Windfallsby Lesley Nneka Arimah
The first time you fell, you were six. Before then you were too young to fall and had to be dropped, pushed, made to slip for the sake of authenticity. You learned to fall out of self-preservation as your mother pushed too hard, dropped from too high a height and you wouldn’t have to fake the tears or the wails. You had been living off these falls for years, sometimes hers, but mostly yours as a sobbing child garnered more sympathy than a pretty, but aging, mother of one.
Every year, approximately 600 lawsuits are filed against grocery stores and super markets across the nation due to negligence, discrimination, coupon infringement, etc. Two hundred of these cases are dismissed without fanfare, 100 are battled out in court, but the remaining 300 are settled for undisclosed amounts and gag orders. The odds were in your favor.
There is a science to it, falling. You can’t just trip over your own foot, land on your face and expect a payoff. First, you must find (or create) a puddle of some sort. Pierce one or two shrink-wrapped Styrofoam containers of chicken and discretely allow the draining blood to pool on the floor. When you begin the fall, think of it as a dance: right leg up (two, three, four), left leg buckle (two, three, four), land on your back, and await the attention of your audience. Cry silent tears at first that build to anguished wails as your efforts to remain stoic come to naught. Have your child cry along with you for effect, or better yet, drop her as you fall, let her slip off your hip as you trip. As an added bonus, her injuries will be real.
You hadn’t always lived this way, or so you imagined. There is a well-preserved, wallet-sized family portrait your mother carries in her purse that shows a younger, prettier her sitting down with a baby (presumably you) in her lap. She is wearing a “mom” sweater she’d never be caught dead in now, crazily patterned and hued, as though designed by an epileptic in the full swing of seizure. Standing behind her is a man, that “ugly sonofabitch” that fathered you and died two and a half years later, blown to so much fleshy debris in an offshore accident. All you remember of him are his hands, large and hairy, and the metallic taste of the thick, gold ring he always wore. In that same purse, your mother carries a picture of the house she bought with the settlement she was awarded after the offshore company had been found at fault. It is beautiful, and appears structurally sound. This is the picture she clutches when she cries.
Your mother is a woman who craves the attentions of men. After the money came, so did they, poking their way into her life and her bank account, draining both. The settlement money was gone by the time you were four, as was the house, put up as collateral for some pretty-boy venture. Something about a gym, or a tanning salon, you don’t remember which; it’s not something you talk about.
You like to believe that the first fall, the one that left you with a permanent brace on your ankle, was real. That she was reaching over to grab the biggest, freshest eggplant off the display, but slipped, and oh shit, dropped the baby. The store had settled without a fuss, blaming the over-zealous produce misters for leaving the floor wet. The money lasted for a good three years, and would probably have lasted longer were it not for Matthias, the auto mechanic. And Chuks, the bouncer. And Dwayne, the sex offender, as you soon found out.Some people find it easy to be good when the going is good, but lack the fortitude for hardship. Your mother is among them.
She could have gone to her father, hat in hand, head bowed so low she’d have gravel and leaves in her hair, but she’d married against his wishes, moved to the States against his wishes and had you against his wishes, all to a man he called “that fool from Calabar”. The extended family had been forbidden to attend the wedding and you have no idea what your grandfather looks like except that you look nothing like him and your mother is grateful for that.
You change addresses and names so many times you write “Amara” in dusty cars across the country, in coffee grounds spilled on motel breakfast counters, and whisper it as you fall asleep so you don’t forget which one is real. And so it went, year after year: the fall, the payoff, the glitz, quickly reduced to slipping out of the window of apartments and rented trailers, clothing stuffed in pillow cases and grocery bags thrown into the trunk of the car (please God, let it start), and you’d move to the next town, the next mark.
After a successful fall, you were sitting in the lobby of Jones and Margus, cradling your arm, which was in a cast. It may as well have been Hunter and Cleb, or Dynasty and Associates, or any string of ambulance-chasing firms you had used in the past. Your mother was beside you and pulled you up when you were motioned into a small office. With firms this size, a junior associate, some hapless new graduate from a law school in the area, would screen plaintiffs. You were used to this.
You were relieved to see a woman behind the desk. This spared your mother the embarrassing, if-all-else-fails task of offering a blowjob to inspire the lawyer to take your case (It also relieved you of extending one yourself, discretely of course, when your mother excused herself on a false trip to the bathroom, and only after you’d turned 13). As the woman rattled off the information you’d provided so far, you picked up a letter opener resting on the edge of the desk and twirled it between your fingers. The handle was weighty and appeared to be carved from bone.
“I am sorry, but I don’t think we’ll be able to move forward with your case.” You were used to this too, and your mother launched into a diatribe. It was tearful and ugly and manufactured, right down to the last sniffle. The clerk sat there, polite but unmoved and she watched you instead of your mother. You realized your mistake, that you should have been the one with the tearful monologue this time. Or your mother should have cycled through her rolodex of personalities and picked a different one. It’s a tricky thing, this act.
If you are working with a child, use her on the women. Most will have children of their own, others will wish they had, so her tears are guaranteed to eke concern. You should work on the men yourself, breasts aheavin’, tears aflowin’. As you grow older and your face and once lush body lose their tautness, take note as the men’s eyes follow your child’s ripening form. For a brief span of years, she will be perfect: old enough to capture men’s lust, young enough to rouse women’s sympathy. Make use of this.
“Marsha, will see you out, and I’ll need that back, please,” the associate said, indicating the letter opener you still had in your hand. You were handing it back to her, handle first, and you looked into her eyes. They were knowing, like she saw through you. You felt as though you were falling and you don’t know what got into you, but you didn’t let go of the opener. It became a tug of war and when she eventually won, the letter opener jerked out of your hand at an angle that sliced into your palm.
And your mother, ever the opportunist screeched, “Oh my God, you cut her! Oh baby, Graceline, are you okay? I’m pressing charges!”
The woman apologized profusely, wadding up tissue to staunch the trickle of blood. But your mother was in full swing by then, the bleeding palm her prop and launched into the lobby with you in her grip.
The firm exchanged a large check for dropped charges and your silence, and for months you lived like queens. You moved into a motel where you had your own bed, a rarity, and your mother gave you a daily allowance to spend at the fairgrounds a quarter mile away. You hobbled to the grounds while your mother occupied herself with shopping and the men that darted in and out of her life like a lizard’s tongue. You spent the days riding the Ejection Seat and testing your aim at the Chump-a-Lump. You insisted on riding the Tunnel of Love by yourself, despite the efforts of Giles, the carnie, to find you a partner (“cmon fellas, you aren’t going to let the little lady go by herself”) or his efforts to join you later at night when he clocked out. The children who waited in line giggled at you riding alone.While they spent their day at the fair dodging overbearing parents or the piles of manure from the livestock on display, you, too much of your mother’s daughter in face and body, dodged the hands of eager men.
You were closest then, your mother convinced that the “palm incident” had been a precise, diabolical plan on your part, not an accident of circumstances.
“Baby, I’m so proud of you.” She lay next to you on your bed and picked at the plastic findings on your brace, a nervous habit she’d picked up from you. The scent of Chinese food wafted from the trash in the corner, where the roaches that never bothered her would soon gather. She waved her hand, heavy with costume rings, at the room, “All this because of you”.
Your palm, marred with a hoary scar, itched.
You lived a roller-coaster life, high and heady with money for a time, till you plummeted, pockets emptying, destitute. You never considered another lifestyle, tethered to your mother by familiarity and a notion of loyalty. When you discovered your pregnancy, that consideration changed. You were sitting in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven when your mother handed you a five-dollar bill to purchase tampons, something she’d been doing with soldierly regularity the third week of every month since you’d turned 12.
“I’m surprised you hadn’t asked me yet.”
In the silence that followed the words weighed heavy. You ended up purchasing a pregnancy test instead and thirty-five minutes later, under the flickering fluorescent of a gas station bathroom, the fetal presence was confirmed.
There were a few paternal options. One was Billy, the law clerk and recipient of a blowjob that had gotten out of hand. Upon catching you, your mother had flashed your birth certificate, verifying the delivery of a baby girl now fifteen and too young to be bent over that desk, bare stomach resting on the polished wood, being serviced by a man almost twice her age. He’d wasted no time sliding your suit to the top of the pile. The money had lasted a few weeks and ran out when you had to pay for your car to be towed off the highway to the Lucy Leaf Truck Stop. There, you were assisted by Randall, the trucker, who turned out to be the guy a girl had to do to get a ride around here. He’d let you out three days and 2000 miles later, leaving you with one last blast of his horn and a wad that amounted to $850. You used this money to purchase a car from Jerry, the used car salesman, who had to be persuaded to discount the price of the dark green Camry that had caught your mother’s eye.
You couldn’t afford to see a doctor and settled down in few towns just long enough to locate the free clinics, so you spent every spare dollar on baby books, parenting manuals, and potty training tomes. You were convinced you could change a diaper in 12.8 seconds.
“‘Very young children require stability as they grow to ensure sound development,’” you read out loud from your latest acquisition, Formula for a Well Child. Your mother sat in the driver’s seat watching the road. You were six months along and had begun hinting to her that your unstable life wouldn’t “contribute a fair environment” for the baby. “What do you think about that?”
She turned up the radio, cutting you off. A deep, thrumming bass filled the car. She ignored you often, getting up to leave when you were on one of your “baby rants” as she called them. You were captives of the moving vehicle, so you decided to press the issue and twirled the volume low.
“We can’t keep doing this. We need to stop, really stop somewhere.”
“You think I’m stupid or something? I know we got to stop somewhere.”
“Okay, but it needs to be soon.” You patted your belly, now the size of a large watermelon. Earlier, you’d speculated to your mother that it could be twins, but she’d just rolled her eyes, uninterested. You grabbed the side of the door as the car swerved to the shoulder. Your mother rounded on you.
“If you’ve got something to say, say it.”
“I’m just saying it needs to be soon. If you’re going to stop it needs to be soon, that’s all.”
“Why, you think I don’t know these things? You think I’m a bad mother or something?”
The question came from left field. Was she a bad mother? You were 15 years old and pregnant because she wanted a price cut on a battered green Toyota. You weren’t sure how to answer, so you didn’t. She pulled back onto the road and continued, silent.
At the next town she stopped at the first grocery store you saw. You’d insisted on eating as healthy as you could manage and made frequent stops for fruit that you ate hastily to avoid rot. Your mother pulled into the furthest open parking spot and handed you a twenty.
“Hurry up.” She levered her seat back and closed her eyes.
You eased out of the car and made your way to the store. Right outside, a group of girls with signs identifying them as Glyndon Elementary School students sold cookies to exiting customers. Two women, moms to some of the girls you imagine, stood watch behind them, making change and adjusting uniforms. One woman, short and round like a grape fruit, adjusted a ponytail on one of the girls. It was a simple, effortless act but you stopped and watched them. The girl bobbed her head as she spoke and the ponytail came out lopsided and loose. It was messy and she’d have to redo it soon, but you realized that you’d never felt your mother’s hands in your hair in quite that way. You continued past them into the store and picked up a shopping basket. Instead of heading for the grocery aisle, you began to look around for the section that housed children’s clothing. You wouldn’t buy anything until you found out the sex of the child and there was money to spare, but it was nice to look. A group of small boys barreled towards you, ice cream cones in hand. “Excuse me, ma’am,” “‘Cuse me,” “Sorry.” They politely avoided slamming into you, and you smiled after them, which was why you didn’t see the puddle of melting ice scream one left behind.
You dropped the shopping basket. Your feet slid from under you, right crossing behind left. The metal edges of the brace failed to find purchase on the tile. Your knee buckled and you put your hands out to catch your weight. Your face angled forward. You knew from years of practice that your chin would be the point of impact and you braced yourself. But your belly caught your fall. It held, then crumpled and spread like a ball of play dough under a child’s fist. The pain was instant and excruciating and blinding. You heard someone wailing and the concerned murmur of the crowd that gathered. The keening of an ambulance sounded in the distance and you blacked out.
You lost the baby. The nurse informed you as soon as you woke. She was brisk and added, “You’re young yet.” It was a girl, and you thought about the pink bib you’d passed up two towns ago. You wavered in and out of consciousness as your body shut down to repair itself. You weren’t allowed any visitors for several hours, but weren’t surprised to see your mother sitting close when the order was lifted.
It was the middle of the day, but your lids were still heavy. You lay on your side, a recommendation from the doctor. The curtains were drawn shut and the dim light lulled you back to sleep. You wakened every few moments as your mother entered and exited the room. You could hear her voice in the hallway. It was shrill, and you knew she was very excited or angry. She walked in and took her seat. Her hand stroked your sweaty head and she leaned into you, lips rubbing your ear as she whispered.
“Five hundred thousand dollars, baby. That’s my girl.”
You pulled your head out from under her hand. She smoothed the sheets across your shoulders and to anyone looking at that moment she must have resembled a concerned caretaker. And maybe if you continue looking at her from that angle, you begin to believe that too. So stay with her and vie for her affection in the aisles. Watch her sieve through five hundred thousand dollars in seventeen months and three days. Never believe if you had limped away from the hospital bed, away from her, when you had a chance, that you were different enough to have ended well.