It was Thursday and rain battered the living room window. Maura watched their neighbor with the loud red pickup truck running around and yelling in the storm like a fool, she thought. His confederate flag t-shirt clung to his body like a wet bread sack. Maura sneezed and closed the curtains. She was home nursing a bad cold and hadn’t even clicked on her computer. Her manager had told her to get some rest, but Maura knew ENCO Oil. They would expect at least a couple of hours from her. There were political snags in the Tax Project that benefited oil companies. The US President might not sign the bill passed by congress. ENCO needed a rollback process in its accounting system just in case, which the project manager had neglected to consider. Aching and feverish, Maura headed up the stairs to check the medicine cabinet for a cold remedy. She stopped halfway and listened. Sidney would use a day of thunderstorms to weasel an excuse to work from home. Maura listened for the click-clack of his keyboard. Silence. After she had swallowed a couple of cold tablets from the medicine cabinet, Maura stood in the doorway of their bedroom, staring in as if she had never slept there. It was her first time at this threshold since snatching her clothes from the closet and dresser drawers and piling them in bags and on racks in the living room. Maura noted how meticulously Sidney had covered the bed with a blue Indian silk spread they had purchased from Crate and Barrel. She caressed it before jerking her fingers away as if the bed were a hot stove. In a moment Maura found herself rummaging through the bedroom’s closet. She wasn’t sure what she was looking for as she scanned an assortment of pants, shirts, and sweaters arranged by colors and fabrics—gray wools separated from bright cottons. She looked between Sidney’s suits and saw the yellow comforter that had covered the bed the day she caught him and the man she nicknamed Cornrows in their act. The spread had been tossed unfolded on a back shelf. She took it down and sniffed. A cloud of dust made her sneeze. Maura knew Sidney hadn’t washed the cover since that infamous day. For some reason, Maura wanted to relive that momentShe grabbed it and spread it over the bed. It was mottled with stains and splotches. Maura sniffed the stains. The trail of odors reminded her exactly where on the cover Sidney and Cornrows had been doing their deed. Two smudges about a foot apart marked where Cornrows had dug his knees as he plunged into Sidney. Up from the whiff of Sidney’s ass, Maura caught a familiar smell—Sidney’s favorite cologne, Giorgio Armani’s Acqua Di Gio. This was where Sidney’s neck had rested as his heels pummeled the air. She sat on the edge of the bed staring at the spots and stains. “Filth,” she said to herself, echoing the words her grandmother had uttered years ago. “Filth,” she said as she leaned against a pillow woozy and drowsy. She fought the urge as hard as she could, but sleep overtook her.
“Filth, Filth, Filth!” Maura woke up and looked around the room. The curtains were opened and for a minute, Maura thought the voice had come from someone spying on her. However, she remembered she had been dreaming and it was her dead grandmother chiding her for mopping the floor with dirty water. Maura looked in the mirror at her reflection lying atop the yellow spread. She had another reason for disliking the cover. It reminded her of her sister Myesha and Myesha’s running away from home. ****
The two sisters had found a Hustler Magazine lying in the grass as they walked home from where the bus had dropped them off after school. Maura saw it first, pointed, and took a step toward the pages, which lay opened and ruffled as if someone had thrown the magazine from a car. Myesha, being the oldest and always needing to be first, ran and snatched it from Maura’s reach. She shook off the caked mud and they stared at the nude blond woman on the front cover sitting wide legged licking a candy cane. Small Christmas ornaments covered the woman’s nipples. A Christmas tree shaped cookie hid her vagina. “That’s nasty,” Maura said as Myesha flipped the pages showing nude women in various poses playing seductively with candy canes. “Nah this is what’s nasty,” Myesha said pointing to a woman on all fours sucking a black man’s cock while a white man entered her from the rear. “That’s you and them two four-eyed nerds in your Biology Club,” Myesha teased Maura. “Naw, it’s not,” Maura said. “That’s you and Billy Johnson and that other fool on the football team,” Maura said referring to Myesha’s boyfriends. A stranger walked toward the girls and Myesha stuffed the magazine into her backpack. Later that night, after supper, and after their Grandmother had gone to bed, Myesha pulled the magazine from her bag. Maura crawled into bed with her sister and held a pen-sized flashlight as Myesha turned the pages. They murmured, laughed, shrieked and shushed each other as they gazed at page after page of spread legs and vaginas as red as salsa. They giggled at the men’s sausage sized penises hanging limply or pointing at them like missiles. “Look at that white guy’s dick…Look how red it is…That’s you taking that cock...Naw that’s you…Oooh, she got two in her pussy ‘Double your pleasure, double your fun,’” Myesha sang the Doublemint Chewing Gum song. They heard the floorboards in the hall creak. The girls put out the flashlight and listened as their grandmother shuffled past their room on her way to the bathroom. By the time the old lady was on her way back, Maura had scooted to her twin bed. Granny Mamie opened the door and ducked her head in. Satisfied that all was quiet, she continued on to her room. Maura and Myesha listened as her door closed with a thump. “I’m tired of looking at this filth,” Myesha said tossing the magazine and flashlight onto Maura’s bed. “It’s making me think about a man.” “Keep your filthy business to yourself,” Maura said. “You keep your nasty business to yourself. I hear you moaning over there late at night. You dyke,” Myesha huffed, covered her head, and was soon asleep. Maura found the penlight and pulled the bedspread over her shoulders. She placed the magazine inside her Algebra book and started her journey from page one examining each of the pictures as if she were an archaeologist examining a toe and finger bone from a ten-thousand-year-old creature. Page after page, she observed the women and men. She paid close attention to the women on their knees sucking cock. Maura noted how their pleading eyes resembled Mary’s looking up at Jesus on the cross. A woman in a negligee and chains squatted on all fours. A white cock split her vagina like a peach while she gorged on the black cock in front of her. Her gown wrapped around her neck like a wreath. She resembled a small pony in a show. The man behind her held his hands in midair as if he was doing an acrobatic routine. Two women faced each other as a man drilled into each of them from the rear. In the next photo, the women tongued one another. This endless montage of sex captivated and confused Maura. Her grandmother had warned her and Myesha that such vulgarity was evil. A woman was not supposed to even touch herself unless bathing. Maura knew that Myesha paid little attention to their grandmother on that subject. She often pretended to be asleep while listening to her older sister moan and gather the sheets or a pillow between her thighs. Maura had been afraid to ask questions, partly because she didn’t want to embarrass her sister and partly because she wanted her to keep doing whatever it was she was doing. Maura couldn’t put her finger on why she enjoyed this little bit of voyeurism. Their grandmother had sometimes accused Myesha of “smelling herself.” Whatever it was that Myesha smelled, boys must have smelled it too, Maura thought. They swarmed around her like mosquitoes. Maura kept her nose in books and the Bible. That seemed to please their grandmother, who paid lukewarm attention her granddaughter’s smarts. She reluctantly allowed the white people she worked for to use their influence to get Maura and Myesha into Vanguard High. But she reminded the two girls, especially Myesha, “They not responsible for your soul. I am. Smart or not, y’all will not be hussies like your mother and them other daughters of mine.” As Maura flipped the pages, her eyes fell upon a woman and man in a shower. She thought about the time when a blast of water shot between her legs and she had to grasp the towel rack to keep from falling. After a moment, the tingling and quivering spell passed. Voices told her to lie down with her legs opened and let the water cast its spell on her, but Maura assumed it was the devil speaking and hurried out of the bathroom. She feared mentioning her experience to the other girls in her science and math clubs. They appeared to be as sexless as old nuns. When she did finally talk to Myesha, her sister laughed. “Don’t let granny find out you’re making love with God’s water. She’ll get ya!” Maura prayed for weeks and asked God to take away her nasty thoughts. God must have gone to bed while Maura turned the pages of Hustler. Her “dangerous” thoughts returned as her hand slipped down and she stroked the soft hair between her legs. She massaged the moist spot between her legs. Maura’s fingers caressed her rigid clitoris and lingered a while before taking off in circles that made her head swim. Her mouth opened and her legs parted to allow more of her hand to enter. The sensation she had felt in the shower started again, this time like an itch and spread across her belly. She stifled her moans and clamped her jaws tight. If Granny Mamie had been passing the room at that moment, she might have thought Maura was ill and stuck her head in the door. Maura lay in the dark as her tremors eased. She sniffed her hand. It smelled like a mud pie made with piss. Myesha began to snore and Maura wondered if her older sister had heard her “smelling herself? Maura thought she was still dreaming when she woke up to the smell of percolating coffee. In her dream, dozens of naked women paraded through the coffee shop on Vanguard’s campus followed by a trail of boys. She had tried to stop them, but they marched through her as if she was air. Maura looked out the window at the sky’s reddish tint. Granny Mamie was up and would soon be barging into their room to wake them. Unthinking, and obeying one of their Grandmother’s commandments to put things back where you found them, Maura jammed the magazine in Myesha’s backpack. As usual, Myesha was sullen in the mornings and didn’t care for conversation as she and Maura walked to their bus stop. Maura busied herself memorizing an algebraic equation that was going to be on a test and forgot about the magazine. She planned get it from Myesha later that night. Before the bell rang to signal the end of the school day, Maura was summoned to the Principal’s office. She was hoping he had approved her idea for a field trip to see an Accounting Firm in action. All of the kids in her math class thought that would be the most boring trip on the planet and had been pushing for NASA. When Maura got to the office, she saw her Grandmother sitting in a chair directly in front of Mr. Dobbins. Myesha sat in a side chair next to the wall with her head down. Her Grandmother looked at her, but before she could say anything, Mr. Dobbins asked Maura to sit down. He pulled the magazine from his desk drawer. A flake of mud fell from the magazine onto some papers on his desk. Maura swallowed. She prayed her Grandmother hadn’t seen any dirt on her sheets when she made up her bed. The old lady wasn’t educated, but she was good at putting two and two together. “Do you know anything about this Maura?” Mr. Dobbins asked. Maura glanced at the magazine, frowned, and looked away. She shook her head no. “Speak up, girl!” Her Grandmother’s voice was sharp and cut Maura like a whip. “No Ma'am, I mean no sir.” “Are you sure, Maura,” Her Grandmother asked sternly. Maura shook her head and mumbled. “Speak up, girl. The devil mumbles.” “No Ma'am.” Mr. Dobbins opened his mouth to say something. Her Grandmother’s sharp voice cut him off. “She said y’all found it yesterday on the way from school.” Granny Mamie nodded toward Myesha. The magazine had fallen out of Myesha’s backpack when she opened it to give her Religious Studies teacher a paper that was due. “I never seen it before,” Maura lied. She looked at her Grandmother earnestly to convince the old woman and to avoid Myesha’s piercing eyes. Mr. Dobbins sighed and gave a lecture expressing his disappointment in Myesha and announced she would be suspended from school for three days. It was a long commute from Vanguard High in South Park to Lockwood Street in Fifth Ward. Deacon Citizen drove his old Cadillac as if he was driving in a funeral. He avoided the freeways, saying they were bad on his nerves. Maura stared straight ahead at Deacon Citizen’s slim neck surrounded by his oversized shirt collar. She avoided the deacon’s eyes glancing at her in the rearview mirror. When she thought it was safe, she flashed her eyes at Myesha who stared out the window as if she was seeing the world for the last time. Maura wished the ride would last the rest of their lives. Their Grandmother said nothing during the trip except to acknowledge the occasional utterance Deacon Citizen murmured as he pointed out some landmark familiar to him. Usually, it was a spot where someone had “Got killt.” She grimaced and clutched tightly her large purse that held the “filthy” magazine as though it might fly out and fill the car with a putrid smell. “I’m going to make her burn this filth,” Granny Mamie had given a reluctant Mr. Dobbins as her reason for wanting the magazine. Deacon Citizen’s memories rattled loose when he passed a familiar spot. “Boston killt that man right over there. Remember that Mamie? Over there is where they found that girl dead. Her husband killt her. The police killt that boy who robbed that filling station over yonder.” Maura watched her Grandmother nod her head, but she knew the old lady wasn’t paying any attention to Deacon Citizen. Maura knew Myesha was in for some hard punishment when she heard her Grandmother mutter under her breath, “Her religious teacher, Lord, have mercy.” Before Deacon Citizen pulled out of their gravel driveway, Granny Mamie was pulling switches from the chinaberry tree. The beating and screaming seemed to go on all night. Maura was made to stay in her room and study her “lessons.” The bedroom door was shut, but Myesha pushed it open in an attempt to escape the old woman wielding the switches that bit into her flesh. Maura saw her sister was naked and her thighs and belly covered with welts. “Filth! Filth! Filth!” Their Grandmother shouted as she dragged Myesha out of the room. “Shut your lying screaming mouth! Trying to drag your sister into that filth. I bet you got that magazine from that boy on the football team. He trying to fill your head with ideas. But I’m going to beat every last one of them filthy ideas out of you. You’re as black and black-hearted as your mama was. But you gonna be red from head to toe when I get through with you.” More licks and screams followed until the only sounds heard were Myesha’s whimpering, and the switches striking a table or chair. Maura peeped out the door to see Myesha struggling to crawl across the living room rug toward the lopsided Christmas tree. A trail of blood on the white linoleum followed her. Their Grandmother continued her brutality, calling upon the Lord to help her. Myesha had lost the ability to scream. All she could do was shake and crawl. “Please, Granny, Please.” Maura ran and grabbed her grandmother’s arm. The woman jerked away and raised the switches toward Maura. But when she saw the tears in Maura’s eyes, she dropped her hand and the switches fell to the floor. The woman looked at Myesha for a moment before going to her room and slamming the door. Maura tried to help her sister up, but the girl pushed her away and crawled to their room. Granny Mamie came to the room and threw a bottle of Mercurochrome on Myesha’s bed along with a wad of cotton. She tossed the Hustler on Maura’s bed. “Go outside and burn this filth in that barbecue pit and scatter the ashes where that dog goes and shits. Maybe them ashes keep him out of my yard.” Their Grandmother commanded, referring to the spot in the grass a stray dog had chosen for his toilet. She looked over at Myesha quivering on her bed with its yellow spread pulled around her shoulders. “You’ll burn in hell one day,” she admonished her granddaughter. Maura placed the magazine on top of the pit and lit the charcoal briquettes. She thought of Myesha in their bedroom dabbing herself with the Mercurochrome and guilt washed over her. She blamed her cowardice and “filthy” thoughts for Myesha’s beating. Maura knew Granny Mamie wouldn’t allow Myesha to show feelings of rage and hatred. She’d make them stay together in their room and make them walk to school almost hand in hand. But Maura knew Myesha would hate her for the rest of her life. “Filth!” Maura echoed her grandmother’s words as she dashed more fluid on top of the simmering charcoal. Soon a flame arose. She watched the pages curl and burn. She wondered if by burning the magazine, was she in some way performing an act of God? It wouldn’t have surprised her to hear the men and women amongst those flames scream for mercy. However, the night was quiet, except for the crackling fire. Red-tipped embers flitted about in the darkness and a plume of black smoke veiled the moon. When the fire died down, Maura went to dump the ashes and noticed a picture left untouched by the flames. It was a photo of a man with a woman squatting between his legs sucking his penis. Though Myesha’s beating had frightened and made Maura feel guilty, the picture intrigued her. Hot coals glowed red in the pit and she could have taken the barbecue fork and placed the photo atop them. Instead, she looked back and watched Granny Mamie in her well-lit room sitting on the bed reading her Bible. Maura knew if her grandmother looked out the window, she would see only her reflection in the glass. Maura folded the picture and stuck it deep in her bra. She scattered the rest of the ashes where her Grandmother had commanded, making sure she avoided piles of dog shit.
The large patio closet held Sidney’s surplus antiques and Maura’s old school things. She pulled down boxes until she found the one that contained her old books and papers from Vanguard High. In the middle of a dog-eared copy of her algebra book, she found the picture from the burned magazine. It seemed as if the fire had continued to eat away the photograph. The man’s hair was gone. Maura remembered it being blond and curly. All that was left of his face was one eye, half his nose, and part of his mouth. The woman was intact. She stared up at the man with sad eyes like a saint at the feet of a martyr. Her lips were locked tight around the man’s penis. Maura slipped the photo out of the book and went back upstairs. She stripped, lay atop the spread, and placed the picture on her bosom. She saw her reflection in the dresser’s mirror--the same mirror where she had watched Cornrows and Sidney. She closed her eyes and saw Cornrow’s muscular ass thrusting hard as he drove himself deep into Sidney. She had forced herself to look away from the gaping asshole that day. However, today she didn’t flinch from her memories. Her hand slipped to her crotch, as she remembered Cornrow’s penis slip out of Sidney, reveal its curved banana thickness and slip in again like a rodent burrowing. Maura smacked her clitoris as she imagined the man’s balls slapping beneath her vagina. She began to whimper, “Fuck me. Fuck me hard.” She closed her eyes and imagined Cornrows plunging into her. “Fuck me. Fuck me,” she cooed to Sidney’s man hovering in her head. She slipped her other hand to her breast and imagined her nipples at the mercy of his thick dark lips. Her hand touched the photo and she licked her ash stained fingers. Bitterness coated her tongue and she almost spit, but she kept her fingers in her mouth and swallowed her saliva. The bitter taste aroused her. Maura raised her knees and opened her thighs wide. She plunged three fingers past her walls. In a moment, she was biting the bedspread and trembling. Cornrows, name perched on her tongue ready to burst from her lips. However, Maura refused to utter it until she could no longer control her passion. As the liquid fire inside her erupted, Maura shouted, “Cornrows” three times and buried her face deep into the covers.
A few minutes later, Maura stood looking at the twisted and tangled spread. She started to leave it on the bed, to remind Sidney of the day she caught him. However, she threw it back in the closet, smoothed the bed, and went downstairs to wash her hands. Later, as she worked, and when she absently cradled her chin or wiped her nose, she caught a whiff of ash and her scent. She thought of Cornrows.