Baby Soft.

"Well, for all practical purposes," she said, stepping back and staring right at my breasts. "Girl, you could be a model."

I couldn't think of anything to say. "The Lewis's dog got rabies," I said. She laughed at me and pulled open the screen saying, "Where's Grandma?"

"Here," said Grandma from her chair.

"And where's my precious little Xavier?" I heard her say as she went in. He was hiding on the porch behind a stool.

"Come on, kid," I said, hoisting him up on my hip and following Sheila in. "Here he is."

Sheila scooped him out of my arms and held him over her shoulder like she was burping him. His feet hung down to her knees and he turned his head to look at me.

"How big my baby has got," she said softly to him, her face in his neck. "Look how big my baby has got."

She kissed him and set him down. He ran over to me and kicked me in the shin with his bare toes, then sat in a corner of the couch. Sheila laughed.

"Oh, Sadie, you have taken such good care of him," she said.

"It's no picnic," I said, but I smiled a little.

"Well," Sheila said, "at least the government gives you some money. It's probably more than most baby sitters get paid."

"I'm no baby sitter," I said, putting my hands on my hips.

Sheila laughed again. "You don't have to get the red ass," she said, stepping away from me. "You always take me too serious."

Grandma cleared her throat. "Made you a cake," she said.

"Oh, they're gorgeous," said Sheila, her eyes moving over the tiers of cake. She boosted herself up on the counter and cut a piece. She looked good, thin, but not in the same bony redneck way I was thin. Sandals dangled from her toes and she smiled at me and X.

"This is the life, huh, Sadie?" she said, tucking crumbs into her mouth. "A wedding cake any day of the week."

"It ain't bad," said Grandma.

Sheila cut two big slices of cake, scooted off the counter and put the cake on saucers. She sat on the couch between me and X, handed me a piece of cake and tore hers in half to give some to him. He took it slowly, staring at her as he munched, coconut shreds falling on his chest.

"Where've you been?" I said.

"Atlanta," said Sheila. She pulled a bottle of pearly pink nail polish out of her purse and offered it to me. I shook my head.

"Come on," she said. "It'll be fun."

She took my hands gently. The polish felt cool and heavy through my fingernail as she stroked it on.

"You've got the prettiest hands," she said. "Hands like you should play the piano." She dipped the brush. "Keeping up with yourself is the key. We've got to keep ourselves looking good, so opportunity won't knock and find us with our nails cracked."

"Huh." Grandma grunted from her chair, raising her arm and flapping the fabric under her arm pit to get rid of the sweat.

Sheila smiled. "Of course, some people are real casual about their appearance," she said.

"There's no point in fixing up around here," I said. "I never go any farther than Waynesboro and the movies."

Sheila took both my hands and looked at me. "Sadie, you've got to have a positive attitude. You've got to make your way for yourself."

X whispered to me, "Let's go outside and look again."

"Mommy and Aunt Sadie are talking," said Sheila.

"You go on," I said. "I'll catch up." He left.

Sheila finished the last nail and blew across my fingertips. Dark lashes fell across her cheek and I wondered why she settled for Freckles. "You just got to get yourself together," she said. "And I plan to help you."

"It's taken you long enough to get your own shit together," said Grandma, keeping her eyes on the TV. "You think you're ready to help someone else?"

Sheila's eyes flickered across Grandma. "I know it's been hard on y'all keeping Xavier," she said. She reached across to put her hand on Grandma's arm. "But you'll be glad to know I'm ready to take him with me now," she said.

Grandma looked steadily at her. "What makes you think you need him now?" she said, but she didn't move from Sheila's touch.

"Sheila," I said, "I want him to stay right here."

Sheila looked down. "I know I shouldn't have left him with you. I'm ready to make it up."

"I'm not letting him go," I said.

"I can be there for Xavier now." She moved from Grandma to me and grabbed for my hands. I drew away my wet nails. "I can take him to a real town, get him in a real school. I want to be his mommy now."

"People in hell want ice water," I said.

"Sadie . . ." said Grandma.

Sheila stood up and lit a cigarette. She said, "You don't understand. I need Xavier."

I said, "You need a dose of reality is what you need."

Grandma spit in her can.

"You can't keep him from his mother," Sheila said. She stepped across and opened the refrigerator. "Don't you have any beer around here?"

"Not for you," I said.

Sheila stood, legs apart, braced in the light from the refrigerator. "He's mine."

I stood up. "I'm going out."

Grandma grasped my arm. "We've got to think of X," she said, her eyes peering at mine through folds of flesh. I jerked away.

Sheila set the tea pitcher on the counter and looked at me. "Don't fight me on this," she said. I slammed out the door.

X was hunched under the front window with his ear against the wall.

"Hey," I said. "Whatcha doing?"

"Listening," he said.

"Don't," I said. He looked at me with confused eyes.

"Let's look for Lucky," I said.

"I can't find him," he said, his lip trembling. He jumped off the porch anyway, scanning the yard.

I jumped behind him and called, "I'm gonna get you!" He squealed and I chased him around the house, him going as fast as he could on his short legs, me trying to keep from going too fast. At the bottom of the hill, I grabbed him up and held him upside down. He giggled, his hair hanging down and waving in the grass.

"Oh my gosh," I said, and he did a little sit up trying to look at me.

"What?"

"Your hair is growing so long," I said. "It's growing into the grass and it's going to go up a tree in a minute."

"Not really."

I shrugged his knees in my arms. "Yes," I said. "I don't even know if I can pick you up anymore."

"You're teasing," he said, trying to bend up again.

"No I'm not," I said. His shirt drifted down his stomach and I could see the pattern of his ribs.

"Really?" He put his hands on his head.

"No!" I said, flipping him upside up because I was afraid he would get blood clots. He chased me and we fell on the ground. The grass was cool after all day of hot sun and I just lay there for a while. X put his arms around my head like it was a basketball.

"This is a headlock," he said.

"That's a damn good headlock," I said. "You already got me down." I closed my eyes and said, "Would you like to go live with your mommy? With Sheila in Atlanta?" I felt X's arms unwrap and peered up at him. He shrugged and I closed my eyes again. His feet pattered to the side of the house and he said, "Lucky! Look, it's Lucky."

I sat up and looked. Lucky was walking across the yard slowly, listing to the side. "X, leave him alone," I called getting up fast, looking around for something-a wash tub, a box-anything to catch Lucky in.

Xavier looked back at me, his eyebrows lowered. He ran toward the cat as Sheila appeared at the corner of the house. Lucky hunched down, his fur puffed out, and he hissed and clawed at Xavier. "Stop!" I called. "He may have rabies."

"Rabies!" said Sheila. In two flying steps, she reached them. She grabbed the cat in both hands and threw him against the wall of the house. He hit halfway up and hung, crumpled against the peeling white paint, then fell. X screamed. I walked up quickly, carefully. Lucky wasn't foaming at the mouth, I saw as his lids slid over his yellow eyes. But that didn't happen for days sometimes with rabies. He lay still so I came closer and saw that his back leg had dry blood crusted on it, and the bone was wrong, smashed. He'd been in a trap.

Sheila grinned at me, hands on hips. "The protective instincts of a mother bear," she said. X began to pull at her and hit her with his fists, crying. She grasped his wrists in one hand and dragged him toward the front door.

I stared at the cat. I nudged his warm body with my toe. Blood wet the fur under his ears and I had to sit down against the house, hold the body at arm's length, and catch my breath. Nothing moved. In my palm his rib cage was smaller than a baseball and light as twigs, no heart beat.

I had laid him down on the ground and bent over to straighten his body when I saw Grandma's wide legs planted in front of me, feet in ragged pink house shoes. She stooped, knees bending, shoulders coming forward, and plucked Lucky off the ground with one hand.

"Sheila done this?" she said.

I nodded and pulled myself up to standing as she walked off, shovel dragging behind her. The blade made a snake track through the grass and dirt.

Inside, I saw that X was in Sheila's lap, crying on her shoulder.

"I explained it to him," she said. "He understood. He's smart. He should go to a good school next year."

"Is he OK?" I said.

"Yes, but he just keeps crying and crying," she said, trying to pull him off of her chest. "Does he do this a lot?"

"No," I said.

He came to me and I picked him up. He wrapped his sticky arms around my neck and sniffled, trying to quit crying. My hands were shaking as I traced the shell of his ear with my thumb and forefinger.

"So, tell me," said Sheila, getting up to cut herself another piece of cake. "How much exactly does the government give you for taking care of him?"

"It doesn't matter," I said. "You're not getting him."

"I'm his mother," she said. "I will get him."

The next morning I got up early while Sheila was still asleep. She looked good even with her face smashed against the pillow and breathing through her mouth. I slipped into my clothes and tiptoed, shoes in hand to the living room. Grandma was up already, smoothing back her wet hair with the palm of her hand. X sat at the table eating corn flakes and watching cartoons. I snatched the truck keys off the nail on the wall and told Grandma, "I'm going to the welfare office. We'll make it legal."

Grandma stared at me.

I said, "I'm doing it."

She grabbed X under his arms and pulled him out of his seat. He howled.

"Humph," she said. "Sadie's taking you to McDonald's."

"I want a big breakfast platter," X said, milk dripping down his chin. I wiped his face with the dish cloth and put him on my hip.

When I got home hours later with X still sticky from McDonald's, I planned to charge in and demand that Grandma let me have him. The county was on my side only if Grandma would sign and she was a stubborn fool, and I was ready to tell her so, ready to pack X into the truck and take off for Texas. But as I opened the door, I smelled the cakes. Inside the kitchen, the tiers of white frosting, Sheila's cakes, were gone. Grandma sat in her chair and behind her on the counter there were five flat sheet cakes decorated with sprawling blue-iced letters that said "Happy Anniversary."

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